Sunday, December 1, 2013

World Tour Revisited: Chaplin is sued for backpay by his secretary, May Shepherd

On February 19th, 1931, not long after Chaplin arrived in London from America, his press agent Carlyle Robinson hired May Shepherd to help with the growing fan mail problem, which had become too cumbersome for Robinson to deal with by himself. Shepherd had previously handled correspondence for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in London. She had also worked for Rudolph Valentino, Jackie Coogan, and Tom Mix.

May Shepherd handling Chaplin's fan mail--
and wishing she was getting paid more for it.

When Chaplin left England for Berlin in March, Shepherd stayed behind at his suite at the Ritz Carlton to finish up his correspondence. Her employment ended on April 20th. Chaplin was in Biarritz in August when he received a letter from Shepherd demanding backpay.  She felt that she should have been paid more than five pounds a week for the work she had done for him and wanted one hundred pounds in backpay. United Artists and Chaplin's immediate entourage, including Kono, told him to agree to pay her the money she wanted, but Chaplin stubbornly refused out of principle--five pounds per week was the amount she had agreed to and he was going to hold her to it.  The attorneys for United Artists also felt that perhaps she was blackmailing Chaplin. She had inferred in statements that if her demands weren't met, she would make public the goings on in Chaplin's suite, i.e. that he had flirted with her.* Furthermore that she was privy to letters from females, some of them well-known, that contained salacious offers or a recounting of previous sexual encounters. Maurice Silverstone, the managing director for UA in London, claimed that Shepherd was asking for five times the going rate for secretarial help. Not only that, while working in Chaplin's suite, she had run up a considerable room service bill--charging expensive meals and bottles of champagne. To make a long story short, Shepherd eventually sued Chaplin. She testified in court that she was often asked to make excuses for her boss when he didn't want to keep an important engagement, including a dinner with Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald. Chaplin was not present for Shepherd's testimony but agreed to a settlement when he received word that names of prominent people whom he considered friends were being "bandied about" in court. The next day, December 1st, Chaplin appeared before the judge and announced through his lawyers that he would like to make a statement. Instead of summarizing these events, I will post an article from the New York Times of Dec. 2nd, 1931. It goes without saying that not only was this a bad day for Charlie, but he has horrible luck with women named May.



*She accused Douglas Fairbanks of the same thing. However, she didn't have a problem with Valentino because "Madame Valentino was constantly in the office." 

3 comments:

  1. Poor Charlie. Very humbling.
    The trouble with Hollywood was that they themselves sued their own properties as corporations at times. This makes the money grab more impersonal I guess. I felt it was this way when Georgia Hale sued for being 'misused' when she was not given more work during her contract. She was always loyal in her heart to Charlie.
    In reading and watching the things you have posted Jess, I've come to view our West in the early 1900's as an innovator's frontier. Groups of individuals always bond together in an era where new discoveries are abundant and each is recovering from the 'lonely immigrant experience'. They have a common empathy and sentiment about being in the new world. But let certain factions and corporate interests come to prominence and the wolves teeth and barrister come out. So long the earlier compassion and mutual 'pathos' like you see in photos....such as Charlie with Leo Gadowsky or Sennett. MHO

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    1. I guess that's why greed is one of the seven deadly sins.

      I've wondered if there was more to the May Shepherd story than not being compensated for her work. It's possible she and Charlie may have had an actual affair. If that's the case, when he left London, I'm sure she never heard from him again. As they say, "hell hath no fury..."

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  2. Hell hath no fury is right. Maybe she found out someone else got paid more for the same job and said "What am I? Chopped liver?

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