Sunday, February 19, 2012
By: Vickie J. Rubinson
Newly released secret M15 documents reveal that the silent film star's claim that he was born in London cannot be proven. Speculation regarding the actor's origin suggest his real name could have been Israel Thornstein, and that he was French or perhaps Russian.
Way back in the early 1950s, the West, and especially the U.S. were convinced that a plotting communist was hiding under every tree. Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI suspected even some of Hollywood' biggest stars of sympathy toward the Soviets and initiated surveillance and international investigations into their history.
Documents recently released by Britain's security agency, M15, reveal that one subject of such an investigation was silent film star Charlie Chaplin. M15 historian Christopher Andrew said the FBI's Red-hating chief, J. Edgar Hoover, privately denounced Chaplin as "one of Hollywood's parlor Bolsheviks."
According to a previously secret file, released Friday by Britain's National Archives, the FBI had asked the British spy agency to determine Chaplin's birthplace, but the M15 found no records to back up Chaplin's claim that he was born in London on April 16, 1889. Uncertainty about Chaplin's origins linger to this day--a mystery Chaplin himself may have helped to nurture.
"It would seem that Chaplin was either not born in this country of that his name at birth was other than those mentioned," M15 concluded. Chaplin's life story is a Dickensian rags-to-riches tale. Raised in London in a family of music hall entertainers, he moved to the U.S. in 1910 and became one of Hollywood' first megastars with his shabby, bowler-hatted everyman persona, the Little Tramp.
He was a box office sensation in movies such as "The Gold Rush" "City Lights" and "The Kid," but his left-wing friends and activities alarmed the FBI which began tracking the actor in the early 1920s.
In 1952, as fears of Soviet infiltration raged in the U.S., American authorities asked M15 to investigate Chaplin's political allegiances and personal background including a long-standing rumor that Chaplin was an alias and the performer's true name was Israel Thornstein. British spies could find no trace of him in the birth records at London's Somserst House under the names Chaplin, Thornstein or Harley, his mother's stage name. The spies also checked French records amid rumors he might have been born in the town of Fontainbleau--but that too, drew a blank.
Elsewhere in the file, agents speculate that Chaplin might have Russian roots. There was an allegation that he had once spoken of "going back to Russia."
M15 seemed content to let the mystery of Chaplin's birth remain. British agents were skeptical of American claims that the stars was a communist threat with John Marriott, the head of M15's counter subversion branch, calling the U.S. allegations "unreliable."
"It is curious that we can find no record of Chaplin's birth, but I scarcely think that this is of any security significance," he wrote in 1952. The U.S. thought differently and Chaplin was refused re-entry to the country in 1952. He settled in Switzerland and lived there until death in 1977.