Wholesome . . . Delectable . . . Enchanting
Nevada's Forgotten Movie Star
You might think that a state with so few celebrities to brag about would make a big deal about a movie star who called Nevada home. But Edna Purviance, who starred with Charlie Chaplin in the pictures that elevated him into the first rank among movie stars, is now almost forgotten here. It seems especially strange because she was not only a famous movie star and for many years Chaplin's leading lady, she was his lover and his best and most loyal friend until the day she died.
"When we first came to work in Los Angeles, Edna rented an apartment near the Athletic Club [where Charlie lived], and almost every night I would bring her there for dinner. We were serious about each other, and at the back of my mind I had the idea we might marry, but I had reservations about Edna. I was uncertain of her, and for that matter uncertain of myself."
Early in 1915 Charlie went to New York in consequence of his departure from Essanay and a new contract with Mutual. While he was away, Edna made a trip home to Lovelock, and while she was in Nevada she sent Charlie a letter hinting that she was uncertain as well, and that their love affair was beginning to wane:
I really don't know why you don't send me some word, she complained. Just one little telegram so unsatisfactory. Even a night letter would be better than nothing. You know 'Boodie' you promised faithfully to write. Is your time so taken up that you can't even think of me. Every night before I go to bed I send out little love thoughts wishing you all the success in the world and counting the minutes until you return. How much longer do you expect to stay. Please, Hon, don't forget your 'Modie' and hurry back. Have been home for over a week and believe me my feet are itching to get back. . . . Have you been true to me? I'm afraid not. Oh, well, do whatever you think is right. I really do trust you to that extent. . . .
Yes, but . . . when Charlie returned from New York he took a room at the Alexandria Hotel. "I had retired early to my room and started undressing, humming to myself one of the latest New York songs. Occasionally I paused, lost in thought, and when I did so a feminine voice from the next room took up the tune where I had left off. Then I took up where she left off, and so it became a joke. Eventually we finished the tune this way. . . ."
"Evidently you have just arrived from New York," Charlie whispered through the keyhole of the door to the adjoining room.
"I can't hear you," came the response.
"Then open the door," he said.
"I'll open it a little, but don't you dare come in."
The door opened about four inches, and Charlie found himself gazing at "the most ravishing young blonde . . . all silky negligee . . . the effect was dreamy."
"Don't come in or I'll beat you up!" she said with a sparkling smile. But he did.
"The second night when I came to my room," as he remembered, "she frankly tapped on the door, and once more we embarked nocturnally." On the third night Charlie was beginning to tire of the game, and on the fourth night he tiptoed into his room and slid into bed alone despite her tapping at the door. On the fifth night she knocked impatiently but he had locked the door; the next morning he checked out.
Obviously Charlie was not averse to "delightful impromptus" as he described this adventure, and by the next year, when he and Edna cranked out eight 2-reelers for Mutual, their romance was clearly fading. Still, they went to all the Red Cross fetes and galas together. "At these affairs Edna would get jealous and had a gentle and insidious way of showing it," Charlie remembered in his autobiography. When he got too much attention from attractive women, Edna would pretend to faint, and then come to, and ask for Charlie. At a party given by the actress Fanny Ward, Edna "fainted" as before, but this time it wasn't Charlie she asked for when she revived, but Thomas Meighan, a leading man at Paramount.
Fanny told Charlie about it the next day. "I could not believe it," Charlie remembered. "My pride was hurt; I was outraged." He was so upset he couldn't work, and late in the morning he called her. He was going to fume and fuss, but he couldn't face the finality of the situation. "I understand you called for the wrong man at Fanny Ward's party. You must be losing your memory!"
"What are you talking about?" Edna said with a laugh. "Who has been telling you all this nonsense?"
"What difference does it make who told me?" Charlie said. "But I think I should mean more to you than that you should openly make a fool of me."
Edna calmly insisted it was a lie.
"You don't have to make a pretense with me," Charlie said with exaggerated indifference. "You're free to do whatever you like. You're not married to me. . . ." They talked for over an hour, and Charlie's indifference evaporated into pleading and imploring. That night she cooked him a supper of ham and eggs and they reconciled.
But three weeks later, when Charlie bumped into Edna at the studio office, she was accompanied by a friend. "You know Tommy Meighan?" she asked.
In that brief moment, he wrote, Edna became a stranger, as if he had met her for the first time.
"Of course," Charlie replied. "How are you, Tommy?"
Still, Edna continued as Chaplin's leading lady in two-reelers like Behind the Screen, Easy Street, and The Adventurer, and she continued to play a central role in his life.
In the fall of 1917, for example, she opened an envelope postmarked Bombay, India, (return address: Royal Opera House) to find a letter signed Wheeler Dryden.
Dear Miss Purviance,
Kindly excuse the liberty I take in writing to you, but I am sending you this letter in the hope that you will assist me in my hitherto futile attempts to obtain recognition and acknowledgement from my half-brother Charles Chaplin, for whose Company I believe you are Leading Lady. . . .
In September, 1915, I heard from my father, and in his letter he mentioned that my half-brother, Charlie Chaplin, had been making a great name for himself in Cinema work in America. Well, when I read this you can imagine my surprise, for my father had always kept the secret of my birth unknown to me, and had always evaded any questions on the subject. . . .
Wheeler Dryden went on to explain that he didn't want anything from Charlie and Sidney except recognition and reunion, but that his letters to them had gone unanswered. "And so, Miss Purviance, I am asking you to intercede with Charlie on my behalf, and let me know what he says. . . ."
Through Edna's intercession Wheeler Dryden made contact with Charlie and a few years later visited California to be reunited with his mother after nearly 30 years. In 1939 he joined the Chaplin Studio, remaining there until Charlie left the USA for good in 1952.
In 1917 another "impromptu" resulted in his reluctant marriage to 18-year-old Mildred Harris on account of her supposed pregnancy. The morning after the ceremony he went back to work "with a heavy heart."
Edna had read the morning papers, and as Charlie passed her dressing room she appeared at the door.
"Congratulations," she said softly.
"Thank you," Charley replied, and walked by in embarrassment.
Charlie divorced Mildred Harris in 1920, and in 1921 he made his first clear masterpiece, The Kid, with little Jackie Coogan and 12-year-old Lita Grey.
Lita played the "flirting Angel" in the Tramp's dream of heaven sequence, and was so successful in the role that Charlie moved Edna out of her fancy dressing room and installed little Lita in it instead. "She clearly was hurt," Lita recalled later, "and indeed stopped being civil to me; when our paths crossed anywhere on the lot, she would stride regally past, her nose in the air. Yet, peculiarly, she continued, in public at least, to be unfailingly pleasant with Mr. Chaplin."
Lita described Edna as "a fetching blonde with classically beautiful shoulders and neck and alabaster skin, an extremely able comedienne . . . and at the time of The Kid was winding up her long affair with him, although she didn't quite know it yet."
As Lita explained it, Edna had begun drinking. "Not heavily, but enough to displease Charlie, who viewed drinking during working hours as unprofessional and therefore intolerable. More and more often she would approach the camera with her face just a bit pinker, her walk just a bit unsteadier, and Charlie, who never missed a trick, would quietly chide, 'Watch yourself. It all comes out on film. You can hide these things from the camera for only so long.'"
By then their romantic passions had completely cooled, but their friendship endured. "Although Edna and I were emotionally estranged," Charlie said, "I was still interested in her career. But looking objectively at Edna, I realized she was growing rather matronly, which would not be suitable for the feminine confection necessary for my future pictures."
Charlie tried to help Edna launch a solo career. In 1923 he wrote, directed, and played a bit part in A Woman of Paris in which she starred opposite Adolphe Menjou. The movie was favorably reviewed, but it was Menjou whose talents were praised, not Edna's.
Lita Grey, now aged 16 and about to announce her pregnancy and become Charlie's second wife, described Edna ungenerously: "Her face was still attractive, but now it was bloated. She had developed a rather ungainly, toes-turned-outward walk that was almost Chaplinesque. She had put on so much weight that Wardrobe had to corset her severely to make her believable as Menjou's delectable mistress. Her affair with Charlie was long a thing of the past." Nevertheless, when 18-year-old Lita divorced Charlie in 1926, she named 30-year-old Edna as one of several contributing causes.
As if to finish off her career completely, Edna was suddenly involved in one of the Hollywood scandals that made headlines across the country. She had been the New Year's Eve guest of an oil magnate named Courtland Dines, and the two of them were still drinking in his hotel room the next day when Mabel Normand came to join the party. When Mabel's chauffer arrived at Dines' apartment, an argument erupted, a gun was produced, and the partially clad Dines was shot. The resulting hubbub dealt a death blow to Edna's career.
Nevertheless her ever-loyal Charlie helped develop yet another role for her, this one in the Josef von Sternberg production, A Woman of the Sea. The movie was never released, and Sternberg said Edna was an unemployable alcoholic.
For more than 30 years afterward Edna lived quietly outside Hollywood. She received a small monthly salary from Chaplin's film company for the rest of her life. She never married. She died January 13, 1958, aged 62.
"How could I forget Edna?" Chaplin responded to an interviewer after her death. "She was with me when it all began."
Indeed, our Edna was the farmer's daughter who nursed Chaplin's "little tramp" to life, and the one constant friend through all the years of woman-trouble, talkie-trouble and politics-trouble. It is appropriate that he closed his autobiography by quoting a letter from her, dated November 13th, 1956.
Here I am again with a heart full of thanks, and back in the hospital (Cedars of Lebanon), taking cobalt X-ray treatment on my neck. There cannot be a hell hereafter! . . . Am thankful my innards are O.K., this is purely and simply local, so they say. All of which reminds me of the fellow standing on the corner of Seventh and Broadway tearing up little bits of paper and throwing them to the four winds. A cop comes along and asks him what was the big idea. He answers, "Just keeping the elephants away." The cop says, "There aren't any elephants in this district." The fellow answers: "Well, it works, doesn't it?" This is my silly for the day, so forgive me.
Hope you and the family are well and enjoying everything you have worked for.
Only in Winnemucca, where she spent summers as a girl, is there any memento of Edna and her fabulous career. The silk dress she wore nearly 75 years ago in The Adventurer is in a display case at the Humboldt Museum at Pioneer Park, pinned like a butterfly, motionless and faded. Beside it, her photograph smiles brightly out through the glass, her face, once gazed upon raptly by millions, radiant, and serene.
David W. Toll of Gold Hill is the author of The Complete Nevada Traveler and publisher of The Nevada Industrial Directory.
This article was originally published in the December, 1994 edition of Nevada Magazine. You're invited to visit the Edna Purviance Photo Gallery.