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May 04, 1997

To the Editor:

Assigning the review of Kenneth S. Lynn's "Charlie Chaplin and His Times" (Book Review, March 16) to David Robinson, a doctrinaire leftist Brit who is himself the author of a biography of Chaplin, was a truly boneheaded idea. The hatchet job the rivalrous Robinson performs on Lynn's book was clearly impelled by a desperate wish to protect the endangered reputation of his own. At no point does Robinson acknowledge the engaging wit and aesthetic sensitivity with which Lynn makes Chaplin's films live again in our minds or the exciting connections he draws between certain themes in the films (e.g. madness) and the hellishness of Chaplin's early life.

In regard to Chaplin the man, Robinson's book ignores the penetrating assessment of the comedian by the sophisticated Frenchman Robert Florey, who once worked at the Chaplin Studio. According to Florey, Chaplin had "two distinct personalities." On one hand, there was "the amicable Charlie . . . whom the whole world adores." And on the other, there was "the tyrannical, wounding, authoritarian, mean, despotic man imbued with himself." Lynn, by contrast, not only quotes Florey but consistently faces up to the challenge of portraying Chaplin's complexity. For his pains, he has earned nothing more from Robinson than an accusation of "inescapable emotional bias."

Yet another of Lynn's achievements is his decisive demonstration that while Chaplin's claim of having lived as a child in abject, bottom-dog poverty has always appealed to the gullible, including Robinson, it has no basis in fact. By poring over the maps of every London street that a remarkable late Victorian, Charles Booth, color-coded by social status and published as an adjunct of his 17-volume study of the "Life and Labour of the People in London," Lynn has discovered that the young Chaplin lived in genteel poverty or working-class comfort. In his review, Robinson makes a pathetic attempt to discredit Booth but merely succeeds in revealing his unfamiliarity with the gentleman's work by erroneously referring to it as "Life and Labour of the Poor in London."

As an apologist for Chaplin's political conduct, Robinson has no use for the idea that Chaplin was a fellow traveler whom Soviet propagandists found useful. Consequently, it is anathema to him that Lynn stresses the importance of Chaplin's social ties in the 1930s and '40s to such figures as the German refugee composer Hanns Eisler.

Eisler worked for a time for the Comintern in Moscow and was then assigned to Hollywood because the Kremlin believed in his aptitude for cultural infiltration. After he was deported for perjury in 1948--a procedure that Chaplin fought fiercely every step of the way--Eisler boasted that he and Bertolt Brecht had "radicalized" Chaplin. The success of their effort can be seen in "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947). Not only does Verdoux the wife killer equate business with murder but, in the courtroom scene, he defends himself by mounting a thinly veiled assault on atomic America. Robinson's weak riposte to all this is that "the film is actually set in France between the two World Wars."

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Editor in Chief, The American Spectator, Arlington, Va.


David Robinson replies:

On the very eve of voting in the British election, it is disconcerting to learn from R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. that I am a doctrinaire leftist. This is as big a surprise to me as to the unswervingly right-of-center newspapers for which I have worked for the last 40 years. Maybe his information comes from the same sources as lead him to no-less-uncompromising judgments on Charles Chaplin's politics.

My review of Lynn's book was certainly unfavorable but not written in the petty spirit of rivalry that Tyrrell infers. I agreed unseen to review because I had met Lynn, liked him and admired his earlier work and so anticipated a book by a colleague, which I would admire no less. That it proved otherwise was, I admit, embarrassing, though I certainly do not feel his book "endangers" the reputation of my own, written many years ago. On the contrary, he pays me the compliment of drawing extensively and legitimately on my work: Out of his 60 end-note references to it, only one takes issue with its position.

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