W.C. Fields, Brought Back to Philadelphia

Monday, April 21, 2003

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

For years the rule among biographers has been "the bigger the better." Lately there has been a tentative move in the opposite direction -- small is beautiful -- but the prevailing assumption really hasn't changed: Big lives deserve big books and so, for that matter, do little lives. Every scrap of obsessively researched biographical detail demands to be included, no matter how little it may tell us about the subject, with the result that in recent months we have been given 400 pages on Hart Crane, 450 pages on Samuel Pepys and an astounding 1,150 pages in what is merely the third volume of Robert Caro's as-yet-unfinished life of Lyndon Johnson.

Now appearing in bookstores is "W.C. Fields: A Biography," by James Curtis, which weighs in at 500 pages of text and another 100 pages of apparatus. Earnest, dutiful and encyclopedic, it brings off what can only be called an astonishing feat: It drains just about all the humor out of the man whom one Hollywood director called "the greatest comedian that ever lived." There are laughs to be found when Curtis quotes the sublimely quotable Fields, but his own prose lies supine on the page, flat and lifeless. The life of Fields calls for a Dickens, a writer with a grand and vivid style to match Fields's own, yet Curtis brings to the task the stylistic zest of a mortician.

Despair not, though, for as it happens, Fields found his Dickens more than half a century ago. He was Robert Lewis Taylor, the author of "W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes."

Published in 1949, three years after Fields's death, written without the cooperation of Fields's widow (from whom he had been estranged for years) or son, the book makes no apparent claim to being the definitive portrayal of its subject -- my 1967 paperback copy has no bibliography or notes, indeed doesn't even have an index -- but in fewer than 300 pages it succeeds where Curtis and too many other contemporary biographers fail: It brings its subject vividly, unforgettably back to life. Reread now, it thus serves as an accidental antidote to Curtis, and it raises important points about the biographer's task.

Curtis rather patronizingly characterizes it as "a swift and amusing read," though he notes with obvious satisfaction that because Taylor was "denied access to his subject's scrapbooks and correspondence, [he] made some horrendous blunders with regard to the historic record." That depends on your definition of "horrendous." Bessie Poole, with whom Fields had an intermittent affair for many years, is pretty much missing from Taylor's pages, as is the illegitimate son she had by him, and since the men whom Curtis calls Fields's "drinking buddies" were among Taylor's most important sources, the portrait may be skewed a bit toward Fields's bibulous, cantankerous, convivial side.

Taylor obviously missed some of the facts, and he probably fiddled with some of the ones he had; I have vague memories of reading somewhere a lighthearted complaint that the book is as much fiction as fact. But that complaint ignores, or denies, a fundamental truth: Biography is fiction as well as fact. When it comes to the hardest job of all -- getting inside the subject's heart and soul -- the qualities required have far less to do with research and collation than they do with imagination and empathy. Since the biographer can never truly know the subject's inner life, the best he or she can hope to do is interpret and invent.

This Taylor did with sympathy and skill. He seems to be almost totally forgotten now, though in 1959 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Travels of Jamie McPheeters." Born in 1912, he had an exceptionally successful career as a journalist (primarily for the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post), biographer and novelist. He published more than a dozen books, some of which were bestsellers, yet now, a mere five years after his death, only "Jamie McPheeters" is still in print, and it's hard to find.

This can be interpreted as evidence of the evanescence of journalism, or of the cruelty of book publishing, or of the disloyalty of readers. But whatever the explanation for Taylor's rapid disappearance from the bookstores, in the specific case of "W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes" it is an injustice as well as a mystery. It is all the more so when one considers that Fields's best movies -- "It's a Gift," "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man," "The Bank Dick," "My Little Chickadee," "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," "David Copperfield" -- are still widely available, and loved not merely by geezers but also by younger moviegoers.

Just how far Taylor was able to penetrate the inner Fields is itself an unsolvable mystery, but that is true of all biographers. The problem is all the more difficult for the biographer of a movie star -- Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin -- whose on-screen persona is commonly assumed to be the real person. What Taylor nicely calls the "grandiose humbug" embodied by the on-screen Fields seems to have been central to the off-screen Fields, but the biographer must deal with deeper and more complex questions about his character and personality.

Fields had a hard start -- he ran away from home in working-class Philadelphia in 1890, when he was 11, and subsisted mostly on petty crime before discovering the gift for juggling that proved his ticket to show business -- and many of his friends believed that his "personal and professional later life was dedicated to repaying society for the hurts of his childhood," Taylor writes. He made a career out of hating humanity generally, children and dogs specifically, yet "despite all his bluster, he was hypersensitive, and hated to hurt anybody's feelings." For all his pool-hall conviviality, he was a lonely man who seemed incapable of human relationships beyond skin-deep male bonding. Over the years he took ever more to drink -- strong drink, by the gallon -- in hopes of quieting his nerves. As Taylor says, "It taxes the historian's ingenuity to explain the many paradoxes of Fields."

It also taxes the writer's ingenuity to make Fields step off the printed page, but this Taylor quite triumphantly accomplishes. In part no doubt this is because he was born at a time when youngsters still read Dickens not just for schoolwork but for pleasure, and when some of those who went on to become writers fell under Dickens's influence. Like Taylor, Fields himself was one of these. He "felt an especial affinity for Dickens, in some of whose characters he saw strong traces of himself," and in time he gave the definitive screen performance of Mr. Micawber in "David Copperfield." Taylor captures the literary Fields deftly:

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