The Legend of Whitey:
W. C. Fields' Philadelphia Roots (Part 1)
© by Howard Tyson. Used by permission. Comments
Although W. C. Fields poked fun at Philadelphia throughout his show business career, he was a typical home town product in
many ways.Â This article will examine the Philadelphia connection and analyze his ambivalence toward the city.
ÂWilliam Claude Dukenfield was probably born in Darby (DelawareCounty,) PA on January 29, 1880. The 1880 census shows
that 40 year old James L. Dukenfield (or Duckenfield) and his 25 year old wife Kate lived a mile from Darby at 64th & Woodland
Ave. in Philadelphia with 4 month old son Claude, as of June 5, 1880. Their actual place of residence was 6320 Woodland
Ave., near the later site of the Benn Theater. In those days, James worked as an innkeeper (& bartender) in a Darby hotel Â
Family tradition has it that Kate gave birth to her first son at the hotel, not the apartment on Woodland Ave.
ÂAccording to Betty Shell, archivist for the Darby Free Library Co., some local residents believe W. C. Fields was born in the
Arlington Hotel, 7th & Main Sts., which burned down years ago. Â Others claim the blessed event took place at
The Buttonwood Hotel (9th & Main Sts.,) later called The National, which was torn down in the 1970's.The third large hotel in
Darby was The Blue Bell Inn at Cobbs Creek [7303 Woodland Avenue] Main St., the closest of the three to the Dukenfields'
apartment at 6320 Woodland Ave. (9 blocks away.) In his biography of Fields Simon Louvish wrote: "The name of the hotel, the
family recalls, was the Arlington, though another name mentioned in dispatches is the Buttonwood." (Simon Louvish, p. 28)Â
Darby store owner Harold Finnegan claims that his grandfather owned The Arlington Hotel and employed James
Dukenfield as manager there at one time. James had a diverse employment history and could have worked in more than one
Darby hotel at different times. However they may disagree on the details, most Darby citizens swear that the comedian drew his
first breath in their borough, with the majority evenly divided between The Arlington and The Buttonwood. Kate Dukenfield told
her son Leroy that a black woman named Kitty, who lived nearby, assisted her during and after Claude's birth. Kitty put a gold
spoon in the baby's mouth, examined the reflections of his saliva on the spoon, and prophesied: "this boy is going to get
someplace."(James Smart, p. 3)
James Dukenfield was born in Sheffield, England on Febrary 16, 1840 (possibly 1841), the son of John Duckenfield and Annie
LydenDuckenfield.Â The entire family emigrated to America in 1854, arriving at Philadelphia on November 13th of that year.Â
Annie may have had as many as 19 children, about thirteen of whom survived infancy.