DOCUMENT: Celebrity

Charlie Chaplin's Birth Once Vexed FBI, MI5 Agents

Trans-Atlantic probe detailed comic's origins

Charlie Chaplin

View Document

Charlie Chaplin File

FEBRUARY 17--Prompted by the FBI’s Commie hunters, British intelligence officers sought to unravel the mystery of Charlie Chaplin’s birth, but were unable to find any proof that he was born in London, as the comic actor long claimed.

Files released yesterday by the British National Archives show how MI5 investigators examined Chaplin’s background after he left the United States amidst reports that he was affiliated with members of the Communist Party.

At the request of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, British officials sought to locate records showing that Chaplin was born in their country in 1889. American investigators also asked their MI5 counterparts to determine whether Chaplin’s real name was Israel Thornstein.

On both counts, however, intelligence officers could find no trace of Chaplin/Thornstein  being born in the country, according to a series of memos from 1952-53. Most of these documents are marked “Secret” or “Confidential.”

The U.S. government’s interest in Chaplin was detailed in a January 1953 letter from a Foreign Service attaché who noted that an FBI source (purported to be a “high-ranking Communist functionary”) had identified the performer as “the equivalent of a member of the Party” and other “Communist-front groups.”

After British investigators--including London’s Metropolitan Police--could find no trace of Chaplin’s birth, they chased down a source report that he was actually born near Fontainebleau, France in early-1889. But a check by French officials revealed “no trace of Chaplin’s birth” in Fontainebleau or the surrounding area.

Chaplin, who took up residence in Switzerland after leaving the U.S., said he departed in the face of “lies and vicious propaganda” directed at him by “powerful reactionary groups” and “America’s yellow press.” He told reporters, “I am not a Communist. I am a peacemonger.” (8 pages)