Sep 242018
 

Today is the birthday (1896) of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, a writer whose works have come to represent the culture of the Jazz Age (1920s and 30s) in the US. While he achieved limited success in his lifetime, he is now widely regarded as one of the most significant North American writers of the 20th century. He finished four novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night. A fifth, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, was published posthumously. Four collections of his short stories were published, as well as 164 short stories in magazines during his lifetime. To be plain spoken, I don’t like Fitzgerald’s work any more than I like that of his close contemporaries, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. Their writing does not resonate with me, undoubtedly because I am not a fan of US culture, even though I lived there for 35 years. I was happy to escape when I retired 9 years ago, and will likely never return. Normally, when I post about a writer, I include a section of quotes at the end of the post, but here I will not, because Fitzgerald wrote nothing that I find memorable. That said, I recognize that his novels are popular, and Great Gatsby has been made into well received movies twice. So, he is worth a tip of the hat.

Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to an upper-middle-class family, and was named after his famous second cousin, three times removed on his father’s side, Francis Scott Key. He was also named after his deceased sister, Louise Scott Fitzgerald, one of two sisters who died shortly before his birth. He later wrote: “Well, three months before I was born, my mother lost her other two children … I think I started then to be a writer.” His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was of Irish and English ancestry, and had moved to St. Paul from Maryland after the American Civil War, and was described as “a quiet gentlemanly man with beautiful Southern manners.” His mother was Mary “Molly” McQuillan Fitzgerald, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the wholesale grocery business.

Scott Fitzgerald spent the first decade of his childhood primarily in Buffalo, New York, occasionally in West Virginia (1898–1901 and 1903–1908) where his father worked for Procter & Gamble, with a short interlude in Syracuse, New York, (between January 1901 and September 1903). Edward Fitzgerald had earlier worked as a wicker furniture salesman; he joined Procter & Gamble when the business failed. His parents, both Catholic, sent Fitzgerald to two Catholic schools on the West Side of Buffalo, first Holy Angels Convent (1903–1904) and then Nardin Academy (1905–1908). His formative years in Buffalo showed him to be an intelligent boy with a keen early interest in literature. In a rather unconventional style of parenting, Fitzgerald attended Holy Angels with the peculiar arrangement that he go for only half a day—and was allowed to choose which half.

In 1908, his father was fired from Procter & Gamble, and the family returned to Minnesota, where Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy in St. Paul from 1908 to 1911. When he was 13, he saw his first piece of writing appear in print—a detective story published in the school newspaper. In 1911, when Fitzgerald was 15 years old, his parents sent him to the Newman School, a prestigious Catholic prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey. Fitzgerald played on the 1912 Newman football team. At Newman, he met Father Sigourney Fay, who noticed his incipient talent with the written word and encouraged him to pursue his literary ambitions.

After graduating from the Newman School in 1913, Fitzgerald decided to stay in New Jersey to continue his artistic development at Princeton University. He tried out for the college football team, but was cut the first day of practice. He firmly dedicated himself at Princeton to honing his craft as a writer, and became friends with future critics and writers Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. He wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit, and the Princeton Tiger. He was also involved in the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, which ran the Nassau Lit. His absorption in the Triangle—a kind of musical-comedy society—led to his submission of a novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons where the editor praised the writing but ultimately rejected the book. Four of the University’s eating clubs sent him bids at midyear, and he chose the University Cottage Club (where Fitzgerald’s desk and writing materials are still displayed in its library) known as “the ‘Big Four’ club that was most committed to the ideal of the fashionable gentleman.”

Fitzgerald’s writing pursuits at Princeton came at the expense of his coursework, however, causing him to be placed on academic probation, and in 1917 he dropped out of university to join the Army. During the winter of 1917, Fitzgerald was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and was a student of future United States President and General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower whom he intensely disliked. Worried that he might die in the War with his literary dreams unfulfilled, Fitzgerald hastily wrote The Romantic Egotist in the weeks before reporting for duty—and, although Scribner’s rejected it, the reviewer noted his novel’s originality and encouraged Fitzgerald to submit more work in the future.

Ginevra King

It was while attending Princeton that Fitzgerald met Chicago socialite and debutante Ginevra King on a visit back home in St. Paul. Immediately infatuated with her, according to Mizner, Fitzgerald “remained devoted to Ginevra as long as she would allow him to,” and wrote to her “daily the incoherent, expressive letters all young lovers write.” She would become his inspiration for the character of Isabelle Borgé, Amory Blaine’s first love in This Side of Paradise, for Daisy in The Great Gatsby, and several other characters in his novels and short stories.

Zelda

Fitzgerald was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. While at a country club, Fitzgerald met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, a daughter of Alabama Supreme Court justice Anthony D. Sayre and the “golden girl”, in Fitzgerald’s terms, of Montgomery society. The war ended in 1918, before Fitzgerald was ever deployed. Upon his discharge he moved to New York City hoping to launch a career in advertising that would be lucrative enough to persuade Zelda to marry him. He worked for the Barron Collier advertising agency, living in a single room at 200 Claremont Avenue in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on Manhattan’s west side.

Zelda accepted his marriage proposal, but after some time and despite working at an advertising firm and writing short stories, he was unable to convince her that he would be able to support her, leading her to break off the engagement. Fitzgerald returned to his parents’ house at 599 Summit Avenue, on Cathedral Hill, in St. Paul, to revise The Romantic Egotist, recast as This Side of Paradise, a semi-autobiographical account of Fitzgerald’s undergraduate years at Princeton. Fitzgerald was so short of money that he took up a job repairing car roofs. His revised novel was accepted by Scribner’s in late 1919 and was published on March 26th, 1920 and became an instant success, selling 41,075 copies in the first year. It launched Fitzgerald’s career as a writer and provided a steady income suitable to Zelda’s needs. They resumed their engagement and were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. Their daughter and only child, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald, was born on October 26th, 1921.

Subsequently, Fitzgerald made several excursions to Europe, mostly Paris and the French Riviera, and became friends with many members of the US expatriate community in Paris, notably Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald’s friendship with Hemingway was quite effusive, but Hemingway did not get on well with Zelda,and in addition to describing her as “insane” in his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway claimed that Zelda “encouraged her husband to drink so as to distract Fitzgerald from his work on his novel,” so he could work on the short stories he sold to magazines to help support their lifestyle. Like most professional authors at the time, Fitzgerald supplemented his income by writing short stories for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, and Esquire, and sold his stories and novels to Hollywood studios. This “whoring,” as Fitzgerald and, subsequently, Hemingway called these sales, was a sore point in the two authors’ friendship. Fitzgerald claimed that he would first write his stories in an ‘authentic’ manner, then rewrite them to put in the “twists that made them into salable magazine stories.”

Although Fitzgerald’s passion lay in writing novels, only his first novel sold well enough to support the opulent lifestyle that he and Zelda adopted as New York celebrities. (The Great Gatsby, now considered to be his masterpiece, did not become popular until after Fitzgerald’s death.) Because of this lifestyle, as well as the bills from Zelda’s medical care when they came, Fitzgerald was constantly in financial trouble and often required loans from his literary agent, Harold Ober, and his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald began working on his fourth novel during the late 1920s but was sidetracked by financial difficulties that necessitated his writing commercial short stories, and by the schizophrenia that struck Zelda in 1930. Her emotional health remained fragile for the rest of her life. In February 1932, she was hospitalized at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, Fitzgerald rented the “La Paix” estate in the suburb of Towson, Maryland to work on his latest book, the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychiatrist who falls in love with and marries Nicole Warren, one of his patients. The book went through many versions, the first of which was to be a story of matricide. Some critics have seen the book as a thinly veiled autobiographical novel recounting Fitzgerald’s problems with his wife, the corrosive effects of wealth and a decadent lifestyle, his own egoism and self-confidence, and his continuing alcoholism.

Fitzgerald was extremely protective of his “material” (i.e., their life together). When Zelda wrote and sent to Scribner’s her own fictional version of their lives in Europe, Save Me the Waltz, Fitzgerald was angry and was able to make some changes prior to the novel’s publication, and convince her doctors to keep her from writing any more about what he called his “material,” which included their relationship. His book was finally published in 1934 as Tender Is the Night. Critics who had waited nine years for the followup to The Great Gatsby had mixed opinions about the novel. Most were thrown off by its three-part structure and many felt that Fitzgerald had not lived up to their expectations. The novel did not sell well upon publication but, like the earlier Gatsby, the book’s reputation has since risen significantly. Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and financial difficulties, in addition to Zelda’s mental illness, made for difficult years in Baltimore. He was hospitalized nine times at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his friend H. L. Mencken noted in a 1934 letter that “The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing. He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance.”

In 1926, Fitzgerald was invited by producer John W. Considine, Jr., to temporarily relocate to Hollywood in order to write a flapper comedy for United Artists. Scott and Zelda moved into a studio-owned bungalow in January of the following year and Fitzgerald soon met and began an affair with Lois Moran. The starlet became a temporary muse for the author and he rewrote Rosemary Hoyt, one of the central characters in Tender is the Night, (who had been a male in earlier drafts) to closely mirror her. The trip exacerbated the couple’s marital difficulties, and they left Hollywood after two months. In the ensuing years, Zelda became increasingly violent and emotionally distressed, and in 1936, Fitzgerald had her placed in the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheila Graham

Although he reportedly found movie work degrading, Fitzgerald continued to struggle financially and entered into a lucrative exclusive deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1937, that necessitated him moving to Hollywood, where he earned his highest annual income up to that point: around $30,000. He also began a high-profile live-in affair with movie columnist Sheilah Graham. The projects Fitzgerald worked on included two weeks’ unused dialog work on loanout to David Selznick for Gone with the Wind, and, for MGM, revisions on Madame Curie, for which he received no credits. His only screenplay credit is for Three Comrades (1938). He also spent time during this period working on his fifth and final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, published posthumously as The Last Tycoon, based on film executive Irving Thalberg. In 1939, MGM terminated the contract, and Fitzgerald became a freelance screenwriter. During his work on Winter Carnival, Fitzgerald went on an alcoholic binge and was treated by New York psychiatrist Richard H. Hoffmann.

From 1939 until his death in 1940, Fitzgerald mocked himself as a Hollywood hack through the character of Pat Hobby in a sequence of 17 short stories, later collected as “The Pat Hobby Stories,” which garnered many positive reviews. The Pat Hobby Stories were originally published in Esquire between January 1940 and July 1941, even after Fitzgerald’s death. US Census records show his official address at this time to be the estate of Edward Everett Horton in Encino, California in the San Fernando Valley.

Fitzgerald became notorious during the 1920s for his extraordinarily heavy drinking which undermined his health by the late 1930s. According to Zelda’s biographer, Nancy Milford, Fitzgerald claimed that he had contracted tuberculosis, but Milford dismisses it as a pretext to cover his drinking problems. However, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli contends that Fitzgerald did in fact have recurring tuberculosis, and according to Milford, Fitzgerald biographer Arthur Mizener said that Fitzgerald suffered a mild attack of tuberculosis in 1919, and in 1929 he had “what proved to be a tubercular hemorrhage.” Some have said that the writer’s hemorrhage was caused by bleeding from esophageal varices.

Fitzgerald suffered two heart attacks in the late 1930s. After the first, in Schwab’s Drug Store, he was ordered by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion. He moved in with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who lived in Hollywood on North Hayworth Avenue, one block east of Fitzgerald’s apartment on North Laurel Avenue.  Fitzgerald had two flights of stairs to climb to his apartment; Graham’s was on the ground floor. On the night of December 20th, 1940, Fitzgerald and Graham attended the premiere of This Thing Called Love starring Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas. As the two were leaving the Pantages Theater, Fitzgerald experienced a dizzy spell and had trouble leaving the theater; upset, he said to Graham, “They think I am drunk, don’t they?”

The following day, as Fitzgerald ate a chocolate bar and made notes in his newly arrived Princeton Alumni Weekly, Graham saw him jump from his armchair, grab the mantelpiece, gasp, and fall to the floor. She ran to the manager of the building, Harry Culver, founder of Culver City. Upon entering the apartment to assist Fitzgerald, he stated, “I’m afraid he’s dead.” Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack at age 44. Dr. Clarence H. Nelson, Fitzgerald’s physician, signed the death certificate. Fitzgerald’s body was moved to the Pierce Brothers Mortuary.

Among the attendees at a visitation held at a funeral home was Dorothy Parker, who reportedly cried and murmured “the poor son-of-a-bitch,” a line from Jay Gatsby’s funeral in The Great Gatsby. His body was transported to Maryland, where his funeral was attended by twenty or thirty people in Bethesda; among the attendees were his only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith (then age 19), and his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

One might celebrate Fitzgerald with a Jazz Age cocktail, I suppose. This was the era of Prohibition when speakeasies serving elaborate alcoholic concoctions were all the rage. Fitzgerald’s drink of choice was gin, and there are plenty of recipes for cocktails with gin if that’s your pleasure. Maybe a gin Rickey: gin, fresh lime juice, and a splash of club soda. I don’t drink alcohol, so I will recommend a dish that is healthier than a cocktail, and probably not to Fitzgerald’s tastes, although it was born in his era: Cobb salad. Salad dressings, for me the bane of US “cuisine”, including, French, Russian, Thousand Island, etc. reached their pinnacle of popularity in the Jazz Age, and have never quite relinquished center stage in North America for reasons I cannot fathom. I will always prefer a good quality olive oil on my salads, and nothing else. The salad ingredients should speak for themselves and not be drowned in goop. Enter the Cobb salad. The Cobb salad is named for Robert Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby in Hollywood. The salad was reputedly invented by Cobb himself in 1937 when he was in the restaurant kitchen around midnight, and, being hungry, put together some avocado, cooked bacon, and leftovers from the evening meals to make the salad. But, other sources suggest that the salad was the idea of Robert Kreis or Paul Posti, both executive chefs at one time or another at the Brown Derby. Either way, the salad became a signature dish of the restaurant. Properly made, a Cobb salad consists of chopped salad greens (iceberg lettuce, watercress, endive and romaine lettuce), tomato, crisp bacon, cooked chicken breast, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, chives, Roquefort cheese, and red-wine vinaigrette. I’ll give you a couple of photos so that you have the right idea. You don’t need more than that for a recipe.

Jan 292016
 

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Today is the birthday (1880) of William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W. C. Fields, a U.S. comedian, actor, juggler and writer. Fields’ comic persona was a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist, who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs and children. His career in show business began in vaudeville, where he attained international success as a silent juggler. He gradually incorporated comedy into his act, and was a featured comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies for several years. He became a star in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), in which he played a colorful small-time con man. His subsequent stage and film roles were often similar scoundrels.

Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family. His father, James Lydon Dukenfield (1840–1913), was from an English family that emigrated to America from Sheffield, England in 1854. James Dukenfield served in Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and was wounded in 1863. Fields’s mother, Kate Spangler Felton (1854–1925), was a Protestant of British ancestry. The 1876 Philadelphia City Directory lists James Dukenfield as a clerk. After marrying, he worked as an independent produce merchant and a part-time hotel-keeper.

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Claude Dukenfield (as he was known) had a volatile relationship with his short-tempered father. He ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. His education was sporadic, and did not progress beyond grade school. At age twelve he worked with his father selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields running away once again. In 1893 he worked briefly at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store, and in an oyster house.

Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life seems to have been reasonably happy. He had already discovered in himself a facility for juggling, and a performance he witnessed at a local theater inspired him to dedicate substantial time to perfecting his juggling. At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows.

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Inspired by the success of the “Original Tramp Juggler,” James Edward Harrigan, Fields adopted a similar costume of scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo and entered vaudeville as a genteel “tramp juggler” in 1898, using the name W. C. Fields. His family supported his ambitions for the stage and saw him off on the train for his first stage tour. To conceal a stammer, Fields did not speak onstage. In 1900, seeking to distinguish himself from the many “tramp” acts in vaudeville, he changed his costume and makeup, and began touring as “The Eccentric Juggler.” He manipulated cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in what appears to have been a fresh act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films, notably in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).

By the early 1900s, while touring, he was regularly billed as “the world’s greatest juggler.” He became a headliner in North America and Europe, and toured Australia and South Africa in 1903. When Fields played for English-speaking audiences, he found he could get more laughs by adding muttered patter and sarcastic asides to his routines.

In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. His role in the show required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. He later said, “I wanted to become a real comedian, and there I was, ticketed and pigeonholed as merely a comedy juggler.” In 1913 he performed on a bill with Sarah Bernhardt (who regarded Fields as “an artiste [who] could not fail to please the best class of audience”) first at the New York Palace, and then in England in a royal performance for the king and queen. He continued touring in vaudeville until 1915.

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Beginning in 1915 he appeared on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies revue. He delighted audiences with a wild billiards skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of gags and surprising trick shots. (His pool game is reproduced, in part, in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind [1934].) The act was a success, and Fields starred in the Follies from 1916 to 1922, not as a juggler but as a comedian in ensemble sketches. In addition to multiple editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), where he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time con man.

His stage costume from 1915 onwards featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane—an appearance remarkably similar to the cartoon character Ally Sloper, who may have been the inspiration for Fields’s costume, according to Roger Sabin. The Sloper character may in turn have been inspired by Dickens’ Mr Micawber, whom Fields later played on film.

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In 1915, Fields starred in two short comedies, Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma, filmed in New York. His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924, when he played a supporting role in Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War romance. He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by D. W. Griffith. His next starring role was in the Paramount Pictures film It’s the Old Army Game (1926), which featured his friend Louise Brooks, later a screen legend for her role in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) in Germany. Fields’s 1926 film, which included a silent version of the porch sequence that would later be expanded in the sound film It’s a Gift (1934), had only middling success at the box office. After Fields’s next two features for Paramount failed to produce hits, the studio teamed him with Chester Conklin for three features which were commercial failures and are now lost.

In the sound era, Fields appeared in thirteen feature films for Paramount Pictures, beginning with Million Dollar Legs in 1932. In that year he also was featured in a sequence in the anthology film If I Had a Million. In 1932 and 1933, Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett, distributed through Paramount Pictures. These shorts, adapted with few alterations from Fields’ stage routines and written entirely by himself, were described by Simon Louvish as “the ‘essence’ of Fields.” The first of them, The Dentist, is unusual in that Fields portrays an entirely unsympathetic character: he cheats at golf, assaults his caddy, and treats his patients with unbridled callousness. William K. Everson says that the cruelty of this comedy made it “hardly less funny”, but that “Fields must have known that The Dentist presented a serious flaw for a comedy image that was intended to endure”, and showed a somewhat warmer persona in his subsequent Sennett shorts.

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His 1934 classic It’s a Gift included his stage sketch of trying to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch and being bedeviled by noisy neighbors and salesmen. That film, like You’re Telling Me! and Man on the Flying Trapeze, ended happily with a windfall profit that restored his standing in his screen families. He achieved a career ambition by playing the character Mr. Micawber, in MGM’s David Copperfield in 1935. In 1936, Fields re-created his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures.

Fields’ screen character often expressed a fondness for alcohol, a prominent component of the Fields legend. Fields never drank in his early career as a juggler, because he did not want to impair his functions while performing. Eventually, the loneliness of constant travel prompted him to keep liquor in his dressing room as an inducement for fellow performers to socialize with him on the road. Only after he became a Follies star and abandoned juggling did Fields begin drinking regularly. His role in Paramount Pictures’ International House (1933), as an aviator with an unquenchable taste for beer, did much to establish Fields’ popular reputation as a prodigious drinker. Studio publicists promoted this image, as did Fields himself in press interviews.

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Fields expressed his fondness for alcohol in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the one thing I am indebted to her for.” Equally memorable was a line in the 1940 film My Little Chickadee: “Once, on a trek through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew…and were forced to live on food and water for several days!”

On movie sets Fields famously shot most of his scenes in varying states of inebriation. During the filming of Tales of Manhattan (1942), he kept a vacuum flask with him at all times and frequently availed himself of its contents. Phil Silvers, who had a minor supporting role in the scene featuring Fields, described in his memoir what happened next:

One day the producers appeared on the set to plead with Fields: “Please don’t drink while we’re shooting — we’re way behind schedule” … Fields merely raised an eyebrow. “Gentlemen, this is only lemonade. For a little acid condition afflicting me.” He leaned on me. “Would you be kind enough to taste this, sir?” I took a careful sip — pure gin. I have always been a friend of the drinking man; I respect him for his courage to withdraw from the world of the thinking man. I answered the producers a little scornfully, “It’s lemonade.” My reward? The scene was snipped out of the picture.

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In a testimonial dinner for Fields in 1939, the humorist Leo Rosten remarked of the comedian that “any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad”. The line—which Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations later erroneously attributed to Fields himself—became famous, and reinforced the popular perception that Fields hated children and dogs. In reality, Fields was somewhat indifferent to dogs, but occasionally owned one. He was fond of entertaining the children of friends who visited him, and doted on his first grandchild, Bill Fields III, born in 1943. He sent encouraging replies to all of the letters he received from boys who, inspired by his performance in The Old Fashioned Way, expressed an interest in juggling.

In 1936, Fields’ heavy drinking precipitated a significant decline in his health. By the following year he recovered sufficiently to make one last film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938, but his troublesome behavior discouraged other producers from hiring him. In 1938 he was chronically ill, and suffering from delirium tremens.

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Physically unable to work in films, Fields was off the screen for more than a year. During his absence he recorded a brief speech for a radio broadcast. His familiar, snide drawl registered so well with listeners that he quickly became a popular guest on network radio shows. Although his radio work was not as demanding as motion-picture production, Fields insisted on his established movie-star salary of $5,000 per week. He joined ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour for weekly insult-comedy routines.

Fields’ renewed popularity from his radio broadcasts with Bergen & McCarthy earned him a contract with Universal Pictures in 1939. His first feature for Universal, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, carried on the Fields–McCarthy rivalry. In 1940, Fields made My Little Chickadee, with Mae West, and The Bank Dick, perhaps his best-known film, in which he has the following exchange with bartender Shemp Howard:

Fields: “Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?”

Shemp: “Yeah.”

Fields: “Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind… I thought I’d lost it!”

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Fields fought with studio producers, directors, and writers over the content of his films. He was determined to make a movie his way, with his own script and staging, and his choice of supporting players. Universal finally gave him the chance, and the resulting film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), is a masterpiece of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as himself, “The Great Man”. Universal’s singing star Gloria Jean played opposite Fields, and his cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn served as his comic foils. But the film Fields delivered was so surreal that Universal recut and reshot parts of it, then quietly released both the film and Fields. Sucker was Fields’ last starring film.

Fields’ film career slowed considerably in the 1940s. His illnesses confined him to brief guest-star appearances in other people’s films. An extended sequence in 20th Century Fox’s Tales of Manhattan (1942) was cut from the original release of the film and later reinstated for some home video releases. The scene features a temperance meeting with society people at the home of a rich woman, played by Margaret Dumont, in which Fields finds that the punch has been spiked, resulting in a room full of drunken guests and a very happy Fields.

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He performed his famous billiard table routine one more time for Follow the Boys, an all-star entertainment revue for the Armed Forces. (Despite the charitable nature of the movie, Fields was paid $15,000 for his appearance; he was never able to perform in person for the armed services.) In Song of the Open Road (1944), Fields juggled for a few moments, remarking, “This used to be my racket.” His last film, the musical revue Sensations of 1945, was released in late 1944. Fields’ vision and memory had deteriorated to the point that he read his lines from large-print blackboards.

Fields spent the last 22 months of his life at the Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, California. In 1946, on Christmas Day—the holiday he said he despised—he suffered an alcohol-related gastric hemorrhage and died, at the age of 66. Carlotta Monti wrote that in his final moments, she used a garden hose to spray water on to the roof over his bedroom to simulate his favorite sound, falling rain.

A popular bit of Fields folklore maintains that his grave marker is inscribed, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia”—a line similar to one he used in My Little Chickadee when a lynch mob asks if he has any last words: “I’d like to see Paris before I die … Philadelphia will do …” Fields was known to disparage his native city on occasion; his mock epitaph for a 1925 Vanity Fair article, “A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs”, reads, “Here Lies / W.C. Fields / I Would Rather Be Living in Philadelphia.” In reality, his interment marker bears only his stage name, and the years of his birth and death.

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Fields also once said, “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food,” which generally gives us an avenue into a recipe of the day. Obviously there are the usual suspects such as coq au vin etc., but how about a white wine and brandy sauce? You can use this with grilled fish or roast chicken, or any other white meat. The basis is a mix of one part light stock, one part white wine, 2 parts heavy cream plus a splash of brandy. My heuristic recipe is as follows:

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Melt a few tablespoons of butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté several shallots, peeled and minced fine. Let them soften, but not take on color. Add equal parts of stock and white wine. I prefer a strongly flavored dry German wine such as a Riesling. Reduce for several minutes, then add an equal quantity of heavy cream and continue reducing until thick. You may or may not add seasonings to suit, but they are not strictly necessary if the wine has full body. Add extra butter if need be. Towards the end add a splash of brandy.