Sunday, May 11, 2008

Syd in Milan

I'm ashamed to admit I've been back three weeks and have not written about my fantastic experience in Milan. I have to admit, I was dreading the journey if only because a) I had never been there before, b) I was meeting someone I had never met (had only emailed), c) Europe is incredibly expensive now and Milan is probably one of the MOST expensive places to go within Europe, and d) I expected northern Italy to be nothing but rain in mid-April. Needless to say, with these worries in my mind as I flew over, ANY type of a trip would have had to been better than my expectations.

Okay, I had a little trouble getting acclimated to the place, but happily, my pre-work with the map and Google pretty much alleviated that. Second, I had probably the cheapest place to stay in Milan available--especially since there was this huge furniture design convention going on and rooms on Expedia and Travelocity were going for like $800 a night. That's just mad! My room was 50 Euros and clean and comfortable to boot. In fact, I've never had a bad hotel room in Italy--knock on wood! Third, the Gasparinis--the folks I traveled to meet, who had tempted me with their collection of 100+ Syd letters to R. J. Minney--were fantastic. I can't say enough about how wonderful they were and frankly, I'd like to adopt them as my parents. Finally, yes, it did rain a lot, but not on days I needed it to be nice. Sunday, for instance, my only day away from the documents, i.e., the only day I played tourist, was a beautiful sunny spring day. I couldn't ask for more.

Part of the reason I decided to take the time and expense to go to Milan is because I kind of knew about these letters. A tantalizing few of them exist as copies in the Charlie Chaplin archive. Syd had more than a rational fear of trusting other people--ANY other people--but I knew that of the one or two folks he might trust, British journalist and author R. J. Minney was one of those people. Unfortunately for Syd, I don't think Minney's affection was motivated by much more than the desire to get close enough to Charlie to write his 1954 book, Chaplin: The Immortal Tramp, but perhaps that's unfair. God knows, after reading these letters, Minney paid dearly for that book, because Syd put him through the ringer. I can say now, after reading the letters that Minney was Syd's titular confidante--perhaps his only such--during the very trying years 1929-39, in which Syd tried so hard to clear his name of the British International Pictures and Molly Wright scandals and return to film--all unsuccessfully. The Gasparini collection of letters gave me a blow by blow of this time period, answering many questions long unanswered. They show a whining Syd, an angry Syd, and an irresponsible Syd, among many others, but also a Syd who constantly wrote the refrain, "Well, at least I still have my sense of humour!" So, while I want to save the real goodies for the book, I'll share one of Syd's less "colorful" comic moments:

"Minnie has been looking over this letter & tells me my spelling is all wet. She says there should be two “p”’s in disappointment. I said that two “p”’s sounds like a weak bladder. One “p” should be silent as in “swimming.” Minnie has just looked in the dictionary & now informs me that there should be only one “s” as in $."

I spent everyday but one of my 5 days in Milan pouring over these letters and typing as much information into my computer as possible. My day started rather late for me--8ish, because the Gasparinis weren't open for business until 10AM. So, a quick Italian-type breakfast of brioche and cappucino at a little place across the street from their office and then concentrated work from 10-2PM. Mrs. Gasparini would serve a wonderful Italian lunch at 2--incredible food, or was it just because I was in Italy that I thought that?--and then back to work from 3-9PM. And not a minute of it was boring, either, but then that's my curse as a researcher. I would probably rather be in a room with old documents than anywhere else. Oh, and I should mention, too, that as Syd's biographer, yes, I am skeptical of even these letters. While I believe them to contain more frank information about things than other sources, I am not for one minute lead into a false sense of security about them. Syd was just as capable of bending the truth in letters to Minney as he would have been to anyone else.

Since my return, my productivity level has been high and working with my research assistants has been an outstanding experience.


Alessandra said...

Yes, I know what you mean when you say you would like to spend your life on old document instead of anywhere else...I would do the same!
Lovely description of you Milan visit and thanks for posting Syd brief grammar discussion with Minnie. It was very funny!

lacef said...

Hi, My name is Barrie Minney (no immediate relation to RJ Minney). I have a website on the Minney name ( and a page dedicated to R J Minney. There is a photo there of Syd & RJ but I assume you must have this. I wish some one would write a biography on RJ - a fascinating man of his time!!
Best wishes