In May, 1943, a young red-haired, freckled-faced woman walked into the office of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and said she had a story to tell. It involved one of America’s most beloved comedians, a secret love affair and, she said, a child that was on the way.
In the weeks that followed, Joan Berry’s accusations against Charlie Chaplin--the legendary “Little Tramp” of silent films--would explode into one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals. Chaplin would issue statements to the press. Authorities would launch criminal investigations. And the press would have a field day.
The Chaplin case was the stuff of tabloids: a 23-year-old aspiring actress claiming to be pregnant by a 54-year-old titan of film; gunplay and rumors of sex in a Beverly Hills mansion; allegations of “white slavery”; paternity suits, blood tests, criminal charges and people breaking down in tears on the witness stand.
Not unlike the titillating drama now unfolding in New York between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, the Chaplin-Berry saga nearly 50 years ago captivated America. Both men were powerful, respected filmmakers who had attained a level of stature and popularity few enjoyed in the movie industry, until they became the focus of embarrassing allegations in their private lives that threatened to tarnish their image.
It’s too early to tell how this week’s disclosures about Allen’s romance with Farrow’s 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, and accusations that he may have abused the couple’s 7-year-old daughter will affect Allen’s career. But sex-related scandals have damaged or threatened to ruin plenty of others throughout Hollywood’s history.
Some of the notorious examples:
* Silent screen star Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle had been one of America’s favorite actors until he was charged with murder in the 1921 death of model Virginia Rappe. Newspapers speculated that the 266-pound Arbuckle had raped the 25-year-old woman with a bottle during a drunken orgy at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco. Arbuckle was tried three times and was finally acquitted, but his acting career faltered.
* Roman Polanski, the director of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” fled the United States in 1977 before being sentenced on one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Polanski never returned. Though he has continued to make movies abroad, such as “Tess” and “Frantic,” the promise he showed in the early ‘70s hasn’t been fulfilled.
* Rob Lowe’s acting career was threatened when he videotaped a 16-year-old girl performing a sex act in an Atlanta hotel room during the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
By the time the Charlie Chaplin scandal broke, Chaplin was 54 years old, lived on an estate in Beverly Hills and was a millionaire many times.
In the years before, he had joined Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith in forming United Artists. He had been romantically linked over the years to many women and had been married three times. Only two weeks after Berry filed her paternity suit, Chaplin married a fourth time, exchanging vows with Oona O’Neill, the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill.
But if he ever thought the Berry case would quickly disappear, he was wrong. It lasted nearly three years.
The paternity suit against Chaplin was filed by Berry’s mother, who asked the court to adjudge Chaplin as the father of the baby-to-come and compel him to pay for her daughter’s medical care and safeguard the infant’s future.
Chaplin issued a statement claiming that when Berry came to him with the news of the pregnancy, she accompanied it with a demand for $150,000. “I am not responsible for Miss Berry’s condition,” he said.
“I would not think of bringing suit if it weren’t for the other party involved--my baby,” Berry told reporters. “All I want is to insure the establishment of the child’s paternity.”
Berry had come to Los Angeles in 1938 after graduating from a New York high school and claimed to be acquainted with J. Paul Getty, the multimillionaire oil man.
The British-born Chaplin said he met Berry in 1941 through an agent friend, signing her to a $75-a-week motion picture contract and arranging for her to take acting lessons. He had purchased a screen play called “Shadow and Substance” for $20,000 and intended that Berry would play Bridget, the leading role in the story of a humble maid’s simple faith. Chaplin described the role as a “modern Joan of Arc.” Berry said they became intimate two weeks after she signed the contract.
Berry believed the child was conceived on Dec. 23, 1942, when she went to Chaplin’s hilltop home with a gun because he had been ignoring her.
As she entered his bedroom that night, Chaplin later testified that Berry walked around his bed. “She came to me and said, ‘I am going to kill you.’ I was scared. I tried to reason with her. I said, ‘All your supposed affection or love for me is all a sham or else you wouldn’t do this to me.’ ”
Chaplin denied suggestions that he had been aroused at the sight of the gun-toting woman, telling her that having an affair under those circumstances would be a “new wrinkle.”
On New Year’s Eve, she again came to Chaplin’s home. Police said they later found her sitting in a car, scantily clad in men’s clothing and with iodine on her lips. Taken in for vagrancy, police said she refused to wear the top section of her prison garments and paraded around half nude.
No sooner had the paternity suit been filed than the law came knocking at Chaplin’s door. A deputy sheriff served him with a subpoena. “Well,” Chaplin said, “I guess here comes trouble.”
The district attorney’s office launched a short-lived inquiry into allegations Berry made to investigators that she had had two illegal abortions, or whether a crime had been committed in the gun incident at Chaplin’s mansion.
On Oct. 2, 1943, Berry gave birth to a girl and she named her Carol Ann. A celebrity at birth, the baby was kept in a locked room at South Van Ness Hospital and the key was entrusted to only one nurse on each shift.
Chaplin, meanwhile, agreed to take a blood test and was exonerated as the father. The tests were disputed and a judge ordered the paternity case to go forward in the interests of the child.
But events were building on another front. In February, 1944, Chaplin was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of violating the Mann Act--specifically, transporting Berry across state lines from Los Angeles to New York for “immoral purposes.”
Six other people, including two Beverly Hills police officers and a judge, were also indicted for conspiring to violate Berry’s civil rights by having her arrested for vagrancy and then placing her on a train with instructions to the conductor not to let her off this side of Chicago.
The federal trial was a media event. In court, his every move was chronicled. “Chaplin habitually clenches and unclenches his small hands, and sometimes does a sitting-down tap dance with his small feet under the counsel table,” wrote one reporter.
“Only once during the morning did the comedian revert to a Chaplinesque gesture,” wrote another. “He whirled his glasses in much the same manner as the mustachioed little film hobo used to flourish his cane.”
On the day of her testimony, Berry entered the courtroom by a rear door, never looking at Chaplin, who put on his glasses to peer at her.
Berry testified that in September, 1942, Chaplin asked her if she would like to go to New York and she agreed. On one night, after going to the 21 Club and El Morocco, she said Chaplin asked her to come to his apartment and told her, “ ‘Joan, come into the bedroom.’ ”
Chaplin denied making the statement. Though admitting intimacy with his former “pupil,” he said he could not remember when.
“Sex isn’t very important in my life,” he said in a low voice.
Chaplin was acquitted after a two-week trial.
But Chaplin’s woes were not over. At the paternity trial, he and Berry again took the witness stand to recount their stories.
Berry, dressed in a yellow sweater, blue skirt and mustard topcoat, told how she once went to his home and found Chaplin with a young girl.
During cross-examination, she fled sobbing from the witness stand after reliving her ill-fated romance with the comedian. “I’ve got to go, I’ve got to get out of here! What are they trying to do to me?” she said, stumbling across the courtroom into her attorney’s arms.
In a particularly dramatic scene in a hushed Los Angeles courtroom, Chaplin--his face said to be as white as his hair--was asked to stand in front of jurors as they compared his features with those of a chortling, red-haired baby girl being held by the mother only six feet away. As if emerging from a trance, Chaplin turned to show the jurors his profile, then he walked back to his seat and raised his hands, palms up, in a mute appeal to the seven women and five men on the panel.
Jurors deadlocked 7-to-5 in Chaplin’s favor and a mistrial was declared. Berry’s attorney immediately asked for a retrial. In April, 1945, a new jury voted 11-1 upholding Berry’s claim as to the child’s paternity.
The court ordered Chaplin to pay $75 a week for the child’s support until she reached 21, with the court reserving the right to increase or decrease the payments. Her attorneys complained that he was a millionaire and his other children were educated abroad and had tutors.
In July, 1946, the State Supreme Court refused to grant the 56-year-old Chaplin an appeal.
Chaplin and his wife had a long and happy marriage, which produced eight children. He left the United States--his adopted home for 42 years--in 1954 during the height of the anti-communism frenzy. He returned to Hollywood in 1972 to receive a special Oscar. He died in Switzerland in 1977 at the age of 88.
Joan Berry married a Pittsburgh railroad worker and had more two children. (The couple later divorced.) In 1953, she was committed by her mother to a state mental hospital after being found wandering barefoot in the pre-dawn hours three miles from her Redondo Beach home.
In 1954, a judge ordered Chaplin to put up $10,000 as security for the then-10-year-old girl’s support payments. Newspaper accounts at the time said she was attending a private boarding school in Los Angeles, but her identity was not revealed to avoid embarrassment.