If you're a W.C. Fields fan, and you can't seem to get enough of him, one of the most valuable resources is a book called W.C. Fields: By Himself, a compilation of the great one's letters put together by his grandson, Ronald J. Fields. It took some doing, but after a few calls to Los Angeles, a nice-sounding woman at "W.C. Fields Productions" who turned out to be Mrs. W.C. Fields, Jr., told us that Ron Fields lives just outside New York, so we hastened out to his beach house.
Many people know that W.C. Fields (who was born in Philadelphia in 1880 and died on Christmas Day, 1946) headlined vaudeville houses everywhere as the world's greatest juggler by the time he had reached his mid-twenties, and even appeared with Sarah Bernhardt in a double-bill command performance before King Edward VII. Movie fans know that as an actor, Fields was Comedy's most intractable and magnanimous King in the 1930's, playing con artists or better yet, crestfallen husbands -- a marginally incompetent grocer, a freelance inventor, the town drunk -- but always a bumbling embarrassment to his ungrateful wife and children. (In fact, in these films you might even mistake him for your grandfather, trapped inside a fifty-year-old home movie.) Beset by a frustrated, pretentious wife, he ekes his way through by losing out in one hilarious scene after another, until finally, vindicated by a stupendous stroke of luck at the end, he rediscovers his dignity just as it had seemed certain he had bargained it away.
Ron Fields looks through his grandfather's blue eyes, set in the same baby-fat cheeks, and his voice, like his grandad's, is an upbeat tenor which sneaks through his nose (though Ron's is a lesser version of the well-known proboscis, without the bulbousness and the autumnal pink hue.) According to Ron, not everyone knows that Fields based his movies upon his own life. For instance, his awful movie-wife was based on his real wife, Hattie. "They never divorced, and Fields never asked for one," said Ron between sips of wine.
"It's the funniest thing -- it's not really funny, it's a sad situation. They were really very much in love -- Hattie was part of my grandfather's juggling act; he could always get a laugh by blaming her when he missed. They had been married in 1900, and then in 1904, while they were in Johannesburg, they found out she was pregnant. W.C. wanted the baby born in the United States so it would have a chance to become President. You have to be born in the U.S. -- that's really true.
"So he made her go back to Philadelphia, and she had the baby alone. There was some resentment there, that she didn't have her husband with her, that he was still traveling. She hooked up with him again in England, and stayed with him a few months, but then realized, 'Hey, this is ridiculous, I have this little baby, living out of a trunk, going from state to state.' She realized this was no life, and she tried to make W.C. quit. W.C. was absolutely obsessed with making it to the top -- he was like me . . . .
"Hattie's of course getting resentful -- he's gone, say, 360 out of 365 days of the year. I think she desperately needed the attention anyway, having been in the entertainment business herself, and Fields wasn't supplying it anymore, so this resentment builds, and when he does finally show up, she'll say, 'Well, it certainly is nice of you to come by and see your son.'
"She was the type of woman -- I hate to say this, I knew her very well because she lived with us until she died in 1963, and I didn't like her very much. I thought that what was going on in my childhood because of her was an awful situation. Hattie would much prefer to sit there, long-suffering, than to fulfill any emotional or sexual needs. She would rather say, 'There, look at me, I'm a martyr,' and prefer that stance to any other. But absolutely devoted to her son.
"She was very prejudiced, domineering, and very overbearing on my father. The relationship between my father and my mother just improved one hundred percent the day she died. As long as Hattie was around -- well, she didn't like my mother because she took her son away."
Since Ron's father, W.C. Fields, Jr., seldom spoke of his own father ("He would only talk about him by saying, after he spanked us, 'You're lucky I'm around to discipline you -- when I was your age, my father was never around."') Ron didn't discover who he was until he was twelve: "I could never understand why we were allowed to stay up late for a Fields film. I started laughing so hard at that back-porch scene in It's a Gift that I had to leave the room. My sister was worried about me because I couldn't catch my breath. She came out to help me, and when I came to, I said, 'I think that guy's the funniest man who ever lived.' And she said -- she realized then that I didn't know he was my grandfather, and she was surprised. I guess being the youngest of five, they just forgot to tell you."
Sealed deep inside his family's apartment were all of his grandfather's papers and letters, which Ron later collected for his first book, after his father's death opened the padlocked basement door in 1971, and Ron found nine "horribly written" pages of a book about W.C. that his father had begun. In his business correspondence, Fields, however ornery, is frequently tactful; but the letters that accompanied the checks to Hattie were clipped and resentful:
November 23, 1915
Dear Hattie: --
The tone of your letter dated November first was more than a surprise to me. For ten years you have inculcated into the boy's mind stories of my atrocities, you used every artifice and cunning to employ to turn him from me, and you succeeded, but! your success is empty, you have gained nothing.
Last spring I returned to New York anxious to see the boy and buy him everything a boy of his age could desire from a small practical auto down, I felt peeved when he said he prefered a home, and when I offered him one you had changed his mind and wished only a few bits of furniture for a flat, and he argued the home was the thing that had impaired your health. He then showed his hand, "when you did your melodramatic turn on the sofa" by saying when he grew up he would not look at me; he further hurt me by his precocious aggression when you sent him to the theatre . . . . You have reared your son as your poor dear Mama reared John, you have taught him for ten years what you thought would ultimately prove advantageous to you in later years. He was not capable of thinking in those first ten years, but the next decade is going to be more difficult. He is going to THINK. Right now he does not want my views for they are abysmally separated from yours; I would probably be inclined to bias him in my favor. Let him prospect by himself, and when he gets to be about twenty he might look me up some day and want to know what it was all about, or perhaps he will be satisfied with your version. You have put the jinx on anything I wanted to do for him, and incidentally not improved your own case. Now when he asks if I have anything to say about him in my weekly letter, just say no! that I have left everything to you.
"If you look at these films as W.C. at the psychiatrist," said Ron, "he's saying, 'Lookit, I was a good father. I provided, I tried to do my best, I'm not such a bad guy. Can't you see? My wife's so terrible, my son's a sissy.'"
Ron's father (a strict man who neither drank nor smoked -- "as you can see, I do both") served in the Navy at Long Beach during World War Two. W.C. was fond of his daughter-in-law and would visit occasionally. "When my father writes letters to W. C. that say, 'Come over to Thanksgiving dinner and we won't talk shop,' that means, 'I promise we won't be talking about Hattie and the way you've been treating her.' So my father was kind of torn. They got along well in later life, but it was never that hugging -- you know, it was always, 'Hello father,' 'Hello son.'
"But W.C. loved my mother. He gave her a car for the wedding, and then picked up my brother Bill when he was born. He would call up my mother on Sundays, because Hattie and my father went to church every Sunday at 10:30. (He always attacked religion, because Hattie had converted to Catholicism; he said that Hattie was part Jewish, which she always tried to deny, that her father's name was Levi. And she converted my father, too.) And W.C. would call at 10:35 every Sunday, and he'd say, 'Are they gone yet?' My mother would say, 'Yeah.' He'd say, 'Listen to this last letter I just got from Hattie' -- and he'd read it in this phony voice. When my brother was born and my mother was so nice, W.C. felt, I'm sure, 'Here's another chance to have a family.'
"I've got to tell you something that was the oddest thing I ever saw. As I said, Hattie was a part of his act. Well, there are a number of photographs of them together in their costumes onstage. On almost all of them -- not all of them, but almost --she kept the photograph, but scratched out her face. And what an eerie thing to see, this photograph with its face scratched out. But she kept the photograph.
"Thank goodness she wasn't as bitter as to throw all of his stuff away. I can't really explain why she'd keep it all and yet harbor such ill will towards him. Maybe she crossed out the face so she could say, 'See, he was with another woman,' when in fact it was always her."
Ron described to us his latest book, W.C. Fields: A Life on Film, and then excused himself for a quiet phone conversation with his wife, Pam. He came back to show us a synopsis of a novel he began five years ago, which is set on the beaches of southern California. "I'm a real depressing writer when it comes to my novels . . . . I sold out on my writing doing this W.C. stuff. But I'll finish this one."