Thursday, 4 October 2012

Who Was The Real Charlie Chaplin?

“A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow,
always hopeful of romance and adventure”
“I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat,
everything a contradiction:
the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large”
Charlie Chaplin

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London, England, on April 16th 1889.  Chaplin's childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship.  His early years were spent with his mother and brother in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons. Because of this poverty, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at seven years old. The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as "a forlorn existence". He was briefly reunited with his mother at nine years old, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another charity institution.
Chaplin's first stage appearance came at five years old, when he took over from his mother one night in Aldershot. Hannah had been booed off stage, and the manager chose Chaplin, who was standing in the wings, to go on as her replacement. The young boy confidently entertained the crowd, and received laughter and applause.  By age 13 Chaplin had fully abandoned education.   He supported himself with a range of jobs, but said he "never lost sight of my ultimate aim to become an actor."
He went on to acting in firms and eventually directing films, to become one of the greatest performers in our history.  Chaplin received several awards and recognitions during his lifetime, especially during his later career in the 1960s and the 1970s. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Chaplin the 10th greatest male screen legend of all time.   In 2008, Martin Sieff, in a review of the book, Chaplin: A Life, wrote: "Chaplin was not just 'big', he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he stayed on the job. ... It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most”.   George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin "the only genius to come out of the movie industry".
In 1975, he was knighted a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin died in his sleep from the complications of a stroke in the early morning of 25 December 1977 at his home in Switzerland.  The funeral, held two days later on 27 December, was a small and private Anglican ceremony, according to his wishes. 
Two months later, on 1 March 1978, Chaplin's coffin was dug up and stolen from its grave by two unemployed mechanics, Polish Roman Wardas and Bulgarian Gantcho Ganev, in an attempt to extort money from Chaplin's widow, Oona Chaplin.   After she refused to pay the ransom, they started to threaten Chaplin's youngest children with violence.  Ganev and Wardas were caught in a large police operation in May, and Chaplin's coffin was found buried in a field in the nearby village of Noville.  It was reburied in the Vevey cemetery under 6 feet (1.8 m) of concrete. In December 1978, Wardas received a sentence of four and a half years' imprisonment and Gantcho a suspended sentence for disturbing the peace of the dead and for the attempt of extortion.

This article was inspired by a poem I found a while ago, expressing self-love, from which we can all learn some real life lessons:

As I Began to Love Myself
A Self- Love Poem by Charlie Chaplin
As I began to love myself I found that anguish and emotional suffering are only warning signs that I was living against my own truth.
Today, I know, this is “AUTHENTICITY”.
As I began to love myself I understood how much it can offend somebody As I try to force my desires on this person, even though I knew the time was not right and the person was not ready for it, and even though this person was me.
Today I call it “RESPECT”.
As I began to love myself I stopped craving for a different life, and I could see that everything that surrounded me was inviting me to grow.
Today I call it “MATURITY”.
As I began to love myself I understood that at any circumstance, I am in the right place at the right time, and everything happens at the exactly right moment. So I could be calm.
Today I call it “SELF-CONFIDENCE”.
As I began to love myself I quit steeling my own time, and I stopped designing huge projects for the future. Today, I only do what brings me joy and happiness, things I love to do and that make my heart cheer, and I do them in my own way and in my own rhythm.
Today I call it “SIMPLICITY”.
As I began to love myself I freed myself of anything that is no good for my health – food, people, things, situations, and everything the drew me down and away from myself. At first I called this attitude a healthy egoism.
Today I know it is “LOVE OF ONESELF”.
As I began to love myself I quit trying to always be right, and ever since I was wrong less of the time.
Today I discovered that is “MODESTY”.
As I began to love myself I refused to go on living in the past and worry about the future. Now, I only live for the moment, where EVERYTHING is happening.
Today I live each day, day by day, and I call it “FULFILLMENT”.
As I began to love myself I recognized that my mind can disturb me and it can make me sick. But As I connected it to my heart, my mind became a valuable ally.
Today I call this connection “WISDOM OF THE HEART”.
We no longer need to fear arguments, confrontations or any kind of problems with ourselves or others. Even stars collide, and out of their crashing new worlds are born.
Today I know THAT IS “LIFE !

It has always been assumed that the reason that made the character so memorable had its origins in his father's tragic early death from alcoholism and his own incarceration in an orphanage at the age of seven.   But now a new book, Chaplin: A Life, written by the renowned psychiatrist Dr Stephen Weissman claims that the real source of Chaplin's sorrow, and therefore his creative juices, was not so much the loss of his feckless father, but the terrible untold story of his beautiful mother, Hannah.
Instead of being the loving and glamorous parent Chaplin always claimed she had been, new evidence suggests that Hannah - a minor music hall star who performed under the name of Lily Harley - spent part of her youth working as a prostitute with tragic long-term consequences.  Weissman claims that she contracted syphilis - a disease not readily curable in the late 19th century - and that it triggered a harrowing descent into madness, witnessed by the young Chaplin who would never be able to forget it.  
According to one of Chaplin’s mistresses, silent film star Louise Brooks, it left him so scarred he would never have sex without first painting the appropriate part of his body with iodine to try to prevent any possible infection.  Hannah's fate was so horrible that, until now, Chaplin biographers have fought shy of revealing the details. 
He adored his mother, recalling her as dainty and beautiful with violet eyes and fair hair so long that she could sit on it. He loved the way she dressed him in velvet and remembered fondly how she would enact imaginary scenes from the life of one of her many heroines, the 17th century courtesan Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II.  But Hannah was not the fashionable actress or the faithful wife that her young son had imagined.   Hannah had three boys by three different men, but had managed to fall out with all their fathers.  
She was eventually forced to take stage jobs in ever smaller theatres to feed her two other children. She even had to pawn her glamorous stage gowns to pay the rent.  Her faltering career finally ground to a halt one night when her singing voice cracked and sank to a whisper in the middle of her act and the audience cruelly laughed her off stage.  Charlie, aged five, was listening in the wings, appalled by her humiliation. But, already a talented mimic, the little boy took his mother's place under the spotlight and finished her act.  
Obsessed with her failing health she took up religion in an attempt to find a cure. Now, instead of going on stage, she would spend her evenings acting out scenes from the Bible for her boys at home.  In 1898 she was diagnosed as syphilitic and suffering from the violent psychotic episodes characteristic of the tertiary stage of the disease.  Left untreated, the disease took such a toll on Chaplin's mother that by the time she was 35 she was confined to the grim Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum on the outskirts of London, where she had to be kept in a padded room.
Her income was now supplemented by Charlie's father, who had begun to take his paternal responsibilities more seriously.  Young Charlie, too, was encouraged to contribute to the family income by doing what he loved best - performing.  Once more, however, his happiness was to be short-lived.   In 1901, his father died of cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 37, and was buried in a pauper's grave.
Notorious for his under-age mistresses and pilloried for his left wing views, Charlie Chaplin will forever be remembered for his tear-jerking performances as the vulnerable Little Tramp - the icon he created in silent movie days - the endearing figure with his bowler hat, cane and slapstick routines was inspired by Chaplin's poverty stricken childhood in the grim back-streets of Victorian London and the British music halls where he first performed.
And so, as they say, never read a book by its cover.  Behind the fame of Charlie Chaplin was a life of torment and sadness.  We can see this in his quotations, a few to follow:

“We think too much and feel too little”
 “I am at peace with God. My conflict is with Man”
“Life could be wonderful if people would leave you alone”
“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it”
“Nothing is permanent in this wicked world - not even our troubles”
 “Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself”

Related articles:

My Life In Pictures

My Life with Chaplin: An Intimate Memoir

Chaplin: A life

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