When Charlie Met Joan

The Tragedy of the Chaplin Trials and the Failings of American Law

Subjects: Biography, Law, Legal History, History, American History
Ebook : 9780472222001, 344 pages, 20 b&w images, 6 x 9, February 2025
Hardcover : 9780472133581, 344 pages, 20 b&w images, 6 x 9, February 2025
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Exploring the lasting impacts of the Little Tramp’s real-life courtroom drama

Table of contents

Chapter 1. The Circus
Chapter 2. Feathering Her Nest
Chapter 3. “It Was a Very Sad House”
Chapter 4. A Brooklyn Stenographer
Chapter 5. “Just One Girl in Hollywood”
Chapter 6. “I Wanted to Hurt Charles the Way He Had Hurt Me”
Chapter 7. A Lost Soul
Chapter 8. “Hers Was a Story That Needed Many Ears besides Mine”
Chapter 9. “Shouldn’t We Run This Down?”
Chapter 10. “We never Close a Case”
Chapter 11. The Magnificent Mouthpiece
Chapter 12. “There Can’t Be Too Many Women on a Jury for Me”
Chapter 13. “We’ll Get through It Fine, We’ll Do Fine”
Chapter 14. “The Frozen Hatred for My Client Thawed”
Chapter 15. “Oh, I Think I Kissed Her before That”
Chapter 16. “Here Lies the Body of Joan Berry”
Chapter 17. “We Hope Charlie Chaplin Now Disappears”
Chapter 18. “Like an Ocean Breeze in a Musty Room”
Chapter 19. “I Have Committed No Crime”
Chapter 20. “All Unhappy in Chaplin Case”
Chapter 21. “The Biggest Role of My Life”
Chapter 22. “Proceed with the Butchery”
Chapter 23. “A Minor Case of Anxiety”
A Note on Sources


Charlie Chaplin, the silent screen’s “Little Tramp,” was beloved by millions of movie fans until he starred in a salacious, real-life federal courtroom drama. The 1944 trial was described by ace New York Daily News reporter Florabel Muir as “the best show in town.” The leading lady was a woman under contract to his studio—red-haired ingénue Joan Barry, Chaplin’s protégée and former mistress. Although he beat the federal criminal trial, Chaplin lost a paternity case and had to pay child support despite blood type evidence that proved he was not the child’s father. 

A decade later during the Cold War, the U.S. government used the Barry trials as an excuse to bar the left-leaning, sexually adventurous, British-born comic from the country he had called home for forty years. Not only did these trials have a lasting impact on law; they also raise concerns about the power of celebrity, Cold War politics, the media frenzy surrounding high-profile court proceedings, and the sorry history of the casting couch. When Charlie Met Joan examines these trials from the perspective of both parties, asking whether Chaplin was unfairly persecuted by the government because of his left-leaning political beliefs, or if he should have been held more accountable for his cavalier treatment of Barry and other women in his life?

Diane Kiesel is a retired judge of the New York Supreme Court. Her other books include She Can Bring Us Home: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Civil Rights Pioneer, and Domestic Violence: Law, Policy and Practice.

“This is a story that will captivate the general reader and scholar alike and the author is the perfect person to tell it. Chaplin is an inherently fascinating historical character. He was deeply flawed, and rightly morally condemned for many of his actions, including those mentioned in this forensic and readable analysis. But this did not make him guilty of all of the charges laid before him, and thus there is a fascinating story to tease out. This page-turner of a brilliant book does just that.”

- Richard Carr, Anglia Ruskin University

“Although most aspects of Chaplin’s life have received plenty of attention, these trials have not been the subject of sustained treatment—which is curious, given this was a sensational courtroom drama which had long-term consequences for Chaplin himself. The book not only responds to an obvious gap in the writing about a well-known star, it is particularly timely in the wake of the #Metoo movement and the trial of Harvey Weinstein. The author shows an expert knowledge of Chaplin and his world, and her legal background enables an unusual precision in handling the legal dimension of the trials.”

- Adrian Bingham, University of Sheffield