Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow died on this day in 1934, gunned down in a police ambush on a road in the north Louisiana woods. The Barrow Gang’s crime spree was short (two years) and small time (more gas stations and drugstores robbed than banks), but the young “celebrity bandits” were involved in thirteen murders, and their brazen photographs (most famously, of Bonnie the “cigar smoking gun moll”) had become newsreel footage around the world.
In his recent biography Go Down Together, Jeff Guinn tries to separate the reality from the legend of “scandalous glamour.” Clyde was scrawny, Bonnie was ordinary looking, and both were disabled — Clyde from losing two toes in prison, Bonnie from a car crash that forced her to hop rather than walk, or to be carried by Clyde. But they dressed well, and the media knew how to tailor their story:
Depression-era readers were desperate for entertainment, and stories about the Barrow Gang invariably boosted newspaper and magazine circulation. Many Americans considered cops and bankers to be their enemies. Although Clyde and Bonnie were never criminal masterminds or even particularly competent crooks — their two-year crime spree was as much a reign of error as terror — the media made them seem like they were, and that was enough to turn them into icons.
After the gangsters’ deaths, the icons were continuously reshaped, says Guinn. The first, 1934 biography “presented Clyde as a hot-tempered, soliloquy-spouting philosopher and Bonnie as a high-spirited Southern belle.” The first, 1937 movie portrayed “well-meaning young people forced into killing by callous and/or incompetent lawmen.” The pulp magazines reprised the “gun moll” theme: “She was blonde and stacked and ninety pounds straight out of hell — tommy-gunning, stogy-smoking Bonnie Parker, America’s deadliest sweetheart” (“Killer in Skirts,” Argosy, March 1956).
Crime historians say that the death of Bonnie and Clyde marked the beginning of the end of the “Public Enemy era.” The ability of the Barrow Gang to elude the various state authorities led to the passing of new federal laws and the formation of the FBI, and in the six months after the Bonnie and Clyde ambush, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson were all killed.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.