- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

STEPIN FETCHIT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF LINCOLN PERRY

By Mel Watkins

Pantheon, $26.95, 338 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Quick! When I say Stepin Fetchit, what image comes to mind? Okay, you probably said something like “Uncle Tom,” “negative stereotype” or “a discredit to his people,” right? (Of course, this assumes you’re old enough to remember this seminal figure in both American popular entertainment and American racial history.) Well, if you said that, you would be, as author Mel Watkins takes great and at times tedious pains to prove, wrong.

A few pages from the end of this fascinating biography, Mr. Watkins, a former writer and editor for The New York Times Book Review, points out, “His tainted legacy notwithstanding, Lincoln Perry was not only one of the most talented comic actors to emerge in early twentieth-century America, but also one of the era’s most colorful individuals. In addition, he was among its most confounding and unpredictable.”

No less a keen observer than Louis Armstrong, one of the legion of well-known names who became friends with “Step” over the 76 years of Perry’s most interesting, complicated and often frustrating life, once told him he was “born to be a star.” No one agreed with that encomium more than Lincoln Perry himself. The future comic actor and dancer’s full name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew. He claimed his father named him for four presidents. Perry was born in Key West in 1902 when the minstrel craze was winding down in America. But it had left its mark on a whole generation of up-and-coming entertainers.

Mr. Watkins quotes the famed turn-of-the-century blues composer wrote W.C. Handy: “It goes without saying that minstrels were a disreputable lot in the eyes of a large section of upper-crust Negroes. But it was also true that all the best talent of that generation came down the same drain. The composers, the singers, the stage performers — the minstrel shows got them all.”

It was in that crucible that Lincoln Perry transformed himself into Stepin Fetchit, a name Perry liked to say was that of a racehorse on which he’d once bet. But then Stepin Fetchit liked to say a lot of things to reporters that weren’t quite, or close to, the truth. Mr. Watkins says the name probably came from one of his early acts; Perry simply appropriated his partner’s name as well as his own.

Joseph Perry, the boy’s basically absentee father, was a “skilled Jamaican cigar wrapper, cook, and would-be entertainer,” who noticed his son’s similar bent early on. “My boy was always tapping his feet. He would sit down to eat a meal and under the table his feet would always go tap, tap, tap. His mammy threatened him many times and ordered him to stop. But I always told mammy, ‘You hush up and let him tap, because that tapping is going to get him some-where someday.‘“Joseph Perry was a much better prognosticator than father.

Those active feet were half of Perry’s act; the other half was his characterization — “caricature”-ization, actually — of a slow-talking, slow-moving, lazy Southern Negro who would do anything to get out of working. The brilliance of that depiction became both the source of his success and one of the causes of his fall, and a very long fall it was. Unfortunately for the reader, especially the younger reader, Mr. Watkins waits until very late in the book to provide a detailed account of Perry’s act. It needs to be up front so we can “see” it as we read.

This is probably as good a place as any to mention that while this book is about an entertainer, it is not particularly entertaining. What it is is informative, very informative. Indeed, it probably contains even more history of what Mr. Watkins calls “race performers” than most African-American readers will want to read. But if it’s that history you want, and much of it is intriguing, this is the book for you.

By the early 1920s, the talented dancer-actor — and the author leaves no doubt that Perry was at least as good an actor as he was a dancer — had left his minstrel and medicine show roots and broken into the movies, first the silent films and then the “talkies.” “By the late 1920s, Perry had already mastered the darky presentation and marked it with his own distinct imprint; it was perfectly suited for motion pictures.” At the end of the decade, having received raves for his performances in such films as “Hearts” and King Vidor’s “Hallelujah!,” he was the best known and, soon, also the best paid black actor in Hollywood.

To say that Perry, by this time known professionally and personally as Stepin Fetchit, “went Hollywood” is almost an understatement. He had not one but three Cadillacs, plus a pink Rolls Royce with a neon sign on the rear that flashed his name, and instead of a horn had a trumpet blown by his chauffeur. Soon his personal antics were worrying fans, friends and heads of studios, not to mention family members. His inability to enjoy his success was aggravated by jealousies and feuds, not all of them petty. As Mel Watkins illustrates, in chapter and verse, Lincoln Perry gave new meaning to the term “his own worst enemy.”

As the years went on, Perry’s fortunes in Hollywood would rise and fall at least three times; in between he made his very substantial living by doing his act on stages all across the country. But, as he liked to brag, he was never any good at saving, and eventually fell on hard times, with troubles that were not only personal and financial, but professional as well.

From the late 1930s on, his act was increasingly criticized for what his detractors saw as his racially demeaning portrait of the stereotypical lazy black Massa-pleasing indolent. Perry was quite capable of sticking up for himself and deflecting this charge, but his prickly personality kept him from doing so.This is where author Watkins shines. He clearly makes the case that “Step” would not make for himself. “Widely cast as the primary collaborator in perpetuating Hollywood’s racist image of Negroes,” Mr. Watkins writes, “as his career ebbed, he was often viciously satirized by the white press and condemned as a toady or Uncle Tom by blacks. But ironically it was his assertiveness and insistence on respect and star treatment within and without the studios that, along with his contentiousness and egotism, accelerated his fall from grace within the industry.”

Mr. Watkins points out such generally overlooked, or unknown, facts as Perry’s negotiating his own contracts (he once made up a Jewish agent, and finally had to admit to it: “Well, Mr. Zanuck, I guess you had to find out someday. I’m Mr. Goldberg.”), writing a show business column for many years for The Chicago Defender, and gaining the respect of Will Rogers, John Ford, Lionel Barrymore and Spencer Tracy, among others.

When he suffered a stroke in 1976, one of the first stars to visit him was John Wayne, followed by Ben Vereen (who wanted to do Stepin Fetchit’s life story), Jack Carter and oneof Perry’s most loyal friends, Muhammad Ali. Mr. Watkins suggests that friendship was based on the fact that neither one had caved in to “the Man.” By the end of his life, which came in 1986, a bitter Lincoln Perry had declared bankruptcy and been vilified for being what Mel Watkins so admirably shows he was never was, a man who demeaned his race.

“He was without a doubt,” writes Mr. Watkins, “a brilliant character actor, even though the character he portrayed gradually fell into disfavor and was detested by many. Even as his rise to fame opened doors for other actors and resulted in higher pay for feature players and extras, his wild publicity schemes, unpredictability, and flamboyant, Bad Boy behavior irritated many fellow actors as well as nearly all middle-class blacks.

“At bottom, Perry was simply not the well-behaved, model citizen that the black community would have chosen as representative of the first black movie star. For that ideal model of respectability, they would have to wait for the 1950s and the emergence of the suave Sidney Poitier.”

John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”

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