Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of Gene Autry
A pop hero of huge proportions, Gene Autry has posed special problems for any biographer. He was an “eye on the prize” go-getter, reluctant to reveal much about his impoverished Oklahoma upbringing and often dysfunctional, dependent family; recalcitrant about providing any details on the early evolution of his musical career; and on top of all that, having attached himself to a Boy Scout public image that was considerably different from his ongoing life, he was wary about discussing his present. And he lived a long time.
Autry’s basic, for-public-consumption story remained pretty short: He’d been some sort of real cowboy, worked hard and became a singing cowboy, a recording artist and movie star who was shrewd enough to become a multimillionaire and owner of the California Angels baseball team. If it may seem surprising that there’s never been a serious, revealing biography of the man, there have been reasons. But there is one now.
Holly George-Warren spent years piecing together the story behind the controlled “Public Cowboy No. 1” image through archival research and over 100 interviews. She shows us in great, highly readable detail who the man was. Autry inspired more kids to take up the guitar than anyone before Elvis; nailed the multimedia “branding” link between roots and pop music recording, screen stardom, and the sale of millions of lunchboxes and cap guns; and rivaled Bing Crosby as the most consistent pop singing success of the 1930s and early ’40s. (Nothing very cowboy-like about “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” or Autry’s excellent and sometimes “hotter” early turns on Jimmie Rodgers blues.)
The book portrays a man of extraordinary energy, with appetites to match. He could get all those “cowboys on horses beat gangsters in cars” movies finished on a breakneck schedule, make live appearances at rodeos he owned, fight with studio bosses over pay, find hit songs, and make a wide variety of often successful investments.
And he could teach the nation’s children the “Cowboy Code” (“A cowboy must never shoot first or take unfair advantage…He must always tell the truth…He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits…”) while in fact being a hard-drinking, randy womanizer who apparently charmed the chaps off of just about every co-star he ever knew or hired, as well as a string of groupies before the word existed.
But then, the screen success of the slightly pudgy, very clever man born Orvon Grover Autry was certainly based more on charm than athleticism or acting ability. With all his prowess in delivering a variety of emotions in song (and in some underappreciated guitar playing), he was always something of a stiff onscreen — and his down-home audiences (as the book shows, always well-cultivated and attended to) liked him all the better for doing it only a little better than they might have done themselves.
Public Cowboy No. 1 is not, understand, an exercise in debunking. George-Warren is a fan with a penchant for fact; when she got to interview Gene himself once, she reports, he was vague as always — and turned on all the charm, even in old age. Then she went about her business of freeing him from the corral of contrived myth, filling in the gaps in this story, and delivering a major contribution to our understanding of a unique figure in American pop culture.