When Charlie Chaplin’s Hippie Son Published a Tell-All Book

Michael John Chaplin was born on this day in 1946.  Michael is Charlie Chaplin’s third surviving son, and the oldest son from his marriage to Oona O’Neill. His older sister is the well known actress Geraldine Chaplin.

I don’t know that I would have done a post on Michael Chaplin on Travalanche if not for the fact that we turned up a copy of his his 1966 book I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My father’s Lawn at my in-laws old house, and I’ve had a chance to peruse the slim tome, which ought to be of interest to any Chaplin fanatic. A little quick math will tell you that Michael was still a teenager when he wrote this book, hardly old enough for memories to fill a memoir, yet here it is. The lad’s life experiences at this stage are at once fabulous and nil, if you catch my drift. He traveled a bit with his wealthy family on ocean liners and airplanes, attended parties, went to fancy schools and gave quite an impressive turn in his father’s film A King in New York (1956). And that was the extent of it. The book is often hilarious in the immaturity of his grievances: he received a spanking for breaking a lamp, that sort of thing. Essentially he comes across as a snotty if rebellious rich kid.

At the time of the book’s writing he had run away from home and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Hence the book’s tagline: “Pot, girls and swingers in London’s Ultra-Mod set.” His participation in the the still-young counterculture was supposed to be daring, and presumably scandalous enough to sell books in combination with his famous last name. To beef things up his ghostwriters Tom Merrin and Charles Hamblett have seasoned the thing with gratuitous slang from the day, a la, “I made the Swiss boarding school scene”, “We did the whole red carpet bit”, “I wasn’t buying the Hollywood trip,” that sort of thing, and he mostly comes off as a kind of jet setting Holden Caulfield. To his credit, he realized his mistake in penning it and sued to have the publication stopped, but the Crown found in favor of the publisher and out it came. This was right around the time of his father’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong. 

Much more valuable to the Chaplin fan of course is the front row seat at the doings of his famous father during his relatively secluded last years in Switzerland. And this portrait stuck me as necessary piece of the puzzle. Michael was only six when the family left the United States under a cloud in 1952, but there are interesting impressions of Charlie’s demeanor during that time. He seems to have been a caring but distant and forbidding father in some respects. He was 77 when the book came out, and had essentially been an old man throughout all of Michael’s young life. They were extremely rich. The house had a staff of twelve, and young Michael tended to bond with the chauffeur and other staff members rather than his father and his famous friends who came to visit. He adored his older half-brother, award-winning actor Sydney Chaplin. But in the end, we get the impression that Michael grew frustrated of the bubble he was living in with the family and had to break out and experience the world a bit. Unlike several of his siblings, nieces and nephews, and his own daughter Carmen Chaplin, Michael didn’t get very far as an actor, although he later co-produced some film and stage productions, got heavily involved in jazz, restored a French goat farm, spent eight years writing the novel A Fallen God, and assisted in transforming the old Chaplin estate in Switzerland into a museum. Some day, I should very much like to make a pilgrimage to that place. Michael John Chaplin’s official website is here.