Edna Purviance was Charlie’s first great love. (Paulette Goddard and Oona O’Neill were the two later important love relationships in his life). But Edna was the only one who got to know him before he became world famous.She had no ulterior motives and was uninfluenced by celebrity. When they met in February 1915, he still thought of himself as a “little nickel comedian.”
In fact, Charlie still was so unknown that on a train trip from L. A. to Chicago one month before he met Edna, nobody noticed him, pestered him for autographs or sought out one-night stands. The temptations and distractions of celebrity had not yet encroached on his privacy. One year later, on a similar trip to New York, he was mobbed by fans at stations along the way and had to disembark secretly from the train at 125th Street in order to avoid the mass mayhem that awaited him at Grand Central Station.
Purviance adored him, and he was smitten with her. Neither a would-be teenage seductress nor an aspiring professional actress with an agenda of her own, she was not looking for a meal ticket or a star-maker. Chaplin sought her out. Unpretentious, sedate, generous, good-natured, and fetching, the pulchritudinous 19-year-old stenographer was just getting over an unhappy love affair and effortlessly projected a soulful look that instantly appealed to Charlie. They met in San Francisco where he was on a talent search for a photogenic leading lady with no previous acting experience and no ego to prevent her from subordinating her will to his as a film director.
For the next eight years, Purviance proved to be a capable, malleable, dedicated and loyal dramatic foil who appeared in 34 Chaplin films before he tried (unsuccessfully) to repay her by launching her as a star in her own right in A Woman of Paris (1923). From the start of their professional association in 1915, her warm-hearted Edna character inspired the little tramp to become much more emotionally sensitive and mature. An increasingly moonstruck and poetic Charlie rapidly became much more lovable and sympathetic to film audiences.
Essanay films like The Tramp and The Bank were romantic love stories with real plots. Offscreen, Chaplin and Purviance playfully nicknamed each other “Modie” and “Bodie.” The genuine affection these two smooching lovers developed in their private lives contributed onscreen to that distinctive brand of sentimentality which eventually came to be known as chaplinesque. Chaplin’s head-over-heels love for this zaftig earth mother awakened his inner creative self and freed him to project and share that softer self with movie audiences. No longer the hard-edged, street-wise urban hustler and loiterer of the Keystone days, at Essanay Chaplin’s formerly shallow screen character matured and developed thanks in large measure to his love affair with Edna.
But the same cannot be said for Chaplin the man. As soon as Edna Purviance started to show very minimal signs of aging—by becoming slightly more plump and matronly-- the youth-hungry and age-phobic film star’s romantic interest rapidly wilted. Chaplin turned his attentions elsewhere, to those virginally slim but intellectually and emotionally vapid teenage girls with slender arms and legs who chronically haunted him. Chaplin’s morbid fear of a beautiful young woman he loved suddenly growing old before his eyes (as his 38-year-old mother had done so drastically) contributed to his own neurotic fear of aging and saddled him instead with two consecutive narcissistic adolescent wives, each of whom left him embittered and dissatisfied.
Unlike Mildred Harris and Lita Grey, who both parlayed pregnancy into marriage, Edna Purviance voluntarily underwent two illicit medical abortions (and a tubal ligation) in order to be able to keep on working with Chaplin. Understandably, she felt deeply hurt and wounded by the two short-lived and ill-fated shotgun weddings that both took place during their eight-year professional association.
Purviance’s on-and-off ten-year affair with Chaplin finally ended in the mid 1920s but she carried a torch for him until her death. And Chaplin insisted on keeping her on his studio payroll until that time in 1958. Taking stock of his own life in the very last pages of My Autobiography (1964), he paid a remarkably loving and generous retrospective tribute to Purviance. And 75-year-old Chaplin also referred in a separate passage in that same autobiography to the year he spent at Mutual working with Purviance as the happiest period of his entire film career. If he was the poet, she was his muse. Theirs was a love story with a bittersweet ending (like so many Chaplin films).