Charlie Chaplin And ‘Paternity’ In Modern Times

In this excerpt from “Paternity” by Nara B. Milanich, a 1940s court case with a Hollywood icon epitomized the shifting meaning of fatherhood.

The following is excerpted from Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father by Nara B. Milanich, published by Harvard University Press.

The protagonists of the courtroom drama consisted of a young mother, a putative father, and an adorable red-haired baby. In the early 1940s, as war raged abroad, the inquest unfolded in a packed Los Angeles courtroom. This was not just any paternity suit. The mother was Joan Berry, a 23-year-old aspiring actress; the baby, her daughter Carol Ann; and the accused father Charlie Chaplin, Hollywood celebrity. 

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Berry was Chaplin’s onetime protégé, and in happier times, the two had read Shakespeare together and practiced drama. Now the fifty-four-year-old actor, whose penchant for much younger women was well known, stood accused of fathering Berry’s baby. He admitted the romance but vehemently denied the paternity charge. A week after the case broke, the actor wed his fourth wife, the eighteen-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Thanks to his British citizenship and leftist political leanings, Chaplin’s ideological proclivities were for some sectors of the American public as questionable as his romantic ones. For her part, Berry was portrayed as a hapless ingénue, “aflame with the glamour of Hollywood,” possibly mentally unstable, “pretty to the eye,” but, by her own lawyer’s account, “of limited intelligence.”

But it was the baby who was the star of the show. Not yet born when the suit over her paternity was filed, over the course of the saga Carol Ann blossomed into an amiable toddler. She was a courtroom fixture, sitting on the wooden table in front of her mother’s lawyer. The press gleefully reported on her colorful pinafores and penchant for patty-cake. Still, the legal proceedings were serious business. At stake was the identity of a child. Would she face a life of penury or comfort? Would she have a name, a patrimony, a father? The paternity suit, her mother’s lawyer declared and the newspapers would repeat, was the baby’s “day in court.”

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The drama featured other players, too: witnesses like Chaplin’s handyman and butler, who testified about the couple’s trysts; and the members of the jury, ordinary women and men—housewives, an interior decorator, a retired property manager—who arrived in court carefully coiffed in anticipation of the cameras. There was Berry’s attorney, himself something of a courtroom thespian, who in an especially memorable three-hour closing statement denounced the actor as a “cheap cockney cad” and a “lecherous hound.” (Chaplin’s own lawyer responded by comparing his client to Christ crucified on the cross.) Finally, there were the newspapermen, and a few newspaperwomen, who breathlessly broadcast the story to the public. Their daily reports from the courtroom included descriptions of the protagonists’ outfits (Joan’s chartreuse coat) and moods (Charlie’s grimaces). The heady spectacle of sex, celebrity, and scandal not only reached American readers but, thanks to the global wire services, was beamed out to a world at war. 

The two-year inquest had numerous twists and turns. In a related criminal charge, Chaplin was tried and acquitted of trafficking Berry across state lines for immoral purposes. He briefly faced deportation charges as an alien. As for the proceedings concerning Carol Ann’s paternity, the first suit ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked, and a new trial was called. The Chaplin–Berry saga had begun as President Roosevelt ordered striking coal miners back to wartime production and Allied troops amassed in the Mediterranean readying to invade Italy. By the time it ended, Roosevelt was dead and the Allied victory in Europe was weeks away. Yet for all its protracted drama, “the case is a simple one,” the judge reminded the courtroom as the proceedings drew to a close. It revolved around one question: “Is the defendant the father?”

His question was less simple than it appeared. Paternity is a question of long-standing cultural, legal, political, and scientific interest and, according to a long Western tradition, an intractable one. Whereas a mother’s identity can be known by the fact of birth, the father has always been maddeningly uncertain. The quest to identify him animated medical experts at least since Hippocrates and preoccupied jurists of Roman, Islamic, and Jewish law. Literary fathers have brooded over their paternity in the works of Homer and Shakespeare, Hardy and Machado de Assis. Theorists from Friedrich Engels to Sigmund Freud posited paternal uncertainty as a primordial foundation of human society and the human psyche. For a generation of early twentieth-century anthropologists, cross-cultural beliefs about paternity were “the most exciting and controversial issue in the comparative science of man.” 

But paternity is not just a subject of intellectual rumination. As the Chaplin–Berry inquest suggests, it matters to men and women, to children and families, for reasons that are patrimonial, practical, and existential. Questions of paternity have historically arisen in the context of disputes over child support and inheritance. The orphaned and the adopted have asked this question in relation to lost identities. More recently, assisted reproductive technologies—gamete donation, surrogacy—have raised old issues in new ways. 

Paternity’s stakes are public as well as private: they matter to states and societies and not just individuals. This is why the dispute over Carol Ann’s father took place in a courtroom and was governed by rules set by law. For while kinship is often seen as a “pre-modern” or “non-Western” form of association, it is at the heart of modern social and economic citizenship and a key symbol demarcating public and private spheres. Family ties are important to states because they confer access to war pensions and social security, to nationality and the right of noncitizens to settle in a country. Historically, children bereft of kin ties have become public charges. The question of the father raises questions about the balance of rights and responsibilities between individuals and societies. 

Of course, it wasn’t Carol Ann’s parentage generally but her paternity specifically that was in dispute. Significantly, the question “who is the father?” has no parallel query concerning the mother. Paternity has been understood as naturally uncertain, whereas maternity is obvious and unproblematic. Paternal identity is posed as a question, in short, because the answer is considered potentially unknown. Moreover, in patriarchal societies, the most important resources it has traditionally conferred—economic support, patrimony, nationality, a patronym, an “identity”—are not transmitted by maternity. When Joan Berry’s lawyer exhorted the jury to pronounce Chaplin to be Carol Ann’s father in order to “give this baby a name,” he assumed that only a father, not a mother, had the power to do so. The question of paternal identity reflects paternity’s distinctive economic, political, and cultural stakes.

If the quest for the father has a long history, the Chaplin case reflected several modern twists on the story. The idea that a fatherless baby like Carol Ann was a citizen entitled to her day in court contrasted with an earlier era when children were objects of charity, not subjects of rights, and gave greater urgency to the dispute over her parentage. The role of the press was also new. As novelists and playwrights had long known, mysteries of identity were the stuff of melodrama. In the twentieth century, the mass media began to tell those stories to a fascinated public. The Chaplin affair had instant star power, but such stories did not need a Hollywood celebrity to rivet audiences the world over. 

Above all, the Chaplin–Berry drama featured a new protagonist in the perennial quest for the father: the scientist. In fact, it featured three of them. Accompanied by his attorney, in February 1944 Chaplin visited a local laboratory, where a thimbleful of his blood was drawn. An hour later, Berry and her baby arrived for the procedure. Three medical specialists tested the samples and later presented their findings in court, assisted by what one observer described as “a maze of alphabetical designations, long words and big charts.” The test they had conducted was an analysis of hereditary blood groups, and the three experts agreed unanimously about what it revealed: Joan Berry had blood type A and baby Carol Ann had type B, which by the laws governing blood group heredity meant that her paternal progenitor must have type B or AB blood. Chaplin, however, had type O. The actor might be a notorious cad who had admitted to a romance with Berry. But he could not be Carol Ann’s biological father. 


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Hereditary blood grouping was just one of many scientific methods that, beginning in the 1920s, promised a potentially revolutionary solution to the timeless quest for the father. “Medical experts hope that in the blood that is transferred from parent to child, down through the ages, there exists some as yet unknown but vital element that links them inevitably.” They sought that vital element in blood types but also in other, long forgotten methods involving the electronic vibrations of blood, its crystallization patterns, and its chromatic characteristics. They also looked beyond the veins, in the inheritance of nose shape, to similarities in the conformation of the teeth, and at the bumps and ridges of the palate. Anthropometric analyses of the body and especially the face attempted to make objective the unmistakable yet ambiguous phenomenon of family resemblance. Perhaps the secret of paternity was tucked into the intricate folds of the human ear, the delicate whorls and loops of the fingerprints, or the patterning of eye, hair, and skin color.

The scientific methods were myriad, but the central assumption of all of them was that the truth of kinship was located somewhere on the physical bodies of father and child. Such an approach implied not just a new method for revealing paternity but a broader set of claims: that paternity was a knowable quality, that it was in the public interest that it should be known, and that the scientific expert could discover it. Most fundamentally, it implied a belief about what paternity was in the first place: a physical relationship rather than a social one. 

Such an understanding of paternity is familiar in the era of DNA. Today we routinely dispatch finger pricks and cheek swabs to faraway labs to expose the recondite mysteries of our identity. We understand kinship as a physical fact, the body as a source of truth, and science as the means to reveal it. But such ideas are relatively recent. In an older tradition, biological paternity was considered an ineffable enigma of nature, not just unknown but indeed unknowable. Paternity was less physical than metaphysical, a relationship deduced from behaviors and social conventions. In many legal traditions, it was marriage that made paternity: the father was the husband of the mother. As for a child born outside of marriage like Carol Ann Berry, the father was revealed in other ways: he was the man who cohabitated with the mother or kissed the baby in public, the man whom the neighbor had seen paying the wet nurse. Paternity was not primarily a natural fact deriving from the act of procreation; it was a social fact brought into being through a man’s words and deeds and the observations of the community. 

Following this social logic, in medieval tradition, if a widow remarried quickly and then gave birth, the child could choose its father, depending on whether it was more advantageous to be the youngest child of the first husband or the oldest child of the second one. Other legal traditions provided for partible paternity. Scandinavian law, for example, held that if two men had a relationship with the mother, support for her child might be split between them. It could also be partial: a man might be responsible for supporting a child economically but not give that child his name or inheritance. When paternity was disputed, those called to elucidate it were not scientists or doctors but friends, associates, the neighbors, the mother, or the man himself.

Some children simply had no father. In Anglo-American law, the illegitimate child was historically deemed a filius nullius, a child of nobody. If many circumstances demanded a father, in others “who’s your daddy” was deliberately left unanswered. In slave societies, the father of the enslaved child might well be the mother’s owner. And what about the debauched priest, or the case in which the husband was not the father of his wife’s child? Colonizers and soldiers deployed in foreign lands have often been excused from responsibility for the children they engender there. Because paternity is embedded in social relations of power, it is also potentially disruptive. Politics, morality, and the public purse might require a father in some situations but demand something else—discretion, suppression, invention—in others. 

If the understanding of paternity distilled in a blood test is deeply familiar to us, it involves a series of assumptions about what paternity is, the need to know it, and how it can be known, that are by no means universal and indeed are surprisingly recent. These ideas became increasingly powerful in the first decades of the twentieth century, not only in the United States but across the Americas, north and south, as well as in Europe. Tentatively at first, and then with increasing enthusiasm, these beliefs and techniques found practical application from Buenos Aires to Berlin to Los Angeles. As they did, they spawned boundless fascination among transatlantic publics and shaped the way states and societies thought about kinship, identity, and belonging. 

“California has in effect decided that black is white, two and two are five and up is down.”

But like any new technology, paternity science raised a host of practical and ethical questions. It raised questions about the circumstances in which tests of parentage should be performed, who should have access to the results, and whether revelation was always a good thing. If the community, the judge, the mother, and the man himself had traditionally defined who was a father, paternity science now vested this power in a new authority, the biomedical expert. What happened when the expert’s assessment was at odds with older social and legal notions of paternity? 

The dispute over Carol Ann Berry’s paternity captures such tensions. By the 1940s, blood group heredity was well-established scientific doctrine, and scientists considered the results of a test that excluded an impossible father to be conclusive and incontrovertible. Because he was of an incompatible blood type, Chaplin could not have fathered Carol Ann. “The law of heredity,” his lawyer reminded the jury, “is as certain as nature itself. If a child does not have the blood of a certain man in its veins, then that man cannot be the father.”

Yet while nature might have been certain, the law was more ambiguous. The judge admitted the blood test into evidence but explained to the court that in the state of California, it was not considered conclusive. A blood test was just one more piece of evidence to be weighed alongside others, like witness testimony or the word of the mother. For his part, Joan Berry’s lawyer rejected the blood group analysis outright, calling it an “abomination” because it could only exclude an impossible father but never positively identify the real one. “In no way could Chaplin lose and in no way could the baby win,” he thundered. He urged the jury to pay heed to the true stakes of their decision. “Nobody can stop Chaplin and his lecherous conduct all through these years—nobody but you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury!”

As for the 11 ladies and one gentleman of the jury in the second and final trial, they had their own thoughts about the quest for the father. After deliberating for three hours, they reached a startling conclusion: Charlie Chaplin was the father of Carol Ann. The courtroom erupted in applause and cheers, but many observers regarded the verdict with incredulity and outrage. “California has in effect decided that black is white, two and two are five and up is down,” wrote one editorialist. In fact, such outcomes were not uncommon in U.S. courts. Critics attributed them to the ignorance of juries or the inherent conservatism of the law. A seasoned paternity lawyer summed up the Chaplin fiasco as “contrary to science, nature and truth.”


Excerpted from Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father by Nara B. Milanich, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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