Video: Was Charlie Chaplin really a Frenchman called Israel Thornstein?
Published 17/02/2012 | 09:35
MI5 investigated whether Charlie Chaplin was actually a Frenchman called Israel Thornstein, previously secret files on the Hollywood film star have revealed.
Intelligence officers could find no trace of the actor's birth in Britain despite Chaplin always claiming he was born in London in 1889.
The mystery surrounding his origins emerged when the US authorities asked MI5 to look into the comic actor's background after he left America in 1952 under a cloud of suspicion over his communist links.
But British officers could find no birth certificate and the earliest official record was a passport issued in 1920.
They investigated suggestions he was born in Fontainebleau, near Paris, or nearby Melun, while the Americans claimed his real name was Israel Thornstein and raised the idea he may have been a Russian Jew.
Despite extensive searches, MI5 could find no evidence of any of the claims leaving his true origins a mystery to this day.
However, British intelligence rejected American claims that Chaplin was a high-risk communist, concluding that while he may have been a “sympathiser” he was no more than a “progressive or radical”.
Agents here accepted his name had “been exploited in the interests of communism as one of the victims of 'McCarthyism' – the US anti-communist campaign led by Senator Joe McCarthy – but said he was not a security risk.
It is the first time the files kept by MI5 on Chaplin have been made public and show the extent to which agents went in checking his background.
The star said he was born on April 16 1889 in East Street, Walworth, south London – just four days before the birth of Adolf Hitler, whom he lampooned in his classic 1940 film The Great Dictator.
But after scouring the files at Somerset House in London for his birth certificate, MI5 concluded: "It would seem that Chaplin was either not born in this country or that his name at birth was other than those mentioned."
Scotland Yard's Special Branch added to the intrigue by passing on a tip from a source who claimed the actor was born near Fontainebleau, just south of Paris.
The police memo said: "There may or may not be some truth in this, but in view of the fact that no documentary proof has been obtained that Chaplin was born in the United Kingdom, it may well be that he was in fact born in France."
MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, investigated further but found no trace of Chaplin's birth in France either.
John Marriott, then head of MI5's counter-subversion branch, was not convinced that the absence of a birth certificate was a matter of concern for the intelligence services.
He wrote: "It is curious that we can find no record of Chaplin's birth, but I scarcely think that this is of any security significance."
One possible answer to the mystery emerged last year when Chaplin’s family found a letter in a locked drawer suggesting he had been born on a gipsy camp in Smethwick, near Birmingham.
The note was sent to the star in the early 1970s from Jack Hill who said his own aunt was a Gypsy Queen and he had been born in her caravan.
It is known Chaplin’s mother Hannah had the maiden name Hill and descended from travellers.
Having escaped grinding poverty to launch a career in British music-hall, Chaplin moved to the US in 1910 and made a series of hugely successful films in Hollywood in his famous persona of the "Little Tramp".
But in the early 1950s, when Washington was in the grip of McCarthyist paranoia about Soviet infiltration, he was reviled in the US as a communist sympathiser.
There was further controversy about his two marriages to 16-year-old girls, failure to take American citizenship, and claims he fathered an illegitimate child and owed 2 million dollars in back taxes.
Chaplin and his family sailed to Britain in September 1952 to attend the premiere of his new film Limelight.
While they were out of the country, US Attorney General James McGranery announced he would deny the actor a re-entry permit because of his alleged Soviet connections.
Chaplin's MI5 files, released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, show agents here agreed that he had given funds to communist front organisations but that the US could not prove party membership.
And a note sent to the MI5’s East Africa liaison officer ahead of a safari holiday Chaplin took in Kenya in February-March 1958 shows that MI5 were unimpressed by Washington's claims of communist links, which “do not impress us”.
It stated: "We have no substantial information of our own against Chaplin, and we are not satisfied that there are reliable grounds for regarding him as a security risk.
"His name has, of course, been exploited in the interests of communism as one of the victims of 'McCarthyism' ...
"It may be that Chaplin is a communist sympathiser, but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a 'progressive' or radical."
Files released by The National Archives in 2002 showed that the British Government blocked Chaplin's knighthood for nearly 20 years because of US concern about his colourful private life and political affiliations.
He was eventually knighted in March 1975 and died at his home in Switzerland on Christmas Day 1977, aged 88.