Carlotta Monti and Cy Rice's W.C Fields & Me boasts perhaps my all-time favorite dedication. Where humbler scribes dedicate tomes to mothers and husbands and lovers and grandparents and dear, dear departed friends Monti wholly eschews false modesty, quipping "I dedicate this book to myself, for the many years of loving service and kindness I willingly gave him."
Over the course of Monti's briskly readable memoir of her fourteen years as the kept woman of cinema's all-time favorite misanthrope, her smartass dedication becomes deliciously passive-aggressive. Far from the narcissistic ego trip her dedication would suggest, W.C Fields & Me is the work of a supremely insecure pop-culture footnote who all but edits herself out of W.C Fields' story. Where others (Angela Bowie, cough, cough) use self-serving memoirs to assert the central role they played in their famous lover's life and career Monti seems content to bask in Fields' outsized shadow, to laugh at his jokes, mix his drinks and, in an especially fawning bit of business, tape-record and transcribe Fields' comic lectures.
W.C Fields & Me, which was adapted for the big screen in 1976 with Rod Steiger as Fields and Valerie Perrine as Monti, is consequently long on W.C Fields and suspiciously short on Carlotta Monti. It's less the story of the tumultuous love affair between a buxom young beauty and a cantankerous comic genius than an endless avalanche of cute W.C Fields anecdotes in which the lady-author makes occasional appearances.
When Monti met Fields during a studio-mandated photo op he was a legend and she was a starlet, just another pretty face and phenomenal figure in an industry where exotic beauties are a dime a dozen. During their fourteen years together, Fields' star rose and fell while Monti's career flat-lined. By taking her as a live-in lover Fields gave Monti the role of a lifetime as the loyal mistress to a great man but it was a role with strict limitations: since he was already married (to a wife he never saw and is barely mentioned) a wedding ring was out of the question. Since he hated singing, Monti wasn't allowed to flex her vocal muscles, professionally or otherwise. And since he was a famously cheap bastard, he kept her on a tight leash financially.
There is a wonderfully telling moment late in the book when an apparently contemplative and melancholy Fields tells Monti that he won't be around forever and that he wants to provide for her after he's gone. Eureka! All those years of enduring Fields' playful barbs and drunken whims are going to pay off! She'll finally be granted the freedom and security that comes with a nice little nest egg. Though the lady-author professes not to care at all about money, or envy Fields' vast wealth, Monti's mind immediately races to giddy visions of trust funds and inheritances and generous endowments. Then Fields lowers the boom and tells her that he is going to provide for her after his death–by giving her some useful business advice. D'oh!
The W.C Fields that emerges in the book is xenophobic, cheap to the point of perversity, guzzles pitchers of martinis from sunrise to sunset, refuses to let aspiring opera singer Monti sing and left Monti with little more than a bed and a treasure trove of precious memories despite being a millionaire. Oh, and he's also a deadbeat dad who refuses to so much as meet his teenaged son. Yet Monti manages to give each of these glaring weaknesses a positive spin: so he's a lovable drunk, an endearing cheapskate, and a delightful, playful misogynist.
But there are some character faults Monti has a hard time depicting in a positive light. Here's Monti and Rice on Fields' delightful racism:
Added to a list of Woody's pet hatreds were the Germans and Japanese of World War II. Anyone he met whose eyes were not considered normal by American optical standards, he imagined to be a Nipponese spy. Likewise, a person with an accent whose identity he couldn't fathom qualified as a German agent.
He was certain that the delivery boy from a liquor store he patronized was a German juvenile spy–"just learning the business" as he put it. He called the store owner on the telephone to seek information on the youngster's background.
"His father was in a concentration camp and so was the boy," Woody was told.
Hating to admit that he was wrong, Woody showed his stubborn streak. "Are you positive?" he persisted.
"I've seen the numbers tattooed on him, Mr. Fields"
Woody pondered over this and requested, "Do me a favor, Max, and see if they wash off with laundry soap and water. A citizen can't be too cautious these days."
Monti and Rice's book is full of funny, affectionate anecdotes. That is not one of them, though you have to admire the dedication of someone who doesn't let a sure-fire comedy killer like "His father was in a concentration camp and so was the boy," get in the way of a limp gag. Yet for all his faults, Fields emerges as extraordinarily likable. Though a thorough whitewash of a complicated man, Fields captures its subject's irascibility, his impish love of wordplay and words, especially of the homemade and tongue-twisting variety, and boozy charisma. The book is especially fascinating and even poignant in its depiction of Fields' hardscrabble childhood. Fields loved Dickens in part because his own origins were so Dickensian.
By the time W.C Fields & Me was published in 1971, feminism was a ferocious cultural force yet Monti remains a proudly old-fashioned proponent of the "Stand by Your Man" school of companionship; a spirit of "Don't mind me, I'm just a silly girl" self-deprecation permeates the book. Monti's memoir and worldview seem to end with Fields' 1946 death. Monti's tome is so immersed in a sepia-toned Hollywood of yesteryear that it's utterly jarring when Monti references Phillip Roth and Jacqueline Sussann. She simply doesn't seem to inhabit the same universe or era as the prurient likes of Roth and Sussan. Incidentally, I would like to officially apologize to Mr. Roth for including him in the same sentence as Sussann.
In this column I have given Julia Phillips and Angela Bowie shit for being too mean and petty. Now I'm criticizing Monti for being too nice, for burying her anger and resentment behind rose-colored nostalgia and misty remembrances. Yet I heartily recommend W.C Fields & Me all the same. It's a quick, airy read that, if nothing else, should send folks racing to their Netflix queues to stockpile W.C Fields movies. That can only be a good thing.
A quick final note on paperbacks. As Keith Phipps' awesome Big Box of Paperbacks feature indelibly conveys, battered old paperbacks are a world onto themselves. The covers generally promise more than any book can possibly deliver but reading W.C Fields & Me I was particularly intoxicated with the ads littering its pages. The back page alerts shills shamelessly for paperback adaptations of Warner hits both famous (Klute) and rightfully obscure (who knew George C. Scott directed and starred in Rage, a "sizzling shocker about a man who attempts to destroy the U.S war machine"?)
Beyond plugs for other Warner paperbacks, the book also beats the drum for Sanka, Black Velvet (a smooth Canadian Whiskey represented by a lissome blonde with a come-hither stare and a backless black velvet dress), True cigarettes and, most tellingly, "Nostalgia Book Club". Reading W.C Fields & Me I experienced a strange but pleasant form of double-nostalgia, remembering fondly both the golden age of vaudeville and classic comedy Fields embodied and the much different era that spawned this stubbornly old-fashioned paperback.Up next on Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club: Cheech and Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography, Tommy Chong You'll Never Make Love In This Town Again, a Bunch of Dirty Hoors Yes, I Can, Sammy Davis Jr. Don Simpson: Whoremongering Cokehead Asshole, Some Half-Ass Journalist Whoring Around, Mamie Van Doren Born Standing Up, Steve Martin