Cloche Hats and Perms

Bee Wilson

  • Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn
    Simon and Schuster, 467 pp, £14.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 1 84737 134 8

Easter Sunday fell on April Fools’ Day in 1934. A young woman called Bonnie Parker was sitting in a field by a narrow dirt road near the town of Grapevine, Texas, playing with a white rabbit that she had named Sonny Boy. She was waiting for her mother, to whom she intended to give the rabbit as an Easter present, but the rendezvous got delayed. By the time Sonny Boy finally met his new owner, probably on 18 April, he would have witnessed several murders and had a number of near-death experiences.

‘They’re young. They’re in love. They rob banks,’ was the tag line for Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Self-importantly influenced by the Nouvelle Vague (Truffaut was originally slated to direct it, but decided to make Fahrenheit 451 instead), the film portrayed the star-crossed criminals as free spirits thwarted and eventually brought down by the law. If you’d been stuck in this godawful hidebound era in redneck Texas in the middle of the Depression, Beatty’s cosmopolitan smirk seemed to ask, wouldn’t you have taken to robbing banks too? This was crime as counterculture. Beatty – who produced the film as well as starring in it – had originally wanted Bob Dylan to play the role of Clyde. As for Dunaway, Bonnie was a braless rebel in a tam o’ shanter.

Apart from their crimes, the real Bonnie and Clyde were not so very rebellious, as Jeff Guinn’s admirably thorough biography shows. Right to the bloody end, and despite their reputation as the most terrifying murderers in the South-West, they retained a pathetic desire to please their respective mothers, both of them fiercely religious matriarchs. Sonny Boy was a case in point. Despite her situation – ‘wanted’ all over Texas – Bonnie was adamant about giving her mother an Easter present. ‘It was the kind of silly, sentimental gesture she still liked to make,’ Guinn observes. Clyde dutifully arranged a family get-together for 1 April, sending a go-between to fetch their mothers and various siblings to meet up by the roadside northwest of Dallas. It was a sunny afternoon. Bonnie, in constant pain after a car accident, swigged a bottle of whiskey as she waited, but in between slugs chewed on pieces of lemon peel, a habit of hers (the Texas police kept a look out for lemon peel at crime scenes), because she didn’t want her mother to know she’d been drinking.

Time magazine demonised her as the ‘gun-toting, cigar-smoking Bonnie Parker’. A series of humorous photographs they shot of themselves leaning on the bumpers of stolen cars and aiming guns at each other fell into police hands and forged their reputation. In the most famous (re-created by Dunaway in the film), Bonnie, dressed in a tight sweater and long black skirt, has a cigar dangling from her mouth, her foot on the fender and a gun at her hip. As Guinn writes, it was after the publication of this photo in April 1933 in newspapers and magazines throughout the States that Bonnie and Clyde and their Barrow Gang became national celebrities, on a par with Al Capone and Pretty Boy Floyd. ‘Bonnie,’ Guinn writes, ‘supplied the sex appeal, the oomph, that allowed the two of them to transcend the small-scale thefts and needless killings that actually comprised their criminal careers.’ More than the stolen car and the gun, the public was shocked by Bonnie’s cigar, ‘in a time when most respectable women would discreetly puff cigarettes in private’. There was hardly an article from then on that didn’t mention her cigar-smoking. A woman who dared to smoke cigars was surely capable of anything.

Except that Bonnie didn’t smoke cigars. The cigar in the photo was merely a prop, borrowed from one of the men in the gang. Indeed she had little of the cold nonchalance that cigar-smoking implied. Unlike Dunaway’s Bonnie, whose confidence seems to emasculate Clyde (in the film he is depicted as impotent), the real Bonnie was clingy. She was desperate to please – whether men, women, children (she often gave random country kids rides on the bumpers of their stolen cars), or bunny rabbits. One day that April, after a shoot-out, Bonnie and Clyde kidnapped a police officer called Percy Boyd. They became fond of him – Bonnie bandaged his head wound in the back seat and gave him a clean shirt to replace one that was spattered with blood. Even though he was one of the ‘laws’, Bonnie trusted Boyd enough to ask him a favour: if they were caught while he was with them, would he please make sure that Sonny Boy reached her mother safe and sound? Finally, they released the cop. As he got out of the car, Boyd asked Bonnie what she wanted him to tell the press. She is supposed to have said: ‘Tell them I don’t smoke cigars.’

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