Fame and remembrance are very barometric issues. Why are some people memorable? The conflict between who we are and who we are involved with becomes a central one – are we best defined by our own accomplishments, or that of those around us? For Mildred Harris, this is a continuing battle: was her very foray into fame, and her subsequent lifelong notoriety, determined by a highly publicized first marriage?
Mildred Harris was born on April 18, 1901, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her initial introduction to film was at the tender age of nine, but it was a starring role as Dorothy in one of L. Frank Baum’s timeless Oz stories, The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914), and different roles in two other Baum features, The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty the Scarecrow of Oz (both 1915), that made her internationally popular. She also appeared in some important films of the famed D.W. Griffith troupe, including Enoch Arden (1915), and Intolerance (1916). Her greatest strength was in juvenile and ingénue leads, as her brilliant wavy hair and eyes had a wonderful effect on the camera. Throughout her 30-year film career, she worked for such companies as Vitagraph, the New York Motion Picture Company, Reliance-Majestic, Fine Arts, and Universal. She also appeared in Vaudeville, burlesque, and on the legitimate stage. However, whatever solidity and individuality her career might have had was rocked, and forever altered, in 1918.
Mildred Harris, then just 17, became the first wife of Charlie Chaplin, by then a major star and a noted womanizer, on October 23, 1918, in Los Angeles. Their son, Norman Spencer Chaplin, was born in Los Angeles, on July 7, 1919, but died three days after birth, of intestinal trouble. From the announcement of their marriage, and beyond, Harris would professionally be billed as Mildred Harris Chaplin – owing to the box office appeal of the Chaplin name. The tabloids and trade papers of the day were fascinated by the story: film journal Moving Picture World snapped up any personal tale of the Chaplin marriage, including a March 6, 1920 headline, “Wyoming Home Folks Plan to Honor Mrs. Charlie Chaplin.” The professional nature of the story was summed up in a Moving Picture World headline from December 7, 1918, “Exhibitors Quick to Seek Film of Chaplin’s Bride.” The cinematic Chaplin magic did not rub off: the balance of her career was spent playing bit parts in occasional films. The marriage of Mildred Harris and Charlie Chaplin ended in divorce in Los Angeles, on the grounds of cruelty, on November 12, 1920. In her divorce settlement, Harris received $200,000.
In 1924, she wed Everett Terrence McGovern, a widower from Florida. Their son, Everett, Jr., was born in 1925. On November 26, 1929, Harris sued for divorce in Los Angeles, charging McGovern with desertion. In 1934, Harris married William P. Fleckenstein in Asheville, North Carolina. The couple remained married, although separated, until her death.
Mildred Harris took ill in 1944, requiring surgery. Shortly thereafter, she contracted pneumonia, and died on July 20, 1944, in Los Angeles, at the age of 43. Still, even after death, her famed first marriage trailed her: the headline of her July 21st obituary in The New York Times read, “Mildred Harris, in Silent Movies; Film and Stage Actress, Secret Bride of Chaplin When 15, Dies in Los Angeles at 41” (with her age at marriage and death incorrect, even the most famed of newspapers proved it was run by mere humans).
The career accomplishments of Mildred Harris were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6305 Hollywood Boulevard. Her appearances in three of the famed L. Frank Baum Oz series of films, as well as her role in Intolerance, are noteworthy and laudable. However, one has to wonder: did her marriage, at such an early age, to one of film’s greatest stars, have an impact on her lingering fame? Is she remembered for what she accomplished in her life, or for whom she spent two years married to? This raises an important quandary – what is it that makes people memorable? – and it charges humankind to hold fast to what is truly important in life, and to, ultimately, celebrate people for what they are, first and foremost.