Oona Chaplin

by Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

Route de Fenil 2
Corsier-sur-Vevey
Switzerland
November 20, 1978

Darling Carol,

Another night I can’t sleep. Tried almost everything, two glasses of wine, reading that new novel everyone is raving about, the Garp book. Thank you for paying all that postage and sending it to me, but the words are so blurry, and I can’t read. Not sure if it’s the wine or not being able to sleep.

I’m listening to David doing that Beatles song “Across the Universe.” It’s so beautiful. I realized I needed to write you. Ghosts are haunting me, can’t shake them. When you get this letter, what happened in Guyana won’t be front page news anymore. The people who died there will be dismissed as crazy. One of them wasn’t. At least when I met her, she wasn’t. Stop reading right now and read the journal entry I’ve enclosed here. I only want you reading it. The next part of the letter is the following.

* * * * *

When I went back to settle Charlie’s affairs, his lawyer Louis was kind enough to arrange for me to stay at a house in Silver Lake. It was a furnished house he owned, and clients stayed there on occasion. There was no way I could stay at the mansion. It was bad enough the press knew I was back. “Oona, are you leaving Charlie? What will you do now?” They didn’t know me at all. Of course, I wasn’t going to leave Charlie. We were in this together.

After I managed to save all of Charlie’s early works, after I made sure I gave the staff severance pay, and after I packed the suitcase with money in the safety deposit box, I was ready to go. Betty helped me pack up. “Betty, I just don’t know what to do,” I said. “We were supposed to go on holiday and back. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Love, they’re scared of him. He wants people to love each other. This country doesn’t know the meaning of love.”

I was so thankful one of Charlie’s relatives was there for me. Mother has been busy working on that book about Daddy, and Shane was being, well, Shane.

It was raining when Louis dropped me off. “Oona, don’t worry about a thing. Betty will pick you up tomorrow and take you to the airport.”

“Thank you, you’ve been so kind. Is there a store nearby to get groceries?”

“You shouldn’t be seen out. The press will be all over you again.” He thought for a moment. “The Alexanders might be able to help you. They live down the street. They’ve had a rough time of it. Mr. Alexander is an unapologetic Communist.”

I know this sounded odd, but they sounded divine to me. What could be better than meeting Communists who don’t apologize for who they are? ”If they can help, that would be grand.”

“I’ll give them a grocery list.” He handed me a key. “I’ve arranged for you to stay at the Plaza when you get to New York. Jerry Epstein will pick you up at the airport.”

I walked inside the house. It was a bit nippy. I managed to find the heater, then turned it up. The house did have hot chocolate. And a tea kettle. It hit me then that I was alone. I hadn’t been alone in so long.

Even though it was early, I changed into my blue silk pajamas, washed my makeup off, and put my hair into pigtails. I turned the radio on, I made myself a cup of hot chocolate, then curled up in the living room and read East of Eden. Although I missed Charlie and the children terribly, it was just lovely to read and not be interrupted.

An hour later, there was a knock on the door. “Who is it?”

“Mrs. Chaplin? I’m Mrs. Alexander. I was told you needed groceries.”

I opened the door a little. The woman looked quite nice, wearing a man’s shirt and jeans. With her was a girl about thirteen, wearing a plaid skirt with a green sweater. Her short brown hair was curled up at the ends. She wore thick glasses. “No one followed us.”

“I’m sorry. Please, please come in. And my name is Oona.”

“Freda,” the woman said, pointing to herself, “and this is Phyllis. What’s happening to your husband is disgraceful. I’m ashamed of this country.”

They came inside, taking off their jackets. I tried to smile. “Thank you. I needed to hear that tonight.”

“We brought bread, spaghetti, and cereal for tomorrow.”

“I want to repay you for this,” I said, reaching for my purse.

Freda held her hand up. “No. You have paid enough.”

“Then let me make you dinner.”

“That would be perfect.”

I made spaghetti as the rain pattered on the roof. It was all so reasonable. I could’ve been any woman, making dinner for a friend on a rainy night. Only nothing was normal. I was Charlie Chaplin’s wife. In two days I would go back to England. I wasn’t sure if I ever was going to see my mother or brother again. I knew Mother would be fine. Shane was a different story. He was still doing heroin, and when I saw him weeks before, he was gaunt and sad. Charlie tried making his children laugh, but they looked so woebegone. I tried to talk to Shane, but I wasn’t sure what to say. Heard from Daddy lately? Oh, that’s right. He disowned him. After Eugene Junior died from crib death. He had his own problems. I wish I could help more, but I had no choice. My home was with Charlie. I had to be with him.

We ate by candlelight. “Is there anything else you need?” Freda asked.

 ”Thank you, but I will be fine. My cousin-in-law Betty – I call her Boopsy because she reminds me of Betty Boop – will be driving me to the airport tomorrow morning. A friend of mine will be meeting me at the hotel.”

 “I must say, this is the best dinner I’ve had in a long time. I never thought…”

“That a movie star’s wife can cook?” I laughed. “I went to an all-girls school. Cooking was required. I only wish we had dessert.”

“Wait, we do!” Freda clapped her hands. “I have macaroons at my house!”

“That’s for school,” Phyllis protested.

“Oh, I made four dozen. I think we can spare some for Mrs. Chaplin, can’t we?” Freda stood up. “I’ll be right back.”

Phyllis stared at her plate.

“Phyllis, I hope you haven’t been bored by all of this.”

“No, Mrs. Chaplin.”

“It’s Oona. Tell me about yourself. What grade are you in?”

“Eighth. I hate it.”

I didn’t have to ask why. Being thirteen is terrible. Throw in the fact your father is a Communist, and you’re Jewish in nearly Aryan Los Angeles, it made it worse. “You’ll get through it.”

“How?”

“You just will. I was very lonely when I was your age. My mother was busy, and my older brother was in boarding school.”

“What about your dad?”

The girl didn’t know. She had no idea my father was Eugene O’Neill, America’s most excellent playwright. Not the most excellent father, but an outstanding playwright. “My parents were divorced,” I replied. “You know what? When I went to high school is when things got better for me. I met my best friend Carol and another friend named Gloria. They saved me. But you must stick it out. You have to believe something better is going to come along.”

The girl looked at me. “Are you scared?”

No one had asked me that. I had been on automatic pilot, taking care of business, Charlie’s films, the house, all the business dealings. No one asked how I was. “Yes, I am scared.”

“What they’re doing to Charlie is rotten.”

“Oh, it’s rotten all right.”

“I hope someday you can come back.”

I smiled. “I hope so too.”

By then Freda came in with the macaroons. We ate them and laughed. Oddly, it was a perfect way to celebrate my last night in Los Angeles.

* * * * *

Carol, I’m back.

So that little girl Phyllis? She married a man named Eugene Chaikin. They had two children. Saturday, because a madman told her she had to, she killed herself, or someone killed her. We might never know the truth.

Oh, darling, I’m so angry. That beautiful, beautiful girl is dead. Maybe it’s because I keep thinking of Shane jumping off the roof, perhaps because I miss Charlie terribly, but why didn’t she listen to me? Hang on, I told her to hang on. Oh God, why didn’t she? Now I will write a condolence letter to the Alexanders. Charlie was right: Words are so futile. When Charles Junior died, people didn’t know what to say to Charlie. No parent should outlive their child. Of that I am sure.

Oh, I need another glass of wine. Hug Walter and your Charlie extra tight tonight. David keeps on singing Nothing’s going to change my world, nothing’s going to change my world. If only that were true.

xo

Oona

(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is This Is Not a Beach Book. Her previous articles are here.)

Last modified on September 30th, 2018.
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