Lita Grey; Married Charlie Chaplin at 16
Lita Grey, the exotic, sloe-eyed beauty who began acting with Charlie Chaplin when she was 12, became pregnant by him when she was 15, married him at 16 and then divorced him two years later, died Friday of cancer.
The last survivor among the four wives of the man George Bernard Shaw called “the only true genius motion pictures ever produced” was 87.
She died at the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills, where she had been admitted earlier this month. Until shortly before her condition became critical, she continued to live--with the financial help of the Motion Picture Fund--in a modest West Hollywood apartment filled with mementos of her tumultuous brief marriage to Chaplin and playbills from her post-divorce stage career.
Her former house has been converted to the trendy Campanile restaurant, and she assisted in planning the restoration.
Although touted as a future star, she found that audiences were no longer interested in her after her divorce, and later in her life was forced to support herself and her children as a sales clerk at the Robinson’s department store in Beverly Hills.
She bore her situation good-naturedly, as she did most of her misadventures, finding a certain “fascination” with the shopping public.
Born into California’s pioneer Carrillo family to a mother who was in the first graduating class at Hollywood High School, she was raised in a cloistered environment and it was only a chance visit to a neighborhood restaurant that changed her life.
She met Chaplin there when she was only 6 and then was reintroduced to him at the age of 12 by a mutual friend.
Chaplin was then casting “The Kid” (1921). He had the pre-pubescent Lita portray an angel dangling from wires in a scene set in celluloid heaven.
Despite her age, he openly romanced her, telling friends that if she did become pregnant he, of course, would marry her.
Filming of “The Gold Rush” (1925), Chaplin’s tale of life in Alaska, had begun when her almost predictable pregnancy became obvious and she was replaced by Georgia Hale.
But rather than willingly marry her as he had said, Chaplin suggested an abortion and, failing that, offered her money.
In her book “My Life With Chaplin,” the then-Lillita Louise MacMurray recalls how a family member took his shotgun from the wall and marched over to Chaplin’s mansion to confront him. The wedding, she recounted, took place shortly after.
Charles Chaplin Jr., who was to die of alcohol abuse in 1968, was born in 1925. His brother Sydney, known for his starring roles on Broadway in “Funny Girl,” “Bells Are Ringing” and “Subways Are for Sleeping,” was born the next year. Their mother wrote that she bore both boys at home on Summit Drive in Beverly Hills, by herself while her husband was otherwise engaged.
Their subsequent nine-month divorce proceedings were spiced with stories of the comedian’s philandering, of his inattention to his sons and of his animosity toward his wife, whom he dismissed as “lowly born and greedy.”
She was the only one of his wives he did not mention in his autobiography.
She was granted a settlement of $825,000, believed the largest in American history at the time, and launched a nightclub and vaudeville career taking advantage of her newfound notoriety. But the expense of the costumes, the musicians and the sets, coupled with the ill-advised purchase of an expensive Beverly Hills, home quickly exhausted the money.
She married three more times and seemed over the years to mellow toward Chaplin, who she said was terribly insecure because of his poverty-scarred background.
At her death, she was working on another book of memoirs, this one said to be kinder to her ex-husband.
Of his notorious attraction to young women, she said in a 1989 interview:
“He’d try to create people. He enjoyed being the first person in a girl’s life.”
Her son Sydney Chaplin survives, as do two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
There will be no services. Contributions in her name may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, 23300 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills CA 91364.