Field wrote far more than tender children’s verse.
Eugene Field is best remembered as the “Children’s Poet.” Elementary schools throughout the West bear his name—in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; in Beaumont, Texas; in Albuquerque, New Mexico; in Littleton, Colorado; and in Tulsa and Altus, Oklahoma. His tender poems about childhood, such as “Little Boy Blue” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” touched hearts across the Englishspeaking world. But to the grown-ups who knew him in Denver, where he was a celebrity editor, Field had another image perhaps best summed up by Indian activist Russell Means’ description of a New York Times correspondent in the 1970s—“a full-time drunk who never once paid for one.” Incredibly enough, Field managed to balance his doting love of family with a lifetime love of alcohol and some of the wildest practical jokes never reported in newspapers. He died young, but he died flush. People who have read his children’s verse and haven’t read what he wrote about his adult peers have cherished his memory ever since.
Field didn’t come by his love of liquor and sarcasm naturally. His grandfather was a Congregationalist clergyman from Vermont, heir to the Puritan tradition. His father, Roswell Field, was an abolitionist lawyer and resident of St. Louis when he represented Missourian slave Dred Scott in what some called the case that led to the Civil War. Eugene never repudiated that respectable heritage; he simply ignored it.
Field was born in 1850, though he refused to clarify whether the date was September 2 or 3—that way, he explained, people who missed the date would be able to wish him happy birthday a day later without embarrassment. His mother, a talented musician and teacher, died when Eugene was 6, and he went to live with his maiden aunt. He was afraid of the dark as a child. He spent some years in Amherst, Mass., as a neighbor of Emily Dickinson. At his tiny private school Field led the other four boys in playing practical jokes on the headmaster. In his spotty college career he attended Williams College in Massachusetts and Knox College in Illinois, ultimately graduating from the University of Missouri in 1871.
Field’s father had died by this time, and he spent most of his inherited $8,000 touring Europe with friend Edgar Comstock. By then Eugene had met 14-yearold Julia Comstock, his buddy’s sister. Realizing she was his destiny, Field married her when she was 16 and he was 23 and broke through his own profligacy. Regardless of circumstances, they lived happily ever after, especially after he placed his teen wife in charge of family finances and embarked on the flights of fancy that eventually produced adorable children’s tales and some of the most lurid, leg-pulling adult writing ever set in type.
Starting out as a reporter in Missouri in 1875, Field became editor of The Kansas City Times in 1880 and took over as editor of The Denver Tribune in 1881. Before he left Kansas City for Denver, Field had a sizable bar bill, and George Gaston, the café owner, asked Eugene whether he was finally going to pay up.
“Do I get a discount for cash?” Field asked.
“How much of a discount?” Field asked.
“Here, I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” Gaston said. “Pay me a dollar, and I’ll give you a receipt in full.”
Field borrowed a dollar from Ottomar Rothacker, the Denver editor who had come to recruit him, and gave it to Gaston. “Now, George, you know that when a customer pays his bill in full, the proprietor is expected to stand treat,” Field said.
“That’s right,” Gaston said. “What’ll it be?”
“Champagne for the party,” Field said. And they got it.
In those days Denver was a wideopen mining town in which saloons and brothels made up a large part of the economy, and here Field found his Xanadu. He had a wife, two children and a drinking habit to support on his $40- a-week salary, but he found a way to do it. He never paid for a drink unless he had to, and since saloons generally offered a free lunch, he could send his entire paycheck home to Julia and live by his wits.
Field became as famous for his sarcasm as his skill in cadging drinks to wash down the free lunch. Advised by his editors not to write anything critical about one favored actor he was reviewing, Field acquiesced: “[He] played Hamlet at the Opera House last night. He played it until 11 o’clock.” That was the whole review. Of another Shakespearean performer Field wrote, “He played the king as if he expected somebody else to play the ace.”
Among the performers for whom he had little regard was Wild West showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. “Buffalo Bill, an alleged scout and a very bad actor, is said to have fallen into a fortune of 2 million dollars in Cleveland,” Field wrote. “That is good news for Bill. It would have been better news for the public if he had fallen into a well.”
Writing in society notes, Field mentioned a local dignitary noted for his aloof demeanor: “Colonel G.K. Cooper went swimming in the hot water pool at Manitou last Sunday afternoon, and the place was used for a skating rink in the evening.” When Field himself later went to Manitou, a Denver-area spa, he couldn’t get a room and slept on a cot in the hall. He vengefully pretended to have cramps and let out such horrible groans that other guests emerged from their rooms to offer their sympathies. When the guests did finally retire, leaving their shoes in the hall for the bootblack, Field switched their shoes around and then beat a gong in the hall so he could chortle over their consternation when their shoes didn’t fit. On the train back to Denver, Field swathed himself in bandages and masqueraded as an invalid so that he could have two seats. As the train arrived in Denver, he passed the hat —for himself.
Some well-dressed nouveau riche Denver “swells” once invited Field for Thanksgiving dinner, expecting to be entertained by his celebrated wit and sensitive piano playing. They got more than they bargained for. When no one was looking, Field stuffed an oversized “cannon” firecracker into the turkey and unexpectedly blew the bird and stuffing all over the wallpaper. He wasn’t invited back.
Field wasn’t impressed by pretension. English actress Lily Langtry held the West in awe as the ranking beauty of the day, but Field noted that Langtry needn’t be intimidated by Americans, as “the people on this side of the pond have better business than to be insulting a woman, no matter how mediocre her talents are.” On the other hand, he was so impressed with Helena Modjeska, the Polish patriot-actress who settled in California, that he wrote a poem in her honor, titled “The Wanderer.” He published it under her byline, the joke being that Modjeska’s English was so sketchy, she got by memorizing Shakespeare by rote and could never have written such a poem herself.
Anglo-Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde also impressed Field. Both men laced their sarcasm with touching children’s stories, and both loved to pull a cork. When Wilde visited Denver, Field urged his readers to keep an open mind where the flamboyant playwright was concerned. At one point Field became Wilde. Rothacker and other dignitaries had invited their British guest to ride through the streets of Denver, but Wilde hadn’t shown, so they drafted Field as a stand-in. According to Lloyd Lewis, in Oscar Wilde Discovers America, the masquerade went reasonably well at first: “A fur-trimmed overcoat was obtained, and a longhaired wig was placed upon the bogus Oscar’s head.…Field posed in Oscar Wilde’s lackadaisical style, his head hanging limp on one side, resting on one hand, while he held a book in the other hand, which he gazed on in a pathetic and dreary expression.…A newsboy yelled, ‘Shoot Oscar!’”
Nobody shot Oscar, but Denverites were somewhat put out by the impersonation. When the carriage containing the bogus Wilde arrived in front of The Denver Tribune office, and Field doffed his languid pose and pageboy wig, onlookers were indignant rather than amused at the fraud.
Field left Denver in 1883, a year after Wilde’s visit, and built a national reputation for his witty column “Sharps and Flats” in The Chicago Daily News. Like his children’s poetry, it won nationwide acclaim. The residuals made him solvent, ultimately reasonably well off. But his drinking caught up with him in the form of stomach problems, and he died of a heart attack at 45. Field left an ample library of first-edition and rare books, five healthy children (three had died at birth or in infancy) and a roster of children’s poems that many Americans grew up with—even if some family friends claimed that Field liked to make scowling faces at children when no grown-ups were thought to be looking.
John Koster wrote Custer Survivor. Minjae Kim helped research this article.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.