In 1906 George Walker said that his partner was “the first man that I know of our race to delineate a ‘darky’ in a perfectly natural way, and I think our success is due to this fact. ” On the face of it, the statement is puzzling. The “perfectly natural” black man that Bert Williams played was a chicken-stealing simpleton, ever scared of the specter of gainful employment, adept in a razor fight, and chronically galled by tight shoes. But there was more to it than that. After Williams’ death in 1922, W.E.B. Du Bois, a man not much amused by what the era knew as a “coon joke,” wrote: “When in the calm afterday of thought and struggle to racial peace we look back to pay tribute to those who helped most, we shall single out for highest praise those who made the world laugh … above all, Bert Williams."
“For this was not mere laughing: it was the smile that hovered above blood and tragedy; the light mask of happiness that hid breaking hearts and bitter souls. This is the top of bravery; the finest thing in service.
“May the world long honor the undying fame of Bert Williams as a great comedian, a great negro, a great man.”
Egbert Austin Williams was born in 1875 on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. His parents moved to California when he was a child and, while still in his teens, he began to earn a living plucking on a banjo in San Francisco cafés. His light skin (his grandfather had been the Danish consul in Antigua) eventually got him a job with a Hawaiian singing troupe, which supported him while he began to study black dialect. “Williams,” a straight-faced and approving column in the New York Herald would report," acquired the ability to indicate the simplicity, the indolence, the credulity of the negro.” According to a contemporary, “Except on salary, he never said ‘fust’ for ‘first.’ ”
Williams developed his dialect along with a fine bass singing voice, but neither did him much good until he met George Walker in a San Francisco honky-tonk. At the time, Williams’ earthly possessions amounted to a bulldog and sixty cents; Walker had less. Nevertheless, the two teamed up immediately. Sharp, quick, and slight, Walker made an excellent counterpart to the large, slow, easy-moving Williams. They worked out an act, didn’t get rich, tried again, and eventually landed an engagement at fourteen dollars a week. By 1898 they had drifted to New York City, where the manager of Koster and Bial’s, New York’s top variety theater, gave them a chance. Their act ran for twenty-eight weeks, a house record.
They went on to star in their own show, The Sons of Ham, and then in In Dahomey, the first all-black production to open in the legitimate theater district. In Dahomey hasn’t aged well—the plot involves a lot of dismal scuffling as two young blacks try to cheat an old one out of his money—but it enchanted the audiences of the day and brought Williams and Walker to London, and then to a command performance at Buckingham Palace.
The royal performance started out badly. While they were setting up on the vast lawn behind the palace, an affable Englishman in a red vest ambled by and asked Jesse Shipp, the choleric stage director, how things were going. Shipp took the opportunity to denounce every aspect of Great Britain. Hours later, Williams, watching the royal family assemble, pointed out Edward VII to Shipp. “That man?” gasped the stage manager. “My Gawd, that fat man with the red vest, is he the King?”
Williams went on stage terrified, but the show was a huge success. Edward received the star cordially afterward. “He told me … how much he enjoyed Shipp’s unrestrained criticism. I was grateful that the thing had happened where the monarch was a man of such great intellect … that we were not in Georgia, say, nor in Texas under similar circumstances.” The two men met again a number of times; Williams claimed to have taught the King of England to play craps.
Williams and Walker came home triumphant to star in other shows. In 1907 Walker got sick, and Williams went out alone in an opus called Mr. Lode of Kole. Walker was two years dying; during that time Williams split half his take with him. He missed his partner terribly, but, alone on stage, he developed a fuller character, the one that so moved Du Bois.
He still put on the burnt cork the age demanded. He was still the lazy coon. But beneath the blackface he developed a sort of tough plaintiveness, a melancholy pride at always playing against a stacked deck. When he sang his hardluck songs—“When It’s All Goin’ Out and Nothin’ Comin’ In,” “I’m a Jonah Man,” “Nobody”—he was able to make the audience feel at one with him in a world of rent collectors and tough bosses and bad odds. “All of this,” wrote Heywood Broun, “was built for us by a tall man, his face clownishly blackened with burnt cork, who stood still in the centre of the stage and used no gesture which travelled more than six inches.”
After Walker’s death, Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies as the leading comedian, at a reported annual salary of fifty thousand dollars. It did not make him particularly happy. “It’s no disgrace to be colored,” he said once, “but it’s so inconvenient.” He didn’t complain much, and he never showed anger. He lived a quiet life with his actress wife, Charlotte, read Schopenhauer, Kant, Goethe, Thomas Paine, and collected rare books. His favorite was John Ogilby’s 1760 history Africa: “I think that with this volume,” he said, “I could prove that every Pullman porter is the descendant of a king.”
That was about as fierce as he ever got. But the young W. C. Fields, who revered him, said, “Bert Williams was the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.... With all his philosophy, and he had a well-grounded philosophy, he would occasionally say, ‘Well, there is no way for me to know this or that thing, which you say is going on—I’m just relegated—I don’t belong.’ ”
In 1922 he went out on the road in Under the Bamboo Tree. He was so sick that he couldn’t dress himself, but he wouldn’t close the show; he didn’t want to put the other actors in the company out of work. During the run, his lawyer, Henry Herzbrun, came to see him in his dressing room. Williams was lying on a couch. The two men talked for a while about Eugene O’Neill and psychoanalysis. Then Williams said he wanted his will drafted. Later, he told Herzbrun, “They keep me out of a hotel where loafers are admitted without question, so long as they’re white. Then a professor or a lawyer or a doctor invites me up to his house. It’s a great, sad little world.”
He collapsed onstage a few days later. They brought him home to New York, and fifteen thousand people turned out to pay tribute to him. His wife, who thought him the handsomest man she’d ever seen, said: “It seemed such a pity that not only did he have to wear cork on his face, but he had to wear those grotesque cotton gloves as part of his make-up too.... As I stood beside him … after the last—I fixed his hands so that they would be seen. They were more beautiful than ever. Then the Masons came and added their rites. I saw the gloves. ‘Oh, please,’ I said, ‘don’t put those gloves on him. Once—this last time, let his hands be seen.’ I didn’t know, you see. He had to wear them.”