Charlie. A genius. A flawed human, perhaps, but a genius, assimilating his father's proper Suffolk family, his mother's Gypsy blood. A moving, irritating, survivor.
His blue eyes, once seen, were never to be forgotten - intensely blue, almost icy, but warm, warm, warm. Short and tawdry on film, he was vivid, glowingly handsome in the flesh.
I first looked into those eyes during the third inaugural of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Chaplin had appeared in Constitution Hall, at the greatest star galaxy to appear at a presidential Inaugural, and after it was over the committee members were invited to party at the home of Mrs. George R. Holmes on Massachusetts Avenue. Mary Holmes' husband was bureau chief of the International News Service and her brother was Steven Early, secretary to president Roosevelt. Charlie suggested we go upstairs to visit Mary's nine-year-old, Nicknamed Punka, who had missed all the fun because Mary kept her to a proper schedule.
So we trouped up, with Mary leading the way - then Charlie, then Nelson Eddy and Mickey Rooney and me. We woke up punPunka. Nelson sang from "Rose Marie," a duet he had just sung in Constitution Hall, not with Jeanette MacDonald, because as we later learned, she had voted for Wendell Wilkie, but with Risa Stevens, who didn't know the difference then.
"Wake up Punka," said Charlie, eyes gleaming. Punka did and immediately recognized the shortish, beaming man with the black hair turning sliver. Mickey danced, Nelson sang, Charlie sparked and a sleepy child went back to drowsyland.
Until then I had never been that involved with this drippy Clown, "Charlot," though I's laugh at his obvious falls and jaunty walks. But my parents seemed to enjoy him.
I loved what he'd done earlier that night, the mad ballets he'd done as Adolf Hitler in "The Great Dictator." Lynn Fontanne had spoken from "The White Cliffs of Dover," and I had written that Rooney (who performed with Judy Garland), Fontanne and Chaplin, who faltered during the scene, were the great numbers in that never-to-be-approached evening.
But I never found, still don't, clowns that fascinating. It wasn't until, after World War II that I really appreciated him and that was in "Monsieur Verdoux."
It was one of the great movies, a hilarious travesty on death and money, in which a most polite, well-dressed man, Verdoux, murders his wives for their money. His plan backfires when Martha Raye refuses to drown in Verdoux's canoe. The theme was that the meek do not inherit the earth.
At that time Charlie had incurred the enmity of his once-enormous American Public. He had neen involved in a paternity suit, in an IRS dispute and general resultant opprobrium. His P.R. man, the late Russell Birdwell, had been as persistent on the phone as had the P.R. people of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They didn't want "Monsieur Verdoux" shown in Washington. Five theaters picked it up. I saw it and was deeply moved by its fun and seriousness. I gave it a plus review and the late Eugene Meyer, Washington Post publisher, backed me up by laughing when theaters pulled their ads under organization pressure.
Charlie was appreciated and so wired.
Later the bitterness came out. The anti-Verdoux campaign was so successful that the film had scant showing in the United states. A few years later he made "The King in New York," in England.American theaters would not book it.
I saw it in London. It was a bitter film, but worse, it was poorly made. Charlie hated my first American review of "The King in New York" and I lost contact. (I later learned more about Charlie. He had taken credit for the score of "The Great Dictator." Its music credits read "by Charles Chaplin." Actually, that score was written by Meredith Wilson, who later wrote "The Music Man.")
Then his autobiography appeared and I understood. Its first third is as good on poverty as Charles Dickens. Later I learned that Lawrence and Lee, authors of the Eisenhower's "First Monday in October" had been approached to present it as a musical after their hit "Mame." They decided they couldn't lick the dire poverty, the pessimism, so vividly depicted in the first third of his autobiography.
That was the key to "Charlot," who once had 50 imitators strolling the streets of Paris, acting like the slumpy clown. Poverty was what made its mark and, for all his wealth and knoghthood, explained his complex psche.
"I met his two sons, Sydney, named for Charle's comedian-brothera, and Charles - neither of them comfortable men to be with. They were haunted by their father and his fourth wife, Oona O'Neil and had every right to be - because of the towering genius of the father. Oona father was playright Eugene O'Neil, who disowned his daughter when she married a notorious man almost old enough to be her grandfather.
That marriage did last to the end, with nine children. It was the most extraordinary of his liaisons.
One of them was with Paulette Goddard, who married such dynamic characters as Burgess Meredith and Erich Mami Remarque. Charlie came back to honors in America a few years ago. After 30 years of marriage to the late, great novelist Remarque, Paulette went to a Chaplin birthday party with her pal, Anita Loos. It turned out to be a grand happy reunion, 35 years after her Chaplim divorce and a few years after Remarque's death.
"What a marvelous man he is," said Paulette, by then dating Andy Warhol. It was a "gorgeous" dinner party and Paulette, from her famed collection of emeralds, rubies and diamonds, wore the diamonds that night.
Anita recalls the story in her giant picture book, "Cast of Thousands".Anita's descriptions always are the best of that glittery time when Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin formed United Artists.
Describing Paulette when she was Mrs. Chaplin, Loos wrote: "Charlie, as the author of his own movie scripts, was given to reading them aloud to guests after dinner. Excellent as those scenarious were, they failed to hold Paulette's attention after several readings. So she used to sit on the floor behind Charlie's big armchair under which she had stashed a bottle of Dom Perignon champaign to keep her alert. Even so, those recitals were frequently interrupted by the snores of Mrs. Chaplin."
Anita Loos also remembers a crazy picnic for which, lacking their usual rendezvous, the Sunday group wound up on a dried-up Los Angeles River bank. The party included Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, Bertrand Russell, Christopher Isherwood and the Indian poet, Krishhamurti. They all dressed in the 1930s equivalent of junk costumes, very dreary.
A sheriff approached with a gun in hand: "Don't anybody in this gang know how to read?" he snorted, pointing to a "No Trespassing" sign. Then Aldous played his trump card, introducing Chaplin, Garbo and Goddard.
"Is that so?" he asked. "Well, I've seen every movie they've ever been in and none of them stars belong in this outfit. So get out of here, you tramps, or I'll arrest the whole slew of you."
That's how he was, one of the people, but glaringly so - unique, rich and a survivor. Anita, who thinks nobody is a genius, admired him for surviving and winding up with Oona, still by his side - a survivor and possibly a "genius."