IN 1992, when he was 82, Gene Autry was the only show business figure to make Forbes magazine’s annual list of the 400 richest Americans. By the time he died, six years later, the magazine estimated his wealth at $320 million, most of it derived from a chain of radio and television stations he had patiently acquired, as well as real estate, oil wells and, of course, his huge catalog of musical copyrights. He still had an aging, dwindling base of nostalgic fans, though he had not performed in public for something like three decades. But by this time he was best known as the affable, long-frustrated owner of the Angels baseball franchise (it did not win a pennant until four years after his death) and for his most important benefaction, the splendid Western museum in Griffith Park that is now known as the Autry National Center, which opened in 1988.
Autry deserves to be regarded as an important American figure -- certainly a significant one in the history of Los Angeles -- though no one but the rubes paid him more than the slightest heed. The writers and thinkers who set our cultural agenda never wrote even a discouraging word about him.
For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 24, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Dust Bowl: A review of “Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry” in the April 8 Book Review stated that the Dust Bowl of the 1920s occurred in the Southwest. The area affected, though, was much larger, extending over a section of the Great Plains that reached into parts of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Dust Bowl: A review of “Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry” in the April 8 Book Review stated that the Dust Bowl of the 1930s occurred in the Southwest. The area affected, though, was much larger, extending over a section of the Great Plains that reached into parts of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
This is perhaps understandable. Born to a shiftless father and a sickly mother near Tioga, Texas, Autry received a primitive education and became a telegrapher for the St. Louis-San Francisco railroad. It was a job he clung to even as he began warbling and wandering as the “Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy.” Entirely self-taught as a singer and guitar picker, Autry had a pleasant, unpretentious voice and manner, and his records and radio work brought him to the modest hinterlands of fame. The movie business called in 1934, when he made the first of his 92 B-movie westerns. Soon thereafter, he had a network radio show and a relentless schedule of public appearances, mostly with rodeos that he owned.
Here, a certain mystery -- which is not entirely solved by Holly George-Warren in her devoted but not very venturesome biography, “Public Cowboy No. 1" -- enters our story. Put simply, it is: How in the world did Gene Autry become the richest cowboy in human history?
To begin with, Autry’s appearance was unprepossessing; he was short and a little bit soft looking, not at all he-man rugged. More significant, he worked on the fringes of show business. When he started, country and western music was not the behemoth it later became. His discs played mainly on 5,000-watt stations in the small towns, and, though he had hits -- beginning with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” and including his signature tune “I’m Back in the Saddle Again” and, lest we forget, the ever-noxious “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” -- royalties were as little as half a cent per disc. It was the same with his movies. The stix didn’t nix hix pix (no matter what Variety famously announced); an actor like Autry just didn’t see much money from them. Autry’s movies were made in a week on budgets as low as $10,000, with Autry receiving no profit participation until he produced them himself toward the end of his screen career. Before that, his best salary was just over $10,000 per picture.
George-Warren includes a telling table of star salaries for 1937. The list was led by Fredric March, who made $487,687, followed by the likes of Garbo, Dietrich and Joan Crawford, all comfortably in the six-figure range. Autry’s movie earnings that year were $29,590. He pieced out a decent living with his songs (some of which he wrote, some of which he was merely credited with writing), personal appearances and merchandising (guitars and a nifty cap pistol bore his name). But we’re still a long way from his eventual net worth, especially because Autry was a soft touch for hard-luck stories and charities, to which he would contribute at least $80 million above and beyond the millions that went into his museum.
George-Warren rather vaguely attributes Autry’s wealth to plain hard work, but she has a point. Think about it: At the peak of his career, he was doing six movies and as many as eight recording sessions a year, and a weekly radio broadcast. Between these dates he was constantly on the road with his revues and rodeos, during which he was always doing extra shows for hospitalized children. Add up all the little fees and you’re bound to have a certain amount of discretionary income -- eventually, a lot of it.
Autry was a bear for work. Also, eventually, for booze and babes. By the end of his performing career he was falling off his horse in a variety of venues. His dulcet tones sometimes deteriorated into a rusty croak that occasionally elicited boos from sparse crowds. As for women, he came on to them shyly and he could accept their rejections casually; there would always be someone else at the next stop. Eventually, he settled into a long-term extracurricular relationship with Gail Davis, who had starred in some westerns he produced and who worked with him on the road. Inez, his wife of many decades, doubtless knew of this romance, but she was warmed by a lot of community property, a devotion to Christian Science and a certain tolerance for his fiddle-footed ways. It wasn’t an arrangement unknown in show biz -- or any other biz.
And besides, Autry really was a nice guy. He was loyal to his employees and reasonably generous with them. His politics were good-natured -- he was friendly with FDR and Lyndon Johnson, with whom he exchanged modest favors; he was assuredly no redneck know-nothing. He sang his share of sentimental religious ditties, but he would sing about anything (from the folkish to the risque), and George-Warren records not a single word or act of corn-pone piety. When he talked at all about the larger purpose of his work, it was to stress the basic American ethics: hard work, clean living, a decent respect for your elders and the America that had treated him so well. But even that had its business ramifications -- he reckoned that if he got fans young, they’d stay with him when they grew up.
You mean that’s all? I don’t quite think so. George-Warren gets herself a little bit lost in the slumberous details of his music making and in tracing his relationships with his many sidemen and sidekicks. She ventures no worthwhile opinion about the sources of his instinctive shrewdness or about why, suddenly, singing cowboys (Autry was not alone in this activity) were for a decade and a half so wildly popular.
We can perhaps do a little better here. He came on the musical scene as its technology was changing from acoustic recording to electronic, which was more suited to his mellow and intimate style. Moreover, he was willing to work for the labels that produced cheap records selling for 25 cents in the dime stores. As he cut his first sides just two weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, this was no small matter in creating an audience.
But the Depression had a larger effect on his career. As we know, it struck rural America with particular force. In the 1920s, we were already more urban than rural and farm foreclosures, the Dust Bowl in the Southwest and floods in the border states accelerated that trend and lent it a tragic edge. The country folks needed a guy with a plain manner in a jaunty, embroidered shirt to cheer them up and reassure them that their values remained relevant. Most of his films were contemporaneously set, and the evil he combated was not cosmic and insoluble. It was embodied by rustlers and shysters, and Autry learned to ride and fight manfully enough -- though his kisses were reserved for Champion, his agreeably workmanlike horse (no fancy palominos for him) -- to efficiently dispense with those guys and still have time to sing a few songs, all in around 70 minutes.
After World War II, America was a different story, but in his moment, Gene Autry’s success was explicable and deserved. Moreover, that gracious and thoughtful museum of his is something more than an unlikely last laugh. It is a legacy -- a monument -- that in its scope, sobriety and sheer generosity dwarfs anything ever left behind by anyone in the entire history of show business. *