In March 1978, two mechanics, one Polish and the other Bulgarian, went to the Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery in Switzerland to dig up the bones of Charles Chaplinthe brilliant artist, actor, director and creator of legendary films such as Modern times, The great dictator AND The childamong many others, and then extort money from the widow, Oona O’Neill. But not everything went as planned.
And from that moment on, the story became a parallel with the actor’s life: it was a film of tangles, with humor and tragicomedy.
Pole Roman Wardas and Bulgarian Gandscho Ganev arrived in Switzerland as refugees in the late 1970s and survived as best they could. They were mechanics and were looking for a way to make easy money. They remembered that a few months earlier the genius of the cinema had died and his remains had been buried close at hand, in the small cemetery of Corsier-sur-Vevey. They went there at dawn on March 2, 1978 with shovels, pickaxes and a truck.
The oak coffin in which he was buried weighed 150 kilos. That’s why it took two hours to dig up the coffin. They just took it away and he was buried in a cornfield in Noville, not far, three kilometers from the eastern end of Lake Geneva, near the sources of the Rhone. The desecration was to collect a ransom for Chaplin’s remains and the one who had to pay it was Oona O’Neill, the widow.
THE profaners-thieves-extortionists he telephoned the chateau of the Chaplin family and asked to speak to them wife oona. The woman, 36 years his junior, daughter of Eugene O’Neill, Nobel Prize for Literature and four times Pulitzer Prize winner, answered the call and listened to the kidnappers’ request: in exchange for the return of her husband’s body, they wanted receive a payment of 600 thousand dollars.
Oona’s answer shocked them: “NO”, said to them. Let them do with the remains of Charlie Chaplin what they want. At that point, what was happening had already leaked to the press, but the family kept it a secret and Oona released only one comment by way of explanation: “Charlie would have found this ridiculous.”.
The kidnappers let a couple of days pass and became convinced that the problem had been with the currency. They called again and Renato, Chaplin’s historic butler, put them back in touch with Oona. This time they told the widow that with 600 thousand Swiss francs she returned to have the coffin with her husband’s remains. “NO”the woman answered again.
Desperate, the two mechanics improved the offer and in a third call lowered the ransom to 500,000 francs. But Oona said no again. On May 16, the widow was warned by the kidnappers that the following day, at 9:30, she would receive the telephone call with the “final” offer. It was with that precision that they announced the call which allowed the police organize an operation to find the extortionists.
It was easy for the Swiss police to have covert surveillance at that time in the 200 available telephone booths. At 9:30 on May 17, a man aroused suspicion and was being questioned. His accent gave him away. And Wardas confessed. Docile to defeat, he first led the policemen together with his accomplice and then to the place where they had hidden the coffin.
The case was closed, the two mechanics were arrested and Chaplin’s body was taken to the Forensic Institute of Lausanne. Finally, 42 years ago today, he was buried -with greater protection- in Corsier-sur-Vevey, where he remains to this day, next to the grave of Oona, who died in September 1991.
Later the two mechanics, sentenced to less than 5 years, wrote letters to Oona apologizing, and she forgave them. Later, when the wife of one of them wanted to send him another letter, he replied annoyed: “Look, I’ve already forgiven them.”
In the cornfield where Chaplin’s body lay for those ten weeks, the owner posted a sign that read: “Here rested the remains of Charlie Chaplin. Briefly”.
Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.