Brit spies failed to solve Charlie Chaplin’s birth mystery

Last Updated: Feb 17, 2012, 15:12 PM IST

London: The British intelligence agency, MI5 was bewildered to find out that there were no records of Charlie Chaplin’s birth when it investigated his alleged links with communism, according to newly released files.

Intelligence officers were unable to find any trace of the actor’s birth in Britain despite Chaplin always claiming that 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, the Telegraph reported.

But British officers were unsuccessful in finding any birth certificate and the earliest official record was a passport issued in 1920.

They investigated suggestions that he was born in Fontainebleau, near Paris, or nearby Melun, while the Americans asserted that his real name was Israel Thornstein and raised the idea that he may have been a Russian Jew.

In spite of extensive searches, MI5 could find no proof of any of the claims leaving his true origins a mystery to this day.

However, British intelligence discarded 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 that 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 insisted that he was not a security risk.

It is the first time the files kept by MI5 on Chaplin have been made public and reveal the extent to which agents went in checking his background.

The star maintained that 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 searching 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 plot by passing on a tip from a source who claimed the actor was born near Fontainebleau, just south of Paris.

“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,” the police memo said.

MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, investigated further but could not find any 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 an issue of concern for the intelligence services.

“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.

One probable answer to the mystery emerged last year when Chaplin’s family discovered a letter in a locked drawer indicating that 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 stated that his own aunt was a Gypsy Queen and he had been born in her caravan.

ANI