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Spy files reveal mystery over Chaplin's birth
British spies investigated silent star over US suspicions of leftist leanings, but could find no trace of his origins.
Last Modified: 17 Feb 2012 10:25
Chaplin's origins remain shrouded in mystery more than 120 years after his birth [GALLO/GETTY]

British agents who investigated Charlie Chaplin over US suspicions that he was a communist sympathiser could find no record of the silent film star's birth or real identity, newly declassified files have revealed.

The UK's MI5 security agency launched an investigation into Chaplin in 1952 following a request from the FBI, which believed Chaplin was using an alias and that his real name was Israel Thornstein, according to the documents released by the UK's national archive on Friday.

The case came at the height of US paranoia over Soviet infiltration. US authorities had suspected Chaplin of being a communist since the height of his fame in the 1920s.

During his long career, Chaplin courted controversy with 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.

While Chaplin said he had been born in London in 1889, British agents could find no record of his claim, but also concluded that he did not pose a security threat, according to the files.

"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."

'Going back to Russia'

Elsewhere in the file, agents speculated that Chaplin might have had Russian roots. There was an allegation that he had once spoken of "going back to Russia".

"This might refer to paying another visit, or it might denote his origin as Russia," noted a senior MI5 officer, speculating that Chaplin might have come from a Jewish family fleeing pogroms at the end of the 19th century.

But British officials seemed content to let the mystery of Chaplin's birth remain.

British agents were sceptical of US claims that the star was a communist threat, with John Marriott, the head of MI5's counter-subversion branch, calling the 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.

Chaplin was refused re-entry to the United States in 1952. He settled in Switzerland and lived there until his death in 1977.

Source:
Agencies
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