Charlton Heston and Wife Lydia Were Devoted Partners and ‘Amazing Parents’, Daughter Says

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On location in Egypt while playing the prophet Moses in The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston wrote and sketched in a journal to share with his wife. Pregnant with their first child, Lydia had been unable to accompany him overseas. “It was the first time he’d ever left her, beyond World War II,” their daughter, Holly Heston Rochell, tells Closer, adding that her father kept the diary “to make [Lydia] feel included.”

Charlton first set eyes on Lydia Clarke in a fundamentals of theater class at Northwestern University in Chicago. He decided on the spot that they should marry. “I obviously found the right girl the first time out,” he said in Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon, a biography by Marc Eliot. “And I had the brains to recognize that.”

But it wasn’t love at first sight for Lydia. “He was arrogant and conceited and supremely self-confident,” she recalled, adding that fortunately she gave the Illinois-bred theater student the benefit of the doubt. They wound up working on a performance together and she warmed to his intelligence and great sense of humor. Lydia agreed to a date, “and that was it,” she said. “I was insanely in love with him.”

Wed in 1944, the newlyweds’ bliss was interrupted by the onset of World War II. Charlton left his new bride to become an Air Force radio operator and aerial gunner based in Alaska, where he wrote her daily heartfelt letters. “The two of them were great letter writers,” says Holly.

Returning to acting following his discharge, Charlton had his breakthrough in films when director Cecil B. DeMille cast him in The Greatest Show on Earth. An Oscar nominee for Best Picture, the film became the most popular movie of 1952. Four years later, The Ten Commandments would cement Charlton’s place among Hollywood’s most popular and indemand actors — which presented a new set of problems. “I think it was very difficult for my mother to have been married to my dad. He was a big movie star, internationally acclaimed, a sex symbol,” says Holly. “He had all these actresses and civilians throwing themselves at him.”

Yet there was barely a whisper of gossip. “The reason I’ve never cheated and never wanted to is that I happen to like my marriage,” Charlton said. “Nothing would be worth jeopardizing it.” The couple’s two children, son Fraser, 68, a film director and producer, and daughter, Holly, 61, a fine arts expert, remember their childhood as idyllic. “They were amazing parents,” says Holly, who recalls nights at home reading together, watching movies or playing Monopoly as a family. “They were proud of producing two kids who weren’t sent off to rehab,” she says. The couple were married 64 years at the time of Charlton’s passing in 2008.

Lydia, who became an acclaimed photographer, also eventually made it to Egypt with the family. “We went traipsing to the top of the Great Pyramid,” Fraser recalls to Closer. “Mom and Dad climbed to the top with me.”