|Florence Deshon, c.1918|
In the summer of 1919, Chaplin was introduced to a budding actress named Florence Deshon.1 At the time she was the girlfriend of his friend, writer Max Eastman.2 She was not only beautiful, but intelligent, free-spirited, and witty. She may have been one of the few women Charlie ever truly loved yet little has ever been written about her.
Max Eastman met Florence at a Masses3 ball in December 1916 and soon after they began living together in Eastman’s house in Croton-on-Hudson in upstate New York. In July 1919, Florence was offered a contract with the Sam Goldwyn studio. She moved to Hollywood and took an apartment on De Longpre Ave., not far from the Chaplin Studios. A few months later, Max joined her. It was during this time that Max introduced her to Chaplin. The trio became fast friends, often playing an elaborate version of charades they had devised at Chaplin’s home. According to Max, Chaplin’s wife, Mildred, was never present at these parties any longer than to say hello to the guests. “You didn’t ask why, but you got the impression that she thought his friends had too many ideas and would expect her to say something.”
|CC, Max Eastman, and Isaac McBride at the Chaplin Studios, 1919|
Max eventually returned to his home in New York and it was in the interim that a romance began between Charlie and Florence.
Although Max and Florence had agreed to be mutually independent, he couldn’t help but wonder what was going on since Charlie was the only man she ever mentioned in her letters:
Charlie is always very sweet to me.
I dined with Charlie on Christmas Eve, and he gave me a Christmas present.
Beloved, Charlie came to dinner last night and I gave him your book. He was so happy to get it. I saw his picture The Kid in the projection room. I was wonderful, wonderful. I cried and laughed and smiled and worried. It was the most exciting thing I ever saw.
Charlie is all excited about buying a yacht. He said, “Let’s you and Max and Elmer [Ellsworth?] and I go off together.” I said we would make movies in all the countries we touched, and he is enthusiastic about your acting in them. Well, we had a wonderful time. Anyhow, as soon as he finishes this picture he asked if I would take a trip in his car. We all the the wanderlust very strongly and were flying all over the world.4
Max recalls that he was never really jealous of Charlie. “Perhaps because we had all three been good friends together–my thoughts of him were not disturbing. I read with a tranquil mind the interesting things she told me about him.”
Charlie speaks ever of going away, but it all depends on his picture and at the rate he is working, he will never finish it. I know I am naughty, but I become tired of Charlie’s matrimonial troubles. He stays in that frightful situation at this home, and his powerlessness to move wears me out. I did not go with him to meet [Jascha] Heifetz as there were too many people there. I would rather meet Heifetz with Dagmar Godowsky.
Did I tell you that I met the French comedian, Max Linder? I spent the day at Charlie’s studio, and he had a lot of callers that day. Linder is smaller than Charlie and very good looking and well dressed. He is a very sweet little fellow and Charlie was quite jealous of him for a few minutes. Then he went into his dressing room, and Charlie pulled off his cap and roughed his hair and you know he always looks charming that way. He caught a fleeting vision of himself in the glass and all was right with the world again, not because he is striving for perfection, but because something in him refuses to go forward. 5
Another reason for Max’s calm may have been his new romance with dancer Lisa Duncan, who had moved into his house in Croton. When Florence learned of Max’s new relationship, the “Black Panther” (as he called it) side of her personality came out. Although Max was still in love with Florence, he was not capable of being with just one woman.
|Florence Deshon and Max Eastman|
A month later, sometime in the late summer of 1920, Max received a letter from Florence stating that she had been “sick in bed for a month.” This made Max uneasy. He had a low opinion of Hollywood doctors (“those I knew were a little on the occult side.”) He wanted to get her into the hands of a doctor he could trust–“Ignoring the fact that she was living in the bonds of true love with another man.” Florence wrote again that she was not getting better and was coming east with Charlie as far as Chicago where he had business. Max believed that neither of them realized how sick Florence really was. Florence traveled on to Croton and Max met her at the train station. They returned to their little house on Mount Airy. Eastman contacted a friend who was a gynecologist who examined Florence and discovered that she had been pregnant for three months and the fetus was dead but he didn’t know for how long. An immediate operation was needed to save her from blood poisoning.
Florence recovered within a few days & Chaplin eventually arrived in New York to see her, first staying at the Astor Hotel and then taking a room at a fashionable roadhouse in Croton.”And there ensued a period,” Max later wrote, “in which Florence, to put it crudely, commuted between two lovers. Neither of us was jealous, or at least not troublesomely so. In Hollywood Charlie had ever since midwinter been coming to her apartment each day after work, and for the most part dining and spending the evenings with her–and how soon also the nights, I don’t know. They were as close, almost, as she and I had been. But there had been no arrogance in his courtship or his love. He used to tell her–astutely as well as modestly–that he was satisfied to have sneaked in where a better man belonged.”6
Nevertheless, the three-way romance had to eventually come to an end. Charlie was going back to Hollywood, Florence would follow a few weeks later. “Had there been an element of scheming in her love for him,” wrote Max, “she would have gone back with him. All Hollywood expected them to marry, and marriage to Charlie Chaplin was then the making of a movie star…But Florence’s ambition, however, ‘abnormal,’ was too proudly high to be satisfied with a triumph bought at the price of her inmost self.
“As she told me the story, she took a late train to Croton one night after spending the day with Charlie in New York. There was no need of her taking that train, and he had demurred. He came to the train with her, and said goodbye with tears in his eyes.
“‘Don’t mind these tears,” he said. ‘I’ll be all right.’
“And in that mood he went back to Hollywood.”7
Florence stayed with Eastman for two months and they renewed their romance for a brief time. One evening after having a few drinks, Florence told him that she could never marry any man but Charlie Chaplin, and if she did marry Charlie, ‘I would have a child by you before I married him.'”
When Florence returned to Hollywood, she struggled to revive her career. “She had gradually to face the humiliating fact that not her talents or beauty, but her association with Charlie had given her the sudden rise toward her stardom of the previous winter.” Charlie was friendly to her now but impersonal. Max felt that Charlie “was not one who, having been hurt once, would permit himself to be hurt again.”8 Charlie was also not one to stay alone for long, he was now involved with actress May Collins.
Florence returned to New York in the autumn of 1921 with hopes of landing a part in a Broadway play. One night in early February 1922, Max bumped into Florence as he was coming out of a subway on 42nd St. They exchanged pleasantries and Max went on his way. He didn’t tell her he was on his way to Scribner’s on Fifth Avenue to pick up a copy of his recent book The Sense Of Humor which he had had bound in leather for her. He was going to bring it to her apartment later in the afternoon and surprise her with it but he went home and fell asleep. When he awoke, he decided he would bring it to her the next morning and then met some friends at the theater. In the middle of the first act someone touched his shoulder and whispered that Florence had been taken to the hospital. When he reached St. Vincent’s a woman was in the corridor waiting for him. A neighboring tenant had smelled gas coming from Florence’s apartment and forced the locked door open. The doctor in charge told Max that Florence was dying but that a blood transfusion might save her. Max’s blood was a match and Florence was wheeled in next to him for a direct transfusion. “She was not pale; she was still vivid, but her breathing was raucous and rapid, a fierce noisy effort of her body to get air, reminding me…what a concrete real violent enginelike thing we mean when we say so abstractly, ‘the will to live.'”
Max couldn’t help but feel guilty about not bringing her his book. “In her presence, my little personal regret about the book seemed trivial and sentimental, as I so often had seemed trivial and sentimental beside her bold, heroic, uncompromisingly passionate way of living a life.”9
Florence died on February 4th, 1922. The true circumstances of her death remain unknown. Many believed, including Eastman, that it was a suicide. However the medical examiner ruled her death an accident since a window in her apartment had been open and there was no suicide note.
There is some speculation whether the opening scenes of Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight, where Terry is found unconscious in her apartment due to gas poisoning, were inspired by Deshon’s possible suicide. Who knows if this is true, but suicides were part of Chaplin’s films long before Limelight (Sunnyside, A Woman Of Paris, etc.)
Years later, Eastman admitted that it was difficult to write about the triangular affair between Charlie, Florence, and himself. “There was a three-way reticence about the details of this triangular attachment which makes it difficult for me to tell the story now. Charlie was still reticent when I reminded him of it thirty-five years later, inquiring whether he would mind my telling about it in this book [Love & Revolution].”
“You ought to see what I’m telling here!” he answered, holding up the manuscript of his own autobiography. But he did not offer to help me with the task. He only contributed one heartfelt exclamation: “Florence was a noble girl.”10
1Florence’s real last name was Danks, She invented the name Deshon, with an accent on the last syllable, because she thought it sounded French.
2Chaplin was introduced to Eastman in February 1919 by their mutual friend Rob Wagner after one of Eastman’s “Hands Off Russia” lectures in Los Angeles.
3The Masses was a monthly socialist magazine edited by Eastman.
4Max Eastman, Love & Revolution, Random House, 1964