Mildred Harris was only nineteen years old when she sued for divorce, although she may have been even younger. Her career in movies had begun sometime between the ages of nine and twelve, depending on who was asking. Either way, she was far younger than her husband, who, at thirty-one, was the most famous man in the world—and was leading a double life.
Harris first met Charlie Chaplin at a party at Samuel Goldwyn’s beach house in the fall of 1917. He offered her a ride home, resulting in a yearlong affair, a pregnancy, and a hurried wedding. Their child survived only three days, its sad little death a cipher for their unflourishing marriage. In the courtroom, Harris told the judge of the unhappiness she had experienced as the wife of the funniest man alive. Chaplin neglected and mistreated her, she said. He brooded and was rarely home, abandoning her to go off with his friends for up to six weeks at a time, or leaving her alone at night as he spent hours stalking the streets in search of ideas. When he was around, he criticized her constantly, correcting her manners, censoring her dress, and refusing her money, despite his commanding a salary of $670,000 a year. Her friends were unwelcome at their house, and if she ever went out alone, he hired detectives to follow her. Among the few people she was allowed to see were her ever-present mother and the men Chaplin would bring home for dinner. “But such men!” Harris lamented. “Old, grave, and intellectual men! They were fifty years old or more. They talked of things I could not possibly understand. I was seventeen. What could I know of philosophy, or of Voltaire or Rousseau or Kant?”
Chaplin had hoped to cultivate the mind of his young wife, which he found “cluttered with pink-ribboned foolishness.” According to Harris, this meant he read long, boring books out loud and rehearsed the tragic roles he harbored secret ambitions to play. Mildred once mistook something he said for a joke and began to laugh, but soon realized her error as he flew into a fury and called her names. When they divorced in 1920, on grounds of mental cruelty, she received $200,000. “It has been said that a comedian is only funny in public,” she complained to the Washington Times. “I believe it. In fact, I know it. Charlie Chaplin, who has made millions laugh, only caused me tears.”
Chaplin did little to deny it. He appeared to suffer bouts of melancholy when he first became famous, and when the journalist and poet Benjamin De Casseres came to speak to him around the time of his divorce, the actor’s condition had escalated to full-blown despair. “There are days when contact with any human being makes me physically ill,” Chaplin told him. “I am oppressed at such times and in such periods by what was known among the Romantics as world-weariness. I feel then a total stranger to life.”
Was this proof that the Chaplin projected on the screen was exactly that, an insubstantial phantom concealing the true identity of the man? “He has clowned, cavorted, and somersaulted in every city, town, and mining camp in the civilized and uncivilized world,” wrote De Casseres, “but there is no man I have ever met who, intellectually and emotionally, comes nearer to the Hamlet type of being than Charles Spencer Chaplin, planetary clown, whose stage personality is better known than any other human being who has thus far been born on this star and who has more completely hidden his real personality than any other world figure.” Chaplin, beloved of millions and known around the world, was walled off, Midas-like, from the very gift that others revered in him. De Casseres’ conclusion was emphatic: “I have never met an unhappier or a shyer human being than this Charles Spencer Chaplin.”