- Gene Autry with his movie, radio, and television sidekick Pat Buttram, c.1953.
Britney and mutant turtles aside, it’s hard to imagine American kids once hung their dreams on a sequin-costumed Hollywood cowpoke named Gene Autry. Adults, too, were charmed by The Singing Cowboy, making him a celebrity from the 1930s to the 1950s, through 650 recordings and 93 B-movie horse operas. Hardly a steady rider nor agile roper, Orvon Grover Autry would cash in mightily as America’s camera-ready version of the mythic Western figure. Not bad for a dirt-poor Texan farmboy.
Phoenicia resident Holly George-Warren has celebrated and deconstructed the American western in a series of articles and books like How the West was Worn: A History of Western Wear and Cowboy! How Hollywood Invented the Wild West. After five years of research, she recently completed the first full-length biography of Autry, a book she calls “a dream project, because all my crazy obsessions were rolled into one package.” Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry rides into bookstores this month, and into a reading at Joshua’s restaurant in Woodstock on May 12.
The genesis of Public Cowboy began a decade ago. George-Warren wrangled an interview with Autry, then 89 and ailing with cancer, for the New York Times to discuss a new CD repackaging of his signature “Back in the Saddle Again” and other hit songs. Starry-eyed but shrewd, George-Warren donned a cowgirl outfit for the interview. The old man flirted up a storm, and expressed gratitude for his years of fame. The resulting article impressed Autry and his retinue. So much so that after he died, George-Warren was tapped to tell his story.
Given unprecedented access to personal letters, photos, newspaper clippings, and business papers, George-Warren says she’s written an outsized tome in an effort to prove that “this guy was the original rock star. He set the template for Elvis.” Whether holding forth on the record industry, the movie business, or rodeos, the author shows a sure command of her subject. While her penchant for illuminating the significant and arcane equally may weary some readers, the book remains an impressive work of scholarship.
At his peak, Autry was a cultural juggernaut. In addition to the piles of cash raked in from records, movies, and rodeo appearances, he wisely licensed hundreds of products, from comic books to bedspreads to breakfast cereal. But he also was charitable, quietly sending checks for years to dissolute family members and washed-up western stars.
Autry recognized the moral heft of his cornpone cowboy act. Describing the impact of his radio programs on young listeners, he told a reporter, “That’s the sort of thing that will do more to knock any Communist, Nazi, or other such ideas out of their heads than anything else.” His music started out as earthy hillbilly odes to drinking moonshine and flophouse floozies, detoured briefly to children’s songs like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and ultimately took in anthems to God and country. Exploiting a faux-cowboy stance to manipulate mainstream values did not begin with our sitting president.
But even rodeo saints inevitably betray feet of clay. George-Warren dutifully records Autry’s ongoing battle with the bottle and his pursuit of co-star Gail Davis, resulting in an affair of several years, to the chagrin of his wife. Yet Gene Autry remains an immense figure in 20th-century entertainment, not least because he embodied the fantasy of an untarnished hero. “He believed the myths,” George-Warren says. As Autry guilelessly told the author that afternoon in 1997, “I just want to be what people want me to be.”
Holly George-Warren will read and sign copies of Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry on May 12 from 5 to 7 pm upstairs at Joshua's in Woodstock. (845) 679-5533; www.joshuascafe.com.