Monday, April 28, 2008


Better known to most of us as W.C. Fields, he began his career as a traveling juggler doing everything from chainsaws to cigar boxes.  He graduated to vaudeville and burlesque and moved on to Broadway shows, movies and radio shows.  He became famous for his clever retorts delivered in his unique and recognizable style.  Many entertainers in recent years like Rich Little, Tonight Show's Ed McMahon and even Family Feud's Richard Dawson still do tribute to his act.  Fields still generates laughs even if most people today aren't old enough to remember Fields, the person.

He created a hard drinking, misanthropic persona--he hated children, animals and women (except the wrong kind) and the City of Philadelphia. He was quoted "I don't discriminate, I hate everyone equally."

Early in his career, he performed extensively in England where he was known as Wm. C. Fields, rather than W.C., presumably to avoid confusion with the ubiquitous "W.C." (water closet) signs all over Europe which designate public rest rooms.  But actually, given his distinctive sense of humor, those signs may appropriately describe Fields. Some people confuse him with Blues musician W.C. Handy.  It's not clear what the British called Mr. Handy (Wm. C. Handy?) who apparently never performed there, but his St. Louis Blues was a favorite of King Edward VIII.  But that's a subject for another day.

Back to Fields; although he was probably proficient in stand up comedy, his best moments and quotes were in response to the questions and actions of his co-stars and others.  For example, when asked how he liked children, he responded, "parboiled".  On another occasion, he said, "I like children--fried."  Or, "anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad."

Born in Darby, Pennsylvania, Fields began his show business career at age 18 in Philadelphia.  His family was a normal middle class family, supportive of his ambitions.  His father, James, an English immigrant, was a baker and a huckster.  Young W.C. helped him in the latter pursuits.  Fields got married in 1900, and a few years later, he and his wife, Hattie, a vaudevillian herself, split up.  She had pressured him to settle down to a respectable trade, which he was reluctant to do.  Fields did continue to support Hattie and their son, William Claude Fields, Jr.  Fields loved and spent time with his grandchildren.

His interactions with the likes of the voluptious Mae West, Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, and Groucho Marx were classics. He starred with Mae West in My Little Chickadee.    Fields' creative mind devised characters with names like Otis Criblecoblis, Charles Bogle, Larson E. (read larceny) Whipsnade, and Egbert Souse (pronounced soo-ZAY). 

In movies he often played the part of hustlers and carnival barkers, as well as the hapless husband dominated by a witchy wife or mother-in-law.  

Many of his gags related to excessive drinking.  From the movie Mississippi: "While traveling through the Andes Mountains, we lost our corkscrew.  Had to live on food and water for several days." On other occasions, he said the same thing about a safari in Africa and also the wilds of Afghanistan.   "I never drink water because of the disgusting things that fish do in it".   Other drinking gags: "It was a woman who drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank her for it."  And "If I had to live my life over, I'd live over a saloon."

Referring to the blue laws in his home town, "I once spent a year in Philadelphia.  I think it was on a Sunday." and "Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed."

On the movie set, he kept a pitcher of martinis which he called his "lemonade".  One day a prankster switched the contents with real lemonade.  Fields was heard to yell, "Who put lemonade in my lemonade?"

He was asked if he knew anything about electricity.  The reply was, "My father occupied the chair of applied electricity at State Prison."

My personal favorite is, "Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people."

Fields frequently appeared on ventroliquist Edgar Bergen's radio show where he traded insults wwith Bergen's dummy Charlie McCarthy:  "Ahhhh, a woodpecker's dream." and "Who's the dummy here?" The movie, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man played off that rivalry.  Incidentally, his friends like Bergen called him Bill, although Charlie McCarthy called him other things.

In private life, Fields was a generous man, although he had his moments.  For example, Groucho Marx related that Fields was irritated that curious tourists would come up his driveway.  So he hid in the bushes by the house and fired BB pellets at the legs of the trespassers.  While Fields or his studio promoted his ornery persona, he did some good things for people.  He actively promoted and supported entertainment opportunities for Blacks and Jews when it was not fashionable to do so.

Fields died on Christmas Day, 1946.  Allegedly, his last words were, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."  Actually, he wsa reciting an old vaudeville joke among comedians that they's rather be dead than play Philadelphia.  Several days earlier, on his deathbed, a friend stopping in and caught the athiestic Fields reading the Bible.  His retort:  "I'm looking for loopholes."

A footnote:  Singer Jimmy Buffett was born on the same day that Fields died and has actively promoted that fact.  It is mentioned in the booklet for Buffett's CD, Christmas Island. 



Thursday, April 3, 2008


One of the greatest legal performances in history was performed by the legal team of Bob Hirsh, Michael Benchoff and Diana Lindstrom-McClure, the lawyers who represented Steven Steinberg in the Phoenix, AZ. trial for the murder of his wife Elana in 1982. In one of the most heavily publicized and notorious trials in Arizona history, those super lawyers got Steve, who admitted to stabbing his wife 26 times, an acquittal by the jury. His defense was that he was sleepwalking, something he had never done before. He had out-O.J.'d O.J., literally got away with murder and walked from the courthouse a free man.

I developed an interest in the case because I knew both Steve and Elana in Chicago. Elana lived in the Northern suburbs and went to school with Hillary. Steve lived on my street on the South Side of Chicago, and we were classmates in grade school. To paraphrase a long ago vice presidential candidate: I knew Steve Steinberg, Steve Steinberg was a friend of mine, and I'm glad I'm not Steve Steinberg.

In an extensively researched 1988 book by Shirley Frondorf called Death of a "Jewish American Princess", we learn about the dynamics of the trial. Mrs. Frondorf was a former psychiatric social worker who later became an attorney and has frequently lectured and written about the law.

Steinberg's defense was something that Hollywood would have rejected as being unrealistic--nobody would have believed it. But sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. What does a defense lawyer do when the overwhelming evidence is stacked against his client? The defense legal team devised the strategy to attack the victim. And attach the victim they did! Poor Elana needed her own attorney there, to protect her reputation. One juror, interviewed later said, "The guy shouldn't have been on trial. He should have had a medal."

If we can believe the parade of well coached defense witnesses, Elana shopped incessantly, she nagged (with a shrill voice), she withheld sex. She dominated and badgered the personable and docile Steve until he "snapped" in a fit of "temporary insanity". Steve argued that his wife was a "Jewish American Princess (JAP)" whose shopping habits drove him (temporarily) insane.

In the alternative, the defense argued that because Steve was sleepwalking, he wasn't responsible for what he did--also temporary insanity. While he was allegedly sleepwalking, he managed to walk to the other end of the house, take a carving knife from the kitchen, walk back and viciously attack his wife who was screaming and fighting for her life. The attack was so severe the knife blade was bent at the tip and blood was splattered on the walls and even the ceiling.

In testimony, Steinberg's 12 year old daughter, Traci (described by her father as a "Princess in Training") stated that she was sleeping in the next room, woke up from the commotion and opened her bedroom door prompting her father to scream (while sleepwalking, of course) "shut the f-----g door." Then he laid out 3 pairs of Elana's panties on the floor to make it look like a robbery. It amazing what a person can do while unconscious.

Steve's original alibi was that 2 bushy haired strangers held him down while they murdered Elana, and they ran out the back door and jumped over the fence. Police found no footprints in the damp grass behind the house. The murder weapon was found under the mattress with Steve's fingerprints on the blade.

Elana, petite (90 pounds), pretty and vivacious, was a stay at home mom, raising their two daughters, entertaining the Steinbergs' many friends and decorating the ranch style house as a showpiece. The fact that, by all accounts, Elana kept an immaculate house and was a wonderful mother to the two girls was turned on its head to show that she was neurotic and in effect provoked her own murder.

The family had moved from the Chicago area a year or two earlier. Steve went to work in a popular restaurant owned by Elana's brother. The restaurant started losing money because of several "burglaries" of the cash register that were not solved. (Steve, as manager, had the employees take lie detector tests on more than one occasion, which they all passed.) Steve lost his job when Elana's brother sold the restaurant, shortly before the murder. The new owners declined to employ Steve, a compulsive gambler who owed his bookie over six thousand dollars at the time of the murder. Steve's salary at the restaurant was only $700 per week.

Incidentally, if we can believe the defense (the jury did), he was driven to gamble because of Elana's shopping habits. On occasion, when he did win, he was very generous and bought Elana expensive jewelry.

Steve's lawyers hired two forensic psychiatrists who repeated for the jury whatever Steve told them, every self serving complaint he may have harbored against his murderred wife. He also told them he didn't remember committing the crime. One psychiatrist was Dr. Martin Blinder, from San Francisco, who was previously best known for the infamous "Twinkie defense" which got a murderer a reduced sentence because he committed the crime while high on sugar from Twinkies and junk food. Dr. Blinder, living up to his name, testified that the Steinberg murder was committed under a short-lived scenario of "dissociative reaction" when Steve repeatedly stabbed his wife. The defense psychiatrists were more experienced in testifying in trials and were apparently more believable than those testifying for the State. The jurors were greatly impressed by Steve's doctors who used words they could understand. I'm not sure what "dissociative reaction" means, but it sounded impressive to the jury, coming from a doctor. Actually, although it is discussed in medical journals, few, if any, doctors have ever seen a real case and many are skeptical that it really exists. Forensic psychiatry is an inexact science because, of course, only the murderer knows what he was really thinking at the time.

The prosecution also had psychiatrists, but their best one was unavailable because of a ski trip. The prosecutor didn't challenge the doctors' defense testimony, ask the right questions or call the right witnesses. For budgetary reasons or time restrictions or whatever, the State apparently failed to investigate or ask about Steve's thefts at all his previous jobs, the apparently staged thefts of Elana's car and jewelry, incessant gambling, not to mention previous shootings and kidnappings. For example, on one occasion when the Steinbergs lived in suburban Chicago, Steve reported that he had been kidnapped by "bushy haired strangers" who robbed him of Elana's jewelry. The State's investigation never got that far to pursue this information. Indeed, although the State considered prosecuting Steve after the trial for insurance fraud, the District Attorney dropped the case because it would appear to be a "sour grapes" prosecution.

The aforementioned thefts and other crimes were never solved. Until the murder, the charming Steve was just thought to be an unlucky schlamazel, but not a crook.
He was either the target of more violent crimes than anyone in history, or he staged the burglaries and robberies himself to pay off his gambling debts. Family members were later seen wearing some of the purloined jewelry.

Although he was apparently sane at the trial, the jury determined Steve to be not guilty by reason of (temporary) insanity. It was Judge Marilyn Riddel's jury instructions that sealed the deal. The Judge instructed the jury that it could find either (1) murder in the first degree (pre-meditated); (2) not guilty; or (3) not guilty by reason of insanity. Second degree murder or manslaughter was not an option given to the jury. Although there was case law for the State to contest that, the prosecutor did not do so. Because Steinberg was only temporarily insane when he murdered Elana, but at no other time in his life, he was deemed "sane" at the time of the acquittal. Thus, there was no need to send him to the mental hospital for treatment, and of course, at that point he walked away a free man.

The members of the jury, interviewed after the trial, had gotten the impression that pre-meditation had to occur for some period of time, but more than the few minutes it took for Steve to walk the 66 feet from the bedroom to the kitchen to get the carving knife and back to the bedroom. The interviews indicated that the jury accepted the fact that Steve had indeed murdered Elana and they might have issued a verdict of manslaughter if that were one of the options given.

While the term "Jewish American Princess" as used by the defense is a derogatory term for Jewish women, it made no impression on the non-Jewish prosecutor or judge, and no objection was made. Ironically, although considered an inflammatory or derogatory statement for Jewish Americans in the East or Midwest, it was not often heard or understood in Arizona. None of the jurors were Jewish, and the term meant nothing to them.

In a criminal case, the State cannot appeal a not guilty verdict--only the Defendant can (double jeopardy). As a result of the Steinberg case, Arizona changed its law regarding temporary insanity. Under today's law, the burden of proof is changed and a defendant in a similar situation would be declared "guilty but insane" (as opposed to "not guilty by reason of insanity") and required to serve a sentence at a State Hospital (mental institution) for the length of the sentence he would have otherwise served.

A miscarriage of justice occurred because the State underestimated the resourcefulness of the defense counsel who interviewed anyone who ever knew the Steinbergs and discarded those who would speak well of the victim. Steve was a friendly and likeable guy with many friends who were willing to suspend belief and stand up for him at teial.

The witnesses didn't understand the overall strategy of the defense or exactly how their individual testimony fit into the overall picture. The State did not interview Elana's friends, which were many, and did not call them to testify--which in retrospect, would have presented a more balanced portrait of the victim.

The defense had had many meetings with the potential defense witnesses, meticulously coaching them and giving them pep talks to help their friend, Steve. The defense lawyers even went to the extent of changing Steve's wardrobe, discarding his preferred silk shirts and dressing him instead in a modest suit from Sears Roebuck. The prosecution, with limited resources, was not prepared for all of this.

The prosecutor, Jeff Hotham, who later became a judge, was an experienced litigator. He had previously won all 6 capital cases that he prosecuted. In every case the defendant was represented by a public defender. He was simply outspent and overwhelmed and perhaps didn't understand where the trial was going until it wsa too late. He felt the damning evidence was so strong that it would carry the day.

In Frondorf's summary, she concluded:

Finally, looking back at the verdict, I concluded that it took luck. Everything had to be right, or everything had to be wrong, depending on your perspective, for this verdict to happen. The jury had to be just the right combination of twelve men and women. One person could have changed the outcome. I believe that a strong juror could even have turned the verdict around completely and brought in a conviction. And this verdict took a combination of other things--a psychiatrist who wanted to go skiing, friends who didn't know quite what to do...doctors who believed in Twinkie poisoning and sleepwalking, jurors who believed in Satan and...a judge and jury with totally different understandings of what it meant to "premeditate" a murder. Will it every happen again? I don't thin so--this was a once-in-a-lifetime verdict.

In a footnote to the case, after the trial, Steven Steinberg signed over custody of his 2 daughters to his in-laws, Elana's parents. The girls have not been in contact with him since that time.