What is the Straight Dope on W. C. Fields' will?

I was tempted to title this question, “If Mommie Dearest and the Queen of Mean could do it, why couldn’t Uncle Claude?” To wit, a couple years ago when Leona Helmsley died, it was revealed that she cut one of her grandsons out of any inheritance “for reasons well known to him”. This was reminiscent of the stunt Joan Crawford pulled on two of her adopted children. Which brings me to the question: It is well known among W. C. Fields buffs that the Great Man’s last will and testament directed that the bulk of his estate go to the founding of “The W. C. Fields College for White Orphan Boys and Girls (Where No Religion of Any Kind is Ever to be Taught)”. As the story goes, Fields’ heirs were mad that they were left with what has been described as “a pittance” and so they challenged the will and got it thrown out. So why is it that Crawford and Helmsley were permitted to screw over some of their heirs but Fields wasn’t?

I have tried researching this on the Internet and have pretty much gotten horse crap. One source said Fields’ son was a lawyer who knew how to overturn the will; but wouldn’t he, having such an obvious interest in the outcome, be disqualified from being the attorney in such a case? Another source claimed a judge voided the will because of the de facto “whites only” nature of the proposed “college”. But Fields’ death came a good ten years before Browning vs. Topeka BOE, and for all I can tell segregated orphanages may have been the rule rather than the exception back then. (The same source claimed Fields wasn’t really that much of a bigot, but a black employee had stolen from him recently and he was pissed about is. Sounds kind of like a bootlicking fast shuffle to me…)

Please let us know the Straight Dope on this. And, incidentally, I am also aware that “It is well known among W. C. Fields buffs” sometimes translates to “It is a piece of misinformation that has made the rounds for years now”, and if the whole story of the orphanage and the contested will is a bunch of hokum, please let us know that as well.

I don’t think advocates for one side in a legal case are disqualified because they have an interest in that side of the case. There doesn’t seem to me to be any good reason why they should not: their bias could only help to improve their advocacy. In any case, he might have used his knowledge other than by being an advocate: he might have hired another lawyer to represent him, and fed that other lawyer his special knowledge of how to overturn the will.

The best source on this is James Curtis’ massive biography W. C. Fields, published in 2004. It has a full chapter detailing the years-long haggling over Fields’ will and I’m not about to condense that even if I could follow all the twists and turns.

Here’s the meat of the answer.

Hattie ended up with $300,000 in 1954.

Fields, a public defender of blacks, originally had “…and colored” in that clause in his will. Why did he strike it? The Pullman Porters Union formally voted to exclude Caucasians, so Fields said “If they’re going to discriminate against us, I’m going to discriminate against them.” Since instant whims was exactly how he behaved all the time, the story is easily believable.

You can search inside the Curtis book at Amazon if you want more details on the family squabbles.

I don’t know this case at all, but historically courts had a pretty strong bias against unnaturual dispositions of property. If someone didn’t leave thier estate to the “natural object of their bounty,” i.e. their descendants, there was almost a per se assumptions that there was something wrong with the will.

It sounds like the first two wills excluded specific persons, not all relatives; although I’m not familiar enough with the details to be sure of that. The WC Fields will sounds like it excluded everyone. Would that have made a difference?

Fields’ will did not exclude everyone, or, for that matter, anyone. He made bequests to all the people who later got money and more besides. He just gave them minimal amounts (around $5,000) with the residue reserved for the orphans. So while excluding relatives might make a difference in some cases, it wasn’t an issue here.