Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the famed playwright Eugene O’Neill, is an 18-year-old freshly minted high-school graduate and fledgling actress when she marries 54-year-old Charles Chaplin, the internationally renowned actor, filmmaker and Hollywood legend, on June 16, 1943, in Santa Barbara, California.
Her famous father (already a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie by the time she was born) left her mother, the writer Agnes Boulton, when Oona was only two years old, and she saw him only sporadically after that. As a student at Brearley, the prestigious all-girls private school in Manhattan, Oona was friends with Gloria Vanderbilt and became a prominent young socialite, dating J.D. Salinger and Orson Welles. After graduation, she decided to head west to Hollywood, where she made a brief attempt at an acting career. Oona O’Neill met Chaplin when she was recommended for a part in one of his films; the marriage was his fourth, and the third to a woman still in her teens. Eugene O’Neill, who was the same age as Chaplin, was so angry about the marriage that he disinherited his daughter.
Though naysayers questioned the motives of both parties, and predicted a quick demise for the unlikely match, their bond proved to be exceptionally strong, and the marriage would endure for the rest of Chaplin’s life. In 1952, after Chaplin’s visa was revoked due to his involvement with leftist political causes, he went into self-imposed exile with Oona and their three children. Oona later renounced her U.S. citizenship and became an English subject like her husband. Ensconced in an 18th-century mansion overlooking Lake Geneva, in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, the Chaplins had five more children. The eldest, Geraldine, became an acclaimed actress. The couple would return to the United States together only once, when Chaplin accepted an honorary Academy Award in 1972.
After her husband’s death in 1977, at the age of 88, Oona O’Neill Chaplin became famously reclusive. She reportedly never recovered from her grief, and died from pancreatic cancer in 1991, at the age of 66.