Friday, January 22, 2016

On this day in 1927, Chaplin holds a press conference following his nervous breakdown in New York City

(This is an updated version of a post from a couple of years ago)


Shortly after Chaplin arrived in New York City on January 14th, he suffered a nervous breakdown in the apartment of his attorney, Nathan Burkan. His secretary, Toraichi Kono, told cameraman Rollie Totheroh, that Chaplin had attempted to commit suicide by trying to jump out the window.1 His fragile mental state was caused not only by the scandalous details of Lita Grey's divorce complaint but also by an article that was printed in the newspaper on January 15th2 which included some private thoughts about his marriage that he had told a reporter on the train between New York and Chicago, not expecting to be quoted. When Chaplin saw his secrets printed on the front page of the paper, he became "violently ill." In addition to his marital problems, the I.R.S. claimed Chaplin owed over one million dollars in back taxes.

A week later, Chaplin agreed to a press conference. About 50 reporters crowded into the dining room of the apartment. Chaplin "lolled against a window sill & looked about in bewilderment. He sought the eyes of Mr. Burkan, who stood across the room with his arms folded."

Photo by Apeda, 1927

Chaplin began the press conference by saying: "First, I want to thank the public and the press for their fairness in suspending judgement on me till the trial."

"How do you feel," asked a reporter.

"A little wobbly," replied Chaplin. "I'm able to take rides now. In fact, I feel fine."

Regarding his income tax troubles, Chaplin said: "Why, that's a complete surprise to me. I have a lot of accountants and they didn't tell me anything about it. So it's sort of a surprise. I don't pay any attention to the monetary end. No, I don't know anything about it."

Chaplin sighed at the mention of his wife and begged to be excused from saying that he still loved her. "Under the circumstances, I don't think that's a fair question," he said. However, he managed to say, "I respect her and I think she is ill-advised."

"What do you think of women now, do you like them?" he was asked.

"Of course, naturally," Chaplin replied gazing out the window at Central Park. "If you didn't like them. Life wouldn't be worth living....What is one's art but a love letter to some fair woman. I am glad I am not through with women.

"Do you expect to fall in love again?"

"I hope so, unless senility overcomes me."

He denied that he had anyone in mind at this time.


Chaplin said that Lita's request for $4000 a month temporary alimony for support of the children was evidence of her "gold-digging." "I don't think she has the mature responsibility to realize what she is doing or saying. I don't see why she needs $4000 a month....she wants it for herself."

Chaplin expressed fear that his marital problems might react upon him in a professional way. "My ability as an actor is very aerial, very frail--you don't know whether the spark will die."

"Have you read your wife's charges against you in the divorce complaint?"

"No, but I have heard enough about them."

Chaplin & attorney Nathan Burkan

When Chaplin was in doubt about a question his attorney would answer for him or he would confer with him first.

Finally, after "drooping wearily" on the edge of the bed, he blurted out a tirade about protecting his good name:
"I have asked you to ask me anything and nobody asked me just how I felt about this whole business, I'll tell you how I feel. I don't give a damn for the money. I don't give a damn for the trouble. I thank the public for being kind to me. But I am worrying more about what my sons will think of it in 10 years than I am about what the public thinks of it now. 
Put yourself in my position. An Englishman with pride of family; I have worked and my forefathers have worked for a living. I have made a few dollars and, I think, a good reputation. 
My greatest thought was that my few dollars would enable my sons to acquire culture and dignity and pride in their father. I gloried in that prospect. Now my ill-advised wife begins to drag the names of these boys through the courts.
This is what hurts. I am not worrying about money or charges against me. I am worrying about my name, not as it concerns me, but as it concerns my boys. For that reason alone I will fight to the end. 
I would like to make a funny picture, but how in the devil am I going to with my reputation at stake?
If I have a public life, then let it be scrutinized. If I have a private life, then let it be mine. Outside of being an actor, I don't amount to much, after all, but I have a good English name and hope I can be permitted to defend that name."
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1"Roland H. Totheroh Interviewed," Timothy J. Lyons, ed. Film Culture, Spring 1972

2 The "breakdown" article can be read here. Scroll down to "Chaplin's Own Story," January 15, 1927 (near bottom): http://www.silentera.com/taylorology/issues/Taylor46.txt

According to the Gerith Von Ulm book, Charlie Chaplin: King Of Tragedy (and as per Kono), Charlie and the reporter played poker on the train for 6 hours while Charlie talked nonstop. I assume the reporter did not take notes during the interview because Charlie was under the impression that their conversation was "off the record," so one must question the accuracy of the content. To me, he doesn't say anything here that would lead to a nervous breakdown later, but he doesn't sound sane either. He rambles quite a bit and at times stretches the truth, i.e. his heartbreak over Lita falling out of love with him. It seems to me that his breakdown was a combination of everything that was happening in his life at the time.

Other sources:

January 23rd, 1927 issues of the New York Times, Boston Daily Globe, Chicago Daily Tribune, and The Atlanta Constitution.

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