Country Lights

Posted online: January 2015

On January 17 and 18, enjoy Charlie Chaplin’s classic silent-era film City Lights at the Granada Theatre accompanied by the Santa Barbara Symphony. The live performance of Chaplin’s score (he also composed music for his films), follows the on-screen action, enhancing the poignant story and slapstick humor.

Did you know City Lights leading lady Virginia Cherrill was a Santa Barbara resident? Before you see the film, brush up on your Old Hollywood history with this feature from our Spring 2014 issue.

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Cherrill poses in the palatial Osterley Park house she shared with the Earl of Jersey.

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A portrait of the actress in 1933.

When she died in Santa Barbara in 1996, only the most diehard movie buffs recognized 88-year-old Virginia Cherrill’s name in newspaper obituaries and TV mentions. Her career was brief—a hiccup in Hollywood’s timeline—but as the leading lady in City Lights, arguably Charlie Chaplin’s finest film, her luminous beauty is indelibly embossed in cultural memory. Chances are, even if you do not know her name, you’ve seen her face. In his memoirs, Chaplin claimed that she was a society girl from Chicago who one day approached him on a beach and asked for a part in the film he was developing. The truth about how he met Virginia Cherrill, and her origins, are more provocative than that. Fittingly, like something out of a movie.

The blonde beauty was actually a farm girl from Carthage, Illinois, raised by a single mother in a day when divorce still carried an unsavory stigma. And the Cherrills were far from wealthy. Mother Blanche Wilcox Cherrill managed to acquire some secretarial skills and was eking out a living working part-time for an Illinois senator who, as a personal favor, pulled strings and got 12-year-old Virginia into Wisconsin’s Kemper School, a somewhat frigid establishment run convent style by a squad of nuns. Blanche took a position there as matron to be near her daughter and help defray the costs of tuition.

At Kemper, missing the windswept prairies and countryside, the pudgy adolescent turned to comfort eating and was a butterball with “a face like an apple,” Cherrill remembered. The high point of her stay there was her friendship with an older girl, Evelyn Lederer, the starstruck daughter of Jewish immigrants. By 1922, Lederer had struck out on her own for Hollywood, changed her name to Sue Carol, and after an unmemorable acting stint, began a long and successful foray as a talent agent, eventually marrying one of her clients, actor Alan Ladd. They were a power couple throughout the 1940s and ’50s.

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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cherrill in a publicity still; Chaplin’s tramp sees the blind flower girl home; Virginia Cherrill; Cherrill and Chaplin during a rare moment on the set of City Lights; Cherrill and second husband Cary Grant attend a Hollywood premiere with Randolph Scott and heiress Marion duPont, circa 1934; Cherrill and Grant on their wedding day.

By 1924, Blanche and 16-year-old Virginia were back in Chicago. Blanche supported them with secretarial work and her meager savings while Virginia attended a prestigious girls’ day school and helped out selling gloves at Marshall Field’s. By this time, Virginia was a svelte, pretty teenager. A year later, at a Halloween school dance, she met Irving Adler, a handsome young lawyer—“like Walter Pidgeon before he started to play fathers,” Cherrill said—from one of the city’s wealthiest families. Adler had escorted one of Virginia’s schoolmates to the affair, but after glimpsing the pretty blonde farm girl, asked her to dance and the two hit it off. So much so, they eventually married.

The year 1925 was something of a watershed year for her, a harbinger of things to come. Not only was she voted queen of the Artists Ball in Chicago, but master showman Florenz Ziegfeld invited her to perform in his New York Follies, an offer Virginia—who had no intention of ever being an actress—declined.

Her marriage to Adler was an unhappy one, allegedly because of her husband’s possessiveness. As it began to unravel, she finally accepted her pal Sue Carol’s invitation and fled to Los Angeles. “It’s who I am,” Virginia said later, from the vantage point of a lady in her 80s. “When a romantic situation becomes untender, I get the hell out. I always have. Story of my life.”

Sue Carol introduced Virginia into the highest echelons of movie colony society. Among the first friends she made there were publishing potentate William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, film star Marion Davies. Attending a prize fight one night in 1928, near-sighted Virginia did not recognize the man sitting next to her as one of the most famous in the world. There was nothing wrong with Charlie Chaplin’s vision. Struck by her photogenic beauty, he offered 20-year-old Virginia the romantic lead in his next film, sans screen test, for $75 a week. “Before I signed my contract with Charlie,” Virginia later told historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, “I made very clear that I wasn’t an actress, that I’d had no training of any kind, and he said, ‘That’s exactly what I want. If you had had any training, you would have to unlearn it, because I like to work my own way, and it’s not the way anyone else works.’”

Working without a script, improvising as he went along, teaching an inexperienced newcomer how to act to his specifications, even a genius like Chaplin could hit dry spells waiting for inspiration, and often did. During those times, the entire cast and crew were still required to keep their regular calls at the studio on the off chance he did show up. “One waited, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, sometimes for months, literally, three or four months, and Charlie wouldn’t come to the studio…nothing to do, I simply sat in my dressing room and read books, knitted, did needlepoint. And was generally bored…Charlie was a god. You forget—everyone forgets—in the studio he was the only person whose opinion mattered in any way,” she said.

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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cherrill in an undated publicity still; Cherrill visited Jaipur and received a proposal from its fabulously wealthy, polygamous maharaja; one of the maharaja’s wives with Virginia; a beauty shot; the handsome maharaja; a grandiose temple in Jaipur.

He was also a relentless perfectionist, oftentimes unsure of exactly what he wanted, forcing actors and crew to repeat the same scenes—ad nauseam—until he achieved what he wanted. The seemingly minor issue of Cherrill’s character handing the tramp a flower became an exercise in tedious repetition that dragged on for hours. “I don’t think Charlie really liked me very much. I don’t know why. I liked him. I was very impressed with him,” Cherrill remembered. “But we had almost no social contact of any kind. I was never invited to his house—of course, he didn’t entertain much. But when he did entertain, I was never invited. I had my own life. I had been married and divorced, and perhaps I was more sophisticated than…perhaps he saw me as the blind girl, and not as me, and for this reason didn’t like me.” It did not help that Virginia was one of his few leading ladies who didn’t succumb to his well-publicized charm.

Then, well into the second year, halfway through the shoot with hundreds of thousands of frames already in the can, the unthinkable happened: Chaplin fired his leading lady. Chaplin’s son Sidney recalled it happening just before shooting the heart-wrenching finale where the flower girl—her sight restored because of the tramp’s sacrifice—realizes that he was her benefactor. Virginia asked Chaplin if she could leave early for a hairdresser’s appointment; she had a party to attend that night. And Chaplin blew up.

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TOP TO BOTTOM: Cherrill poses for the ever-present press with third husband in 1930, George Child Villiers; the starlet.

Decades later, Virginia remembered the incident differently: “I was late coming back, probably from lunch, and he was kept waiting, which was not allowed. So, he said I was spoiled and I obviously shouldn’t be in films. And I was fired.”

Chaplin hired his Gold Rush leading lady Georgia Hale and began reshooting. In retrospect, watching surviving footage of the retakes using Hale as the blind girl, it’s tempting to believe that City Lights nearly wasn’t the beloved classic we know today. Her flower girl seems too worldly-wise, lacking the ethereal fragility projected so well by the novice Cherrill.

In any event, Chaplin realized that a complete reshoot would have been ruinous for him, a fact not lost on Cherrill. Or she and Chaplin’s mutual pal Marion Davies, who told Virginia she could name her own terms. “So, I said to Charlie, ‘I can’t come back and work because I no longer have a contract with you… I signed it before I was of age.’ He said, ‘That’s nonsense, absolute nonsense.’ So, I said ‘No, it isn’t. I was 21 last week, and ask your lawyer if it’s not so.’ And he hung up.”

“He called back later and said, ‘I think you’d better come down and we’ll talk about it.’ So Marion said, ‘Now you’ve got him.’ And I went back, and I got double the amount, so I had the large sum of $150 a week from then on, till the rest of the film.”

City Lights turned out to be an instant hit, of course; Cherrill, who’d survived the two-year Chaplin maelstrom, was briefly world famous. She was able to parlay that success into a handful of mediocre films barely remembered today before her career fizzled. In between, she had an affair with hypochondriac Oscar Levant, but when she next married, it was to no less than Cary Grant. “Cary,” she said, “Was my favorite actor. He was not my favorite husband.”

The personification of charm and all things suave onscreen was something of a creep in private. Neurotic and deeply jealous, his insecurities made him lash out at his bride when drunk, and Cherrill recalled being beaten several times during the seven months they were together. Just three weeks into the marriage, he throttled her so severely that a week later, her throat was still bruised and she was barely able to speak. She filed for divorce and put an ocean between herself and Grant. Europe’s great and near-great welcomed her with open arms as a Hollywood sensation, and she was soon running around with aristocrats like the Prince of Wales and notoriously promiscuous Edwina Mountbatten on an endless round of Ascot balls and French yachting parties.

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TOP TO BOTTOM: Virginia Child Villiers socializes with Polish airmen; her last husband, Florian Martini; Cherrill (center) visiting her beloved squadron; Cherrill at home in Santa Barbara in 1977.

One of Cherrill’s admirers, the owner of Romania’s largest steelworks, gifted her with a red and white Bentley; when she complained that its colors were vulgar, he replaced it with a dark green, pigskin-upholstered model. Another admirer was one of England’s richest men, George Child Villiers, ninth Earl of Jersey. But Jersey was married, so she accepted an invitation from the Maharaja of Jaipur and sailed to India, where the horny monarch showered her with so many jeweled rings, her knuckles disappeared.

Back in England, the newly divorced Earl of Jersey, George Child Villiers (“Grandy” to his blue blood friends) again pursued her and made her his countess, putting at her disposal five magnificent homes, 9,400 acres of land, and a trove of heirloom jewels. The effete earl was something of a cold fish; his idea of a good time was tying a rotting herring to the exhaust pipe of guests’ cars; a really good time, two herrings. Cherrill married into a glittering, if staid, world of suffocating protocol, where a task as mundane as serving a boiled egg to his lordship involved 12 servants. “Sex,” she claimed, “Was never part of it. I could do just as I wished so long as I was discreet.” Visits to the maharaja continued.

Cherrill’s stultifying lifestyle got a jolt with the onset of World War II. With Lord Jersey permanently away at army camps, Cherrill began entertaining wounded servicemen and adopted a squad of exiled Polish pilots. In 1942, when she was 35, she fell in love with one of them, 28-year-old Florian Kazimierz Martini. She gave the boot to dizzying wealth, transatlantic society, the earl, and the maharaja, and returned to California for a happily anonymous life with Martini, who got a job at Lockheed while they raised avocados.

At the end of her life, in a house on a quiet Santa Barbara street surrounded by roses and a lifetime’s worth of mementos, the woman Chaplin made immortal, who married one of classic Hollywood’s handsomest stars, partied with a maharaja, and held court over London’s tony Mayfair set remained—at least at heart—a farm girl.

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As the wife of the ninth Earl of Jersey, Cherrill was one of the leading lights of Mayfair society.

[SPRING 2014]

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