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.’

The public was shocked at the idea that a woman could be an equal partner in crime. But she wasn’t. It was Clyde and his cronies who wielded the shotguns and drove the cars; Bonnie just went along for the ride, writing poems about their exploits on a little typewriter. ‘Their nature is raw/They hate the law/The stool pigeons, spotters and rats,’ she wrote in ‘The End of the Line’. But she talked more than she walked. Two police officers were shot dead when they approached Bonnie and Clyde’s car near Grapevine on Easter Sunday. The papers immediately blamed Bonnie. A local man, William Schieffer, claimed that he saw a woman walk up to a wounded police officer and shoot him repeatedly while his head bounced on the road ‘like a rubber ball’. Bonnie’s murderous reputation was cemented. From now on, Guinn explains, she was seen as a ‘kill-crazy floozy who laughed as she finished off an innocent rookie patrolman’. But as Clyde’s sister Marie later complained, Schieffer’s porch was too far away for him to have seen anything clearly. Besides, what the media didn’t know was that Bonnie by this point was a cripple – in 1933 her right leg got coated in battery acid in an accident caused by Clyde’s reckless driving – and she could barely walk unaided, never mind stroll up to a man and shoot him. The two cops were shot at by Henry Methvin, a drunken con, and finished off by Clyde, as Bonnie sat in the Ford cuddling Sonny Boy.

The photos that shocked the public were not in themselves so unusual. In the miserable Dallas slums they both grew up in, one of the few affordable ways for teenage couples to have fun was to go to Fair Park on the city’s south side and get photographed in silly poses. Bonnie and Clyde’s gun-toting pictures were a throwback to Fair Park’s photo booths.

The girls donned huge hats and flourished frilly parasols. The boys decked themselves out in goofy cowboy gear. They pointed fake guns at each other, brandished ‘cigarettes’ in long holders, and struck exaggerated poses behind rubber prison bars. The photos came in strips of three for a nickel. The girl would take one, the boy another and the third might be given to a parent or friend.

More than any previous biographer, Guinn shows Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as products of West Dallas in the 1920s. An ‘appalling collection of ramshackle shanties and tent camps’, West Dallas was generally recognised to be the worst slum in any Texas city. Elsewhere slums were gradually incorporated into the city itself. In Dallas, the city fathers, keen to rival the culture of San Francisco or New York and worried about a huge influx of undesirables, did nothing to assimilate the hordes who arrived each year from the Texan countryside. Tough vagrancy laws kept newcomers out of the city proper. Immigrants ended up squatting on the floodplain west of the Trinity River, where their presence didn’t compromise Dallas’s shiny downtown. Some settled in the foul smoke of Cement City, named after the poisonous local factories, which provided the residents with their low-paid jobs. If you were really unlucky you ended up in the adjacent slum of West Dallas, ‘The Bog’. Here there was nothing, no industry of any kind, only ‘fetid air and swarming bugs, open sewers and garbage-strewn blocks’.

It was here that 12-year-old Clyde Barrow, the fifth of seven children, arrived in 1922. After decades of thankless toil, his parents, Henry and Cumie Barrow, had been forced to give up on their rented farm in Ellis County when boll weevils devastated the cotton crop. In West Dallas, they tried to start again, but their luck was no better than average for The Bog. Henry made a pittance collecting scrap metal. At first the family lived in a tent set on the muddy ground; later, they graduated to a homemade shed, hammered together from wood, shingle and nails. Food was mostly sandwiches from the Salvation Army – ‘thin discs of bologna between slices of stale bread’.

Despite the squalor, or perhaps because of it, stylish clothes were very important in the slum. No matter how hardscrabble your circumstances, you had to have some ‘Sunday clothes’. ‘Males might have one dress shirt and a pair of cheap department store slacks,’ Guinn writes. ‘Women would have a single frock made of material that was store-bought rather than homespun.’ Living in a slum did not stop the girls from wanting cloche hats and perms, rouge compacts and elegant long skirts. Becoming criminals was a way for Bonnie and Clyde to ensure that they could wear their Sunday clothes every day. On the run, Bonnie would switch her hair colour, ‘going from golden blonde to streaky auburn to full-blown red and back again’, and Clyde let her dye his hair too; on one occasion, a strange shade of vivid red.

The famous stylishness of Bonnie and Clyde was a very West Dallas thing. Neither of them was anything special to look at, but their wardrobes made them glamorous. Even when they were sleeping rough, they made a point of dressing in clean, fashionable, neatly pressed clothes. They were great frequenters of dry cleaners. It was their style to hit town, drop a few things off to be dry cleaned, camp out in the countryside for a while and then return for their freshly laundered clothes before perhaps holding up a few grocery stores. Sometimes they stole clothes but mostly their wardrobe acquisitions were legit (though made with stolen money). The gang left a trail of receipts for underwear, shoes, gloves, dresses and automatic shotguns. Clyde enjoyed giving money to his younger siblings L.C. and Marie and asking them to buy him a new suit. ‘L.C. especially loved buying suits for Clyde in stores near public bulletin boards displaying his wanted posters.’

Initially Bonnie’s family wasn’t dirt poor like Clyde’s – her father was a brick mason, which was at least a trade. In 1914, he died, leaving Emma, Bonnie’s mother, alone with three children. They moved to Cement City, where Emma worked in a garment factory sewing overalls. The teenage Bonnie won poetry competitions and often boasted that one day her name would be up in lights. She smothered herself in make-up, and soon found ways of extracting gifts of candy from the boys at Cement City School. In 1925, when she was 15, she paid for a special studio photograph of herself, complete with Clara Bow pout and ringlets. The following year, she had changed her hair to a straight bob and married a well-dressed thug called Roy Thornton. In a surviving photo, she has a dark-red jammy smile and Roy, raffish in a white shirt and tie, has the imprint of her lipstick all over his mouth.

After three unsatisfying and violent years of marriage, Roy abandoned her. She was working in a café by now, where she seemed to dress too well for a waitress on wages of $3 a week. Guinn wonders whether ‘her wardrobe might have reflected income from occasional prostitution.’ In January 1930, she went to a party at her brother’s house and met Clyde Chestnut Barrow. He wasn’t as good-looking as Roy but he was better dressed and drove a fancy car. The attraction was instant. When he was arrested less than a month later on charges of attempted robbery, she swore she would wait for him.

Clyde had already been found guilty of a string of low-level crimes, starting with poultry theft – lifting the odd chicken from the backyards of the slums. Later, he was repeatedly arrested for car theft. The new electric starting system pioneered by Ford in 1912 made it easy to jump in a car and take off, particularly if the owner had been foolish enough to leave their keys in the ignition. A stolen car could sell for a quick $100: three months’ wages at Clyde’s old job. Intensely brand-conscious, Clyde’s favourite car was the Ford V8, which he hot-wired more than any other; at the end he and Bonnie died at police hands in a V8 riddled with bullet holes.

It was prison that turned Clyde from a hot-wirer to a murderer. If West Dallas was the foulest slum in Texas, the foulest prison was Eastham Prison Farm, set in swampy riverland where prisoners were expected to do ten hours’ hard labour a day sustained only by dry cornbread, the odd turnip green or ‘near-raw, rancid bacon’. Clyde, imprisoned at Eastham for robbery in 1930, was repeatedly raped by a hulking fellow convict called Ed Crowder, probably ‘in view of other prisoners’. When another prisoner – Scalley, a lifer – offered to take the blame for Clyde if he killed Crowder, Clyde seized the chance, fracturing the rapist’s skull with a piece of lead piping hidden in his trouser leg. Scalley confessed to the crime, and Clyde got away with it. According to Guinn, it was one of only two premeditated murders he committed; the second came four years later, when he helped an associate, Joe Palmer, murder a guard who had abused him in prison. All his other killings were done on the spur of the moment. This was not a criminal mastermind.

Even with Crowder dead, life at Eastham was almost unendurable. Bonnie had stopped writing to him, having hooked up with a new boyfriend and a new job, and the farm labour was increasingly hard to bear. In desperation, he hacked off the big toe and part of another toe on his left foot, hoping to be judged unfit for labour. His timing, as so often, was atrocious. Just two weeks later, his mother’s letter-writing campaign to the Texas governor finally bore fruit and Clyde was granted parole. He had cut off his toes for nothing. He would never walk properly again. When he arrived back in February 1932, his sisters welcomed him home with a gift of silk shirts. As for Bonnie, she abandoned her new beau at once and eagerly embarked on the life of crime that would make them the two most famous names in the state.

Yet the gang – which at one time or another included Buck and his wife, Blanche, and various friends and associates (Ralph Fults, Henry Methvin, W.D. Jones) – was intensely family-minded. When they wanted to arrange a family gathering, Clyde and Bonnie would drive past the old Barrow home in West Dallas and toss out Coke bottles in which he’d stuffed messages indicating when and where to meet. Clyde’s mother, Cumie, would then phone Bonnie’s mother and say, ‘I’m fixing red beans,’ which was code for ‘Bonnie and Clyde are in town.’ It was at one of these meetings that Bonnie finally handed Sonny Boy over to her mother. ‘Keep him away from the cops,’ she warned. ‘He’s been in two gun battles and he’ll land at Huntsville if the law finds it out.’

Photos survive of some of these get-togethers. In one, Bonnie, Clyde, their mothers and some of their siblings are posing beside a stolen car. A scrunched up coat is used to disguise the number plate (they had been stung before by forgetting to cover the number plate, making it easier for the cops to trace them). In the front row, Bonnie’s mother is entwined with Bonnie and Clyde’s sister Marie. In the back row, Clyde stands hugging Cumie and Bonnie’s sister Billie Jean. Cumie is a shrunken figure in spectacles and a hat who stares implacably at the camera.

Cumie Barrow was a fundamentalist Christian who taught her children that their souls would be sent to hell unless they did everything the Bible said. If she and Henry had ‘taken more time to really be with our children, played with them more and watched over their growing up as we should have, things might have been far different from what they were’, she later reflected. The Barrows were no Mafia dynasty, and yet only two of Henry and Cumie’s seven children escaped prison. Buck, a key member of the Barrow gang, was in and out of prison and eventually died from gunshot wounds nearly a year before Bonnie and Clyde. L.C. Barrow served several terms for robbery and forgery. Marie Barrow got into bar fights and also spent time in prison. For a while, Jack Barrow, the eldest son, kept out of trouble – ‘determined to raise his four daughters free of the slightest criminal taint’ – until October 1939, when he got into a bar fight and killed a man. Only Artie and Nell Barrow managed to stay on the right side of the law.

Among Guinn’s new sources are unpublished memoirs by Marie and Cumie Barrow, making his biography more informative than previous studies (of which there have been many). On the impoverished cotton farm where they’d lived before West Dallas, Cumie brought up all her children to respect both learning and the ways of God. Yet most of them grew up respecting neither. ‘If you don’t go to school,’ she constantly nagged them, ‘you’ll grow up to be idiots.’ They chose to be idiots; when Buck and Clyde were in jail, they had to ask other prisoners to help them write letters home. The odd thing about the Barrows is that despite having failed to live up to Cumie’s endless strictures, her criminal sons seem not to have resented them much. Whatever else Bonnie and Clyde were on the run from, it wasn’t family life. Clyde was always ready with another basket of fruit and candies to give his mother and she was always prepared to drop everything and meet him on some patch of highway. She recorded the dates of his visits on a wall in the family shack, and later copied them into her memoir: ‘December 8th, 10th, 14th, 20th and 29th; January 4th, two times that day, 7th, 10th, 13th, 15th and 18th; February 13th, 18th, 22nd; March 3rd, 19th (12th?), 24th, 27th.’

On the road, Bonnie and Clyde, missing their own mothers, re-created a strange semblance of a nuclear family. In the new-fangled motor courts they loved to stay in, they would rent only one cabin and share it with their associate, the 16-year-old W.D. Jones, who slept on the floor (he was scared of the dark). W.D. took part in the robberies, but did not get an equal share. Clyde just tossed him a dollar from time to time, like pocket money. Bonnie, who couldn’t have any children of her own, called W.D. ‘Boy’. He called her ‘Sis’, and Clyde was ‘Bud’ (his old childhood nickname). The three of them would share meals of bologna-and-cheese sandwiches washed down with buttermilk (and latterly, large amounts of whiskey for Bonnie). It was W.D. who took many of the jokey photos on car bonnets, until he got arrested in 1933 and tried to save his own skin by saying he had only done the things he did because he was forced to at gunpoint, which was certainly not true.

Bonnie and Clyde saw themselves as outlaws, like Jesse James, as Bonnie wrote in ‘The End of the Line’:

You’ve read the story of Jesse James –
Of how he lived and died;
If you’re still in need
Of something to read
Here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Clyde was no Jesse James, however (‘their two-year crime spree was as much a reign of error as terror,’ Guinn writes). There were a couple of big bank robberies ($33,000 from a bank in Kansas), but the gang specialised in tiny grocery store hold-ups as well as car theft, and their bigger schemes often ended in comic failure. Their reputation of course was different. ‘Clyde and Bonnie,’ Guinn writes, ‘came to epitomise the edgy daydreams of the economically and socially downtrodden. Resentful of their own powerlessness and poverty, Barrow Gang fans liked the idea of colourful young rebels sticking it to bankers and cops. Clyde and Bonnie were even better than actors like Jimmy Cagney who committed crimes onscreen, because they were doing it for real.’ Guinn has spoken to contemporaries who remember how thrilling it was to see Bonnie and Clyde on the newsreels, and to imagine the exotic lives they led, swanning around in fancy hotels. The reality was cold baked beans in a field and a cramped room in a motor court when they were lucky.

In the 32 years since the movie, doing a ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ has become a kind of shorthand for breaking loose from all the ties of civilisation. The curious thing about the real Bonnie and Clyde is how many of those ties they chose to keep: the small obligations they honoured, the rules they observed, the conventions they followed. When money was flush, or they needed a treat, they sometimes bought a proper hot meal from a restaurant, instead of their usual diner sandwiches. In July 1933, Buck was fatally wounded after the Platte City shoot-out, when some county cops ambushed the gang at a motor court. They managed to get away, but a bullet had gone right through Buck’s skull – ‘you could look right inside his head.’ As they camped out, Buck expressed a desperate desire for some fried chicken. Clyde drove to Blohm’s restaurant in Dexter. He paid for five chicken dinners and promised he would bring the plates back the next day. Which he did.