Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest stage and screen artists, W.C. Fields. Thus far, we have published over 130 articles about Fields on Travalanche. To read them go here. And for our full biographical essay on Fields, go here.
I’d like to observe today by expending a few words of praise for part one of Arthur Wertheim’s three volume Fields biography W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway. I have read most if not all of the existing Fields biographies and so I am here to tell you that Wertheim does achieve something most difficult on such a heavily-covered topic: breaking new ground. To clarify, the by-now familiar life trajectory is very much the same as the one we have come to internalize: the youth in Philadelphia; the rapid rise in show business from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to the Crowned Heads of Europe as a vaudeville juggler; the romance and then break-up of his marriage with his wife Hattie. There are no new major events beyond those we have previously encountered. What is different here is in the texture and detail. Wertheim had unlimited access to Fields’ papers, and to rare photographic material from the collections of W.C. Fields’ Productions. He mined the correspondence for exchanges we’ve never encountered before, scores of them, resulting in a portrait of unprecedented, sometimes even painful, intimacy. (But also entertaining: Fields was a compulsive wordsmith in his private life as much as his public one. He had pet names for everyone, and an invariably interesting way of expressing himself). ALSO: Wertheim clearly spent a good deal of time in the Keith-Albee Collection at the University of Iowa, a pilgrimage I confess I would love to make some day. I’m not certain any previous Fields biographer has done this before (at least, I don’t recall these kinds of details emerging). What you get from the Keith-Albee records are not just the dates of where he was on the big time circuits at any given time, but the reports on his act by local theatre managers. It’s as close as we’re ever going to get to being there. And some of the new photos are eye-popping. A notable one depicts Fields in blackface** during his short stint as a minstrel. (Scarcely anyone in show business, black or white, was immune from engaging in the practice in those less enlightened times).
I will say this: it’s probably not the book for newbies. It’s more for die-hard fans and scholars. It was especially brave of Palgrave MacMillan (if logical and necessary) to put out volume one first, as it ends in 1915, with Fields’ movie and radio careers far in the future and even his Broadway career just beginning. When the rest of the biography comes out, I think it likely that more folks will go out and get this earlier volume, as readers become interested in the Great Man’s origins and beginnings. But as I as know a good chunk of the Travalanche readers are those very die-hard fans and scholars, without hesitation I give Wertheim’s book the very highest recommendation.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.