My father, Thomas Harold Forbes, Jr. (Harry), was an alcoholic, too, although he was able to navigate a successful career as a sportswriter and newspaper executive without too many people suspecting it. He and my mother were separated for more than five years before I was born. He said he didn't remember the incident my mother once told me about that led to their separation. One night when my mother threatened to leave my father if he didn't stop drinking, he told her he'd kill her.
My parents got back together after my father took the pledge early in 1952, but they were divorced in 1978. My father married a lady he'd met on one of his frequent trips connected with amateur athletics. I'd long suspected that those trips were excuses to get drunk, but he managed to fall in love, too, on one of them. Besides his full-time job as the editorial promotion manager for the New York Daily News, he was a volunteer administrator for the Amatuer Athletic Union (he's in its Hall of Fame) and the U.S. Olympic Boxing team; Margaret was a pioneer teacher, coach and official for synchronized swimming. She is a social drinker. I never saw her drunk.
Pop's drinking picked up after the divorce from my mother and his retirement from the News. It got so that I'd dreaded calling him in the evening after his floating cocktail hour. It took only a few drinks for him to slur his words and get sappy.
After they were married for about a dozen years, Margaret came home a day early from an out-of-state swimming event to find their condo in San Antonio in disarray. Pop had been on a bender, and hadn't cleaned up yet. A prized lamp was shattered. My father, in fact, was out frantically looking for a replacement.
"That's it," Margaret told him when he returned home, lampless and hungover. "Either this stops or I'm leaving."
She also enlisted the aid of Pop's cardiologist, who told him that alcohol, combined with his medications, would kill him if he didn't stop. He did, cold turkey. To my knowledge, he never attended a 12-step meeting in his life. He seemed to think that AA was for "real" alcoholics like a sportwriting buddy of his from the '30s, Jack Mahon. AA had saved Jack's life he told me more than once, but he clearly did not see his own drinking as life threatening, or anything he couldn't turn on and off at will.
He could stop drinking. But as much as he loved us, he had a hard time expressing his thoughts and feelings, except on a superficial level, and his world, quite frankly, continued to revolve around what was best for Harry. Self-gratification is drugs is self-gratification. Until they turn on you.
W.C. Fields and Us
If one embodiment could represent the differences between my mother and father, it would be William Claude Dukenfield. (W.C. Fields' real name was almost as preposterous as some of his characters — Egbert Sousè, say, or Cuthbert J. Twillie.) My grandfather and grandmother, Thomas Harold Forbes, known as Harold or "Spider," and Carolyn "Carrie" Bohrman (though she used the stage name Bowman) supposedly knew Fields from their days as a song-and-dance team on the vaudeville circuit.
Pop reveled in Field's celebration of bonhomie in the character of an unabashed drunk who, due to circumstances that were always entirely not of his making, resorted to rascality to support himself and his dear ones (usually a fetching, devoted daughter). Mom hated him for the same reasons Pop loved him. If an image could reek of booze, it was Fields' visage.
Around Christmas 2001, a few weeks before Pop died, I was laughing at something, and I saw how much it pleased my son Duncan to see me roaring with abandon. It reminded me of the joy I felt when I saw Pop laughing at Fields' movies when I was a boy. A few days later, I brought home one of Fields' classics, My Little Chickadee, which co-stars Mae West. Duncan looked at the photo of the two stars on the package.
“I'm not going to like this, dad,” he said.
“Because it's old, and old movies aren't funny to me.”
“You know what?” I said. “That may be the case, but I guarantee you'll laugh.”
“Dad, you're not making any sense,” he said.
“You may not find the movie funny,” I said, “but I guarantee you'll laugh when you see me laughing at the movie, just as I did when I saw my father laughting.”
And he did.
I arrived in San Antonio on a Wednesday a few weeks later. Pop had an oxygen mask on, but was cracking jokes, and listening to everything that went on. He was fighting his pneumonia like crazy, still intent on visiting my sister in Florida a little less than a month away. I was going to come down and visit myself. I wanted to talk to him more about this project, to which he had given his blessing, and see if there was any more he cared to reveal about the drinking in his family.
I don't know why, but I neglected to tell him the story about Duncan and My Little Chickadee until Saturday, when all of his systems were failing and it had become apparent that he'd die. (“Every time we fill a hole," one of his doctors explained, "another one opens up.”) I ended the tale by relating how Duncan had taken to imitating the scene where a fresh-faced young man sits down at a table across from Fields, the joke of a town sheriff, who's shuffling a deck of cards. I imitated Duncan imitating the lad's voice.
“Is this a game of chance?”
An imitation of Fields' response sidled out of the right corner of my mouth.
“Not, the way I play it, noooooooooo.”
As I finished, Pop's eyebrows arched and his brow furrowed. It was as close to a laugh as he could muster. A machine was doing his breathing, whooshes that caused his chest to expand and contract in a steady motion that was diametrically different from the free-form gales he'd let loose when he was breathing on his own and truly amused.
That night, back at his condo, I saw Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of WC Fields on his bookshelf. I had inscribed the inside cover “July 20, 1998. With the expectation that your 86th year will be filled with much mirth and laughter.” It didn't appear to have been read. As I perused it, I knew that while the rest of the family went to church the next morning, I would read some of Fields' movie and vaudeville dialogue to Pop.
And so I did.
SECRETARY: You big hoddy-doddy! You smoke cigars all day and drink whiskey half the night! Someday you'll drown in a vat of whiskey.
FIELDS (to himself): Drown in a vat of whiskey ... death where is thy sting ...?
Then I flippled the pages, looking for another snippet to read. The opening scene of The Old Fashioned Way caught my eye. Fields, playing the henpecked Ambrose Wolfinger, is nipping from a flask in the bathroom as Mrs. Wolfinger awaits him in bed.
MRS. WOLFINGER: Ambrose!
AMBROSE: Yes my dear.
MRS. WOLFINGER: What are you doing in the bathroom?
AMBROSE: Brushing my teeth dear.
MRS. WOLFINGER: I don't know what's come over you. You're always in that bathroom brushing your teeth!
AMBROSE (hiding flask): Yes, dear.
MRS. WOLFINGER: Are you sure you're brushing your teeth?
AMBROSE (gargle, gargle): Uh, yes dear — (comes into bedroom) Do you want anything dear?
MRS. WOLFINGER: Please come to bed and put that light out.
Meanwhile, the house is being burgled by two yeggs who discover Wolfinger's kegs of applejack in the celler. By the end of the scene, Wolfinger, a cop and the burglars are all thoroughly soused, caterwauling "On the Banks of the Wabash." In the middle of all this mayhem, though, there's a scene with Mrs. Nesselrode, Woflinger's mother-in-law, that must have hit home.
MRS. WOLFINGER: Ambrose Wolfinger, you know perfectly well my mother detests alcohol!
MRS. NESSELRODE: When I was a young and pretty girl, I always vowed to my parents that lips that touched liquor would never touch mine.
AMBROSE: Oh yes, pretty sentiment, very nice ...
Not all of the dialogue I read was about drinking, but a lot of it was. It defined Fields, after all, both as a great comic actor and as a man.
As my father lay dying, hooked to a respirator and morphine drip, able to respond only by twitching his eyelid to let me know that he was soaking it in, I acknowledged the bonhomie of spirits to the man who once told me on a camping trip that "nothing in life beats a can of beer for breakfast," knowing full well that alcohol was largely responsible for a divide that I'd felt all of my life, and which still remained between us.
We brought my father's body back to New Rochelle, N.Y., where he was born. His grandfather, George Morris Forbes, had immigrated to New York City from Great Britian with his widowed mother. In 1870, at 14, he took a job as a printer's devil in the shop of the weekly New Rochelle Pioneer. My grandfather, the first in the line of Thomas Harold Forbes of which I am the third, followed him into the newspaper business after his song-and dance career. In fact, he met my grandmother Carrie in the chorus of a George M. Cohan production called George Washington Jr. The dynamic turn-of-the-20th-century showman was a role model for my grandparents throughout their lives. Once the whiskey got flowing at one of their notorious parties, I imagine the air was thick with the likes of "You're A Grand Old Flag," "Mary," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Margaret and I were reminiscing late one night after my father's wake in San Antonio and she told me that she referred to Cohan's "Give My Regards to Broadway" as "The Drunk Song." It seems that Harry was prone to croaking it out after he'd had a few.
When we got to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery the blustery January morning that Pop was buried, I asked the piper to play "Give My Regards to Broadway" as we all tossed a handful of dirt on his casket. Where ever I am today, I understood where Pop was coming from.