Melancholy was his stock in trade. All his songs deal with misery, pain, and violence, usually visited on him. His primary activity in performance consisted of being lured from one hideous situation into a worse one. Onstage, his melancholy made audiences laugh immeasurably; offstage, a deeply inward soul, he carried it with him, retreating into his dressing room or his library at home to read philosophy and poetry. One of his dearest friends among the colleagues of his later career supplied the character matrix that everyone writing about him inevitably quotes: “[He] was the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.”
The sad funnyman’s name was Bert Williams. That the colleague quoted above was W.C. Fields, whose own melancholy ran nearly as deep, says something not only about the sadness of great comic artists but also about America. Bert Williams (1874–1922) was black. For an African-American in that time of upheaval, he had a life that might have seemed to justify only joy. One of the most beloved public figures of his day, a star whose name and stock phrases were known to virtually everybody, in good years he earned an income substantially above that paid to any public official, including the president. Though not a crusader by temperament, he used his position to make many small breaches in the Jim Crow barriers behind which African-Americans were then trapped: He led the first black theater troupe to play in a Broadway house, and the first to give a royal command performance in England. He was the first black artist to become a recording star, and the first to play a leading role on Broadway on an equal footing with white artists. He is, unmistakably, a hero of our culture.
He achieved his heroic stature, however, in a manner that today makes blacks and whites equally uncomfortable—while wearing blackface. For the first half of his career, from 1893 to 1908, Williams, tall and lanky, was paired in a “double act” with George Walker, a shorter, wiry, agile man equally brilliant as dancer and entrepreneur. The darker-skinned Walker, wearing only minimal makeup, played the fast-talking, fast-moving sharpie to Williams’s slow-witted, shambling, suspicious “darky,” on whom the disaster brought about by his partner’s schemes invariably fell. In contrast to Walker’s smartly tailored outfits, Williams sported a battered top hat, a worn frock coat shiny with age, and trousers that ended barely within waving distance of his clodhopper shoes. A light-skinned man born in the Bahamas, he completed this picture of woe by covering his face with a modified version of the traditional minstrel-show “burnt cork.” To underscore their authenticity as compared to white men in blackface, he and Walker topped off the indignity by billing themselves as “Two Real Coons.”
Yet he was both a hero and a great artist. That comes through clearly in Camille F. Forbes’s ploddingly written but exhaustive new biography, Introducing Bert Williams. Forbes, an academic preoccupied with the social meanings she can read into Williams’s career, gives only a hollowly theoretical sense of his life and achievements as an artist, and her sense of the era’s theatrical culture is erratic at best, but the social questions she belabors are those with which Williams grappled, and she leaves no doubt that “realness” was indeed the driving passion behind his art. Once he had evolved his role, he eschewed most of the traditional minstrel-show exaggerations and the more degrading elements of the stereotype, pushing past them to unearth a core of human comedy to which the blackface was only incidental—the enabling element that, in a viciously segregated time, allowed a man of Williams’s ethnicity both to express black American reality and to appear with ease before audiences of any race. Bernhardt and the Barrymores applauded him; both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois praised him in print.
Allied to Walker’s social activism and personal flamboyance, Williams’s deeply grounded comedy spawned a series of ramshackle but innovative musicals, increasingly ambitious in size and scope, that, however lightheartedly, attempted to move away from the period’s stock “plantation” imagery toward the concerns of the rapidly urbanizing black community. Hugely successful while the team was together, the attempt collapsed with Walker’s abrupt retirement, after he was stricken with then-incurable syphilis. Alone, Williams channeled his sorrow into his work, moving into vaudeville as a “single” act and then, through Florenz Ziegfeld’s daring, into the Follies. Between vaudeville bookings, he appeared in eight editions of Ziegfeld’s lavish annual revue, headlining alongside the likes of Fields, Will Rogers, and Eddie Cantor, who in one memorable routine played Williams’s son—both in blackface. He would have moved on, into blackface-free “legit” plays, but the heart that had brought him triumphantly past endless snubs and closed doors gave out while he was on the road with his first such venture. Luckily for us, he left his monument on disc: The immaculate timing and ripe musicality of his songs and spoken routines (available on a 3-CD set from Archeophone) make the optimal antidote for Forbes’s muzzy prose.