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Oona: Living in the Shadows

 
The New York Times, November 29, 1998
The Lady and the Tramp
When Oona O'Neill, 18, married Charlie Chaplin, 54, handicappers gave it six months.
By JAMES SPADA

Nearly a century after Lytton Strachey's ''Eminent Victorians'' redefined the art of telling lives, the biographer's lot is not a happy one. Since the 1970's there has been such a tidal wave of biographies and memoirs that there is nary a celebrated life left unrecorded. Worried authors have begun to seek out less well-known but interesting subjects whose lives, once brought to print, might capture the public's imagination.

Jane Scovell has chosen Oona O'Neill Chaplin, and indeed, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill and child bride of Charlie Chaplin would seem to be the ideal biographical second-stringer. Born in Bermuda in 1925, she was a beautiful, vivacious, intelligent girl who palled around New York with Gloria Vanderbilt, dated J. D. Salinger and Orson Welles, and was named debutante of the year. She was given a Hollywood screen test but gave up the promise of movie stardom at the age of 18 to become the fourth wife of Chaplin, who was 36 years her senior. She bore him eight children and remained married to him until his death 34 years later.

Her story, one will have surmised by now, is memorable mainly because of its two male leads. Her father deserted her mother, the writer Agnes Boulton, when Oona was 2. She rarely saw O'Neill after that; six years once elapsed between strained, awkward visits. The little girl kept a scrapbook of pictures of him clipped from newspapers so she would know what he looked like.

By the age of 17, Oona was a Manhattan prep school student and a young lady about town, making the social columns on the arms of older squires, who escorted her to sophisticated watering holes like the Stork Club. She told The Daily News that ''a girl ought to earn her own living,'' and so she planned to forgo a Vassar education to become an actress. Aghast, her father promptly disinherited her, put the word out to his theater associates that she was not to be given work and called his daughter, whom he scarcely knew, ''a spoiled, lazy, vain little brat.''

Is it any wonder that she fell into the fatherly arms of Chaplin, a man who hadn't always waited for his earlier paramours to turn 18 before he married them? Observers questioned her motives as much as his, and most gave the marriage six months at best. Salinger, a spurned beau, was so upset with Oona, Scovell tells us, that he wrote her ''a scathing, scatological letter describing in disgusting detail his version of the Chaplins' wedding night.''

Whatever the psychological forces that drove them, and despite the astronomical odds against the success of their marriage, Oona and Charlie Chaplin found lasting happiness. He made her feel worthwhile, and she provided him with the unwavering attention and adoration his overweening ego demanded. The actress Joan Collins observed that Oona ''catered to him with an almost geishalike deference,'' but it is also clear that Chaplin greatly valued her opinion. On the sets of his later, largely unsuccessful films, he would look to Oona, sitting off to the side, for a nod of approval after every take.

They spent the bulk of their marriage living in a manor in Vevey, Switzerland, where they moved after Chaplin's leftist leanings made him a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Oona cared for him like a duty nurse until his death, at 88, on Christmas morning, 1977.

The widowed Lady Chaplin was only 52, a wealthy and famous woman. She might have been expected to blossom, to write the book several publishers had sought from her or at least to found a philanthropic organization and give a star-studded fund-raising event every year.

Instead, she grieved ceaselessly for Chaplin, and -- like her parents, brother and uncle before her -- declined into alcoholism. When she failed to appear at a party she gave in her Manhattan penthouse years after her husband's death, a friend went into her bedroom, found her lying in total darkness and asked what was wrong.

''This is how it must be where Charlie is,'' she replied. She died from pancreatic cancer in 1991.

Scovell tells this story gracefully and with intelligence, but her subject ultimately defeats her. No members of the O'Neill or Chaplin families agreed to interviews, and again and again we read of Eugene and Charlie and Oona destroying personal papers in order to thwart an effort like this one. Based almost entirely on secondary sources, ''Oona'' reads like a college thesis on Eugene O'Neill and Charlie Chaplin. The reader longs for more details about Oona's activities, Oona's thoughts, Oona's reactions.

To make compelling a subject whose life was ''lived in the shadows'' of two geniuses, an author must draw the reader so deeply into her mind and the details of her life that she becomes as vivid as a fictional heroine and thus takes on -- at least within the pages of the book -- a stature equal to those casting the shadows. Scovell was not able to do this with Oona O'Neill Chaplin, mainly because the woman herself preferred to remain a mystery. Her success at doing so despite Scovell's admirable effort is our loss, because a biography that does not reveal its subject, like a mystery that does not reveal its solution, makes for a frustrating and unsatisfying book.

James Spada is the author, most recently, of ''Streisand: Her Life.''

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