Prologue - Chaplin's Girl

Other Fiction

Montecito, Santa Barbara, California (1992)

Propped against the pillows in her Santa Barbara bedroom, her cheeks reflecting the glow of her quilted pink jacket, Virginia Cherrill - if we make an allowance for the more temperate climate - might still be living in England, the country she adopted as her home in 1935. The Californian garden in which she is no longer strong enough to walk is filled with roses; her bed is surrounded by relics of her English life. The curved dressing-table once stood in the showroom of a house in Brook Street, Mayfair, presided over by the decorating team of Sybil Colefax and John Fowler. The fine-bristled hairbrushes and gold-topped cosmetic bottles that rest upon its half-moon surface came from Asprey; hanging in the shadows of a half-open cupboard are two cocktail frocks from the Thirties, their flared chiffon hems brushing a pair of green-and-ivory embossed satin sandals. Casual snaps of London friends compete for position upon the crowded table-tops against the more formal photographs of Virginia's mother, grandparents, a cherished nephew - and other, less easily identifiable figures: the swarm of godchildren that attempts to compensate for the poignant absence of her own descendants.
A cat, springing through the open window, alights upon a table and picks its paws among the silver frames, tracking a familiar route towards the bed.

'Get out, damn you! Out!'

The old lady is concerned, not from any reason of intrinsic value, but because, among these ranks of photographs, so many represent past companions. She can't bear to think of losing one. An ocean and a continent offer too great a challenge, by now, for even the fondest of old friends to negotiate; the few octogenarians who have survived maintain their contact with occasional letters and the tender, empty promises of the cards they send at Christmas. 'You were saying,' prompts Teresa, the friend and neighbour who has recently decided to create a record of Virginia Cherrill's life, 'that you hated seeing the tigers shot when you were out in India.'

The old lady seems more interested in twisting a pointed stub of red wax up from its gilt cartridge case and - lips pursed before the oval compact-mirror - in refreshing the scarlet bow of her mouth.

'Isn't it time that Father Virgil was here?' Virginia asks, and then: 'Is Florek back yet?'

She sounds anxious; instinctively, she reaches down beside the bed to touch the tapered fingers of a hand, a bronze, cast from the slender arm of a young maharani, a friend from the Thirties. On the near side of the bed, Teresa keeps the tape recorder held low, well out of range of visibility. Flicking it off, she waits for the rasp and roar of a vacuum cleaner to subside; she tries not to wince as the machine's plastic carapace whacks against the spindle legs of a gilded chair, bumps off and out of view along a wall. She knows better than to call attention to the maid's clumsiness; Virginia's faith in every person she knows to perform always to the best of their ability permits no criticisms.

Now that they can hear themselves speak again, Teresa flicks her machine back into recording mode and offers reassurance. Father Virgil will be along in an hour; Florian Martini, Virginia's Polish husband, should be back any minute now from his daily afternoon stroll along the sleepy Montecito lane.

'You know he's always home by six. But you were going to tell me about how you first met Cary Grant . . . or shall we go back to the tiger-shoot?'

'I worry about Florek,' the old lady murmurs (the machine can hardly catch her voice). 'If we'd had children . . . I can't help it, Teresa. I do worry. Who's going to care for Florek when I've gone?'

Her friend puts the recorder away and leans over the bed. She kisses the old lady's soft cheek, straightens the collar of her quilted jacket, and tells her not to fret. Going towards the door, Teresa sees the husband coming slowly down the path, a dog padding at his side. She calls to him that Virginia's getting anxious; he'd better hurry along.

And so, she thinks, had she: there's so much still to be told, so many snippets and anecdotes from a life she can't bear to think will one day be forgotten. Teresa isn't yet sure what to do with the recordings that she's made, whenever Virginia had fallen into the mood to chat, over the past year. For the present, all she's doing is storing the cassettes away and keeping up the flow of questions. The project is not, as Teresa explains to friends, any kind of an ordeal; Virginia Cherrill has, after all, led a charmed and extraordinary life. Teresa, who has known the old lady since her own Polish family reached London in the early Forties, remains captivated by the personality of a woman who has inspired adoration - and broken hearts - without ever perceiving herself for what she seems to be: a true femme fatale.

Teresa can't bear to think of Virginia Cherrill being forgotten after her death. The tapes are her first step towards ensuring that something of an uncommon spirit will endure. A book, perhaps, will one day be written. The tapes will offer, then, both a record and the sense of a personality that letters (Virginia Cherrill was never an enthusiastic correspondent) can never quite convey.

I had never heard of Virginia Cherrill before the winter evening in 2005 when I first watched City Lights and fell in love with her performance as the blind flower-seller who wins the heart of Charlie Chaplin. I could not believe that this mythic performance was the first screen role of a 21-year-old girl, an untrained, untested newcomer. I could not stop talking about her. Everybody knew about the beautiful blind flower-girl. Nobody could tell me about Virginia Cherrill. One of the most celebrated actresses of her time, following the worldwide success of City Lights, a silent film made in the age of talkies, she had vanished from view.

Serendipity - dining with relatives during that same winter, I learned that my cousin's husband, William Ducas, had been the godson of Virginia Cherrill, and that a biography was planned - brought about the next step. I reminded William that I myself was a biographer. I begged for an introduction to Teresa MacWilliams, the loyal friend who, so William told me, had recorded Virginia's extraordinary story during the old lady's last years. (Virginia died, aged eighty-eight, in 1996.) He promised to do his best.

In April 2006, I travelled to California. Sitting beside Teresa MacWilliams in her Santa Barbara home, I pored over Virginia Cherrill's elegantly monogrammed blue scrapbooks. 'It's all here,' Teresa said. 'I haven't done much cataloguing, but I didn't throw anything out. Everything to do with Virginia is right here, in this room.'

I liked Teresa, a slender, quick-witted woman with high cheekbones and bright, girlish eyes. I wondered if she, too, had been a film-star.

'No chance,' she said, laughing. 'Although, Virginia, bless her heart, did do her best, took me along for an audition with Hal Wallis when I was eighteen years old, set everything up. She loved to do things like that.'

Together, the two of us worked our way through the big cardboard boxes brimming with old letters, cards and discarded snapshots, all saved from the modest Californian house in which Virginia had spent her last years. But it was when Teresa allowed me to listen to the tapes that I first felt the presence of a vivid, funny, entirely unpretentious personality.

'Virginia never cared about fame, or wealth, or power,' Teresa said, as we began sorting papers into piles for me to borrow from her collection. 'She wasn't interested in making an impression, or even in making a career in films. Things happened to her, but she really never cared if things went wrong. She did care about her friends. She wanted the best for everybody.' She glanced at me. 'You'd have loved her.'

The tapes were made when Virginia Cherrill was frail and bedridden; according to Teresa, they had been undertaken without the old lady's knowledge.

'Or maybe she did know. We never discussed it.'

What the tapes communicated as their new auditor sat, rapt and attentive, was the story of a woman whose exceptional life had been governed almost wholly by the impulses of an affectionate heart. Listening to these crackling monologues and sudden spurts of laughter, I envied Teresa the experience of having been the first to savour the old lady's memories of another world, reminiscences of a life that reeked of glamour and adventure, but that - it was clear - had been embraced by Virginia herself, simply as it came to her.

The cassette tapes provided the voice and personality of a woman I never knew, but to whom I have become shamelessly attached. Teresa's recordings are neither technically perfect nor professionally organised. Virginia, in her eighties, often repeated herself, jumped directly from one startling episode in her life to another, leapfrogged whole decades without the slightest break in her sentence. I've taken liberties with the order of conversations;

I've edited the loose syntax of the spoken word; I've filled in the story and corrected dates and locations when - such occasions were rare - Virginia's memory let her down. But the voice that speaks from these pages, is true - I believe - to her own. Charisma, meaning the power to communicate happiness, is neither a definable nor a conventional quality. Virginia Cherrill had it in spades.

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