In Memoriam: Rose Field
THIS is written in fond and grateful memory of Roswell Martin Field, a lanky midland scribe who was the first newspaper man I ever knew and the one from whom I derived, at an impressionable age, the still-unshaken conviction that a newspaper man is a pretty good thing to be.
Eventually Rose Field, as we called him, wrote a daily column, called ‘Lights and Shadows’ and signed R. M. F., which was delighting the readers of the Chicago Evening Post at the turn of the century. For the greater part of his life, which ended in 1919, it was his perhaps unpalatable portion to be described as the younger brother of Eugene Field. But not in Kansas City. Not in the early nineties when his column, ‘The Fault Finder,’ was running in the Star and he lived across the street from us in Aldine Place. In Aldine Place in the early nineties we all thought of Eugene as just that dim Chicago brother of Roswell Martin Field.
I suspect that my own first appearance in the public prints — whereby I was early immunized against the shocks of the Winchell era —was in ‘The Fault Finder.’ It identified me as an exemplary citizen who, before retiring every night, was scrupulously careful to brush his tooth. I know that this paragraph, of which someone sent me a sere and yellow clipping only the other day, was printed before I was equipped to read it, and I know too that the first time I ever went to the theatre it was Rose Field who took me.
This was a matinee at the Coates Opera House, and the play was Sinbad the Sailor, an extravaganza employing the talents of a philoprogenitive comedian named Foy. Like Jeanne Eagels who was born there, and Marie Doro who grew up there, Eddie Foy had once lived in Kansas City long enough to give any engagement of his there the flavor of a local boy making good. Although at the time it could have been said of me that I should never see six again, I had not yet become fastidious. When many years later it would be my rôle to write sternly on such matters, I would be careful to deplore as heavy-handed such antic moments as the one when Sinbad (with what struck me at the time as great presence of mind) threw a cake of soap to a man overboard so that he could wash himself ashore. But in 1893 this had me in stitches. Indeed, I was so enchanted by all the proceedings that, on the way home in the cable car, I demanded to know how long this sort of thing had been going on. Mr. Field assured me this had been no gala occasion. It went on every night. Since this was so, I reached home prepared to announce in what manner, all the rest of my life, I would spend my evenings.
At the family dinner table this splendid program was dampened by a fine drizzle of discouragement. It was pointed out to me that a life given over exclusively to theatregoing would run into money which, as I was even then dimly aware, was more than could ever be said of the Woollcotts. Yet, as far as I could see, Mr. Field was no richer than we were. He did not dress more grandly or eat any more than Papa. Yet he was always going to the theatre. How did he manage it? Well, the family patiently explained, Mr. Field could get free tickets. Could he? Why? How? Because he was a newspaper man. Oh! And could all newspaper men get tickets for nothing? Yes, they could. So then and there I sensibly decided to be a newspaper man too, nor did I ever waver from that resolution, save for one brief period of apprehension during my last year at college when my defeatism expressed itself, as defeatism so often does, in a short-lived ambition to teach.
My decision in favor of printer’s ink was made when I was six, but we authors are all incorrigible procrastinators and, what with one thing and another, I was eight before I submitted my first copy to the Star, craftily transmitting by Mr. Field — it was well, I thought, to have a friend at court — a little thing I had slowly dashed off under the title ‘The Adventures of a Shopping Bag.’ This manuscript promptly came back to me, and I have not yet placed it elsewhere. Mr. Field softened the blow of the editor’s refusal by tactfully explaining that the piece had not proved bad enough to be really entertaining. I have learned since that rejection slips are seldom so gently considerate.
I suppose it was because the Woollcott dinner table in the early nineties did frequently resolve itself into a pessimistic committee on ways and means that all my recollections of that period are slightly overcast by the clouds of financial anxiety. To this rather than any special business acumen I prefer to attribute a painful shock I once administered to Mr. Field. He had engaged me as a companion for a tour of the shopping district by promising to buy me anything I wanted, thinking, I suppose, to content me with a box of paints or a bag of chocolate drops. After some looking about, I decided on a good winter overcoat.
On that expedition I doubtless thought of Mr. Field, in so far as I did not take him for granted, as a towering, lavish, and mysteriously powerful ancient. I now realize that at the time he must have been a hopeful and scantily paid newspaper man in his early forties. Even so, perhaps there was enough discrepancy in age and circumstance to make it seem odd at this distance in time and space that we should have been such companionable neighbors. Yet we were. This was partly because Kansas City, one of many communities which have since outgrown their charm, was a little like that in the early nineties. There was much running in and out of one another’s houses. A bit of Schumann sifting in from our shiny black upright while we were at dinner would be the only signal that Rose Field, having finished his dinner and drifted across the street, was waiting in the parlor for us to finish ours.
When, in the winter of ‘94-’95, all America thought and talked of nothing but Trilby, and the Coates Opera House was given over to tableaux vivants which reproduced the already familiar Du Maurier illustrations, it was Rose Field who ran the show, but everyone in our street took part. As I know now that even the most insatiate amateurs hesitate to charge admission without at least a pretense that they are actuated by deep concern for some worthy cause, I assume that our receipts benefited a local charity. But all I remember is that Eugene Field’s tall, fair daughter, Trotty, came on from Chicago to be our Trilby, and that I was one of the little Vinards involved in the picture called ‘My Sister Dear.’ You may remember the Christmas dinner in the Place St.-Anatole des Arts, when the Laird consoled the Vinard children with his share of the plum pudding ‘and many other unaccustomed good things, so bad for their little French tumtums.’ The first time I ever passed through the shadowy portal which leads backstage was when I embodied one of those tumtums. The person who fetched me was Rose Field. I remember, as if it were yesterday, our expedition through the whispering, behind-the-scenes dusk, my hot right hand firmly clasping one of Rose Field’s reassuring fingers.
But if in that neighborly town and time everyone knew everyone else, it was especially true that all children knew Rose Field. He shared Eugene’s relish for the company of children and Eugene’s talent for entertaining them. But whereas the brother who wrote ‘Little Boy Blue’ and ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod ‘ lived in a house aswarm with children of his own, Rose Field was childless. By that circumstance all the kids in Kansas City profited. Whenever a wail of anguish in Aldine Place served notice that one of us had fallen down and hurt himself, Rose Field would lower his feet from the rail of his verandah, come loping to the rescue, seat the injured party on his shoulder, and march him off to the corner drugstore for the quick restorative of an ice-cream soda. And not the wounded one alone but all the other kids in the block. Since there was a popular impression in the younger set of Aldine Place that I made more noise when hurt than anyone else in our street, it was the custom for those in need of ice-cream sodas to throw me from high places on to the cement sidewalk. Or at least, on the many occasions when I have invoked the memory of Rose Field, I have so often added this resentful detail that now I almost believe it.
One yarn about him which delighted me bobbed up only a few years ago. It is part of the lore dealing with the now legendary marriage of a colleague of his in Chicago journalism — one Amy Leslie, who, of all women engaged in dramatic criticism in my day, was probably the best known and certainly the largest. She interviewed the notables of the stage whenever they tarried on the shores of Lake Michigan, thereby making many friendships in the theatre. Indeed, to one of these the last will and testament of Lillian Russell bore witness. That personable diva, who was herself of generous proportions, left all her lingerie to Amy Leslie.
It was when Miss Leslie was a middleaged spinster living at the Virginia Hotel that she surprised her confrères by marrying one of the bellhops. If not precisely a wedding of May and December, this was a near thing. Let us say a wedding of early April and mid-October, for the blushing bridegroom was a vigorous and seemly lad of nineteen. Of course the tidings of these nuptials were received throughout Chicago with something like levity, and at the time inspired a love song (as yet unpublished) of which there has long since faded from my memory all of the lyric save this pensive refrain: ‘When you were in your prime, dear heart, and I was in my pram.’
Just about then an indecorous trio — Harrison Grey Fiske, Emily Stevens, and Rose Field, whom that dazzling actress had casually adopted as a godfather — were riding in a Chicago trolley when they noticed the bridal couple, laden with luggage, climb aboard and pass unseeing by them to a vacant seat at the far end of the car. Mr. Field was tempted beyond his strength. Cupping his hands, he called down the aisle the one word ‘Front!’ All three swore afterwards that the young bridegroom reacted beyond their fondest hopes, leaping to his feet and — faithful as a fire horse responding to an alarm — automatically reaching for the suitcases.
Sometime thereafter the baseless fabric of this marriage was, as they say, dissolved and left not a rack behind. Released from his bonds, the bellhop journeyed far and wide, achieving a booth all to himself at the New York World’s Fair this year, thanks to something more than a merely local reputation for intrepidity. It had become his proud boast and stock-in-trade that he brought them — or, to be more exact, ‘em — back alive. His name is Frank Buck.
It was after I had told this tale in a broadcast one evening five or six years ago that I received in the mail from Detroit a comment upon it which startled me. It was not, I saw with relief, a note from Mr. Buck asking me to step outside and take off my coat, but a genial letter from a man on duty in the advertising sector of what is known, I believe, as the automotive industry. He wrote that, after stirring uneasily at many a reference of mine to Mr. Field, he was at last moved to the point of actually putting key to ribbon. If ever I were in Detroit perhaps I would have lunch with him. What had startled me was the signature. The letter was signed Roswell Field.
Now as I thought it improbable that my Mr. Field had, after fifteen years, risen from the grave and gone into the advertising business in Detroit, and as I also knew he had left no son behind him, it soon correctly occurred to me that this namesake was probably a nephew — must, indeed, be one of the large brood of Eugene Field’s children who all had to be reared, clothed, and fed by light verse. Even so, I remembered that they had always seemed adequately nourished, to judge from the illustrations of the articles on the beautiful home life of the Eugene Fields to which the magazines of the nineties were addicted. Those articles did rather exclaim over the charm of that interior. In this age of propaganda, I suppose their like would beget a suspicion of having been written to down some horrid rumor that the gentle Eugene horsewhipped all his offspring every morning before breakfast.
Shortly after that letter came, a faintly discreditable business project of my own actually took me to Detroit, and in advance of my luncheon with this new Roswell Field I did some hasty reconnaissance in and around the aforesaid industry. It puzzled me that, whereas they knew Roswell Field well enough, they did not know him by that name. They all called him Po Field, but could not tell me why. Some guessed Po was his middle name, but I thought this improbable. One especially successful salesman was positive that Field had been named Poe at the baptismal font — after some poet or other.
The mystery was cleared up at our luncheon, where I found him an affable, spirited, and entertaining creature, considerably younger than myself, with perceptibly less girth and a good deal less hair. Quite suddenly I knew he was called Po for short. The present contour and features of the man sitting opposite me yielded to the memory of one of those old magazine articles. I could see on the distant page the half-tone of a plump cherub trying, with the aid of a Buffalo Bill costume but without conspicuous success, to look like a desperado. I leveled an accusing finger. ‘You,’ I said, ‘were the one they called Posy.’ He collapsed. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I was Posy.’ When we finally came to terms, it was agreed that, so long as he paid me so much on the first of every month, I would tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Detroit . As he is now in arrears, I consider my lips unsealed.
It was at our luncheon in Detroit that I learned we had been summertime neighbors for some years past. Not two hours’ drive from my own place in Vermont, in the lovely old village of Newfane, certain scattered Fields of to-day have heard ancestral voices prophesying peace. It was to Newfane as schoolboys that Eugene and Rose hied them to visit Grandma during their holidays. It was from Newfane that their father, an earlier Roswell Martin Field, had gone up to Middlebury College, entering with the class of 1822 at the surprising age of eleven.
Perhaps one were incautious to accept this alone as evidence of unusual precocity, for in those days Middlebury, like so many shameless colleges in our own time, may have made it a practice to welcome any matriculate who could count up to four. But this earlier Roswell did gain admission to the bar at seventeen. After tremendous adventures in Green Mountain law, politics, and romance (vide, if you want some tasty reading, Torrey v. Field and Clark v. Field in 10th and 13th Vermont) he discreetly migrated to Missouri, where he became in time a notable lawyer and one likely to be remembered, not only through his son Eugene, but even more through the darky who was janitor of his office in St. Louis. Taking up the cudgels in the janitor’s behalf in a property dispute, Field carried the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. The janitor’s name was Dred Scott.
Well, back to Newfane in recent years sundry latter-day Fields have found their way. Two of them, my new Roswell and a cousin of his named Charles K. Field, have built themselves summer houses side by side. This Charles K. Field is widely and fondly known, but not by that name. On the radio he functions as Cheerio.
Newfane is not far from Brattleboro, a town not without literary associations of its own, considering that a durable work called The Jungle Book was written in a snowbound cottage on its outskirts. If you go uphill from Brattleboro to Newfane, you will find that the Field houses are not what I should call hospitably accessible. Indeed, you will need a guide — and a pontoon bridge — if you ever seek them out. On my own first visit there I lost my way and had to ask directions from a youngster whom I encountered on a dirt road, his head hidden under the hood of a stalled car. Addressing such parts of him as were visible, I asked if he knew where the Fields lived, only to see, as his tousled head emerged from the hood, that he must be one of them himself, for his chin was Trotty’s chin as I remembered our Trilby back in Kansas City long ago.
I saw that same chin again a little later, this time in the portrait of Rose Field’s grandmother, Esther Kellogg Field, which hangs over the mantelpiece in the guarded, fireproof wing where all the family memorabilia are assembled. Here are the books Eugene and Rose wrote; here the briefs of the Dred Scott case; here the quilted petticoats and spinning wheels that came along when the Fields first moved in from Massachusetts in 1800; here the swords and regimentals worn by warrior Fields in the difficulties of 1812 and 1776.
On the wall is a holograph copy of the poem that begins,
But sturdy and staunch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket moulds in his hands.
This is not the original manuscript. That was mislaid by its first printer and came mysteriously to light at the Allied Bazaar in Chicago during the World War, when it was auctioned off to the highest bidder, who turned out to be John McCormack.
It irks me that there are certain blanks in this collection, but doubtless they will be filled up some day. There should certainly be one of the lovely Disney drawings for his Silly Symphony of ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.’ There should be at least a copy of that minor clandestine masterpiece, ‘When Willie Wet the Bed,’ and a guarded but unabashed file of certain magnificently bawdy poems by Eugene Field which have been traveling furtively across America from hand to hand these fifty years and more. He indulged in them as a relief, I suppose, from the strain of being the laureate of the nursery. Field might have exclaimed, as once with a roar of laughter the late Justice Holmes did, ‘Thank God, I have vulgar tastes!’
Then surely the collection should contain a first edition, if any exists, of the most celebrated dramatic criticism in the history of the American theatre. That is one of the many which Eugene Field wrote when he was on the Denver Tribune back in 1880 and ‘81. For a copy of the Tribune containing it I would gladly pay what is commonly if imprecisely known as a pretty penny. It was provoked by a performance of Creston Clarke’s in Denver. Clarke was an actor of insignificant talent and unregal aspect who used to tour the country in Shakespearean repertory on the insufficient grounds that he was a nephew of Edwin Booth. Now he is remembered only because Field wrote of him roughly — to employ the mot juste — as follows:
Last night Mr. Creston Clarke played King Lear at the Tabor Grand. All through the five acts of that Shakespearean tragedy he played the King as though under momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the Ace.
Surely that notice should be included in the Newfane collection, which is known, I need hardly add, as the Field Museum.