I love stories, and the colorful saga of America's past offers up many great ones. An epochal tale from the Depression-era early '30s is the rich and multifaceted story of the bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde.
It starts out with a dark psychological component—Clyde, at age 20, was sexually assaulted while being held at a notoriously corrupt and brutal prison. He conspired to kill his attacker, which was the first time he became a murderer. His undying hatred of the abusive guards led to his often-repeated pledge never to be taken alive. His sister said that he came out of prison a different man, and a friend said "Clyde went from being a schoolboy to a rattlesnake."
Bonnie and Clyde's historical significance is that they inspired significant developments in law enforcement techniques. Nowadays they get lost in a haze of romantic myth, but one fact that goes missing amidst the lore and legend is that Clyde Barrow depended heavily on the latest technology at the time. The gang traveled from state to state using a succession of stolen cars. They almost always stole the then-new Ford V-8s, which were significantly faster and more powerful than most cars on the road at the time. (Clyde was proud of his driving skills.) In terms of firepower he was similarly high tech, partial to the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) stolen from a military Armory. Not quite a rifle and not quite a machine gun, the long-lived BAR was never a complete success as a military weapon but it was utterly overwhelming against the small revolvers normally carried by local police and bank guards in the early 1930s.
These technologies help explain the length of Bonnie and Clyde's outlaw rampage, which lasted more than two years. For most of that time, they had faster cars and bigger guns than everyone who was trying to catch them.
What really made Bonnie and Clyde famous, though, were photographs. After a particularly desperate shootout with police in Joplin, Missouri, in which two officers were killed, the gang made a very narrow getaway and had to leave many of their possessions behind. Included were a camera and several rolls of film. Developed later by a local newspaper, the film was a gold mine, with many pictures showing the outlaws striking menacing poses. One of the most famous shows the petite Bonnie chomping on a cigar and holding a pistol rakishly at her hip. Although they were probably essentially clowning around with the camera—they were quite young, Bonnie and Clyde being 24 and 25 respectively at the time of their deaths—the pictures were quickly reproduced in newspapers all over the country and elevated the pair to national prominence. They've never not been well known since.
If the photographs created the legend, Clyde's motive of getting even with the Texas correctional system was probably the most immediate cause of their deaths. He engineered a prison break at his old prison which embarrassed the Texas authorities, and a former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, cooperating with the agency that was later renamed the FBI, was put in charge of a posse to hunt the outlaws down. Ironically, it was one of the prisoners liberated by Clyde in the prison break, Henry Methvin, who betrayed him, and whose father was used as a decoy at the ambush. The famous movie, one of director Arthur Penn's best, is broadly accurate to history but deliberately creates a number of simplifications for the sake of smooth narrative flow. One is that the movie combines Methvin and gang member W.D. Jones into one fictional character, "C.W. Moss."
Jones was in reality an interesting character in his own right. Still a teenager in his months with the Barrow gang, he was always loyal to Bonnie and Clyde but also made several attempts to escape from them. Not till he was finally jailed did he "feel safe." A Playboy interview in middle age revealed that he felt the movie slandered him by implying he had betrayed Bonnie and Clyde when actually it was Methvin who had done so. He never romanticized his outlaw days; he reportedly told some teenagers at a showing of the movie, "take it from an old man who was there, it was hell." Seven years after the movie was released, Jones was murdered during an altercation by a man who was afraid of him because of his reputation and was taking no chances. His age is a matter of dispute but he was probably 58.
At the time of their deaths Bonnie and Clyde had each been badly wounded several times, and all their companions had been captured or killed. Bonnie's leg had been horribly burned down to the bone by battery acid during a car accident, severely crippling her (it's a minor wonder that they were able to keep going repeatedly despite the lack of medical attention). The car they were in was moving as the posse shot hundreds of rounds into it (the lawmen were temporarily deafened afterwards) and a large, unruly crowd gathered before the authorities could regain control of the scene. People mobbed the car and took anything they could lay their hands on as souvenirs, even attempting to cut body parts off the dead gangsters. The bullet-riddled car later toured the country as a spectacle for the curious.
Also somewhat of an irony is that although the lawmen fired something like 160 rounds at the car, leaving each of the bodies with somewhere between 17 and 53 entry wounds (accounts vary), Clyde Barrow was probably killed instantly by one of the first two shots, which struck him directly in the head.
Another misconception put forth by the film was also probably influenced by a photograph. Estelle Parsons won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Blanche Barrow, the wife of Clyde's brother Buck. Parson's Blanche is ditzy and hysterical, flustered and traumatized by her experiences and often barely holding it together. It's a great performance. The real-life Blanche, however, who seems to have been hard-boiled and unsentimental, objected to the movie, saying Parsons made her look like "a screaming horse's ass."
The characterization might well have come from a photograph made of Blanche at her capture, which catches her looking frightened and crying out. Her explanation was that she had been partially blinded by shards of flying glass from car windows during a shootout (she was blind in her left eye for the rest of her life), and she said when she saw the camera pointed at her she thought it was a gun and that she was about to be shot. Her mortally wounded husband lies on the ground yards away, and she had been crying out, "don't die, Daddy, don't die."
Blanche was later remarried to a man who looked very much like Buck Barrow. She lived to be 77 and in later life was a Sunday school teacher, but was always kept under close watch by the authorities.
I don't know about the relative merits of any of the available books about Bonnie and Clyde (does anyone else?), or of a good book of pictures, but apart from the Arthur Penn film, there's an "American Experience" episode about them. I haven't seen it, but those shows are typically pretty well done.
[UPDATE: I streamed this last night—it's free on Amazon Prime—and it's characteristically excellent. Good show, but especially as regards the wealth of photographs they show, from many different archives, historical societies, newspaper archives, and collectors. —MJ]
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Featured Comments from:
Ken Cobb: "You may remember in the movie when the young couple (the man played by Gene Wilder, his first movie I think) went after the gang when his car was stolen. The couple was eventually captured by Bonnie and Clyde, but were later let go after Gene Wilder's character revealed he worked as an undertaker at a funeral home.
"I grew up in Ruston, Louisiana, where the two people lived and where the car was stolen. The woman's name in the movie was Velma Davis. Her real name was Sophie Stone Cook, and she eventually became a Home Economics teacher at Ruston High School, and taught there for many years. My Mother was one of her students back in the '50s. Of course, the students always asked Mrs. Cook what happened that day, once they discovered who she was. At the time, according to my mom, all she said was 'they were the worst white trash you can imagine,' and generally wouldn't talk about it.
"After the movie came out my Mom talked to Mrs. Cook again. She was very unhappy about how she was portrayed. They made it look like a joy ride or a lark, but in reality they were terrified the whole time they were kidnapped. They thought they would be killed at any moment. And Bonnie and Clyde weren't spooked when they found out the man was an undertaker; instead they laughed about it and joked saying, 'maybe you'll embalm us one of these days.'
"Less than a year after the kidnapping Bonnie and Clyde were killed about 30 miles away from Ruston, outside Arcadia, Louisiana. Sophie Cook and the undertaker (Dillard Darby) were brought in to identify the bodies."
Daniel: "And here I sit with three prints of Bonnie and Clyde on the slab in the morgue as well as their bullet-riddled car—smuggled out of the lab by the technician. Interesting images. Wonder what they may be worth today, if anything?"
Mike replies: Here is a list of auction houses and appraisers. Probably art dealers would not have as good an idea on something like that since the appeal is not the object but the association. A smaller auction house that likes Americana and curiosities is probably what you're looking for but I can't think of any names off the top of my head.
c.d.embrey: "Burnett Guffey, DP [director of photography] of Bonnie and Clyde, won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. This was the last time the award was won with a non-reflex/rackover camera. I saw Mr. Guffy speak at the American Film Institute in the early 1970s. He had some interesting stories to tell about the making of Bonnie and Clyde.
"For the gear-geeks here's a video about the non-reflex/rackover Mitchell 35mm camera. The first half talks about the history of #5 and the last half shows the technology. I worked with Sam Dodge, a real character, back in the 1970s."