William Cook

The timeless mystery of Charlie Chaplin

A global superstar who remains unknowable

The timeless mystery of Charlie Chaplin
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Eleven years ago, I was summoned to the Manoir de Ban, a huge white house overlooking Lake Geneva, to meet Michael Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s oldest surviving son. Charlie Chaplin had lived here for the last 24 years of his life. Now the house was empty, and the family wanted to turn it into a museum. I doubted it would ever happen, but I was keen to look around the house and I was eager to meet Michael. Chaplin’s biographer, Simon Louvish, had called him ‘the family rebel’. Michael had written a frank teenage memoir called I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn.

The house was all shut up, but Chaplin’s looming presence was everywhere. ‘He was a little man, but he took up a lot of space,’ Michael told me, as we sat in the deserted dining room, looking out across the lake, towards the snowcapped Alps beyond. I warmed to Michael. He seemed wise and gentle, with an air of sadness about him. To grow up in a house like this, surrounded by woods and meadows, must have been wonderful, I ventured, naively. Sure, said Michael, but it wasn’t all fun and games.

‘We didn’t have television because he thought television was the enemy of cinema,’ he told me. ‘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.’ Suddenly, this grand old house didn’t seem quite so happy. We said goodbye and I wished him well, but I thought a museum was a daft idea. Apart from old film buffs like me, who was interested in Chaplin nowadays?

Eleven years later I’m back again, and Chaplin’s World is up and running. It’s more than a museum – it’s a time tunnel, through Chaplin’s life and work. You walk through a modern building devoted to his most famous films, and end up in the house itself, reconstructed just as he left it. It all feels rather strange and spooky, but Chaplin’s life was strange and spooky – a dream come true, but also a kind of nightmare: the man with the Midas touch who transformed poverty into hilarity; the poor boy who came from nowhere to become the most famous man in the world.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chaplin’s World has proved to be very popular: visitors of all ages and nationalities, many of them not yet born when Chaplin died here in 1977, on Christmas Day (a day he’d always hated). In 1977, Chaplin seemed like old news, but today his art seems more contemporary: the tyranny of work, the pain of squalor, unemployment, immigration… Even The Great Dictator is horribly topical again. Chaplin’s life has become a kind of fable: the ragged waif who conquered Hollywood, the political controversies, the teenage brides… His time in Switzerland is usually written off as an inconsequential epilogue, yet he spent over a quarter of his life here. So what on earth went on?

Chaplin came to Switzerland in 1953, after the US authorities revoked his re-entry permit on account of his communist sympathies and ‘moral turpitude’ (despite living in the United States for nearly 40 years, he never became an American citizen). Today the political accusations seem trivial, the moral ones somewhat less so. He came here with his fourth wife, Oona, daughter of the American playwright Eugene O’Neill. She’d already borne him four children – she bore him four more here. Like her youthful predecessors, she was a teenage bride, but unlike those brief marriages, this one endured and prospered. They were devoted to each other, but not even Chaplin’s greatest fans could claim that he was an easy man to live with.

Chaplin made just two films while he was living here (A King in New York, co-starring his son, Michael, and A Countess from Hong Kong, starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren). More notably, this was where he wrote his autobiography, which stands as a solemn testament to the stifling effect of fame. The first half is a vivid evocation of his Dickensian childhood. The second half, about his golden years, is banal and bland.

Chaplin was a loving but controlling father. In his home movies he’s the life and soul of the party, but he’s always the centre of attention. There were various celebrity guests – Noel Coward, Yul Brynner, Truman Capote... When the circus came to town, the performers were invited back here after the show. However compared to lots of showbiz families, the daily routine chez Chaplin was actually relatively humdrum: set mealtimes, set bedtimes. The children went to local schools, where they made friends and learnt the language (despite his genius for mimicry, Charlie never mastered French).

After Charlie died, Oona lived here for 14 years until her death, from cancer, aged 66. Thereafter Michael and his younger brother Eugene raised their children here (ten kids between them – it sounds like fun). Eugene was back at the Manoir de Ban for the opening of a new exhibition (about The Kid, one of Chaplin’s finest movies) and we sat down for a coffee outside the stables to talk about his dad. ‘Everyone is the Little Tramp,’ says Eugene. ‘We all have a bit of the Little Tramp inside us.’ He grew up watching the later, longer films – City Lights, The Gold Rush, Modern Times – but lately he’s been watching the earlier, shorter ones. I think they’re just as good.’

Eugene’s childhood memories seem a lot warmer than Michael’s, but he’s seven years younger than Michael, which may have made things easier. By the time he came along, Charlie was in his mid-sixties. He still managed to sire three more children, but his wild days were behind him. 

I see my father’s life in three chapters – the London years, the American years and then the Oona years. In the American years, my father was very focused, ambitious, you couldn’t deter him from what he wanted to do – he got himself into a lot of trouble, and suddenly he meets this very pretty girl who abandons the idea of wanting to be an actress, and devotes herself to my father, and my father devotes himself to her. And what is extraordinary is, the man who was so ambitious and self-driven before, when he meets my mum he changes completely and cannot do anything without her.

And yet he remained an imposing figure. ‘He was very strict on manners – he wanted us to be well-mannered,’ Eugene tells me. ‘He was very strict on education. He always wanted us to be good at school – I never liked school that much, I was a very shy person.’ From an early age, Eugene knew he’d never be an actor. ‘I don’t care what you’re going to do,’ his father used to tell him, ‘but I want to see you try. If you’re sweeping the streets, do it well and I’ll be happy. If I see you’re lazy, you’re in trouble.’

Chaplin’s death left a big hole in Oona’s life, a hole she never really filled. ‘For my mother, it was very difficult,’ says Eugene. ‘After so many years of marriage, she finds herself alone.’ Eugene became a recording engineer, working with stars like Queen and David Bowie. He brought Bowie to the Manoir de Ban to meet Oona. ‘It was fun for my mother,’ he says. ‘Everyone was expecting her to be a widow.’ She was only 52 when Charlie died. She’d been married to him since she was 18. She never remarried. ‘There were times when she was very depressed. She lived alone.’

For Chaplinophiles, there’s lots more to see here besides the Manoir de Ban. The adjacent village, Corsier, is quaint and picturesque, and the local market town, Vevey, is one of my favourite places in the whole of Switzerland. Despite its antique architecture and its lovely waterfront location, it’s a working town, not a holiday resort, and that’s what makes it so attractive. The ornate train station is crowded with schoolchildren and commuters. Fishermen still fish for perch in the clear waters of the vast lake.

I ticked off all the local Chaplin sites: Chez Francine in Corsier, where Charlie ate his filet de perche; l’Auberge de l’Onde in nearby Lutry, where he ate the local Coquelet. All very nice, but quite down-to-earth for a global superstar. He may have been a great dictator in his professional life, but in the autumn of his years his lifestyle was fairly modest. Even the palatial Hotel des Trois Couronnes, where he sometimes went for dinner, is pleasantly understated compared to most other grand hotels. Vevey is a town that minds its own business, and that’s why Chaplin liked it. He’d walk downtown to buy his newspaper. ‘In Switzerland, people are very shy, so they leave you alone,’ says Eugene. When he became too frail to walk, Oona would push him along the esplanade in his wheelchair, ignored by passers-by.

I finished my Chaplin pilgrimage at the graveyard in Corsier, where Charlie and Oona are buried, side by side. After he was buried here, thieves stole his coffin and tried to extort a ransom from his family. The family resisted, the graverobbers were caught, and the coffin was recovered and reburied. It was a bizarre, tragicomic coda to a bizarre, tragicomic life.

‘It’s the story of a genius,’ says Eugene. ‘He started with nothing.’ Yet the more I learn about him, the less I feel I really know. Michael and Eugene told me a few things, but I reckon the only person who really knew him was Oona, and she’s saying nothing. She kept a diary, but she had it destroyed when she died. The man she married remains unknowable, and maybe that’s how it ought to be. If we knew too much about Charlie Chaplin, we might not be able to enjoy his timeless movies anymore.