How Charlie Chaplin’s Wife Saved His Backyard Fortune
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not only survivalists who bury their money in the backyard.
By Sean Braswell
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s brand new weekly podcast unlocking a series of linked histories, starting with the murder of John Lennon and stretching all the way back to the Russian Revolution. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.
Charlie Chaplin was having lunch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when he heard some devastating news on September 19, 1952. The British screen legend and longtime U.S. resident received a telegram aboard the England-bound Queen Elizabeth indicating that he would not be allowed back in America unless he agreed to come before an immigration authority to answer charges of political and moral turpitude. Translation: U.S. authorities thought he was both a communist and an adulterer, which put him into rather a sticky situation in 1950s America.
Chaplin was returning by ship to his native England for the first time in more than 20 years, bringing with him his wife and four children for the worldwide premiere of his latest film. Like many in Hollywood, he had been growing increasingly frustrated with being the target of communist allegations hurled by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others in Washington. And so Chaplin made a bold decision after receiving the telegram: He would not go back to the U.S. The hitch? Chaplin’s vast Hollywood empire, a fortune amassed over decades of successful motion pictures, lay in his adopted homeland. More than a million dollars also lay buried in his Beverly Hills backyard. How was he to extricate his fortune without returning? To solve his problem, Chaplin turned to the person he trusted more than any other — his fourth wife, and an American citizen — Oona O’Neill Chaplin.
A new round of allegations turned the film star from an institution to an outcast.
When Chaplin meet Oona O’Neill in 1942, she was a 17-year-old Manhattan debutante trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood. He was a womanizing 53-year-old film legend embroiled in both a nasty public divorce with his third wife, the actress Paulette Goddard, and a paternity suit brought by another paramour. Oona turned 18 the following year, and she married Chaplin. Many were skeptical the marriage would last, but it did, for 34 years, until Chaplin’s death in 1977, and they had eight children. Oona was the anchor of Charlie’s life, and their house in Beverly Hills became a social gathering point for celebrities, artists and intellectuals.
At least until a new round of allegations turned the film star from an institution to an outcast. In 1948, Chaplin’s name appeared on the FBI’s Security Index, and he would join hundreds of other suspected communists being blacklisted in Hollywood. Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee subsequently took aim at Chaplin during the communist witch hunts of the early 1950s. “I do not want to create any revolution,” Chaplin, who was not a communist or communist sympathizer, defiantly told the committee. “All I want to create is a few more films.”
Once Chaplin made his decision aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he vowed never to return to the U.S. “I would not go back there even if Jesus Christ were the president,” he claimed. Chaplin had been planning for that contingency for months, ensuring that his American wife was a cosigner on all of his bank and financial accounts in the U.S. And, sure enough, Oona returned to the U.S. later that year alone, and with a mission. She claimed she was returning to tend to her sick mother, but she was really returning to Beverly Hills to pack up the Chaplins’ home and settle their affairs. And that included taking a shovel into their backyard.
After Chaplin earned his first million dollars in America, he did something unusual with it. “He buried it. In his yard at home under a tree,” says Jane Scovell, author of Oona: Living in the Shadows. “Because he always wanted to know that he had that money. And when you come from the kind of poverty that Chaplin came from you can believe it.” As part of her mission in the U.S., Chaplin instructed his wife to retrieve the buried cash, turn it into one-thousand dollar bills and sew them into the lining of her mink coat, which she wore on her return flight across the Atlantic.
It’s a great story, but is it true? The cash-lined mink coat may be apocryphal, says Scovell, and we will never know for sure, but some of Chaplin’s closest friends and family members swore by it. Charlie and Oona would live the rest of their lives overseas in Switzerland as permanent exiles. Chaplin did finally return to the U.S. in 1972, however, to accept an honorary Oscar for his role in “making motion pictures the art form of this century.” The 82-year-old received his award to a 12-minute standing ovation, the longest in Academy Awards history.