The definitive biography of the cinematic icon.
- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.45(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.48(d)
Read an Excerpt
Summer lingers like death on the prairie. It had not rained since spring, and by September the heat had burned cattle trails and dried creek beds. Underfoot the crust of the earth was cracking. A hot wind tumbled past skeletons of abandoned houses, their hulks framed by fences about to keel over. Off to the north, amid the tallgrass of Kansas, nature was syrup sweet and the voice of the turtledove swirled throughout the land, but in the north-central Oklahoma Territory there was no sign of people, not even tombstones.
The Cherokee Strip was a slice of land sixty miles wide and two hundred miles long just south of the Kansas border and west of the Arkansas River. In earlier years the country had been considered a wilderness fit only for prairie dogs and Cherokees, who along with the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles inhabited the region until they were shoved westward by the government to make room for homesteaders. Sections of the Oklahoma Territory, not a state for another fifteen years, had first been opened in 1889 under the Homestead Act. Four years later the Indians were paid to vacate, and their six and a half million acres was declared open for white settlement. Anyone hardy enough to stake a claim, pay the modest administration fees, and farm for five years would own a 160-acre tract.
All six and a half million acres were claimed on the day of the last great land run, Saturday, September 16, 1893. A hundred thousand pioneers enticed by the promise of a free farm or a lot in one of the four already platted town sites had been crowded into makeshift camps that week, suffering in the 100-degree heat as theyprepared to race into the territory on covered wagons, buggies, buckboards, carts, and surreys, or on the backs of horses, ponies, and mules, even on bicycles or on foot. Masses of United States cavalry straddled the border at regular intervals, as if they feared a monstrous traffic jam.
At high noon the Strippers were stretched in a line across the prairie for as far as the eye could see. To the din of trumpeters and soldiers firing their guns into the air, with a gigantic yell, they stampeded across the border in search of the best land. By nightfall every acre, every lot, every blade of grass had been taken.
In the following days, on the heels of the Strippers, came droves of brew peddlers, powdered dancing girls in feather hats, amateur banjo players, thugs and con artists, faro and shell-game men, and gamblers galore. Among them was a troupe of Iowan actors and musicians who had spent the summer working the small towns south of the Cherokee Strip. The Cutler Comedy Company was a family Indian medicine show, comprised of Frank Cutler, an imposing man of forty-three who enjoyed writing poetry, and his wife, Elizabeth, and two adolescent children, Burt and Myra. The versatile Cutlers provided a variety of entertainmentsminiversions of Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Drunkard, banjo solos, magic tricks, and the staple offering of all medicine shows, blackface comedy featuring Sambo or Jake in slapshoes and oversized trousers held up by elastic suspenders.
The Cutlers arrived from Edmond, thirty-five miles to the south. Just as soon as their caravan appeared on the government square, a man stepped up to speak with Cutler. He was a young roughneck with very long legs, who stood with a slouch that one day would be associated with Gary Cooper and hordes of other movie cowboys. He told Cutler how he had staked a homestead claim on behalf of his father. Then he asked for a job. Cutler asked about his experience, and the young man said that he could sing and make clownish faces and he could also do "flip-flaps," backward somersaults, though he admitted he had never performed before a paying audience.
Cutler could see that Joe Keaton was a drifter. He claimed to have ridden boxcars all the way from California, determined to reach the Cherokee Strip in time for the land run, not for his own gain but to win a farm for his parents. Still, the young man seemed eager to learn the medicine-show business, and Cutler needed somebody to double as a stagehand and bit performer. He offered Keaton three dollars a week and meals.
Joe Keaton lied about staking a claim. When his father arrived seven months later, he had to fend for himself.
Joe accomplished as little for himself as he did for his father. He did, however, develop a repertory of Bunyanesque tales, such as his account of his trip from Truckee, California, on board a boxcar, from which the crew threw him into forty-foot drifts of snow, leaving him to die.
Tales of his exploits as a hobo, told with a raconteur's skill, captivated pale, dainty, dark-haired Myra. Frank Cutler's daughter weighed barely ninety pounds and looked like a china doll. Sixteen in March, she was a wisp of a thing who stood four feet eleven. Her face was unremarkable. The mouth was thin, she had a noticeable overbite, her chin was weak, her gaze remote. Onstage these shortcomings were overshadowed by a lively manner and her musical accomplishments. Myra could play the piano, cornet, bull fiddle, and saxophone. Moreover, her singing and acting were passable, and from a distance she looked cute as a button.
Joe Keaton's grandiosity impressed Myra, who was too young and naive to see that his stories were complete invention. Her father, however, eyed the newcomer with hostile vigilance.
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