The Official Website of Gene Autry, America's Favorite Singing Cowboy

Fun Autry Fact:

Gene stated through the years that the only shoes he owned were golf shoes.

Share:

News Archive: 2007

Here is a review from Amazon.com for the book Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry by Holly George-Warren.

A Very Public Cowboy
By John Paddy Browne
May 10, 2007

Author Holly George-Warren
Photo credit: Mark Loete

Whatever Holly George-Warren says in her new biography of Gene Autry; however much detail she covers; however many previously unpublished facts she unearths, she is never going to please everyone. Even a monumental biography such as this one, packed to bursting as it is with dates and names and stories, will never record everything that we, the readers, will want to see.

The problem is not Ms George-Warren's. When she says she could have written a book twice this size, I believe her.

No, the problem was created by Autry himself. He lived to a mighty age, and into that great expanse of time he packed enough life experiences to fuel any number of books and magazines and newspaper articles. One glance at George-Warren's footnotes and bibliography shows how the world has been flooded with Autry newsprint throughout a career – no, several careers – that spanned 70 years. And that doesn't take account of his austere childhood (a story in itself that George-Warren tells in remarkable detail), or the vast amount of Autry material that has appeared since his death in 1998: the DVDs, the CDs, the books, the websites – even the belated victory of his Angels team in the World Series. Look at any of the online auction sites any day of the week and you will get an idea of just how much stuff Autry left behind: the supply seems endless, and endlessly varied, and all of this is merely an illusion of the man's actual working life.

Autry was a workaholic, driven, it seems, to be always doing something. When his contemporaries Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and Tyrone Power finished their day's work at the studio, they went home and put their feet up. Not Autry. As George-Warren records in breathless detail, even while shooting a movie, Autry would be called to the phone to deal with some other business in which he was involved elsewhere: or he would receive commercial partners for discussions on set. There simply weren't enough hours in the day for him.

This handsome biography could never hope to cover everything in such an industrious life, and some of the material that is missing has been judiciously excised for purely logistical, editorial reasons. Quite rightly, the author almost completely eschews Autry's involvement in baseball (a blessed relief for those of us not interested in sports), and instead concentrates a good deal of time to his early radio and recording work. A fascinating account of Autry's notorious shoot–out with Herb Yates at Republic Studios, usng the evidence of surviving documents, brings that painful episode to vivid life. George-Warren skirts around the hackneyed stories, veracious or otherwise, that Autry told so many times that he eventually believed them himself. She neither confirms them or denies them, but puts them into a sort of context from which the reader may draw his or her own conclusions about their probability.

Not that any of this matters, except insofar as how it paints a picture of a man who was as much a media creation as a real-life figure, and possibly more so since he carried the cowboy image into his private life by wearing his Western-styled clothes – his uniform – in public and at home, away from the working environment of the studios. He put on this uniform in the same way that Superman or Santa Claus put on their uniforms, and became a figment of our collective imagination. It was how he made money.

And money is the one constant in Gene Autry's life. Whatever he did, and he did an inordinate number of different things, money was at the heart of it. "Working with figures is what I do best," he allegedly said. "What I do less well is act, sing and play the guitar." There is no hint whatever in the 400-plus pages of Holly George-Warren's book that Autry ever did anything for the love of it. He frequently spoke about how "proud" he was of certain of his achievements, and he had every reason to be proud of them – but that's not the same as "love". No-one ever got him to say that he sang certain songs because he loved them, in the way that, say, folk singers might sing songs for the love of them. Autry sang stuff that would make him money, and that was the criterion for performing and recording it.

His pursuit of money, indeed, seems to have been the one true love-affair of his life – and he has said as much. No-one will begrudge the man becoming one of the richest people in America when he worked so diligently and tirelessly to attain that pleasant state. Nobody gave him his wealth: he went out and worked for it. Ms George-Warren could easily have published a page from any one of Autry's touring schedules (and I've seen them) that would have shown him to be working in a different town or city every single day for months at a stretch. None of your two-days-on and four-days-off for him.

Along the way he gave the illusion of being a happy, carefree cowboy, bestowing a bounty of delight on his fans – fans who would carry their affection for him and loyalty to him into their old age. Autry's trick, if this does not sound too cynical, is that he made them feel that they all mattered to him when, in fact, everything he did, be it hospital visits to chat with sick children, merchandising his name relentlessly, [...] or claiming writing credits for someone else's work – and even his enlistment into the armed forces in World War 2 – all of it had a "money handle" – and he saw it all as a means of furthering his career.

Autry's publicity as high-flying business magnate, which so fascinated the Hollywood press, has done his artistic reputation no favors. Dismissed as "commercial" and superficial by many, it has been an uphill struggle for those of us trying to keep his memory alive, to justify his place at the top of so many lists of achievements in the arts. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the name "Autry" with the word "art" is almost an oxymoron – a contradiction. Yet the trail that Autry left behind him, that so many fledgling artists have followed to their benefit, speaks volumes for the influence he has had on the cultivation and development of the Country and popular music of America and other English-speaking countries. Academically, though, he was never recognised in his lifetime, nor was his work and contribution ever seriously analyzed or documented.

At the end of the day we, his fans, seem not to be troubled by any of this, and even Holly George-Warren's commendably open, impartial and well-written book, with its tales of risque songs, binge drinking, and amorous dalliances with his leading ladies (and some of his female Fan Club members) does nothing to lessen the man's stature. If anything, it reveals him to be more human than the singing cowboy of the screen ever was: the sort of man we are able to relate to: a flawed hero we can identify with.

And if this flies in the face of that famous remark made by the fictional editor of the Shinbone Star: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!" what it may do is make the legendary figure of Gene Autry a more approachable figure to a new generation of admirers. And in our hero, the Singing Cowboy, they will find a great deal to admire. Holly George-Warren has seen to that.

—JOHN PADDY BROWNE



Back to index