Agencies probed mystery of Chaplin's birth


THE FBI, under J Edgar Hoover, repeatedly urged the British MI5 intelligence agency to investigate if actor Charlie Chaplin was a Jew, according to files released in London yesterday.

Believing that Chaplin was Israel Thornstein, the FBI sought checks to be made of British birth records, though MI5 could find no birth certificate for him in Somerset House in London.

Chaplin had always said he was born in Kennington in London, in 1889, but no record could be found under Chaplin, or under his mother’s name, Halley.

The mystery of Chaplin’s birth emerged when the US authorities asked MI5 to look into the actor’s background after he left the United States in 1952 under a cloud of suspicion over his communist links. Chaplin had been a target of the FBI ever since he had argued publicly in the US for the opening of a second front in the war against the Nazis.

In the late 1940s, he was targeted by members of Congress, while Hoover moved to revoke his re-entry permit to the US after he left for a brief trip to London for a movie premiere.

Deciding not to try to go back, the actor moved to Switzerland, saying: “Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”

A series of informers had made allegations against him in the US for years, according to the MI5 files released yesterday by the British National Archives. One document claimed Chaplin was “extremely co-operative [with] and to some extent controlled” by the Communist Party.

Throughout, MI5 was less than convinced by the FBI’s suspicions, saying that it had “no substantial information of our own against [him] and we are not satisfied that there are reliable grounds for regarding him as a security risk”.

In one 1958 letter, an MI5 officer said: “His name has, of course, been exploited in the interest of Communism as one of the victims of ‘McCarthyism’.”