An American for All Time

It is Oct. 30, 2010, at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A 60-year-old rally-goer is comparing Will Rogers with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.

“[Rogers] made America feel good during hard times, and he did it with fun,” the rally-goer says. “He’d just stand around with that little Oklahoma drawl, doing rope tricks. He kind of had a fireside chat with the American people, like Roosevelt did. I mean the guy was a legend.”

The rally-goer got the “legend” part right, and Stewart’s style of satire does beg comparison, but in his time, Will Rogers was more popular, more influential and had a bigger market share than Stewart or any other entertainer since, says Steve Gragert, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums in Claremore and Oologah, Okla.

“At the time of his death [in 1935], Will was reaching 40 million readers at a time when the population was only 120 million,” Gragert says. “That’s one in three Americans. He also had the highest-rated radio program on Sunday evenings.”

Don’t forget that Rogers authored books and magazine articles and traveled on lecture tours all while producing his newspaper columns, “Daily Telegrams,” Gragert says. Also, during a six-year period, Rogers starred in 21 highly acclaimed motion pictures, taking top box office status in 1934 and becoming Hollywood’s highest-paid actor of the time.

It was Rogers’ plain-speaking, often self-deprecating humor that resonated with people. He poked fun at the prominent and the elite, but never at underdogs—even underdogs who had once been elite themselves (“I’m always agin’ the party that’s up,” he said).

With his sense of fair play, work ethic and openness to new technology and media, Rogers set an inspiring example to others seeking to better themselves, particularly as they faced the stark realities of the Depression years.

 

Catching the Breaks

“The successful don’t work any harder than the failures. They get what is called in baseball the ‘breaks.’”

Rogers would be the first to say he got “the breaks”—a lot of breaks, in fact. Born Nov. 4, 1879, in a log house in the Cherokee Nation near what is today Oologa, Okla., Rogers was a true son of the frontier. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, was a prosperous rancher, a Cherokee judge, senator, banker and businessman. His mother, Mary America Schrimsher, was someone usually described as a “Methodist churchwoman.”

Both parents were part Cherokee, and Will himself was considered 9/32 Cherokee. Clem named his eighth and final child after Col. William Penn Adair, the Confederate Indian battalion chief he had served under during the Civil War.

Though Clem had lost a profitable ranching operation because of the war, he was an expert horseman and shrewd businessman. After the war, he bought Texas longhorn cattle for $1 a head, fattened them on native bluestem grass, then drove them north to sell at a Kansas railhead for $40 a head. Clem’s labor costs were minimal, there was no income tax and Will grew up the son of a wealthy man. He was also privileged in other ways, being raised in a progressive household. Mary was a talented musician, and she turned the seven-room, log-walled house into a gracious and luxurious home, writes Ben Yagoda in Will Rogers: A Biography.

Will grew up working hard on his father’s ranch, but he wasn’t the stereotypical cowboy; he didn’t carry a gun and didn’t care about hunting or fishing either. As the son of a wealthy and indulgent father and with little patience for routine, he would often take off to visit friends in Texas or to enter roping contests.

One of his father’s ranch hands, a freed slave, had taught Will to do rope tricks. It was this skill, along with what Rogers called a series of “breaks,” that led him from roping cattle to making an unsuccessful go of it as a gaucho in Argentina, then to working his way to South Africa to perform in a Wild West show, then to Europe,

Australia and eventually back to the United States, where he did rope tricks for vaudeville audiences.

During a show in New York, Rogers bungled a rope trick and made an ad lib comment that got laughs. At first he was chagrined, but the theater manager told him to consider the laughs a compliment and encouraged him to incorporate his lighthearted observations into his act. Rogers began by modestly explaining his act, never abandoning his Oklahoma drawl, and then moved on to commenting about everyone from congressmen to world leaders. Soon he was headlining in the Ziegfeld Follies, and book contracts followed.

In 1922, Rogers began writing syndicated Sunday newspaper columns that would eventually run in 500 newspapers, including The New YorkTimes. His spelling was atrocious and his grammar worse, but editors were forbidden to correct either. Rogers joked that when he misspelled a few words, he was called ignorant, but when he misspelled all the words, he was called a “humorist.”

While most writers would have been satisfied with being the most popular newspaper columnist and one of the best-paid authors in the country, Rogers was ever willing to take on new challenges.

Another lucky break was the advent of the new communications media, particularly radio. His weekly show, The Gulf Headliners, which aired Sunday evenings from 1930 through 1935, was one of the most popular radio programs in the country.

“A lot of people get breaks, and they don’t take advantage of them,” Gragert says. “Will Rogers was also given opportunities, and he seized them. He was in a transitional period of the change in communications and entertainment that came along in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many other performers didn’t seize the opportunities that came along. But Rogers did: in vaudeville, in syndicated newspaper columns, motion pictures, the recorded sound on phonographs. Anything that came along, Rogers didn’t shy away of it.”

 

A Man of Influence

“It’s great to be great, but it’s greater to be human.”

Richard White, author of Will Rogers: A Political Life, says Rogers completely dominatedall aspects of the media for about a15-year period. “Will was up there withMark Twain, maybe a little bit of [journalistH.L.] Mencken. But his dominance of themedia was untouched.”

True, some of Rogers’ success was serendipitous, White says. As sound movies came in and radio took off, he was there at the right time. And he marketed himself well. But despite having only a 10th-grade education, Rogers was highly perceptive of the potential of the new media. And he wasn’t afraid of hard work.

“He was very bright,” White says. “He was very ambitious, and he was very energetic. He had a good sense of who the American people were, and he spoke to them. He didn’t try to put anything over on anyone. His natural honesty came out right at the beginning. He liked people, and he wanted people to like him. Everything just seemed to click.”

 

Roping in Politicians

“When a party can’t think of anything else they always fall back on lower taxes. It has a magic sound to a voter just like Fairyland is spoken of and dreamed of by children. But no child has ever seen it. Neither has any voter ever lived to see the day when his taxes were lowered.”

Rogers’ rise to multimedia dominance came during the Depression and the onset of Prohibition. Ray Robinson writes in American Original: A Life of Will Rogers that during those dark years, “the man from Oklahoma stuck out among us as a flashing tower of sanity. And people listened to him. Historians and economists tried to remind us that there had been previous depressions and that the Republic had survived. But we needed the droll, jovial gags of Will Rogers to make us keep our feet on the ground.”

It wasn’t just his delivery, but also his message. “People wanted the truth,” White says. “People didn’t trust the media that much, and here was a man who spoke their language, made the same grammatical mistakes they did and had come up the hard way.”

He was the first entertainer to go beyond making jokes from the stage to targeting U.S. presidents. His first presidential gibe on the stage was directed toward President Woodrow Wilson, who took the joke in good humor. In his first book, Rogerisms:The Cowboy Philosopher on the PeaceConference, Rogers wrote that Wilson’s World War I peace treaty read “like a foreclosure.”

Rogers had a way of criticizing without being personal. He did not do personal attacks, as many of today’s political commentators do. He criticized policy, not the man, and did so with great humor. “He was able to walk that fine line and be very successful at it,” White says.

As Rogers’ popularity grew, White and other historians say he began to influence national policy.

Rogers was a staunch Democrat—with reservations. (“I’m not a member of any organized party—I’m a Democrat.”) But more than being a member of a political party, he was on the side of the workingman, even after he joined the ranks of the wealthy.

“The most unemployed or the hungriest man in America has contributed in some way to the wealth of every millionaire in America. It was the big boys themselves who thought this financial drunk we were going through was going to last forever. They over-merged and over-capitalized and over-everything else. That’s the fix we’re in now,” Rogers wrote.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Rogers advocated President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs as a fix to the fix that the wealthy elite had gotten America into. Historians say Rogers’ advocacy of the New Deal played an essential role in winning public approval for the legislation. His nationally syndicated 30-minute radio show aired before the president’s 30-minute fireside chats and drew more listeners. The promotion of the New Deal was a team effort between Rogers and his president. “They knew what each other was going to say; they were very close,” White says.

Rogers also helped influence U.S. policy with his stance against Prohibition. He saw it more as a means to an end for some politicians than as a moral issue. Worse, it didn’t work, he said.

“Why don’t they pass a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as Prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth,” Rogers wrote.

Beyond the United States, Rogers was “a major force” in world policy, as well, White says. “He traveled the world and met with all the world leaders. There was an open-door policy for him at the White House and in the Senate cloakroom.”

Rogers, who had traveled the world several times, also was a leading proponent of aviation. It was his love of flying that led to his untimely death at 55 in the crash of a small plane piloted by renowned aviator Wiley Post near Point Barrow, Alaska. Like all things he did, the crash was part of a larger-than-life effort, that of preparing for the world’s first transpolar flight.

Rogers was survived by Betty, his wife of more than 25 years, three children and a stunned nation. In The Quotable Will Rogers, author Joseph Carter recounts, “Networks were silenced for 30 minutes observing his death. Planes towing black banners flew over New York. More than 50,000 people marched past his bier. His statue was mounted in the nation’s capitol so that he could ‘keep an eye on Congress.’ ”

What made Rogers such an important figure, White says, was “his honesty, his method of getting to the point of the matter. He filled a need then. It’s a need we have today, that isn’t being filled. He was completely unique, yet still an everyday American.”

Yagoda summed up this uniqueness: “For there to be another Will Rogers today, he (or she) would have to combine the separate attributes of Johnny Carson, Roy Rogers, Clark Clifford, Walter Cronkite, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Russell Baker, H. Ross Perot and James Reston. It just can’t happen. Which is all the more reason to take a look back on how it once did.”

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