The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America


From the early 1800s to the end of his life in 1917, Buffalo Bill Cody was as famous as anyone could be. Annie Oakley was his most celebrated protégée, the 'slip of a girl' from Ohio who could (and did) outshoot anybody to become the most celebrated star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

In this sweeping dual biography, Larry McMurtry explores the lives, the legends and above all the truth about two larger-than-life American figures. With his Wild West show, Buffalo Bill helped ...

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The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America

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From the early 1800s to the end of his life in 1917, Buffalo Bill Cody was as famous as anyone could be. Annie Oakley was his most celebrated protégée, the 'slip of a girl' from Ohio who could (and did) outshoot anybody to become the most celebrated star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

In this sweeping dual biography, Larry McMurtry explores the lives, the legends and above all the truth about two larger-than-life American figures. With his Wild West show, Buffalo Bill helped invent the image of the West that still exists today -- cowboys and Indians, rodeo, rough rides, sheriffs and outlaws, trick shooting, Stetsons, and buckskin. The short, slight Annie Oakley -- born Phoebe Ann Moses -- spent sixteen years with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, where she entertained Queen Victoria, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm II, among others. Beloved by all who knew her, including Hunkpapa leader, Sitting Bull, Oakley became a legend in her own right and after her death, achieved a new lease of fame in Irving Berlin's musical Annie, Get Your Gun.

To each other, they were always 'Missie' and 'Colonel'. To the rest of the world, they were cultural icons, setting the path for all that followed. Larry McMurtry -- a writer who understands the West better than any other -- recreates their astonishing careers and curious friendship in a fascinating history that reads like the very best of his fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Suzy Hansen
The book is loaded with fun facts (Queen Victoria gushed over good-looking Sioux Indians), but the whimsical tone suggests that McMurtry chose to retell these familiar stories because he enjoys them so much. And if his thesis — that Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley were Madonna's predecessors — gets lost amid the Indian wars and European show tours, that's not a bad thing.
— The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
If Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley were, as McMurtry contends in this odd but interesting book, "the first American superstars," then it is primarily because "their images were recognized the world over" because of the posters that depicted their exploits in melodramatic fashion and the photographs that made them come alive to people who never had the opportunity to see them in person.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
As is McMurtry's wont in works of nonfiction (e.g., Crazy Horse), this dual bio reads more like an extended elegy than biography. Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, the demigods of western mythology, hold particular personal appeal for McMurtry. In a diner in his hometown of Archer City, Tex., McMurtry writes, "[T]here is a Cody poster that I sometimes study if I happen to land in the right booth," and as a child he heard his uncles recollect having seen Cody perform. This personal attachment doesn't obscure the quality of McMurtry's observations, and the book's aim, to separate fact from folklore, is beautifully accomplished. The Wild West show-and all of its mytho-historical components, such as riding the Pony Express, hunting bison, killing Tall Bull, scalping Yellow Hair-both distorted and magnified western heritage to a level of fantasy that captivates readers, including McMurtry, to this day. He smartly analyzes Cody's genius for PR, evidenced in such tactics as continually announcing that his next tour would be his last and seeing that cowboys' informal roping competitions could be turned into money-making rodeo shows. It's jarring when McMurtry tries to explicate Cody and Oakley's unprecedented fame by comparing them to today's pop stars, as in analogizing Annie Oakley's prima donna stage behavior to that of Martha Stewart and Courtney Love. Regardless, this book's a delight. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (June 7) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A slapdash, repetitious but nonetheless compelling look at two phenoms of the late-19th-century, by Mr. Wild West himself. McMurtry (Loop Group, 2004, etc.) knows his territory, and though he takes some time here working up a thesis separating Buffalo Bill Cody's and Annie Oakley's legends from the facts, the author of the Pulitzer-winning Lonesome Dove is ever fascinating and knowledgeable. He does not purport to give a biography of Cody, who grew up in "bleeding" Kansas and worked briefly as a Pony Express guide, Army scout and buffalo hunter before embarking on a 30-year show-biz career that ended with his death in 1917. But the facts of Cody's romantic story keep pulling him in, especially the "tropes," as McMurtry calls the legendary set pieces by which Cody defined himself. These included his first killing of an Indian when he was 11 and his scalping of Yellow Hair in 1876. Cody's scouting for the Army allows McMurtry free reign on the subtleties of the Indian Wars, a subject he evidently relishes. Having distinguished the facts of Cody's glamorous life (fodder for something like 1,700 dime novels), McMurtry moves into his work as a showman. By 1882, Cody had organized some of the first rodeos and hired Indians to help stage such dramatic mock-historical scenes as the attack on the Deadwood stage and battles between settlers and Indians. One of his most successful acts was sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a poor girl from Ohio who made an honorable living by her gun and was the first woman to be admitted to British shooting clubs. McMurtry explores Oakley's own "creation myth," involving the shooting of a squirrel on a fence with her father's too-big rifle when she was a girl: "She alwaysclaimed that it was one of the better shots she ever made." No spectacular or sexy revelations here, just a curious excursus into Cody's successful performance for "Grandmother England" during the troupe's 1887 tour for Victoria's Jubilee. All in all, earnestly winning, old-fashioned storytelling.
From the Publisher
"McMurtry has done his research well and presents a history that is well written, entertaining, and informative. The subtle humor and many ironies in the text are superbly read by Michael Prichard. He is understated without being flat."—-AudioFile
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743271721
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 5/30/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 528,354
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry McMurtry
Michael Prichard is a professional narrator and stage and film actor who has played several thousand characters during his career. An Audie Award winner, he has recorded well over five hundred books and has earned several AudioFile Earphones Awards. Michael was also named a Top Ten Golden Voice by SmartMoney magazine.


Back in the late 60s, the fact that Larry McMurtry was not a household name was really a thorn in the side of the writer. To illustrate his dissatisfaction with his status, he would go around wearing a T-shirt that read "Minor Regional Novelist." Well, more than thirty books, two Oscar-winning screenplays, and a Pulitzer Prize later, McMurtry is anything but a minor regional novelist.

Having worked on his father's Texas cattle ranch for a great deal of his early life, McMurtry had an inborn fascination with the West, both its fabled history and current state. However, he never saw himself as a life-long rancher and aspired to a more creative career. He achieved this at the age of 25 when he published his first novel. Horseman, Pass By was a wholly original take on the classic western. Humorous, heartbreaking, and utterly human, this story of a hedonistic cowboy in contemporary Texas was a huge hit for the young author and even spawned a major motion picture starring Paul Newman called Hud just two years after its 1961 publication. Extraordinarily, McMurtry was even allowed to write the script, a rare honor for such a novice.

With such an auspicious debut, it is hard to believe that McMurtry ever felt as though he'd been slighted by the public or marginalized as a minor talent. While all of his books may not have received equal attention, he did have a number of astounding successes early in his career. His third novel The Last Picture Show, a coming-of-age-in-the-southwest story, became a genuine classic, drawing comparisons to J. D. Salinger and James Jones. In 1971, Peter Bogdonovich's screen adaptation of the novel would score McMurtry his first Academy award for his screenplay. Three years later, he published Terms of Endearment, a critically lauded urban family drama that would become a hit movie starring Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine in 1985.

That year, McMurtry published what many believe to be his definitive novel. An expansive epic sweeping through all the legends and characters that inhabited the old west, Lonesome Dove was a masterpiece. All of the elements that made McMurtry's writing so distinguished -- his skillful dialogue, richly drawn characters, and uncanny ability to establish a fully-realized setting -- convened in this Pulitzer winning story of two retired Texas rangers who venture from Texas to Montana. The novel was a tremendous critical and commercial favorite, and became a popular miniseries in 1989.

Following the massive success of Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry's prolificacy grew. He would publish at least one book nearly every year for the next twenty years, including Texasville, a gut-wrenching yet hilarious sequel to The Last Picture Show, Buffalo Girls, a fictionalized account of the later days of Calamity Jane, and several non-fiction titles, such as Crazy Horse.

Interestingly, McMurtry would receive his greatest notoriety in his late 60s as the co-screenwriter of Ang Lee's controversial film Brokeback Mountain. The movie would score the writer another Oscar and become one of the most critically heralded films of 2005. The following year he published his latest novel. Telegraph Days is a freewheeling comedic run-through of western folklore and surely one of McMurtry's most inventive stories and enjoyable reads. Not bad for a "minor regional novelist."

Good To Know

A miniseries based on McMurtry's novel Comanche Moon is currently in production. McMurtry co-wrote the script.

The first-printing of McMurtry's novel In a Narrow Grave is one of his most obscure for a rather obscure reason. The book was withdrawn because the word "skyscrapers" was misspelled as "skycrappers" on page 105.

McMurtry comes from a long line of farmers and ranchers. His father and eight of his uncles were all in the profession.

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    1. Hometown:
      Archer City, Texas
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 3, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      Wichita Falls, Texas
    1. Education:
      B.A., North Texas State University, 1958; M.A., Rice University, 1960. Also studied at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Kings and potentates, and their queens and lovers, someday die and have to be entombed, interred, or consumed on splendid pyres.

So too with performers — even the greatest among them, the true superstars. Elvis died, and Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra. Elvis at least left us Graceland, his Taj on Old Man River; of the others we have merely records and movies, recorded performances that allow us at least distant glimpses of their gaiety, their beauty, their gifts. Show business imposes its own strict temporality: no matter how many CDs or DVDs we own, it would still have been better to have been there, to have seen the living performers in the richness of their being and to have participated, however briefly, in the glory of their performance.

When I was eight years old, I was sitting in a hot pickup near Silverton, Texas, bored stiff, waiting for my father and two of my uncles, Charlie and Roy McMurtry, to conclude a cattle deal. I was reading a book called Last of the Great Scouts, by Helen Cody Wetmore, Buffalo Bill Cody's sister. At the time I was more interested in the Lone Ranger than in Buffalo Bill Cody, but when my father and my uncles finally returned to the pickup, my Uncle Roy noticed the book and reminded Uncle Charlie that they had once seen Cody. This had occurred in Oklahoma, near the end of Cody's life, when he had briefly merged his Wild West with the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch show. Both agreed that Cody, an old man at this time, hadn't actually done much; mainly he just rode around the arena on his white horse, Isham, waving to the crowd.

Still, there was Buffalo Bill Cody, one of themost famous men in the world, and they had seen him with their own eyes.

Sixty years have passed since that hot afternoon in Silverton. I mainly remember the heat in the pickup — but it was true that two of my uncles, not men to veer much from the strict path of commerce, did perk up a bit when they remembered that they had actually seen Buffalo Bill Cody ride his white horse around an arena in Oklahoma. And like millions of others, they had made a trip precisely for that purpose, such was Cody's fame.

Copyright © 2005 by Larry McMurtry

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Table of Contents


Book One

The Tropes

Book Two

The Troupes


Grandmother England

Western Heroes, Heroines, and Villains



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