How Charlie Chaplin’s roots were hidden from MI5 limelight

Charlie Chaplin in "La Ruee vers l'or". Picture: Getty
Charlie Chaplin in "La Ruee vers l'or". Picture: Getty
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MI5 was baffled to discover there were no records of Charlie Chaplin’s birth when it investigated his alleged communist sympathies, newly-released files reveal.

British intelligence officers could find no documents confirming the silent film comedy star was born in London in April 1889, and they dismissed claims that he was from France.

The mystery of Chaplin’s birth emerged when US authorities asked MI5 to look into the actor’s background after he left America in 1952 under a cloud of suspicion over his communist links.

The star is believed to have been born on 16 April, 1889 in Walworth, south London – just four days before Adolf Hitler, whom he lampooned in his classic 1940 film, The Great Dictator.

But after scouring the files at Somerset House in London for his birth certificate, including checks for his supposed alias “Israel Thornstein”, MI5 concluded: “It would seem that Chaplin was either not born in this country or that his name at birth was other than those mentioned”.

Scotland Yard’s Special Branch added to the intrigue by passing on a tip from a source who claimed the actor was born near Fontainebleau, south of Paris.

A police memo to MI5 noted: “There may or may not be some truth in this, but in view of the fact that no documentary proof has been obtained that Chaplin was born in the United Kingdom, it may well be that he was in fact born in France.”

MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, investigated further but found no trace of Chaplin’s birth in either Fontainebleau or nearby Melun.

However, John Marriott, then head of MI5’s counter-subversion branch, was not convinced that the absence of a birth certificate was a matter of concern for the intelligence services.

He wrote: “It is curious that we can find no record of Chaplin’s birth, but I scarcely think that this is of any security significance.”

Having escaped grinding poverty to launch a career in British music hall, Chaplin moved to the US in 1910 and made a series of hugely successful films in Hollywood in his famous persona of the Tramp.

But in the early 1950s, when Washington was in the grip of paranoia about Soviet infiltration fuelled by the ambitious senator Joseph McCarthy, the actor was reviled in the US as a communist sympathiser.

There was further controversy about his two marriages to 16-year-old girls, failure to take American citizenship, and claims he fathered an illegitimate child and owed $2 million in back taxes.

Chaplin, his fourth wife Oonagh O’Neill and their family sailed to Britain in September 1952 to attend the premiere of his film, Limelight.

While they were out of the country, US attorney-general James McGranery announced he would deny the actor a re-entry permit because of his alleged Soviet connections.

Chaplin’s MI5 files, just released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, show that officials were concerned about whether to steer British VIPs away from meeting the comic.

A telegram sent to MI5’s liaison officer in Washington in October 1952 pleaded: “We have very little information on which to guide any highly placed persons likely [to] encounter Chaplin during his visit here. Can you help?”

The reply, which was copied to MI5 director general Sir Percy Sillitoe, noted: “Chaplin has given funds to communist front organisations. Understand US government cannot prove party membership.

“He has been involved in paternity and abortion cases. Being an alien, Immigration can exclude him for moral turpitude.”

John Cimperman, FBI legal attache at the US embassy in London, wrote to MI5 on 20 October, 1952 with a request for information about Chaplin’s background.

MI5 was unable to confirm any of the Americans’ suspicions.

A note sent to the agency’s East Africa liaison ahead of a holiday Chaplin took in Kenya in February 1958 shows that MI5 was unimpressed by Washington’s claims of communist links.

It stated: “We have no substantial information of our own against Chaplin, and we are not satisfied that there are reliable grounds for regarding him as a security risk.”

Chaplin was knighted in 1975 and died at his home in Switzerland on Christmas Day 1977, aged 88.