This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Today I am going to look at the importance of another figure in Charlie’s life, his brother Sydney, whom I feel should never be overlooked.
Until the groundbreaking biography by Dr Lisa K Stein (Syd Chaplin: a biography), Sydney’s story was only really told as a piece of the Charlie Chaplin jigsaw puzzle. She has completely changed this, showing Sydney as an individual who helped to create his brother’s career. Stein’s book allows us to see Sydney like never before. Her work is a testament to the extensive resources in the Chaplin archives in Bologna, as well as her own personal collection and enthusiasm for her subject. For me, it shows that the information is all very much still there for us to all see, it’s just a question of knowing where to look, having the guts to challenge what is already known, interpret it differently and give a new dimension to further Chaplin research.
Four years older than his famous brother, Sydney would look out for his younger brother for the rest of his life. Born in 16 March 1885 to the 19-year-old Hannah Hill, and originally known as Sidney John Hill, Syd become a Chaplin when he was a few months old upon the marriage between his mother and Charlie’s father. The bond these brothers or the rest of their lives was a powerful one. Their shared time in south London workhouses and poorhouses, while their mother suffered with mental illness, required great courage. These events would later shape the brothers’ outlook on their art and their lives – although in different ways. Sydney Chaplin junior, Charlie’s son by his second wife Lita Grey, would reportedly later joke that his father’s choice of name for him was very apt. Whereas Charlie lived and breathed his work until its completion, Sydney senior would adopt a much more laidback approach and enjoy the fruits of his labour. In my humble opinion, Sydney felt he worked hard so he could play hard, Charlie however felt he had to hold on to his tragedy, because it helped mould his comedy.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Thanks for returning for another instalment of Charlie’s London! This piece is going to look at the pubs in Chaplin’s life. It has always been my intention to show Chaplin’s emotional side, and also how there we can still see the South London of his youth around us. Chaplin appears not to have been much of a drinker, but two significant incidents in his life were connected to public houses that you can visit in London today.
First, we will look at the Three Stags just off the Kennington Road, opposite the fantastic Imperial War Museum. Then we will look at The Coal Hole on the Strand, a beautiful Victorian building.
As an undergraduate student who specialised in the Great War I would often find myself in the Imperial War Museum, studying its vast collection of military artifacts and hours of video footage. It was at this time I first discovered “Chaplin’s Corner”. Myself and three friends decided that, rather than hot chocolate and scones in the museum café we would cross the road to the Three Stags pub. The pub has that hint of Victorian decadence you imagine in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: dark, almost black interiors with perfectly preserved stained glass. Once we were seated inside, I looked over to my right and a sign caught my eye. It said “Chaplin’s Corner”. As I ventured over I could see a beautiful picture of Chaplin and Jackie Coogan from the 1921 movie The Kid and an explanation for the naming of this little area.
When Charlie was just 10 years old he happened to wander past the pub and for no reason poke his head through the open door. What he saw would go on to be an important moment in his young life. In his Autobiography he wrote:
The Three Stags in the Kennington Road was not a place my Father frequented, yet as I passed it one evening an urge prompted me to peek inside and there he was, sitting in the corner! I was about to leave, but his face lit up and he beckoned me to him. I was surprised at such a welcome, for he was never demonstrative. He looked very ill; his eyes were sunken, and his body had swollen to an enormous size. He rested one hand, Napoleon-like, in his waistcoat as if to ease his difficult breathing. That evening he was most solicitous, inquiring after Mother and Sydney, and before I left took me in his arms and for the first time kissed me. That was the last time I saw him alive. (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
I then remembered reading this same passage and more in Chaplin’s My Autobiography, so that night I took my well-read and very battered copy from my bookshelf once more. If you have not read this book I really do recommend it. This book has often come under scrutiny from critics for being “overly Dickensian”. I cannot disagree with that enough! What makes this an interesting read is more looking at the man behind the words, why does he mention certain things and not others? Why does he speak of some quite obscure people and now well-known individuals such as Buster Keaton whom we know he had a good friendship with?
It was then that I stumbled across another familiar place, a name I had seen before and could not place, The Coal Hole in the Strand. Well, if I felt the Three Stags screamed Victorian thriller then this pub most definitely howled its heritage from the rooftops. The beautiful glowing red sign above the door reminds you of gas lamps and empty gin beakers. Unlike the Three Stags, which no doubt held sad memories for Chaplin, the Coal Hole was the setting for a very touching moment in which he realised his brother Syd’s true affections for him. Chaplin wrote in his Autobiography:
I had been in the Provinces for six months. Meanwhile Sydney had had little success in getting a job in a theatre, so he was obliged to descend from his Thespian ambition and apply for a job as a bartender at The Coal Hole in the Strand. Out of one hundred and fifty applicants he got the job. But he had fallen ignominiously from his own graces as it were.
He wrote to me regularly and kept me posted of Mother, but I seldom answered his letters; for one reason, I could not spell very well. One letter touched me deeply and drew me very close to him; he reproached me for not answering his letter and recalled the misery we had endured together which should unite us even closer. “Since Mother’s illness,” wrote Sydney, “all we have in the world is each other. Do you must write regularly and let me know I have a brother.” His letter was so moving I replied immediately. Now I saw Sydney in another light. His letter cemented a brotherly love that has lasted throughout my life. (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
It has always been a belief of mine that Syd gets overlooked when we talk about Chaplin. Well thanks to Lisa K Stein and her truly wonderful biography of Syd Chaplin we can now all see the full story. This book is another must-read, alongside David Robinson’s definitive biography of Chaplin, which I have also mentioned before in my little blog. If you can find My Trip Abroad by Chaplin himself, first published in 1922, I also highly recommend that as another look at this great Londoner’s feelings about his home town.
People often ask me why Chaplin never came back to England to live. Of course, I can’t answer that. Only the great man himself could explain and unfortunately we will never have his answer. That is also only one of the questions I get asked. Half the people I talk to about Chaplin don’t even realise he was English, which to me is extraordinary! The only thing I can say is that in my humble opinion Chaplin didn’t need to make constant pilgrimages to the place of his birth, it never really left him.