Arts feature

Little big man

A museum dedicated to Charlie Chaplin will open soon. William Cook gets a preview and talks to the star’s son Michael about life with a legend

9 April 2011

12:00 AM

9 April 2011

12:00 AM

A museum dedicated to Charlie Chaplin will open soon. William Cook gets a preview and talks to the star’s son Michael about life with a legend

Standing in the deserted drawing-room of Charlie Chaplin’s Swiss château, waiting to meet his eldest surviving son, Michael, I remember something Auberon Waugh once said to Naim Attallah. ‘A lot of sons of famous fathers seem to be upset by the circumstance, even destroyed by it,’ said Waugh. ‘But I don’t think they need be. It entirely depends on the personality.’ However, Waugh was merely the son of the best British novelist of the last century. The man I’ve travelled here to meet is the son of the 20th century’s biggest film star — for a while, the most famous man in the world. What sort of boy would you have to be to survive such a bright spotlight? What would it do to you? What sort of man would you become?

Built in 1848 overlooking Lake Geneva, le Manoir de Ban is a beautiful building — grand yet understated — but the best thing about it is the view. Framed by woods and meadows, the vast lake below has never looked more lovely. Chaplin used to sit on this sunlit terrace and stare at it for hours. He bought this house in 1953, after the US authorities, in a fit of McCarthyite pique, revoked his re-entry permit. America’s loss was Europe’s gain. He lived here for the last 24 years of his life, raising a second family with his fourth wife Oona, daughter of Eugene O’Neill. Michael is the second of their eight children, their eldest son.

I’m waiting here with Yves Durand, curator of the Chaplin Museum. He’s telling me about the museum he plans to build, in this antique manor house and its 37-acre garden. ‘We have his letters, his love letters, his music, the scripts from each of his movies — we have everything,’ he says. Michael Chaplin is president of the museum’s foundation. He lives in Gruyère, about an hour away. While we wait for him to arrive, Yves shows me round. Most of the contents are long gone, but a few iconic artefacts remain — Chaplin’s desk, his grand piano and his books, hundreds of calf-bound tomes, all the classics; the library of an autodidact. We pause for a moment in the bare room where Chaplin died, on Christmas Day 1977. He died in the small hours. By 8 a.m., there were reporters outside the gates. Sharp winter sunlight streams in through the windows. You can see the high Alps on the horizon. Chaplin spoke of the ‘magnificent serenity’ of these mountains. Gazing through his bedroom window, you can see exactly what he meant.

Michael Chaplin arrives silently, without fuss or ceremony — neither visitor nor proprietor, an intruder in his childhood home. Buried beneath a black trilby, his thick white hair looks wild and windblown. Gentle and a bit dishevelled, he reminds me of a parish priest. He has his father’s penetrating gaze but his face is softer and lined with sadness. He seems both ancient and boyish, younger and older than his 64 years. ‘Where would you like to sit?’ I ask him. ‘It’s your interview,’ he says. ‘It’s your house,’ I say. ‘Not any more,’ he says, with a rueful smile. I warm to him straight away.


Chaplin’s biographer Simon Louvish called Michael ‘the family rebel, an actor, a pop musician, a doper…’ Michael’s own memoir was called I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn. However, those days are long gone. Nowadays, if not before, he seems comfortable in his own skin. As a child, he appeared in Limelight and A King in New York, two of Chaplin’s last movies, but there’s nothing actorly about him. His clothes are smart but slightly shabby, country shabby — the garb of a gentleman farmer, which is what he is today.

Michael was six when his father brought him here. ‘He walked us around the park. The big trees, the forest, all that space — it seemed like a dream.’ After six months cooped up in grand hotels (‘which for a kid is really boring’), this was a place where Michael and his siblings — and his father — could run free. ‘He loved the trees,’ says Michael. ‘He used to say, “You can’t buy trees.”’ Of course the taxes were lower here, but above all Switzerland gave him a sense of freedom he never could have found elsewhere. ‘My father could walk down to Vevey, and go and eat in restaurants. He never got mobbed.’ Vevey is pretty but unpretentious — a normal working town rather than a holiday resort. ‘It was a much smaller place then,’ says Michael. ‘It was very rural. I remember the farmer who lived over the road. He’d go down on market day with his horse and cart and sell his stuff in the market.’

It sounds like an idyllic childhood, but Michael’s father was a man of firm views — a loving but opinionated parent, a dominant force in his children’s lives. ‘We weren’t allowed to watch television,’ says Michael. ‘We didn’t have television because he thought television was the enemy of cinema and would destroy cinema. He wasn’t entirely wrong.’ Still, with a place like this to grow up in, who needs TV? ‘It’s like a little country of its own.’

Michael loved living here (‘it was a very lively place — it was full of people’) but school was another story. ‘I was a very bad student. My father put a lot of importance on education, having not really gone to school himself. He used to tell us, “Your only defence in life is to be smart,” and I wasn’t smart. I ended up at 16 in a class of 13-year-olds. I couldn’t concentrate for more than five minutes. I was a total failure in my whole schooling, so I was always in conflict with him.’ Michael left home when he was 16, and went to London, but he returned here regularly for happy holidays, latterly with his own family, and he was here when his father died. For Michael, it was almost a relief. ‘My mother was suffering enormously. For the last three years, wheeling him around in a chair. He withdrew more and more within himself. There was very little communication.’ For the world’s greatest mime, losing his physical prowess was an especially bitter blow. ‘His whole art was from his body,’ says Michael. ‘His greatness came from there.’

Death was kind to Charlie Chaplin (‘He didn’t suffer — he died in his bed, in his home, surrounded by his family’) but it was very hard on Oona. ‘My mother was completely broken up. It was terrible for her.’ She lived on here, until she died in 1992, but it wasn’t an easy epilogue. ‘She had a very difficult time after my father’s death. It left a big emptiness in her life. He was such a presence. He was a little man, but he took up a lot of space. You felt him when he was there, and for her to be without him was a terrible loss. I don’t think she ever managed to pick herself up after that.’

After his mother’s death, Michael and his brother moved in here with their respective families — ten children between them. ‘It was a crazy time,’ he chuckles. ‘I wanted our children to enjoy it, which they did, but in the end, after ten years, it had cost us a lot and we were in a bit of trouble. It was time to move on, so from there the idea of a museum developed.’ For nearly a decade, these plans have been becalmed by Swiss bureaucracy, but now the locals have been pacified, this house, which has stood empty since 2002, should open as a museum in the summer of next year. Michael is loath to speak for his father, but it sounds as if this project would have pleased him. ‘He was a showman. He loved attention. He loved being popular. He was alway
s conscious of his audience. So if this place works and there’s loads of people coming in here, if he’s anywhere that he can see this, he’ll be pleased.’

Michael clearly has a deep appreciation of his father’s work. ‘He created a universal character,’ he says. ‘Everyone could identify with him because he represented things that everyone could recognise in themselves.’ Yet you can also sense a certain distance, and maybe this distance is what’s kept him sane. ‘My interests have been in other people. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to carry the weight of such a giant on my shoulders. I’m more interested in Tolstoy. But that’s just personal. I love my father. He was my father, but I don’t feel I have to carry that responsibility.’ If his father’s work had been neglected, he would strive to restore his reputation but, with no shortage of enthusiasts, Chaplin’s place in cinema history is secure. ‘Yves is passionate,’ he says, with a friendly nod towards the museum’s French-Canadian curator. ‘He knows far more about Charlie Chaplin than I do.’

Limelight has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray (PC0022/PCB0022).

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