the legendary comedian w.c. fields -- 6/10/22

Today's selection -- from W.C. Fields from James R. Curtis. The curmudgeonly comedian and juggler, a star of stage and screen in the early 20th century, had a challenging childhood in Philadelphia. When his father, Jim, was laid off, things became intolerable:
"Jim progressed to a driver's position with the Traction Company, but the era of the old two-horse streetcar was rapidly drawing to a close. Cable cars and electric trolleys were beginning to replace them, and men of Jim Duken­field's age and limited tenure were among the first to be sacked. Jim decided it was time to go back out on his own, and like Kate's industrious brother Billy, who had worked Germantown Avenue above Tioga Street as a 'victualer' since the time he was twenty-one, he rented a horse and wagon and, at the age of fifty-two, went back to being a huckster.

"That spring, twelve-year-old Claude was pressed into service, helping the old man in his daily rounds. Six times a week, rising before dawn, they would make the four-mile journey to the vast public market near Penn's Landing and collect their day's provisions: oranges, fresh fruits, and vegetables brought up by rail from Jacksonville, peaches and watermelon from Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey, and apples from western New York and Michigan. Jim would buy his produce at Detweiler's on Callowhill Street, the Newmarket on Second at Pine, and straight off the docks. Wagon loaded, he and his son would then make their way back to the Northern Liberties, where they would trundle the narrow streets and alleys, calling their wares, until late in the day.

Caricature by Ralph Barton, 1925

"Before long, Jim had established routes and regular customers, running the entire business off the cuff. He purchased the horse, an elderly nag called White Swan, and the wagon that went with her, but he was never quite as prosperous as he might otherwise have been, for while he was out vending fruits and veg­etables and charging twice what he paid, Kate was selling the same produce out the back door of their house at half his cost and keeping all the proceeds for herself. At night, Jim would sit in the kitchen, stew about the day's receipts­ -- he was always sure life would be better in England -- and balefully regard the children as if they belonged to the neighbors. 'Dad, to me, he was a foreigner,' Leroy Dukenfield said. 'He never seemed to take much interest.' 

"Claude handled the produce with a natural dexterity that could only have served to irritate his eight-fingered father. 'It was while pulling door belts and waiting for an answer that he began to juggle potatoes or tomatoes or whatever vegetables he had in his hands at that particular time,' his boyhood friend Charlie Van Tagen recalled. The irritability and sudden violence with which Jim Dukenfield ruled the house inspired a similarly combative nature in his son Claude. He'd mock the old man's accent, calling out fruits and vegetables just because he liked the sounds of their names and not because they happened to be on the wagon that day.

"Jim's flash temper got the better of him, and with the long hours he and his son spent together, Claude's contempt for his father blossomed into a full­blown hatred. One day, as Claude later told it, 'My father patted me on the spine with a spade for a reason I cannot recall. I, in turn, called him a name that reflected on his ancestors and made a bad noise with my mouth at him. I took it on the lam pronto. That night I reposed al fresco.'

"Claude would later speak of braining his father with a lug box, but in the last year of his life he told his secretary, Magda Michael, that Jim had actually tripped over a garden spade and then hurled it at him in a fit of temper when the boy impulsively laughed. Claude retaliated by bouncing a bushel basket off his father's head and then, realizing in horror what he had done, broke out in a dead run. The old man, white-hot with fury, chased his son down the street, warning of grave consequences should he ever return. 'I felt bad at first on account of the old man hitting me and me hitting him,' Claude said, 'but before long I was in high spirits.' 

"By most accounts, Claude Dukenfield began running away from home at the age of nine. He loathed the winter cold and getting out of bed when the house was dark and frigid. 'That was one of the things that made me run away from home,' he said. 'My mother would make me get up and go to school.' Annie Felton, who mitigated Jim's corrosive fits, relocated to the Kensington district in 1892 and left her twelve-year-old grandson to fend for himself. Claude began ditching class and rebelling against the crowded confines of yet another home, this one in the village of Rising Sun, where the family occupied the southern half of a large-frame twin house.

"At nine, Claude escaped to the relative comfort of his uncle Will's house on Germantown Avenue. As his departures grew more frequent, however, he took to sleeping at the Lomax Stables. Finally, at the age of twelve, with his father in no state of forgiveness, he decided to live in an open field. 'Some of the fellows had a bunk -- you know: you dig a hole in the ground and cover it over with boards and dirt -- and I lived in that.' The weather was mild ('I'm no chump, I don't run away from home in the winter'), and milk, eggs, bread, and butter could be found 'on back door steps and porches at unearthly hours.' As a shel­ter, the dugout had its drawbacks: 'It was so short, I couldn't stretch out full length, and when it rained, the water came through the cracks overhead.' On particularly muddy nights, Claude took to sleeping in privies, or in freight cars overrun with tramps. The yard bulls who worked for the railroads were brutal: 'I got some bad beatings, but once in a while we'd manage to beat them up. Not very often, though, because most bums are yellow cowards.' The experience would have broken a lot of kids, but Claude's grandmother had invested him with an unshakable sense of value and self-worth. 'No one ever read books or tried to improve themselves in our neighborhood,' he said. 'If you were not working, you stood on the street corner and the large or older boys made facti­tious remarks at girls who passed, ... When they couldn't fight with somebody else, they would fight among themselves.' 

"Fighting was something Claude Dukenfield learned a lot about. He ran with older boys and was beaten in much the same casual manner as he was by his own father. 'Every kid in Philadelphia must have taken a whack at my beezer at some time or other,' Blessed with Jim Dukenfield's hair-trigger tem­per, he started as many fights as others picked with him, and was always ready to meet a verbal or physical challenge with a swift, if ofttimes inept, response.

"He considered his first street fight his 'most vivid childhood memory' and learned to absorb physical punishment with dignity. Because of his almost col­orless blond hair, he was awarded the nickname of 'Whitey.' Best of all, he gained the respect of the others for living the independent life of a runaway. 'Any kid who wants to be a hero to the neighborhood gang -- all he has to do is stop sleeping in a bed. None of those boys were pretty-willies. Lots of them were bigger and older than I was and could've pushed my face in without half trying. But there always was a time at night, late maybe, when the biggest and toughest of them had to run home to mama.'"



James R. Curtis


W.C. Fields


Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2003 by James R. Curtis


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