Illustration for article titled British intelligence investigated whether Charlie Chaplin was a secret Frenchman

Here's a curious tidbit from spy history: in the 1950s, American intelligence asked Britain's MI5 to investigate the actor Charlie Chaplin on suspicions that Chaplin was a dangerous communist. But the intelligence agencies were unable to confirm that Chaplin was born in England, leading to an investigation into whether Chaplin was a completely different person than he claimed to be.


Recently declassified MI5 files reveal the extent of British intelligence's investigation into Chaplin's background. After Chaplin left the US in 1952 under a cloud of communist accusations, American intelligence asked MI5 to investigate Chaplin's background. Chaplin claimed that he was born in south London in April 1889, but MI5 was unable to find any records of his birth in the UK, and Chaplin didn't receive a passport until 1920.

American intelligence suggested that Chaplin was actually a Jewish Russian man originally named Israel Thornstein, but the idea that Chaplin was born in France came from Scotland Yard. Scotland Yard's Special Branch passed along a tip from a source who claimed Chaplin was actually born in Fontainebleau, outside of Paris. And the police memo suggested Scotland Yard believed this was a possibility:

There may or may not be some truth in this, but in view of the fact that no documentary proof has been obtained that Chaplin was born in the United Kingdom, it may well be that he was in fact born in France.


The foreign intelligence division MI6 actually investigated the claim, but couldn't find proof that Chaplin was born in France, either. It's amazing to think that so many resources were devoted to figuring out an actor's place of birth, and the truth may well be fairly mundane. Last year, Chaplin's family discovered a letter that suggested Chaplin may have been born in a nomadic camp near Birmingham, which would account for the lack of records.

The most reasonable response to this whole business comes from John Marriott, who headed MI5's counter-subversion branch. He noted in the records:

It is curious that we can find no record of Chaplin's birth, but I scarcely think that this is of any security significance.

MI5 files: Was Chaplin really a Frenchman and called Thornstein? [Telegraph via The Atlantic]

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