Chaplin in Carmel

In early 1938, Chaplin decided he needed a change of scenery. His marriage to his third wife, Paulette Goddard, was coming apart and he was at a loss for an idea for a new film. So along with his new friend, Tim Durant,1 he left Los Angeles for Pebble Beach–and stayed there for five months. It was through Durant that Chaplin was introduced to the Pebble Beach/Carmel social set. Although initially reluctant to do so, he jumped right in.

One of the people he met during this time was Berkeley professor, Benjamin Lehman, who was a close friend of Noel Sullivan, a local musician and patron of the arts, and whose home, Hollow Hills, was a gathering place for like-minded artists, writers, and poets. Below is an excerpt of an interview with Lehman in which he discusses seeing Chaplin in Carmel:

I saw him once for a long afternoon after lunch down in one of those houses on the cliffs south of Carmel where he was a lunch guest and I was, too. My son, who was then sixteen and six feet three, and the very image of young boy growing into young man, was with me. Chaplin came over and said, “Come, and sit with me.” It was a buffet. Then there was a fourth place right out over the ocean on this beautiful terrace. “Who will we get for there?”

“You get him.”

So, he went and got Molly O’Shea, if I remember rightly, the painter’s wife.

Chaplin always was a good talker. He had an enthusiastic and eager mind; it wasn’t as disciplined as his sense of visual art or sense of movement was disciplined. In short, to the academic mind it seemed a little reckless, but it was devoted to the common good. In all his thinking, whether he was talking economics, or architecture for private housing, or the invasion of the wilderness by roads, it was always, “What would be good in the long range…” for what he knew as a boy, the East End of London, the people there who didn’t get out, what would be good for such. He was enormously social-minded, and of course because of this perhaps dreamy recklessness he didn’t have to make this thing work, a little like Goldwater [laughter] many people said, “He’s a radical,” “he’s a crypto-Communist,” all that thing. But he was of great charm, and of course when he was out on his own conditioned activity he was marvelous.

Hollow Hills, Carmel, 1938. L-R: Chaplin, author C.E.S. Wood,2 his wife, Sara Bard Field, and Noel Sullivan.

I remember sitting one night until three or four in the morning, Judith Anderson, I, Noel Sullivan, and he, after a big party at Hollow Hills. We were staying there, Miss Anderson and I in the house, and he didn’t know it and he was waiting for her to go, then he would go. And we were getting tired, but he wasn’t, and he was filling in the time with one incredible mimicry after another, talking personalities and then projecting them, being reminded by something in the projection of someone else, and projecting it. An imitation of John Barrymore waking up from a drunken stupor; another imitation of John Barrymore giving an imitation of a nervous, amateur actor speaking the “to be or not to be” soliloquy and getting caught on a little dry mucosa from the nostril, and rolling it in on his thumb and trying to get rid of it while he said the lines [laughing], so vulgar, and yet so brilliantly pure, you can’t imagine. Well, this was the sort of thing that was going on all the time.

He was good in talk, eager, inquiring. Colleagues of mine at the University have told me of being on a train before we all went by plane from New York or Chicago and Chaplin was on it. If he was in a stateroom, with a secretary, he would send the secretary through the train: “If you see any body who is reading an interesting book, bring him in.” The secretary would bring Professor X or Professor Y in, and he would sit and talk with them for an hour. Sometimes he’d talk to people, but mostly he’d talk with them; nothing like, “I’m one of the great geniuses of the world,” except to illustrate it when he got going as a mimic.

You could get him anytime, that way. You couldn’t get him by telephone, but you could get him by a note or a letter and say, “On Friday, so-and-so is coming to lunch, or dinner. I think you’d like him.” And he’d turn up, not to be impressive, but to take in, or to exchange, in part at least. 3


1Chaplin was introduced to Tim Durant via his friend, King Vidor, sometime in 1937. Like Charlie, Tim liked tennis and they played a lot together. “He was sympathetic, and we became very good friends.” (My Autobiography, 1964). 2Wood was a prominent author, poet, attorney, painter, and champion of liberal causes. He was a regular contributor to the socialist magazine The Masses. His left-leaning politics no doubt interested Chaplin. 3Recollections and Reminiscences of Life in the Bay Area from 1920 Onward: An Interview Conducted by Suzanne B. Reiss, Berkeley, 1969


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