Bert Williams

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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.”