It was not only Winston Churchill who was cross and embarrassed at Clare Sheridan’s adventures in Moscow, London society was both alarmed and intrigued. It was surprised that a member of its upper class should have ventured alone into the viper’s nest. She was invited to balls and receptions mainly as a curiosity. One hostess told her outright that she was nothing but ‘a Bolshevik’, and a suspicion persisted that she was a spy, a fact that Clare did little to contradict. But despite a critical reception on the surface, her book From Mayfair to Moscow* was eagerly snapped up.
Once landed in America, however, she was an instant celebrity. The exhibition of her Russian faces of the Soviet politburo, held in New York, caused a sensation.**
Her writing career began to take off, and she became a correspondent for the New York World, a career she entered into with her own effusive style. She was sent to Ireland during the Civil War and managed to interview both Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor. She asked Collins straight out why his forces had burnt her Irish home, Innishannon House, in West Cork. Collins said it was a reprisal, but assured her that compensation would be paid. Of Collins she later wrote: ‘he died of course, as Irish leaders generally die, betrayed, ambushed, out-numbered, murdered by the people he tried to save.’
Back in America, this time with her young son Dick in tow, she recounts her travels in Mexico and California. She spent a day interviewing female prisoners in San Quentin prison. She described the women there as ‘tremendous feminists’. They spent the day discussing the Treaty of Versailles and its outcomes.
And then a complete surprise. Meyro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the famous Hollywood studio, invited her to come to go Los Angeles, with all expenses paid. Who could resist? Clare and her son were only too delighted to accept, and enjoyed a whirlwind few days in Movieland, until at a dinner party one evening the reason for her invitation, stepped forward. It was Charlie Chaplin, even then a world icon for his extraordinary screen persona. He had read everything about Clare’s visit to Moscow, and he was intrigued that an English woman, to whom the great houses of England were open, had flung it all aside to go to Russia as an artist.
Chaplin and his brother had been raised by his mother in total poverty in London. He despised how society treated the poor.*** There was an instant attraction between Clare and Chaplin. He brought her and Dick to his studio where he showed his latest film, The Kid, quietly going to the harmonium to play his own musical backing to the sad bits or the chasing scenes. Both Clare and Dick were emotional wrecks by the end of the film. Chaplin gave Dick Jackie Coogan’s cap (the child star in the movie ), and drove them to his hilltop mansion overlooking the city, ‘extending for miles below to the sea’.
Rumours went around Hollywood that Charlie Chaplin was in love and photographers began to hide in the bushes hoping to get some good intimate shots. The only thing for Clare and Chaplin to do was to break out of the mansion, and head for some secluded place away from preying eyes.
With a chef and a chauffeur, and five tents, they sped away driving cross-country until eventually finding a secluded place shielded from the road by trees. It was a perfect idyll for a week, until Charlie was spotted by some local children. They instantly knew who he was, and out of the blue two pressmen arrived complete with cameras. The tents were hastily taken down, and Charlie and Clare tried to be polite by giving vague answers to a succession of cheeky questions.
Headlines next day: ‘Charlie Chaplin going to marry British Aristocrat’. One journalist had the gall to ask their ages. Chaplin, famous for his romancing young women, was pleased to reply that Clare was four years older than him.
The journalist either pretended not hear him properly, or decided to really enter into the spirit of things by headlining: ‘Miss Sheridan is old enough to be his mother!’
It was time to go. Churchill’s minder Barney Baruch, hearing the news of the discovered lovers, hastily telegrammed Clare to return to New York immediately where commissions awaited.
Hoping to travel incognito, Dick was wearing Jackie Coogan’s cap. As they climbed aboard their train, a conductor recognising the cap, asked Dick: ‘Might you be Jackie Coogan’s brother?’
‘You mean me? the brother of The Kid? Oh no! And it wasn’t true. It’s only a story. Mr Chaplin told me so…’
More headlines followed.
Next week: Return to Europe, and finally Galway.
NOTES: *Subtitled Clare Sheridan’s Diary, published by Jonathon Cape, 1921.
** Churchill, then secretary of state for war, and negotiating the Anglo Irish Treaty, was still apprehensive of any mischief Clare might get up to. He asked his friend Barney Baruch, a genial and influential American financier and statesman, to keep an eye on her. A task he undertook with humour and exasperation. He later told Anita Leslie that Clare did not get on with women. She didn’t even try. ‘She ran around New York like a fire engine, out of control, scandalising high society by saying she couldn’t think why women had to depend on men - it was a woman’s privilege to bear a child to the lover of her choice, and the State should support her financially. ‘It was ignominious to have to marry a man and pin him down for money before you dare breed’.
Baruch could remember a dinner party when the ladies sat silent with horror and their husbands, who were mostly wealthy bankers and men of that type, did not dare raise their eyes from their plates.
*** Because of Chaplin’s outspoken comments on social injustice, his relationship with young women, and a prolonged paternity suit, made him an enemy of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. It culminated in his American residency being withdrawn in 1953. By then he had become a world-wide phenomena through his early silent movies, typified by The Tramp (1915 ) who, through slapstick and pathos, successfully struggles against adversity. In 1972 he was invited back to America to receive an Honorary Academy Award for the ‘incalculable effect’ he had in making motion pictures. Chaplin and his family spent summer holidays in Waterville, Co Kerry, during the 1960s. He died in Switzerland in 1975.
Sources: include Restless Spirit - Extraordinary Life and Career of Clare Sheridan, by Peter Murray, Irish Arts Review Summer 2017, and Anita Leslie’s Cousin Clare - The Tempestuous Career of Clare Sheridan, Hutchinson, 1976.
Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.