Charlie Chaplin & Oona O'Neill

updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

Just met Charlie Chaplin. What blue eyes he has!" 17-year-old Oona O'Neill wrote to her girlhood friend Carol Matthau in 1942. The legendary comic's screen persona may have been the silent Little Tramp, but in the flesh, even at 53, he was a little dickens. By the time he first saw dark-eyed Oona, Hollywood's busiest satyr had successfully batted his own baby blues at half the female population of Southern California. He had two children and three ex-wives—two of whom he had wed when they were 16.

Aspiring actress Oona was no empty-headed wannabe, though. The daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill and writer Agnes Boulton, she was "brilliant and well-read," says Matthau. Oona met Chaplin when she was trying to be considered for a part in his film Shadow and Substance. The movie was never made, but Oona found the role of her life. "It was a great, great love affair," says Matthau (married 36 years to actor Walter), "not only because of the intensity but because of the lasting intensity."

Chaplin's teenage sons from his second marriage, Charles Jr. and Sydney, were both attracted to O'Neill when she started coming to their house. But they soon saw that their father was love-struck. "I was constantly surprised by her sense of humor and tolerance," Chaplin wrote of Oona in his 1964 My Autobiography. "She could always see the other person's point of view." Oona may have seen him as a replacement for the father who had left her (Eugene walked out on Agnes when Oona was 2), though she would deny this, saying that Charlie "has made me mature, and I keep him young."

Their relationship came at a turning point in Chaplin's life. His outspoken support for Russia's plight against the Nazis contradicted the nation's growing anti-Communist sentiment. In addition, his divorces and flagrant womanizing made unwelcome headlines. His latest troubles began a few months after he met Oona, when 24-year-old Joan Barry, a disturbed starlet, claimed that Chaplin was the father of her unborn child and sued him for support. Blood tests would prove Chaplin innocent of the charge. In the midst of the turmoil, Oona and Charlie slipped away to be married in rural Carpenteria, near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1943. Eugene was so infuriated by their elopement that he disinherited his daughter, but Oona energized her husband. Depressed over the blows to his reputation, he had mostly stopped working but, he wrote, she "urged me on." He would also father their eight children. The oldest, actress Geraldine, was born when Chaplin was 55; the last, actor Christopher, when he was 73.

The kids were cared for by their nurses and disciplined mostly by Charlie's secretary. Son Michael, 49, who has seven children of his own, does not feel handicapped by the way he and his siblings were treated. "He was a difficult man," he says of his father. "But they were always solid in their relationship. That gives you a lot in later life." Daughter Jane, 38, says she "was upset" when she realized that Oona made Charlie her first priority. "Sometimes I felt like I was intruding on their intimacy, but now I understand a love like that. It's once in a lifetime."

By 1952, Chaplin's leftist leanings had ignited Red hunters in Washington. The IRS was after him, and conservatives were calling for his deportation (British-born Chaplin had kept his citizenship). When he was sailing to Europe on a vacation with his family, he was given a telegram onboard the ship telling him he could not return to the U.S. unless he could prove his "moral worth." The Chaplins settled on Manoir de Ban, a 37-acre Swiss estate overlooking Lake Geneva. Their world became their love.

On his 70th birthday in 1959, Chaplin told an interviewer, "With Oona to look after me and the children to inspire me, I cannot grow old." So it remained, until his death on Christmas Day, 1977, at age 88. Oona lived until 1991. Jane looks back on their supreme devotion. "They were always holding hands, even when he was an old man," she says. "They were kept together by magic."

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