© by Howard Tyson. Used by permission. Comments to Jhtysoniii@aol.com
Although W. C. Fields poked fun at
William Claude Dukenfield
was probably born in Darby (
According 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.
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 & Main St.,
the closest of the three to the Dukenfields’
James Dukenfield was born in
The 1860 census enumerates the family as follows: John Duckenfield, 50, Combmaker, 19th Ward (near Front & Norris Sts.), born in England, Ann, Wife, 44, Walter 25, Combmaker, John 23, Bricklayer, Edmund 21, Bricklayer, Farris (?) 20, Peddler, George 18, Weaver, Clara 16, Arthur, 14, Aspen (?) 11, Mary 8, and Godfrey 5. W. C.’s 19 year old father James is not on the census sheet.
1861 John Duckenfield, Combmaker, Norris E. of Front
“ “ “ & Ann, Trimmings Store, Same Address
1865 “ “ Tavern, 510 E. Norris St.
1868 Ann Duckenfield,
(The John Duckenfield who had a bar at 135 Dauphin St. in the early 1870’s was James’ older brother John Duckenfield Jr., the former bricklayer.)
James and George Duckenfield
joined the PA 72nd Regiment on
The 1870 census lists Ann Duckenfield, who gave her age as 49, in the 19th
Ward (5th & Norris Sts.) as an innkeeper with household
residents Alfred 21, Huckster, Godfrey 15, Huckster, and Mary 17. John Duckenfield passed away about a
year after his 26 year old son Edmund’s death, which occurred on
Kate’s father, Thomas Felton, was a pumpmaker who lived at 6th & York Sts.
(1855,) Manor (near
did not stay long in southwest
…1840 or 1841 James Duckenfield, born Feb. 16, (1840 or 1841,)
…1854 Emigrated with family to
…1861 James Duckenfield, Driver, Norris E. of Front,
Enlisted in 72nd Regiment of Union Army with brother George on
…1862 Shot in hand
…1863 Lived at
recovering from Civil War wounds.
…1866 Death of 26 year old brother Edmund (February 7, 1866.)
…1867 (Approx.) Death of father John Duckenfield.
…1870 James Duckenfield, Huckster, 19th Ward, (1870 Census)
near 4th & Diamond Sts.
…1873 “ “ Salesman, 3rd & Diamond Sts.
…1875 “ “ Bartender, 2132 Market St.
…1876 “ “ Clerk, 270 Diamond St.
…1879 Married Kate
Spangler Felton on
Church, 8th &
…1880 James Dukenfield, Hotelkeeper, 64th &
Birth of son William Claude Dukenfield
…1882 “ “ Provisions, 2552
…1883 “ “ Bartender, “ “
…1884 “ “ “
(S. Louvish includes
…1886 Birth of daughter Elsie May (
…1888 “ “ Driver, “ “ Birth of daughter Adele
(September 21, 1888.)
…1889 “ “ Huckster, 2803
…1893 “ “ Huckster, 92 Goodman St. (11th &
…1895 “ “ “ Birth of son Leroy (
…1897 “ “ “ 25 Rising Sun Lane (12th
…1898 “ “ Produce,
…1902 “ “ Salesman, “ “
…1904 Traveled to
…1905 “ “ Produce, 615 Pike St.
…1906 “ “ Huckster, 3923 N.
…1910 “ “ Retired, 3923 N.
…1913 “ “ “ “ “ “
(He died of cancer
The 1914 City
Directory states Kate, widow of James,
Friends called young Claude Dukenfield “Whitey” because of his light blonde hair. He probably attended
W. C. Fields was a self-educated man, who
avidly read Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare,
and others. While on the road, he always
carried a trunk-full of classics with him.
Although intelligent and well-read, he did not advance beyond the 4th
grade in school. From the age of 10 he
helped out with his father’s produce business, occasionally shouting out
“rutabagas!” “artichokes!” or “pomegranates!” even
though his father had none. James Dukenfield seems to have had both a stand, and a wagon
pulled by a horse named “White Swan.” At
one time he also owned a thoroughbred, which he never raced. According to Leroy Dukenfield,
The Valley Green Inn at that time offered a bottle of
The produce business did not intrigue Whitey, so when the boy turned 13 Grandmother Ann Felton steered him to a job as counter boy in a cigar store. The shop sold only 3 cent cigars, but the boss instructed him to accept nickels from patrons desiring a 5 cent cigar on the grounds that “the customer is always right.” After falling asleep at the counter one night, knocking over a kerosene lamp, and nearly catching himself and the store on fire, Claude ended his career as a tobacconist in 1893 and applied to Strawbridge & Clothier’s department store as a “cash boy” for a weekly salary of $2. Strawbridge’s required him to replenish cash registers with change. He had to fight a nagging temptation to sprint out the door with the till. Whitey soon became bored with the routine, and tried to get fired by intentionally falling through a skylight. Worried about a lawsuit, the Quaker management not only retained Dukenfield, but gave him a raise.
Claude quit Strawbridge’s after three months. His antics may have induced the company to install a pneumatic tube system for transferring cash throughout the store. He ended up back at James Dukenfield’s produce stand, where he often seemed more of a liability than a help. Ever since seeing the Byrne Brothers (dressed as clowns) juggle in a circus performance, he practiced tossing and catching apples, oranges, and sickle pears. “By the time I could keep two oranges going, I’d ruined $40. worth of fruit.” (Robert Lewis Taylor, p. 16.) He ate most of his mistakes. James Dukenfield frequently reprimanded and sometimes smacked his son for these shenanigans. One day in the spring of 1894 he caught “Whitey” juggling and stepped on a rake the boy had left in the aisle, knocking himself upside the head before he could launch into a tirade. Claude failed to stifle a smirk and got chased down the street by his furious, rake-wielding father. “My father, unfortunately, lost his poise and angrily pursued me. Finding that he could not catch me, he shouted through the balmy air that I was never to return.” (Smart, p. 7.)
The runaway story comprises an integral part of the “Whitey Myth.” It contains both fact and fiction. Over the years the comedian told different versions to various people. The one related to Alva Johnston in 1935 has it that James stepped on a shovel, barked his shin, then struck 14 year old Claude on the shoulder blade with the shovel. A short time later the resentful boy climbed onto the storeroom loft, dropped a lug box onto his father’s head, exited from a second story window, and ran off to join a traveling carnival, where he took care of elephants and learned to juggle. Fields’ sister Adele Dukenfield Smith dismissed both the assault on her father and the carnival tale as apocryphal, adding: “father was very strict. W.C. and Walter used to needle him mercilessly to get his goat, but it was all for fun. We all respected and loved our parents.” (R. Fields p. 12)
Claude did run away from home for several weeks, perhaps months, but never strayed far from his own neighborhood. As a young fugitive he first slept in a “dug-out”—that is, a hole in a field covered by boards. His friends brought him food pilfered from their mothers’ pantries. He made up the difference by shoplifting and soliciting hand-outs from Kate during his father’s absences. The fort’s roof leaked and his friends’ care packages soon ceased. During inclement weather Claude slept at Grandmother Ann Felton’s house (921 Sterner St.), Uncle William Felton’s house (1153 Venango St.), the cellar of a neighbor (with a broken window he could crawl through,) the backroom of a saloon, “Pothead” Edwards’ basement, on a billiard table in a pool hall, and “The Orlando Social Club”—a vacant second floor space above a blacksmith’s forge at 11th & Ontario, which he and his buddies used as a hideout. Claude often returned home during the day to visit his mother, get a bite to eat, and perhaps bum a few cents for the road. Once he strolled in the house, almost bumped into his father, quickly swiped a packed lunch from the parlor table, and ran out the door.
It seems that W.C. often embellished stories
in his later years, especially when in his cups. Over cocktails in a Hollywood restaurant
Fields confessed the robbery of a Chinese laundry to Alva Johnston of The New
Yorker. This store had a bell on the
door to alert its proprietor when a customer entered. “Whitey” devised a plan to foil this
alarm. He had an accomplice stand in the
middle of the trolley tracks outside the shop.
When the streetcar driver loudly rang his bells at the boy, “Whitey” dashed
in, grabbed cash from the drawer, and fled.
A similar strategy was employed to steal lemon meringue pies from a
bakery. Young Dukenfield
could not have avoided Eastern Penitentiary if he actually perpetrated all the
thefts later described to
In 1935 Fields told Alva Johnston that his life as a tramp taught him that the lower orders of humanity enjoyed kicking those down on their luck. He got into more of his share of fights simply because of his lowly status as a “street-person.” Though 14 year old Dukenfield could hold his own in fights, a nineteen year old sailor on leave from the Navy once beat him severely. The combination of sleeping outside in cold weather and frequently getting punched in the face gave Fields nasal problems, which aggravated the alcohol-induced nose-swelling of later years.
At this time Claude became a habitué of bars
which offered free buffet lunches. He’d
buy a nickel glass of ginger ale, then eat pickled
herring, hardboiled eggs, bread, salad, cheese, pretzels, sausages, and
anything else he could snatch. This
practice rapidly wore out his welcome in the pubs along
How long this homeless period lasted must
remain a subject for speculation. It
seems that he spent between six weeks and four months on the lam during the
spring and summer of 1894, but never left
After a few months of washing dishes and
lugging fetid ashcans full of oyster shells around
(c. 1895,) Whitey left the mollusk emporium and secured more congenial
employment in a billiard hall, where he supplemented his income by
hustling. Here he expanded his repetoire to include trick pool shots, and balancing stunts
with cue sticks and cigars. In his 40’s
and 50’s Fields retained the hustler mentality when he played handball, tennis,
and golf for money with
Whitey always had superior athletic
ability. He ran fast, boxed cannily,
and effortlessly smashed hard line drives with a baseball bat. His hand-eye coordination
bordered on the phenomenal. He
now juggled teacups, hats, Indian clubs, fruit, billiard balls, frying pans,
golf balls, and almost anything else you could grab with a hand. To get tennis balls for juggling, Whitey, jumped on the back of the
Kate Dukenfield and Grandmother Ann Felton regarded the pool room as a hangout for low-lifes, and persuaded Claude to take a job on “one of the leading ice wagons in Philadelphia,” (Smart, p. 10) as assistant to proprietor Andy Donaldson (address: 2935 N. 11th St.) Fields may have developed his hearty dislike for dogs as an ice delivery boy in 1896. Fields later reminisced: “Strange are the furbelows of destiny. My superior on the ice wagon was a juggling enthusiast. After teaching him to juggle the accounts, I remained with him for two years…” (Smart p. 11)
Andy Donaldson apparently introduced Whitey
to 27 year old Reading Railroad clerk Bill Dailey (address:
Young Dukenfield now realized that the 9-to-5
working world held no attraction for him.
“I was always a lazy boy (and) hated to get up and go to school. I loved to stay in bed. The thought of having to work for a living
filled me with horror… The stage
appealed to me at once…” (Ronald Fields, p. 6)
In 1896 Bill Dailey became his agent.
“Whitey” played his first engagement at a
Fields claimed to have acted as a shill for part-time thimble-rig Bill
Dailey. One early Saturday morning in
October, 1896 the pair snatched bread, butter, and milk from doorsteps for
breakfast, (as well as newspapers for edification), hopped a
Better gigs were to come. Dailey booked him at Bately
In August, 1898 a small theatrical company
held auditions in
Fields regularly visited his family in
On his first tour in the fall of 1898 young
W. C. Dukenfield traveled for three months on the
circuit, playing in
This initial adventure on the vaudeville
circuit was not without its bumps.
Whitey had signed on for $18. per week, but
often did not get paid. Right before
Christmas the manager absconded with the show’s receipts in
Because of his hard-knock youth and bitter experiences with show-biz crooks, W. C. Fields always drove a hard bargain with producers, agents, and managers. When audience attendance increased, he’d demand a raise. If an impresario offered him $50. a week, he’d insist on $100. He was unpredictable in money matters: alternately cheap and generous, according to no discernible pattern.
Even at age 20 Whitey didn’t trust
banks. He bought $210. worth of gold pieces in
(Taylor, p. 71)
While on tour with the Orpheum Circuit,
Claude fell in love with
The 1902 Philadelphia City Directory records
W. C. Fields as “Claude Dukenfield, Actor,
Hattie became his assistant in the juggling act until 1904 when their son Claude was born. Although happy at first, this marriage did not last. Hattie wanted him to settle down in one place, but he simply could not. Long periods on the road in the company of beautiful chorus girls finally took their toll. W. C. & Hattie split up for good in 1907. He faithfully sent her money for the rest of his life and she inherited the bulk of his $771,000. estate. Other women in Fields’ life were Ziegfeld girls Grace George, Bessie Poole, Linelle Blackburn, Fay Adler, and Mexican actress Carlotta Monti.
The rift between W. C. Fields and his father
had healed by 1899. Fields invited his
Fields’ career had three stages, which sometimes overlapped. He toured the world between 1903 and 1914, juggling before
several crowned heads of
Fields had grown weary of
vaudeville juggling by 1914, and wanted to branch out into comedy acting. When
W. C. soon signed with the Ziegfeld
Follies. He juggled and did comedy
skits, such as “A Game of Golf,” “A Metropolitan Tube Station,”and “The
Fields became disenchanted with the
Widely viewed as a has-been, Fields received no offers for 18 months. Finally, he prevailed upon Mack Sennett, who hired him to make some comedy shorts, including classics such as “The Dentist” (released Dec. 9, 1932,) “The Barber,” and “The Pharmacist.”
Following the success of the Sennett shorts,
he became a leading comic actor for
“Y-a-a-s,” replied the politician, “why not find him yourself?” Opponent (and drinking companion) James H. Lewis, once attacked Penrose on the senate floor over the tariff question. Reporters asked him whether he and Lewis were still friends. “Y-a-as, after dark.” James Smart theorizes that Claude also imitated his father’s huckster calls: “Watermelons! Red ripe tomatoes! Sweet Sugar Corn! He drew out each vowel, prolonged each syllable…” (Smart, p. 3) Of course, several Fields’ movie characters (Garry Gilfoil, Eustace McGargle, Cuthbert Twillie, Larson E. Whipsnade) were charlatans of the P. T. Barnum stamp, who spoke in the melodramatic style of 19th century ham actors.
“Last week I went to
after curfew in
After beholding a
bad publicity photo of himself as a tramp juggler he commented: “This kind of thing might get back to
epitaph: “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in
“A woman dropping a glove on a
Five funny minutes
of My Little Chickadee: Cuthbert
J. Twillie cuts the deck at a table in a western
saloon. A rube (Fuzzy Knight) asks: “Is this a game of chance?” Twillie: “Not the way I play it.” The cowboys catch him cheating. Twillie inquires: “Do you know where I might purchase a book of
rules?” In a later scene a mob drags him
out to a gallows, under suspicion of being the masked bandit. With the rope around his neck he states: “This will be a great lesson to me.” They ask him if he has any last
requests: “I’d like to see
In his letters to
Mr. Thos. A. Hunt,
Dear friend Tom:
I was glad to get your letter and to know that you were well,
and to also know that you listened to the broadcast a couple
of Sundays ago.
You wrote me some while back, telling me you were slightly
financially distressed but I was not hitting on all cylinders at
the time myself, but have since garnered a few elusive kopeks
and am enclosing you a check for $25. in case you can use it.
I have never forgotten the old days at the Orlando Social Club,
over Mr. Wright’s wheelwright shop. . . up at the shady trees,
when you had me elected janitor without dues; when I slept
in the back room on an improvised bed made by removing
one of the doors and using several bags of hay to pinch hit
for a box-springs mattress. Those were the happy days. Of
all my friends—Eddie Tishner, Jack Sparks, Charlie Tishner,
Dick Gamble, Martin Quinn, the Kanes, the McCaffreys, the
Garrs, Eddie Roach, Feet Leibie, etc.—you are the most vivid
in my memory.
I hope you are well and happy.
Sincerely, your old tramp friend,
One of the heirs in Fields’ will
was: “Mabel Roach, a life-long friend,
now residing at 1931
Grudging praise from
Caesar: Fields once admitted to
drinking companion Gene Fowler that
Police arrested Fields several times in his younger days:
c. March, 1901 for punching a bobby in
c. May, 1901 in
c. May, 1902, for racing a bicycle down
c. June, 1903 for fighting in an Australian pub. “I was defending a dame whose virtue was impugned… and may have been a little hasty.”
April, 1905 for throwing
an “overripe bockwurst” on the floor of a restaurant
September, 1928 in
More Fields movie character names: Augustus Winterbottom, Harold Bissonette, Chester Snavely, Elmer Finch, Samuel Bisbee, Effingham Bellweather, and Egbert Souse (pronounced “Soosay.”) Historian James Smart notes that several of Fields’ characters’ surnames derive from Philadelphia families, including Bogle, Wolfinger, Muckle, Hoffnagle, Bensinger, Twillie (proper spelling Twilley,) Ogilby, Dunk, and McGonigle.
A Fields Sampler
“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”
On life: “A man’s lucky if he gets out of it alive.”
“My family was poor, but dishonest.”
“It used to be the idle rich we had to contend with, now it’s the idle poor.”
“I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.”
“Everything I like is either immoral, illegal, or fattening.”
“I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.”
In Never Give a Sucker an Even Break a rock from an avalanche hits Fields in the head. His movie niece Gloria runs over to his supine form and asks if he is injured. “No. How could a rock falling 10,000 feet possibly hurt anyone?”
While doing a comedy sketch on stage with Fields a pretty actress inadvertently knocked down a scenery backdrop with houses painted on it. Fields quipped: “They sure don’t build…houses the way they used to.”
In a cranky mood one day, Fields told friend Gene Fowler that he was cutting the local orphanage out of his will. Fowler: “Such a narrow gesture will make you much disliked.” Fields: “Have you ever heard a corpse complain about being unpopular?”
Gene Fowler had a near-fatal auto accident and lay unconscious in an intensive care unit. Fields phoned his room and told the nurse who answered: “Tell that son of a bitch to get up and quit faking.”
On his early show business days (from Fields for President): “I was with Colonel Catnip’s Dog & Cat Circus, and appeared after the trained armadillos. My specialty was getting out of a straightjacket in two minutes flat.”
Lady reporter: “Do you like children at all?” Fields: “Only if they’re properly cooked.”
Mack Sennett: “I saw you juggle when I was a kid, Bill…”
Fields: “That’s a damned lie. You’re old enough to be my father.”
When criticized for doing a act set in a smoke-filled pool room before an audience of ladies, he responded: “I strive to instruct and uplift as well as entertain.”
Fields hated scene-stealers
(hence his hostility toward children and dogs.)
While doing his billiard routine in
A group of kids badgered Fields for an autograph as he left the cemetery after John Barrymore’s burial (May, 1942.) When he refused, one shouted: “We’re not going to any more of your movies.” Fields growled: “Back to reform school, you little nose-pickers!”
In It’s A Gift, Baby Leroy dips storeowner Harold Bissonette’s watch in molasses. His mother laughs, then says: “I don’t know why he’s behaving like this. You should see him when he’s alone.” Bissonette mumbles: “Yes, I’d like to see him alone.”
Fields never stuck to a script if he could help it. Some ad-libbed comments to wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy:
“You animated hitching post… I’ll sic a beaver on you.”
Fields: “I have a warm place for you.” McCarthy: “In your heart, Bill?
Fields: “No, my fireplace.”
“Behave, or I’ll put a wood tick on you.”
In the Pussycat Café bank guard Egbert Souse asks bartender Shemp Howard: “Did I spend $20. in here last night?”
Howard: “Why, yes, you did, Mr. Souse.”
Fields: “Thank Heaven! I thought I lost it.”
Fields’ Chinese restaurant order in International House (1932): “A bird nest and 2 hundred-year-old-eggs boiled in perfume.”
Question to a waiter in another eatery: “Has the chef by some mischance omitted the paprika?”
Fields’ solution to World War II: Bring Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Stalin, Churchill, and FDR into the Rose Bowl, and let them fight it out with stockings full of horse dung.
Fields’ friend Greg LaCava had been directing William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey. He invited Fields to come on the set and see some “new comedy techniques.” Fields snapped: “I’ll be in the front row with a basket full of last month’s eggs.”
Larson E. Whipsnade to circus ticket-collector he catches taking a nip of whiskey: “Get your hands off my lunch.”
“A woman drove me to drink and I never had the courtesy to thank her.”
Cuthbert J. Twillie in My Little Chickadee: “We lost our corkscrew in the wilds of
An actor accused
Fields of being intoxicated: “I may be
drunk, but you’re crazy. I’ll be sober
in the morning, but you’ll still be crazy.”
used similar lines (substituting “ugly” for “crazy”) on the floor
of Parliament, when Bessie Braddock, Socialist M. P. from
A friend chided Fields for drinking heavily without eating enough. The comedian replied: “I don’t believe in dining on an empty stomach.”
On the advantages of whiskey over dogs: “It does not have to be wormed, fed, or kept in a kennel. True, whiskey has a nasty habit of running out, but then so does a dog.”
Fields became an alcoholic in his mid-30’s,
consuming “seven or eight drinks of red-eye per day.” The heavy drinking
started in earnest during the
…I just made up a big pitcher of Martinis and brought it back in with me so I’d have it right here beside me and wouldn’t have to waste time making more of them. So now I’m all set and here goes. Besides Mratinis are great drink. For some reson they never seeme to effec me in the slightest. And drink thrm all day long. ..The greatest think in the whole wokld, John, is friendship. Anebelieve me pal you are the gertests pal anybody ever had. Do you remember all the swell times we had together? The wonderful camping trisp. I*ll never forget the time yoi put the dead skunnk in my sleeping bag. He ha Bow how we laughued didn we. Never did the stinkout ouut od it. Bit it was pretty funnya anywayh. .. Dam pitcher is impty so I just went outand ma deanotherone and I sure wisch you wee here old pal to help me drink these marotomi because they are simply sdeliuccious. Parn me whil I lieft my glass to you good helahth oncemroe John.. Off cours why a pal would do a dirty thinb lek putting a skunnk in nother pals sleping bagg I&m dash if I kno. That was a lousi thing for anybodyhdy todo an only a frist clas heel would di it…wasn a dm dam bit funney. Stil stinkkks. And if you thininkit funny you’re a dirity lous anasd far as Im concrened you cn go plum to helll and stya ther… To hel with ouy.
Yours very truly,
W.C. nearly died from the effects of alcohol abuse in 1935. He tried to dry out at Soboba
Hot Springs, but continued drinking, and ended up being admitted to
When his lease at
Fields’ bottom-line pragmatism, mistrust of glitz, and trouper’s work
ethic were all Philadelphian. The very
idea of a middle-aged guy from 9th &
William K. Everson, The Art of
W.C. Fields, Bobbs-Merrill
Ronald J. Fields, ed., W.C.
Fields By Himself, Prentice-Hall,
Johnston, Alva, “Legitimate Nonchalance,” Profiles Section of New Yorker Magazine, Feb. 2, 1935, Feb. 9, 1935, and Feb. 16, 1935.
Simon Louvish, Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life & Times of W.C. Fields, W.W. Norton & Co., N.Y., 1977.
James Smart, “W.C. Fields in
Robert Lewis Taylor, W.C.
Fields: His Follies & Fortunes,