DRINKS WITH W.C. FIELDS' 'NEPHEW'
by Rip Rense
(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times)
"In youth I wassailed neighb'ring pubs,
but now reflect on friends gone by."
--from In Repose, by Will Fowler
I went to visit a waning landmark the other day, in the company of a living landmark. It's
an elegant way to witness history.
The landmark I visited was Chasen's Restaurant in West Hollywood. The landmark that took
me there was 72-year-old Will Fowler. Chasen's, of course, is one of the last of the great
old L.A. celebrity restaurants. Fowler is one of the last of the great old L.A. reporters.
In Japan, both would be declared national treasures.
To explain the historical importance of Chasen's, which closes tomorrow after 58 years
(operating cost, not popularity, is the culprit), one could merely fill this entire space
with the names of people who have held it dear. A brief sample: Clark Gable, Barbara
Stanwyck, William Powell, Greer Garson, Alan Ladd, Jerry Colonna, George Burns and Gracie
Allen, Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, David Niven, Jimmy Stew- art, Bob
Hope, Bing Crosby, Ethel Barrymore, Walter Cronkite, Leo Carillo, Howard Hughes,
Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald
Reagan. . .
To explain the historical importance of Will Fowler, one could write a book---but then,
Fowler already has. To read his autobiographical The Second Handshake and Reporters:
Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, is to wonder about a voraciously-lived life that has
touched almost as many diverse and remarkable figures as Chasen's.
Consider these rather varied Fowler resume items: while in his late teens, lived with and
cared for a declining John Barrymore for six months; smoked cigars with W. C. Fields at
age 13; studied orchestration with Ferde "Grand Canyon Suite" Grofe; wrote a hit
song for Doris Day ('He's So Married'); acted in B-movies in the 40's; while working for
the old L.A. Examiner, was the first reporter on the scene of the so-called
"Black Dahlia" murder Jan. 15, 1947; news director for George Putnam at KTTV in
1960; comedy writer for Red Skelton; Jack Dempsey's godson; was "one of the best of
the great barroom fighters," as another of the last of the great old L.A. reporters,
L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith, said of his long-ago colleague in Reporters.
In the late 1930s, young Fowler drank plenty of martinis at Chasen's, which was, more or
less, a cozy diner presided over by the be- loved ex-Vaudevillian founder, Dave Chasen,
and his gorgeous wife, Maude. Into this homey atmosphere, thick with the aromas of new-lit
cigars and burbling chili, regularly retreated members of a kind of round table of
somewhat battered wayward knights: principally Barrymore, Fields, artist John Decker,
writers James Thurber, Ben Hecht, Robert Benchley, boxing great Dempsey, legendary
sportswriter Grantland Rice, directors John Ford and Leo McCarey, pie-faced actor Jack
Oakie, actor Thomas Mitchell---and the man who usually brought them together, Gene Fowler.
Gene Fowler, of course, was the fabulous Hearst newspaperman and Hollywood screenwriter
who became one of the most revered authors of his time. He was also Will's pop, and, as
Will still reverently proclaims, "my friend."
These mythified figures, whose achievements and characters are barely comprehensible to
today's generation, enjoyed their privacy, and their alcohol---two items liberally
provided by the kindred host of their round table, Dave Chasen. Will was the group's
sturdy 'designated driver'---as he was mine, one recent evening when we went to Chasen's
to bid farewell to this one-time sanctuary, and any of its lingering ghosts.
"It's like looking at a Roman ruins with the extra stuff put on, like the Sphinx with
a new neck," said Fowler, surveying through trifocals the glittering palace that the
modern Chasen's has become. "You want to see it as it was; you want to go back.
You're reaching out, but your arms aren't quite long enough."
Fowler couldn't even find the entrance anymore; we sort of lurched in through the kitchen,
like a couple of big-shots accustomed to the back way. We were nonetheless smartly
greeted---not, sadly, by Dave Chasen, who passed away 25 years ago---but by a dapper young
gentleman named Scott McKay, who turned out to be Chasen's grandson.
"Some of the employees swear that late at night, they still smell Grampy's pipe
smoke," said Scott, who told us he holds out hope that a smaller, more intimate
version of Chasen's might return to the development that will soon occupy the Beverly
Boulevard site. "I believe he's watching over this place, and would understand what's
Scott poured Fowler a glass of brut, then escorted us straight to the heart of the
restaurant, Dave's very office, where his dearest friends were often invited to dine. Many
of those very friends were still on hand---smiling deathlessly from black-and-white
photographs that left barely an empty space on the old pine-panelled walls. Chasen himself
grinned from one, proudly frying burgers in the original kitchen.
"Here's Uncle Claude! My God!" Fowler suddenly exclaimed, spying an amateurishly
printed, grainy old photo of a shirtless W. C. Fields, posing as a boxer. Fowler, who by
his own admission has come to rather resemble Fields, is living dis-proof of the great
comic's fabled hatred of young people; W. C. so admired the teenager's alacrity with gin
and cigars that he anointed him honorary nephew, even permiting use of his hated middle
"You know what? I took this picture!" said Fowler, barely believing his
memory. "It was in his house on DeMille Drive. Uncle Claude had a punching bag. I had
a hell of a time getting him to take his shirt off. Gee, that's amazing. That knocks me
out. I printed that thing myself, when I was a kid! About 1938. It's been here all these
He stared at the photo long and hard, almost as if waiting for Fields to unleash that
permanently cocked left jab. "Uncle Claude and I were sitting here with Ben Hecht one
night," Fowler continued, "and Ben told the story of a guy in Chicago being
executed, who insisted that he be allowed to wear full tails and tie. When they were ready
to put the noose around his neck, they asked him if he had any last words. He said, 'Not
at this time.' And Uncle Claude went crazy. He thought that was absolutely
McKay graciously left us to commune with other spirits that might be present, there in
what 91-year-old Maude Chasen still calls the restaurant's 'inner sanctum.' Fowler's
thoughts, however, kept coming back to his long-missed Uncle Claude, and another honorary
uncle, Barrymore. Random observations spilled out, almost as if talking about the departed
figures might conjure them up. (I looked over my shoulder more than once.) Both men, he
recalled, would enthuse effusively about esoteric cuisines, but like many tragically
dedicated alcoholics, rarely partook of solids. Fields, in particular, championed Chasen's
crepe suzette, yet usually left it untouched: "He just didn't want it to interfere
with the alcohol."
"And Jack Barrymore," Fowler added, "loved to read cookbooks, but he would
never eat! I'm famished when I drink. That's probably while I'm still alive. After I
drink, I love to eat." He hoisted his champagne glass. "Cheers!"
Chasen's-as-refuge cannot be more poignantly---or amusingly--- illustrated than with
Fowler's account of rescuing a Barrymore as ravaged by marriage as the bottle:
"Barrymore used to call his wives his bus accidents. When he was married to his
fourth wife, Elaine, we drove to his house, off Benedict Canyon. We went in---Tommy
Mitchell, John Decker, Pop and me---and Jack came down to answer the front door. He was
wearing the bathrobe he wore in 'Topaze,' and Pop said, 'We've come to rescue you.' He
didn't even take off his bathrobe. We brought him here! And that's how we got him away
from his wife. It was just like getting him out of prison."
The memories eventually seemed to surround Fowler, his words unable to keep pace with the
images on the walls, and in his mind. Mile- stones were relegated to a scant sentence. It
was in Chasen's, he announced, that Gene Fowler---author of the lovingly penned Barrymore
biography, Good Night, Sweet Prince---insisted on filling out the actor's death
certificate himself. He somehow substituted gentle and touching prose for the chillingly
detached patois of the physician. It was also in Chasen's, Fowler noted, that his father
drafted the tribute to W. C. Fields published in the Hollywood Reporter Dec. 27,
1946. A still fresh-looking copy of the ad hung in the office, in part proclaiming:
"To the most authentic humorist since Mark Twain, to the greatest heart that has
beaten since the middle ages---W. C. Fields, our friend." And it was in Chasen's
office that Will and his mother dined with Dave shortly after the passing of Gene Fowler
"It's a strange thing," Fowler offered, with the tone of a
be hit with all these things attacking your memory at once. It gives you such a wonderful,
warm, melancholy feeling."
With that, we left the office and its paper-thin haunts, took in the celebrated Thurber
sketches in the men's room (delightfully ribald), then adjourned to a table famously
reserved for the explosive, unpredictable theatrical agent of bygone times, Billy Grady.
There, we did what you're supposed to do at Chasen's: drink, have some freewheeling,
sincere, and inconsequential conversation (ours covered the spectacular late 20th century
spoiling of earthly paradise, and the symphonies of Bruckner), and eat some of the
justifiably famed chili. From other tables, more typical specimens of the evening's
clientele, dressed to the nines (I would rank our wardrobe somewhere around the fives)
seemed to regard us with something akin to wariness and disdain, like dogs that sense a
coyote isn't quite canine.
We opted to slip out as the nattier crowd thickened, and in an exit that seemed somehow
appropriate for a couple guys who came in through the kitchen, we headed for the front
door. There, seeming to bid us adieu, was the John Decker oil portrait of
Fields-as-Queen Victoria. Resplendent in regal gown and jewels, Uncle Claude haughtily
scowled over the perfumed heads of chi-chi folk crowding in for a last Chasen's meal.
Fowler sniffed, assessed the scene, and in a line worthy of Fields, or possibly the author
he so admired, Charles Dickens, declared: "A collection of strangers in a stolen
hermit crab seashell."
And as my designated driver proceeded to cruise L.A. streets through which he once
escorted grander guests, I couldn't help but think that Dave Chasen's little diner had,
for a final time, offered sanctuary to the last of those somewhat battered wayward knights
of long ago.
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