Artists of the heart

Sometimes an image, a scrap of music, a photograph, can spring open areas of memory in an instant and show the connectedness of things. We catch our breath. We take a deeper look at ourselves and at the world.

Such an experience happened to me a few years ago while I was leafing through a magazine. The photo showed an attractive woman pushing an elderly white-haired man in a wheelchair: Oona O'Neill Chaplin and her husband, Charlie. Transfixed, I was plunged into reminiscence.

''The little tramp'' was part of my childhood. On our home screen and in theaters, my sister and I giggled over his ridiculous antics and tear-jerking pathos. We were at once moved, tickled, and delighted. The retreating figure - body rocking from side to side, cane twirling, hat lifted at erratic intervals - who could be unresponsive to such an endearing image? It reaches to the roots of our common humanity, without descending into the vulgarity that today often passes for the common touch. Chaplin's humor understands the faltering aspirations of every man. He was an artist of the heart.

Seeing that photo took me back to my summers at Westhampton Beach, Long Island. Perched on the dunes, our house overlooked the open Atlantic. When I was about ten our next-door neighbor, who was connected with the motion picture industry, invited us to walk across the sand one morning to meet his houseguest: Charlie Chaplin.

Did I expect the bowler and the mustache? I'm not sure. At any rate, I remember the shock of coming upon that languid man with curly, already graying hair and no mustache. There he was, lolling on the beach in his striped, tank-top bathing suit, squinting into the sun. I don't believe he even stood up. But he took us all in, with a penetrating, deeply curious stare. Although slightly disillusioning, those moments have stayed with me. And the famous man's searching gray eyes helped me, belatedly, to a deeper look at myself.

Years later, as a student-teacher in English in a private New York school, I encountered a young woman whose first name was Oona and whose father was a well-known playwright, Eugene O'Neill. Everyone admired her stunning looks, individuality, and pizazz. When news of her marriage to Charles Spencer Chaplin was announced later on, I felt that two of my special storybook people had found each other.

Every time I hear a polka, I'm carried back to the thirties, to an adult houseparty in the Berkshires and another memorable meeting. I was still in my teens, the guest of the daughter of the household. During an autumn afternoon everyone went shooting pheasant. I took only one shot. I missed, I'm glad to say. How could anyone bring down those beautiful birds? On Saturday evening the host and hostess gave a small dinner dance. The guests of honor were Edna St. Vincent Millay and her European husband. He was a wonderful dancer. But what I remember most was the way Miss Millay's violet-blue eyes held mine as we shook hands. I felt stripped of everything superficial by that look. Profound acceptance of life joined with a gentle melancholy in her glance; it seemed to echo the lines from her famous poem:

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide. . . .

She, too, was an artist of the heart. My encounter with her on that autumn evening long ago strengthened my determination to pursue my interest in poetry.

Although some might question whether Chaplin and Millay were major artists, most would agree that both have enriched American culture. We need more of their kind today. In his ''little tramp,'' Charlie created a universally appealing dramatic prototype of bumbling humanity. In her burning-the-candle-at-both-ends embrace of life, Millay gave us a broadly appealing literary prototype of experience-hungry youth. We can gain inspiration from their insistence on a deeper look and their devotion to the goal of high achievement in their craft. Both were outstanding artists of the heart.

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