Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Ben Hecht's obit on Bert Williams

From the Project Gutenberg EBook edition of "One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago" (1922). The original is in the public domain.

Ben Hecht imagines black vaudville comedian Bert Williams joining the "Valhalla of Great Actors" upon his death March 4, 1922. Williams was by all accounts a gifted performer who rose above the vicious racial stereotyping of his day. W.C. Fields famously described him as "the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew."

A YouTube clip of Bert Williams' signature song "Nobody" (1913) gives a hint of what he must have been like in performance. The backup isn't bad, either.


"Well," said Mr. Bert Williams, in his best "Under the Bamboo Tree"
dialect, "If you like mah singin' and actin' so much, how come, you bein'
a writer, you don't write somethin' about youah convictions on this
subjeck? Oh! It's not youah depahtment! Hm! Tha's jes' mah luck. I was
always the mos' unluckiest puhson who ever trifled with misfohtune. Not
his depahtment! Tha'--tha's jes' it. I never seems to fall jes' exactly in
the ri-right depahtment.

"May I ask, without meanin' to be puhsonal, jes' what is your depahtment?
Murder! Oh, you is the one who writes about murders and murderuhs foh the
paper! Nothin' else? Is tha' so? Jes' murders and murderuhs and--and
things like tha'? Well, tha' jes' shows how deceivin' looks is, fo' when
you came in heah I says to mahself, I says, 'this gen'le-man is a critic
of the drama.' And when I sees you have on a pair o' gloves I added
quickly to mahself, 'Yes, suh, chances are he is not only a critic of the
drama, but likewise even possuhbly a musical critic.' Yes, suh, all mah
life I have had the desire to be interviewed by a musical critic, but no
matter how hard I sing or how frequently, no musical critic has yet taken
cognizance o' me. No, suh, I get no cognizance whatsoever.

"Not meanin' to disparage you, suh, or your valuable depahtment. Foh if
you is in charge o' the murder and murderuh's depahtment o' yo' paper
possuhbly some time you may refer to me lightly between stabbin's or
shootin's in such wise as to say, foh instance, 'the doomed man was
listenin' to Mr. Williams' latest song on the phonograph when he received
the bullet wound. Death was instantaneous, the doomed man dyin' with a
smile on his lips. Mr. Williams' singin' makes death easy--an' desirable.'

"What, suh? You is! Sam, fetch the gen'leman some o' the firewater, the
non-company brand, Sam. All right, say when. Aw, shucks, that ain't enough
to wet a cat's whiskers. Say when again. There, tha's better. Here, Sam.
You got to help drink this. It's important. The gen'leman says if I will
wait a little while, jes' a little while, he is goin' to alter his
depahtment on the newspaper. Wasn't that it? Oh, I see. In the magazine.
Very well. Here's to what you says about me some day in the magazine. An'
when you writes it don't forget to mention somewhere along in it how when
I was playin' in San Francisco and Sarah Bernhardt was playin' there, and
this was years ago, don' forget to mention along with what you write about
mah singin' and actin' that I come to mah dressing room one evenin', in
Frisco, and there's the hugest box o' flowers you ever saw with mah name
on it. An' I open it up and, boy! There plain as the nose on your face is
a card among the flowers readin', 'to a fellow artist, from Sarah
Bernhardt.' And--whilst we are, so to speak, on the subjeck--you can put
in likewise what Eleanora Duse said o' me. You know who she is, I suppose,
the very most superlative genius o' the stage, suh. Yes, suh, the very
most. An' she says o' me when she went back to Italy, how I was the best
artist on the American stage.


"Artist! Tha' always makes Sam laugh, don't it, Sam, when he heahs me
refuhed to as artist. An'--have another beaker o' firewater, suh. It's
strictly non-company brand. An' here's how again to tha' day you speak of
when you write this article about me. An', boy, make it soon, 'cause this
life, this sinful theat'ical life, is killin' me fast. But I'll try an'
wait. Here's howdy."

* * * * *

He didn't wait. And today a lazy, crooked grin and a dolorous-eyed black
face drift among the shades in the Valhalla where the Great Actors sit
reading their press notices to one another. The Great Actors who have died
since the day of Euripides--they sit around in their favorite make-ups in
the Valhalla reserved for all good and glorious Thespians.

A company of ladies and gentlemen that would make Mr. Belasco's heart stop
beating! The Booths and Barretts from antiquity down, the Mrs. Siddonses
and Pattis, the Cyranos, Hamlets, buffoons and heroes. All of them in
their favorite make-ups, in their favorite cap and bells, their favorite
swords, their favorite doublet and hose--all of them sit around in the
special Valhalla of the Great Actors reading their press notices to one
another and listening to the hosannas of such critics as have managed to
pry into the anterior heaven.

And today Bert Williams makes his entrance. Yes, suh, it took that long to
find just the right make-up. To get just the right kind of ill-fitting
white gloves and floppy shoes and nondescript pants. But it's an important
entrance. The lazy crooked grin is a bit nervous. The dolorous eyes peer
sadly through the opening door of this new theater.

Lawdy, man, this is got a Broadway first night backed off the boards.
Rejane, Caruso, Coquelin, Garrick and a thousand others sittin' against
the towering walls, sittin' with their eyes on the huge door within' to
see who's a-comin' in now.

All right, professor, jes' a little music. Nothin' much. Anything kind o'
sad and fidgetylike. Tha's it, that-a-boy. There's no use worryin'--much.
'Member what Duse said as I was the greatest artist, an 'member how Sarah
Bernhardt sent me roses in Frisco an' says, 'To a fellow artist'? Yes,
suh, they can't do mo' than walk out on me. An' ah's been walked out on

All right, professor. Tha's it. Now I'll stick my hand inside the door and
wiggle mah fingers kind o' slow like. Jes' like that. An' I'll come on
slow. Nothin' to worry about--much.

* * * * *

A wrinkled white-gloved hand moving slowly inside the door of the
Valhalla. Sad, fidgety music. Silence in the great hall. This is another
one coming on--another entrance. A lazy, crooked grin and a dolorous-eyed
black face. Floppy shoes and woebegone pants.


Bravo, Mr. Williams! The great hall rings with hand-clapping. The great
hall begins to fill with chuckles. There it is--the same curious grin, the
lugubrious apology of a grin, the weary, pessimistic child of a grin.

The Great Actors, eager-eyed and silent, sit back on their thrones. The
door of the Valhalla of Great Actors swings slowly shut. No Flo Ziegfeld
lighting this time, but a great shoot of sunshine for a "garden." And the
music different, easier to sing to, somehow. Music of harps and flutes.
And a deep voice rises.

Yes, I would have liked to have been there in the Valhalla of the Great
Actors, when Bert Williams came shuffling through the towering doors and
stood singing his entrance song to the silent, eager-eyed throng of
Rejanes, Barretts and Coquelins--

Ah ain't ever done nothin' to nobody,
Ah ain't ever got nothin' from nobody--no time, nohow.
Ah ain't ever goin' t' do nothin' for nobody--
Till somebody--

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