wc fields goes west -- 7/8/22

Today's selection -- from W.C. Fields by James R. Curtis. With the Great Depression impacting theater revenues, the not-yet-legendary comedian W.C. Fields left the East Coast for Hollywood. But first there was the matter of ending his relationship with girlfriend Linelle Blackburn:

"'If the west didn't want me,' said Fields, 'I wanted it. I wanted sunshine and warm weather. I wanted a house and a bed to sleep in and a closet to hang my clothes in and a washing machine I could swear at if it didn't get my laundry back in time. I wanted to be out in the open and play golf and tennis and hand­ball and squash. But for all that I had to have work. I couldn't get it.'

"Hollywood had yet to feel the full brunt of the Depression, and Fields, with no work on the horizon, cut back sufficiently by the simple expedient of getting rid of Linelle Blackburn. 'Bill changed women every seven years,' said Billy Grady, 'as some people get rid of the itch.' The relationship with Linelle had been on the wane for more than a year, yet she had insistently made the trip to California, neatly scotching his plans to stay rent-free at the home of his pal Charley Mack. Yet, eager though he was to make the break, Fields could never quite find the words that would humanely send her on her way. 'Her composure was indestructible,' Louise Brooks remembered. 'All Bill's suggestions that she should leave him for her own good were deflected with smiling contentment.'

Marilyn Miller c. 1925

"In the end, Fields concocted an elaborate scheme to get himself out of town. He prevailed upon his friend Paul Jones to accompany him to San Fran­cisco, giving an alleged business trip an air of legitimacy. Linelle saw them off at the platform, waving a fluttery good-bye with a pink lace handkerchief. Twelve hours later, safely ensconced at the St. Francis on Union Square, Fields placed a call to his Los Angeles attorney, Milton Cohen, who presented Linelle with a generous check and bundled her onto a train bound for Texas. Within weeks, she had married a man in San Antonio.

"With Linelle now gone, Fields moved himself into a guest room on the Mack estate in Newhall, some thirty-two miles north of Los Angeles in the Santa Susana Mountains. Mack owned twenty-two acres across a small canyon from the white castellated mansion of William S. Hart. The comfortable house, built in the French Normandy style, boasted one of the area's few swimming pools, and Fields, who loved the dry heat and the cool evening breezes, spent considerable time in Mack's triangular pond. He played golf and tennis as well, and occasionally drove up the coast to break the monotony. He drew national attention when he pressed his claim against Hammerstein and the Managers' Protective Association, and when the claim went to arbitration, in June 1931, it nearly resulted in the termination of Equity's landmark agree­ment with the MPA.

"Fields' money from the Ballyhoo arbitration came through in July, and he took a few days in Santa Barbara to celebrate the win. The resort town, some ninety miles north of Los Angeles, was a favorite venue for picture folks and previews. The oceanfront Biltmore was usually crawling with movie stars, and it was on a Sunday night in the Biltmore lobby that Fields was spotted by Mar­ilyn Miller and a clutch of film executives. Miller, of course, knew Fields from the 1918 Follies, where she created a sensation posing as Billie Burke and singing 'Mine Was a Marriage of Convenience.' She had scaled the heights of Broadway stardom in the intervening years, and was working off a three­-picture contract with Warner Bros. 'Bill!' she squealed. 'You're just the man I've been looking for!'"

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James R. Curtis


W.C. Fields


Borzoi Books published by Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2003 by James R. Curtis
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