Writing a biography on a character as illusive as Sydney Chaplin must have been quite a challenge. The author, Lisa Stein spent four years trotting the globe to put this, Syd Chaplin's only biography together, all with the blessing of the Chaplin family.
Sydney was the older brother of the more famous Charlie, but in this well written biography, we discover that he had a period of being quite a famous screen comedian himself and even rivaled some of his brother's box office success. For the uninitiated, a few of his films can be seen on You Tube.
Aside from being a vaudeville and screen comedian, Chaplin was also an innovator in many fields and his accomplishments were many. From being the first owner of a domestic airline in America, to starting a woman's clothing line, to negotiating Charlie's massively successful film contracts to being the brain child behind the founding of United Artists. He was truly a man of many and diverse talents. This biography gives equal and in-depth treatment to all these facets of Sydney's life.
Stein has shed new light on a man that has been all but forgotten, but whose innovations still resonate in the entertainment industry today. Even though Sydney is well known to most Chaplin enthusiasts, a wealth of new knowledge is presented here. Sydney appears to have been a prolific writer of letters, and much of this biography is peppered with Sydney's written correspondence. These letters provide insight into the man and offer his perspective on certain incidents and his occasional twists on the truth. It is almost as if the author had a chance to interview her reluctant subject.
It turns out that the proclivities of both Sydney and his brother Charlie leaned towards very young girls. I bring this up because ultimately, while the public never fully rejected Charlie for his dalliances and marriages, it turns out that a shocking and rather brutal encounter with a young actress proved to be Sydney's undoing and ended his film career. You'll have to pick up this biography for yourself to find out what happened. How this incident was kept out of the newspapers is a mystery of monumental proportions. Perhaps it was just not fit for print. Needless to say, the author adroitly hints at this impending episode in Sydney's life to the point that it's hard to put the book down as you race to the moment.
I recently read Kevin Brownlow's "The Search for Charlie Chaplin", a book about the making of the critically acclaimed Thames series "Unknown Chaplin". Much of the material for the series was provided by collector Raymond Rohauer who, according to an interview in the book, was also in possession of over 400,000 feet of Syd Chaplin's outtakes from his films. It's a shame the author didn't appear to have access to this bit of Syd's history.
Sydney and Charlie grew up in the most brutal of poverty in Elizabethan London. With his and Charlie's success, and with the memory of poverty all too clear in their conscious, both of them took steps, many times outside the law, to protect their vast wealth. Even with most of Sydney's business ventures eventually going belly up, he lived the life of a man of leisure in the South of France and spent his retirement years traveling the globe and frequenting nude beaches. Yep, you read that right.
In the end, Sydney does not come off as the most likable of characters. The biographer is occasionally a bit put-off by her subject, but how could she not? Sydney was a multifaceted man who, when standing at moral cross roads, usually chose the path of self indulgence, often to the detriment of himself and those around him. Some things just cannot be sugar coated.
I would recommend this one for anyone interested in who Sydney Chaplin was and the legacy he left behind. This book also better defines the brotherly relationship between Syd and Charlie than any I have read before. The story of the immortal tramp's older brother will leave you speechless at certain points. Much of it can be forgiven when viewed through the lens of his wretched childhood, but much of it cannot. Ultimately, this biography lets you be the judge.