75 years later, Bonnie and Clyde are legends that won't die
Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of the deaths of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. And decades later, we're still fascinated with Clyde, a hardhearted killer, and Bonnie, his more-than-willing accomplice.
The Dallas Morning News
They pilfered banks and mom-and-pop stores, killed police officers — and captivated the nation. But Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, reared in the West Dallas slums, may have been their biggest fans.
Sure, Depression-era America was enamored with the love-struck outlaws, but Hollywood hype, intense media interest and time have ways of distorting reality.
Their life on the run, for the most part, was far from glamorous, historians say.
They were clumsy criminals. They didn't always rob banks, often resorting to stealing small sums of cash from gasoline stations and food stores, while living out of their stolen cars.
A car accident sprayed battery acid over Bonnie, burning one of her legs to the bone, effectively crippling her during her last year.
But none of that seems to matter. Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of their deaths, their bloody, bullet-riddled finale. And decades later, we're still fascinated with Clyde, a hardhearted killer, and Bonnie, his more-than-willing accomplice.
Writers have churned out countless books. Producers have filmed one famous movie — and another is in the works. History buffs have opened museums and organized tours of the robbers' trails. Fanatics have filled Web sites with their pictures.
Bonnie and Clyde would be pleased with the attention, said Jeff Guinn, the Fort Worth, Texas, author of a new book, "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde."
Bonnie, who liked to write poetry, wanted to be famous, Guinn said. Clyde wanted to be important and influential.
"They would be thrilled because they mattered for a little while," he said. "For two poor kids who were destined to grinding poverty and no hope in life, for a brief time in life people knew their name.
"And three-quarters of a century later, they still do."
In fact, we know them on a first-name basis, inseparable: Bonnie and Clyde.
The rest of the story
That's the romantic side. Sometimes forgotten are the people who suffered at the hands of Bonnie and Clyde, including their families.
For decades after the couple were gunned down on May 23, 1934, in Louisiana, their kin rarely talked about family history. Only in recent years have they opened up.
"We hid from who we were," said Bonnie Parker's niece, Rhea Leen Linder, 74, of Dallas.
Perhaps the saddest story that came out of the couple's two-year crime spree was that of a woman whose fiance was killed by the Barrow gang. Instead of preparing for a wedding, she planned her beloved's funeral.
She wore her wedding dress at the services.
Near Grapevine, Texas, on Easter Sunday 1934, the Barrow gang killed two young highway patrolmen — E.B. Wheeler and H.D. Murphy.
Wheeler's young widow, Doris Brown Edwards, remarried.
Edwards wasn't consumed by Wheeler's death, rarely talking about it, said Robert Jefferson "Jeff" Sandlin, her son from her second marriage. Edwards died in 2007.
"The [passage] of time can reduce the sharp edges of pain," said Sandlin, of Dallas. "She was a positive person. She didn't sit there and wallow in self-pity or worry."
Easter, however, always was upsetting for Edwards. And the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde," featuring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, "stirred her up," Sandlin said. Edwards was invited to attend a movie premiere, but she declined.
"She wasn't going to contribute to the sideshow that was glorifying them," Sandlin said. "She didn't think that thieves and murderers ought to be glamorized and held up."
Some Bonnie and Clyde family members shared that sentiment.
Linder, Bonnie's niece, was born Bonnie Ray Parker. But her family changed her name after children wouldn't play with her.
Buddy Barrow Williams, 61, Clyde's nephew, said whenever his family moved, a sheriff or officer would knock on the door and check in.
"People looked down on us for the family history," said Williams, who lives in Sunnyvale, Texas.
He said his stepfather, L.C. Barrow, rarely talked about his brother. "It would break him up inside," Williams said.
When an officer stopped L.C. in the '50s for a traffic violation, the cop quickly learned of the family ties.
The officer ordered L.C. to get out of the car so he could search him.
"You're one of those badass Barrow boys," the officer said.
When Clyde Chestnut Barrow and Bonnie Elizabeth Parker met at a party in 1930, they were smitten.
Bonnie didn't mind that Clyde had a criminal history that included burglaries and stealing cars. At one point, she even smuggled in a gun to help him escape a jail cell.
Birth of a crime spree
Their partnership began in earnest in 1932, shooting and looting their way across Texas and much of the country's midsection.
They stopped only long enough to sneak into Dallas to see their families.
"Clyde was family-oriented," Williams said. "He had to see his mom."
Although their robbing sprees weren't as successful as those of the competing criminals of the day — including John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd — the Dallas duo stuck out in the '30s for one reason: Bonnie.
One photo sealed the deal, author Guinn said. Film left at the Joplin, Mo., apartment featured Bonnie with a pistol in one hand and a cigar dangling from her mouth.
The picture, which Bonnie would regret later, made a splash nationwide.
Reading about Bonnie and Clyde gave a country stuck in the Depression a chance to escape their grim lives, Guinn said. The couple were targeting police and banks — two enemies since people were losing their money and their homes.
"Everyone has huge problems, and they want to take their minds off the trouble," Guinn said.
But on Easter Sunday 1934, when the Barrow gang killed the two young highway patrolmen near Grapevine, the public soured on Bonnie and Clyde.
They were dead a month later, gunned down in Gibsland, La., by law enforcement, or "the laws," as Bonnie and Clyde called them.
The Louisiana town marks the occasion today and Saturday with its annual Bonnie and Clyde Festival.
Closer to their hometown, the curious can explore the couple's old haunts.
This spring, a few hundred bicyclists, including some dressed up as Bonnie and Clyde, took the B&C tour through West Dallas. They pedaled along a viaduct featured in one of Bonnie's poems. They stopped at the Barrow family gasoline station, and they visited Clyde's grave.
Flowers rested at his grave site, along with two small mugs, one filled with coins, another with dollar bills. A small bottle of Jack Daniels, filled halfway, sat nearby.
Tour stops offered time to reflect on why the public still cares about Bonnie and Clyde.
"There's romanticism, but they were doomed no matter what from the outset," said Jason Roberts, organizer of the bike ride.
Linder gives this explanation: "It was a true love story."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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