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By Alistair Cooke
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Alistair Cooke
All rights reserved.
The One and Only
The fans. They sift around the entrance to the Dorchester or huddle against a knifing wind on the sidewalk outside the Broadway stage doors: miniature traffic cops with their little books out, poised for the kill. They palpitate up against the improvised stage on any field large enough to enclose the pandemonium of a rock festival. Like Olympic relay runners, they stretch their arms to the limit, over the barricades at Wembley or Yankee Stadium waiting for the touch of the afternoon hero. They used to mob department stores where Sean Connery was rumoured to be shopping. I have seen them as a congregation of dolls, bobbing behind the customs barrier at Tokyo, waiting for the Rolling Stones to wing in from Seattle or Hawaii. They are the distorting mirrors in which the stars see their images blown up beyond any human scale.
What this ceaseless adoration does to the psyche of the victims is something that the victims rarely seem to examine, though they reveal it in various touching or unlovely ways. They learn to practise self-deprecation by way of fake surprise. Or they bear with it as the inevitable codicil to a million-dollar contract. Or, more often than is pleasant to see, they wallow in the ocean of their narcissism and accept it as no more than the due of their uncanny beauty or talent.
But the fans today are not to be confused with the public. They are specialists, devotees of a particular cult that may be worldwide but is exclusive nonetheless. The disciples of Elton John have never heard of Giscard D'Estaing. Girls and matrons dizzy with desire for Robert Redford would not know Saul Bellow or Bjorn Borg, or maybe even Nelson Rockefeller, if they fell over them. Perhaps only Presidents of the United States and the Queen of England—Muhammad Ali dissenting—can bring out a general crowd, and then only during an election campaign or a coronation. Somewhere along the falling graph of our allegiance to authority, the general public seems to have exhausted its naïve impulse to appear en masse for the arrival of the famous one—except in those 'people's' republics where a million people can be commanded to appear on the double in the great square, or else.
But most of all, in our century, more people have come out everywhere to catch a glimpse of Charles Chaplin than did so for any other human in history. This sentence seems a contradiction: no celebrity could be seen by more people in more countries, though in the bacterial stew of the early cinemas, than Charles Chaplin was. But he was the first world entertainer whose film persona seemed too real to be true: to see Charles Chaplin was to come face to face with the living Aladdin whose lamp had conjured up the genie we all loved and laughed at.
To say that anyone is the most famous, or the best, the greatest, the most beautiful, is—like all rhetoric—a method of bullying the reader into sharing a prejudice. The journalists who garnish a magazine profile with such superlatives, like the authors of screenplays about some chosen eminence (Pasteur, Beethoven, Sister Kenny), are writing from the focal centre of their idol's local fame and assume that the din of it reverberates out from centre to the farthest corners of the earth. This convention can produce scenes of hilarious innocence in the movies, where, say, an enterprising producer offers us a Parisian soiree at which our heroine George Sand is an invited guest. To foster a little desperate verisimilitude, the camera pans over the assembled company, and you get a glimpse of an Orson Welles bulk addressed as 'M. Balzac,' a passing remark addressed to a dandy with whiskers ('Tell me, Mr Dickens'), a French lieutenant deferring to a fellow called Bismarck (no matter whether the Iron Chancellor had ever been in Paris or not). They are all hushed into reverence by the arrival of Merle Oberon in a tuxedo, for although the casual spectator may have thought of this as the Age of Revolution or the Reform Acts he is meant to realise that the whole world swooned at the appearance anywhere of George Sand. In dull fact, George Sand and Charles Dickens, even with Bismarck in tow could probably have roamed through Paris or London arm in arm and gone unrecognised by all but a chance acquaintance or an aficionado of daguerreotypes. Johnny Carson cannot go into a delicatessen anywhere between the Florida Keys and Fairbanks, Alaska, without a chorus of oohing and ahing and a rush of autograph hounds.
A year or two ago a New York magazine concocted a list of the one hundred 'most famous men and women in the world'. By the most generous count, not more than a dozen of them could have been heard of outside the regular readers of the American editions of Time and Vogue, the night-time audience for American television talk-shows, dentists' patients, and the addicts of The New York Times 's proliferating gossip columns. The composers of the list had plainly ignored the fact that our world includes the inhabitants of Europe, Communist China and Upper Volta, not to mention all of South America and Australasia.
Yet Will Rogers was saying nothing but the literal truth when he wrote, in 1931, that 'The Zulus know Chaplin better than Arkansas knows Garbo.' Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, Chaplin was the most famous man on earth. It is impossible to pick another person of any nationality to whom such a legion of other international celebrities was eager to be introduced. At one time or another, they included the Crown Prince of Japan, Woodrow Wilson, Prince George of Greece, Nijinsky, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Franklin Roosevelt, Georges Carpentier, Diego Rivera, Albert Einstein, Pandit Nehru, Pablo Casals, Nikita Khrushchev, Jean Cocteau, and Chou En-lai.
As early as 1917, when Chaplin had been making two-reelers for only three years, his studio was the court to which trooped the most eminent of touring artists: Paderewski, Godowsky, Heifetz, Harry Lauder, Dame Nellie Melba. In 1921, on his first return to Britain since he had left it as an obscure vaudevillian, the crowds at Waterloo lifted him on their shoulders from the boat train, and the streets along the three-mile route to the Ritz were lined as for a coronation. Ten years later, over a hundred police were required to guard him between the Tokyo docks and the Imperial Hotel. On a two-month visit to Europe in 1931, which included a short detour into Africa, he had to abandon shopping expeditions in Algiers and Marrakech. In Berlin, he was the guest of the Reichstag. In Paris, the Briand Cabinet attended his investiture into the Legion of Honour. In London, he was toasted at a public banquet by Winston Churchill, and among the great ones who sought him out were H.G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, Emil Ludwig, Lloyd George, Lady Astor, the King and Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught and Bernard Shaw. Shaw broke a lifetime's vow by wearing evening dress to appear with him at the opening of City Lights. Mahatma Gandhi was the only innocent in this majestic procession of fans. Told that it was important for him to meet the great man, he replied, 'Who is Mr Chaplin?' He saw him nevertheless.
This celebrity list is not compiled to elicit gasps of astonishment. It is merely meant to sharpen the point that whereas the Beatles, for example, may have enjoyed an idolatry as widespread, it was only among their fanatical followers. Chaplin was mobbed by ordinary people of all types, of all ages, was known to every country and was the sought-after guest of kings, statesmen, authors, artists, celebrities of every sort.
It has to be borne in mind as a burden on the ego quite beyond the imagining of the rest of us. There is one story that Chaplin loved to tell which shows that in the beginning no one was more overwhelmed by the extent of his fame than Chaplin himself. This may at first sound suspicious as fact and coy as a confessional, because we think of fame as something that burgeons and can hardly amaze its object, unless it mushrooms overnight, as with Lindbergh.
It happened to Chaplin when he was already earning $1,250 a week, a salary which would have been handsome for an opera star. (Within a year, he signed for $10,000 a week.) He was, at the time, the most financially precious property in the movies. But it is hard for us now to appreciate how inbred was the American motion picture business in its infancy, how much of a colony in exile its practitioners had created.
In 1915, there were studios on Long Island, in Chicago, and in the hills across the bay from San Francisco. But Hollywood, only four years away from the status of a sheep town without a post office, was already the world's motion picture factory. It was all so new and so self-absorbed in its productiveness that its workers formed as parochial a community as the scientists labouring in their hideout in Los Alamos to make the atom bomb. An Englishman I knew for many years who had gone out to Utah in 1908 to look over his father's investment in a copper mine, and who subsequently drifted to San Francisco and tapped a little silver in the 1912 Tonopah strike, used to exercise his horse by signing up as an extra for the primitive Westerns being made at Niles Canyon by 'Bronco Billy' Anderson, a partner in the S & A (for Spoor and Anderson) company which, as Essanay, signed Chaplin to a contract that quadrupled his former salary. This worldly Englishman told me how he had struck up a friendship with Mabel Normand, an early and beguiling film comedienne, and how he went down one time to Santa Monica to watch the shooting of a Chaplin film in which she appeared. For two or three days—which was as long as it took in those days to do the whole filming—he hung around with the cast and dined with them in the evening. He must have been as flattered as any other European visitor to be socialising with the legendary 'Charlie'. But he told me what a shock it was to notice the crudity of Chaplin's table manners, his brusqueness with waiters, his cocky assumption that he was the smartest movie- maker in town. Which indeed he was, even though his conceit was a kind of bluster covering up the rueful knowledge that he was no more than a big fish in a tiny and socially rather murky pond of Southern California.
On lonely evenings—and Chaplin always prized the good artist's retreat into the loneliness that breeds ideas—he liked to go over to a favourite cafe in Santa Monica owned and run by one Nat Goodwin, a light comedian who had long ago established himself in London as what Max Beerbohm, among others, thought of as the supreme 'American mime'. Goodwin had retired to California and there looked back with anecdotal amusement over the ease of his theatrical fame and the strain of eight marriages, one of them to Maxine Elliott, a mountainous beauty whom he recalled as 'the Roman Senator'. Chaplin knew all about Goodwin's fame and looked on him, no doubt, as the first among equals. He went to Nat Goodwin's cafe as to a court and listened to the king recall his triumphs. But Goodwin was far more aware of Chaplin's fame than Chaplin was.
There came a time in the beginning of 1916 when Chaplin was exhausted by the frantic routine of making thirteen films in fourteen months. He had just finished cutting Carmen, his parody of the opera, and he decided to accept the invitation of his brother, Syd, to rest and play in New York. It would be the first time he had seen the big city since he had left it as a member of Fred Karno's vaudeville company. Goodwin told Chaplin that he would be lionised and gave him a little avuncular advice: 'You'll be invited everywhere, but don't accept. Pick out one or two friends and be satisfied to imagine the rest ... John Drew was a great favourite with society and went to all their houses, but they would not go to his theatre. They had had him in their drawing-rooms.'
Well primed by this cautionary tale, Chaplin boarded the train for the journey east and relaxed into the five days of anonymity that would precede the social whirl he had been warned to expect from the actors and actresses and social-theatrical hangers-on in New York. On the evening of the second day, he was standing in his underwear shaving in the washroom as the train pulled into Amarillo, Texas. He was aware of a vague baying sound as the train slid into the station. He peered out and saw a dense crowd on the platform and a line of trestle tables piled with refreshments. Like any other traveller, he assumed that Amarillo was out to welcome some local hero—a football star, the Governor, perhaps—and he went back to his lathering. The baying sound came into focus as a chant: 'Charlie! Charlie! Charlie! Where's Charlie Chaplin?' There was a rush of footsteps along the corridor and a deputation caught him. He was allowed to wipe his face and pull on a shirt and tie and descend to a roar of cheers, as the Mayor stepped up to invite him to 'have a drink and a light refreshment' with, apparently, the entire population of Amarillo. At any rate, the crowd was too boisterous for safety, and the Mayor, slammed against the train with a rumpled Chaplin, as the cops strode and shouted, performed a Groucho switch of mood and snapped, 'All right, Charlie, let's get it over with.'
In the retelling of it, Chaplin recalled this line as the one delightful memory of what had been a trauma. When it was all over, and the train moved off, he sat in his compartment, huddled against the pointings and gigglings of the people who had lately seen a fellow passenger and now recognised a marvel. He was, he would admit, at first wildly flattered, then frightened, and, long before New York, facing for the first time the fact of universal fame and the psychological problem, peculiar I imagine to ventriloquists, of being worshipped as the creator of a being outside himself.
It was the same in Kansas City and Chicago. Along the route, where the train ran through suburban stations, people stood in clusters or long lines beside the track waving at the Man who must be in there somewhere. It was no longer the Southern Pacific trans-continental daily out of Glendale. It was the Chaplin Train, as one would say the Lincoln Train.
From then on, he had to learn to acquire the protective affability, and the stoicism, that recognisable celebrities must live with. It was not easy for him. He discovered with some alarm that he cherished his privacy, which was now invaded night and day. He was also highly opinionated, and while he responded extravagantly to anyone who sincerely sought advice about some private turmoil or the future of capitalism, he was insulted by general questions that might be put to any other celebrity, and he was rattled to the point of outrage by gossip-column queries about his taste in women, in food, whether he would ever play Hamlet or become an American citizen. He refused to perform for a shipboard concert. At Cherbourg, a ship's reporter wondered whether he considered Lenin or Lloyd George the greater man. He snapped, 'One works and the other plays,' thus planting an ominous hint of other innumerable offhand sallies that would get him into a thicket of public squabbles in the years ahead.
When he had acquired some self-possession, which he once admitted to me deserted him most often when most he needed it, namely in the presence of newspapermen out to bait him, he was most concerned to dispose briskly of the interview, the war bond speech, the balcony appearance, and lock himself into his privacy. This impatience to have done with the adulation—which he once significantly remarked 'is given, after all, to the little fellow, not me'—brought him unfairly the reputation of a misanthrope. Simply, but hopelessly, he discovered, after the first return to New York, that he could enjoy no such luxury of choice as Nat Goodwin had recommended: 'Pick out one or two friends and be satisfied to imagine the rest.'
Excerpted from Six Men by Alistair Cooke. Copyright © 1977 Alistair Cooke. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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