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Eugene Field, a Study in Heredity and Contradictions — Volume 1 online

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enterprising an editor as the West has ever produced.

The rear of this twenty-five-foot building was given up to the library
and to George E. Plumbe, the editor for many years of the Daily News
Almanac and Political Register. The library consisted of files of
nearly all the Chicago dailies, of Congressional Records and reports,
the leading almanacs, the "Statesman's Year Book," several editions of
"Men of the Times," half a dozen encyclopaedias, the Imperial and
Webster's dictionaries, a few other text books, and about two inches of
genuine Chicago soot which incrusted everything. The theory advanced by
Field's friend, William F. Poole, then of the Public Library and later
of the Newberry Library, that dust is the best preservative of books,
rendered it necessary that the only washstand accessible to the Morning
News should be located in the library. None of us ever came out of that
library as we went in - the one clean roller a day forbade it. Nothing
but the conscientious desire to embellish our "copy" with enough facts
and references to make a showing of erudition ever induced Field or any
of the active members of the editorial staff to borrow the library key
from Ballantyne to break in upon the soporific labors of Mr. Plumbe.
Here the editorial conferences, which Field has illustrated, were held.

[Illustration: DAILY NEWS EDITORIAL COUNCIL OF WAR.
"Now, boys, which point shall we move on?"
_From a drawing by Eugene Field._]

Before quitting the library, which has since grown, in new quarters, to
be one of the most comprehensive newspaper libraries in the country, I
cannot forbear printing one of Field's choice bits at the expense of
the occupants of this floor of the Daily News office. It has no title,
but is supposed to be a soliloquy of Mr. Stone's:

_I wish my men were more like Plumbe
And not so much like me -
I hate to see the paper hum
When it should stupid be.
For when a lot of wit and rhyme
Appears upon our pages,
I know too well my men in time
Will ask a raise in wages.

I love to sit around and chin
With folk of doubtful fame,
But oh, it seems a dreadful sin
When others do the same;
For others gad to get the news
To use in their profession,
But anything I get I use
For purpose of suppression._

Field's poetical license here does injustice to Mr. Stone, whose
inquisitions generally concerned matters of public or political concern
and whose practice of the editorial art of suppression was never
exercised with any other motive than the public good or the sound
discretion of the editor, who knew that the libel suits most to be
feared were those where the truth about some scalawag was printed
without having the affidavits in the vault and a double hitch on the
witnesses.

Up another long, narrow, dark stairway was the office of Mr.
Ballantyne, the managing editor. He occupied what had been a rear hall
bedroom, 7 x 10 feet. He was six feet two tall, and if he had not been
of an orderly nature, there would not have been room in that back
closet, with its one window and flat-topped desk, for his feet and the
retriever, Snip - the only dog Field ever thoroughly detested.
Ballantyne's room was evidently arranged to prevent any private
conferences with the managing editor. It boasted a second chair, but
when the visitor accepted the rare invitation to be seated, his knees
prevented the closing of the door. The remainder of this floor of the
centre building and the whole of the same floor of the next building
south were taken up by the composing room. A door had been cut in the
wall of the building to the north, just by Mr. Ballantyne's room,
through which, and down three steps, was the space devoted to the
editorial and reportorial staff of the Morning News. The front end of
this space was partitioned off into three rooms, 7 x 12 feet each.
Field claimed one of these boxes, the dramatic critic and solitary
artist of the establishment one, and Morgan Bates, the exchange editor,
and I were sandwiched in between them. The rest of the floor was given
up to the city staff. The telegraph editor had a space railed off for
his accommodation in the composing room. If a fire had broken out in
the central building in those days, along about ten P.M., the
subsequent proceedings of Eugene Field and of others then employed on
the Morning News would probably not have been of further interest,
except to the coroner.

Of the three rooms mentioned, Field's was the only one having any
pretensions to decoration. Its floor and portions of the wall were
stained and grained a rich brown with the juice of the tobacco plant.
In one corner Field had a cupboard-shaped pigeon-file, alphabetically
arranged, for the clippings he daily made - almost all relating some bit
of personal gossip about people in the public eye. Scattered about the
floor were dumb-bells, Indian clubs, and other gymnastic apparatus
which Field never touched and which the janitor had orders not to
disturb in their disorder. Above Field's desk for some time hung a
sheet of tin, which he used as a call bell or to drown the noise of the
office boy poking the big globe stove which was the primitive, but
generally effective, way of heating the whole floor in winter. That it
was not always effective, even after steam was introduced, may be
inferred from the following importunate note written by Field to
Collins Shackelford, the cashier, on one occasion when the former had
been frozen almost numb:

DEAR MR. SHACKELFORD: There has been no steam in the third-floor
editorial rooms this afternoon. Somebody must be responsible for this
brutal neglect, which is of so frequent occurrence that forbearance
has ceased to be a virtue. I appeal to you in the hope that you will
be able to correct the outrage. Does it not seem an injustice that
the writers of this paper should be put at the mercy of sub-cellar
hands, who are continually demonstrating their incompetency for the
work which they are supposed to do and for which they are paid?

Yours truly,

EUGENE FIELD.
January 11, 1887.

To those familiar with the internal economy of newspaper offices it
will be no news to learn that death by freezing in the editorial rooms
would be regarded as a matter of small moment compared to a temperature
in the press room that chilled the printing ink in the fountains to the
slow consistency of molasses in January.

To return to the furnishing of the room in which Field did the greater
part of his work for the Morning News. Originally it did not boast a
desk. A pine table with two drawers was considered good enough for the
most brilliant paragrapher in the United States, and, for all he cared,
so it was. He had no special use for a desk, for at that time he
carried his library in his head and wrote on his lap. I am happy in
being able to present in corroboration of this a study of Eugene Field
at work, drawn from life by his friend, J.L. Sclanders, then artist
for the News, and also the copy of a blue print photograph, on the back
of which Field wrote, "And they call this art!"

[Illustration: FIELD AT WORK.
_The Caricature from a Drawing by Sclanders._]

In explanation of these pictures, both true to life when made, it
should be said that, except when there was no steam on, Field almost
invariably wrote in his shirt-sleeves, generally with his waistcoat
unbuttoned and his collar off, and always with his feet crossed across
the corner of the desk or table. One of the first things he did on
coming to the office was to take off his shoes and put on a pair of
slippers with no counters around the heels, so that they slapped along
the floor as he walked and hung from his toes as he wrote.

Why Field always rolled up the bottoms of his trousers on coming into
the office and turned them down when he went out, I do not remember to
have known. Probably it was partly on account of his contradictory
nature, and partly to save the trousers from dragging, for the
unloosening of his "vest" was always attended by the unbuttoning of his
suspenders to permit of his sitting with greater ease upon the curve of
his spine. But why he should have rolled his trousers half way up to
the knee passes my comprehension, as the reason has passed from my
memory, if I ever knew it.

For a long time a rusty old carpenter's saw hung on the wall of his
"boudoir." Beside it were some burglars' implements, and subsequently a
convict's suit hanging to a peg excited the wonder of the curious and
the sarcasm of the ribald.

The table in Field's room, besides serving as a resting place for his
feet, was covered with the exchanges which were passed along to him
after they had passed under the scrutiny and shears of the exchange
editor. When Field had gone through them with his rusty scissors they
were only fit for the floor, where he strewed them with a riotous hand.

If the reader has followed thus far he has a tolerably fair notion of
the unpropitious and eccentric surroundings amid which Field worked
immediately after coming to Chicago. Out of this strange environment
came as variegated a column of satire, wit, and personal persiflage as
ever attracted and fascinated the readers of a daily newspaper.

And now of the man himself as I first saw him. He was at that time in
his thirty-third year, my junior by a year. If Eugene Field had ever
stood up to his full height he would have measured slightly over six
feet. But he never did and was content to shamble through life,
appearing two inches shorter than he really was. Shamble is perhaps
hardly the word to use. But neither glide nor shuffle fits his gait any
more accurately. It was simply a walk with the least possible waste of
energy. It fitted Dr. Holmes's definition of walking as forward motion
to prevent falling. And yet Field never gave you the impression that he
was about to topple over. His legs always acted as if they were weary
and would like to lean their master up against something. As to what
that something might be, he would probably have answered, "Pie."

Field's arms were long, ending in well-shaped hands, which were
remarkably deft and would have been attractive had he not at some time
spoiled the fingers by the nail-biting habit. His shoulders were broad
and square, and not nearly as much rounded as might have been expected
from his position in writing. It was not the stoop of his shoulders
that detracted from his height, but a certain settling together, if I
may so say, of the couplings of his backbone. He was large-boned
throughout, but without the muscles that should have gone with such a
frame. He would probably have described himself as tall, big, gangling.
He had no personal taste or pride in clothing, and never to my
knowledge came across a tailor who took enough interest in his clothes
to give him the benefit of a good fit or to persuade him to choose a
becoming color. For this reason he looked best-dressed in a dress suit,
which he never wore when there was any possibility of avoiding it. His
favorite coat was a sack, cut straight, and made from some cloth in
which the various shades of yellow, green, and brown struggled for
mastery.

But it was of little consequence how Field's body was clothed. He wore
a 7 3-8 hat and there was a head and face under it that compelled a
second glance and repaid scrutiny in any company. The photographs of
Field are numerous, and some of them preserve a fair impression of his
remarkable physiognomy. None of the paintings of him that I have seen
do him justice, and the etchings are not much of an improvement on the
paintings. The best photographs only fail because they cannot retain
the peculiar deathlike pallor of the skin and the clear, innocent china
blue of the large eyes. These eyes were deep set under two arching
brows, and yet were so large that their deep setting was not at first
apparent. Field's nose was a good size and well shaped, with an unusual
curve of the nostrils strangely complementary to the curve of the arch
above the eyes. There was a mole on one cheek, which Field always
insisted on turning to the camera and which the photographer very
generally insisted on retouching out in the finishing. Field was wont
to say that no photograph of him was genuine unless that mole was
"blown in on the negative." The photographs all give him a good chin,
in which there was merely the suggestion of that cleft which he held
marred the strength of George William Curtis's lower jaw.

The feature of his face, if such it can be called, where all portraits
failed, was the hair. It was so fine that there would not have been
much of it had it been thick, and as it was quite thin there was only a
shadow between it and baldness. Even its color was elusive - a cross
between brown and dove color. Only those who knew Field before he came
to Chicago have any impression as to the color of the thatch upon that
head which never during our acquaintance stooped to a slouch hat. This
typical head gear of the West had no attraction for him. The formal
black or brown derby for winter and the seasonable straw hat for summer
seemed necessary to tone down the frivolity of his neckties, which were
chosen with a cowboy's gaudy taste. To the day of his death Field
delighted to present neckties, generally of the made-up variety, to his
friends, which, it is needless to say, they never failed to accept and
seldom wore. Often in the afternoon as it neared two o'clock he would
stick his head above the partition between our rooms and say, "Come
along, Nompy" (his familiar address for the writer). "Come along and
I'll buy you a new necktie."

"The dickens take your neckties!" or something like it, would be my
reply.

Whereupon, with the philosophy of which he never wearied, Field would
rejoin, "Very well, if you won't let me buy you a necktie, you must buy
me a lunch," and off we would march to Henrici's coffee-house around
the corner on Madison Street, generally gathering Ballantyne and Snip
in our train as we passed the kennel of the managing editor of what was
to be the newspaper with the largest morning circulation in Chicago.




CHAPTER XIII

RELATIONS WITH STAGE FOLK


Reference has been made to Field's predilection for the theatrical
profession and to his fondness for the companionship of those who had
attained prominence in it. During his stay in Denver he had established
friendly, and in some instances intimate, relations with the star
actors who included that city in the circuit of their yearly
pilgrimages. The story of how he ingratiated himself into the good
graces of Christine Nilsson, at the expense of a rival newspaper, may
be of interest before taking a final farewell of the episodes connected
with his life in Colorado. When Madame Nilsson was journeying overland
in her special drawing-room car with Henry Abbey, Marcus Meyer, and
Charles Mathews, Field wrote to Omaha, anticipating their arrival
there, to make inquiry as to how the party employed the dull hours of
travel so as to interest the erratic prima donna. It was his intention
to prepare a newspaper sketch of the trip.

The reply was barren of incident, save a casual allusion to certain
sittings at the American game of poker, in which the Swedish songstress
had the advantage of the policy or the luck of her companions. Out of
this inch of cloth Field manufactured something better than the
proverbial ell of very interesting gossip. The reconstructed item
reached San Francisco as soon as Madame Nilsson, and was copied from
the Tribune into the coast papers on the eve of her opening concert.
Now, the madame thought that the American world looked askance at a
woman who gambled, and when the article was kindly brought to her
attention she flew into one of those rages which, report has said, were
the real tragedies of her life. When returning overland to Denver,
Abbey telegraphed ahead to Field, and he, with Cowen, went up to
Cheyenne to meet the party. On entering the drawing-room car the
visitors were hurried into Abbey's compartment with an air of
bewildering mystery, and were there informed in whispers that Madame
Nilsson was furious against the Tribune and would never forgive anybody
attached to it.

"Oh, I'll arrange that," said Field. "Don't announce us, but let us
call on the madame and be introduced."

After some further parley this was done, and this is how he was
greeted.

"Meestair Field - zee - T-r-ee-bune," Madame Nilsson exclaimed hotly. "I
prefair not zee acquaintance of your joor-nal."

"Excuse me, madam," persisted Field, blandly and with grave
earnestness, "I think from what Mr. Abbey has told us that you are bent
on doing the Tribune and its staff a great injustice. It was not the
Tribune that published the poker story that caused you so much just
annoyance. It was our rival, the Republican, a very disreputable
newspaper, which is edited by persons without the least instinct of
gentlemen and with no consideration for the feelings of a lady of your
refined sensibilities."

At this Madame Nilsson thawed visibly, and promptly appealed to Abbey,
Mathews, and Mayer to learn if she had been misinformed. They, of
course, fell in with Field's story, and upon being assured that she was
in error the madame's anger relaxed, and she was soon holding her sides
from laughter at Field's drolleries. The result was that the innocent
Republican staff could not get within speaking distance of Madame
Nilsson during her stay in Denver. The second night of her visit being
Christmas eve, the madame held her Christmas tree in the Windsor Hotel,
with Field acting the rôle of Santa Claus and the Tribune staff playing
the parts of good little boys, while their envious rivals of the
Republican were not invited to share in the crumbs that fell from that
Christmas supper-table.

"I have been a great theatre-goer," says Field in his "Auto-Analysis."
And it may be doubted if any writer of our time repaid the stage as
generously for the pleasure he received from those who walked its
boards before and behind the footlights. No better analysis of his
relations to the profession has been made than that from the pen of his
friend Cowen:

"At the very outset of his newspaper career," says he, "Field's
inclinations led him to the society of the green-room. Of western
critics and reviewers he was the first favorite among dramatic people.
Helpful, kind, and enthusiastic, he was rarely severe and never
captious. Though in no sense an analyst, he was an amusing reviewer
and a great advertiser. Once he conceived an attachment for an actor
or actress, his generous mind set about bringing such fortunate person
more conspicuously into public notice. Emma Abbott's baby, which she
never had, and of whose invented existence he wrote at least a bookful
of startling and funny adventures; Francis Wilson's legs; Sol Smith
Russell's Yankee yarns; Billy Crane's droll stories; Modjeska's spicy
witticisms - these and other jocular pufferies, quoted and read
everywhere with relish for years - were among his hobby-horse
performances begun at that time (1881) and continued long after he had
settled down in the must and rust of bibliomania."

For a long time not a week went by that Field did not invent some
marvellous tale respecting Emma Abbott, once the most popular
light-opera prima donna of the American stage - every yarn calculated
to widen the circle of her popularity. Upon an absolutely fictitious
autobiography of Miss Abbott he once exhausted the fertility of his
fancy in the form of a review,[1] which went the rounds of the press
and which, on her death, contributed many a sober paragraph to the
newspaper reviews of her life.

[1] Vide Appendix.

To the fame of another opera singer of those days he contributed, by
paragraphs of an entirely different flavor from those that extolled
the Puritan virtues and domestic felicities of Miss Abbott (Mrs.
Wetherell), as may be judged from the following "Love Plaint," written
shortly after he came to Chicago:

_The tiny birdlings in the tree
Their tuneful tales of love relate -
Alas, no lover comes to me -
I flock alone, without a mate.

Mine eyes are hot with bitter tears,
My soul disconsolately yearns -
But, ah, no wooing knight appears -
In vain my quenchless passion burns.

Unheeded are my glowing charms -
No heroes claim a moonlight tryst -
All empty are my hungry arms -
My virgin cheeks are all unkissed.

Oh, would some cavalier might haste
To crown me with his manly love,
And, with his arm about my waist,
Feed on my cherry lips above.

Alas, my blush and bloom will fade,
And I shall lose my dulcet notes -
Then I shall die an old, old maid,
And none will mourn Miss Alice Oates._

[Illustration: FRANCIS WILSON.]

Of his friendship with Francis Wilson there is no need to write here,
for is it not fully set forth in that charming little brochure, in
which Mr. Wilson gives to the world a characteristic sketch of the
Eugene Field and bibliomaniac he knew, and in whose work he was so
deeply interested? But Mr. Wilson does not tell how he was pursued and
plagued with the following genial invention which Field printed in his
column in 1884, and which still occasionally turns up in country
exchanges:

"Mr. Francis Wilson, the comedian, is a nephew of Père Hyacinthe, the
ancient divine. During his recent sojourn in Paris he was the père's
guest, and finally became deeply interested in the great work of reform
in which the famous preacher is engaged. His intimate acquaintances say
that Mr. Wilson is fully determined to retire from the stage at the
expiration of five years and devote himself to theological pursuits. He
gave Père Hyacinthe his promise to this effect, and his sincerity is
undoubted."

William Florence, the comedian, was an actor of whom, on and off the
stage, Field never wearied. Night after night would we go to see
"Billy," as he was familiarly and irreverently called, as Bardwell
Slote in the "Mighty Dollar," or as Captain Cuttle in "Dombey and Son."
Although originally an Irish comedian of rollicking and contagious
humor, Florence had played "Bardwell Slote" so constantly and for so
many years that his voice and manner in every-day life had the
ingratiating tone of that typical Washington lobbyist. Before his
death, while touring with Jefferson as Sir Lucius O'Trigger in "The
Rivals," he renewed his earlier triumphs in Irish character, but, even
here the accents of the oily Bardwell gave an additional touch of
blarney to his brogue.

One of the stories that Field delighted to tell of Florence dates back
to 1884, when Monseigneur Capel was in the United States. It related
with the circumspection of verity how Florence and the Monseigneur had
been friends for a number of years. Meeting on the street in Chicago,
the story ran, after a general conversation Florence asked Capel
whether he ever spent an evening at the theatre, intending, in case of
an affirmative reply, to invite him to one of his performances. Capel
shook his head. "No," said he, "it has been twenty-four years since I
attended a theatre, and I cannot conscientiously bring myself to
patronize a place where the devil is preached." Florence protested that
the monseigneur placed a false estimate on the theatrical profession.

"Ah, no," replied Capel, with a sad smile; "you people are sincere
enough; you don't know it, but you preach the devil all the same."

"Well, your grace," inquired Florence, with great urbanity, "which is
worse, preaching the devil from the stage without knowing it, or
preaching Christ crucified from the pulpit without believing it?"

"Both are reprehensible," replied Monseigneur Capel; and, bowing
stiffly, he went his way, while Florence shrugged his shoulders à la
his own fascinating creation of Jules Obenreizer in "No Thoroughfare,"
and walked off in the opposite direction, whistling to himself as he
walked.

Florence delighted in companionship and in the good things and good
stories of the table, whether at a noon breakfast which lasted well
through the afternoon or at the midnight supper which knew no hour for
breaking up, and he never came to Chicago that we did not accommodate
our convenience to his late hours for breakfast or supper. Nothing
short of a concealed stenographer could have done these gatherings
justice. Mr. Stone footed the bills, and Field, Florence, Edward J.
McPhelim of the Chicago Tribune, poet and dramatic critic, and three or
four others of the Daily News staff did the rest. The eating was good,
although the dishes were sometimes weird, the company was better, the


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Online LibrarySlason ThompsonEugene Field, a Study in Heredity and Contradictions — Volume 1 → online text (page 12 of 18)