This is the grave of Will Rogers.
Born in 1878 on his parents ranch in the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory, Rogers grew up the son of mixed Cherokee-white parents. They actively identified as Cherokee, not only living in Indian Territory but raising their son in Cherokee culture. I feel like this is something often not known about Rogers, but maybe it was just me learning this fairly late. Much later, speaking to the American obsession with connecting themselves to pioneers, Rogers stated that his ancestors were not on the Mayflower, but they “met the boat.” Rogers’ father, like many Cherokee, had been a slaveholder and fought for the Confederacy. He remained a leader in the Cherokee, including as a judge. He also helped manage the Cherokee response to the opening of land to white settlement, which was of course a massive swindle from Native peoples. Later, he would serve in the Oklahoma state senate.
Rogers had an unhappy childhood. His mother died when he was young and his father was a stern man who did not take to his boy’s easygoing character and penchant for jokes. He was sent to military school and dropped out to be a cowboy after the 10th grade, definitely not making his father happy. In 1902, he went to Argentina in search of adventure and worked as a gaucho for awhile. He invested in a ranch there but it failed. So he then went to South Africa and worked as a cowboy there. This was not a normal path for a young man in the early 20th century. While in South Africa, he began perfecting his rope tricks and started working a cowboy show there. From there, he was on to Australia where he did the same thing. He returned to the U.S. in 1904 and did his rope tricks at the St. Louis World Fair. That was successful so he hit the vaudeville circuit.
Rogers first reached public acclaim in 1905. He was working a show at Madison Square Garden in New York when a cow got out of control and went into the crowd. Rogers saved the day by roping it and getting it under control. People were impressed and he got a lot of newspaper coverage. He spent the next decade mostly working in New York, though in traveling shows too. This was the era of the cowboy romance. The “settlement” of the West by whites launched this incredible and insatiable nostalgia among eastern whites for the West. Thus the rise of the dime novel, the popularity of Owen Wister’s The Virginian and other similar books, Theodore Roosevelt reinventing himself by playing cowboy, etc. Rogers thus had a really big audience for his work.
It isn’t surprising that Hollywood came calling. He had the looks and westerns were the first popular mass genre in American film history, something that would remain true for a half-century. He also was smart and witty and put on a good show. Hollywood couldn’t take advantage of his wit yet, but he did play well in the movies. He was frustrated by not being able to speak since that had become such a big part of his act. But he made a ton of movies and a ton of money on those movies. In fact, he even became mayor of Beverly Hills for awhile, though that was more a ceremonial position! Sound only helped him. He became one of the talkies first big stars. John Ford cast him in Judge Priest, which was also the film in which Ford brought back Henry Walthall from Birth of a Nation (he was the KKK-leading hero) to give a southern nationalist performance, in order to honor his hero D.W. Griffith. Ugh. I hate that film, though not really because of Rogers. Mostly, Rogers just played himself at this time, even improvising lines based on whatever witticisms he was working through on a given day.
Now, Rogers claimed to be apolitical. This was sort of true. He wasn’t really ideological. What he was though was a channel for the dislike people have about politics. The politics without politics world is always powerful and Rogers was the kind of guy who would have liked to say “why can’t these people just work together?” Knowing that they wouldn’t, he channeled a kind of contempt toward politics for most of his career. He was able to do so not only in his performances but far more effectively through print. In 1922, the New York Times brought him for a weekly column, which he wrote until his death. By 1926, he wrote a daily column that reached 40 million people through syndication. Few people were more influential than Rogers but again, he mostly showed contempt when it came to politics. He supported Coolidge in 1924 but by 1932 became a FDR supporter, disgusted by the lack of attention paid to poor farmers in the Great Depression. His 1931 poverty tour after 500 farmers in Arkansas stormed a county courthouse was the most political thing he had done. He finally moved off his relatively apolitical stance by supporting the New Deal though of course he still told jokes about government spending. In these years, Rogers was everywhere all the time. He went on lecture tours. He talked on the radio. He had his columns. He appeared in the movies. He was probably the most popular star of his day. He even went on European tours, which in an isolationist age brought more foreign news to everyday Americans than they would get otherwise.
Rogers became a huge fan of airplanes. He loved them. He wrote about it all the time. Europe was significantly ahead of the U.S. in aviation by the mid-20s, having already established commercial air service when this was largely unknown in the U.S. He flew a lot on his lecture tours to promote the idea. In 1935, his friend Wiley Post was surveying a new air route across Alaska. That was a place Rogers hadn’t been. So he asked to come along. But after landing near Point Barrow to ask directions, the plane crashed in takeoff. Both Rogers and Post were killed. Rogers was 55 years old.
Will Rogers is buried at the Will Rogers Museum, Claremore, Oklahoma. I have to talk about this place a little bit. First, this is a huge museum. Who is going to this in 2021? More on this in a second though. There are rooms with his stuff, rooms where you can watch clips, and rooms with the ever boring dioramas that someone once thought had value I guess. If you ever wanted to see a diorama of Will Rogers dying in a plane crash, this is definitely the museum for you! But the other thing about this place is that it was absolutely packed with buses from Christian schools and little evangelicals running through the halls. And i couldn’t help but wonder what the heck they were getting from this? What is the story of Rogers they find useful enough to do this? He was a man of the people, OK, whatever that means today. For these people, Rogers is probably a man of the people like that real true populist Donald Trump. I was there in June. You think there was a single person wearing a mask? Ha ha ha ha ha, oh hell no. Anyway, given that Rogers was largely nonpolitical, I don’t know that they could really spin him as some conservative icon. The whole experience was really weird.
If you would like this series to visit other cowboy stars of the early 20th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William S. Hart is in Brooklyn and Tom Mix is in Forest Lawn, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.