Young cowboy and vaudevillian Will Rogers.
Though he was born on the frontier the century before last, if ever a vote were taken to determine the most beloved Oklahoman, likely it would be William Penn Adair “Will” Rogers. Five-sixteenths Cherokee and the rest Scottish, his life began in 1879 in the Cherokee country of the old Indian Territory little more than a decade after the War Between the States.
Will hailed from a family steeped in the tragic Cherokee tribal civil war. Followers of the (John) Ross Party murdered his Treaty Party grandfather Robert, in 1842. His father Clem Rogers (Robert’s son) was a cowboy, rancher, judge, entrepreneur, member of the Oklahoma State Constitutional Convention, and one of Cherokee Chief and Confederate General Stand Watie’s greatest cavalry scouts in the hard-riding Cherokee Mounted Rifles during the Civil War. Watie had long been a leader of the Treaty Party. Treaty Party supporters like Clem strongly supported the Confederacy.
Promotional poster for Will’s “Cherokee Kid” trick roping show.
After Kansas “Jayhawker” Union raiders stole all Clem’s stock early in the war, he refuged his family south from his ranch, which lay only sixty miles from pro-Federal Kansas to Texas. His daughter Elizabeth perished during the arduous trek. By war’s end, the elder Rogers had risen to the rank of Captain and fought with Watie from Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, to Pea Ridge, Arkansas, to Cabin Creek, Indian Territory.
Handsome, fair-haired, blue-eyed, square-jawed, and determined like his father, Will had a turbulent relationship with Clem, as the latter also had with his own father. “Willie aint never goin to amont to nothing,” Clem once wrote to a friend, “all hes good for is to buy up these expensive hosses and fool round ropin contests—uhhh! Hes fixin to ruin us, do you know that?”
Oklahoma artist Mike Wimmer’s painting of Will, at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore.
Also like Clem, though Will possessed great intelligence, he despised organized school. This, coupled with a sense of adventure and his father’s roughhewn, iron-fisted manner, conspired to drive Will permanently from home and out on his own by age twenty. As a young man, he traveled as far away as Australia and South Africa to practice trick roping and breaking horses. He later took his talents to the New York City stage, where, mixed with a natural-born talent for comedy, he gained fame with the Ziegfield Follies.
Will pursued Arkansas native Betty Blake, a full-blood white, for years before winning her hand. That only occurred, according to Rogers biographer Ben Yagoda, when Will decided to move back to Claremore from the East, and upon writing a heartwrenching confession of wrongdoing to her, which included:
I have lived a lie and now I am reaping the harvest of it. Please make a little allowance for me dear. I am scared and dont know what to do. Betty this is all what comes of doing wrong. I done the greatest wrong that any one could do and I have wished and prayed a thousand times since that I have not done it.
No I am no man. I am the weakest child you ever saw. If you knew me better I am easily lead and can be pulled into almost anything. I have no mind of my own. I just drift and drift. God knows where too. Now listen don’t you think of deserting me in all this. I need you…
Oklahoma cowboy Will Rogers.
Betty and Will produced four children, one of whom, Fred, died of diphtheria while an infant. Will only ever spoke of the boy’s death publicly twice, and then indirectly. He never uttered a word of it among family members.
Will’s weekly radio program cheered millions in the days before television.
Will starred in seventy-one films, silent and talking, including A Connecticut Yankee, Ambassador Bill, State Fair, and Steamboat Round the Bend. Famed director John Ford’s poignant tale of post-Civil War Kentucky, Judge Priest, endures as perhaps Rogers’ finest film and performance. The New York Times wrote that the film “has the mellowness of the judge's favorite brand of corn whisky, the sentimental warmth of the honeysuckle outside his front porch, and the plaintive melancholy of the Priest whippoorwills.”
His title role as a lonely widower, Confederate veteran, and kindly town judge provides a ghostly window into his own unique confluence of folksy wisdom, elegiac wistfulness, and nobleness of spirit. “Put Judge Priest down as a thoroughly delightful sentimental comedy,” wrote the Times, “and let it remind you that Will Rogers, although he bears the burdens of the nation on his shoulders, continues to be a remarkably heart-warming personality.” Late in life, Ford, who has won more Academy Awards for Best Director than anyone else, four, named Judge Priest as his favorite film that he ever made.
Movie poster for the classic John Ford film Judge Priest.
Will began composing a periodic telegram in the early 1920s that reported his doings with the unknown and especially with the famous. He laced it with his trademark modesty and humor. His ability to connect with Americans of every background catapulted the telegram into both the most popular newspaper column in the nation, carried daily by around five hundred publications, and one of radio’s most popular programs, which he hosted.
He also wrote frequently for The Saturday Evening Post, the famous weekly magazine. There, he exhorted Americans to embody the frontier values of his Oklahoma upbringing. These included neighborliness and democracy at home, while, in the tradition of Washington and Jefferson, steering clear of the foreign entanglements the nation was increasingly pursuing, especially under his friend, President Franklin Roosevelt.
Ironically, the articles he wrote that packed the most punch were not typically humorous. Much of the nation hung on his reports of the most momentous events of the generation. Two of the most famous concerned his good friend Charles Lindbergh, America’s greatest aviator. He wrote the first during “Lucky Lindy’s” fabled cross-Atlantic flight:
No attempts at jokes today. A slim, tall, bashful, smiling American boy is somewhere out over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where no lone human being has ever ventured before. He is being prayed for to every kind of Supreme Being that has a following. If he is lost it will be the most universally regretted single loss we ever had. But that kid ain’t going to fail…
Will and his beloved wife Betty.
He wrote the second during the search for Lindbergh’s kidnapped baby, whom Will had visited with just two weeks before, and who was later found murdered:
Did you ever see such a day. Nobody don’t feel like doing anything, taking any interest in anything. The attention of the world is on a little curly haired baby. Till he is found we can’t get back to normal.
Never since the two days and a night that this same kid's father was out over the Atlantic has the attention of everybody been centered so completely on one thing.
The greatest single “kick” that a whole nation got, outside of the signing of the armistice, was when the news flashed that Lindbergh had landed in Paris.
The next one we hope and pray will be when this baby is delivered home.
Will’s multiple renown as the most popular newspaper columnist in the world, America’s top-rated radio personality, and the nation’s motion picture box office champion at the time of his shocking death was and remains unparalleled. Perhaps the closest thing to a (theoretical) twenty-first century analogy would be for the same person to be the top blogger and journalist, global social media celebrity, TV and radio talk show superstar, and number one ranked movie icon.
Oklahoma artist Charles Banks Wilson’s majestic painting that hangs in the Oklahoma State Capitol Rotunda.
Will’s politics defy cataloguing. Critics have accused him of everything from being a millionaire who was no friend to the working man to a racist. His own words and friendships shred most such accusations. He championed the plight of the downtrodden, consistently called upon those with means to aid them—and did so himself—publicly scolded the head of U.S. Steel for opposing the eight-hour work day, and barnstormed for fifty days through drought-ravaged Oklahoma and other Southwestern states during the worst of the Dust Bowl.
The New York Times compared Will Rogers’ drought-relief efforts and tour to St. Francis of Assisi. It praised him for “flying over great stretches of GOD’s earth to make it as much of heaven as possible while still a very human mortal.” The Times called Will’s efforts for the suffering, “suggestions of a kind of angelic service…Though the angel be of a very masculine type and very different from the conventional one.”
Gentle defender of the needy and other underdogs versus the powerful people and institutions of the time, he had decried the suffering of Oklahomans and other Americans during the Depression. By the time of his death, however, he openly questioned the dramatic shift of power toward the federal government. The final day of 1934, less than two years into his friend Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, Will said: “Well the old year will be passing out in a few hours, and I don’t know personally a thing I can do about it…I guess there will be a lot of people will take it up with the government, as they look to them to do everything else.”
Will on the road across America, seeking to encourage folks during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
Perhaps Will embodied the views of a capitalistic conservative with compassion for the needy, high expectations of the affluent, and a modest though wise role for the government. Yet, socialist, if not Communist, fellow-Oklahoman Woody Guthrie said he had two heroes: Jesus Christ and Will Rogers.
Though regularly practicing most of the tenets of orthodox Christianity, Will himself did not espouse a belief in that faith, despite his Methodist Episcopal Church, South upbringing and his mother’s hopes that he would become a preacher. She died when he was ten, but he fondly recalled singing the Methodist hymns of his childhood church with her. She brought the first piano into their part of the Cherokee Country, present Rogers County.
Biographer Yagoda suggests that “to the extent that he had a general view of the world it was nihilistic, stark, and rather cold.” Will’s words to historian Will Durant offer gloomy support to this notion: “What all of us know put together don’t mean anything. Nothing don’t mean anything. We are just here a spell and pass on.”
Though not a regular churchgoer as an adult in Beverly Hills, California, he required his children to attend every week. He helped raise money to build the community’s first church, Beverly Hills Community Church, which still operates.
Will and Wiley Post in Renton, Washington, on their doomed trip to Alaska.
A Big Man with Boots
The end came for Will on August 15, 1935, in the infamous Alaskan plane crash that killed him and his close friend, trailblazing Oklahoma pilot Wiley Post. His daughter Mary had just appeared in the play Ceiling Zero, as a girl whose father died in a plane crash. The Eskimos who found the famed Oklahomans’ bodies described Will as “a big man with boots.”
Why such colossal—and enduring—popularity for Will Rogers? No doubt many factors have contributed, but perhaps few as strongly as Will’s possession of a quality as rare as it is beloved: a great and famous man whom common folks recognize truly likes them and considers them as good as himself. Yagoda summarized it well:
When Will Rogers became, first, a show business and, subsequently, a national figure, the element of his persona that was most striking—and, it could be argued, did the most to bring about his enormous popularity—was his profound modesty. It permeated everything he did—his habit of staring at the floor onstage and in the movies, only occasionally lifting a shy gaze, the ‘kinders’ and ‘sorters’ with which he modified nearly every declarative sentence he spoke or wrote, his absolute refusal in the millions of words he spoke and wrote to bring any glory upon himself.
The Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma. (http://www.willrogers.com)
“It may be difficult for people today to comprehend the place Rogers held in the U.S.A. at the time of his death,” wrote one historian. Indeed, Will’s innumerable witticisms, always pregnant with gentle and often profound truth, still carry forward the legacy of a man who never stopped loving Oklahoma, or living out her best values, no matter how far away from the old Cherokee country he went.
Following are a few of his many memorable quotes.
"Try to live your life so that you wouldn't be afraid to sell the family parrot to the town gossip."
"Broad-minded is just another way of saying a fellow is too lazy to form an opinion."
“Always drink upstream from the herd.”
"If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?"
“Everything is funny, as long as it's happening to somebody else.”
"People are getting smarter nowadays; they are letting lawyers, instead of their conscience, be their guide."
"Never miss a good chance to shut up."
"I guess truth can hurt you worse in an election than about anything that can happen to you."
“Mr. (Labor Union leader Samuel) Gompers has spent his life trying to keep labor from working too hard, and he has succeeded beyond his own dreams."
“Communism is like Prohibition; it’s a good idea but it won’t work.”
"The best doctor in the world is the veterinarian. He can't ask his patients what is the matter—he's got to just know."
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
“One thing about the (post-World War I) League (of Nations), the last war there were only 10 or 15 nations in it, now if they all sign this, they can all be in the next one.”
“We lost thousands of lives and spent billions (in World War I), and you could hand a sheet of paper to one million different people and tell them to write down what the last war was for, and the only answers that will be alike will be, 'Darn if I know.'”
“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I.Q. of both states.”
"The only time people dislike gossip is when you gossip about them."
“It's a good thing we don't get all the government we pay for.”
“People's minds are changed through observation and not through argument.”
“When you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad things you did do—that's Memoirs.”
“I don't care how poor and inefficient a little country is; they like to run their own business. I know men that would make my wife a better husband than I am, but, darn it, I'm not going to give her to 'em.”
“You can't say that civilization don't advance…for in every war they kill you in a new way.”
"No man is great if he thinks he is."
“I'm not a real movie star. I've still got the same wife I started out with 28 years ago.”
"I joked about every prominent man of my time but I never met a man I didn't like."
Oklahoma artist Mike Wimmer’s The Last Farewell of Will Rogers and Wiley Post.