MI5 helped US in fruitless search for Charlie Chaplin's Communist past


Even in 1952, with the best years of his movie career behind him, Charlie Chaplin had one of the biggest names in Hollywood. But according to newly released MI5 files the authorities were not convinced it was really his: asked by a suspicious US to investigate Chaplin's early years in England, British intelligence officers were unable to locate the star's birth records.

Though he was believed to have been born in Walworth, in south London, on 16 April 1889, no birth certificate could be found in files at Somerset House, leading MI5 to conclude Chaplin "was either not born in this country or that his name at birth was other than those mentioned". A hunt for references to "Israel Thornstein" – a possible alias, or so claimed the US – also proved fruitless. And when a source suggested to Scotland Yard's Special Branch that the actor may have been born near Paris, the foreign intelligence service, MI6, was sent to search in vain for evidence.

The US government's interest in Chaplin – a resident since 1912, though never an American citizen – stemmed from his supposed Communist sympathies. In an era of McCarthyist witch-hunts, Chaplin was privately disparaged by the FBI director J Edgar Hoover as "one of Hollywood's parlour Bolsheviks". When the star sailed for Britain in 1952 to attend the premiere of his new film, Limelight, Hoover was determined to find grounds on which to deny him re-entry.

In communications with British intelligence, released today by the National Archives in Kew, the Americans asked their transatlantic counterparts to trace the actor's old passports, hoping for evidence of visits to the USSR. All to no avail. "US government cannot prove party membership," ran a telegram from Washington, copied to MI5's then director-general, Sir Percy Sillitoe. If all else failed, the message went on, details of Chaplin's personal life could be brought to bear: "He has been involved in paternity and abortion cases. Being an alien, Immigration can exclude him for moral turpitude."

When the US Attorney General, James McGranery, announced he would indeed revoke the actor's re-entry permit, Chaplin settled in Switzerland. In 1958, when it was reported the US was still pursuing him for $500,000 (£315,000) in unpaid taxes, he described his treatment as "revengeful and continual persecution". He would not return to America until 1972.

Due to US objections, Chaplin was denied a knighthood until 1975, but the British remained unmoved by allegations about his politics. When he took a holiday in Kenya in 1958, for example, a message to MI5's East Africa liaison officer denied he was a security risk: "It may be that Chaplin is a Communist sympathiser, but... he would appear to be no more than a 'progressive' or radical."

Chaplin died in Switzerland in 1977. The mystery of his birth, however, may have been solved last year.A letter found in a locked drawer, dating from the 1970s, from a Jack Hill of Tamworth, Staffordshire, claimed the star had been born in the caravan of a "Gypsy Queen" – Chaplin's aunt – at the Black Patch Romany camp, near Birmingham.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers