A cross-generational list of the most recognized American comedians would include Bob Hope, George Burns, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman and Eddie Murphy. Will Rogers was all of them and more. He was the biggest movie box office attraction of his day. He was a radio star and a nationally syndicated columnist. And he was a "favorite-son" nominee for President of the United States.
In this superbly researched biography of Will Rogers, which delves even into his tax returns, our century's plaster-saint humorist is shown to be the moody, temperamental, shrewd, scathing and vain man he sometimes was --without being "decanonized." Ben Yagoda, assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware, rescues Will Rogers, nearly 60 years after his death, from being reduced to a question on "Jeopardy": Famous Quotations--for $50--who said, "I never met a man I didn't like"?
Yagoda refreshingly tells us that, of course, there \o7 were \f7 people Will Rogers didn't like. Among them were President Warren G. Harding and Chicago Mayor "Big" Bill Thompson. In a foot-noted account of a pol's pique, Yagoda quotes Mayor Thompson's reaction to a Will Rogers column on the mayor's plan for a lottery to solve Chicago's Depression woes: "All I have to say," Thompson stated, "is that if Will Rogers has made so much money that his head is so swelled that he thinks it is so funny to crack jokes about people who are starving, I hope to God he goes broke and gets hungry himself and he won't crack jokes anymore about those who have to accept charity." Yagoda adds that Thompson was voted out of office in the following year.
If the millions who were devoted to Will Rogers' radio broadcasts and newspaper columns had shared Mayor Thompson's narrow conclusion, i.e., it's not funny to make jokes about starving people, the humorist would never have attained most popular person in America status. As Yagoda tells us, " . . . through a peculiarly American process, Will Rogers would become someone the mere mention of whose name would call up a well-delineated image, complete with homely details, broad brush strokes of feeling, and a certain singular way of looking at the world. He wouldn't be a person anymore: he would be a national presence." It was more than a presence; it was an influence leading someone at the time to declare that "there will never be another war in the country unless Will is for it."
William Penn Adair Rogers, whose father was one-quarter Cherokee, was born in 1879 near Oolagah, Oklahoma Territory. Will was very proud of his Native American heritage. Indeed, when courting his sweetheart, Betty Blake, Will would sign his love letters, "your injun cowboy." Before he was 25, he had performed in ragtag Wild West carnivals in Argentina, Australia and South Africa as a non-speaking "dumb act" doing rope tricks.
Young Will took more than a few drinks, and suddenly the ladies were attracted to this personable American cowpoke. Although the rope act was his forte, at parties he regaled folks with the type of minstrel songs that were performed at the turn of the century by both black and white performers.
Back in the States, he became a hit in Vaudeville and began speaking on stage--initially in the form of recovery lines when a rope trick went awry: "I'm a little bit handicapped up here. The manager don't even let a fellow cuss a little when he misses."
His career got a boost, when as a relatively obscure performer, Rogers became the first known comedian to tell a joke about a President when that President was in the audience. The stoic Woodrow Wilson threw his head back and laughed, thereby defining what all future politicians must do when on the receiving end of a joke--whether or not amused.
The book contains welcome examples of Rogers' wit that contradict the prevailing image of a kindly soul whose gentle criticisms were more folksy than acerbic. After hearing that Rogers' had told a (mild) joke about his golfing, President Harding took offense and canceled a scheduled visit to the comedian's show. "The next night Will struck back. Referring to a fire that had recently damaged the Treasury Building, he said, 'The fire started on the roof and burned down and down until it got to the place where the money ought to be and there it stopped. A fire in the Treasury Building is nothing to get excited about in a Republican administration.' " One wonders if Will would have pulled the punch had the President shown up that night in the audience.
A heretofore unknown cockiness is evident when Will "once shared a bill with an act called the Cherry Sisters--whose distinction was their complete lack of talent but who were blissfully unaware of that fact. Will remarked that the act must have been named before lemons were discovered --whereupon, according to a newspaper account, the older sister had him arrested."