Will Rogers Remembered

March 25, 2011
Will Rogers, Populist Cowboy
A Political Life
By Richard D. White Jr.

Will Rogers: That's the guy who never met a man he didn't like, right? Today, few people know more than that.

But the cowboy comic with the rope tricks was no mere wisecracking rube, Richard D. White Jr. writes in "Will Rogers: A Political Life." "History has done a disservice to Will Rogers," White says. "A closer look at whom he met, where he traveled and the subjects of his writings and speeches reveals not so much a comedian but a true political insider with the power to shape public opinion and ultimately influence public policy." And that closer look is what he gives us in this new biography.

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Molly Ivins owe a debt to Rogers, as does Rush Limbaugh when he's actually funny and not just mean. But in his day, Rogers was bigger than all of them. Between his emergence as a performer and his death in an airplane crash in Alaska in 1935, Rogers, a 10th-grade dropout, wrote thousands of closely read newspaper columns and articles, and six books. He starred in dozens of radio broadcasts and 71 movies, and was courted by presidents and legislators.

Or, as Rogers himself put it: "Everything is changing. . . . People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."

Proving one unelected man's influence isn't easy, but White makes a convincing case that Rogers had plenty. He helped build support for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, sometimes performing on the radio just before a fireside chat, and making points so similar to the president's that a reporter once asked if one of them was writing the other's material. (Nope, Rogers insisted.) When the Supreme Court struck down New Deal legislation, Rogers criticized the justices as "the nine old gentlemen in the kimonos." He stumped for government investment in aviation and ridiculed Prohibition relentlessly. In the late 1920s, he warned that Americans were living beyond their means and in the early 1930s that Germany would re-emerge as a military threat.

He could also offend. Though he raised money to help the poor blacks affected by the Mississippi River flood of 1927 and spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan, he provoked outrage when he casually used a racial epithet on the air to refer to Negro spirituals. (The incident led to earnest apologies by Rogers, though in one he delivered yet another slur, explaining that he was raised by "darkies" as a boy in the Oklahoma Indian Territory.) Afflicted with insiderism and an eagerness to please, Rogers could be disarmed with a friendly overture. Criticism of John D. Rockefeller stopped after a visit to his Florida mansion.

And a pleasant conversation with Benito Mussolini turned Rogers into a fan. "I have never yet seen a thing that he has done that wasn't based on common sense," he said. White sheepishly admits that Rogers "never met a man he didn't like, even if he was a dictator." The Mussolini man-crush so upset James Thurber that he wrote, 23 years after Rogers's death, that Rogers's "irresponsible observations" showed that "political satire can be as dangerous as an unguided missile when it is unsound."

White, a professor of public administration at Louisiana State University and a biographer of Huey Long, commits a single sin in this worthy book: a biography of a famously funny man should be funny. But White seems so intent on getting us to take Rogers seriously that he plays down the humor. Part of the problem, of course, is that we are looking at Rogers across a gulf of decades, and few of his zingers travel well; readers with an allergy to corn pone won't be charmed by Rogers's wit. Still, some of the lines sound pretty fresh today.

"I don't belong to any organized political faith," he said. "I am a Democrat."

John Schwartz is The Times's national legal correspondent.

Articles Authored by Will Rogers



Everybody is writing something nowadays. It used to be just the Literary or Newspaper men who were supposed to know what they were writing about that did all the writing. But nowadays all a man goes into office for is so he can try to find out something and then write it when he comes out.

Now being in Ziegfeld Follies for almost a solid year in New York has given me an inside track on some of our biggest men in this country who I meet nightly at the stage door. So I am breaking out in a rash right here in this paper every Sunday. I will cite an example to prove to you what you are going to get. Last week there was a mess of Governors here from various provinces. And a good friend of mine brought back to the stage and dressing room Gov. Allen of Kansas. (Hurry up and print this story or he won't be governor).

Well, I stood him in the wings and he was supposed to be looking at my act, but he wasn't. He was a watching what really is the backbone of our show. He anyway heard some of my gags about our government and all who are elected to help missrun it. So at the finish of my act I dragged him out on the stage and introduced him to the audience. He made a mighty pretty little speech and said he enjoyed Will's Impertinences, and got a big laugh on that. Said I was the only man in America who was able to tell the truth about our men and affairs. When he finished I explained to the audience why I was able to tell the truth. It is because I have never mixed up in Politics. So you all are going from time to time to get the real Low Down on some of these Birds who are sending home the Radish Seed. You know the more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best. My only solution would be to keep em both out one term and hire my good friend Henry Ford to run the whole thing and give him a commission on what he saves us. Put his factory in with the government and instead of Seeds every spring mail out those Things of his. Mail Newberry one every morning Special Delivery. I tell you Folks, all Politics is Apple Sauce. The President gave a luncheon for the visiting Governors, where they discussed but didn't TRY Prohibition. It was the consensus of opinion of all their speeches that there was a lot of drinking going on and that if it wasn't stopped by January that they would hold another meeting and try and get rid of some of the stuff. Senator Curtis proposed a bill this week to stop Bootlegging in the Senate, making it unlawful for any member to be caught selling to another member while on Government property. 5 While the bill was being read a government employee fell just outside the Senate door and broke a Bottle of Pre-War Stuff (made just before last week's Turkish War). Now they are carpeting all the halls with a heavy material so in case of a fall there will be no serious loss. Well, New Years is here now and I suppose we will have to hear and read all these big men's New Year greetings, such men as Schwab and Gary and Rockefeller and all of them. Saying the same old Apple Sauce. That they are optimistic of the coming year and everybody must put their shoulder to the wheel and produce more and they predict a great year. Say, if we had those Birds' Dough we could all be just as optimistic as they are. But it's a good joke and it's got in the papers every year and I suppose always will.

Now the Ku Klux is coming into New York and kinder got it in for the Jewish People. Now they are wrong: I am against that. If the Jewish People here in New York City hadn't jumped in and made themselves good fellows and helped us celebrate our Xmas, the thing would have fell flat. They sold us every present. The Ku Klux couldn't get much of a footing in New York. If there was some man they wanted to take out and Tar and Feather, they wouldn't know where he lived. People move so often here their own folks don't know where they live.

And even if they found out the Elevator man in the Apartment wouldn't let 'em up. See where there is bills up in Congress now to change the Constitution all around, elect the President in a different way and have Congress meet at a different time. It seems the men who drew up this thing years ago didn't know much and we are just now getting a bunch of real fellows who can take that old Parchment and fix it up like it should have been all these years. It seems it's just been luck that's got us by so far. Now when they get the Constitution all fixed up they are going to start in on the 10 Commandments, just as soon as they find somebody in Washington who has read them.

See where they are talking about another Conference over here. The Social Season in Washington must be lagging. Well I think they ought to have it. Those Conferences don't really do any harm and they give certain Delegates pleasure. Of course nothing they ever pass on is ever carried out (Except in Greece, where they are all carried out). But each Nation gets a certain amount of amusement out of it. Borah himself admits he don't know what its for or what they should do. But it looks like a good Conference season and there is no reason why we shouldn't get in on one. BESIDES, DID YOU EVER REALIZE THIS COUNTRY IS 4 CONFERENCES BEHIND NOW? Next Sunday I will tell you about Ambassador Harvey. I am going down to HEAR him land, and see if he has on his Knee Breeches.


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August 17, 1935
Adventure Marked Life of Humorist

Will Rogers had what it takes to tickle the national funny bone. His wry countenance, with its occasionally wistful expression, was comical to see, and his consciously cultivated drawl lent a rustic savor to his sophisticated quips. Most important of all, he had the knack of translating into trenchant phrases the inchoate thoughts of masses of "average" Americans.

He razzed Congress unmercifully, twitted Presidents and Kings, kidded the American public for falling for the blandishments of European borrowers, and he echoed the generally held impression that politicians should do more and talk less. He could be serious, too--putting into words the national pride that was stirred by the Paris flight of Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh and the public indignation that was felt over the murder of the aviator's infant son. Characteristically, a few years ago he suggested the following epitaph for his tombstone:

"I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn't like."

Follows Own Advice

America's foremost comedian, he had become, in recent years, one of its leading boosters of air travel. He wrote thousands of words in defense of the argument that it was safer to travel by plane than by train and demonstrated that he meant it by following his own advice.

As a passenger he flew back and forth across the continent, covered most of South America and got a birds-eye view of Europe and some of Asia. It has been estimated by aviation experts that he flew more than 500,000 miles in the past seven years.

He was in one crack-up before the one in which he lost his life, but that did not diminish his enthusiasm for the new means of transportation. The accident occurred at Las Vegas in June, 1928, when the rope-twirling raconteur was en route to the Republican National Convention. Rogers told the story of the crash in one of the brief dispatches he sent daily to The New York Times.

"Wheel broke when she come down and turned over and lit on her head," he wrote. "Am the first candidate to land on his head, but being a candidate it didn't hurt the head."

William Penn Adair Rogers--to use all of it--has been called the lineal descendant of Artemus Ward. For years he watched the shifting American scene, noting its movements with flippancy and wisdom. While it is easy to call a spade a spade, he did so and yet made the spade like it--which is something else. His comments on life were widely followed and almost universally quoted. One of the most used American expressions was "Did you see what Will Rogers said?"

Before settling down as a philosophic jester, he had been almost everything else. He was a cowboy, a circus performer and an actor. Sometimes he denied this last, on the ground that he was "not smart enough to act." He starred in vaudeville and on the stage and in the movies after they became vocal. His attempts with the screen before it became audible were not overly successful. Finally, he was a lecturer and a writer, having to his credit an enormous output of pithy comment on the daily events.

He was once Mayor of Beverly Hills, Acting Mayor of New Orleans and Ambassador to the World--the last without portfolio. His name was mentioned for the Governorship of Oklahoma and for the Presidency of the United States a couple of times. Voting for Will Rogers became a habit with people; it was one of the best ways to file a protest without going Socialist.

Amassed Wealth in Work

He had a tremendous financial success, and never mentioned it. When his friend, Fred Stone, was injured some years ago he dropped all his contracts--totaling some half-million dollars--in order to take his place until Stone recovered. He toured the country raising money for drought and flood relief and took part in hundreds of benefits. In his quiet way, he gave thousands of dollars of his private fortune to charity.

He was born at Oolagah, in Indian Territory, on Nov. 4, 1879, but he called Claremore, Okla., his "home town." He had some Indian blood, and one of his more famous remarks came when, in a discussion of ancestry, he remarked that his ancestors had not come over in the Mayflower; they had "met the boat." He went to school at the Willow Hassel School at Neosho, Mo., and Kemper Military Academy at Booneville.

Difficult to interview at all times, he once replied to a question about education by saying: "I studied the Fourth Reader for ten years." At all events, his mother saw in him a Methodist preacher, but she saw that quite alone. Will Rogers developed a passion for horses and he learned the use of the lariat. The chewing gum came later, when he was established. Talking about the days that followed the death of the Methodist dream, he once said:

"I was a kid in Oklahoma and had me a buddy and a little cattle ranch and I sold my cows for about $7,000 and took my buddy and went to New Orleans, figuring on catching a boat for the Argentine, because I had seen a map or read a dime novel or something. Well, there weren't any boats, so we took a boat for New York, figuring to catch one there.

"But New York didn't have any Argentine line either, so my buddy said I ought go to England; and we went to England and caught a boat there, and by the time we got to Rio I was just about broke and my buddy was homesick, so I paid his way back and got me a job on a ranch, thinkin' I could rope.

"Well, those gauchos down there taught me different, swishin' a lasso over my head from twenty feet behind and downin' a cow better than I can shoot a guy with a Winchester. So I worked awhile and then worked my way to South Africa on a cattle boat, and there I joined up with a little Wild West show, doing a roping act.

"From South Africa I went to Australia, where I worked with the Wirth shows, owned by Mae Wirth's daddy. Then I went to Japan and China, and then to San Francisco, and from there I bummed my way back home, and a feller told my dad he didn't think I had done so well because he heard I came home wearing overalls for underdrawers.

"Well, that only goes to show the success magazines are full of bunk when they write about a fellow winning fame and fortune by working hard and sticking to one job. All of you know, as well as I do, it was some accident started you off on the right track, but you ain't going to tell the reporters that, the next time they interview you."

How He Won First Fame

The "accident" seems to have been a cow. The tradition is that one day, while Mr. Rogers was playing in the Wild West show in New York, one of the animals got free. He captured it with the rope, got into the public eye and so was hired for a turn on the Hammerstein Roof. This was in 1905. He went from the roof to vaudeville, back to the roof and then to Ziegfeld, and was there almost ever after, at least as long as he remained on Broadway.

A legend has grown up on Broadway about the transition from pantomime to monologue in the early Rogers vaudeville act. One of his most difficult tricks was the double lassoing of a horse and rider. Two ropes and a good deal of concentration and hope were required, but the finer nuances of the job were lost on the drug store cowboys in the balcony.

He Finds His Voice

Some one told Rogers that he ought to explain what he was getting at. He did and these are handed down as the first words ever spoken by the national commentator before an audience:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I want to call your sho nuff attention to this next little stunt I'm agoing to pull on you, as I am going to throw these two ropes at once, catching the horse with one and the rider with the other. I don't have any idea that I'll get in, but here goes."

The audience laughed and Rogers was angry. He had not meant to be funny. He was just being himself. For a long time afterward he could not be induced to say another word, but finally he did, and he said later it was "the luckiest thing" he ever did. For a while he confined himself to comments on the other acts in the show, but finally he began searching for other material.

He turned naturally to the newspapers, scanning the late editions of the evening papers and sometimes the early editions of the morning papers just before going on for his act, often managing to get off a pithy comment on some occurrence in the day's news before his audience knew of the event itself. This was the origin of one of his first widely quoted wisecracks:

"All I know is what I read in the papers."

In a little while Rogers was twirling his rope and amusing the patrons at Hammerstein's Roof with his comments on personalities and events. He appeared in Ziegfeld's "Follies" and the "Frolics" for more than six years and at the opening of one of them remarked:

"Yes, a first night at the Follies is quite a function. Every one brings his new wife to see the old one act."

Made Many Silent Films

In 1919 Will Rogers abandoned the stage and went to Hollywood to make some silent pictures. Not unqualified successes, some of them were: "Two Wagons, Both Covered," "Doubling for Romeo," "Boys Will Be Boys," "Family Fits," "Jubilo," "Our Congressman," "Going to Congress," "Gee Whiz, Genevieve" and a series of shorts called "Strolling Through Europe With Will Rogers." In 1922 he returned to the "Follies" and remained on Broadway until the talkies came. Then he made "They Had to See Paris."

When Fred Stone was hurt, Mr. Rogers took his friend's place in "Three Cheers." Charles Dillingham, its producer, used to send the comedian his salary in the form of a signed check, permitting Mr. Rogers to fill in the amount. When the show went on the road he returned to Hollywood and appeared in "So This Is London," "Lightnin'," "A Connecticut Yankee," "Ambassador Bill," "Young as You Feel," "Business and Pleasure" and other pictures.

Other items, besides the usual collection of stories about him, were various. He was married in 1908 to Betty Blake of Oolagah and they had three children. Will Rogers got up a family polo team which did pretty well for a time. "Had to give it up," he said finally. "Mary (a daughter) went society on us." And then there was the undoubted fact that in Claremore is a hotel--"with more bathrooms than Buckingham Palace"--called The Will Rogers.

When he went to Hollywood his studio built him a place. There was a garden and adobe hut and cactus and an electric stove. He looked in, said it was "swell" and never went back until former President Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge came later in the year to call. "Well," he explained after he had seen them there, "they had to sit somewhere, didn't they?" He played dangerous polo, "because you couldn't make my mug look any worse no matter how much I hurt it." He owned a hurdy-gurdy, the only instrument he could play.

In 1927 Mr. Rogers went to Mexico at the same time as Colonel Lindbergh and was the guest of Ambassador Dwight Morrow. When the drought struck the West in 1931 he started a campaign for money and barnstormed over the country raising it. It was he who in 1930 made the suggestion that a silver cup be awarded by the American people to the "world's most cheerful loser," Sir Thomas Lipton. This last was done. He went to Europe at least a half dozen times, receiving the welcome accorded mostly to crowned heads.

He contributed widely to magazines and newspapers and the "box" published daily The New York Times was syndicated to about 500 newspapers in the United States and Canada, as was a weekly article of comment. He wrote several books, among them, "Rogerisms," a collection of his wisecracks; "The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition, 1919," "The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference," and "What We Laugh At, 1920." In 1924 his "Illiterate Digest" was greeted as one of the funniest books of the year.

Once an interviewer asked him for his recipe for humor and Rogers replied:

"A gag to be any good has to be fashioned about some truth. The rest you get by your slant on it and perhaps by a wee bit of exaggeration, so's people won't miss the point."

A few years ago Mr. Rogers came one evening to The Times office and was shown around by the publisher. They reached the composing room, where the comedian was recognized. A small crowd grouped around. Suddenly taking his hat in his hand and waving it, he yelled: "We want more pay and less work!"

It was that sort of scene he did best.

© Derrick Hampson