Why the Barrows are so famous
Texas has had many colorful characters in it long history, but none have so fired the imagination and grabbed the attention of common people as these two young outlaws – Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. My first recollection of hearing about the daring exploits of the couple from Dallas was listening to my father and various uncles as they recounted the murders, robberies, and kidnapping reported in the newspapers. One uncle worked with Clyde when both young men were employed at Procter and Gamble, the giant soap maker in Dallas.
They were the subject of several books and massive newspaper coverage. After May 23, 1934, they began to fall from such attention. They were still popular figures in the national crime wave which struck America in the 1930’s. Clyde had long considered himself, a product of grinding poverty and a sense of big business robbing the “little fellow”, criminals captured the attention of a public eager for anything which give of relief to their lives. Clyde commented several times of how the police bothered him simply because he had a police record. Honest and decent people who would never think of being outlaws cheered as the couple slipped past roadblocks and the police eager to make their reputation as “gang busters.”
The “Romeo and Juliet of Crime” helped build their legend by sending letters and poems to the newspapers. Clyde sent a letter to Henry Ford and thanked him for making the Ford V8 model, his favorite “get-away car”. A roll of film left behind in a Missouri motel as they fought their way out gave curious insights to lives spent on the run. The most famous and widely published photograph showed Bonnie smoking a huge cigar. This pose possibly did more to cement Bonnie’s reputation as a gun moll than any of her actions. Bonnie swore she was photographed with a cigar as a joke, but her denials only served to make a better story. This was only one of the many times, the media stretched the truth or even fabricated an exploit. Into this quagmire of half truths and lies jumps E.R. Milner of Tarrant College, who has written the definitive study of the Southwest’s most famous and violent couple – Bonnie and Clyde.
The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde is an excellent chronology of the outlaws’ escapades. Beginning with the first criminal acts of Clyde, “a tiny man with a volcanic temper”. Milner notes that it was not until Bonnie and Clyde became a twosome and excited the imagination of the public that they rose above the common Depression era outlaw. Written from primary sources as well as interviews with victims and surviving gang members, Milner weaves an interesting tale. Naming each chapter after lines in Bonnie’s best known poem, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde”, Milner describes an almost daily routine of the couple. The weapons stolen from the National Guard Armories was shocking. They were as wellarmed as American soldiers going into battle.
The story is easy and fast reading, but somehow isn’t completely satisfying. It doesn’t answer some of the nagging questions and accusations tossed around for eighty-four years since their death on a lonely Louisiana road. For example, was Clyde impotent or a homosexual as hinted in the 1967 movie, “Bonnie and Clyde” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway? Was Bonnie, a love starved sex kitten and pregnant when killed?
The famous letter to Henry Ford can be read in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. This fine museum has made available many historic events and items in Texas history. It houses much information about characters told in the story of Bonnie and Clyde such as the electric chair “Old Sparky” in which Raymond Hamilton died. He was a part-time gang member and sometimes friends with Clyde. Much information about the couple is well told in the museum. A movie was made of the deathly ambush and aftermath as a crowd began to gather around the shot up 1934 Ford.
The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde is and excellent addition to the library of those interested in Texas history. The section concerning the “death car” is informative and interesting. The actual car is on display at a casino in Nevada. The book is available from Southern Illinois University. P.O. Box 3697, Carbondale, Illinois.