I can’t be funny.
This is an excerpt of a letter Will Rogers wrote about the death and funeral of his sister Maude sometime in the early 1920s. The sadness is compounded because the poor man felt he had to hide from his public persona.
From Will Rogers: His Story As Told By His Wife, by Betty Rogers, © 1941:
Today, as I write this, I am out in Oklahoma among my people, my Cherokee people, who don’t expect a laugh for everything I say.
That silent prayer that those three hundred ministers uttered didn’t save my sister. She has passed away. But she had lived such a life that it was a privilege to pass away. Death didn’t scare her. It was only an episode in her life. If you live right, death is a joke to you, so far as fear is concerned.
And on the day that I am supposed to write a humorous article, I am back home at the funeral of my sister. I can’t be funny. I don’t want to be funny. Even Mr. Ziegfeld don’t want me to be funny. I told him I wanted to go. He said, “I would hate you if you didn’t.” I told W.C. Fields, the principal comedian of the show. He said, “Go on. I will do something to fill in.” Brandon Tynan, my friend of years, said, “Go home where you want to be and where you ought to be.”
I have just today witnessed a funeral that, for real sorrow and real affection, I don’t think will ever be surpassed anywhere. They came in every mode of conveyance, on foot, in buggies, horseback, wagons, cars and trains, and there wasn’t a soul that came that she hadn’t helped or favored at one time or another…
Some uninformed newspapers printed: “Mrs. C.L. Lane, sister of the famous comedian, Will Rogers.” It’s the other way around. I am the brother of Mrs. C.L. Lane, the friend of humanity. And I want to tell you that, as I saw all those people who were there to pay tribute to her memory, it was the proudest moment of my life that I was her brother.
And all the honors that I could ever in my wildest dreams hope to reach would never equal the honor paid on a little Western prairie hilltop, among her people, to Maude Lane.
If they love me like that at my finish, my life will not have been in vain.