Day By Day: 1936

May 11th-12th: Chaplin meets Jean Cocteau

On Monday, May 11th, sailing between Hong Kong and Shanghai aboard the Kashima Maru, Chaplin received a note from a fellow passenger who wanted to meet him. The passenger was Jean Cocteau, who was traveling around the world with his lover, Marcel Khill, retracing the steps of Phileas Fogg. In his memoir, My Journey Round The World, Cocteau described their initial meeting:

So Charlie Chaplin was on board. The news took my breath away. Some days later, Chaplin was to say to me: “The real function of one’s work is to enable friends like us to cut out preliminaries; you and I have always known each other.” But I had no notion on that first day that the desire to meet was mutual.

I decided to write a short note to Chaplin. In it I mentioned my presence on board and my devotion to his personality, But, when he came down to dinner with Paulette Goddard, his behaviour convinced me that he meant to travel incognito. 

It turned out that he had not received my note…After dinner I retired to my cabin. As I was undressing, someone knocked at the door. I opened it, and there stood Charlie and Paulette. My note had only just been delivered. Inclined at first to suspect a practical joke, Chaplin had dashed up to the purser’s office on the main deck to see the passenger-list. Reassured, he had run down the stairs, four steps at a time, and here he was, answering my note in person. …

I was struck by the marvelous spontaneity, the suddenness and candor of this fantastic meeting, for which surely our horoscopes, and nothing else, can have accounted. Here, on the China Seas, a myth was taking substance in our midst. Passepartout [Marcel Khill] was gloating over the idol of his youth. Chaplin was shaking his white curls, taking off his glasses and putting them on again, and, between bursts of laughter, turning to the girl beside him. “Isn’t it marvelous! Simply marvelous!” 

Sketch of Chaplin by Cocteau

Although neither knew the other’s language they “conversed effortlessly” with Khill occasionally acting as interpreter. “Chaplin brought out each word,” Cocteau remembered, “and laid it on the table well in view, stood back from it and set it at the angle where it caught most light. The words he thus exhibited for my benefit were easy to transpose from one tongue to the other.”

Cocteau was delighted that Paulette, who knew French well, refused to act as interpreter: “If I lend a hand, they get all cluttered up with details; left to themselves they stick to essentials.” Cocteau felt this remark illustrated her “sleight of mind.”

Years later, Chaplin himself recalled their discussion in My Autobiography:

That night we sat up into the small hours, discussing our theories of life and art. Our interpreter spoke slowly and hesitantly while Cocteau, his beautiful hands spread on his chest, spoke with the rapidity of a machine gun, his eyes flashing an appealing look at me, then at the interpreter, who spoke unemotionally: ‘Mr Cocteau–he say–you are a poet–of ze sunshine–and he is a poet of ze–night.'” 

Their philosophical conversation went on until four in the morning, promising to meet at one o’clock for lunch.

But, according to Chaplin, “our enthusiasm had reached a climax…and neither of us showed up….We had had more than the glut of each other.” He wrote that they spent the rest of the voyage dodging each other in hallways and breaking appointments.

Cocteau remembered it quite differently. “We joined forces, shared our meals and the journey alike; to such an extent did we form the habit of living together that we found it painful to part company in San Francisco.” Nevertheless, Cocteau recognized Chaplin’s shyness and detachment: “He mistrusts even friendship and its obligations and the rough-and-ready contacts it imposes. The sudden fancy he took for me was, I gathered, quite exceptional; indeed there were moments when it seemed almost to alarm him, and I grew conscious of an aloofness, as though, after letting himself go, he were shrinking back into himself.”

He also observed Chaplin’s relationship with Paulette:

Paulette left us for a while. Bending towards me, Charlie murmured with a mysterious air, “And then–I always feel so sorry….” Sorry for what–for that small, prickly cactus, for that lioness with her glorious mane and claws, for that huge Rolls Royce with his luxury and sleek leather? That would be Chaplin all over; his heart works that way. He is sorry for everything and everyone; for us, for his vagabond self, and for her–that poor little waif whom he brings everywhere with him, so that he can give her food when she is hungry, put her to bed when tired, and spare her innocence the perils of city life. And, suddenly, I no  longer saw the Hollywood star in her page’s uniform of glossy satin, or the prosperous white-haired film director in mustard-yellow tweeds–but only that pale, curly-haired little fellow with the flippant cane, limping his way about the world and leading by the hand a little girl, the victim of incessant police traps and the ghoulishness of the cities. 

Cocteau drawing of young man sleeping (Marcel Khill), inscribed to Paulette:
“á Paulette, la petite fille trés pure, ce souvenir de notre rencontre et d’une amitie de toujours. Jean.”
 [to Paulette, the very pure little girl, this remembrance of our meeting and of a friendship forever. Jean.]
George Glazer Gallery

Chaplin spent much of the voyage to Shanghai writing in his cabin, remembered Cocteau. “I might pass out tomorrow in my bath,” Chaplin told him. “But I don’t count. Really, I don’t exist. Only these papers exist–and they do count.” Cocteau felt that Chaplin loved work and everything else “profoundly bored him. No sooner is he lured away from work than he starts yawning, his body sags, his eyes go lustreless and he sinks into a “little death.'”

On Tuesday, May 12th, they arrived in Shanghai. That evening, Charlie and Paulette met Cocteau for dinner at the Cathay Hotel. Afterward they went to a Chinese cabaret, where Cocteau noticed Chaplin yawning. He spent most of the night “sulky” and when all other diners left their tables and took to the dance floor, he remained seated. “He was a brown study, and I could see he was put out by the stares of all and sundry, their eagerness to detect the film-star in the man.”

Later in the evening, Paulette suddenly rose and told everyone at the table that she “wanted to see Shanghai.” So Cocteau and Marcel agreed to give Paulette a tour of the city’s nightlife while Chaplin returned to the hotel to sleep.

The next morning, the Chaplin party, as well as Cocteau and Khill, departed for Japan (and eventually the U.S.) aboard the SS President Coolidge.

Stay tuned for more in my Day By Day: 1936 series.


Jean Cocteau, Round The World Again In 80 Days
Chaplin, My Autobiography
Robinson, Chaplin: His Life & Art


  1. Interesting. Do you know if Charlie and Paulette knew the relationship between Jean and Marcel was more then friends? Something I have been curious about but never found an answer too.

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