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Chaplin and his three public crucifixions


Charlie Chaplin walking with his wife Oona in 1968

Charlie Chaplin walking with his wife Oona in 1968

Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 film The Kid with Jackie Coogan

Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 film The Kid with Jackie Coogan

Charlie Chaplin on Waterville Strand, Co Kerry, in the early 1960s

Charlie Chaplin on Waterville Strand, Co Kerry, in the early 1960s


Charlie Chaplin walking with his wife Oona in 1968

John Lennon said The Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" and ultimately he paid for it with his life. Charlie Chaplin often said the same of himself, and confining those boasts to his inner circle didn't save him from not one, but three, public crucifixions.

The first came in 1927 when Chaplin divorced not his first, but his second, child bride. He'd seduced the first, Mildred Harris, when he was 29 and she was 14. She was 16 and pregnant when they married. Their baby died after three days and he divorced her on the grounds they were "irreconcilably mismated".

Considering that, in an age when silent movies knew no language barriers, Chaplin was the most famous man on planet earth, the unseemly mess was made go away with remarkable ease.

Not so Child Bride No2. If he were alive today he'd be banged up in a protected sex offenders unit.

Chaplin's first crucifixion came when he got his comeuppance at the hands of Lillita MacMurray. It's plausibly claimed that Lillita inspired Vladimir Nabokov's scandalous novel Lolita. Chaplin's predatory grooming of young girls opened him to entrapment and that's just what happened.

The star took an unpaternal interest in Lillita from the age of seven and her monstrous mother set about grooming Chaplin while he groomed her daughter. When Lillita became pregnant at 16 her lawyer uncle reminded Chaplin that he could be charged with statuary rape. Their marriage was an access all areas pass for the mother and her drunkard family to take over Chaplin's mansion.

Two children later Lillita took Charlie to the cleaners for the vast sum of one million dollars, and then sold her lurid kiss'n'tell details anyway.

Chaplin's second crucifixion in 1943 did even more damage, as a court bizarrely found he'd fathered a child out of wedlock even though blood tests proved he hadn't. The scandal forced the 54-year-old to put back his wedding to 17-year-old Oona O'Neill.

Her father, Pulitzer Prize winning Irish-American playwright Eugene, never spoke to Oona again.

His third crucifixion, and his most shameful in the eyes of many Americans, was at the hands of witchfinder General Senator Joe McCarthy who fingered Chaplin as a dangerous commie sympathiser. (The star had expressed admiration for Stalin.) Returning from Europe the Chaplins were refused re-entry to the States.

They settled in Switzerland and, from the late 1950s, took an annual spring break to Ireland.

A new biography by Peter Ackroyd, entitled Charlie Chaplin, shrinks Chaplin's Irish links to one orphaned line: "He often visited Ireland in the spring, where he liked to fish."

But for a decade they came to Waterville in Kerry, where Charlie played lord of the manor, buying his round, engaging in friendly banter and tipping the help.

Once he asked his driver to stop at a roadside traveller's camp, where he got out for a chat. He'd remind the natives that his mother came from Cork gypsy shoemakers.

Sadly, his mother was destitute by the time of his birth in the squalid slums of Victorian London.

Trying to make ends meet she turned to prostitution, and Chaplin knew that the hopeless drunk married to his mother wasn't his real father.

Later, defying anyone to cast judgement on his mother, Chaplin said that condemning the moral choices forced on his family was as pointless as dipping a thermometer into boiling water.

Like many who beat all the odds to achieve greatness, Chaplin's had an overpowering need to amend for shortcomings that were not his fault.

Deprived of an education, he tried to show off how smart he was. Insiders said that one of the worst things that ever befell him was discovering Roget's Thesaurus.

From then on he could never use one short word where five really long ones would do.

He longed to play Napoleon on screen, and harboured a classic short-man Napoleon Complex. The Bono of his day, he saw himself as a global powerbroker, bending the ear of US President Hoover and Soviet tyrant Kruschev, explaining the true meaning of communism to China's Zhou Enlai, advising Winston Churchill and berating Gandhi for rejecting Western economic wisdom.

He didn't wear a watch, refused to be hurried up, and if he turned up late, or not at all, his standard excuse was: "I'm world famous."

After suffering Chaplin's tyrannical direction, Marlon Brando branded him "fearsomely cruel" and "the most sadistic man I've ever met".

Chaplin's latest biographer goes for an even-handed, sympathetic approach to a man exposed to levels of childhood horror and adult gratification few can begin to imagine.

But despite this attempt at balance, it's hard not to take away the old lesson that absolute power corrupts absolutely.