My Autobiography, by Charlie Chaplin
– Chaplin published his autobiography in 1964 when he was 75 years old, so it contains nearly everything he did in his life, with the exception of “A Countess From Hong Kong”, his final film (he directed Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando and his son Sydney in it, only appearing himself in a very brief cameo). As it’s only about 450 pages long, there’s a whole bunch he skips, including his entire second marriage (he says it’s out of respect to his two sons from that marriage – better read David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin). He also rushes over most of his films and, as with most autobiographies, there are more details about his childhood and the launch of his career than any other part of his life (whole years of his later life seem to go by with no mention, whereas he wrote about 1897 in great detail).
He starts the book writing about his early childhood and living in relative affluence. While his successful vaudeville actor father left the family when he was too young to remember him (although they saw him later in life after he had re-married and fathered a child with his new wife), he does write lovingly about his mother (who never remarried), strong and happy memories, even when his mother’s health began to suffer and she slid into poverty, malnutrition and insanity; in contrast, he doesn’t write very much about his half-brother Sydney (and hardly reveals that Sydney is not his full brother!). There are sad tales of being maltreated by relatives, and of going to the workhouse (an institution set up for the very poor to house them and put them to work) and the three of them being separated. In one case, the mother discharged herself and the boys from the work house for a day, just so that she could see her boys and be with them for a day, then at the end of the day had everyone re-admitted. It was like something straight out of Charles Dickens (who, incidentally, died 20 years before Chaplin was born). It was the three of them against the world, mother repaying for the sins of her youth and escapades in Africa that produced Sydney… who knows?
He also writes of the theatre, and the eccentrics that he met there, or heard about. In one grisly chapter he notes the strange phenomenon of comedic actors being particularly prone to suicide. Chaplin’s own vaudeville actor father, while not suicidal, was prone to drink, and Chaplin writes of his last days, dying of chronic alcoholism at just 37 (Chaplin himself lived to 88). Happily, Chaplin didn’t suffer himself from the disorder of his peer group, like this sad fellow:
Frank Coyne, with whom we played on the same bill, was a gay, bouncy type of comedian, famous for his breezy songs. Off stage he was pleasant and always smiling. But one afternoon, after planning to take a drive with his wife in their pony and trap, he forgot something and told her to wait while he went upstairs. After twenty minutes she went up to see what was causing the delay, and found him in the bathroom on the floor in a pool of blood, a razor in his hand – he had cut his throat, almost decapitating himself.
There was great talent in the theaters of London, and Chaplin tells an amazing tale of a clown who could toss a billiard ball up in the air and let it rest it on a pool cue that he had balanced on his chin, then toss up a second billiard ball and balance it on the first! It took him four years of constant practicing to be able to achieve this. Wow!!
But for someone who grew up in poverty and who was well known for his humanity, Chaplin could be remarkably cruel to those worse off then himself, and maybe a bit snooty as well:
Mother had a saying: “You can always stoop and pick up nothing.” But she herself did not adhere to this adage, and my sense of propriety was often outraged. One day, returning from Brompton Hospital, Mother stopped to upbraid some boys tormenting a derelict woman who was grotesquely ragged and dirty. She had a cropped head, unusual in those days, and the boys were laughing and pushing each other towards her, as if to touch her would contaminate them. The pathetic woman stood like a stag at bay until Mother interfered. Then a look of recognition came over the woman’s face. “Lil,” she said, feebly, referring to Mother’s stage name, “don’t you know me – Eva Lestock?”
Mother recognized her at once, an old friend of her vaudeville days.
I was so embarrassed that I moved on and waited for Mother at the corner. The boys walked past me, smirking and giggling. I was furious. I turned to see what was happening to Mother and, lo, the derelict woman had joined her and both were walking towards me.
Said Mother: “You remember little Charlie?”
“Do I!” said the woman, dolefully. “I’ve held him in my arms many a time when he was a baby.”
The thought was repellent, for the woman looked so filthy and loathsome. And as we walked along, it was embarrassing to see people turn and look at the three of us.
Mother had known her in vaudeville as “the Dashing Eva Lestock”; she was pretty and vivacious then, so Mother told me. The woman said that she had been ill in the hospital, and that since leaving it, she had been sleeping under arches and in Salvation Army shelters.
First Mother sent her to the public baths, then to my horror brought her home to our small garret. Whether it was illness alone that was the cause of he present circumstances, I never knew. What was outrageous was that she slept in Sydney’s armchair bed. However, Mother gave her what clothes she could spare and loaned her a couple of bob. After three days she departed, and that was the last we ever saw or heard of “the Dashing Eva Lestock”!
Of course, later he takes a different tack on poverty, when Somerset Maugham romanticized it,with words like “I have a notion that he suffers from a nostalgia of the slums. The celebrity he enjoys his wealth, imprison him in a way of life in which he finds only constraint. I think he looks back to the freedom of his struggling tough, with its poverty and bitter privation, with a longing which knows it can never be satisfied. To him the streets of southern London are the scene of frolic, gaiety and extravagant adventure… I can imagine him going into his ow house and wondering what on earth he is doing in this strange man’s dwelling.”
Somerset Maugham had met Chaplin, but Chaplin didn’t enjoy this analysis:
This attitude of wanting to make poetry attractive for the other person is annoying. I have yet to know a poor man who has nostalgia for poverty, or who finds freedom in it. Nor could Mr Mauham convince any poor man that celebrity and extreme wealth mean constraint. I find no constraint in wealth – on the contrary I find much freedom in it. I do not think Maugham would ascribe such false notions to any character in his novels – even in the least of them. Such glibness as “the streets of southern London are the scene of frolic gaiety and extravagant adventure” has a tinge of Marie-Antoinette’s airy persiflage.
I found poverty neither attractive nor edifying. It taught me nothing but a distortion of values, an over-rating of the virtues and graces of the rich and the so-called better classes.
Eventually to become rich and successful, he still had his moments of strange pettiness, and seemed to care overly-much about money, as seen in a conversation he had with someone who was as zealous in her religion as his mother was:
“If you had only put your talent in the device of the Lord – think of the thousands of souls you could have saved.”
I smiled. “I may have saved souls, but not money.”
Interestingly, Chaplin writes about one brief interlude in the book when his mother befriended a woman who was a helper in the household of a rich general’s mistress, and how the family used to live there in the countryside and freeload, to the extent that when Charlie likewise befriended a neighborhood boy the kid thought that Chaplin was from a rich family; the family moved away when the stress of living in the shadows became too much for them, so they returned to freedom and poverty, having momentarily tasted the good life. Charlie later ran into the boy in some part of London, causing awkwardness about the rags he was wearing.
Chaplin’s book is full of fanciful, pretentious vocabulary, and he loves bandying about words like legerdemain, rodomontade, sybarite, persiflage, grandiloquent, foru-foru, propinquity, hoydenish and all sorts of other obscure items. I noted several words that I didn’t myself know!
Recounting his school absenteeism and his lack of career options, despite trying out many professions, Chaplin finally tells of his drifting into the theatre, where success came quickly after getting very good reviews. And it is a case like this, when Keystone Films co-owner Mack Sennett saw him portraying a drunk in a traveling Karno revue in the US, that he offered Chaplin a film contract; and it’s true that in his earliest films (and also a later film like Limelight), he played drunks, quite convincingly (he’d seen plenty of that behavior in the UK, and with his own father, and mother-in-law).
He tells of a scene he experienced, which he recreated in Limelight:
The first time I went [to Blackmore's theatrical agency in London], the office was adorned with immaculately-dressed Thespians of both sexes, standing about talking grandiloquently to each other. With trepidation I stood in a far corner near the door, painfully shy, trying to conceal my weather-worn suit and shoes slightly budding at the toes. From the inner office a young clerk sporadically appeared and like a reaper would cut through the Thespian hauteur with the laconic remark: “Nothing for you – or you – or you” – and the office would clear like the emptying of a church.
He’s quite frank about visiting prostitutes:
Through this haze and confusion I lived alone. Whores, sluts and an occasional drinking bout weaved in and out of this period, but neither wine, women nor song held my interest of long.
He also talks about the House Of Nations in Chicago, run by two middle-aged spinsters.
It was notorious for having women of every nationality. Rooms were furnished in every style and decor: Turkish, Japanese, Louis XVI, even an Arab tent. It was the most elaborate establishment in the world, and the most expensive. Millionaires, industrial tycoons, cabinet ministers, senators and judges alike were its customers. Members of a convention usually terminated their concord by taking over the whole establishment for the evening. One wealthy sybarite was known to take up his abode there for three weeks without seeing daylight.
Sounds like he had his youthful fun, and even had groupies:
In each town we would get together in the red-light district, six or more of us. Sometimes we won the affection of the madam of the bordel and she would close up the ‘joint’ for the night and we would take over. Occasionally some of the girls fell for the actors and wold follow them to the next town.
The partying led to some crazy incidents:
Members of the troupe and I occasionally spent a night carousing through the bordellos and doing all the hoydenish things that youth will do. One night, after drinking several absinthes, I got into a fight with an ex-lightweight prize-fighter named Ernie Stone. It started in a restaurant, and after the waiters and the police had separated us, he said: “I’ll see you at the hotel,” where we were both staying. He had the room above me, and at four in the boring I rolled home and knocked at his door.
“Come in,” he said briskly, “and take off your shoes so we won’t make a noise.”
Quietly we stripped to the waist, then faced each other. We hit and ducked for what seemed an interminable length of time. Several times he hit me square on the chin, but to no effect. “I thought you could punch,” I sneered. He made a lunge, missed and smashed his head against the wall, almost knocking himself out. I tried to finish him off, but my punches were weak. I could hit him with impunity, but I had no strength behind my punch. Suddenly, I received a blow full in the mouth which shook my front teeth, and that sobered me up. “Enough,” I said. “I don’t want to lose my teeth.” He came and embraced me, then looked in the mirror: I had cut his face to ribbons. My hands were swollen like boxing gloves, and blood was on the ceiling, on the curtains, and on the walls. How it got there, I do not know.
But before he was successful he had the inevitable struggles. But he viewed them philosophically, with a line I’d like to borrow:
A formidable element in optimism is youth, for it instinctively feels that adversity is pro tem, and that a continual run of ill luck is just as implausible as the straight and narrow path of righteousness. Both eventually must deviate.
With Karno he went to the US, first arriving by steamer in Quebec, then traveling by train to Toronto.
His description of how he developed his identity as the tramp, early on in his career at Keystone, is amazing. He had just been in Making A Living, where he played a sadistic dandy cheating a fellow reporter out of a girl and a story, where he “wore a light frock-coat, a top hat and a handlebar mustache.” Chaplin wasn’t satisfied, not in the least with co-owner Lehrman as director; his rapport with the other owner Sennett was much better, and when Sennett came back to direct another piece, history was made:
I was in my street clothes and had nothing to do, so I stood where Sennett could see me. He was standing with Mabel [Normand, Keystone's star actress], looking into a hotel lobby set, biting the end of a cigar. “We need some gags here,” he said, then turned to me. “Put on a comedy make-up. Anything will do.
I had no idea what make-up to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter. However, on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.
I had not idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born. When I confronted Sennett I assumed the character and strutted about, swinging my cane and parading before him. Gags and coedy ideas went racing through my mind.
The secret of Mack Sennett’s success was his enthusiasm. He was a great audience and laughed genuinely at what he thought funny. He stood and giggled until his body began to shake. This encouraged me and I began to explain the character: “you know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette-butts, or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear – but only in extreme anger!”
The mustache thing is interesting – actors in the Keystone and other silent films in those days tended to favor outrageous mustaches, and there’s one film where Chaplin wears an elaborate forked goatee (!?!?). The toothpick mustache, eventually also favored by Adolf Hitler (who was born only four days after him), made history – and infamy. It can no longer be worn in polite society.
Making that first film, Chaplin noted that a crowd of actors and stage hands gathered and were enjoying the film-making as well, quite a compliment for the young actor’s comedic skills.
That evening I went home on the street-car with one of the small-bit players. Said he: “Boy, you’ve started something; nobody ever got those kinds of laughs on the set before, not even [Keystone star] Ford Sterling – and you should have seen his face watching you, it was a study!”
“Let’s hope they’ll laugh the same way in the theatre,” I said, by way of suppressing my elation.
And his films were popular. Chaplin butted heads with Mabel Normand on one set when he fought with her over her direction (she was inexperienced and making bad decisions), and Sennett came close to firing him… but he changed his mind when he got word that theaters around the US were begging for more Chaplin product, due to its high popularity. Saved by the bell!
Chaplin knew all of the legends, including Rudolph Valentino:
Valentino had an air of sadness. He wore his success gracefully, appearing almost subdued by it. He was intelligent, quiet and without vanity, and had great allure for women, but had little success with them, and those whom he married treated him rather shabbily. Soon after one marriage, his wife started an affair with one of the men in the developing laboratory, with whom she would disappear into the darkroom. No man had greater attraction for women than Valentio; no man was more deceived by them.
He also notes of meeting Franklin D Roosevelt when he was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Well!
Chaplin offers interesting angles on life in the film industry in the early 20th century:
Douglas Fairbanks was the first film star to live in Beverly HIlls, and [he] often invited me to stay the week-end with him. At night from my bedroom I would listen to the coyotes howling, packs of them invading the garbage cans. Their howls were eerie, like the pealing of little bells.
While Chaplin doesn’t often discuss his films, he does have a long discussion about The Gold Rush, including a description of what sounds like a very interesting deleted scene:
I was led up many a blind alley, and many amusing sequences were discarded. One was a love scene with an Eskimo girl who teaches the tramp to kiss in Eskimo fashion by rubbing noses together. When he departs in quest of gold, he passionately rubs his nose against hers in a fond farewell. And as he walks away he turns and touches his nose with his middle finger and throws her a last fond kiss, then surrepititiously wipes his finger on his trousers, for he has a bit of a cold. But the Eskimo part was cut out because if conflicted with the more important story of the dance-hall girl.
The idea of inter-racial romance probably also wasn’t so well looked-upon by the studio executives.
Interestingly, Chaplin devotes quite long sections of the book to his interactions with William Randolph Hearst, whom he names as “the personality in my life [who] has made the deepest impression on me.” They were friends, and Hearst often invited him to his parties, as did his mistress Marion Davies, whom Chaplin found “simple an charming” (although this friendship didn’t mean much – she gave him the cold shoulder years later when he was being hounded by the anti-Communist witch hunters of the McCarthy era). He mentions that Hearst had been pro-German up to the start of World War II, and enjoyed an association and friendship with the German Ambassador to the US that “verged on a scandal.” He also interviewed HItler!
Chaplin also describes his first impressions of the images of Hitler making a speech in a series of picture postcards, which he got from Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had written on Hitler’s concentration camps after a visit he’d finagled on some pretext (”his stories of degenerate brutality were so fantastic that few people believed him”):
The face was obscenely comic – a bad imitation of me, with its absurd mustache, unruly, stringy hair and disgusting, thin little mouth. I could not take Hitler seriously. Each postcard showed a different posture of him; one with his hands claw-like haranguing the crowds, another with one arm up and the other down, like a cricketer about to bowl, and another with hands clenched in front of him as though lifting an imaginary dumb-bell. The salute with the hand thrown back over the shoulder, the palm upwards, made me want to put a tray of dirty dishes on it. “This is a nut!” I thought. But when Einstein and Thomas Mann were forced to leave Germany, this face of Hitler was no longer comic but sinister.
Chaplin was friends with Albert Einstein and his wife, and in the book he offers a great rendition of how Einstein came up with his theory of relativity:
At dinner [Mrs Einstein] told me the story of the morning [Einstein] conceived the theory of relativity.
“The Doctor came down in his dressing-gown as usual for breakfast but he hardly touched a thing. I thought something was wrong, so I asked what was troubling him. ‘Darling,’ he said, ‘I have a wonderful idea.’ And after drinking his coffee, he went to the piano and started playing. Now and again he would stop, making a few notes then repeat: ‘I’ve got a wonderful idea, a marvelous idea!’
“I said: ‘Then for goodness’ sake tell me what it is, don’t keep me in suspense.’
“He said: ‘It’s difficult, I still have to work it out’”
She told me he continued playing the piano and making notes for about half an hour, then went upstairs to his study, telling her that he did not wish to be disturbed, and remained there for two weeks. “Each day I sent him up his meals,” she said, “and in the evening he wold walk a little for exercise, then return to his work again.
“Eventually,” she said, “he came down from his study looking very pale. ‘That’s it,’ he told me, wearily putting two sheets of paper on the table. And that was his theory of relativity.”
There are also some funny tales of Einstein’s money matters:
Mrs Einstein tells an interesting story of the Professor’s ignorance of money matters. Princeton University wanted him to join their faculty and wore about terms; the Professor submitted such a modest figure that the heads of Princeton replied that the terms he asked would not be adequate for living in the United States, and that he would requirer at least three times the amount.
“You must come to Berlin and visit us,” she said.” We have not a big place – the Professor is not rich although he has access to over a million dollars for his scientific work from the Rockefeller Foundation – but he has never used it.”
The most expensive piece of furniture [in their modest little flat in Berlin] was the black piano upon which he made those historical preliminary notes on the fourth dimension. I have often wondered what became of the piano. Possible it is in the Smithsonian Institution or the Metropolitan Museum – possibly used as kindling wood by the Nazis.
Chaplin recounts a very interesting conversation he had with Orson Wells, which led to the screenplay of Monsieur Verdoux:
The repetition of coincidence is worthy of examination, I said, and related a story that happened to me as a boy. I was passing a grocer’s shop in Camberwell Road and noticed the shutters were up, which was unusual. Something prompted me to climb on the window-ledge and look through the diamond hole of the shutter. Inside it was dark and deserted, but the groceries were all there, and there was a large packing-case in the centre of the floor. I jumped from the ledge with a sense of repugnance and went on my way. Soon after, a murder case exploded. Edgar Edwards, an affable old gentleman of sixty-five, had acquired five grocery stores by simply bludgeoning the owners to death with a sash-weight and then taking over their business. In that grocery shop in Camberwell, in that packing-case, were his three last victims, Mr and Mrs Darby and t heir baby.
But Wells would have none of it; he said that it was common-pace in everyone’s life to have many coincidences, and that it proved nothing. That was the end of the discussion, but I could have told him of another experience, of the time when I as a boy stopped at a saloon in the London Bridge Road and asked for a glass of water. A bluff, amiable gentleman with a dark mustache served me. For some reason I could not drink the water. I pretended to, but as soon as the man turned to talk to a customer I put the glass down and left. Two weeks later, George Chapman, proprietor of the Crown public house in the London Bridge Road, was charged with murdering five wives by poisoning them with strychnine. HIs latest victim had been dying in a room above the saloon the day he gave me the glass of water. Both Chapman and Edwards were hanged.
Since I live in Singapore, I was quite interested in Chaplin’s description of a visit here as he passed through on his way to Bali and Japan (where he had an interesting evening with fellow passenger Jean Cocteau – “Mr Cocteau – he say – you are a poet – of zer sunshine – and he is a poet of zer – night.”):
Our next port was Singapore, where we entered the atmosphere of a Chinese willow-pattern plate – banyan trees growing out of the ocean. My outstanding memory of Singapore is of the Chinese actors who performed at the New Word Amusement Park, children who were extraordinarily gifted and well read, for their plays consisted of many Chinese classics by the great Chinese poets. The actors performed on a pagoda in the traditional fashion. The play I saw lasted three nights. The principal actor of the cast, a girl of fifteen, played the prince, and sang in a high, rasping voice. The third night was the final climax. Sometimes it is better not to understand the language, for nothing could had affected me more poignantly than the last act, the ironic tones of the music, the whining strings, the thundering clash of gongs and the piercing, husky voice of the banished young prince crying out in the anguish of a lost soul in lonely spheres as he made his final exit.
Chaplin writes a lot about his time in Bali, visiting Western scholars there to study its music, and he provides descriptions of some of the temple festivals he witnessed. Writing in 1964, Chaplin lamented the lost Bali of his visit:
Bali then was a paradise. Natives worked four months in the rice-fields and devoted the other eight to their art and culture. Entertainment was free all over the island, one village preforming for the other. But now paradise is on the way out. Education has taught them to cover their breasts and forake their pleasure-loving gods for Western ones.
Chaplin’s time in Japan was very chaotic, as he was there in the middle of significant power struggles that dictated the tragic destiny of the nation as the leaders that brought the country to war consolidated their power. One night when Chaplin attends a sumo match (he calls it a Suomi match” – how charming) with the prime minister’s son, the party learns that the prime minister has been assassinated. Horrible!! And in a book called Government By Assassination, published by Knopf, Chaplin learns that there had even been a plot by the prime minister’s assassins to murder Chaplin while he was in Japan to provoke an international reaction! Crazy…
Chaplin knew anyone who was famous and influential, especially in the arts, and he recounts a conversation he had with Rachmaninov.
Someone brought the topic round to religion and I confessed I was not a believer.
Rachmaninov quickly interposed: “But how can you have art without religion?”
I was stumped for a moment. “I don’t think we are talking about the same thing,” I said. “My concept of religion is a belief in a dogma – and art is a feeling more than a belief.”
“So is religion,” he answered. After that I shut up.
Crucial to the Chaplin story is the tale of Chaplin vs US, when the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunters came after him for slights real or perceived. Eventually, while in London, he found out that he a re-entry pass that he had secured before leaving the US had been revoked, and he “was to be barred form the United States, and that before I could re-enter the country I would have to go before an Immigration Board of Enquiry to answer charges of a political nature and of mural turpitude.” Seems crazy to think now that things like that took place, but even today silly things like this happen to people like Cat Stevens, and others. Chaplin described his feelings on the matter:
Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up with America’s insults and moral pomposity, and that the whole subject was damned boring. But everything I possessed was in the States and I was terrified they might find a way of confiscating it. Now I could expect any unscrupulous action from them. So instead I came out with a pompous statement to the effect that I would return and answer their charges, and that my re-entry permit was not a “scrap of paper”, but a document given to me in good faith by the United States Government – blah, blah, blah.
The phrase “that unhappy country” has become somewhat famous.
Luckily Chaplin had been to the bank and signed his American wife power of attorney over his securities, otherwise they could have been trapped in the US. Not a happy thought for someone who had worked hard for his wealth and deserved full access to it.
The years in Europe were happy years, when Chaplin started another family with his young (35 years younger) wife Oona, and he recounts life in Switzerland and buying a massive house in the countrieside there. He also has a great story of meeting Picasso:
Picasso took us to the Left Bank studio which he still uses. As we climbed the stairs, we saw a sign on the door of the apartment below him: “This is not Picasso’s studio – another flight up, please.”
We came upon the most deplorable, barn-like garret, that even Chatterton would have been loth to die in. Hanging from a nail in one rafter was a stark electric bulb, which enabled us to see a rickety old bed and a broken-down stove. Resting against the wall was a pile of old dusty canvases. He picked up one – a Cezanne, and a most beautiful one. He picked up another and another. We must have looked at fifty masterpieces. I was tepted to offer him a round sum for th eliot – just to get rid of the litter. In that Gorki’s “lower depth” was a gold mine.
The book is a masterpiece and full of lots of very interesting details about a truly remarkable life, and we even learn some unpleasant details about his character, whether intended or unintended. Like all autobiographies, a lot of detail has been left out; I’m now looking forward to reading David Robinson’s (who provides an introduction to this edition) acclaimed biography of the man to hopefully fill in the gaps.