Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Tuna Camp and Charlie Chaplin’s Chauffeur

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

Tuna Camp, now the site of the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, was a detention center during WWII for Japanese, Germans and Italians. It held enemy aliens for interrogation before they were released or sent to larger prisons inland. One Japanese man who spent time there on a charge of spying was Toriachi Kono, Charlie Chaplin’s right-hand-man during his biggest years, and later a champion for the rights of Japanese-American internees.

Young Kono, born in Japan in 1885, had a wild streak, so his traditional father sent him to America to finish his education. In 1916 he drifted to L.A. where he answered a newspaper ad for a chauffeur. His new employer was a rising star Charlie Chaplin. The two hit it off, and Kono soon became more than Chaplin’s driver – he became his personal assistant, and managed all the star’s affairs. Chaplin called him “my man Friday.”

An example of their strong connection was the story behind the release of one of Chaplin’s biggest films, “The Kid.” Chaplin had just finished filming, but his estranged wife’s lawyers were going to seize the reels as assets. In the account I read, Chaplin and Kono, with the unedited reels of film, fled in the middle of the night, driving east until they ran out of gas, then hopped a train and holed up incognito in a hotel room in Utah. There they edited “The Kid” to its final version, bringing it back to Hollywood a masterpiece.

For 17 years, Kono was Chaplin’s gatekeeper. Hollywood stars, heads of state, even Chaplin’s family had to go through Kono to reach Chaplin. Kono was an extra in many of Chaplin’s films, and used his influence to secure a rising Japanese filmmaker tutelage under Chaplin. Chaplin visited Japan with Kono in 1932, where Chaplin was the target of a failed assassination attempt meant to spark war with the U.S.

But Kono met his match in the form of Chaplin’s newest love interest Paulette Goddard. Goddard was jealous of Kono’s influence over Chaplin, and vice-versa. The tension between the two men was too great, and Chaplin and Kono ended their relationship in 1934.

Kono was now the head of the Japanese arm of United Artists, and spent time in Japan where he was possibly courted by the Japanese military for info on the U.S. On June 8, 1941, Kono was swept up in an espionage arrest in L.A. with a Japanese naval officer. Kono was never charged with anything, and the allegations were dropped. However, on Dec. 7, 1941, Kono was re-arrested, along with any other Japanese or Japanese-Americans of any importance. When the former CCC camp in La Crescenta, “Tuna Camp,” opened on Dec. 8, Kono was probably one of its first prisoners. Here we can assume he was interrogated for several weeks by the FBI about his role in the espionage case. Undoubtedly he stood under the oaks of Tuna Camp, the same oaks that cover Verdugo Hills Golf Course today, gazing at the green Verdugo Mountains and the rugged San Gabriels, and pondering his rise and fall here in L.A. Sadly no help was offered by Chaplin.

After Tuna Camp, he was bounced around to various federal prisons in Montana, New Mexico, Texas, Idaho and New Jersey for the duration of the war. Sadly, the end of the war found him still incarcerated, seemingly forgotten for two years. He was finally released in 1947 with the help of a civil rights attorney.

On his release, Kono returned to L.A. and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring the rights of Japanese-Americans. He worked with the “Tule Lake Defense Team” in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo to restore citizenship to 4,700 Japanese-Americans who during internment had been coerced into renouncing their citizenship. He was successful at this in 1954, and then traveled to Japan to help the many Japanese-American citizens who had been deported. His work is well-known in the Japanese-American community. Kono died in 1971.

The story of Toriachi Kono, Charlie Chaplin’s right-hand-man and an accused spy, is yet another fascinating chapter in the saga of Tuna Camp.