Life isn’t a movie
Famed couple was hardly glamorous, and hobbled too
Goulden family lore has my father walking into the bedroom the afternoon of May 23, 1934, to visit my mother, who hours earlier had delivered a son whose name is at the top of this review.
Joe Goulden Sr. supposedly tossed the local paper onto the bed and joked, “Well, Lecta, I hope our boy doesn’t replace ol’ Clyde Barrow!” As the headline screamed, Barrow and his scruffy partner in crime, Bonnie Parker, had died that morning in a fusillade of bullets in a lawmen’s ambush in rural Louisiana, several miles over the border from our home in Marshall, Texas.
As events turned out, the juxtaposition of dates is all that I shared with an odious pair of bungling small-time criminals. Permit me to dash what you think you know about this duo if your “information” came from the 1967 movie “Bonnie & Clyde,” which starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles. The movie depicted a glamorous couple who struck photogenic poses with a variety of weapons — Bonnie with a cigarette dangling from her mouth — as they eluded inept police across the Southwest, daringly robbing banks and speeding away to comfortable hideaways. One reviewer waxed about a “Depression-era Mr. and Mrs. Robin Hood who robbed the rich to help the poor.” Produced during the height of 1960s anti-Establishment fever, the movie’s message was what many nitwits wished to believe.
But did the thesis come within hailing distance of truth? Well, not exactly. As Jeff Guinn exhaustively documents in his superbly researched and readable book, Bonnie and Clyde inflicted “more a reign of errors than a reign of terror.” As bank robbers, they were bumblers, and they knew it. Hence, they specialized in nickle-and-dime robberies of mom-and-pop groceries and ser vice stations, stealing $5 and $10 and cash- register change from hardworking people who struggled to stay out of poverty.
Glamour? Many nights, Bonnie and Clyde slept in a stolen car parked deep in the woods. “Dinner” consisted of cold pork and beans eaten from the can. Both suffered physical infirmities that limited their mobility. Clyde whacked off two toes with an ax to gain a transfer from a notoriously tough Texas prison farm; thereafter, he had trouble walking. Bonnie could not walk because of leg burns suffered when Clyde recklessly crashed a car.
Hollywood ignored another unseemly health problem. Sheriff Bill Decker of Dallas County, Texas, was a deputy in one of the 1930s law enforcement bands that chased the couple. As he loved telling the story to reporters years later, the officers came upon a car the couple had abandoned. Another deputy rummaged under a seat and emerged holding a bottle of medicine.
“Lookie, Mr. Decker,” he beamed, “one of them got [. . . ],” using a vulgar term for a venereal disease.
Decker snorted, “One of them my foot!” (Bonnie briefly worked as a street hooker before teaming up with Clyde.)
Nonetheless, one can feel a smidgeon of sympathy. Clyde came from a farm family driven off the land by the Dust Bowl drought that obliterated much of the Southwest in the 1920s. They took refuge in West Dallas, a wretched slum in the river bottoms outside the city.
Unsurprisingly, young Clyde turned to petty crime — chicken thefts and the like — and the Dallas police suspected him whenever they had a burglary to solve. He ended up in a Texas prison system notorious for brutality. Mr. Guinn records that he committed his first murder in prison, bludgeoning a bully who had regularly sodomized him. (Another convict, already under life sentence for murder, graciously took blame, so Clyde went unpunished.)
Bonnie came from similar poverty. She had grandiose visions of becoming a Broadway star but settled for marriage, at age 15, to a local thug who abandoned her for another woman. She had the misfortune of meeting Clyde soon thereafter and was impressed that he “had nice clothes and drove a fancy car.” That he was a criminal caused her no problems; she loved the fun he brought into her drab life.
Mr. Guinn’s book is a detailed litany of crime on the run, laboriously assembled from surviving court records, witness interviews and memoirs and media accounts of varying veracity. Bonnie and Clyde formed shifting alliances with other bandits, most of them equally inept. Clyde did have one skill: He knew how to steal high-powered weapons such as submachine guns and rifles from military arsenals. Hence, he and partners had far more firepower than the small-town police trying to bring them to justice.
That, in essence, is why they died in an ambush. Over the years, Clyde was involved in situations in which seven persons were murdered — including several police officers. Mr. Guinn questions whether Clyde actually killed more than two people, his prison victim and a former jail guard. But he definitely was present, and shooting, when two motorcycle officers were killed in a roadside shooting in April 1934.
Those murders were tantamount to Clyde signing his own death warrant. A former Texas ranger named Frank Hamer was on his trail, and he traced them, through family members, to the ambush scene in northwestern Louisiana. Gunmen with a record of killing cops are not given the surrender option. The deathscene photographs tell it all: Crime definitely did not pay in 1930s Texas.
Joe Goulden grew up hearing Bonnie and Clyde yarns in Texas.