The Entertainer

William F. Cody was a frontier go-getter who was good with horses and mules and good to look at. Until show-business hokum turned him into Buffalo Bill there was nothing about him to suggest he would ever amount to anything very special. Youthful energy and readiness to gallop off on bizarre errands through dangerous territory came with a frontier boyhood, but in an era when America was rich in extraordinary achievers, Cody seems to have been no better fitted for glory than a thousand other high-spirited youngsters riding the high plains.

With the Civil War scarcely over, young Cody decided the stage looked more promising than the prairie and began appearing before the footlights with other frontier characters playing Let’s Pretend with six-shooters. Suddenly there was a big new audience for Wild West material. At one point even Wild Bill Hickok tried the stage. Only young Cody, however, had what it took to go out there firing blanks at stage Indians and come back a star. He was destined to become one of the most successful mass entertainers in history.

The man who dazzled our great-great-grandparents a hundred and twenty-five years ago was not the romantic frontiersman they took him to be, but a brilliant entertainer who played a frontiersman in a Wild West show. Assisted by an ingenious producer, a dime novelist, and a shrewd public relations man, Cody built a fictional hero named Buffalo Bill, moved into it, and inhabited it until he became the embodiment of the fiction, a make-believe hero who enchanted millions. No wonder Americans still cling to him. As Buffalo Bill, he introduced a new age of mass entertainment which often seems to be developing into an age of total entertainment. Is there a more relevant historical figure for a nation that marches off to a televised war promising the audience a spectacle of shock and awe?

Three good new books take us back to those days of yesteryear when Cody rode his great white stallion to the rescue of civilization while millions cheered, sometimes twice a day. At over six hundred pages, Louis Warren’s Buffalo Bill’s America is more than double the length of Larry McMurtry’s book, The Colonel and Little Missie (245 pages). Where McMurtry writes with an austere simplicity—his style often suggests the script of an old-fashioned slide show—Warren writes with the tireless ebullience of a scholar in love with his material.

Warren is a history professor and a theory man; give him an arresting fact and he gives it back adorned with a thousand words of exploration and explanation. Nothing is too unimportant to be left out. Still there are rewards for staying with him, for he is an entertaining storyteller and an elegant theorizer. At one point he manages to credit Buffalo Bill with helping Bram Stoker create Count Dracula.

He also describes in detail Cody’s disastrously unsuccessful divorce suit against his wife, Louisa “Lulu” Cody, with its bizarre tales of poison …

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