Life isn’t a movie

Famed cou­ple was hardly glam­orous, and hob­bled too

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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