ROGERS, WILLIAM PENN ADAIR (1879-1935)
Will Rogers (William Penn Adair Rogers), one of America's beloved humorists and Oklahoma's dearest native son, was born November 4, 1879, in Indian Territory near Oolagah. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, part Cherokee, had built a house and begun a successful ranch business on tribal land in the Cooweescoowee District before the Civil war. Will's mother, Mary America Schrimsher Rogers, was also part Cherokee. Will was the eighth and last child of the union but one of only four (and the only boy) to survive to adulthood. Even before the death of his mother, when he was ten, the boy's care fell partly to his sisters, Sallie, Maud, and May.
Will Rogers's boyhood was spent on the ranch and at several boarding schools in the territory. He relished horseback riding from childhood. Though bright and energetic, he seemed unsuited to the routines and restrictions of the classroom. Clem Rogers's financial success and status permitted his son to travel and be exposed to wider culture (e.g., the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893, regular train trips to Kansas City, and the New York Times). At seventeen, after more than a year at Kemper Military Institute, young Rogers "quit the entire school business for life," and struck out for the West. He worked on several ranches in the Texas Panhandle and may have applied in Amarillo to be one of Roosevelt's Rough Riders before returning to Oolagah in the fall of 1898. Clem Rogers, who had remarried and moved into Claremore to engage in banking and tribal politics, assigned his son to oversee the cattle on the ranch. The young man did the routine work and established his Dog Iron cattle brand, but he was more interested in testing his well-honed riding and roping skills in various pre-rodeo-era contests.
Restless, Rogers and a friend, Dick Parris, set out in 1900 for South America. Boat journeys from Galveston to New York to London eventually took them to Buenos Aires but not to hoped-for employment. A job on a cattle boat took Will Rogers to South Africa, where he found work as the "Cherokee Kid," spinning ropes in a Wild West show and later with the Wirth Brothers circus. By 1902, when he returned home, he was enamored with show business and resisted his father's attempts to "settle" him on the ranch. In St. Louis and then New York he performed with a company of Zack Mulhall's Wild West cowboys. Soon after, he developed a vaudeville act featuring his mostly silent roping of a friend, Buck McKee, on a favorite horse. The act toured to many U.S. cities and in Europe. Although his father continued to urge a return to the emerging life of Oklahoma as a new state, he continued to resist.
In 1908, after an extended and frustrating courtship, Will Rogers married Betty Blake, whom he had met years before in Oolagah. Betty, one of seven Blake sisters from Rogers, Arkansas, had spurned his early advances, perhaps from social prejudice toward the Indian-cowboy, perhaps from a personal desire for a life more secure than the theater circuit. Rogers called his marriage to Betty "the star [ropin'] performance of my life." Certainly, it marked the beginning of a sustained happy family life, first in New York, where he became associated with Florence Zeigfeld's Follies and Frolic, and later in California, where the family moved in 1919 to be near the movie industry, in which he played a continuing role through the rest of his life. The couple had four children: Will, Jr. (1911), Mary (1913), Jim Blake (1915), and Fred (1920). The youngest, named for Will, Sr.'s best friend, Fred Stone, died in 1922 of diphtheria; the other children grew to adulthood and enjoyed careers of some note after their father's death in 1935.
The momentum of Rogers's broad popular success began to build with the move to California. His association with Ziegfeld in New York began in 1915, but his real notoriety there came between 1922 and 1927, after financial difficulties in his California movie ventures required seasonal returns to the Follies and a regular paycheck.
Having issued two short books of "Rogers-isms" about prohibition and the peace conference in 1919, Will Rogers began in 1922 to write a weekly column for a New York paper and, after 1926, a brief daily "telegram" as well. Both were syndicated and eventually distributed around the country to more than five hundred newspapers. His frequent after-dinner speaking engagements and radio broadcasts in the 1920s and 1930s put him in touch with groups all across American society presidents, senators, congressmen, entertainers, business leaders, aviators, and common folk. He seems to have caught the spirit of a developing age in politics, transportation, and communication. New and larger audiences attended him, and he rarely disappointed them.
Notoriety opened doors to travel and high-profile friendships. Travel to Russia, to Mussolini's Italy, to Latin America, and to other points outside the United States led to books such as Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (1926). Although his homespun humor and common-sense diplomatic and political advice drew the ire of a few professionals, his amateur advisement did not cool his friendship with Calvin Coolidge and other presidents. He associated with the "big men" of several industries Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, scores of senators and congressmen, and the emerging movie celebrities, of which he himself was one and the most popular of all for a time. His seventy-one movies, including A Connecticut Yankee (1931), Ambassador Bill (1931), State Fair (1933), and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), are only a part of his legacy to entertainment.
Will Rogers's quips became known everywhere. He said that "all I know is just what I read in the papers," but he always had something to say or write about the events of his day. He said that his humor aimed to tell the truth, that he poked fun only of society's "big men," and that he never meant to hurt anyone with his "little gags." Such aims seemed to have been healing, especially after times turned hard in the early 1930s, but his humor's wide appeal drew all types and classes of readers and listeners. In response to Will Durant's inquiry about his philosophy Rogers advised, "get a few laughs" and "do the best you can"; "lead your life so you wouldn't be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip." In perhaps his most famous claim, Will ordered his own epitaph: "I joked about every prominent man of my time but I never met a man I didn't like."
Will Rogers died on August 15, 1935. He had accompanied Wiley Post on what was to be a tour of Alaska and a trip around the world in a new plane that Post, a Lockheed test pilot, had designed for high speed and altitude flight. After several days' touring in Alaska, the pair crashed near the town of Barrow. Both died on impact. A period of national mourning followed the death. Humorist, cowboy, entertainer, media star, philanthropist, world traveler, booster of aviation and technology, political commentator, voice of brotherhood and the common man Will Rogers had filled many roles, and his loss was profound.
Exhibits and archives in the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore continue to demonstrate the many influences of Will Rogers's life. Supported by the Will Rogers Trust, the State of Oklahoma, and many private donations, the memorial is open to the public daily.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Joseph Carter, Never Met a Man I Didn't Like (New York: Avon Books, 1991). Donald Day, ed., The Autobiography of Will Rogers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949). Pat Lowe, Will Rogers Official Genealogy and Bibliography (Claremore, Okla.: Will Rogers Memorial, 1997). James M. Smallwood, ed., Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University Press, 1978). Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling, Will Rogers in Hollywood (New York: Crown Publisher, Inc., 1984). Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling, Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow (New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1993). Arthur Frank Wertheim, Will Rogers at the Ziegfeld Follies (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1992). Ben Yagoda, Will Rogers: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1993).
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