The Legend of Whitey:  W. C. Fields’ Philadelphia Roots


©  by Howard Tyson. Used by permission. Comments to  



   Although W. C. Fields poked fun at Philadelphia throughout his show business career, he was a typical home town product in many ways.  This article will examine the Philadelphia connection and analyze his ambivalence toward the city.


   William Claude Dukenfield was probably born in Darby (Delaware County,) 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.  Family tradition has it that Kate gave birth to her first son at the hotel, not the apartment on Woodland Ave. 


   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’ 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)  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 Lyden Duckenfield.  The entire family emigrated to America in 1854, arriving at Philadelphia on November 13th of that year.  Annie may have had as many as 19 children, about thirteen of whom survived infancy.     



   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.


City Directory & Census Records for John & Ann Duckenfield



1861  John Duckenfield, Combmaker, Norris E. of Front

                                        & Ann, Trimmings Store, Same Address

1865                               Tavern, 510 E. Norris St.

1868  Ann Duckenfield,   Liquors, 510 E. Norris St.


(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 August 10, 1861.  The Regiment assigned James to Co. “M” and George to Co. “I.”  The enlistment record gives James’ description as 5’5” in height, blue eyes, hair “light,” complexion “light,” civilian occupation:  “potter.”  On June 27, 1862 he was shot in the left hand and lost two fingers (and the top of another) in a skirmish near Fair Oaks, Virginia.   After two weeks in a field hospital the Army transferred him to Philadelphia, then gave him a medical discharge on July 18, 1862.  He began receiving a $15. per month disability pension from the government around April, 1863.  James’ brother George fought at Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862), Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862), Chancellorsville (May, 1863), and was killed in action at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.  He is buried in the National Battlefield Cemetery, Section C, Grave 18. 


   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 February 7, 1866.   In 1870  James Dukenfield boarded in a house near 4th & Diamond Sts. with 30 year old trader John Haines and his family.  James worked variously as a bartender, driver, and produce dealer over the years. 



   On May 18, 1879 James married 24 year old Kate Spangler Felton at Memorial Methodist Church (“Church of the Glad Hand,”) 8th & Cumberland Sts., before Rev. Jacob Dickerson (home address:  2508 N. 6th St.)


   Kate’s father, Thomas Felton, was a pumpmaker who lived at 6th & York Sts. (1855,) Manor (near 4th St,.) & Montgomery in the mid- 1860’s and at 2251 N. Franklin St. (8th & Susquehanna Ave.) in the 1870’s.   His forebears were farmers occupying the “Bristol” area of Philadelphia, which encompasses present-day Logan, Olney, and Feltonville (named after W. C. Fields’ mother’s family.)  The 1860 census lists the Feltons as follows:   Thomas Felton 35, Laborer, 21st Ward, Ann 24, Kate S. 6, Abraham 4, and William C., 1.  A son named Ulysses S. Grant Felton would be born a few years later.  William Claude Felton, W. C. Fields’ namesake, later worked as a butcher, producer dealer, clerk, inspector, Deputy Sheriff for the City of Philadelphia, and Methodist preacher.


   James Dukenfield did not stay long in southwest Philadelphia after Claude’s birth.  The 1882 City Directory states that he lived at 2552 Germantown Ave. in the eastern section of North Philadelphia known as “Rising Sun Village,” and traded as a fruit & vegetable vendor. 


Synopsis of James Duckenfield’s Life:  1840(?)-1913


…1840 or 1841 James Duckenfield, born Feb. 16, (1840 or 1841,) Sheffield, England

…1854 Emigrated with family to Philadelphia (November, 1854.)

…1861 James Duckenfield, Driver, Norris E. of Front,

             Enlisted in 72nd Regiment of Union Army with brother George on

             August 10, 1861.

…1862 Shot in hand at Fair Oaks, VA on June 27, 1862; given medical discharge

             July 18, 1862.

…1863 Lived at Front St. below Norris with friend William Reimer while

             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 May 18, 1879 at Memorial Methodist

             Episcopal Church, 8th & Cumberland Sts. before Rev. J.  Dickerson      

…1880 James Dukenfield, Hotelkeeper, 64th & Woodland (per 1880 U.S. Census)

             Birth of son William Claude Dukenfield January 29, 1880 in Darby, PA,

…1882                              Provisions, 2552 Germantown Ave., birth of son Walter


…1883                              Bartender,             

…1884                                                929 Somerset St.

(S. Louvish includes 2559 N. 11th St. as a short-term residence around this time.)

…1886   Birth of daughter Elsie May (5/10/1886.)

…1888                              Driver,                     “ Birth of daughter Adele

                                                                                    (September 21, 1888.)

…1889                              Huckster, 2803 Germantown Ave.

…1893                              Huckster,   92 Goodman St. (11th & Ontario)

…1895                                                Birth of son Leroy (9/17/1895.)

…1897                                               25 Rising Sun Lane (12th & Ontario)

…1898                              Produce, 3911 Marshall St. (7th & Pike)

…1902                             Salesman,            

1904  Traveled to England at son Claude’s expense in September, 1904.

…1905                              Produce, 615 Pike St.

…1906                              Huckster, 3923 N. Marshall St.

…1910                              Retired,  3923 N. Marshall St.



(He died of cancer on April 15, 1913.)



The 1914 City Directory states Kate, widow of James, 3923 N. Marshall St.  The entries for Kate cease after 1923, though she did not die until July, 1925.   James and Kate are buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Adams Ave. & Arrott St.   W. C. Fields paid for the tombstones:  Dukenfield, James L. 1841-1913,  A Great Scout,” (probably an allusion to his Civil War service)  and “Dukenfield, Kate S., 1856-1925, A Sweet Old Soul.”



   Friends called young Claude Dukenfield “Whitey” because of his light blonde hair.  He probably attended William Adamson Public School on 4th St. below Lehigh Ave. at first, then transferred to the new Fairhill Primary School at Somerset & Marshall Sts. circa 1888. 



    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 Madeira wine to the first horse-drawn sled to arrive at the inn after a snowfall.  James dearly wished to win this prize, but never managed it.



   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 Hollywood cronies.  


   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 Germantown Ave.  One day a bartender aware of his freeloading banged a mug of ginger ale on the bar so hard it frothed over.  With an offended look Whitey admonished:  “Be careful, my friend, or you’ll lose my patronage.”  (Johnston, Feb. 2, 1935 New Yorker Profile.)



   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 Philadelphia.  When the prodigal son returned to the Dukenfield household, all agreed that his days as a huckster’s apprentice were over.  Wanting to earn good money, he got a job in the galley of a Chestnut St. oyster bar, and sold newspapers on the side.  As a newsboy he would yell the headline:  “Five men swindled!”  After a customer bought a paper, he’d cry:  “Six men swindled!” (Smart, p. 10.) 



      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 Hollywood friends.   Competitors such as Sam Hardy and Gene Fowler remembered “Bill” intentionally missing a few tennis shots, upping the bet, then coming from behind to beat them. 



   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 Germantown Ave. streetcar and rode up to the high-rent district (probably to the Germantown Cricket Club on Manheim Ave.)  He’d hide in the bushes by tennis courts, and scoop up any balls that bounced over the fence, or squirted under it.   Other props came from trash receptacles.  He rummaged through cigar store refuse for wooden boxes, and devised stunts with them that jugglers still use today.  To get ideas for new tricks, Claude went to vaudeville shows at Gilmore’s Grand Auditorium (805 Walnut St.), Hashim’s Grand Opera House (Broad & Montgomery), Enoch’s Varieties (7th below Arch), and The Trockadero Theater (10th & Arch.)  He would later perform in most of these theaters.



   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: 2850 N. 11th St.,) who fancied himself a promoter.  Grandmother Ann Felton disapproved of Dailey.  In a letter to Bill (c. 1930) Fields wrote:  “I remember my old grandmother going to have you arrested.  The poor old lady was going to have everyone arrested.  She blamed you for me having lost my job on the ice wagon with Andy Donaldson, and in all probability she was right. I might still have that job, or a better one, or even have my own wagon and route by this time.”  (Smart, p. 13)



   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 Methodist Church’s strawberry festival on a rainy Saturday in spring with his friend “Troubles” acting as stage assistant.  Things did not go smoothly.  The pastor refused to allow cigar boxes in the church building because they had once contained “the devil’s weed.”  W.C. said:  “If you’ll pardon us a moment, your worship, my associate and I will withdraw and confer.” (Smart p. 11)  Coming out of a huddle with his colleague, Claude explained that the boxes were custom-made for juggling and never actually contained tobacco.  The preacher then reluctantly let the show go on.  However, when the curtain went down and the entertainers presented their bill, the church treasurer had vanished.  According to a (probably exaggerated) story related by the comedian to Gene Fowler, he and “Troubles” spied a rack of umbrellas in the vestibule on the way out, filched every one, exchanged them in a pawn shop near Germantown Ave. & Somerset St., then hopped a trolley car to a restaurant at Broad & Cambria, where for 15 cents each they ordered “steak, chicken, potatoes, beans, applesauce, peach pie, cheese, milk, and coffee.”  (Taylor, p. 36)



   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 freight to Trenton, and entered the fairgrounds.  Dailey set up a crate and thundered: “It’s the old army game.  One will get you two, two will get you four, four will get you eight.  Find the little pea. . . A boy can play as well as a man.” (R. Fields, p. 9) Whitey stepped up, threw down a dollar, guessed the shell covering the pea, and won two bucks.  He put down two more, won four, and then let the suckers line up.  The sun did not shine long on this enterprise.  The police arrived and arrested Dailey.   Dukenfield was ejected from the fair with a swift kick in the butt:  “a well-aimed number twelve…double-soled boot came flush upon my fundiment.  He almost raised me over the fence.”  (R. Fields, p. 9)



   Better gigs were to come.  Dailey booked him at Bately Hall (2748 Germantown Ave.,) and this led to jobs in assorted venues before Red Men, Baptists, Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, and bar patrons.  He auditioned at theaters in Philadelphia and Camden.  On January 13, 1898 he performed at The Natatorium & Physical Institute (219 S. Broad St.)    Billing himself as “Whitey the Boy Wonder,” Claude played at the First Grand Concert & Hop of Lady Meade Lodge in Peabody Hall (1218 S. 8th St.) on March 13th.  Soon after that he juggled at the Third Grand Concert of the Manhattan Athletic Club, held at Bately Hall.  Regulars in the taproom at Germantown & Somerset began calling him “Whitey the Playactor.”  Claude adopted a tramp costume since he couldn’t afford a fancy suit.  He had lived the life of a hobo in 1894, so this persona came naturally to him.  It also enabled him to transform muffed stunts into comedy business, which made them seem planned, or at least natural.   He answered a newspaper ad in 1898, and got work at Fortescue’s Plymouth Park (Germantown Pike & Hallowell Ave.,) outside Norristown.  The cost of carfare exceeded his pay, but the experience was valuable.  “Sliding Billy Watson” told him that J. Fortescue also owned an amusement pier in Atlantic City and recommended that he go down for a try-out.  W. C. Dukenfield took the train to Atlantic City with a pair of German teeter-board acrobats and landed a $10. a week juggling job at the Fortescue Amusement Pier.  His contract also required that he work as a “drowner.”  Pier vendors noticed that ice cream, peanut, popcorn, and lemonade receipts increased when a crowd gathered near their booths, so Whitey and an accomplice staged fake rescues to stimulate sales.  When friends asked in later years why he never swam in the pool of his Hollywood hacienda, Fields described his duties as a drowner, and asked: “would you like to swim if you drowned 168 times?” (Taylor p. 43)



   In August, 1898 a small theatrical company held auditions in Atlantic City.  They liked Claude’s act and hired him for their traveling show.  Due to go on his first tour on September 19th, he returned to 3911 N. Marshal St. and spent some time with his family.  His sister Adele described Claude’s final departure from home, which occurred on or about September 17, 1898.  “Our mother Kate packed a couple sandwiches in a paper bag and some coffee in a thermos and walked with him to the corner where he caught the trolley out for his first tour with the Keith Circuit (sic.)  She was crying when she returned to the house, but… soon got over it…” (Ronald Fields, p. 10.)



   Fields regularly visited his family in Philadelphia between 1900 and the early ‘20’s.  His younger brother Leroy remembered Claude’s trunks piled in the living room when the show came to town.  Although Kate Dukenfield was a stay-at-home, she took advantage of Claude’s free tickets on several occasions, usually attending with her children, or brother W. C. Felton.  Fields never returned to Philadelphia after July 13, 1925, the date of Kate Dukenfield’s funeral, though he wrote frequently to brother Walter and sister Adele, less often to sister Elsie Mae and kid brother Leroy (1895-1974), who was fifteen years his junior.   Leroy later became chief arborist for Fairmount Park, and lived in a city-owned house at “Rittenhousetown,” Wissahickon Drive & Wissahickon Ave., Germantown.  Though not always on the best of terms with his “bossy” older brother, he acknowledged that Claude dutifully sent their mother $10. a week (about $60. in year-2000 dollars) from 1900 until 1925.



    On his first tour in the fall of 1898 young W. C. Dukenfield traveled for three months on the circuit, playing in Albany and Troy, NY, Pottsville, Mahanoy City, and Altoona, PA and Kent, OH.  “We moved from city to city.  I used to do my act, shift scenes, perform other useful jobs, and play in a musical comedy as well… The act was a rough affair…I knew (it) was rotten, and I reckoned I’d surely be found out sooner or later…”



   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 Kent, Ohio, leaving the company stranded.  18 year old Claude Dukenfield had only $8.  A kindly railroad stationmaster lent him $2. for the $10. fare to New York City.   When the 19 year old juggler reached New York he ate Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen, then slept in the railroad station.



   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 California, which he carried around in a vest.  One night in San Francisco thieves blackjacked him and stole the vest.  This experience made him rethink his aversion to banks.  Not wanting to put all his eggs in one basket, he began depositing funds in many different financial institutions, all over the U.S. and Europe.  In the 1930’s he claimed to have had more than 700 bank accounts.  His one-time agent William Grady believed that Fields opened numerous accounts under false names, in places such as Sydney, Berlin, Capetown, London, and Paris—which he never visited after 1914.  Fields told Gene Fowler that he “lost at least $50,000. in the Berlin bombing.”

(Taylor, p. 71)


     After the Kent, Ohio trauma Claude, to his own surprise, became the hit of the show at Miner’s Bowery Theater in New York (Jan., 1899) and received an offer from the Orpheum Circuit. At that time he dropped the Duken and added an “s” to Field, billing himself as “W. C. Fields, Comic Juggler.”


   While on tour with the Orpheum Circuit, Claude fell in love with New York native Harriet Hughes who danced with the “Monte Carlo Girls.”  They married in San Francisco on 4/8/00. 



   The 1902 Philadelphia City Directory records W. C. Fields as “Claude Dukenfield, Actor, 3911 Marshall St.”  He and his brother Walter are placed at their parents’ addresses in most city directories from 1902 to 1918 (though Claude did not live there after September, 1898.)  The 1900 U.S. census enumerates the family as follows:  James L. Dukenfield, 59, Dealer in Produce, 3911 Marshall St., Phila., Kate 44, Claude Actor 31 (sic, real age 20), Walter 16, Laborer, Elsie M. 12, Adele C. 10, Leroy R. 4.  Claude actually did not spend much time at home in 1901 or 1902, as indicated by the touring schedules below.




 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 parents to Europe while performing there in 1904.  Being a homebody, Kate declined.  James traveled to London in September, 1904 at Claude’s expense.  Although long an exponent of Britannia’s virtues, James supposedly left England early in protest against the English policy of closing pubs at 11 P.M.



   Fields’ career had three stages, which sometimes overlapped.  He toured the world  between 1903 and 1914, juggling before several crowned heads of Europe.  King Edward VII saw Fields’ act in a theater and invited him to perform at Buckingham Palace.  Following the show, His Majesty came forward and shook Fields’ hand.    His younger brother, Walter Dukenfield, acted as his assistant from 1907 until c. 1918.  While on tour in Germany (c. 1901) Fields saw a fantastic juggler in the same show—a dwarf who could keep 12 balls aloft while riding a horse.  This flustered  him and he began to screw up, getting so disgusted that he kicked a dropped hat into the audience.  The crowd laughed and clapped uproariously, so he kicked five more hats at them, which nearly triggered a standing ovation.  Being an empiricist, he made the hat-kicking bit part of his routine.



    Fields had grown weary of vaudeville juggling by 1914, and wanted to branch out into comedy acting.  When New York producer Charles Dillingham offered him a role in the musical Watch Your Step in October of that year, Fields accepted and cabled from Australia that he would arrive in Syracuse, New York for rehearsals in about a month.  He booked passage on the first steamer out of Freemantle.  After a grueling 39 day voyage, he took a train from New York City to Syracuse to join the company.  Dillingham dropped him from the cast three days later.  A livid and discouraged Fields went back to New York in search of work.  He never traveled outside the U. S. again. 


   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 Pullman Sleeper” for the Follies from 1915 to 1925.  Though his juggling routine was a “dumb act,” Fields had filled in as a supporting comedy actor since 1898.  In 1906 he had several speaking parts in The Ham Tree, a traveling comedy revue produced by McIntyre & Hart.  Fields had his movie debut in “Pool Sharks,” a 10 minute “short” filmed on Long Island, New York in 1915.  The comedian also did stints with George White’s Scandals (1922) and Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1928.)  In 1923 he played the lead role in the successful Broadway production of Poppy, a role he would reprise in the silent movie Sally of the Sawdust and the talking picture Poppy (1936.)   This first phase of his acting career lasted with variable success up until the advent of “talkies” in 1930.  He sunk to a nadir in 1931 while playing in the Broadway bomb Ballyhoo.



   Fields became disenchanted with the New York theater scene after Ballyhoo flopped in 1931.  Around March of that year he allegedly withdrew  350,000 dollars cash (cf. Taylor p. 211) from multiple New York bank accounts, packed his belongings, and drove all the way to Los Angeles in a big 1930 Lincoln.  Upon arrival in Hollywood, he rapped on the desk of a hotel with his gold-headed cane and demanded the bridal suite.  When the clerk told him it was reserved for men with brides, Fields replied that he’d pick one up in town and return shortly.



   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 Paramount (with some assignments from MGM and Universal,) as well as a radio show personality with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on NBC.  When in character, Fields spoke with a drawl and constantly mumbled humorous asides.  These derived from Philadelphia sources:  his mother, and Senator Boies Penrose.  Kate Dukenfield had a habit of speaking out loud to others, then murmuring ironic remarks in low tone.  Many Philadelphia aristocrats of that period spoke in a drawl, including Republican boss Boies Penrose.  Claude’s Uncle Bill Felton was a protégé of the senator, and got elected Sheriff on the Republic ticket in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.  The young man may have heard Penrose speak and learned to mimic his style.  When reading Penrose newpaper quotes, you can almost hear W. C. Fields’ voice.  A high-ranking independent Republican challenged Penrose to appoint a man “big and high-minded enough to lead the party in Harrisburg. 

“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.




Fieldsian Humor



“Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed.”


“In Philadelphia they roll up the sidewalks on Sundays.”


“Anyone smiling after curfew in Philadelphia is liable to arrest.”


After beholding a bad publicity photo of himself as a tramp juggler he commented:  “This kind of thing might get back to Philadelphia and ruin me socially.”


Proposed epitaph:  “Here lies W. C. Fields.  I would rather be living in Philadelphia.”  (From a 1925 Vanity Fair magazine article that polled various celebrities for humorous epitaphs.  Fields was actually buried in an unmarked grave at Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Cemetery in December, 1946, then exhumed and cremated a year later, pursuant to the terms of his will.  A brass plaque stating “W. C. Fields 1880-1946” is the only marker.)



“A woman dropping a glove on a street in Philadelphia can be hauled before a judge for strip-teasing.”


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 Paris.”  The hangman tightens the noose.  Philadelphia will do!”


In his letters to Philadelphia pals Thomas Hunt and Bill Dailey, Fields betrays some fondness for his hometown.






June 23, 1938



Mr. Thos. A. Hunt,

5120 Arch St.

Phila., PA


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 Independence (St.), Phila., PA” (near Ogontz Ave. in West Oak Lane.)



Grudging praise from Caesar:   Fields once admitted to drinking companion Gene Fowler that Philadelphia was “a great town for breweries.”



Police arrested Fields several times in his younger days:


c. March, 1901 for punching a bobby in London while drunk.  (“He pushed me into the gutter.”)


c. May, 1901 in Paris, for coming to the aid of an acrobat friend who was set upon by three gendarmes.


c. May, 1902, for racing a bicycle down Broad St. near Lehigh Ave. in Philadelphia.  The arresting officer was Patrolman John Ulrich (home address 2010 Madison St., near 20th & Allegheny.)


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.”


c. April, 1905 for throwing an “overripe bockwurst” on the floor of a restaurant in Leipzig, Germany.


c. September, 1928 in New York (at the behest of the Humane Society) for contributing to the death of a canary.  As a part of his stage skit “The Dentist” Fields would grab a canary out of a roomy jacket pocket and release it while probing through the heavy beard of a patient.  One night the canary, apparently disoriented by a camera flash, rammed into scenery and fell dead to the stage.  The judge acquitted Fields of all charges.



Fields rated Philadelphia prisons above the rest:  “He recalled the gentility of his keepers, the thick bean soup, and the scrubbed burlap racks. ‘When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like Philadelphia.’ “ (Taylor, 127.)


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.”


On Roosevelt’s New Deal:  “I think it’s a raw deal.”


“My family was poor, but dishonest.”


Norristown is famed for its insane asylum.”


“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 Boston for Ziegfeld Follies one night in 1915, he heard laughs at the wrong times.  The source turned out to be comedian Ed Wynn, who was making funny faces at the audience from underneath the pool table.  With a deft spin of the cue stick Fields whacked the interloper sharply on the head and knocked him out cold.  The audience shrieked with laughter as stagehands carried the unconscious Wynn off-stage.  Fields offered his colleague a permanent place in the act, but he declined.


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 Afghanistan and were compelled to live on food and water for several days.”


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.”  Winston Churchill  used similar lines (substituting “ugly” for “crazy”) on the floor of Parliament, when Bessie Braddock, Socialist M. P. from Liverpool reproved him for drinking on the job.


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 New York period (1915 to 1931.)  He drank mainly beer as a teenager, graduated to whiskey and rum in his ‘20’s.  Fields thought rum made both his nose and waistline swell, so he switched to gin-based martinis around 1920.  By the late 1920’s he typically drank a couple martinis before breakfast and consumed two quarts of gin per day.  Instead of bringing a lunchbox to work, he carried a large martini shaker.  His shower enclosure at home contained a metal flask full of straight gin, with a special holder bolted into the wall.  Personal trainer Bob Howard recalled that Fields usually nipped from a small bottle of whiskey while pedaling the stationary bicycle.  A humorous undated letter (c. 1935) to drinking buddy and fellow Philadelphian John Barrymore comes close to reflecting actual conditions.


“Dear John,


…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,


Bill Fields”


   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 Riverside Hospital with pneumonia.  After his discharge, he spent another few weeks recuperating in Las Encinas Sanitarium in Pasadena.  Fields quit booze for nearly a year (1936-1937.)  However, he continued to feel tired, jumpy, and despondent, so he went back to the bottle.  From 1937 until his death in 1946 he was plagued by rosacea, delirium tremens, polio-neuritis (hypersensitivity), cirrhosis of the liver, and bleeding stomach ulcers—even though he “cut down” to one bottle of hard liquor a day. 



   When his lease at 2015 DeMille Drive expired on 10/29/45 Fields moved back to Las Encinas Sanitarium “temporarily.”  Doctors had diagnosed cirrhosis of the liver as early as 1941, but he continued to drink heavily.  His condition steadily declined.  On Christmas Day, 1946 he died of an abdominal hemmorhage at Las Encinas.  The attending physician listed cirrhosis of the liver as the cause of death.  On his deathbed W. C. told girlfriend Carlotta Monti:  “Grab everything and run.  The vultures are coming.” (Simon Louvish, p. 475.)


   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 & Somerset living in Beverly Hills evokes a guffaw.  When Egbert Souse takes over for drunken film director A. Pismo Clam in The Bank Dick, we see how one of Fields’ Marshall St. neighbors might shoot a movie scene.  W. C. dismissed Philadelphia as a show business backwater, and resented its tendency to ignore native talent.  For all that, he valued the city’s authenticity, and recognized its influence on his personality.








William K. Everson, The Art of W.C. Fields,  Bobbs-Merrill Co., New York, N.Y., 1967.


Ronald J. Fields, ed., W.C. Fields By Himself, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973.


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 Philadelphia,” The Shackamaxon Society, Philadelphia, PA, 1972.


Robert Lewis Taylor, W.C. Fields:  His Follies & Fortunes,  Doubleday, New York, 1949.