A rogue is easier to describe than define.
A rogue will pick your pocket, but he won’t shoot you in the back. John Wayne never succeeded in playing a rogue (although Rooster Cogburn came close). Errol Flynn never failed to.
Rogues are boyish, as well as roguish: Some even have such names as Captain Kidd and Billy the Kid. Rogues make fine companions, but they always stick you with the check.
Great rogues of myth and history are the subject of a series to be held Tuesday evenings at the Warner Center Marriott Hotel, beginning Tuesday.
Sponsored by UCLA Extension, the series will examine pirates, outlaws, bushwhackers, banditos and Robin Hood and his merry men, the whole panoply of characters who are nicer than villains and more fun than heroes.
A highlight of the series will be the appearance of Australian writer Thomas Keneally, whose books include “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” and the prize-winning “Schindler’s List.” Keneally, who is teaching this year at New York University, will lecture on “Ned Kelly and Other Wild and Woolly Characters of Australia” on a date to be announced in January.
“This was my chance to do something non-heroic,” said Barry Bortnick, the UCLA Extension staffer who organized the program. Bortnick, who has put together series on heroes in the past, “thought it would be fun to just flip it over.”
Roger McGrath, the UCLA historian who is coordinating the program, said rogues are hybrids--part outlaw, part social reformer. As McGrath noted, whatever rogues do, they do with a certain panache.
McGrath, who will speak Nov. 8 on Jesse James and other outlaw heroes of the American West, has written extensively about violence on the frontier. Some revisionist historians believe that Billy the Kid and his kind were pinwheel-eyed sociopaths. That was rarely true, McGrath said. Among the rogues he will discuss is Black Bart, an American highwayman who was neither ruthless nor violent. Indeed, Bart never shot anyone during a long, successful career in crime.
“His first robbery was a prank,” said McGrath, who will tell how Bart lived a genteel life in San Francisco when he was not holding up stagecoaches and how he was finally tracked down through a ticket from a laundry.
McGrath thinks it is the independence of the Western rogues that makes them so persistently appealing. “Most of us are stuck on the freeway at 5 in the afternoon,” he said, “so, of course, we want to live at least vicariously through these characters who lived independently, according to their own rules, and did it with flair and style.”
On Nov. 22 Gloria Lothrop, a professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona, will discuss the female outlaws of the American West. As Lothrop explains, the frontier allowed more freedom to women than the convention-bound towns and cities of the East. Not surprisingly, the Wyoming Territory was first to give women the vote in 1869.
Among the roguish females Lothrop will discuss: Madame Moustache, whose hands were so quick most men never knew she had cheated them at cards. Moustache got her nickname, Lothrop explained, “because she actually had a rather swarthy upper lip.” Vivid sobriquets were common among the women of the West, said Lothrop, who cited such examples as Squirrel-Tooth Alice, Glass-Eye Annie and Velvet-Ass Rose.
During the last century, the historian explained, women were believed to have one great treasure: their virtue. A woman whose treasure was tarnished could not expect to marry, the traditional route to economic security for women of the time. Once disgraced, Lothrop said, “a lot went the brothel route.” While many fallen women led the short, unhappy lives of “crib girls,” as the cheapest prostitutes were known, some showed remarkable entrepreneurial spirit in the face of moral catastrophe.
Lothrop cited the example of Julia Bulette, who ran an elegant pleasure palace in Virginia City, Nevada. Bulette’s patrons found shellfish from San Francisco on her menu, as well as the standard fare of such institutions, and fine French wines. When Bulette was murdered, the respectable women of the town behaved as if nothing had happened. The men, however, gave her a lavish funeral, complete with a band that played “The Girl I Left Behind” during the procession from her unconsecrated grave to the black-draped saloons where the wake was held.
Belle Starr, the queen of the outlaws, also fashioned a life for herself outside respectable society, Lothrop said. Once a student at Carthage Female Academy in her native Missouri, Starr was impregnated by outlaw Cole Younger when she was 18. “It was not quite Robin Hood,” Lothrop said of Starr’s criminal career. Once she and consort Tom Starr (she also had a lover known as Blue Duck) tortured an Indian and his wife to get them to reveal where they had cached their money. Belle’s life ended the way outlaw’s often did: She was shot in the face as well as the back by a killer for hire.
The series opens Tuesday with a lecture on the pirates of the Caribbean by Robert C. Ritchie, a historian at UC San Diego. UCLA historian Scott Waugh will discuss Robin Hood and his times Nov. 15. Paul Vanderwood, who teaches history at San Diego State University, will speak Nov. 29 on Pancho Villa and other banditos.
All sessions begin at 7:30 p.m. Cost of the series is $65. Tickets for individual lectures will be available at the door, if space permits, for $12. For information, call (213) 825-0641.