The Bindlestiff: Nathan Burkan and Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin had taken refuge in Burkan’s luxurious Fifth Avenue penthouse. On the fourteenth floor of a newly constructed building at the corner of 95th Street, the apartment overlooked the Central Park reservoir and had unobstructed views of the developing Manhattan skyline. It was tastefully decorated with furniture and objects Burkan had purchased on his European travels. Over the course of their friendship, Burkan had come to share many of Chaplin’s tastes and proclivities, including his preference for Japanese manservants. Chaplin and his valet could make themselves right at home.

Accounts of Chaplin’s wee hours interview aboard the Twentieth Century Limited had not yet made the New York papers. When he arrived home, Burkan was not aware that Chaplin had already disobeyed his advice to be circumspect in public comments about Lita. In the quiet of Burkan’s apartment, Chaplin seemed to be in full possession of his formidable powers of personal magnetism. Burkan decided to invite some reporters and photographers up to meet Chaplin on this friendly turf.

As the men and women of the press filed in, Chaplin tried to stay in the background, sinking low into a deep armchair while Burkan briefed the reporters on his legal “strategy.” He intended to disprove every one of Lita’s allegations and countersue for the anguish she had inflicted on poor Charlie. But the reporters, especially the “feminine among the scribes,” pelted Chaplin with questions far more probing and personal than any he had fielded from his card-playing companions en route to New York. At first his answers were measured and rueful, but he became increasingly bitter, combative, and creepy as the interview wore on. Did he still love Lita? “I couldn’t. Cruelty kills love.” What about the five actresses? “Do I like five women? You bet I do. I like fifty women.”

One reporter asked Chaplin why he married such young girls. He conceded that they did not offer the kind of intellectual companionship he craved, yet they had a certain “primitive, instinctively healthy out- look on life” that appealed to him. It was more of a “parental feeling,” he said, “you can have the same companionship and love for them as for your children.” Then, without further prompting, he  blurted  out: “I am completely crushed by the accusations of this viperous vixen!”

After the reporters left his apartment around 9:30, Burkan and Arthur Kelly tried to get Chaplin’s mind off his troubles by taking him to catch the second act of George White’s Scandals, a bawdy Broadway revue. Afterward, to work off some of Chaplin’s nervous energy, they walked the more than fifty blocks from Times Square back to Burkan’s apartment. The early editions of the Saturday papers were waiting for them. For the first time, a complete record of Chaplin’s Twentieth Century Limited monologues appeared in print. Only then did Burkan fully realize that the great mime had already said way much too much.

The following morning, Saturday, Burkan appeared at the New York offices of United Artists, where an even larger gathering of reporters was waiting for a promised formal press conference with Chaplin. Burkan announced that Chaplin was exhausted and could not see anyone. After their long walk the night before, Chaplin had still been too agitated to sleep. At some point he collapsed, and a “nerve specialist,” Dr. Gustav Tieck, was called. Chaplin was an artist of fragile temperament, Burkan said, and “the lies that have been broadcast from the West Coast would put a Gene Tunney in bed.”

Burkan was vague about the exact nature of Chaplin’s indisposition, and over the next few days, as he and Dr. Tieck tag-teamed the press with a stream of medical bulletins, the diagnosis remained nebulous—“nervous prostration,” “exhaustion,” “highly unstrung,” “hysteria,” “melancholia.” Rumors of a suicide watch were alternately stoked and then scotched. The only thing they made crystal clear was that Chaplin’s condition did not allow him to speak publicly. To enforce the quarantine, Burkan stationed guards in the lobby of his building and had his telephone temporarily disconnected. Much of the resulting reportage was alarmingly credulous, accepting as fact that Chaplin had suffered a nervous breakdown—“Chaplin Takes Gravely Ill, Kept to Bed” was the headline in the New York American. Other coverage was more cynical. The New York Sun provided the most clear-eyed assessment of the situation: “Chaplin  Hides  in  Lawyer’s Home  and  Is  Ordered  to  Quit  Talking.”