My Autobiography, by Charles Chaplin

My Autobiography

Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography is a straightforward, chronological account of his life and career. Nothing artsy or unconventional about it. It’s encyclopedic in summarizing virtually every significant thing he did or experienced. You get some of his inner life, some of his emotional self, but it’s especially thorough about the externals.

The style is literate but not too showy. Chaplin’s prose is intelligent and clear. It’s an easy read, not because it’s dumbed down, but because it’s written well.

Chaplin is especially thorough about his childhood. He really came from the gutter. His parents had been stage performers that had achieved some modest success earlier in their life, but by the time his older brother Sydney and he came along, any such success faded rapidly.

His parents split up, with the kids primarily staying with the mother. They lived in extreme poverty, at times having to move into a workhouse. Because their mother was intermittently insane and institutionalized (though she was loving when she was well, and they loved her and had a good relationship with her), the kids also spent time living on the streets, squatting in their former apartment when it lacked a renter, and living with their father (who soon drank himself to death) and evil stepmother.

Actually Sydney became a seamen and got out of there as early as he could, so a lot of Chaplin’s scrounging around and trying to survive on the streets was done alone. The brothers were close after that, though, with Sydney later serving as Chaplin’s manager.

Chaplin got some schooling along the way, but mostly his focus from a very young age was on getting whatever work he could to contribute to the family income. Some of this was indeed on the stage, but it’s not like he was a child star making a lot of money. It was just one of many things he did growing up.

Ultimately of course he did make more and more of a name for himself as a stage actor and comedian, and came to America with a troupe of actors to seek his fortune. After touring with them, he got a chance to work in movies—silent film comedy shorts. He introduced his “Tramp” character fairly early in his movie career, and soon was so popular and so successful that he was making his own feature length films. And the rest is history, as they say.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Chaplin as a person, from this book, or how to assess his personality. I would say there’s a core decency about him. He’s likable. You root for him.

There’s also a sort of sadness or loneliness about him. He pooh poohs a suggestion made about him once that for all his worldly success he was happiest when he was poor and everything was real and he was living by his wits. No, he says, that’s the kind of thing people who’ve never been poor say. Whatever good there was about his early life, and whatever disadvantages there were to his life after he hit it big, he says there’s still no comparison and of course it was vastly better being rich. What people don’t take into account with this noble poor shtick, he says, is that what you really remember from that sort of life is how absolutely miserable it is to be hungry and cold day after day after day, to have your life so dominated by the basics of survival.

I can see that, but I don’t know that there isn’t still a kernel of truth in what he’s dismissing. Not that he’d ever want to go back to that life, but maybe that he never fully fit with life as a rich person, never seemed fully content.

I don’t know that he’d be a person easy to get close to. He’s warm in his way, but perhaps not in that way.

One thing I’m struck by is what a complete break he made with his childhood.

On the one hand, it’s like he never really left it behind. It dominates a great deal of this autobiography and it’s clear he always kept that inside him. He always knew that whatever happened he was that same person, shaped by those extreme experiences.

But on the other hand, externally, it really was like a completely different life. You think about today how people who come from the ghetto to hit it big in music or sports or whatever, often still have an entourage of friends from the old days. But he crossed the ocean to a whole new country (a much bigger deal then since we’re talking boats instead of airplanes) and became in so many ways a new person. He kept ties with his brother, and with his mother when she happened to be coherent the last few years of her life, but that’s about it.

And when he hit it big, he really hit it big. He was Beatles-level big, Muhammad Ali-level big, one of those people who is recognizable virtually everywhere in the world.

Not that he was all that prolific. He certainly kept busy and did a huge number of shorts in the silent era, which was par for the course back then—such films were churned out very quickly. But once he settled in and was calling the shots making his own feature length movies, he didn’t make as many as the vague impression I had before reading this book. Actually I’ve seen over half of his full length movies, though I’ve always thought of myself as having only dabbled lightly in his body of work. From the 1920s through the 1950s, he only made two to three films per decade.

It’s for the most part not a kiss and tell book. There’s a certain classiness and decorum to his handling of such matters. There’s certainly enough to show that he has an appreciation for pretty girls, and that he had an active sex life. He mentions—without any kind of prurient details—that as was pretty much routine for a touring actor in his teens and 20s, he regularly went to prostitutes. He’s honest about how—again especially when he was a young man like that—a lot of his consciousness was dominated by the desire for sex. It sounds like—like 99% of us—he cut some ethical corners and pretty much did what he needed to do to get laid when he saw an opportunity.

He doesn’t go into a lot of detail about his marriages. He had four. He seemed to get married pretty quickly, I’d say almost frivolously, when he became interested in someone. Not that that’s uncommon in show business, but it’s odd to me that people can enter into marriage lightly, and seemingly not be all that devastated by divorce. It’s like for people like him, marriage doesn’t constitute crossing a line into something that’s a much bigger deal, but is more like just regular dating, or at most like living together would be today.

I wonder how much of that had to do with the sexual morality of the time. For the most part you couldn’t live with someone you weren’t married to; you weren’t supposed to be able to get dependable sex in a pre-marriage dating relationship. If you wanted regular sex (“regular” as in frequent, not as in non-kinky), I suppose you either surreptitiously went to prostitutes or you got married. So when he developed any significant degree of interest in someone and wanted to “go steady” and have non-illicit sex be a routine part of the relationship, he married them. And if it didn’t work out, they got divorced and he soon enough married someone else.

His second wife he doesn’t even identify by name, and basically says things went poorly and if he wrote about it it would be very negative and critical of her, and out of respect he doesn’t want to go there, so it’s better just to not write about it at all.

Clearly the one he adores, the one he’s closest to, the one that lasted with him long term, is the fourth of four—Oona. He has nothing but good things to say about her. Which is ironic, since from the outside it’s the one people would say was the least promising, and the one they’d most disapprove of, as she was less than half his age when they married. But however much it might have been motivated by lust initially, it sure sounds like there was a lot more to it, and that they were really compatible and as close to soulmates as you’re likely to find in a Hollywood marriage.

There sure is a lot of name dropping in the book. Not that he comes off all that poorly, like he’s just including that to show you what a big shot he was. It’s more like he really was that much of a big shot, and if he’s going to give an honest and thorough account of his life, and whom he spent his time with, and the most important things he experienced, he has no choice but to include his encounters with Caruso, Churchill, Gandhi, William Randolph Hearst, Nijinsky, Picasso, Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, H.G. Wells, etc., etc. Plus I’m sure he assumed that’s what readers want to read about.

Besides, again, being a stunning contrast with the way he grew up, the fact that he traveled in the same circles as not just other people at the top in the field of movies, but various “high” arts, literature, politics, etc. caused me to speculate about whether anything comparable to that happens in more recent times. Do mega-famous people in pop culture—movies, music, television—today routinely meet and socialize with heads of state, the world’s greatest artists, the top authors, etc.? Have Lucas or Spielberg, Elvis, Michael Jackson, or Madonna had this kind of life, where their lives intersected with their era’s equivalents of Churchill, Gandhi, and Picasso?

I doubt it. Despite his extraordinarily humble beginnings, Chaplin seemed to gravitate to such people—and they to him—quite smoothly and naturally.

Obviously one of the things that’s most impressive about him is how he did everything. He wasn’t just the most recognizable movie star in the world for a time, he also directed those movies, was the primary writer, sometimes wrote the music, and even got credits in cinematography and other aspects of filmmaking. Plus, he handled the business side of things, as he was one of the stars who came together way back in 1919 to form United Artists.

The book serves as a reminder that a rich and famous person naturally draws dishonest people wanting something from him. Never having been rich or famous, I’ve never had to deal with that, but I think it’s one of the things people looking from the outside probably often don’t realize. It’s a major drawback to having money. Everybody wants something from you, mostly people who aren’t in the slightest sense entitled to it.

Not that he complains about it. It’s all presented in a sort of spirit of neutral documentation. But besides studios and various entities like that trying to exploit him however possible for their maximum financial gain—which is simply what people formed into such corporate entities do by nature—he had more than his share of frivolous lawsuits from random individuals making trouble in order to get paid off.

And generally they succeeded. There are many incidents in the book where he basically pays people off to go away, because standing on principle and refusing to pay money he doesn’t owe would be too contrary to his self-interest.

It sounds like he didn’t put up much of a fight in any of his divorces, so the wives cashed in fine. There were even one or more occasions of ludicrous government fines that he haggled down to something less—instead of the zero it should have been—and paid in order to not have to deal with them.

He had one pretty bad stalker that he’d dated a bit overseas on a trip who kept showing up on his door unpredictably to harass him. She too ended up with a nice payday.

Obviously any thorough treatment of Chaplin’s life and career cannot avoid politics, and his ultimately antagonistic relationship with the American government. Actually not just the government; it sounds like the American press turned on him big time and became quite vicious.

He also says that at the worst of it the American public had similarly turned against him. I wonder a little about that, though. Not saying there weren’t a sizable number of ordinary Americans in 1950 who hated him (which there hadn’t been in, say, 1920), but I’ll bet he never had less than a hefty number of American fans at any point.

He doesn’t spell out his politics in any great detail. Mostly he just summarizes things he said or did that ultimately landed him in trouble.

What one gathers from what he does say is that he was an intelligent layman when it comes to politics, that it’s something that he took seriously to a degree just as a responsible citizen of the world, but not something he specialized in or sought to make a huge part of his life.

He was firmly anti-fascist in a way that he was never anti-communist, even the worst forms of communism as represented by Stalin. His attitude toward the Soviets seemed to be that they’re flawed, as America and other capitalist democracies are flawed, with both similar flaws and different flaws, but that all these societies are loosely speaking the “good guys” who are trying to make a better world, even if they all have bad eggs working against that purpose—as opposed to the fascists, especially the Nazis, who were beyond the pale.

For him it was quite natural that the Soviets and the western democracies would join together against the Nazis, and he was appalled that people would refuse to recognize the Soviet contribution to the struggle, which far exceeded anyone else’s, or would want to be the kind of poor ally who delayed as long as possible opening a second front so that the Nazis and communists could bleed each other as long as possible.

This, of course, was unacceptable to the powers-that-be in America. A certain amount of it could perhaps be grudgingly tolerated during the war itself, but after that, when McCarthyism set in, if you did not agree that the Soviets were worse than Satan than you were not allowed a place in public life.

His adversaries in the government really do come off as fools and knaves. I don’t know that it’s all that hard to imagine what Sarah Palin’s America would be like; much of the country has always been like that, and during this period in question, her kind of worldview and (lack of) values was dominant.

I’m thinking mostly in terms of the Cold War and McCarthyist stuff, but there are the lesser cultural manifestations of such idiocy and pettiness as well. Chaplin includes a section detailing how one of his last movies had to be severely censored. He quotes at length communications from the censorship board, pointing out every instance that in any way implies sex outside of marriage, or is insufficiently uplifting, or hints that someone who doesn’t strictly abide by all the taboos of Christian morality might not come to grief.

It’s outrageous and comical at the same time that these Palin-types ever find themselves in positions of authority like that. As if any of them ever had 5% the moral character of Chaplin.

When the government did finally move against him, they really had nothing on him, so they dishonestly used whatever nit picky thing they could come up with—the kind of stuff that would have 0% chance of being sustained in a just system, and for that matter probably no more than 10%-20% chance of being sustained in court in McCarthy-era America—but just like for the stalkers and con men, it wasn’t about winning but about harassing him and getting him to compromise in various ways to avoid going through a fight that would be costly even if he won.

They were especially treacherous in getting him out of the country. He went in person to the passport office to make sure everything was fine with him taking a European vacation. They assured him it was no problem and happily gave him all the paperwork to allow him reentry for when his vacation ended—patting him on the back, shaking his hand, smiling, “Hurry back Charlie!,” etc.

And then as soon as his ship was in international waters, he received the wire that he was now persona non grata and would not be allowed back in the country. All of his assets, his home, his personal property, his relationships, his career, etc. were back in the United States. He of course had not tied up his affairs in any sense, since he expected to be back shortly. So it was maximally damaging and inconvenient.

All because he didn’t kowtow sufficiently to the capitalists and the right wingers running the country.

These are just plain evil people.

The book covers up to about 1951 in considerable detail, then includes a very small amount about his life from then until about the mid-1950s, with nothing after that, even though the book was finished and published in the 1960s. There is not even a mention, for instance, of his 1957 movie A King in New York (which does appear—mistakenly as The King in New York—in a list of his films at the end of the book), even though he writes about his other late career movies Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight in considerable detail.

I like Chaplin, I liked the book, and it’s left me wanting to revisit his movies, since I watched most of them just once each in the 1980s, and I’m sure I would get more out of them now.

Back then, I liked City Lights the best and loved the ending—one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. I liked most of the rest of his movies that I saw a bit, but they didn’t really grab me. I feel more connected to Chaplin now after reading this book, and I feel like I’d be more receptive to his art.


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