Posted on April 15, 2013
For the last year or so, I’ve been reading Will Rogers, The Man and His Times by Richard Ketchum. This hefty tome is the definitive biography of America’s favorite cowboy who, it turns out, was an Indian, and it was written with the assistance of the staff at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, which I had the opportunity to visit several years ago.
In my book, Will Rogers is on a par with Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Ernie Pyle as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, and I am consistently amazed by the twists and turns of his astonishing life, his exemplary marriage, his enduring fame, his lofty ideals, which he never compromised, his legendary humor, and above all, his decency. He was a decent human being through and through.
In a way he was the original Blogger and Tweeter because he wrote a daily telegram and a weekly column that were printed in just about every US newspaper. In 1926 he sent a telegram from England, ostensibly to President Calvin Coolidge, that was printed in the New York Times: “Lady Astor is arriving on your side about now. Please ask my friend [Mayor] Jimmy Walker to have New York take good care of her. She is the only one over here who don’t throw rocks at American tourists.”
Readers clamored for more, and Rogers was glad to oblige. He wrote the daily telegram, a precursor of the tweet, and a weekly column, presursor of the blog, until his death in a plane crash in 1935, and just about everyone in America read them. Franklin D. Roosevelt said Will Rogers’ observations on the European political scene were more perceptive than most of the diplomats in the Department of State.
His early life makes an amazing story. He grew up in the Indian Territory that is now Oklahoma, the son of a prominent rancher and banker. He went to Argentina as a young man and got stranded there when he gave all his money to his buddy to pay his way home, thinking his father would send him some dough to get home himself. When that didn’t happen he scrounged around for a while and eventually got a job on a cattle boat to South Africa.
In a bar in Johannesburg, he met W.C. Fields and the two became lifelong friends. In Ladysmith, he ran into Texas Jack of Texas Jack’s Wild West Show, who was impressed by Rogers’ skills doing rope tricks. Will perfected his act in South Africa and later in Australia and New Zealand and went into vaudeville when he got back to the US.
In 1905 he was performing with a wild west show in Madison Square Garden when a longhorn steer jumped the barrier into the stadium seats — the expensive seats at that. Rogers, then known as the Cherokee Kid, lassoed the beast and forced him back into the arena.
After working in shows with other artists, the theater owners convinced Will that he was the one they wanted. His roping act was really brilliant, and he started to perfect his patter to go along with it. Eventually he was performing at the Ziegfield Follies, the pinnacle for vaudeville performers and he based his patter on the daily news. “All I know is what I read in the papers.”
The patter got so good he didn’t even have to do the rope tricks anymore. He became a wildly successful dinner speaker and eventually an A-list movie star, first in silent films and then talkies, but he never lost touch with the common man. He made millions, but never turned into an a**hole.
When the Depression hit he took whirlwind tours raising money for the poor, because President Herbert Hoover refused to help them. Hoover would only help the banks. Will Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935.
When it comes to Will Rogers, I can only scratch the surface in a single blog entry. If you want the whole story, go to Wikipedia, or get the Ketchum book for the whole story.