Pegler: The Chaplin case (2-19-44)

The Pittsburgh Press (February 19, 1944)


Pegler: The Chaplin case

By Westbrook Pegler

Chicago, Illinois –
Charlie Chaplin’s current troubles with the Department of Justice are a messy comeuppance to a little ingrate who found opportunity, appreciation and wealth in a cordial country to which, nevertheless, he never gave allegiance. He is not nice; he is stingy and he has had the impudence to associate himself with the communist enemies of the country in which he took refuge from two wars while his native England sat right under the guns of the Germans.

Nevertheless, his indictment on charges of violation of the Mann Act and an obscure law to punish those who deprive others of rights guaranteed by the Constitution is bad business. For years, by common consent and confirmed practice, the Mann Act was held to apply only to cases in which females were taken across state lines for prostitution.

The first Mann Act case of importance, also a California case, concerned two young men and two girls who went off to play house without benefit of clergy. It raised a great fuss and several similar cases ensued in which ladies of mature years were induced to give testimony against woebegone gents with whom they had wittingly run away on mischievous business. Jack Johnson, the Negro fighter, was one of them.

Crime or indiscretion

In time, however, there came a change of sentiment. The law had been passed to put down the interstate commercial traffic in women, many of them poor, ignorant farm and mill town girls who were being recruited by professional hunters from Chicago for service in the dumps which then thrived under popular sanction and political license. The debates showed this to be the intent of Congress but, as often happens, the text made no distinction between one thing and another and some district attorneys had made serious crime of a proceeding which Mr. Dickens described as an amiable indiscretion.

The Chaplin case under the Mann Act, even if the allegations can be proved, obviously comes under the latter heading and the federal government, especially in these times, could better use its manpower and money than to flog a man, however mean, for taking a guest on a trip. California probably has state laws and New York certainly has, under which, if it were worth the bother, the offense of seduction, impairing the morals of a minor or unlawful cohabitation could be punished. This is strictly police court business and beneath the notice of the U.S. Department of Justice, which here again resorts to tricky practice and meddles in affairs of the states.

The charge of depriving the young woman of a constitutional right is equally pallid and insincere. If Chaplin and his agents and certain public officials of a smug and corrupt little California suburb railroaded a pregnant girl out of town, that should be a local affair. If the people of the town are so low that they will tolerate this doing by one of the neighbors and their local officials, they should be left to stew in their own evil juice. It is not the business of the national government and the whole proceeding is garish and disreputable.

Shysterism a la Capone

There are just further manifestations of a shysterism which has pervaded the Department of Justice in recent years. Al Capone was a monstrous criminal, but Chicago was rotten and he finally got 12 years for failure to declare his income and pay his tax. The sentence was excessive and the whole country well understood that he was punished under one law for violations of many others, mostly state laws.

Similarly, in Kansas City, the federal government used the old law against the denial of constitutional rights to clean up corrupt election methods of the Pendergast machine, a purely local responsibility, and, in Louisiana, when the state failed, the Department of Justice distorted a law against fraud by mail to punish men for the actual crimes of grand larceny and conspiracy.

In several union prosecutions, federal laws were invoked to punish violations of state laws, although, in most of them, the Supreme Court held that unions had a special right to commit federal crimes and reversed the convictions.

All this may tend to create fear of the law but it does not instill respect. On the contrary, it gives people to believe that their government is not above resort to those sly tricks which President Roosevelt, in another issue, described as clever little schemes having the color of legality.

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I didn’t know about Chaplin’s legal troubles during the war. Here’s the Wikipedia explanation:

In the mid-1940s, Chaplin was involved in a series of trials that occupied most of his time and significantly affected his public image.[244] The troubles stemmed from his affair with an aspiring actress named Joan Barry, with whom he was involved intermittently between June 1941 and the autumn of 1942.[245] Barry, who displayed obsessive behaviour and was twice arrested after they separated,[z] reappeared the following year and announced that she was pregnant with Chaplin’s child. As Chaplin denied the claim, Barry filed a paternity suit against him.[246]

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover, who had long been suspicious of Chaplin’s political leanings, used the opportunity to generate negative publicity about him. As part of a smear campaign to damage Chaplin’s image,[247] the FBI named him in four indictments related to the Barry case. Most serious of these was an alleged violation of the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women across state boundaries for sexual purposes.[aa] Historian Otto Friedrich called this an “absurd prosecution” of an “ancient statute”,[250] yet if Chaplin was found guilty, he faced 23 years in jail.[251] Three charges lacked sufficient evidence to proceed to court, but the Mann Act trial began on 21 March 1944.[252] Chaplin was acquitted two weeks later, on 4 April.[253][248] The case was frequently headline news, with Newsweek calling it the “biggest public relations scandal since the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial in 1921”.[254]

Chaplin’s fourth wife and widow, Oona

Barry’s child, Carol Ann, was born in October 1943, and the paternity suit went to court in December 1944. After two arduous trials, in which the prosecuting lawyer accused him of “moral turpitude”,[255] Chaplin was declared to be the father. Evidence from blood tests that indicated otherwise were not admissible,[ab] and the judge ordered Chaplin to pay child support until Carol Ann turned 21. Media coverage of the suit was influenced by the FBI, which fed information to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and Chaplin was portrayed in an overwhelmingly critical light.[257]

The controversy surrounding Chaplin increased when – two weeks after the paternity suit was filed – it was announced that he had married his newest protégée, 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of American playwright Eugene O’Neill.[258] Chaplin, then 54, had been introduced to her by a film agent seven months earlier.[ac] In his autobiography, Chaplin described meeting O’Neill as “the happiest event of my life”, and claimed to have found “perfect love”.[261] Chaplin’s son, Charles III, reported that Oona “worshipped” his father.[262] The couple remained married until Chaplin’s death, and had eight children over 18 years: Geraldine Leigh (b. July 1944), Michael John (b. March 1946), Josephine Hannah (b. March 1949), Victoria Agnes (b. May 1951), Eugene Anthony (b. August 1953), Jane Cecil (b. May 1957), Annette Emily (b. December 1959), and Christopher James (b. July 1962).[263]

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