After my visit to the south of France, I motored to Paris with my friend, Harry D’Arrast.1 This gave me an opportunity to see the beauties of the countryside, the richness of Burgundy, and the fecund province of Oise with its rich green fields and cattle with their noses steeped in buttercups.
He told me that I must visit Biarritz, the fashionable seaside resort situated near the border of Spain. We motored down, spending the night at Château Brissac, the present home of Duke de Brissac, a magnificent old house built in the twelfth century. That evening we visited the wine cellars, sampling many of the vintages. They were most insidious. Before the evening was over, I was a connoisseur, retiring that night feeling mellow, but arising with a sharp edge.
Biarritz, at one time a fishing village, was made popular by the patronage of Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie and is now one of the most famous resorts in Europe. The season is continuous.
In spite of the depression, life is gay and amusing. Before dinner everybody gathers at Bar Basque. The atmosphere is festive and congenial. You sit outside at one of the many tables and talk over the affairs of the day. This lasts from about five to seven. All nations are represented, with a predominance of Spanish, English, and Americans.
Later one clamors for a seat at the Café de Paris, a most popular restaurant with excellent cuisine. Princes, earls, and millionaires all wait in line. The place is small and their business big, and prices are quite reasonable.
Then there were the delightful parties given by Jean Patou2 at his beautiful house, a little way out of Biarritz.
Also the Marquis de Sorreana, a Spanish nobleman, has a remarkable house in Biarritz, where he keeps pet polar bears. As you look through one of the windows of the sitting-room, you gaze directly into the cage of these creatures.
Adjoining the house is his own private factory, where he builds racing motor boats for a hobby—not made for profit, but to sell to his friends at cost price. His factory consists of ten employees, engineers, and mechanics, whom he keeps working the year round.
A most beautiful yet revolting afternoon was spent at a bullfight in San Sebastian. For thrills and drama, it excels any sport I’ve seen. On the other hand, its sanguine brutality disgusts one. I had been told much about the technique of the bull fight—the beauty of the dance of death.
My friend, the Marquis de Sorreana, warned me that I would probably have several bulls dedicated to me, so I ordered four cigarette cases for the event.
The fight took place at four o’clock in the afternoon. The arena was crowded with men, women, and children. The band struck up a lively Spanish march and on came the procession of toreadors in their colored regalia, a symphony of blue, red, and gold. They saluted the president’s box. Then all of them exited save the matador and his assistants, who were to fight the first bull.
The matador came to our box and, with a grandiose gesture, threw his gold-embroidered cape toward me, saying, “We who are about to die salute you!” Then turning, he threw his hat over his shoulder and I caught it. My friend told me to put the cigarette case inside and throw it back to him after the fight.
Everything is ready for action. The matador and his assistants stand waiting. All attention is directed to the opposite side of the arena. Everyone’s watching the condemned’s door. Suddenly it opens and out stalks the bull, magnificently powerful, full of life and courage, his head erect. A feeling of pity comes over me for I know he is doomed.
The toreadors attract his attention by waving a red cape, and the bull comes bounding over towards it with a joyous gait. But as he gallops, he seems to develop a mood for attack, and finishes plowing his head foremost into it. The toreadors are spread over the arena. Each in turn attracts the bull’s attention with a cape, running him around. The matador, the killer, stands studying the bull, looking for bad habits. Then he takes him in hand for he is the artist, the expert with the cape.
This is the pièce de résistance. This is the ballet, the dance, in which the fury of the bull is controlled and merged into beautiful plastic design.
The bull is all fury, circling around the man, obeying the dictates of the cape. Both merge into a sculptural unit. The horn scrapes the man’s chest, taking with it a piece of gold braid. Everyone holds his breath until the matador, with a flourish of his cape, dismisses the bull and saunters away, giving him over to the toreadors, who keep him occupied until the picadors arrive.
The popular resentment among foreigners witnessing bull-fighting is the cruelty to horses. As a matter of fact, these wretched animals are half-dead before they enter the ring. I asked a Spaniard why it was necessary to use the poor creatures. “A bull must have one triumph while he’s in the arena,” he said.
The horses are finally led or dragged out and the performance continues. Banderillas are plunged into the animal’s back and again the matador takes him in hand until the bugle sounds, the signal for the bull to die. He then takes a sword and a small cape, which hangs over it. Again the bull makes several passes at it.
Now the beast is exhausted. He stands panting in front of the matador, who cautiously draws the sword from the cape, trailing it in front of him, moving the bull into position for the mortal stab. The head must be low and the legs a certain distance apart in order to thrust the sword between the shoulder blades in reaching the heart. At that moment, the chances are equal. Any miscalculations in timing as the bull charges would mean disaster to the matador.
That afternoon I saw a dramatic killing. Imagine a large arena, the silence of thirty thousand people, and standing in the bleak sunshine a man and a bull facing each other, the bull in the throes of death.
The beast had been courageous and had given a wonderful performance—perfect foil for the artistry of the matador. The man had made the fatal plunge and everyone held his breath. But the animal did not fall immediately. He stood motionless, looking into the eyes of his slayer. There seemed to be an exchange, a questioning.
The silence of those thirty thousand people was intense. An assistant attempted to go forward, but the matador stopped him with a gesture of authority, knowing his thrust was fatal. For almost a minute they stood motionless, facing each other. The attitude of the matador seemed one of triumph, yet regret—a pity for the dying animal.
In the silence of that arena one heard the rumbling of a wagon passing outside. As the sound died away, the beast crumpled to the ground and thirty thousand people broke spontaneously into wild enthusiasm and applause.
From Biarritz I returned to London, where I intended to stay for a couple of months and make several excursions to the north of England before returning home to Hollywood.
I arrived in London during those trying times3 prior to England going off the gold standard, and had several lunches at the House of Commons.
The House of Commons4 is a mass of traditions. In the cloakroom are little bits of red ribbon tied on each hanger. In former days members fastened their swords to them. In both the House of Commons and the House of Lords there are long mats about three feet wide before the Speaker’s bench. To this day it is a strict rule that any member getting off the mat is, metaphorically, not in the House. In olden times, members facing their adversaries in debate would get excited and draw their swords, so a law was passed forbidding any member to step off the mat during a controversy.
I dined many times in the homes of members. Some of them have special bells in direct connection with the House of Parliament so that when in session, they can be signaled when voting is about to begin. Occasionally I have sat down to dine at a large party and on hearing a buzz, would be left flat—the only male sitting through the rest of the dinner.
When voting, the members walk through a gate by the entrance of the House of Commons. The ayes and nays go through different ones. I remember a Scottish member returning after a division, very concerned.
“Good heavens!” he said, “I voted for Sunday cinemas and didn’t know it. Not realizing that a division was in progress, I left by the wrong gate. This will be most annoying to my constituency.”
I might add that I argued to convince him that his constituency ought to be very pleased indeed of the fact.
Dinners at the House of Commons are most interesting.5 You will meet kings and potentates from all parts of the world. I remember receiving word from the Honorable Mr. Thomas asking me to dine quietly with his family there. I was five minutes late and profuse with apologies.
“That’s quite all right, Charlie. I want you to meet His Majesty, the King of Serbia. Also Mr. McKenna and my son and daughter. Now bring up your chair and sit down by the King.”
A message from Mahatma Gandhi stated that he would like to meet me, either at the Carlton Hotel or elsewhere. We eventually decided on the home of his friend, Dr. C. L. Catial, in Beckton Road, Canning Town.
Frankly, I have not followed the ramifications of Hindu politics. My knowledge has come only through an occasional scanning of headlines in the daily press. Nevertheless, Mr. Gandhi is a figure of the twentieth century, a dissenter and reactionary of a new kind, who has utilized passive resistance, a modern method in warfare, which has proven a force almost equal to violence.
The house of Dr. Catial is situated in the East End of London. To get there, I journeyed through Clerkenwell, Whitechapel, and East India Dock Road on to Camden—the literary background of Thomas Burke. Endless lines of two-story hovels, all uniformly alike. They made me shudder. How hopeless they looked!
Eventually we turned into one of the byways onto Beckton Road. Dense throngs were gathered and countless automobiles were parked along this humble street. To quote from the Daily Mail: “ . . . when Mr. Chaplin stepped out of his taxicab, the waiting crowd surged around him, cheering madly. Smiling broadly, he had almost to fight his way to the door of the house through the surging throng which the few police on duty were powerless to control. A bunch of flowers was thrust into his hand, and dozens of hands patted his back.”
I had great difficulty in forcing my way up the narrow stairs. At last I was wedged or pushed into a small room about twelve feet square, packed by representatives of the press and followers of the Mahatma.
Dr. Catial introduced me to them, including Miss Slade, an Englishwoman, wearing white calico over her head in the style of a madonna. Mr. Gandhi had not arrived, so I was asked to sit and wait. I was plied with a hundred questions from the press. What was the object of my visit and so on. However, it was interrupted. A yell was heard outside.
The Mahatma is arriving. The whole street is in a cheer. I look out of the window. Below is a limousine. The police are endeavoring to make a way to the house. Someone struggles to open the car door. Smiling and serenely cool, Gandhi gathers his calico around him and steps out of the machine.
From the window a Hindu lady showers him with flowers. “Here, you throw some too.”
“Oh, no,” I answer. “I never make demonstrations.”
The scene has a touch of humor—the crowd affectionately mauling Gandhi as he endeavors to hold his calico around his middle section. It looks so insecure the way it falls about him, I feel he might lose it. Nevertheless, when he came into the room, he was still intact.
Mr. Gandhi greeted me warmly, though somewhat bewildered. He was still holding on to his calico as he extended one hand to shake mine.
The crowd was still cheering, so he went to the window. One of the Hindu ladies pushed me also and the Mahatma and I stood smiling and waving. Afterwards a request was made for the press to leave, but before doing so, they insisted Mr. Gandhi and I pose for pictures. When the room was cleared, I finally found myself seated next to him. He was talking over personal matters with his followers.
An admirer of Gandhi’s—a young English girl—sat down beside me. “Don’t you think Mr. Gandhi has a wonderful personality?” she asked. “‘After you’ve talked to him, I feel sure he’ll win you over.”
For some reason I find it difficult to make conversation, what with the milling crowds cheering outside and a gaping audience inside. I become self-conscious. It all seems like a revival meeting.
Now Mr. Gandhi is free and sits alone. Suddenly a voice breaks in: “Look here, young woman, Mr. Chaplin is here to talk to Mr. Gandhi, not you. So give them a chance.”
Whereupon the young lady got up and excused herself, and Mr. Gandhi and I were left on the settee.
The woman’s interrupting remark terrified me. I felt it was a challenge. I shifted uneasily, then giggled at Mr. Gandhi. They must be waiting for me to say something profound.
How on earth do you get into these situations? I thought. Here you are, a harmless actor on a vacation, striving to have a good time, and you get into this predicament. What do you know about India, politics, cabbages, and kings, and what do you want to know about them anyway?
However, I pulled myself together and started. “I was just telling a young lady that I couldn’t quite agree with all your principles. I should like to know why you’re opposed to machinery. After all, it’s the natural outcome of man’s genius and is part of his evolutionary progress. It is here to free him from the bondage of slavery, to help him to leisure and a higher culture. I grant that machinery with only the consideration of profit has thrown men out of work and created a great deal of misery, but to use it as a service to humanity, that consideration transcending everything else, should be a help and benefit to mankind.”
“What you say is very true, but in India conditions are different,” said the Mahatma. “We are a people who can live without machinery. Our climate, our mode of living, make this possible. I wish to make our people independent of industry, which weapon the western world holds over us. When they discover that there is no profit in exploiting India, they will leave it to us. Therefore, we must be independent of your industry. We must learn agriculture to grow our own rice and spin our own cotton. These are essentials necessary to the lives of our people. Their wants being modest and their demands few, they do not warrant the complexities of western machinery.”
“But,” I argued, “you cannot retrogress. You must progress like the western world. Sooner or later you will adopt machinery.”
“When that time comes, we shall use it,” he said. “But before doing so, we must make ourselves independent of it if we are to gain our freedom.”
Later on prayers were offered. On one side of Mr. Gandhi sat Miss Slade; on the other, two Hindus. Throughout the ceremony the Mahatma bent his head, but never spoke. The prayers lasted about five minutes—a series of little singsong chants—concluding in a minute of silence.
It seemed strange and unrealistic, here in this small room in the East End of London with the milling crowds outside. As the bronze-diffused sun sank over the begrimed housetops, four figures sat cross-legged in silent prayer—three Hindus and one Englishwoman—while an audience of twenty or more of us looked on.
And I came away wondering whether this was the man destined to guide the lives of over three hundred million people.
The next day I had tea at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s.6 Lytton Strachey, Aldous Huxley, Augustus John, and others were there. I told them of my visit with Gandhi.
I have a phobia when introducing people. I cannot memorize names. I forget even my own brother’s. To me the actual name of a person symbolizes nothing. After all, memory is the association of ideas, and what can you associate with a name like Peabody or Finkelbaum? Personally I should like introductions done away with—just your hostess to greet you. Then society would become an adventure. How nice to talk naturally to a celebrated man without being conscious of his trademark.
When Lady Ottoline Morrell, at whose house I was for tea, lightly tripped off names like Augustus John and Aldous Huxley, I lost all sense of hearing. Huxley I’d met before, but when she announced Augustus John, that name was still ringing in my ears so that I didn’t pay much attention to the rest.
During tea I noticed a young gentleman sitting opposite me with a youthful, bespectacled face and a Biblical brown beard, and remembered that he was the subject of a large portrait I’d seen during a ramble through Tate’s Gallery. It was a striking one, almost verging on caricature, yet vividly alive.
I was explaining my feeling for society in general, saying that my love for humanity was different from my love of the crowd. My love for humanity is a fundamental, deep-seated instinct, but my love for the crowd depends on my mood. At times they are inspiring, at other times frightening, for I instinctively sense that they are capable of either loving or lynching.
“Mr. Strachey there,” Lady Ottoline said smilingly, “is a selfish man who confines his love only to his friends.”
Then it dawned on my inert brain—of course this was Lytton Strachey, author of Queen Victoria, Eminent Victorians, et cetera.
“I would go further and say that my love is confined solely to myself,” Strachey said jokingly. “I have no altruistic conception about people in general other than writing about them.”
Augustus John has a compelling personality. He is tall and handsome, with a Vandyke beard, and has that faculty of commanding attention without the slightest effort. You feel flattered by his interest in you. He is able to draw you out in conversation, and that afternoon I told him the story of my first taste of popularity and its psychological effect on me.
When the evidence of my popularity first manifested itself, I would walk the streets of Los Angeles. All around me seemed magic. The world was warm and friendly, so different from the apathetic days of obscurity. People were interested in what I said. I was surprised to see how seriously my views were taken. Popularity had suddenly endowed my opinions with importance.
I got the full significance of it on a trip I made to New York. It was two years after I’d worked in pictures. I had wired my brother there that I was coming on to look for a job, and a million-dollar-a-year one at that.
In a hurry, I had boarded the train with only a small suitcase, little realizing what would happen on the journey. The telegraph operators must have relayed the news ahead for when I arrived at Amarillo, Texas, the station was packed with children, with the mayor and city officials present.
I was in the washroom taking a shave, and as the train drew in, I heard rousing cheers. Voices were exclaiming, “Where is he?”
The passengers, including myself, were wondering what the commotion was about.
Then a shout went up, “Three cheers for Charlie Chaplin!” and I almost cut my throat.
A passenger remarked, “He must be on this train.”
“Yes,” I said weakly, my face covered in soap.
Several men came down the corridor. “Is Charlie Chaplin here?”
“That’s me,” I sputtered.
“I’m the Mayor of Amarillo, and on behalf of the children of our city, we invite you to be our guest at dinner during your half hour’s stay.”
I was escorted into the railroad depot, where tables were decorated and streamers hung from the ceiling with “Welcome, Charlie Chaplin.”
What the mayor must have thought of me, I don’t know. I was dumb throughout that meal. His Honor afterwards made a speech wishing me luck and a safe journey to New York.
When the train drew away from the cheering crowd, my reactions were strange. I was a little frightened. It made me thoughtful. I felt sad and alone—a feeling of being set apart from people, to be looked at and treated like a curiosity.
At each stop the crowds grew larger. Thousands lined the railroad depots and I would go to the back of the car and show myself. At first it was a pleasure, then it became a duty, but towards the end it was a task. I had yearned for success and popularity, but was not prepared for it on this scale, and the suddenness of it frightened me.
A telegram en route from my brother said that the New York newspapers were full of my arriving, that the police were concerned and had notified him that they thought it advisable for me to get off at One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street instead of the main depot.
Like royalty I arrived incog, changing my name when I registered at the Hotel Plaza. The newspapers had headlines, “Charlie Chaplin has arrived and is in hiding,” but it wasn’t long before my identity was revealed.
Yet with all the glamour of success, I was depressed. Here was I walking the streets of New York alone. I felt all dressed up and no place to go. Everybody knew me, but I knew nobody. I would ask myself: how does one get to know people? Is this all success means, just a series of public demonstrations? How does one make interesting friends? I felt success had changed nothing of my personal life. I didn’t realize that making friends was a slower process than making a success.
In the early days of my career, I spent much of my time touring the provinces of England. In those days I loathed traveling. It took me away from my little flat in London.
Now I have a yearning to visit the small towns of Lancashire, to sit by the glow of a Lancashire kitchen fireside with its clean blue hearthstone and smell the home-baked bread or pot roast in the oven. How nice to hear again the patter of wooden clogs of the lads and lassies on their way to work in the morning.
When a boy of fourteen, I was a member of Sherlock Holmes Touring Company. I lived alone, being too young to mix or room with the older members of the cast. So to alleviate my loneliness, I decided to purchase some companionship—a rabbit and a dog.7
I used to carry my grips to and from the station. And now I added my new friends to my paraphernalia. As the dog grew up, I trained her to follow me until we were nearing the depot. Then she would crawl into a grip and I would steal her past the station master. Later the dog had five pups and so I became a walking menagerie.
What a problem it was to get them by the landlady. I developed a technique for this. I would engage a combined sitting-room and bedroom and would say nothing about the family, which I kept hidden. Later when the landlady discovered her room had been turned into a zoo, I would smile disarmingly, picking up one of the puppies and exclaiming enthusiastically, “Isn’t he sweet? When they’re a little older I’ll give you one.”
This good will and generosity would usually dispel any objections she might have. But towards the end of the week, the odor of the animals would lessen the landlady’s tolerance. But I managed to tour with them for over a year.
It was after the election and MacDonald’s government had been returned that I decided to visit Manchester. I’d heard rumors concerning the destitute conditions there.
I wanted to go quietly and, if possible, to escape publicity. I hired a touring car and made my first stop at Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare.
I arrived there on Sunday evening and put up at a charming old inn that had been built in the Bard’s time. After dinner I took a ramble around the village. I wanted to find Shakespeare’s cottage.
It was quite dark. I had never been there before and as I wandered through the streets, I instinctively paused before a house, which, strange to say, was the one.
The next morning, Sir Archibald Flower, the Mayor of Stratford, called and was gracious enough to take me through it, and also over the new Shakespeare theater by the river.
Leaving Stratford, I arrived in Manchester in the pouring rain. Unlike London, it was strange to me. Only the Midland Hotel was slightly familiar, and that had become begrimed with age.
I didn’t stay long there, but made my way to Blackburn, the town where as a boy I had bought the pup and the rabbit. I had a general idea of the large market square, the Haymarket, and the Bull Hotel.
When we arrived, I was not so disappointed. Everything was familiar, including the Bull Hotel. In the old days I thought it was a grand place. How different it looks now—an inn with about a dozen rooms for guests. We reserved one for the night, and after a wash and brush up, partook of some bacon and eggs and later went to look over the town.
I stood in the market square and heard some political speeches. One group was listening to a lecture on the Douglas Plan,8 a new economic system which is rapidly gaining many followers in England.
Another was listening to Communists who were decrying the fate of the Labor Party, calling the leaders traitors.
Later I returned to the Bull Hotel and sat in the taproom, listening over my hot toddy to the gossip concerning the new government.
During conversation I remarked, “How is it Lancashire went Conservative?”
An old coal miner spoke up, “For the past few years it has been a perfect Utopia here, living on the dole and taking life easy. That doesn’t do the country any good.”
What irony, I thought—“a perfect Utopia”—coming from a man who spends half his life underground.
But this is the spirit of the English—their loyalty, their sense of responsibility, their belief in what they think is right and just.
During the evening, in paying for some drinks, I happened to pull out a considerable sum of money. I noticed a suspicious-looking character eying me carefully. Later when I went upstairs to retire, I saw him lurking around at the bottom of the stairs.
I had been told that conditions were desperate in the north, and that it was hardly safe to be seen in an automobile. My chauffeur’s room was at the other end of the building and my own was away from everyone. I also found my door wouldn’t lock. I endeavored to dismiss that awful face from my mind and so read awhile.
About twenty minutes later, I dozed off. How long I’d slept I don’t know, but I was suddenly awakened by the sound of someone moving outside in the corridor. I sat up with a start. Everything was deathly silent. I could hear the throbbing of my heart. Then I heard someone creeping and stop outside my door. Carefully the handle turned and the door creaked.
The room was in complete darkness. Frantically I groped for the electric bulb over the bed and quickly turned it on and behold!—the door was moving, but stopped.
All sorts of notions were running through my mind. I could imagine big headlines, “Charlie Chaplin Found Murdered in Blackburn Hotel.”
I got up cautiously and gently closed the door again, placing a chair under the handle. A few moments later the footsteps crept away. That night I lay in a cold sweat, waiting for the dawn to break.
At last morning came and I ordered breakfast. A pretty little Lancashire girl came in with some orange juice. “Did you sleep well last night, Sir?”
“No. I had awful dreams of someone creeping outside my door.”
She giggled mischievously and left without saying another word. Why did she laugh, I thought? And so mischievously? When she came in with the coffee, I asked her and she shyly confessed.
“Well, Sir, one of the maids asked me to go with her to your room so she could take a peek at you while you were asleep. It was her only chance of seeing you. We waited outside your door for half an hour and were about to peek in when suddenly the light went on. We got scared and left.”
And to think how I’d suffered all night! Nevertheless, I expressed my regrets that I didn’t see her, for I’m sure I’d have felt happier had I done so.
Nobody’s consistent in life. Many of us take a stand on principles and make resolutions, but they are colored by moods and desires. Time and circumstances change them. That’s why we seldom live up to our philosophy. I think it was Walt Whitman who said, “If I contradict myself, well, I contradict myself.”
In the beginning of this manuscript I stated that I was tired of love and people. I should have said I’m tired of myself, especially now when writing this book. However, dear readers, you are partly responsible for this. You should not encourage a movie actor to take himself “literaturely.”
Nevertheless, since coming to England my object has been fulfilled. I have dwelt in the past and recaptured my youth. I have roamed in Kennington, dreamed in Brixton, and paused in every part of London. Through all these peregrinations I rarely met an old associate. It was not my intention to do so. My reverie I did not want to share with anyone.
Now I feel the urge to renew old acquaintances. Many of them have passed away. Others were killed in the war, and very few remain.
There is a great change in the vaudeville world. Many music halls that I worked in as a boy have been changed to motion-picture houses. The Canterbury and Paragon, the Tivoli and the Oxford have vanished, and only the Holborn Empire and a few others remain. While I was in London they started to revive vaudeville. At the Palace Victoria Charlie Austin was topping the bill. George Robey was also headlining at the Holborn.
Robey was my idol as a boy. I remember how I used to wait outside the stage door at the Tivoli and follow him along to Trafalgar Square, where he caught his bus. Charlie Austin I haven’t seen since the old days at Barnard’s Theatre, Woolwich. How funny and delightful he was. So I’ve made up my mind to go to the Palace Theatre. I want the spirit of old-time vaudeville, to sit in the stalls in the cigarette smoke with a glass of beer and join in a popular chorus.
During the intermission I went backstage to see Charlie. We had a grand old reunion. His friend Rose, the greengrocer of Covent Garden, was there. We sat in the dressing-room and split a bottle of wine. We talked of the old favorites: Joe Elvin, Joe O’Gorman, the Egbert Brothers—“Those Happy Dustmen”—one of whom married Dainty Daisy Dormer, and Sanford and Lyons, “The Simultaneous Dancers.”
“What has become of them?” I inquire.
Many are alive and going strong. Some of them are Water Rats, an exclusive club for vaudevillians, which has been in existence since the days of Dan Leno.
“Charlie,” said Austin, “we want to make you a Water Rat. It’ll be a wonderful thing to meet some of the old-timers again. After all, you were one of us and we all feel you belong.”
I noticed his remark, “you were,” and it affected me.
I’m not prone to ally myself to clubs or organizations. I’m not a good fraternizer, but if I am to join a club, it shall be the Water Rats.
The initiation was impressive9—a gathering of harlequins and pierrots in profound solemnity. There were Joe Elvin and Joe O’Gorman, fine old chaps in their seventies, the clowns of other days paying homage to a younger one. Will Hay, the comedian, was Grand Master, and Fred Russell, the ventriloquist, officiated.
When it was over, I came away with a feeling of gratification at the honor paid me by those whom I had honored and worshiped in other days.
Many of my American friends have expressed the opinion that the English are a most hospitable people, but they take a great deal of knowing. They are apparently diffident, with a reserve to a point of coldness, but when once you’ve gained their confidence, they are cool-eyed and warm-hearted.
I’ve never been intrigued by Switzerland. Personally, I dislike all mountainous country. I feel hemmed in and isolated from the rest of the world. The ominous presence of mountains towering above me gives me a feeling of futility. I suppose I am indigenous to the lowlands near the ocean, for my Romany instincts tell me that here I’m better suited to survive. Life opens out on a wider vista.
Nevertheless, having basked in the sunshine of the Riviera and enjoyed London’s spring and survived its autumn fogs, I felt that a change of atmospheric diet would be beneficial. Besides, Douglas Fairbanks was in St. Moritz10 enjoying the winter sports, and that was a good excuse to go there.
You leave London in the morning and arrive in St. Moritz the following afternoon. The air is bracing and the whole country is blanketed in snow. The sharp whiteness gives zest and life to your spirit.
But all this is knocked out of you on discovering the price of your rooms. But it’s worth it. The answer is I intended to stay two weeks and remained two months.
Douglas Fairbanks insisted that I be initiated into the art of skiing. I always thought it was easy, but oh, boy! I never knew how many knots I could tie myself into!
For the first two hours I suffered with impediment of the legs and was continually standing on my own foot. Turning was most difficult, but this I mastered in my own fashion, deliberately sitting down and pivoting in the direction I wished to go. Sometimes, however, the sitting was not deliberate.
To a beginner, skiing down a hill is very simple, especially if there are no obstacles in the way. But the problem is stopping. This is most difficult. You are instructed to assume a knock-kneed position, at the same time spread your feet apart and turn your ankles in, digging the sides of your skis into the snow. When I attempted it, I invariably went into the splits.
To give you an idea of the enjoyment of my first day’s skiing, you must imagine yourself starting slowly down a hill, developing speed as you go, thrilled and exalted with a sense of your own motive power and the icy breezes blowing against your cheeks. As the speed increases, however, your exhilaration changes to a growing anxiety, especially when the hill becomes precipitous and the going increases to about fifty miles an hour. You go flying past rocks, trees, and other obstacles that miraculously escape you. After such gymnastic triumphs, you accumulate confidence and go whizzing on, resolved to see it through to the bitter end.
Then a sinister rock approaches and comes rushing at you menacingly. This time it is determined to get you. Your heart leaps up into your mouth. You become philosophic. You relish the sweet memories of life before skiing. Death is contemplated. You see your skull crashed against the rock and your body flung over it like a pair of empty pants. But you are not killed. You survive. You go on living, crippled for life.
Then a miracle happens. Some metaphysical force moves the rock to compassion and lets you skim by it, and you go shooting onward, relieved. Your mind gains control of your reflexes and you make a decision to sit down, not perhaps as gently as you’d wish. So plunk!
You extricate your head from the snow. You discover you’re still conscious. You involuntarily sit up and look around for fear somebody has seen you. But a superior individual in slow tempo comes gliding up with the query, “Are you hurt?”
And you sally with a cheery, “No, not at all, thank you.”
Then you endeavor to start off again. But when the stranger is out of sight, reason becomes the better part of valor, so you change your mind, take off your skis, and call it a day.
However, dear readers, ’twas not ever thus, for later I became—but there, modesty forbids, so I shall quote from the newspaper, the South Wales Argus: “People at St. Moritz were electrified to see a small man go tearing down a steep village street at a terrific speed, to pull up suddenly at the door of his hotel. He was Charles Chaplin, film clown, says Reuter’s correspondent. Perhaps there were painful memories of misadventures with the hotel revolving door that made him stop so sharply. Skiing experts declare that this dash was a very fine achievement. Charlie, in fact, is becoming an adept on skis.”
The above is one of my most treasured clippings.
The social life is a very gay one. The mornings are devoted to sports, skiing parties to Mt. Covilla, and excursions to Davos; then tobogganing on the Cresta Run and sports carnivals, including ski-jumping and horseracing on the frozen lake. One looks forward to the gay lunches on top of the mountain at the Covilla Club, where you bask in the sunshine with the snow all around you. Afterwards you ski down into the town below in time for afternoon tea at the hotel.
After changing, it isn’t long before seven o’clock arrives, which is cocktail hour at the bar. Here festivities are at their height. You are reminded to “lay off” the olives and potato chips as you’re dining at eight-thirty. Then someone is giving a supper party you must go to in the bar at ten, so you must “go light” on the dinner. From then on high life goes on till about three, four, or five, depending on your capacity or vitality.
During the season almost all one’s friends show up at some time in St. Moritz. You will find both the elite and illustrious well represented from Hollywood, London, Paris, Berlin, and New York.
You will be surprised to hear, however, that there was one outstanding figure I did not meet. That was His Royal Highness, the ex-Crown Prince of Germany, and I’ll tell you how this happened.
One day I was sitting in the hotel having my afternoon tea when somebody said, “Ooh, there’s the ex-Crown Prince of Germany over there!”
And I said, “Ooh, is it?”
Then all sorts of things flashed through my mind. As I sat gazing at His Royal Highness sipping his English Ceylon, my memory took me back to a picture I made called Shoulder Arms, a comedy on the World War in which His Royal Highness played an important part. Then suddenly I remembered I had to make a telephone call, and I left the hotel immediately.
I’d arranged to return to California via the Orient, catching a boat at Naples11 and going through the Suez Canal on to Japan, my brother accompanying me. So he was awaiting my arrival in Rome.
I left Switzerland with a friend of mine, M. Plesche, traveling by automobile to Rome, which would give me an opportunity of viewing the country. On crossing the border into Italy, I was impressed with its atmosphere. Discipline and order were omnipresent. Hope and desire seemed in the air. In the midst of these medieval surroundings, a new life has crept in. Every place we stopped we were given efficient service and treated with courtesy.
Upon arriving in Rome, a message awaited saying that arrangements could be made for an interview with Mussolini. But this did not materialize as I could only stay in Rome for two days, and that was too short a notice for Il Duce to give me any of his valuable time.
Meeting people formally is like viewing a house without going inside. I shall always remember the interview with the late President Wilson at the White House during the Third Liberty Loan Campaign. There were four of us—Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler, Douglas Fairbanks, and myself. We were ushered into the famous Green Room and told to ““please be seated.” I’d rehearsed a speech for the occasion and intended telling the President several complimentary anecdotes about himself that I thought amusing.
Eventually an official came into the room. “Stand up in line, please.” Then in came the President. “Will you all come a pace forward?” and we were formally introduced.
The President was gracious and felt it incumbent to tell a story as we stood lined abreast in front of him. Anxious to brighten the solemnity of the occasion, I laughed before he came to the point which caused the others to glance at me with concern. Then came that moment of embarrassing silence. However, Marie Dressler came to the rescue and also told a story. Not having heard either one at the time, I cannot record them now. I only know that I laughed politely.
Then Mary found herself and told the President the wonderful spirit and cooperation that was evident throughout the country. Now was my opportunity, so I piped in with, “There certainly is—or are.” I remember the singular and plural worried me at the time. This was my only contribution to the interview and I left the White House pleasantly dazed and proud.
I should like to have stayed longer in Rome as there was so much to see there, but one needs leisure for this. I was in a continual rush of excitement and expectation, which can better be described kaleidoscopically:
Arrive at midnight. The streets deserted. Impressed with lights of the Tiber. Receive warm welcome from friends and the press. At the hotel a message—arrangements can be made to meet Mussolini. After cold supper I take a long walk. Rome falls short of my imagination.
Retire at four in the morning. Up again at eleven. Expect news from Mussolini. In the meantime, visit St. Peter’s, the Roman Forum, and Museum. Back to hotel. No news from Mussolini. Out again sightseeing. Return to hotel. This time news of Mussolini. Impossible to arrange meeting on such short notice. Decide to leave Rome for Naples the following morning to embark for the Orient.
The voyage was uneventful and the weather calm throughout. The only event was changing to shorts when we came into the Red Sea. Shorts are tropical trousers that show the knees, but I don’t believe in them.
By the time we reached Colombo, the capital of Ceylon,12 it was pretty warm and I began to envy my brother’s shorts. The boat docked there for twenty-four hours, which gave us an opportunity to spend the night at the sacred city of Kandy, seventy miles from Colombo. Ceylon was the realization of all my exotic dreams. It has all the mysticism of the Orient and the charm of the tropics. As we motored to Kandy, we were thrilled viewing strange sights and drinking in perfumes that lay heavy on the air.
The night of a full moon is a ceremonial holiday for the Ceylonese. Suddenly we came upon a procession. Festoons of lamps and torches stood out against the light. Jugglers were twirling cans of fire attached to a rope, which they spun like a baton, making pinwheel designs, followed by men and women chanting to the beat of the tom-toms. Then two warriors appeared, their Hindu armor glistening in the torchlight. They were devil dancers, our chauffeur informed us.
We pulled up to watch them pass, and the devil dancers approached. I became a little scared as they looked quite fanatical. The rest of the procession surrounded us, still chanting to the tom-toms. Then the dancers suddenly jumped in the air, twirled and pivoted in a most weird and demoniacal manner. After they’d finished, they came over and bowed, and we understood. So we dipped in the exchequer and went on our way.
Throughout the journey I kept saying to my brother, “Did you ever realize there was such a place? We must settle down here in our old age and buy a tea plantation.” This was my first reaction.
It was quite late when we arrived in Kandy, and after supper at the hotel, we hired a couple of rickshaws and went slowly around the sacred lake. I shall always remember that night, or morning rather; the warm, sultry air and the strange sound of insects as our rickshaw boys walked silently in the moonlight, pointing here and there to wild turtles along the edge of the lake.
Returning to the hotel we were met by one or two stragglers who recognized me. I threw them a coin. “Thank you, my lord and master,” and all for a quarter, but everyone was “my lord and master” here.
The next day, we visited the temple. Professional beggars were lined up on its steps with handkerchiefs spread and hands extended. Buddhism teaches never to refuse the helpless. It is an impressive sight to see a poor native woman walk majestically down the temple steps without pausing, her arm extended with a handful of rice, permitting a few grains to trickle onto each beggar’s handkerchief as she makes her way out of the temple—a “widow’s mite.”
Before departing, crowds of natives surrounded the hotel and gave us a rousing cheer. Strangely enough, in spite of the seductive atmosphere of the tropics, I was happy to get away. My enthusiasm to settle down there was not as keen as it was when I first arrived, for you quickly realize the opiate lure that excites your ardor also repels it, and I came away impressed with its beauty, but realizing that it was not a place for Nordics.
Our next port is Singapore, meaning in the Malay language, the City of Lions. Near Singapore the scenery is fantastically beautiful. Trees grow out of the ocean like the designs on blue-willow China plates. My first view of the city surprised me. Perhaps my imagination was influenced by the lurid scenic portrayals of Hollywood’s conception of it, with its narrow evil streets and sinister droves on every corner. But on coming into the harbor, I found green open spaces and gardens before palatial granite buildings. Myriads of sailboats listed in the bay, and white ocean liners lay dormant, waiting to be fed with cargo, and the harbor sang with color and tropical life.
The crowds were not as demonstrative here as they were in Ceylon, but then Singapore is two degrees off the equator and I don’t blame them. Nevertheless, there was a medium crowd and I was cheered, photographed, and interviewed.
When we arrived at the hotel, we were in time for a reistafel lunch. This culinary concoction is native to the Straits Settlements and takes about twenty waiters to serve it. First you help yourself to rice. Then other waiters follow with curried meats, spices, vegetables, bananas, nuts, and so on— all of which you dump on one plate. Then you do a bit of exploring, being shocked at this and liking that, finally leaving the table with gastronomical qualms.
From Singapore we sailed on the Van Lansberge for Batavia, the capital of Java in the Dutch East Indies. Upon arriving, we were greeted by a large crowd at the dock and presented with a wreath of welcome. We arranged to motor through Java to Soerabaja, and take a boat there for Bali.
I will not lucubrate on the details of our journey. However, from Batavia to Bandoeng took six hours by motor along fine roads. We put up at the Preanger Hotel13 and indulged in a hot bath in European fashion, the only hotel in Java where you can do so, as all the rest of them use the dipper system, where in place of a bath there is a well-like structure filled with water, which you pour over yourself from a dipper.
After dinner we motored to Garoet and stayed there for the night. It was here that I encountered my first experience with a “Dutch wife” whom after you’ve lived in the tropics for any length of time you find indispensable.
A Dutch wife is a bolster-shaped pillow, which you place between your knees to keep cool during the sweltering nights, and which acts as a soothing comforter to your nerves. When first informed of their function, I laughed, but after my initiation, when retiring I always insisted on my “conjugal rights.”
However, during the night there is more to keep you company than a Dutch wife. Flying bugs and tropical insects will hover around your mosquito netting, serenading you with strange noises. Whisks are kept in every room to shoo them away. My first night’s adventure gave me many comedy ideas for a picture.
From our room we have a beautiful view of the mountains and valley below. Everything is green, effulgent with tropical growth, and we are refreshed and revived, ready to journey to Tjipanas Hot Springs for lunch. There we visited the lakes where native families go bathing and who, for a few coins you throw them, will come scrambling up the banks, unconscious of their nudity.
From there we journeyed to Djockjakarta and saw the famous Borobudur Temple, which was covered up by the jungle for many years, and from there on to the thriving city of Soerabaja,14 where we were greeted by a large crowd at the hotel. This is the port where we embarked for Bali.