Wit and Whiskey: The Life of W.C. Fields

This top-hatted, hard-drinking, bulb-nosed fixture of Old Hollywood fame has surprisingly local roots 

W.C. who? It’s been almost 80 years since Philly-born comedian was alive – more than a hundred since his heyday —  yet mostly every one in the world recognizes his archetype: the irascible, wisecracking drunk.

His trajectory, too, rings familiar today: gifted talent finds incredible success followed by addiction and inevitable flameout. Despite eventually crashing his career, Fields’s real-life abuse of alcohol only added to his public appeal, with colorful stories and outlandish quotes the press breathlessly reported until his death in 1946 at 66 years old.

But Fields was much more than Hollywood’s first “Arthur,” he was a multi-talented innovator who inspired countless iterations, seamlessly adapting his act from vaudeville to silent films into the Golden Age of motion pictures. He was a master of physical comedy and improvision, and he also scripted most of his own film roles. Woody Allen has named him as one of six “genuine comic geniuses” along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho and Harpo Marx, and Peter Sellers.

True to his Philadelphia roots, Fields played by his own rules and did not care what people thought. He loved hard, he played harder; he took care of his people, always. He bit the hand that fed him, sometimes. His work pushed the boundaries of what films could portray and make fun of. His life makes a remarkable, exuberant story for the history books.

W.C. Fields was born Claude William Dukenfield in 1880, the first child of James and Kate who were living in either Darby or Philadelphia at the time – records conflict (and no one can find his original birth certificate). His father, an alcoholic with a mean streak, supported the family through low wage hospitality jobs, and when Claude finished 4th grade at 12 years old, he quit school to help the family out, selling flowers on street corners.

Apparently, his earnings impressed his father, who soon quit his bartending job to sell produce as a street huckster, and he put Claude to work as a helper. The two did not get along – James had an awful temper, and could be both verbally and physically abusive. Claude did his best to keep his cool, but he was growing into a smart-alecky teenager.

Bored and antsy at work, he taught himself to juggle fruit and got quite good at it before his father caught him, and told him to knock it off. So Claude had fun juggling behind his father’s back, much to their customers’ amusement (and his old man’s great annoyance). One day, James caught him juggling oranges, and as he charged in fury at his son, he stepped on a rake with predictable – and hilarious – results.

Of course, Claude laughed. His father did not see the humor in what had happened, and sought to adjust his son’s attitude. As James attacked him with the rake, Claude smashed an empty bushel basket over his dad’s head. Red-faced and practically blind with rage, James chased his son down the street, pelting him with random produce and screaming that he can never ever show his face at home again.

So Claude was on his own that summer. He dug himself a bunker where he’d sleep under some old boards he found. He’d steal milk, and friends would bring him scraps to eat. When the weather got cold, he’d stay with his Grandmom in Fairhill or an uncle in Franklinville. By Christmas, he and his dad made up, and he moved back home.

At 14, Claude started hawking newspapers – a morning/evening job with lots of free time during the day. He started hanging out in Kensington pool halls, where he discovered a natural skill with a cue. He taught himself trick shots, and developed the cool, casual banter of a hustler.

He was good! He might’ve made a living playing pool, but then he saw a juggling troupe perform at the Walnut Street Theater, and was like “I could do that.” He threw himself into juggling, practicing daily and even taking some classes with local entertainers. By the time he was 18, he was W.C. Fields– signed to a small traveling vaudeville company as a “tramp juggler” (which earned him a decent salary).

He met and married his wife Hattie on tour (she was one of the Monte Carlo Girls, a popular dance act and headliner). For a honeymoon, they performed together in dozens of cities across North America, then sailed for Europe where they continued their act, to rave reviews. They returned to the States, they were quite rich and famous.

Fields landed a small but key role in a touring Broadway play, winning high praise for his acting chops. On the road for months at a time, W.C. was having a ball, but Hattie wanted to settle down and have a proper family life. Instead, he romanced a hairdresser with the show. When his wife found out, she demanded a separation but not a divorce (and he would send her a support check every week for the rest of his life).

Meanwhile, Fields’s star continued to rise. By 1910, he was billed as the greatest burlesque juggler in the world, commanding great sums and wowing audiences – including England’s King George V, who personally requested a show at Buckingham Palace, and insisted on shaking his hand. Though Fields loved performing live, he would find his biggest fame yet on the silver screen.

From 1925 to 1944, W.C. Fields made 38 shorts and features, the most famous perhaps was “My Little Chickadee”, which pairs him with Mae West in a Western movie parody that practically broke the box office at the time. He delivers what would become a trademark quote at the end, when trying to talk himself out of a lynching, “I’d like to see Paris before I die… Philadelphia will do.”

Whether playing a hustler or a hen-pecked husband, his characters loved drink as much as he did, prompting memorable lines like “I never dine on an empty stomach.” And “A woman drove me to drink and I didn’t have the decency to thank her.” Fields helped reshape America’s view of drinking after Prohibition. He flipped the stigma on its head, turning it into comedy gold.

Inebriation didn’t impair his acting — it actually seemed to improve it. Fields grew to drink often, and well. Staffers would estimate he consumed about two quarts of liquor a day. He’d start every day with a tall glass of bourbon, and nine more would follow throughout the morning and afternoon. Evenings, he’d retire with a half dozen martinis.

It seemed for awhile the good times would last. “He keeps on drinking and being funny,” said a colleague at the time, “Whose business is it except his own?” But the human body can only take so much, and eventually Fields’s health started to spiral. After several stints in rehab, he eventually sold all his stuff and checked himself into the Las Encinas Sanitarium, where he drank himself to death on gin, vermouth, and beer.

W.C. Fields died of a massive gastric hemorrhage on Christmas Day, 1946 at the age of 66. Although he once joked to Vanity Fair that his headstone would read, “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia,” the actual marker at Forest Lawn Cemetery says simply “W.C. Fields 1880-1946.”

FUN FACTS FROM THE LIFE OF W.C. FIELDS

  • He was a Philadelphian at heart, often signing correspondence “The Kensington Paradox” or “Germantown Whitey”.
  • He bought his parents a summer home in Penns Grove, New Jersey, and sent them a weekly allowance so his father could retire.
  • He was a big reader, and always toured with a trunk full of books (Twain and Dickens were his favorites).
  • He was an excellent cartoonist, filling sketchbooks with people and places he encountered.
  • He once feigned injury to get out of a show contract with the Marx Brothers, who he said later were the only act he couldn’t follow.
  • He had a secret son with a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl in NYC; though he never publicly acknowledged the boy, he privately paid his expenses until age 19.
  • He bought his parents’ gravestones and inscribed his mother’s “A Sweet Old Soul” and his father’s “Great Scout.”
  • Every room of Fields’s home had a fully stocked bar, as did one of his cars, a 1938 Cadillac.
  • Though he pretended to hate kids, he was actually a big softie. He loved to surprise children with ice cream and other extravagant treats. One day in San Jacinto, Fields saw a group of Native-American boys playing baseball using a ball of tape and a whittled-down two by four. He sent his assistant to buy them bats, balls, and gloves.
  • A life-long atheist, Fields was often seen thumbing through a bible in his final year. “Just looking for loopholes,” he’d say.
  • Upon his death, Fields’s wife Hattie showed up to host a public funeral (against his explicit wishes) and contested his will for her half of his $750,000+ in assets (she won). Carlotta Monti (his longtime girlfriend) got $25 a week for twenty years, and his son with the Follies girl got $15,000.

Read more about W.C. Fields’s Philly roots in Bob McNulty’s original narrative that brings his history to life with names, addresses, personal quirks, and other wonderful details (originally published October, 2014 and printed in March’s LOCAL newspaper).

For more great history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. And check out Bob’s previous Local column HERE for an inspiring story from Philadelphia’s “Ellis Island” aka Pier 53.

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 22 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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