By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin June 14, 2012 at 1:00AM
The first movie book I ever purchased was a discarded library copy of Theodore Huff’s landmark biography of my cinematic hero, Charlie Chaplin. (The price was ten cents.) In the years since then I’ve amassed more volumes about Chaplin than any other individual…and apparently there’s no end in sight. But had I not read Laura Wagner’s review of Chaplin’s Girl: The Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill in a recent issue of Classic Images I wouldn’t have known it existed. This unusual biography was published in London by Simon & Schuster, but so far as I can tell it was never officially issued in the U.S. (I had no trouble finding a copy at Amazon.com.)
This is the story of Virginia Cherrill, who gained screen immortality as the blind flower seller in Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights. He discovered the Midwestern-born beauty and coached her through a touching performance, yet she and Charlie clashed at some point and never made up. Her career came to a virtual standstill after that, though she didn’t disappear from movie magazines or gossip columns, because she married Cary Grant in 1934. After their split (the divorce finalized in 1936) she moved to England and was welcomed into British society, partly because she brought along a touch of Hollywood glamour, and partly because so many prominent men were smitten with her. Yet she gave up her privileged existence there to return to America with the true love of her life, a Polish-born pilot who was based in England during World War II.
She lived for many years in Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara, California, and fortunately (for us all), a friend and neighbor set about recording her memories—ostensibly without Virginia’s knowledge. Cherrill died in 1996, but Teresa MacWilliams inherited all of her scrapbooks, photos, and mementoes and was happy to give experienced biographer Miranda Seymour access to this material.
Chaplin’s Girl may not be essential reading, beyond the chapter dealing with City Lights, for everyone, but I found Cherrill’s life story quite interesting. She embodies a bygone era, when a majaraja of India could carry on a clandestine affair with an ex-movie star in London, even while she was married to the estimable Earl of Jersey. Apparently, Virginia charmed everyone with whom she came in contact, and biographer Seymour has tracked down friends and relatives on both sides of the Atlantic to help flesh out her story.
One night she told Teresa that she’d just had the pleasure of watching her two favorite lovers acting opposite each other. The Bishop’s Wife had been playing on television, and she was referring to Cary Grant and David Niven. Cherrill didn’t live in the past, or traffic in idle gossip, but she couldn’t resist sharing that happy memory with her friend. That’s what makes Chaplin’s Girl such interesting reading.