Geraldine Chaplin on Selling Out of the Family Fortune
By Anthea Gerrie | Photography by Bubbles Incorporated, courtesy of Chaplin’s World
She could have made millions from her father’s estate, but Geraldine Chaplin, eldest of the great comedian’s eight children by his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, has revealed she sold her share in the family fortune to heal a bitter rift over exploiting his image after the Oscar winner passed away.
“I was in favor of everything, including toilet paper branded with that famous silhouette of the Tramp. I thought Charlie should be out there on everything; you couldn’t vulgarize his image because he was too wonderful,” Geraldine told me at the family mansion above Lake Geneva where she grew up with her parents and seven siblings.
And only now, ironically, has she got her way. Charlie-themed merchandise is on everything from T-shirts to posters at the new museum in the family home, which even features waxworks of Charlie and Oona, for whom Geraldine’s actress daughter is named. Chaplin’s World is set to become one of Switzerland’s biggest attractions. But Geraldine, who has been out of the family firm for fourteen years, will not make a penny out of an enterprise that has been ten years in the making—an effort to save the thirty-seven-acre property that the family was unable to keep up.
“No one could—it’s ridiculous, although I thought it was a normal childhood: masses of bedrooms for masses of children, the nannies and all the ‘personnel’ who had their own house across the street,” says the actress.
“No one could—it’s ridiculous, although I thought it was a normal childhood: masses of bedrooms for masses of children, the nannies and all the ‘personnel’ who had their own house across the street,” says the actress. The magnificent Manoir de Ban in Vevey, just half a mile from the modest townhouse where she has lived for decades, was derelict last time she set foot in it.
“There were trees coming through the floor, and it was a very sad place. My brothers Michael and Eugene lived here for a while with eleven kids between them, and then they left. During the three years it was abandoned, nature took over, and the house looked like Angkor Wat. Saplings were coming up in the tennis courts, and even the swimming pool was full of trees.
“I knew there were plans for a museum, but I never believed in it. I thought, ‘It’ll be a real estate scam,’ because it went on and on for ten years.”
By then, Geraldine had sold her shares to one of her four sisters, fed up with the constant war over how to bolster an estate her brother Michael, now the president of the Chaplin Museum Foundation, described in 2007 as “not lucrative . . . something we’re trying to change.”
“After my mother died, we took opposite sides; it was always four against four, and we fell out,” explains Geraldine of the merchandising proposals that came pouring in.
“After my mother died, we took opposite sides; it was always four against four, and we fell out,” explains Geraldine of the merchandising proposals that came pouring in. “Some of my brothers and sisters thought Charlie’s films should only be shown in the equivalent of cathedrals, while I thought he belonged to everyone and his image should be everywhere.
“It was touch and go for a while until I thought, ‘I don’t need these nightmares, all this worrying,’ and I sold my share to one of my sisters.”
The estate was doubtless depleted by Chaplin’s extravagance, which Geraldine feels dates back to his childhood in and out of workhouses, although he never talked about his prestardom poverty. “I remember Daddy’s lawyer saying, ‘You’re always complaining about the bills, but you insist on living like Louis XIV.’ My father said, ‘My only luxury is wood for the fire.’ He insisted on having it on, summer and winter, because he just loved looking into it and remembering God knows what, even though we had central heating throughout the house.”
The former street urchin insisted on living like an aristocrat, Geraldine remembers. “My father was born in 1889 and a Victorian in every sense. He was a very strict father—boys were not allowed, and I remember putting on some makeup when I was fourteen and we were going out, and being told to wash it off.
“We had to be quiet in the house; you’d come in, and it was ‘Shhh! Daddy’s working.’ We had dinner in the children’s dining room and then were dressed up and brought down at cocktail time. That was always at six sharp, and we were fed peanuts while our parents had their drinks.
“But there was the opposite side to him, too; he would fool around and play with us and do all his music-hall tricks. But he never talked about his past.”
Successful in her own right, the award-winning actress was handpicked by director David Lean to star inDoctor Zhivago. Martin Scorsese chose her for The Age of Innocence, Richard Attenborough to play her grandmother, who had a breakdown when Charlie was a child, in Chaplin, and J. A. Bayona, who directed A Monster Calls, for his debut film, The Orphanage.
“Because it was such a hit, he says I bring him luck and have to have a part in all his films. My part in A Monster Calls was written for a twenty-eight-year-old Asian teacher, but he said, ‘Let’s forget she’s meant to be twenty-eight and forget she’s Asian.’
“Next, he’s doing the new Jurassic Park movie, so I’m hoping to get at least a dinosaur!” laughs the seventy-two-year-old.
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Anthea Gerrie is based in the UK but travels the world in search of stories. Her special interests are architecture and design, culture, food, and drink, as well as the best places to visit in the world’s great playgrounds. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Blueprint.