Toward the Black Pussy Cafe

W.C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Biography

with commentary by Ronald J. Fields
Warner Paperback Library, 510 pp., $1.95

Of all the subjects that don’t need de-mythologizing, one would have thought W.C. Fields was pre-eminent. With comedians in general it seems important that their life and their work be taken as one. “I hear he writes his own lines” is a phrase that echoes from childhood. The lot of the gag-writer is a bitter one: unless he consents to be a performer himself, like Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner, we don’t want to know about him.

Hence, most books about comedians tend to be unsatisfactory. Either they service the myth and give the clown a brain he doesn’t deserve (“The trouble with Groucho is he thinks he’s Groucho,” says one of his old writers) or they tell the truth, as John Lahr did of his father Bert in Notes on a Cowardly Lion, leaving us with a somewhat shrunken functionary, barely worth a book, though Lahr got a good one. Comedians are actors, and in dealing with such there is rarely anything between fan magazine falsehood and terrible disillusionment.

Books about W.C. Fields, on the other hand, tend to be satisfactory even when they’re bad. For instance, his mistress’s book about him, W.C. Fields and Me by Carlotta Monti, is hilarious for wholly unintentional reasons. Any book by a chorine that starts out “I can’t deny that he was an anomaly” is going to be hilarious. Fields’s own voice rumbles like this through every phrase. Because Fields really was a comic genius. There was no question where the lines came from or the style, and some of this had to spill into the private life, leaving a fund of great anecdotes that even a goodhearted starlet couldn’t ruin, so long as she followed the master’s directions.

Still, we demand more of Fields than even comic genius. We have to believe he meant it. We want certification that such a one existed: a mean, child-hating con man who was so funny about it that he made these things all right. Staged comedy exists partly to resign us to evil, but for this to work we want more than playacting. As Groucho says of professionals, we want a real old lady crashing downhill into a wall in her wheel chair—only to walk away unharmed.

Robert Lewis Taylor produced a few years back one of the best books ever written about a comedian, W.C. Fields: His Follies and His Fortunes. In it Taylor tells just enough truth to qualify as a biographer, including the unfunny horrors of Fields’s alcoholism. But his dominant strategy is to accept Fields’s own version of Fields, which was a work of art built on a dung heap, like so many artists’ lives. He gives us a Fields meaner than any ten men, and yet somehow funny and harmless, where he was probably bitter and brutal. People get hurt and yet they don’t get hurt. Wife and child …

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