Baggy trousers, bowler hat, twitching mustache -- it's easy to conjure up the comic image of Charlie Chaplin as he appeared in classic movies such as "The Gold Rush" and "City Lights."
It's much more difficult to picture the actor as a silver-haired patriarch, relaxing with his children on the grounds of his estate in Switzerland. But this is the Chaplin that Lillian Ross knew -- and the one she depicts in this quiet little book.
The author assumes her readers are already familiar with Chaplin's films and with the basic outline of his life. Her aim is simply to share some of the vivid moments she recalls from the years of their friendship.
For example, she accompanied Chaplin on a stroll through New York City in 1952, as he spun tales of an earlier era when "you wouldn't think of going on Fifth Avenue without a derby and a cane."
All his old haunts were gone or reduced to ignominy. Here a row of houses had been replaced with gray concrete; there a once-distinguished theater now offered films like "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla." Walking, rarely recognized, along the sidewalk, Chaplin described a day in 1916 when his arrival stopped traffic on Broadway.
Shortly after that stroll, while on vacation overseas, the English-born Chaplin was informed by the State Department that he was no longer welcome in the United States because of suspected "left-wing leanings." He spent the last quarter-century of his life in an elegant manor house near Lausanne.
The Swiss greeted "Charlot" Chaplin fondly, while respecting his privacy. As a family friend, Lillian Ross visited often, listening to Chaplin reminisce at the dinner table, watching him clown around the lawn, or joining him and his little girls on a trip to the circus.
"Moments with Chaplin" is intimate to the extent that it shows how the legendary actor behaved when he was completely at ease and away from the public eye. Yet it provides few insights into his deeper thoughts, emotions, or the motivation behind his genius. In this book, Chaplin never says or does anything he would have hesitated to reveal to a casual acquaintance.
Actually, the book is so short it is really more like a handsomely bound magazine article -- which is appropriate, since Lillian Ross is a staff writer for The New Yorker. About half of its 63 pages are photographs.
Some of the photos are stills from Chaplin's most famous movies. Others offer domestic glimpses of Chaplin, his wife, Oona, and their children and grandchildren, much like snapshots from a family album. At $8.95, neither text nor photos will be worth the price for everyone -- but they will serve as a treasured memento for dedicated Chaplin- lovers.