The Ghost of Christmas’ Pest

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Will Fowler, a longtime Los Angeles journalist, is currently co-writing, with William Luce, a play based on the life of W.C. Fields called "Uncle Claude."

Tomorrow, Christmas Day, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of America’s greatest comedian, W.C. Fields. And, as surely as lilacs bloom in the spring, the genius of this remarkable, dark-humored 20th century Falstaff preserved through his films will be rediscovered by the sharper-minded of new generations.

Along with his comedic genius was the belief by all but Fields’ closest friends that he disliked Christmas, its trappings and its celebration. This was not the case. It was something else, something deeper, that caused his introspection to fall into brooding during this religious holiday.

Whenever palm trees come alight with multicolored globes and Salvation Army Santa Clauses tinkle bells on Hollywood Boulevard, I recall Christmas Day of 1940 when my father, author Gene Fowler, and I called upon our 60-year-old close family friend, “Uncle Claude,” known to the world as W.C. Fields. I was 18 at the time, and six years later, I would cover his three funeral services as a reporter.


Having declined all invitations to celebrate the season, Uncle Claude was at home, alone, when we arrived, sunning himself in the yard of his residence on De Mille Drive.

The house was hidden behind overgrown bushes and hedges not far from the center of Hollywood, a town that supported him but that he scorned both philosophically and emotionally. “Hollywood,” Uncle Claude said, “is the gold cap on a tooth that should have been pulled out years ago.” His apparent aversion to holidays was equal to his dislike of the film capital.

By some mischance that day, a servant switched on the radio, and here came floating over it a Noel chorale. “Turn it off! Cease!” Fields screamed. “Give me an ax, a heavy tomahawk! The royal mace of England I’ll smash the thing and its illegitimate fugue!”

Then he added menacingly, “I’m changing my will. Nobody who observes Christmas will be mentioned in my last testament. Not a farthing for them, man or woman.”

“Uncle Claude,” said my father (we teasingly called him Uncle Claude because he greatly disliked that name, which was his middle name), “do you really hate Christmas? Or is it just another one of your well-advertised cantankerous poses?”


For a while Uncle Claude chewed a toothpick, a technique he claimed was of great help in curing him of the cigarette habit, then said deliberately: “I used to believe in Christmas until one day when I was 8 years old. While carrying ice in Philadelphia, I had saved several pennies and nickels to purchase my dear mother a clothes boiler for Christmas--the kind with a copper bottom. One black day I caught my father stealing my money. Beginning then, I have remembered nobody on Christmas, and I want nobody to remember me, either.”


“Is that the real reason you hate Christmas?” my father said. “You’re always faking stories to cover yourself when someone hits on a sore spot.”

Uncle Claude sat silent for a few moments, studying his closest friend. With his spindly legs and portly drooping goiter stomach, he resembled an illustration of Micawber--a role he played in 1935--from the pages of “David Copperfield.” He waved his small, shapely hands--he may have had the most graceful hands in the world. (He had been a great juggler; the arthritic condition that later hampered his swift fingers had not yet become painfully manifest.)

“You’re a nosy bastard,” he said.

“I wouldn’t discuss noses,” Pop replied. “Not when yours is, shall we say, the beak of the century.”

“Don’t make fun of a man’s affliction,” said Uncle Claude, selecting another toothpick with the grace of a conductor about to summon his orchestra to attention. “All you newspapermen are nosy. A pack of poltroons who laugh at heartaches. A murder sends them cheering to the nearest saloon. Scandals make them glow all over. You, you supposedly former tough newspaper reporter, and that whippersnapper son of yours, Bill. You all love Christmas.” He ceremoniously placed the wooden stick in the center of his mouth.

“At least,” Fields muttered, “they don’t serve the tainted day here with snow. Sleigh bells give me double nausea.”

He arose and retreated to the shade, dragging his wrought-iron garden chair behind him. “All right,” he said. “I suppose you’ll go blatting it to all the world about it, but I’m going to tell you why I eschew Christmas and other silly holidays. It’s because those days point up a thing called loneliness. An actor on the road--as I was for so long . . . and around the world seven times--finds himself all alone on the days when everyone else has friends and companionship. It’s not too good to be in Australia, or in Scotland, or in South Africa, as I was on tour, all alone on Christmas Day, and to see and hear a lot of happy strangers welcoming that two-faced merriment-monger Santa Claus, who passes you by.


“We’re all lonely enough as it is. By God, I was born lonely!”

Now Fields slowly started rocking on his stationary chair, one eye on the gin bottle atop his portable bar constructed from a red, four-wheeled child’s wagon. Some weeks earlier he had been at Soboba Hot Springs, a California health resort, where he was compelled to partake only of the native waters. He had imbibed nothing more powerful than ginger ale ever since the repair job.

“But Christmas and New Year’s and Thanksgiving and all the rest,” he said, “make me even more lonely. So I observe only one day: April First. That’s my day. It’s Adam’s birthday, too. If I remember correctly, the Holy Writ relates that Adam was created on April Fools’ Day. It explains a lot of things, especially politics and psychoanalysis.”

Uncle Claude’s gaze returned to the bottle of gin. “I’ve just reached a momentous decision,” he announced. “I’ve either got to take a drink or shoot all the Santa Clauses infesting the boulevards.” He made himself a triple martini. “It may interest you to know,” he added, after a few sips, “that tomorrow I am removing both your names from my will. It was a hefty bequest, too. Oh well, if you prefer mistletoe. . . . “

When we started to leave, Uncle Claude asked us to “wait a minute. I have something for you.” Each year, he gave us a joke Christmas present. The previous Christmas it had been a large morocco-bound volume embossed with gold letters declaring: “Places Where I Am Not Wanted. --W.C. Fields.” When opened, it was discovered to be the thick Los Angeles phone book.

He returned from inside the house carrying an envelope. “Open this later,” he ordered.

That evening, we opened the envelope. His customary vulgar hand-drawn sketch of “Christmas Hated” did not fall out. Instead, this was a small Christmas card--shown on F1--bearing a watercolor by Uncle Claude, showing him as a red-and-white-bearded Santa Claus, puffing on a very large cigar. A trail of green smoke messaged, “Merry Xmas.”

Somehow I think that the man who died six years later on Dec. 25, 1946, secretly had a small soft spot for Christmas.