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Edna Purviance

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Edna Purviance

Born October 21 1895 in Paradise Valley Nevada

Died January 13 1958 in Hollywood California

E

dna Purviance, was for ten years Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady in 33 films, and his lover. She was his best and most loyal friend until the day she died.

Purviance home, Lovelock Nevada
The house Edna grew up in at Railroad and 5th (now Broadway at 9th) in Lovelock, Nevada. It was demolished in the mid-20th century.

Edna (born Olga Edna Purviance) moved as a youngster to Lovelock where she and her sisters Bessie and Myrtle helped their mother keep a boarding house after their parents divorced.

She graduated from high school in 1913, and wasted no time shaking the dust of Lovelock from her heels and getting to San Francisco.

She found a ready welcome there, shared an apartment with her married sister Bessie, who had a job at the Pan Pacific Exposition as a diving belle, took a business course, and worked in an office on Market Street while entering into the Bohemian life of the city.

Charlie Chaplin, meanwhile, was a promising young comedian from England who had taken to the music hall stage as a youngster. He made two American tours with a vaudeville show (also featuring the young Stanley Laurel) and landed in Hollywood at Mack Sennett’s slapstick factory, Keystone Studios. There he made a series of increasingly popular two-reelers. In late 1914 he signed a contract with the Essanay movie company at Niles California near the southeastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

Broncho Billy Anderson
Broncho Billy, America’s first cowboy movie star

Early in the following year Charlie and Broncho Billy Anderson drove over to San Francisco in search of a leading lady for their new stock company. They inspected every chorus girl in the city, but failed to find just the right combination of sexy nymphet, mature calm and zany eccentricity that Charlie especially liked.

They appeared in 33 films together, beginning in February 1915 with A Night Out.

Most of Edna’s 2-reelers with Charlie are Here.

Charlie and Edna in The Champion
Charlie and Edna in The Champion, 1915

The Champion was next, with a highly choreographed boxing match as the grand finale. While this tour-de-force sequence was being filmed, Edna dashed him off an affectionate note, and he replied:

“My Own Darling Edna,
“My heart throbbed this morning when I received your sweet letter. It could be nobody else in the world that could have given me so much joy. Your language, your sweet thoughts and the style of your love note only tends to make me crazy over you. I can picture your darling self sitting down and looking up wondering what to say, that pert little mouth and those bewitching eyes so thoughtful. If I only had the power to express my sentiments I would be afraid you’d get vain. . . .”

Charlie and Edna in The Tramp
Charlie and Edna in The Tramp, 1915

Edna was his leading lady in The Tramp, in which he firmly established the persona of the little fellow with the ragged clothes and heart of gold. Edna was the farmer’s daughter Charlie rescued from the gang of thugs, and when they shot him, she nursed him back to health. In the bittersweet end, Charlie lost the girl as usual.

Offscreen he got the girl as usual, and during the ten years of their close association that followed, Chaplin’s genius flowered. He moved his troupe back to southern California after making five films at Niles, and finished out his year’s contract by making nine more movies with Edna at Santa Monica. He and Edna were lovers during most of that time, but they did not marry.

Charlie and Edna in A Jitney Elopement
Charlie and Edna in A Jitney Elopement, 1915

“When we first came to work in Los Angeles, Edna rented an apartment near the Athletic Club [where Charlie lived], and almost every night I would bring her there for dinner. We were serious about each other, and at the back of my mind I had the idea we might marry, but I had reservations about Edna. I was uncertain of her, and for that matter uncertain of myself.”

Charlie and Edna in Work
Edna and Charlie in Work, 1915

Early in 1915 Charlie went to New York in consequence of his departure from Essanay and a new contract with Mutual. While he was away, Edna made a trip home to Lovelock, and while she was in Nevada she sent Charlie a letter hinting that she was uncertain as well, and that their love affair was beginning to wane:

“I really don’t know why you don’t send me some word,” she complained. “Just one little telegram so unsatisfactory. Even a night letter would be better than nothing. You know ‘Boodie’ you promised faithfully to write. Is your time so taken up that you can’t even think of me. Every night before I go to bed I send out little love thoughts wishing you all the success in the world and counting the minutes until you return. How much longer do you expect to stay. Please, Hon, don’t forget your ‘Modie’ and hurry back. Have been home for over a week and believe me my feet are itching to get back. . . . Have you been true to me? I’m afraid not. Oh, well, do whatever you think is right. I really do trust you to that extent. . . .”

Charlie and Edna in Shanghaied
Charlie and Edna in Shanghaied, 1915

By the next year, when he and Edna cranked out eight 2-reelers for Mutual, their romance was clearly fading. Still, they went to all the Red Cross fetes and galas together. “At these affairs Edna would get jealous and had a gentle and insidious way of showing it,” Charlie remembered in his autobiography. When he got too much attention from attractive women, Edna would pretend to faint, and then come to, and ask for Charlie. At a party given by the actress Fanny Ward, Edna “fainted” as before, but this time it wasn’t Charlie she asked for when she revived, but Thomas Meighan, a leading man at Paramount.

Charlie and Edna in Behind the Screen
Charlie and Edna in Behind the Screen, 1916

Fanny told Charlie about it the next day. “I could not believe it,” Charlie remembered. “My pride was hurt; I was outraged.” He was so upset he couldn’t work, and late in the morning he called her. He was going to fume and fuss, but he couldn’t face the finality of the situation. “I understand you called for the wrong man at Fanny Ward’s party. You must be losing your memory!”

“What are you talking about?” Edna said with a laugh. “Who has been telling you all this nonsense?”

Charlie and Edna in The Adventurer
Edna and Eric Campbell in The Adventurer, 1917

“What difference does it make who told me?” Charlie said. “But I think I should mean more to you than that you should openly make a fool of me.”

Still, Edna continued as Chaplin’s leading lady in two-reelers like Behind the Screen, Easy Street, and The Adventurer, and she continued to play a central role in his life.

In the fall of 1917, for example, she opened an envelope postmarked Bombay, India, (return address: Royal Opera House) to find a letter signed Wheeler Dryden.

“Dear Miss Purviance,
“Kindly excuse the liberty I take in writing to you, but I am sending you this letter in the hope that you will assist me in my hitherto futile attempts to obtain recognition and acknowledgement from my half-brother Charles Chaplin, for whose Company I believe you are Leading Lady. . . .”

Edna and Charlie in Shoulder Arms
Edna and Charlie in Shoulder Arms, 1918

Through Edna’s intercession Wheeler Dryden made contact with Charlie and a few years later visited California to be reunited with his mother after nearly 30 years. In 1939 he joined the Chaplin Studio, remaining there until Charlie left the USA for good in 1952.

In 1921 Chaplin made his first clear masterpiece, The Kid, with little Jackie Coogan and 12-year-old Lita Grey.

Lita played the “flirting Angel” in the Tramp’s dream of heaven sequence, and was so successful in the role that Charlie moved Edna out of her fancy dressing room and installed little Lita in it instead.

Charlie and Edna in The Idle Class
Charlie and Edna in The Idle Class, 1921

By then their romantic passions had completely cooled, but their friendship endured. “Although Edna and I were emotionally estranged,” Charlie said, “I was still interested in her career. But looking objectively at Edna, I realized she was growing rather matronly, which would not be suitable for the feminine confection necessary for my future pictures.”

As if to finish off her career completely, Edna was suddenly involved in one of the Hollywood scandals that made headlines across the country. She had been the New Year’s Eve guest of an oil magnate named Courtland Dines, and the two of them were still drinking in his hotel room the next day when Mabel Normand came to join the party. When Mabel’s chauffeur arrived at Dines’ apartment, an argument erupted, a gun was produced, and the partially clad Dines was shot. The resulting hubbub dealt a death blow to Edna’s career.

Adolphe Menjou and Edna in A Woman of Paris
Adolphe Menjou and Edna in A Woman of Paris, 1921

Nevertheless her ever-loyal Charlie tried to help her launch a solo career. In 1923 he wrote, directed, and played a bit part in A Woman of Paris in which she starred opposite Adolphe Menjou. The movie was favorably reviewed, but it was Menjou whose talents were praised, not Edna’s. Charlie helped develop yet another role for her, this one in the Josef von Sternberg production, A Woman of the Sea. The movie was never released, and Sternberg said Edna was an unemployable alcoholic.

In 1938 she married Captain Jack Squire, a pilot for Pan American Airlines and its subsidiaries, Panagra and Avianca during the early days of commercial aviation. During his Pan Am years he carried mail, merchandise and passengers over the Andes, into the jungle, many landings on water. Edna loved flying and accompanied Jack on some of his flights over the USA and South America.

Edna in The Kid
Edna in The Kid, 1921

She received a small monthly salary from Chaplin’s film company for the rest of her life. She died January 13, 1958, aged 62.

“How could I forget Edna?” Chaplin responded to an interviewer after her death. “She was with me when it all began.”

Indeed, our Edna was the farmer’s daughter who nursed Chaplin’s ‘little fellow’ to life, and his one constant friend through all the years of woman-trouble, talkie-trouble and politics-trouble. It is appropriate that he closed his autobiography by quoting a letter from her, dated November 13th, 1956.

“Dear Charlie,
“Here I am again with a heart full of thanks, and back in the hospital (Cedars of Lebanon), taking cobalt X-ray treatment on my neck. There cannot be a hell hereafter! . . . Am thankful my innards are O.K., this is purely and simply local, so they say. All of which reminds me of the fellow standing on the corner of Seventh and Broadway tearing up little bits of paper and throwing them to the four winds. A cop comes along and asks him what was the big idea. He answers, “Just keeping the elephants away.” The cop says, “There aren’t any elephants in this district.” The fellow answers: “Well, it works, doesn’t it?” This is my silly for the day, so forgive me.
“Hope you and the family are well and enjoying everything you have worked for.
“Love always, Edna”

Her ashes rest in the West Mausoleum of Grand View cemetery in Glendale California with other long forgotten actors of the silent screen—Lafe McKee and Harry Langdon. In Lovelock there is no monument to Edna anywhere; no Purviance Street, not even an Edna Purviance Film Festival once a year.

Only in Winnemucca, where she spent summers as a girl, is there any memento of Edna and her fabulous career in Nevada. The silk dress she wore so many years ago in The Adventurer is in a display case at the Humboldt Museum, pinned like a butterfly, motionless and faded. Beside it, her photograph smiles brightly out through the glass, her face, once gazed upon raptly by millions, radiant, and serene.

Edna Purviance

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