LONDON (Reuters) - The real name and birthplace of legendary silent-film star Charlie Chaplin is shrouded in mystery, Britain’s domestic spy agency concluded after a probe into U.S. claims he was a communist sympathizer, documents released on Friday revealed.
British MI5 agents were asked in 1952 to investigate Chaplin’s background by the FBI, which believed he was using an alias and that his real name was Israel Thornstein, over long-running U.S. suspicions about the actor’s left-wing leanings.
Chaplin, one of Hollywood’s first and greatest stars famed for his “Little Tramp” character, believed he was born on April 16, 1889, in south London.
But, an exhaustive search by MI5 found no record of his birth anywhere, nor anything to suggest he was any kind of security risk, declassified files from the spy agency revealed.
“It’s very unusual, particularly after investigation by MI5, for the date and place of birth for such a well-known celebrity as Charlie Chaplin to remain so mysterious,” said Professor Christopher Andrew, the official historian of MI5.
The file shows no one called Charles or Israel was born on April 16, and further inquiries into suggestions Chaplin had been born in France near Fontainebleau also proved fruitless.
“We can find no evidence that Chaplin’s name is or ever has been Israel Thornstein, nor can we find any evidence of the existence of such a person,” MI5 said in a letter to the U.S. Embassy in London. “We have, however, been unable to discover any other name by which he has been known.”
Andrew said new evidence which emerged last year suggested Chaplin was born in a caravan belonging to a woman known as “the Gypsy Queen” in central England and his mother was a member of what is now referred to as “the travelling community.”
The information was in a letter, found in a locked drawer, which had been sent to Chaplin a few years before his death in 1977 by a man called Jack Hill, who said the caravan’s owner was his aunt.
“Though there’s no proof that Jack Hill’s information is correct, Chaplin obviously treated it seriously otherwise as his oldest surviving son has commented, Chaplin would not have preserved it so carefully,” Andrew said.
During his long career, Chaplin courted controversy with overtly political films such as “The Great Dictator” a parody of German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and “A King in New York,” a satire on the anti-communist Cold War fears gripping America.
From the 1920s, U.S. authorities suspected him of being a communist supporter, a claim he always denied, and he was refused a re-entry permit when he left the United States in 1953 and went to live in Switzerland.
The MI5 file, which includes press cuttings, letters to and from the U.S. embassy and a telegram to Chaplin from a Soviet agent, shows the British agency also rejected the U.S. claims and concluded in 1958 he posed no risk.
“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,” an MI5 officer wrote.
Among other declassified documents released on Friday were details of MI5 investigations into three Nobel prize-winning chemists, including Irene Curie and her husband, who were communist sympathizers.
Another file also details the actions of Folkert Van Koutrik a Dutch double agent who worked for German intelligence during World War Two.
Editing by Paul Casciato