Introducing Bert Williams

The remark about Great White Way star Bert A. Williams that remains most famous today is the one his Ziegfeld Follies colleague W.C. Fields made. "Bert Williams was the funniest man I ever saw," Fields said, "and the saddest man I ever knew." It's a traffic-stopping comment that Camille F. Forbes goes a long way toward explaining in her biography-cum-social study.

All but forgotten today, Williams (1874-1922) was a light-skinned Californian of West Indian descent who grew up wanting to be in show business. He succeeded by starting out as a medicine-show pitchman and rose to become the world's highest-paid vaudeville performer — a favorite of no less than England's King Edward VII. During the years 1910 through 1919, when he headlined for Ziegfeld (without being fully accepted as an equal by all members of the Follies company), he earned $2,000 a week and rolled audiences in the aisles.

In a stroke of irony, Williams — the taller half of a legendary comedy team with George Walker — went on stage one night in blackface. As masks often do for performers (and blackface was surely a mask for Williams), the guise was creatively liberating. Thereafter, in the roles he created as well as those written for him, he conscientiously strove to develop multifaceted representations of black Americans out of what otherwise could have been stereotypical folks. This was Williams' struggle as an entertainer: He was a man on top of his field yet separate from it. A private man who liked to retreat to his well-stocked library whenever he could, he was never satisfied that he'd achieved his goal.

To tell this uplifting but woeful tale, the respectful Forbes marshals routines, songs, news accounts, reviews, and anything else she can unearth. She's so diligent that she's probably collected more material than she needs to make Williams' points and her own. It's an honest fault in an in-depth look at a most important theatre and societal pioneer.

Basic Civitas, 2008, hardcover, 404 pages, $27.50.