Our Dinner With Charlie
How to respond when your childhood idol
sits at the next table?

By Don I. Trachtenberg | For our first dinner in London three decades ago, my wife and I chose the Brompton Grille, a place of quiet elegance that reputedly served excellent food. Its appeal was enhanced by its proximity to our hotel near Hyde Park, and the wonderful shopping streets abutting Harrod’s in Knightsbridge. When we were comfortably seated and had ordered our meals, we sat back to relax and absorb the atmosphere. Soon I noticed our host seating a woman at the corner table a mere dozen feet diagonally across from us. She looked familiar.

“Geraldine Chaplin!” I whispered.

“She’s too old,” my wife said.

“You’re right, it’s Oona O’Neill.”

“Then where is Charlie Chaplin?” she wondered softly.

“Who do you think that old man is?” I said excitedly as I watched a somewhat doddering white-haired man, with a cane hung over an outstretched arm, being helped to his seat. For the first time in my life, I was awed by the presence of another human being. He was a larger-than-life vision from childhood who could make the world laugh or cry at will. A benchmark social commentator.

The immediate question in my mind was how to respond. I wanted to capture some tangible memento. Yet, this conflicted with my hesitation to interfere with his privacy or suffer the consequences that any hint of intrusion might evoke from what I had heard to be a sometimes explosive personality.

I searched for a piece of paper. The only thing that I had was my professional business card. It would do, especially as the reverse side was blank. I carefully inscribed a simple message on the small space. I had heard that since being knighted, he liked to be addressed as “Sir Charles.”

Dear Sir Charles:
This is our first night in London, and what a singular privilege it is to share it in a dining room with you. You have brought great joy to three generations of my family—my parents, my wife and me, and now our children. Thank you.

I summoned the captain and gave him the note to deliver. When the card went past the point of no return, I panicked. Sure that in some way I would offend and intrude, and thereby make an embarrassing spectacle of myself, I quickly buried my face in my appetizer plate and began an in-depth study of the intricacies of its design, while simultaneously stuffing my mouth. My wife, less pained than I, became the family spotter.

“He gave her the note,” she said. “She’s reading it.”

Everything on my plate was a blur. I ate quickly, fearing that at any moment we might have to leave out of embarrassment.

“She looked over at us and smiled and dropped the card in her handbag,” my wife whispered.

Relief! I had not caused disgrace and had even perhaps brought some degree of pleasure.

I quickly felt calm and relaxed again. Our entrees arrived and were delicious. Near dessert, I finally roused the courage to peek at the Chaplins. At that very moment, she opened her bag and took out the card. They were conversing intently, and she read the card to him for a second time. Then, she reached into her pocketbook, removed her wallet, and carefully placed the card inside.

I had difficulty containing myself. Could my words really have pleased them that much?

Dessert and coffee arrived and distracted us from the Chaplins. Shortly, however, a bustling in the front of the restaurant drew us back. The Chaplins were leaving. She looked at us, smiled, and said, “Good night.” Then he looked directly at me. “Good night,” he said, followed by a measured pause and then a warm and smiling, “Thank you.”

I had hit the jackpot! What a high feeling. An idol had been so close and I had the good fortune to communicate with him meaningfully.

Later, as we were being helped into our coats, the maître d’ told me that Mr. Chaplin ate dinner there every first night when he visited London. He assumed we knew this and knew each other from his view of the warmth of our interchange. We sailed back to our hotel and settled into the delicious assurance that the success of the rest of our trip was preordained.

In the years that followed, I have occasionally retold this tale. Yet, only recently did I recognize the humor and irony in the event. In my very careful effort to avoid the crassness of asking for his autograph, I had resolved the issue by giving him mine instead.

The Brompton Grille is no more. The building still stands, but now houses a French-owned, upscale fast-food store—part of a chain. The old restaurant is gone, and far more sadly, so is Charlie Chaplin. But for us, both live on vividly.

Don I. Trachtenberg C’58 D’63 GM’67 is an adjunct professor at the School of Dental Medicine. After 33 years in private practice, he semi-retired in 1999 and has since served as a consultant. He lives in Bryn Mawr, Pa., with Judy Freedman Trachtenberg GEd’79, his wife of 46 years.

©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/05


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