W.C. FIELDS : HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES
by Robert Lewis Taylor
It was often difficult to trap Fields into telling the truth, but his father was, as he said, an Englishman – James Dukinfield, a London cockney, whose family had emigrated to America in the late 1870’s. He settled in the Germantown district of Philadelphia and married a neighbours daughter, Kate Felton. Their first child, William Claude, who later changed his name to W.C. Fields for professional reasons, was born on April 9, 1879. Both the Dukinfields and the Feltons were poor, and the Dukinfields had to scramble for a living. After weighing several professions, he invested in an elderly horse named White Swan and began to hawk vegetables and fruit. Years afterward, Fields was to give various accounts of his ancestry. He told an interviewer for a High School paper that both his father and mother suffered from leprosy, a blatant falsehood. During one period he maintained that his grandfather had invented a process for making imitation tortoise-shell combs, and, in attempting to come to America, had been shipwrecked off Glen Cove, Long Island. For years he attributed his artistic talent to a powerful theatrical strain in the family – an uncle, he said, had been a popular Swiss bell ringer at Elks’ smokers and chowder parties. “I’ve got the theatre in my blood,” Fields used to say.
The Dukinfield household was dedicated to making ends meet, and there are grounds for the belief that Fields was dangerously bored by the time he was four. The family recreation consisted of listening to Mr. Dukinfield sing sentimental and religious songs, after he’d had a couple of beers. His favourites were ‘The Little Green Leaf in the Bible,’ ‘Annie Laurie,’ and ‘Oh, Genevieve,’ all of which Fields detested to his dying day. In fact, he worked up a strong fixation about vocal singing, and would absent himself from any locality in which he believed song threatened. One of his mistresses, toward the end of his life, handled domestic spats by locking herself in his bathroom and singing at the top of her notable voice. Fields would howl, beat on the walls with a cane and threaten to burn the house down with her in it. He went to the length, on one occasion, of firing up some newspapers and holding them in such a way that the smoke curled under her door. She emerged, but continued to sing till she reached the street, and Fields later conceded her moral victory. “The girl’s got guts,” he told several friends.
…one of the most distressing facets of his trips was the fact that he seemed to get jailed more often than is common. He had spent much of his childhood in jails and the habit lingered. In exceptionally relaxed moments, Fields gave out comparative notes on jails, criticizing the cuisine, the cots, and the turnkeys. His remarks about French detention were disparaging in the extreme, though possibly tinctured with bias, while he spoke expansively of the lock-up system in England. His enthusiasm was only moderate about jails in Australia – he felt that Australians had made no great strides in this field because their jails’ most frequent occupants, Aboriginies, were unused to creature comforts and, provided with the luxury of food and beds, might get a distorted notion of punishment…
The principal reason for his confinements was gallantry. Fields would steer a girl into an inexpensive Saloon, and when some friendly client gave her a harmless pinch, he would swing. The proprietors of saloons tend to favour their steady patrons, and Fields came off badly in the arraignments..they locked him up in London for socking a Bobby. “He pushed me into the gutter,” said Fields without explanation. He had an inflexible feeling for fair play, no doubt because of the unfair drubbings he had collected along the route. It was impossible for him to watch a fight without getting into it. In Paris, a French acrobat of his acquaintance, a man who worked with small, quiet props, was set upon, for reasons unknown to Fields, by three Gendarmes struck Fields as thoughtless. Without making inquiries, he pitched into the scrap; he knocked out two of the Gendarmes and, with the acrobat, assisted the third over the railing of a subway entrance. The winners had scarcely time to congratulate themselves before police reinforcements stampeded over them like cattle. Fields spent a cooling-off period in jail, clanging on the bars with tin cups, bawling for the American ambassador, and building up a profane international understanding with the acrobat..
SIGNET CLASSICS EDITION (Pub. 1949)