W. C. Fields? Ben Hecht? Gene Fowler? Thomas Mitchell? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant comedian and movie actor W. C. Fields led an unrestrained showbiz life displaying a fondness for alcohol and mistresses. He was not known as a religious man, but as his death approached he began to peruse the Bible. When a friend asked him about this behavior he humorously explained that he was:
Looking for loopholes.
Would you please explore this anecdote and quotation?
Quote Investigator: W. C. Fields died in 1946, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared many years later in November 1960 in “Playboy” magazine. The prominent screenwriter and director Ben Hecht wrote a nostalgic piece reflecting on his experiences in Hollywood. Hecht recounted a story about the journalist Gene Fowler and his friend Fields that included an instance of the quotation. The nickname “Bill” was used for W. C. Fields. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Fields was Fowler’s favorite self-destroyer. No man ever worked so patiently at wrecking his soul and body as did this prince of comedians. A Mississippi of gin sluiced through him in his declining years.
Fowler visited his ailing crony shortly before his death. He found Fields sitting in the garden reading the Holy Bible. “I’m looking for loopholes,” Bill explained, shyly.
Another version of the tale was published in 1966; the person visiting Fields was identified as the actor Thomas Mitchell instead of Fowler. Of course, it was possible that Fields used the quip more than once, and therefore both versions might be accurate. The 1966 citation is given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in a primarily chronological order.
In February 1961 the “Evening World-Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska printed a short item recounting the tale in a section called “For Quick Reading”. The newspaper acknowledged “Playboy”: 2
Gene Fowler, visiting W. C. Fields shortly before his death, found his ailing crony sitting in the garden reading the Holy Bible. “I’m looking for loopholes,” Bill explained shyly.—Ben Hecht in Playboy.
In July 1961 a columnist in the “Los Angeles Times” reminisced about fellow newspaperman Gene Fowler who had died a year earlier. The initial description in the following passage was applied to Fowler: 3
He was, oddly, a religious man but he hobnobbed with blasphemers and one day he found his friend W. C. Fields with a Bible (and a Martini). “Uncle Claude,” he demanded, “what are you doing?” And the answer came, “Looking for loopholes.”
In 1966 the “Los Angeles Times” published an article titled “W.C. Fields—The Bubble Still Hasn’t Burst” about the continuing popularity of the funnyman. A version of the anecdote was presented, but the visitor was a notable actor with a long career named Thomas Mitchell, and the setting was a sanitarium: 4
He retired to a sanitarium, where Thomas Mitchell visited him and was surprised to find Bill thumbing the pages of a Bible. Asking about it, Field’s simply said he was “looking for loopholes.” He later told his secretary, “You can never tell when the fellow in the black nightgown may come to pay a visit.”
The passage above referenced a figure called: “the fellow in the black nightgown”. In fact, W. C. Fields employed the phrase “the fellow in the bright nightgown” for the personification of Death as specified in the following excerpt from a 1949 article in “The Saturday Evening Post”: 5
In the past, in his talks with Gene Fowler, he had always referred to death, for some reason, as “the fellow in the bright nightgown.” Now, in a humorous tone, he said to Miss Michael, “None of us, sick or well, can tell when the fellow in the bright nightgown’s coming to pay us a visit.”
In 1976 a columnist for the Copley News Service presented a version of the story set in a hospital room: 6
As the end approached, on that Christmas Day in 1946, an old writer-friend named Gene Fowler entered the hospital room and there was Fields, a self-admitted agnostic, thumbing through a Bible.
“What are you doing, Bill?” asked the incredulous Fowler.
“I’m looking for loopholes,” Fields whispered.
In conclusion, there exists substantive evidence for this story. However, the long delay between the death of Fields in 1946 and the first publication in 1960 reduced the credibility of the anecdote. In addition, there were different versions in which the setting varied and the visitor switched between Gene Fowler and Thomas Mitchell. On the other hand, W. C. Fields always delivered the punchline. Perhaps future researchers will locate earlier citations.
(Great thanks to K whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to previous researchers Nigel Rees, Paul F. Boller Jr., Ronald L. Davis, and Fred R. Shapiro. Special thanks to Paul Rauber who pointed out that W. C. Fields used the phrase “fellow in the bright nightgown” and not “fellow in the black nightgown”.)
Update History: On May 9, 2016 the 1949 citation for “fellow in the bright nightgown” was added.
- 1960 November, Playboy, Volume 7, Number 11, “If Hollywood is Dead or Dying as a Moviemaker, Perhaps the Following Are Some of the Reasons” by Ben Hecht, Start Page 56, Quote Page 134, Column 2, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1961 February 22, Evening World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), For Quick Reading: A Smile or Two, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1961 July 2, Los Angeles Times, Last of the Bison by Jim Murray, Start Page C1, Quote Page C5, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1966 December 11, Los Angeles Times W.C. Fields—The Bubble Still Hasn’t Burst by John C. West, Quote Page B7, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1949 July 9, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 222, Issue 2, W. C. Fields: Rowdy King of Comedy by Robert Lewis Taylor, Start Page 30, Quote Page 106, Column 4, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana (Ebsco Academic Search Premier) ↩
- 1976 November 23, The Daily Journal, Let’s raise a toast to W. C. Fields by Don Freeman (Copley News Service), Quote Page 4B, Column 6, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩