Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Different Kind of Christmas Memory

The world bid farewell to one of its great artists 
on Christmas day of 1977. 
1971 at the Manoir
I was a copywriter at Gardner Advertising at the time, having just finished two years of freelancing and enjoying the new security, or whatever passes for security in the ad business. Mary Lee was working as a rep for a food brokerage firm. My daughter Holly was nine, my son Gregg would be five on the following day. Their familiarity with Chaplin came from watching an occasional short of his on videotape, or walking into my home office. One wall was covered with framed images of Chaplin - posters, photos, a couple of paintings - but I had not yet been hit with the idea to write a novel about him.

1966 filming "Countess"

On that Christmas morning,  I sat on the floor in the living room with my kids. Mary Lee was upstairs. We had opened the presents and I was probably in the middle of trying to assemble something or playing a game with the kids. The phone rang. My wife answered it upstairs. After a few seconds I heard her say, “I’ll tell him. Thanks, mom.”

She came downstairs and said, “That was your mother. She just heard that Charlie Chaplin died.” I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember what all my feelings were. Loss, certainly. Sadness at the passing of a great film maker  and comic. I don’t remember if either one of the kids said or asked anything. But there was something else deep inside me. Something like “missed opportunity.” The proverbial road not taken.

Here’s what I mean. I had been in Europe in 1960, had hitchhiked close to Vevey, Switzerland, where Chaplin lived. I considered trying to “stop by and meet the man.” Like walk up to the front door of the Manoir and say, “Is Charlie here?” But I didn’t. Turns out he was working on his autobiography at the time. Thinking back, I know I could have helped him write it, or just typed it for him (I'm a speedy typist), or taken out the trash or catalogued his films or whatever he needed done. The possibilities were endless.
1972, without Geraldine and Michael

Years later I thought about writing to him, before his return to America in 1972, to tell him he wasn't forgotten, he was still loved by many. I wrote the letter in my mind, but never committed it to paper. 

For some reason, his passing fanned the low-burning fire in me, ignited a renewed interest in his life and art. It’s a passion that remains as strong as ever these 36 years later. Ebay has been a big help with that, as well as meeting many wonderful people along the way, people with a shared love of Chaplin.

The point of this rambling is really to say this Christmas, as every Christmas, is special for me in more than just the ordinary holiday aspect of it. Which is why I’ve scattered some photos of Chaplin throughout this article, Chaplin in his later years, and how various newspapers announced his death. I put the newspapers into a large envelope 36 years ago, in the days before you could access every bit of history on-line. Old newspaper is more real than clean digital reproduction.

In summer of 2006, following a week-long bicycle journey in Denmark, we spent a few days in Zurich. On the second day we took a train to Vevey. A heat wave covered much of Europe during that week, the train was a local, and we arrived in Vevey early afternoon.
By the time I found out where to go and how to get around, it was too late to go to the Manoir. But I visited the cemetery.
Charlie and Oona rest side by side there in this small, open sanctuary. I was alone. I sat on the bench, my shirt soaked with perspiration, and thought about all that Charlie had brought into the world, and all that Oona had brought into his life. Silence enveloped me.
I thanked him, touched the headstones, thought about all the years that had passed since he had first entered my life, and walked back into town.

Charlie wasn’t the only bright star to go out that year. There was also Groucho and Bing and Elvis. But for me, the year 1977 has but one meaning: It was the year The Little Tramp kicked up his heels, faced the future optimistically, and walked down that road. Only he wasn't alone. He was with Oona. And the rest of the world was with him.


  1. Gerry. A nice piece of nostalgia. Everyone of us have memories of things we thought to do but never did.
    I have a daughter who lives in Rogers Arkansas and we have been to Crystal Bridges on several occasions. A wonderful museum. It is a place everyone should visit if they are heading down I44

  2. Gerry, A grand assemblage... I can imagine that Charlie will appear any moment and do his walk with a swinging cane... just for you...

    1. A wonderful piece Gerry. I found out that evening on a television news broadcast. During those years CBS would occasionally run a 30 minute tribute show to someone important who had just died, and KMOX television ran it at 10:30 that evening. Bittersweet. And yet a very full life. His art lives on in the connections made between people who loved and admired him.
      Joe Delmore

    2. Beautiful comment, Joe. I guess there is such a thing as eternal life. Thanks for the note.

  3. victorgassman@hotmail.comDecember 25, 2013 at 5:00 PM


    Thanks for sharing your memories. At this point in our lives they are even more precious and to be shared.

    Vic Gassman

  4. Hi Gerry,
    Merry Belated Christmas to you, Mary Lee and the whole family.
    Wonderful post! As usual your writing gets me to thinking. To tell you the truth, this year I didn't even remember that Charlie had died on Christmas. Guess it's been a busy week for us. Maybe it's because in the back of my mind he isn't really dead. Not as long as his work still lives on. Ah, now I'm getting poetic. Actually I really think I've just had a crazy week.
    I still remember my own Christmas Day 1977. We had all just settled at the dining room table for a big family dinner when my stepfather Morty, casually blurts out, " Hey, did you hear Chaplin died?". As if to say, "can you pass the peas?". I was in shock inside and remember being angry at my stepfather for being so, so offhand about it and so cavalier. Well it's understandable I guess. CC didn't mean to him what he meant to me, but even so all these years later I still am in disbelief that it meant so little. Ah but we all know better, don't we! Have a truly Happy New Year, Ger!

    1. I enjoyed your comments, Carl. Your memory of Morty is priceless. Thanks for the story. You're right... to many people it was just another "Hollywood" passing. But we know better, don't we? I hope you and your family have a happy and healthy new year.