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Authors: Charles Chaplin

My Autobiography

BOOK: My Autobiography
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My Autobiography

Charles Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 in East Street, Walworth,
London. His parents, both music hall performers, separated before he was three. His
father was to die of alcoholism at 37, while his mother suffered permanent mental
breakdown; and Charles and his older half-brother Sydney experienced periods in
institutions for destitute children. At 10 he began his professional life as a
member of a juvenile clog-dance troupe, went on to act on the legitimate stage in
touring productions of
Sherlock Holmes
, and finally became a star of Fred
Karno’s music hall sketch companies. Touring the USA with Karno, in 1913
he was recruited by the Keystone Film Company, and in his second one-reel comedy
created the character of the Little Tramp which was to become universally recognized
and loved. He soon began to direct as well as perform in his own films. In search of
greater independence and bigger salaries he passed in turn to the Essanay, Mutual
and First National companies. Among his most notable films from this period are
Easy Street, The Immigrant, Shoulder Arms
The Kid
. In
1919, with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith, he established
United Artists, through which he distributed such masterworks as
A Woman of
Paris, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator,
Monsieur Verdoux
. As a foreigner and suspected
radical, in the late 1940s he fell victim to America’s McCarthyist
witchhunts, and from 1952 made his home in Europe, where he directed two more films,
A King in New York
A Countess from Hong Kong
, as well as
completing his autobiography. Following a chequered marital and romantic life, in
1943 he married Oona O’Neill (daughter of the playwright Eugene
O’Neill), by whom he had eight children. In 1972 he briefly re-visited the
United States to receive an honorary Academy Award; and in January 1975 he was
appointed KBE. He died on Christmas Day 1977 at his home in Vevey, Switzerland.


My Autobiography



Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand,
, England
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road,
Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M4V 3B2
Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, II
Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India
Books (NZ) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank
2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
, England

First published by the Bodley Head 1964
Published in Penguin
Books 1966
Published as a Modern Classic 2003

Copyright © Charles Chaplin, 1964
copyright © David Robinson, 2003
All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than
that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

ISBN: 978-0-14-191249-3


All photographs unless otherwise specifically acknowledged are
the copyright of the Roy Export Company Establishment

. Charles Chaplin

. Charles Chaplin Sr

. Hannah Chaplin

. Hannah Chaplin in her house in

. Chaplin
the Hanwell Schools, 1897 (National Film and Television Archive)

. Sydney Chaplin

. Chaplin as the Inebriate
– one of the roles he played for Karno

. Chaplin with Alf Reeves

. On the ship to the USA

. Keystone – with
Mabel Normand in
Mabel at the Wheel

. Chaplin Studios – on
the building site in 1917

. United Artists –
Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin, D. W. Griffith and Mary Pickford

. Washington – Liberty
Bond Tour, 1918 (AKG)

. Mildred Harris

. Chaplin
. 1918

. Visiting London, 1921

. With Lord and Lady
Mountbatten, 1921

. With Jackie Coogan in
, 1921

. Jackie Coogan visiting Chaplin
on the set of
Modern Times
, 1935

. Clare Sheridan working on her
bust of Chaplin

. Chaplin with Anna Pavlova

. Edna Purviance
A Woman of Paris
, 1923

with Virginia Cherrill, 1931

. Winston Churchill with Chaplin
on the set of
City Lights
, 1929

. Chaplin with Professor and Mrs
Einstein at the premiere of
City Lights

. Chaplin with Arnold

Modern Times

. Chaplin with Paulette Goddard
Modern Times

The Great Dictator

. Chaplin with Oona, Geraldine
and Michael

. Chaplin with his sons Charles
and Sydney on the set of
Monsieur Verdoux
, 1947

. With Claire Bloom in
, 1952

. With Dawn Addams in
A King
in New York
, 1957

. With Oona in Switzerland

. With Michael, Josephine and


Grateful acknowledgements are due to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. for
permission to reprint an extract from
Government by Assassination
by Hugh
Byas; to the authors and William Heinemann Ltd for the passage from
Writer’s Notebook
by W. Somerset Maugham, and for lines from
‘The Widow in the Bye Street’ from
The Collected Poems of
John Masefield
; to Liveright Publishing Corporation for ‘White
Buildings’ from
The Collected Poems of Hart Crane

The publisher would like to thank the Association Chaplin for its
help in preparing this edition.

To Oona


by David Robinson

One begins in forthright Victorian biographical style: ‘I was born on 16 April 1889, at eight O’clock at night, in East Lane, Walworth.’ When
My Autobiography
appeared in 1964, this was itself a revelation. The hundreds (quite literally) of books that had been devoted to Chaplin had vaguely placed his birth here, there and everywhere (even Fontainebleau), and no birth certificate exists to settle the question. But here for the first time we had Chaplin’s word for it, and into the bargain his credentials as a true South Londoner, since only a local would name East Street (its official name) as ‘East Lane’ – the style ‘lane’ being popularly applied to any metropolitan thoroughfare that boasts a market. And thereafter the revelations, particularly about the privations of his early life and the precocious discovery of his gifts as a performer, were prodigal. At seventy-five years old, Charles Chaplin finally told his own story, at length.

On its first appearance the book attracted enormous and worldwide attention (it has been translated into upwards of twenty-five languages) – as well as scepticism on various counts. It must, some said, have been written in collaboration with a ‘ghost’, because that is how Hollywood biographies are made. All the evidence, though, is that the book was a solo authorial effort. His family remembered how Chaplin would kiss his wife Oona goodbye and retire to his library for three concentrated sessions every day, just like going to the office. Chaplin himself complained to Ian Fleming that his secretary was forever trying to improve his English: ‘He said he was not surprised, as he had taught himself the language and suspected that his secretary knew it far better than he did but, even so, he liked his own version and hoped that some of what he had actually
written would survive the process of editing.’ Leonard Russell, anticipating serial publication of the book in the
Sunday Times
, was rebuked by the original publisher, Max Reinhardt of The Bodley Head, when he enquired discreetly if the author had a collaborator: ‘Mr Reinhardt looked shocked, offended even. Surely we couldn’t think that Chaplin, a man who wrote his own scripts, directed his own films, composed his own music, would seek outside help with his own memoirs: every word would be written by Chaplin – he would swear an affidavit on that.’

Reinhardt was right. Chaplin had a lifelong compulsion to do everything himself, even down to wanting to play every role in each of his films (his ideal was to find actors and actresses who would faithfully imitate and reproduce his own interpretation of their parts). In writing for films, he had developed his own routine. He would begin by dictating to a secretary or scribbling a draft, usually in pencil, in his own rapid script and often doubtful orthography. This would be neatly typed, with discreet corrections of the spelling, after which Chaplin would revise and correct and scribble and return it for a re-type. The process was repeated until he was satisfied. This seems to have been the method with
My Autobiography
. The style, in any case, is too distinctive and too consistent with earlier memoirs (
My Wonderful Visit
in 1922 and
A Comedian Sees the World
in 1933) to be anything but his own work. There are the appealing idiosyncracies of the self-educated writer. Chaplin had little formal schooling, and painstakingly and late acquired the skills of reading and writing. In the process he was fascinated by words and the desire to discover new ones. He described how he kept a dictionary beside him, and endeavoured to learn one new word every day. Thus at any point throughout his life he would be preoccupied with his most recent verbal finds: at the time of
My Autobiography
they included ‘ineffable’, ‘levitous’, ‘aposiopesis’, ‘esurient’, while he joyfully writes, ‘I was not frantically ebullient about his prognostications.’ Yet alongside this self-conscious verbalizing, he has a natural expressive gift that constantly results in striking, even poetic, phrases. A vibrant, expressionist recollection of the sights and scents of late Victorian Lambeth concludes, ‘From such trivia I believe my soul was born.’ The new Waterloo Bridge, ‘although beautiful… meant little to me now, only that its road led over to my boyhood’. Kennington
Park ‘still bloomed green with sadness’. Returning to the scenes of boyhood, ‘I had a feeling of uneasiness that perhaps those gentle streets of poverty still had the power to trap me in the quicksands of their hopelessness’.

A few critics of the time were sceptical of the childhood hardships Chaplin recounted, and sought to dismiss them as Dickensian fiction. Even recently one or two American revisionist biographers have resumed the attack on his veracity; but hard documentary evidence consistently confirms Chaplin’s account. The book was a prodigious feat of memory. He had no help from researchers. When he wrote, the studio archives, kept in his home in Vevey, constituted a vast, virtually inaccessible mass. From the early theatrical years, there was little besides one small scrap book. No doubt many memories were retrieved in conversation with his half-brother Sidney, who seems to have visited Switzerland a number of times during the six years that Chaplin was preparing his memoirs. The accuracy of his memory was to be amply attested twenty years after he wrote. In the 1980s a mass of documentary evidence re-emerged, from researches in the London civic archives and from two large trunks of early memorabilia that Chaplin’s brother Sidney had kept in store for many years, and which were rediscovered and given by Sidney’s widow to Oona Chaplin. Apart from providing odd dates and details that had eluded Chaplin, the new documentation contradicted nothing in his account.

Sometimes his few mistakes actually serve to vindicate Chaplin’s memory. Thus he remembers the ogre who meted out school punishments as ‘Captain Hindrum’; an old vaudeville friend of his mothers, fallen on evil times, as ‘Dashing Eva Lestocq’; and the kindly stage manager at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where Chaplin was a boy actor, as ‘Mr Postant’. Their names turn out in fact to have been Hindom, Dashing Eva Lester and William Postance. Chaplin, it appears, was indeed remembering, from sixty or seventy years before, names he had heard but perhaps never seen written down, rather than reclaiming them from
post facto

BOOK: My Autobiography
11.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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