MI5 seemed content to let the mystery of Chaplin’s birth remain. British agents were skeptical of American claims that the star was a communist threat, with John Marriott, the head of MI5’s counter-subversion branch, calling the U.S. allegations “unreliable.”
“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 in 1952.
The U.S. thought differently, and Chaplin was refused re-entry to the United States in 1952. He settled in Switzerland and lived there until his death in 1977.
The dossier shows MI5 continued to track Chaplin for several years. It contains newspaper clippings about the actor, snatches of conversation from suspected radicals who knew him and letters sent from Russia to “Comrade Charly Chaplin” via the communist magazine Challenge.
But by 1958, MI5 had concluded Chaplin was not a threat.
“We have no substantial information of our own against Chaplin, and we are not satisfied that there are reliable grounds for regarding him as a security risk,” the agency noted. “It may be that Chaplin is a Communist sympathizer but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a ‘progressive’ or radical.”
Nonetheless, a taint of impropriety lingered. Files released in 2002 showed that the British government blocked a knighthood for Chaplin for nearly 20 years because of American concerns about his politics and private life - he was married four times, twice to 16-year-old girls. He eventually became Sir Charles Chaplin in March 1975, two years before his death at age 88.
Chaplin’s origins remain cloudy, although the 1891 census records the then 2-year-old as living in south London with his mother and elder brother Sydney.
Evidence unearthed last year added another layer of mystery.
In a locked drawer of a bureau left behind after Chaplin’s death, his family found a letter from a man in England named Jack Hill. It claimed Chaplin had been born “in a caravan [that] belonged to the Gypsy Queen, who was my auntie” in a Roma community near Birmingham in central England.
Chaplin had alluded to Roma roots in his autobiography, writing that “Grandma was half-Gypsy. This fact was the skeleton in our family cupboard.”
“It is very widely accepted that he was born in London in 1889, but the piece of paper just isn’t there,” Mr. Sweet said.
“The idea of the mystery of his own birth is something that he quite enjoyed, I think.”