Charlie Chaplin: The Savoy London
Chaplin with his wife Oona on the rooftop of The Savoy London.
Charlie Chaplin left London in 1914 for America. In his first year, he shot 35 films (!). By the way, not many are aware that he co-founded the movie company United Artists. But that’s not the story. Almost 40 years later – he was the most famous movie star in the world – he had to leave the United States due to political circumstances.
On 23 September 1952, he arrived at Southampton on board the QEII and headed straight to London’s famous hotel, The Savoy, via Waterloo Station. With him were his wife Oona O’Neill, their four children, and the Scottish governess.
Finally, the big little man from South London had come home to a hero’s welcome. Never had a star been so mobbed by the crowds of people. This time it was the older generation who could still remember going to see Charlie’s films at 2s 6d. Chaplin was deeply moved, his eyes set on a new chapter in his life. He had set out for America to become a star. Now he had come back with an American re-entry bar in his passport. but remarked elegantly: ‘I haven’t come over to be an international crisis’. He settled in Switzerland.
But that’s still not our story.
From now on Chaplin occupied the same suite virtually every year for four weeks in August. A few years later, upon one of his arrivals in London, this little, entertaining story was recorded by legendary hotelier Derek Picot (at that time assistant manager), who recalls a certain receptionist. That young man was anxious to meet Chaplin and made sure that he was on duty when the living legend arrived. On the great day Chaplin, now Sir Charles – confined to a wheelchair – was wheeled into the lobby by a nurse, Geraldine and Lady Oona following behind.
The receptionist brought them up to their room and went into every possible detail so as to spend as much time as possible in the presence of his idol. Chaplin and the family weren’t in the mood for talking. The assistant manager went on and on with useful explanations ‘This is your TV set. This is a bedroom, here is your bathroom, may I show you how to turn on the hot water?’ until he finally sensed that his presence wasn’t welcome.
He decided to cut short his dissertation on the hotel’s amenities and left, with a discreet bow, through one of the four identical doors into their sitting room. As he closed the door the light went out. It slowly dawned on him that he was not in the sitting room but that he had taken the wrong door and was between the communicating doors to the next suite along.
In the tradition of the establishment, he did not panic. It didn’t take him long to find out that there was no keyhole to any of the doors. He took a step back and in the darkness hit his head on a moveable object. It swung back and hit him again. He realised; ‘if that was a coat hanger, then this must be the wardrobe.’
The situation was resolved in true Savoy style. Instead of panicking, he left the wardrobe after one solid minute of strategic planning. The silence outside nourished his hope that the Chaplins had all gone to the next room. To his horror, there they all were, gathered together as if sitting for a family portrait, their faces turned to the wardrobe and their unanimous expression far too easily translatable as: ‘You incompetent cretin.’
‘Just checking,’ the young man mumbled and – taking the correct sitting room door – he disappeared.