Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplinby Joyce Milton
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Charlie Chaplin made an amazing seventy-one films by the time he was only thirty-three years old. He was known not only as the world’s first international movie star, but as a comedian, a film director, and a man ripe with scandal, accused of plagiarism, communism, pacifism, liberalism, and anti-Americanism. He seduced young women, marrying four different times, each time to a woman younger than the last. In this animated biography of Chaplin, Joyce Milton reveals to us a life riddled with gossip and a struggle to rise from an impoverished London childhood to the life of a successful American film star. Milton shows us how the creation of his famous character—the Tramp, the Little Fellow—was both rewarding and then devastating as he became obsolete with the changes of time. Tramp is a perceptive, clever, and captivating biography of a talented and complicated man whose life was filled with scandal, politics, and art.
With anyone as well-chronicled as Charlie Chaplin, a new biography must pass the strictest tests of originality. Does it say something new or recast what is known in a different light? Milton (Loss of Eden, 1992, etc.) meets these criteria and more in this major reevaluation of a filmmaker whose one saving grace was his ability to make people laugh. His squalid London childhood was appallingpoverty, a mentally unstable actress mother, an absent alcoholic father. Chaplin got out as soon as he could, finding unexpected success as a music hall pantomime performer. Though Hollywood was eager to have him, he made little mark in his first few films. Then he created his "Tramp" characterthe absurd mustache, the bowler and cane, the uneasy mix of pathos and buffooneryand became a star of almost unimaginable proportions. Fame is rarely ennobling, but with Chaplin it offered too many opportunities to indulge his weaknesses. He pursued womenespecially teenagersobsessively; he cheated friends, cheated the IRS, stole ideas, supported unpleasant causes. All of this had little effect on his movies; perhaps it was even the wellspring of his talent, until he succumbed to the comedian's fatal temptation of taking himself seriously. Milton is particularly devastating in her analysis of how his films turned from ingenious slapstick to leaden, Stalinist posturings. Diagnosing the dead is always an iffy proposition, but she also makes an excellent case for Chaplin having been afflicted with manic-depression. Certainly, this would help explain his innumerable inconsistencies as well as his wild mood swings in which bursts of activity were followed by idle, sullen stretches.
Despite the profusion of negatives, this is not a hatchet job. Rather, Milton presents a complex, insightful portrait of a man in whom genius and iniquity were inseparably combined.
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The Life of Charlie Chaplin
By Joyce Milton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Joyce Milton
All rights reserved.
"They Were Nothing ... Nothing ... NOTHING!"
Born during the reign of Queen Victoria, Charles Spencer Chaplin now seems peculiarly modern. He became the first international movie star, celebrated around the world for his portrayal of the Little Fellow, a universal victim. But his sense of his own identity was as uncertain as the lineage of his character. For much of his life he claimed that he had been born in a hotel in Fontainebleau, France, and that his older half-brother, Sydney, had been born in South Africa. He often told friends that he was far from sure that his mothers husband, Charles Chaplin Sr., was his biological Father. At times he thought his real father might have been Jewish or even African American. He was undoubtedly at least one-quarter Romany, or Gypsy, a heritage he sometimes denied and at other times took pride in. He was unsure, or pretended to be, of his mother's maiden name.
Chaplin rose from the marginal classes of the South London slums, a tratum of society among whom family history was not a source of pride but a catalog of humiliations and tragedies, to be glossed over with invention when they couldn't actually be forgotten. As he himself put it, "To gauge the morals of our family by commonplace standards would be as horroneous as putting a thermometer in boiling water." As long as the facts remained mere bubbles, evaporating from the seething cauldron of the last, moral judgments were irrelevant.
In his sixties, when he was working on his autobiography, Chaplin decided that the time had come to set the record straight. He paid a visit to the central registry office of vital statistics in London, but his search for birth certificate was unsuccessful. "I went to Somerset House, you know, on the Thames," he told a much younger acquaintance, "and there is no Charles Chaplin."
Nor did he find any records of his mother's family: "They were nothing ... nothing ... NOTHING!"
Thanks to Chaplin's dedicated admirers in Britain, many—though by no means all—of the mysteries surrounding his early life have been resolved. His mother was born Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill on August 6, 1865, the daughter of a shoemaker, and grew up in Walworth, a working-class district of South London. Hannah's mother, one Mary Ann Hill, had married her first husband, a sign painter named Henry Hodges, when she was about fifteen. They had one son, also called Henry. The elder Henry Hodges died in a fall from a horse-drawn omnibus, leaving Mary Ann a widow at thirty-four. In 1861 she married Charles Hill, and the couple had two daughters, Hannah and Kate. Mary Ann and young Henry worked side by side with Charles Hill as he plied his trade, but they never prospered. Hill suffered from rheumatism and very likely he drank. He seems never to have had his own shop, and the family moved every year or two, occupying a series of cheap rented flats.
Chaplin described his maternal grandfather as a "good old Irish Mick" with a shock of snow- white hair, who hailed from County Cork. He had been told that Grandfather Hill was somehow involved in the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish, but this is unlikely since Cavendish, the nephew of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, was not murdered until 1882, long after Charles Hill took up residence in London. Whether or not he had revolutionary sentiments, Hill does seem to have been a combative sort. He quarreled with both his daughters and eventually turned his wife out of his house, allegedly because he caught her in bed with another man.
Hannah Hill was eighteen when she escaped from this grim environment. She later told her children that she eloped with the son of an English lord and married him in South Africa, where she lived on a plantation, waited on by legions of servants, and gave birth to her first son, called Sidney John. In fact her lovers name was Sydney Hawkes or something similar, and another version of the family story identifies him as a Jewish bookmaker. Jewish or not, Hawkes was hardly the son of a lord, although there is some reason to suspect that he may have been the black-sheep heir of a well-to-do family. Hannah often spoke of a legacy that was supposed to come to her son after Hawkes's death.
Hannah and Sydney Hawkes were never married, and by the time she gave birth on March 16, 1885, the relationship had ended. Sidney John (hereafter known as Sydney, the spelling he used later in life) was born at the home of Joseph Hodges, who was the uncle of Hannahs half-brother Henry. It is possible that Hannah had then already met Charles Chaplin, a twenty-two-year-old singer, whom she would marry on June 22, when her baby was just fourteen weeks old.
As far as anyone knows, Hannah Hill's story of her elopement to South Africa was a fantasy. But maybe not. The Chaplin family had South African connections: Three of Charles Chaplin's siblings eventually emigrated there, and one brother, Albert, became a prosperous farmer with business holdings near Durban. It is just possible that Hannah did run off to South Africa with Sydney Hawkes. She may even have met Charles Chaplin there and returned with him to England, where Hawkes was unlikely to pursue her or make any claim on his child.
More likely, however, Hannah and Charles met in London, drawn together by their shared ambition to become stars of the music hall stage. Variety—or vaudeville as it was usually called in America—was one of the few routes to success open to an ambitious young person from the lower classes, and the South London neighborhood where they had both grown up was the nerve center of the business, a venue of large theaters and booking agencies as well as pubs and eateries frequented by music hall entertainers. Charles and Hannah may have started out entertaining on street corners or working in "the halls" in some minor capacity. Within two years of Sydney's birth, each launched a career as a soloist.
Hannah Chaplin was not a great beauty, but she had striking violet eyes and a pert nose, and her mouth turned upward slightly at the corners, giving her a saucy expression. It is unlikely that she had much formal schooling, but she was a quick study. According to her second son, Charlie, she spoke four languages fluently. She knew many historical anecdotes, drawn more from popular plays than from books, and would retain to the end of her life an encyclopedic memory for the songs she heard performed in the music halls. Under the stage name Lily Harley she was billed as a "serio comedienne" who sang, danced, and did impersonations. Her repertoire included one song that she sang while costumed in a judges robes and wig:
I am a lady judge,
and a good judge, too....
I mean to teach the lawyers
a thing or two,
And show them just exactly
what the girls can do.
While Hannah Hill Chaplin had pulled herself up from nothing, her husband came from a family of modestly prosperous pub keepers. Contrary to the myth perpetuated by outdated reference books like Who's Who in American Jewry, which traced the Chaplin family's origins to a Central European immigrant named Thonstein, Charles senior was not Jewish but the descendant of a long line of English yeoman farmers. His ancestors hailed from the village of Great Finborough in Suffolk, where the surname Chaplin can be found in parish records as early as 1609.
The early Chaplins were farmers, sturdy and long-lived. Caleb Chaplin, the earliest identifiable direct ancestor of Charles, was born in 1670. His grandson, George, lived until 1819. George was illiterate but left a will signed with his mark, instructing his heirs to keep the expense of his funeral "moderate as may be." To his widow and son Meschach he left "All the life and ded Stock on my Farm together with all the growing crops thereon likewise." Six other children were to share the sum of eighty pounds, while the son of a child who had predeceased George received an inheritance of five pounds "good and lawful Money of Grate Britain."
George's son Shadrach continued a family tradition by naming his three sons Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Of this generation Abednego became an ironmonger and grew prosperous, while the younger Shadrach moved to the city of Ipswich and ran through a series of occupations—master brewer, pork butcher, hotel manager, coffeehouse proprietor, and shoemaker. His son, Spencer Chaplin, got married at the age of twenty to a sixteen-year-old Gypsy girl named Ellen Elizabeth Smith.
Ellen was one of the southern Smiths, a well-established Romanichal (English Gypsy) family whose members still visit caravan sites in the British Isles. She bore her husband five sons and two daughters. By the time the fourth child, Charles, was born in 1863, the family had moved to London, where Spencer became a pubkeeper and eventually the owner-manager of the Devonport Arms in Paddington. Ellen died at the age of thirty-five, and ten-year-old Charles, the future music hall singer, was brought up mainly by his father and older siblings. Spencer never remarried but, it seems, enjoyed a reputation as a ladies' man. His grandson, our Charlie Chaplin, would recall quite proudly that even when Spencer was "an old man with white hair ... the family couldn't trust him alone with a woman." Actually Spencer was only in his sixties when he died, so his distinction along these lines was not so great as Charlie thought.
Spencer's interest in women aside, the Chaplins were a hardworking and prosperous lot. Charles's eldest brother, Spencer William Chaplin, expanded the family's interests to South London, becoming the landlord of the Queen's Head pub on Broad Street, between the Albert Embankment and Lambeth Walk. While brother Albert established himself in Durban and became rich, fathering nine children, Charles took advantage of a pleasing light baritone voice and an affable personality to launch his career in the music halls as a "descriptive vocalist"--- a specialist in musical monologues.
The Chaplins can hardly have approved of Hannah Hill, who had given birth to an out-of- wedlock child by another man less than four months before she married into their family. Hannah's mother, Mary Ann, was another cause for embarrassment. After being repudiated by her husband, Mary Ann was reduced to peddling old clothes on the street to support herself. Poverty, cheap gin, and perhaps mental illness all took their toll, and she became increasingly unkempt and eccentric as the years went by.
Charlie Chaplin believed that Mary Ann Hill, his maternal grandmother, was either a Gypsy or half-Gypsy. Judging from a garbled paragraph in his autobiography, in which he gives her maiden name as Smith, it would seem that he was confusing Mary Ann Hill with his paternal grandmother, Ellen Smith Chaplin. On other occasions, however, it is clear that he was basing his belief on childhood memories of his maternal relatives. His mothers people, he recalled in 1964, were in the "rag and bone business—junk collectors," and his aunt "used to be able to call better than all others, 'Come and buy my violets.' ... This means almost certainly that she was a gypsy. They were the ones selling violets."
All this is rather vague, and certainly Gypsies had no monopoly on either violet selling or the junk trade in turn-of-the-century London. Quite possibly Chaplin chose to believe that his maternal relatives had Gypsy blood because this put a romantic gloss on their otherwise humble and rather disorderly lives. On the other hand, it may be that there were Gypsies among Chaplin's maternal relatives and he was not telling all he knew. Romany culture is insular, and there is a strong bias, well grounded in centuries of persecution, against revealing oneself to the gadje (non-Gypsies). A number of Chaplin's associates who met his mother when she was in her late fifties accepted her as a Gypsy. Charlie himself, who never mastered a foreign language as an adult, was said to have been familiar with the dialect of Romany spoken in the British Isles, and he was fluent in the half-Romany patois spoken by Gypsies, street musicians, and circus and carnival performers. Harry Crocker, a close associate who at one time intended to write Chaplin's biography, often questioned him about his grandparents and concluded that he was being deliberately evasive. Charlie, he wrote, "had a secretive and suspicious side to his delightful character."
To complicate matters, when Chaplin did talk about his mother's side of the family he often seemed to be referring to the Hodgeses, who were not blood relatives. Of Mary Ann Hill's biological parents nothing is known except that on her marriage certificate she described her father as a "mercantile clerk." It was Joseph Hodges, the brother of Mary Ann's first husband, who was a "general dealer" or trader in secondhand goods. This catchall phrase was often used in official documents to describe Romany (Gypsy) heads of families; in fact, Ellen Smith's father was also a "general dealer." The Hodgeses appear to have functioned as a surrogate family, taking in Mary Ann and her two daughters when they were estranged from Charles Hill. Even though he was acquainted with his grandfather Hill, Charlie always listed his mothers maiden name as Hannah Hodges on his immigration documents.
Romany ancestry, on one side of the family or on both, was not a matter of pride in late Victorian London, and one can well understand why Chaplin, in his autobiography, would refer to his Gypsy forebears as "the skeleton in our family closet." Sedentary Gypsies, especially women who intermarried or led irregular sexual lives, were at the very bottom of the social scale, despised by traditional Romanies as well as society as a whole. The latter's attitude can be judged from an ostensibly sympathetic discussion that appeared in the London Illustrated News in 1879, when Hannah Hill was fourteen. The anonymous author reported that between four and five thousand semisedentary Gypsies were living in tents or wagons within the London city limits: "They take their meals and do their washing squatting on the ground like tailors and Zulus. Lying, begging, thieving, cheating, and every other abomination that low cunning craft backed by idleness can devise, they practice." In addition, he reports, an unknown number of urbanized Gypsies "have arrived at what they consider the highest state of civilized life [but] reside in houses, which in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred are in the lowest and most degraded part of the towns, among the offscouring of all nations."
Although the writer advocated education and, presumably, assimilation, he reserved his deepest scorn for younger generations of Romanies, many of whom had intermarried with non-Gypsies. Such families, he said, continued to resist cooperation with the census and frequently failed to enroll their children in school:
Considerable difficulty is experienced sometimes in finding them out, as the women often go by two names.... In many instances they live like pigs and die like dogs. The real old-fashioned gipsy has become lewd, and demoralised—if such a thing could be—by allowing his sons and daughters to mix up with the scamps, vagabonds, "rodneys" and jail-birds who now and then settle among them as they are camping on the ditch banks. The consequence is our lanes are being infested with a lot of dirty, ignorant gipsies, who, with their tribes of squalid children, have been encouraged by servant girls supplying their wants with eggs, bacon, milk and potatoes.... Children born under such circumstances, unless taken hold of by the state, will turn to be a class of most dangerous characters.
The article went on to propose a national registration system that would assign a number to every Gypsy dwelling as well as a requirement that every Gypsy family carry a "book" recording each child's school attendance. The goal of encouraging literacy among Romany children was laudable, but one can also see why the intended beneficiaries of such schemes would be suspicious of government and less than eager to have their children "taken hold of."
By the time Charles Spencer Chaplin was born, on April 16, 1889, his father was already a well-known entertainer, popular enough to receive top billing in the provincial music halls. There were more than two hundred such theaters in Great Britain, and Charles was often away on tour. During the week his son was born he happened to be appearing in Hull, in the north of England, at Professor Leotard Bosco's Empire Palace of Varieties.
Excerpted from Tramp by Joyce Milton. Copyright © 1996 Joyce Milton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Joyce Milton is the author of Loss of Eden: A Biography of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, The Rosenberg File (with Ronald Radosh), and Vicki (with Anne Bardash).
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If you're a communist, read some other slobbering tribute to him. If you love his early, pure comedic genius, this book is like "The Rink." Balanced, yet bruising.
Without his sence of slapstcick we would't have things like bugs bunny or any other cartoon with his influence I'm a huge fan charlie chaplin and i've read almost every thing about him great comdien
This is a very dry historical view of Charlie Chaplin's life. It reads like an encyclopedia instead of a novel or biography. There is not emotion and no heart to this book. Although Chaplin had an interesting life, it didn't show through this book.
During the entire duration of this "biography", you can tell that yeah some of these facts may be true, but the entire tone of the book seems like Milton has a bone to pick with Chaplin and shes making him seem like a horrid person. Read David Robinson's "Chaplin". Its MUCH more factual and not as attacking.