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:

"He loved the trappings of writing. His ritual with [his secretary] Miss Michael, on days when he was to work on a script or write something else, made him feel important. Humming cheerfully, he would lay things out, either on his desk or in a lawn swing where he liked to work. His style was extravagant, florid, influenced in large measure by Dickens, whom he knew by heart. 'Despite his love of simplicity, he could never say, "Hit him on the head," ' says Miss Michael. 'He always had to make it "Conk him on the noggin." ' "

Taylor had more than a touch of that himself. Here, for example, he describes Australia, "one of [Fields's] favorite places": "The island continent in the early 1900s was an area of restful informality. The interior was occupied by small, gnarled aborigines, of sanguinary disposition, and the tidewater country supported a mixed society of gold miners, sheep raisers, cattlemen, and adventurer-refugees from the mellower civilizations. 'They chew on toothpicks,' Fields said. 'It puts me at my ease.' " Fields "was careless of his clothes," Taylor writes, "but he guarded his booze like a man keeping a harem," and, elsewhere, discussing the sea gulls who swiped fish from the pond at Fields's residence in California: "He himself never fished, as one of his household pointed out to him, but he said he'd be damned if he would provide free delicatessen for all the feathered drifters on the Coast."

As these passages make plain, Taylor was a comic writer of considerable gifts, an especially useful attribute for a biographer of Fields. His description of the pool-table act that Fields worked up during his vaudeville years is delicious, as are his accounts of Fields's golf act and of a funeral presided over by a Philadelphia undertaker named -- Fields adored the name -- Chester Snavely. But the pie{grv}ce de re{acute}sistance comes when Taylor describes a trip Fields made with his friend Billy Grady.

"Grady cannot be too profuse in his praise of Fields' driving. One time during prohibition the comedian heard that a friend on Long Island had just received two cases of contraband Irish whiskey. He and Grady drove out immediately. They and the friend spent the night making sure the government would be unable to recover part of the whiskey, at least, and Fields and Grady left for home around dawn. Owing to their host's generosity, they took five or six quarts along with them, externally. Both Fields and Grady later recalled that it was snowing when they left, and they settled down for an exhausting drive. En route they took frequent pulls at the whiskey and remarked at the surprising length of Long Island. Their heads were pretty fuzzy during the trip. They put in at filling stations now and then, gassed up, and sought information about the route. However, in response to a question like 'How far's the Queensboro Bridge?' the attendants would only laugh, or stare stupidly. Also, as time wore on, the travelers got the cloudy impression that many people they talked to were essaying dialects, for some reason. 'I don't recollect no place name of Manhasset,' a man would tell them, and they would applaud, then careen on down the road, drinking his health. Their heads finally cleared, and Grady found himself looking out of a window at a palm tree. They seemed to be in a hotel room. He dressed quickly and, while Fields slept on, exhausted by the Long Island roads, went down in search of a newspaper. The first intelligence he gleaned, when he got one, was that Ocala, Florida, was expecting no more than a moderate rainfall for the time of year, and that things looked good for a big citrus crop."

Is the story true? Who knows? Who cares? What matters is that Taylor's telling of the tale is perfectly paced, with perfect phrasing. It passes one of the hardest tests of comic prose: Read aloud to others, it brings laughter. It also paints a miniature portrait of Fields that rings exactly, precisely true.

It should be noted that although Taylor finds much to be amused about in Fields's drinking, he writes about it honestly and ultimately in sorrow. Read a sentence such as this -- "The comedian was drinking what he described as 'martinis'; he had a bottle of gin in one hand and a bottle of vermouth in the other, and he took alternate pulls, favoring the gin" -- and it's impossible (for me, at least) not to laugh. But when "the long addiction to alcohol had overtaken him at last," Taylor is unsparing: "He had many of the traditional symptoms of delirium tremens -- hallucinations, grotesque visitations, nostalgic evocations." Booze is what finally killed Fields, and Taylor doesn't shrink from the unpleasant truth.

In the matter of Fields's alcoholism, truth is easily identified and described. Much of the time, though, the biographer works in gray areas that can only be explored with instruments subtler than those of the diligent but unimaginative researcher. Robert Lewis Taylor had full command of them. He also had what so many of today's biographers so transparently lack: an ability to discriminate between material that provides illumination and material that provides padding. He was perceptive and he was selective, a felicitous combination that produced, in "W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes," an entirely wonderful book.

W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes is out of print. It often can be found in used-book stores and in libraries. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company