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Friday, October 23, 2020

Will Rogers Was No Damned Good

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back the late H. Allen Smith, whose wonderful books, beginning with the best-selling Low Man on a Totem Pole, carried on the tradition of Mark Twain and remain essential reading. He had a very salty sense of humor which, toward the end of his life, finally began to creep more obviously into his writing. Here’s one of his last pieces.

                                                                                                                                                             
AT THE RISK OF BEING SUSPENDED BY THE NECK from a cottonwood tree, I have in recent years been taking dead aim on the late Will Rogers and calling him somewhat of a fake and a fraud.

H. Allen Smith
This is a hazardous undertaking because Will Rogers ranks as one of the few American saints – a religion unto himself – like Abraham Lincoln and, dropping down the scale a few notches, the Reverend Billy Graham. In the last few years there has been a sharp recrudescence of interest in the Rogers mystique, owing in large part to the barnstorming tours of actor James Whitmore, who impersonates the cow-pasture chawbacon who himself was engaged in impersonating a cracker-barrel Virgil. The public has been flocking steadily to the Whitmore one-man shows, but then, as we know, the public is capable of impersonating a ass, a idiot.

My aim in this feuilleton is to tell a single anecdote that I think is amusing, with a kicker at the end, but it is needful that I first set down a few facts and a few personal opinions about the so-called Sage of Oolagah.

Was Rogers the “profound philosopher” some people called him? Horse withers! He had a much better education than I got. The great bulk of his writing and rambling stage talk was vapid and dull and had no art in it. He came up with a slight handful of gems, out of a vast output of spoken and written prose; those renowned six chimpanzees, put to work at typewriters, could have done better, given the time.

Consider his two most famous lines, the two most often quoted, even today in the Time of Enlightenment. “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Study it a moment. Is it wise? Witty? Hilarious? And then, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” That’s the line engraved at the base of the Will Rogers monument in Claremore, Oklahoma, and I have read that it was once printed on a United States postage stamp. In a book containing Rogers’ fragmentary writings I found a more credible rendering of the celebrated line – the way Rogers himself said he spoke it: “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I hardly ever met a man I didn’t like.” There is one hell of a heap of difference between “never” and “hardly ever.”

If he did say “I never met a man I didn’t like,” then, in my opinion, he was guilty of uttering one of the stupidest statements in all recorded history. Further than that, if he did say it that way he was speaking a large fib; he met me and he didn’t like me.

In truth he had the appearance of a rube and he sometimes put a straw in his mouth to point up the image. He cultivated that image assiduously. Gene Fowler, who knew him, told me that Rogers had a standing order with his tailor to turn out suits with built-in wrinkles, cuffs high off the floor, and baggy pants that would resist any pressing.

Rogers met me, the man he didn’t like, at the arena in Cheyenne where the annual Frontier Days rodeo is held. I was covering the 1928 event for the Denver Post. One afternoon word arrived in the press box that the great Will Rogers was wandering aimlessly around the infield and we reporters decided that it would be nice to have him sit with us so we could dress up our stories with comical Rogers commentary. I was designated a committee of one to go seek him out and invite him to come and watch the proceedings from a comfortable chair. I crossed the track and wandered around the dusty arena, and finally I found him. I introduced myself and told him how we would enjoy having him sit in the press box.

He told me to get lost. I persisted with the invitation, taking pains to avoid offending him –  actually I was somewhat shivery in the knees from being in the presence of the great man and talking to him. He advised me to hit the road.

“It’s real nice over there,” I assured him, “out of the sun, and if you should want a drink we’ve got some sugar moon, and we’d all be greatly honored if you’d join us.”

“Listen, kid,” he said brusquely, “go on back to your little press box and don’t come around bothering me. I don’t wanna sit in your little press box. Now, beat it, and leave me alone.”

The uncalled-for nastiness of the Oklahoma lard head nearly knocked me down. I wanted to speak a two-word expletive to him – an expletive that later became extremely popular in the armed forces of our land. But I stood there a moment in confusion and then I turned and made my way back and told the newspaper gang what he had said. They spoke the two-word expletive, changing the pronoun from “you” to “him.”

I was just past twenty at the time, and impressionable. I have read somewhere that when Irvin S. Cobb arrived in New York and got a job as a reporter he tried to interview a man he worshiped (as I do to this day) and Mark Twain was grossly rude to him. This experience all but scarred Irvin Cobb for life – he never really got over it. I was not scarred for life by Will Rogers. I don’t think I was scarred for more than twenty minutes. But I didn’t forget his insulting manner. At the time I had some vague idea that I might write a steaming magazine article about him, a vengeful thing to do, but I am human like most people. I have been insulted and rebuffed and kicked in the teeth many times, but the thing that rankled in this instance lay in the fact that I had been scornfully shoved aside by an American saint.

So from time to time I picked up bits of information about Rogers and I compiled a dossier enumerating his sins and his prevarications. A few fragments out of the dossier are contained in the paragraphs above.

And so we arrive at a day when I had finished a writing assignment in Hollywood and I found myself with several days to loaf. I phoned two of my friends, Fred Beck, the former Pooh-Bah of the Farmers Market in Los Angeles and a columnist of note, and Will Fowler, the writing son of Gene Fowler, who was one of the truly great men ever to cross my path and who, in my own book, rates sainthood.

I told Fred and Will of my anti-Rogers schemings and said that I planned on spending the next few days probing into the guy’s Hollywood years. Will Fowler said, “You need to get in touch with Harry Brand. He knew Rogers better than anybody else in this town.” Harry Brand is a smallish man, loaded with congeniality, who was for light-years head of publicity and promotion for Twentieth Century-Fox.

“Okay,” I said, “but I’d have to make a careful approach. I know Harry and he’s a good guy, but he is capable of sentimentality. He probably believes, like everyone else, that Will Rogers ought to be canonized.”

“What you need to do,” said Fred Beck, “is get on the phone and ask him a question about Will Rogers, a question that is preposterously scandalous, a question that will shock even old Harry. Then, to tout you off of that scurrilous angle – whatever it might be  – he will likely open up and give you some true stuff on Rogers, gossipy, offbeat stories that aren’t quite as shocking as the one you have given him.”

“Fine,” I said, “so let’s work up the question I can hit him with.”

The three of us tossed ideas around for a few minutes and after a while we came up with an acceptable gambit. I was to get Harry Brand on the phone, tell him I was doing research on Will Rogers, and ask him if it was true that when Rogers was working at Twentieth Century-Fox he had the dressing room next to little Shirley Temple’s. Was it true that Will Rogers had bored a hole in the wall so he could peer into Shirley Temple’s bathroom and watch the sweet little girl taking a pee?

“Great!” I said. “That ought to bring old Harry into line.”

Then and there, with Fred Beck and Will Fowler standing by, I put in the call. I got through to Harry Brand, whom I had known for a dozen years.

“Harry,” I said, “I’m working on a magazine article about Will Rogers and there’s a question I want to ask you.”

“Be happy to oblige,” said Harry. “What’s your particular angle on Will?”

“I’m going to kick the living bejesus out of him. He was a fraud from who-laid-the-chunk and I’m sick of his being set on a pedestal by the American people. On top of everything else he wasn’t funny, and furthermore ... ”

“Hold it, Allen!” Harry all but shrieked into the phone.

Let it be understood that Harry Brand has devoted most of his life to the public-relations arts, and that he is unable to think of anything or any person except in terms of good publicity. It is still his firm belief that a man is entitled to conceal his faults and emphasize his good points, even to the extent of manufacturing a fictional image of himself.

“Hold it, Allen!” he cried. “Good God Almighty, don’t be a fool! Don’t ever attack Will Rogers! You’ll be ruined for life! The entire American public will turn on you and reject you, and the newspapers will rip you to pieces. Nobody will ever buy your books again. Will Rogers is the one American you can never attack without suffering for it. You’d be ostracized.”

“Harry,” I said, “I’m not giving up on this. I’m going to put the kibosh on Rogers and his phony reputation. Every rural community in this country has its cracker-barrel philosopher, and usually his cracks about government and politicians are on a par with, or superior to, the vapidities of your old friend from Oklahoma. Let me ask you the question and see if you can answer it.” I paused, and then playfully added, “It’s an innocent enough question.”

He protested some more, because he was genuinely concerned for me. But we had been friends for a long spell and finally he said to go ahead with the question.

“Tell me this, Harry,” I said. “Is it true that Will Rogers once had the dressing room adjoining the dressing room of Shirley Temple when she was a little girl, and that Will bored a hole in the wall so he could peep through and watch Shirley Temple taking a pee? Is that true?”

There was a long silence. I could sense that the question stunned him. Then at last he gained his voice and burst forth:

“Great God, Allen! You can’t ever print that! Don’t even dream about printing it! That wasn’t Will Rogers. That was Lionel Barrymore !”

– H. Allen Smith, Esquire, May 1974

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