On Charlie Chaplin’s Mother

Charlie Chaplin’s mom (1865-1928) was born on August 6. The daughter of a London shoemaker, her birth name was Hannah Hill. At age 16 she went into music hall and changed her name to Lily Harley, after the great English stage star Lillie Langtry. Within a year or two she fell for fellow performer Charles Chaplin, Sr., with whom she was appearing in an Irish themed comedy sketch called “Shamus O’Brien.” The couple were involved for close to a decade, although the trajectory was kind of corkscrew shaped. They initially fell in love around 1881 or ’82. Then Lily took up with a guy named Sydney Hawkes, went to South Africa with him and had a child by him (Sydney Chaplin). Ill-used by Hawkes and desperate, she returned to London with her baby, where Chaplin married her in 1885 and adopted her child. Charles Chaplin, Jr. (born 1889) was the only biological child of both parents. In 1890, Charles Sr. went on a successful North American vaudeville tour, and the couple broke up around this time. After this Lily had a professional and personal relationship with Leo Dryden, bearing him a son, Wheeler Dryden in 1892. Charlie Chaplin would not learn of Wheeler’s existence until they were both grown men, for Leo had broken up with Lily when Wheeler was an infant and taken the baby with him.

In 1894, when Charlie Chaplin was only five, his mother lost her voice during a performance and Charlie had to go on for her, making his stage debut, kind of a significant moment in show business history. After this, she gave up performing and earned money by sewing dresses out of her apartment and was nearly destitute. Charlie’s childhood has become the stuff of legend. While he eventually got to know his father a little, he was extremely close to his mother, and seems to have been much more like her than he was like his namesake. She was fun-loving and clownish and did imitations of people. But she was also mentally ill. The assumption nowadays is that she (like so many show business people in her time) suffered from the effects of syphilis. And like the famous son who took after her in so many ways, she was a serial monogamist who’d had many partners. The world owes her a big debt though. Other than Fred Karno, Lily Harley was easily Charlie Chaplin’s biggest influence. Her clownish ways were carried on by Charlie; and the years of poverty, hunger, and want he knew during his formative years became the great theme and serious subtext of his work.

Chaplin took leave of his mother in 1912 when he began his second American tour with Karno. It was nearly a decade later when, wealthy and famous, he was finally able to bring her to live near him in Hollywood. By this point, she was in an advanced state of dementia. She passed away in 1928, eight months after the release of The Circus. 

One of the very best things about the 1992 bio-pic Chaplin, was seeing Geraldine Chaplin portray her own grandmother. Magical.

To learn more more about vaudeville and music hall, including performers like Lily Harley a.k.a Hannah Chaplin, please read  No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.