W.C. Fields Died On A Day He Pretended To Despise, Christmas Day 1946. When His Will Was Read, It Had A Peculiar Racial Provision In It
Movie star comedian W.C. Fields is not well remembered by today’s generation, his cerebral brilliance generally going unappreciated or unrecognized. But those who know comedy such as Monty Python’s John Cleese said of Fields, “At a time when political correctness often stifles honesty and impulse to laugh and genuine wit is in such short supply, I think nothing could be healthier than the re-discovery of this most original, perceptive and unrepentant of comedians.”
When Fields died 68 years ago today on December 25, 1946, his will provided small amounts for family members and friends with the $800,000 remainder of his estate being left to establish “The W. C. Fields College for White Orphan Boys and Girls Where No Religion of Any Kind is Ever to be Taught.”
This strange racial provision seemed completely out of character for a man who treated blacks as equals and stood up for racial equality long before it was popular. It was at W.C. Fields insistence that his Zigfield Follies friend, the great black vaudeville star Bert Williams, be allowed to join Actor’s Equity. Williams was finally admitted to the association. Fields said Williams was, “The funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”
So why would Fields put this exclusionary provision in his will?
Fields was a practical, non-religious man and the second paragraph of his will read, “I direct my executors immediately upon the certificate of my death being signed to have my body placed in an inexpensive coffin and taken to a cemetery and cremated, and since I do not wish to cause my friends undue inconvenience or expense I direct my executors not to have any funeral or other ceremony or to permit anyone to view my remains, except as is
necessary to furnish satisfactory proof of my death.”
Then out of nowhere and on a complete whim, he directed his orphan college be established for white’s only.
There are two theories to why Fields struck out ‘…and colored’ from his will which was originally in it.
According to the web site The Straight Dope supposedly Fields had read that the Pullman Porters Union formally voted to exclude whites, so Fields said “If they’re going to discriminate against us, I’m going to discriminate against them.”
The other possible reason comes from Robert Lewis Taylor’s biography W.C. Fields His Follies and Fortunes (1949) Doubleday; good friend and writer Gene Fowler who recalled that some time before his death Fields had intended the orphanage be for colored children as well. His decision to switch was caused by the insolence, or imagined insolence, of a black servant he employed. During his lifetime, Fields’ affections for races and sects veered sharply from day to day. In general, however, he bore all groups the same considered animosity. And from start to finish it was entirely superficial. Even after his change of heart about the orphans, he paid off a $4000 mortgage on the house of his black cook, and he once ordered from his premises a man who used the word “nigger” within earshot of his staff.
After Fields died he had three funerals including a Catholic ceremony and ended up not being cremated but interred at Forrest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA. It wasn’t until 1949 that his body was cremated.
According to James Curtis’ biography W.C. Fields (2003) Alfred A. Knopf; Fields family successfully challenged the will. On December 14, 1949, Judge McKay threw out the provision of the will that established a college for orphans. “Mr. Fields, in his lifetime, could have discriminated against other races,” he said, “but he cannot in death call upon the state to undertake the administration of his affairs and supervise a corporation which overrides the constitutionality of equality of rights common to all races.”
A few months later Judge McKay ordered $100,000 paid to Hattie (Fields’ wife), $3,850 to Carlotta Monti (his mistress), $11,550 to Walter (his brother), and $9,240 to Adele (his sister). Federal taxes of $186,000 were paid by the estate, as was $20,000 to California inheritance taxes. On December 29, 1950, a compromise agreement was announced with the clause establishing the orphans’ college was reinstated but limited to $25,000 to go directly to the support of orphan white boys and girls “in some college in Los Angeles County” upon the deaths of Walter, Adele, and Carlotta.
Hattie Fields, his estranged wife, was the big winner and in 1954 ended up with $300,000 from the estate.