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, Gypsy love potions, and allegations that Buffalo Bill had had affairs with England’s aged Queen Victoria, as well as her daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandra. The grocery tabloids missed a good thing by not being around when Buffalo Bill was king of the box office.
Warren sees the Cody show as a metaphorical expression of the late-nineteenth-century American psyche, with its brutal urge to domesticate what white Americans saw as a hostile wilderness. Early feminist ideas were in the air; white men were increasingly uncertain about masculine superiority. Woman’s place was supposed to be in the home, but the Cody show starred Annie Oakley, a woman so good with a gun that she could outshoot her own sharpshooter husband and manager, Frank Butler. Warren believes that the “Attack on the Settler’s Cabin,” which usually closed the show, was essential for the comforting reassurance it gave to an uneasy male-dominant society.
In this scene a settler’s house with its precious wife-and-mother under attack by Indians was saved by the nick-of-time arrival of white rescuers. Today’s blasé moviegoer imagines the scene and sees only the same tiresome cavalry arriving reliably on time, but Warren looks deeper and sees “a depiction of woman powerless and dependent on man.”
This closing scene, he writes, created
a dangerous landscape of savagery in which the only safe place for a woman was the house and the only safe social condition was dependence on mounted white men…. Any anxiety about masculine power remaining from the spectacle of the virginal, girlish, dead-shot Oakley could be put to rest after seeing the savage men driven off by the white men, who arrived just in time to prevent the victimization of the helpless white woman in the show’s final scene.
Moreover, “by bringing the heroes home at the end of the show” the scene suggested “that the proper return of the conquering hero was to the hearth, and to the settled domestic order.” In this reading Cody’s show was the story of Western civilization’s progressive advance. Its producers named it “The Drama of Civilization.” Even destruction of the Indians became a justifiable necessity of progress.
It was an age when Americans believed that “progress, the rise of technology over nature and of settlement over the wild, seemed inevitable,” Warren writes. The Buffalo Bill show made Americans feel good about themselves by encouraging them to believe
that western industrial society was the apogee of human development, the beginnings of a more peaceful, humane world, and even to fantasize that one person could embody its promise.
Warren, with a sharp eye for irony, notes that Bill Cody died in 1917, the year in which the United States entered the First World War, thus embarking on the century of industrial-scale slaughter which had already begun in Europe. “The dream of Buffalo Bill’s America, a frontier nation launched from Nature into the bright future of the Machine, suddenly seemed quaint and naive,” he writes.
In The Colonel and Little Missie, Larry McMurtry looks at Cody the way a good reporter looks at a candidate for president, with a respectful but skeptical eye. He keeps us aware that the frontier adventures that Cody embroidered to create Buffalo Bill are extremely hard to verify. Was Cody indeed only eleven years old when he killed an Indian warrior? The story’s origin, among other details, is hard to pin down, though it was used to create the idea of Buffalo Bill, Indian fighter.
But did Cody, at any age, ever kill any Indian? McMurtry is suspicious of a famous Cody story that was “endlessly reprised” in the Wild West show. This had young Cody taking “the first scalp for Custer” by killing an Indian three weeks after General Custer’s disaster at the Little Big Horn. Sometimes the scalped Indian is named Yellow Hand, other times Yellow Hair.
McMurtry concludes that there was a scalp all right. It was sent home to Mrs. Cody, who was appalled and ordered it out of the house. Whose scalp it was remains a mystery. Professor Warren quotes an aging Cody denying that he killed Yellow Hair/Hand: “Bunk! Pure bunk! For all I know Yellow Hand died of old age.”
McMurtry’s Cody seems not so much the usual show-business faker as a teller of tall tales or what Mark Twain called “stretchers,” in which truth was often enlarged to make a good story better. Twain did it all the time, and he came out of the same frontier culture that produced Cody. Yet McMurtry’s cool style suggests that he finds something less than admirable in Cody’s career. What he admires extravagantly is Cody’s horsemanship. “It was on horseback that he looked most like himself,” he writes. “…It is hard to overestimate how far a man can go in America if he looks good on a horse.”
The “Little Missie” of McMurtry’s title is Annie Oakley, the female sharpshooter who was almost as vital to the show’s success as Cody himself. McMurtry gives the pair equal billing with his title and justifies it by asserting that they were America’s first “superstars.” Phineas T. Barnum, whose performers included Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale) and General Tom Thumb (thirty-three inches tall when fully grown), might have disputed this claim. In any event, Annie Oakley lacked the gaudy style of the full-blooded superstar.
She learned to shoot in the woods around Cincinnati while hunting small game for the table. Maybe because of an impoverished childhood, she was notoriously tightfisted; people said she hated spending money on food and lived on the free lemonade provided round-the-clock by the Buffalo Bill show. In her funeral instructions she specified that she must be embalmed by a woman, causing speculation that she was also priggish.
In Buffalo Bill in Bologna, Robert W. Rydell and Rob Kroes are interested in the worldwide triumph of mass American culture, or, as their subtitle has it, “The Americanization of the World, 1869–1922.” With its several triumphant European tours, Cody’s Wild West, as he called his show, was pivotal in this history. The book tells a great deal quickly about Cody’s origins and the mechanics of his show.
It played as many as 130 cities a year. Transporting it required at least eighteen railroad cars. The traveling company usually included over five hundred performers and workers, plus animals, prefabricated grandstands, tents for performers and concessionaires, props galore, and the largest private electrical plant then in existence. It was capable of feeding this entire company three times a day. In a single week its storeroom provided nearly ten thousand pounds of meat—beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, ham, and chicken; over two thousand loaves of bread; ten tons of ice; over three thousand quarts of milk; in addition to potatoes, cabbage, flour, cornmeal, fifteen gallons of Worcestershire sauce, six gallons of mustard, and a barrel of pig’s feet.
“Operating on a military-industrial scale,” the authors write, “the Wild West became a mobile dream factory capable of producing narratives of heroic conquest for mass audiences numbering in the millions.”
What they saw was a spectacle of thundering horses, buffalo, cowboys, sometimes Cossacks and vaqueros and Arabian horsemen, stagecoach robberies, sharpshooters, and a hundred or more real Indians hired from the reservations. Chief Sitting Bull sometimes joined the company. He liked Cody. The show dramatized frontier incidents, some purportedly from Cody’s own career, in a series of tumultuous scenes.
McMurtry, a reliable student of the frontier, suspects there was more Broadway than Chisholm Trail in it. Using “a very few elements of Western life”—Indians, buffalo, a stagecoach, magnificent horsemanship—Cody created “an illusion that successfully stood for a reality that had been almost wholly different,” McMurtry writes. Yet even experienced journalists fell for it. McMurtry quotes one such “hardened” specimen named Brick Pomeroy:
It is not a show. It is a resurrection, or rather an importation of the honest features of wild Western life and pioneer incidents to the East…. [The performers are] actual, living, powerful, very much alive and in earnest delegates from the West, all of whom have most effectively participated in what they here reproduce as a most absorbing educational realism.
Sophisticates were as delighted as the masses. General William Tecumseh Sherman, the recent scourge of Dixie, now in charge of exterminating the Plains Indians, was impressed. Mark Twain was so smitten that he wrote a short story told from the viewpoint of Cody’s horse. McMurtry marvels that Twain, so knowledgeable about the West, could have produced such nonsense: “We must hope he was drunk when he penned ‘A Horse’s Tale,'” he writes.
Europeans adored Buffalo Bill as much as Americans did. Queen Victoria required two command performances. Pope Leo XIII bestowed a blessing at the Vatican. In France the artist Rosa Bonheur painted Cody in Buffalo Bill costume. Touring the Continent, he performed for the emperor of Austria and various Russian princes and counts. In Germany the future Kaiser Wilhelm challenged Annie Oakley to shoot a cigarette out of his mouth and she obliged. In London Cody packed the kings of Belgium, Denmark, Greece, and Saxony into the Deadwood Stagecoach and traded poker repartee with the Prince of Wales about holding “four kings and a royal joker.” Or so it was said. The show’s assets included a first-rate press agent.
Rydell and Kroes attribute a big part of Cody’s success to revolutionary new printing technologies. These produced an age of brilliant poster art and so-called “dime novels” which flooded shops with tens of thousands of copies of tales that seemed to be churned out overnight.
Cody was “born twice,” Rydell and Kroes write, the second time from the pen of Edward Zane Carroll Judson, a writer publishing under the pseudonym Ned Buntline. Buntline was a flourishing dime novelist and Cody an unknown twenty-three-year-old when they met in 1869. Cody had earlier fallen in with the older, more experienced James Butler Hickok, a possibly authentic gunfighter known to posterity as “Wild Bill.” Now Hickok joined Cody on stage, playing themselves as western heroes. “Wild Bill” was not good at it; he mumbled inaudibly and fired his pistol blanks so clumsily that other cast members suffered painful powder burns.
Hickok gave it up and moved to Deadwood, where he became famous for being fatally shot in the back while holding a powerful poker hand. Cody might have given it up too, but for Ned Buntline’s arrival. Buntline quickly turned out Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men, and just as quickly followed it with a melodrama based on the book. Literature and theater combined to make Cody “an overnight sensation.”
The indispensable silent partner was a stage performer named Nate Salsbury. Salsbury was the gifted manager and organizer who was essential if a show on the grand scale was to succeed. He had the instincts of a great producer, including a sense of what will draw a crowd and a gift for recognizing star quality. This, as we now know, is that extraordinary power, sometimes possessed by otherwise hopelessly ordinary people, to make oneself fascinating to millions through mass-communications technology.
The term “star quality” may not have existed in the 1880s, but Salsbury’s instincts were ahead of the dictionary. One day by chance he happened to see a young female sharp-shooter practicing her act, hired her on the spot, and immediately ordered $7,000 worth of posters promoting her act. The country abounded in female sharpshooters, but Salsbury instantly realized that this one was a “daisy,” which was how they said “star quality” in 1885. Thereafter Annie Oakley became the show’s biggest attraction after Cody himself.
Salsbury had been quick to see the same quality in Cody. The old photographs in McMurtry’s book show young Cody as a tall, clear-eyed, almost beautiful male specimen with dark curly locks falling to his shoulders and a mustache curving into a beard fit for a prince. “Jesus he was a handsome man,” the poet E.E. Cummings wrote, remembering him long afterward. On horseback of course he looked magnificent.
None of this explains how he has managed to endure so long as a cultural figure—“the stuff of legend,” as the cliché has it. The legend was not seriously threatened until the 1960s, fifty years after his death. The rambunctious youth of that period, hot to dismantle the old order or at least to wake up their slumbering elders, trashed the heroic Buffalo Bill by declaring him a genocidal Indian killer. Toying with his name, the Beatles turned him into “Bungalow Bill” in a musical sermonette against killing.
Buffalo Bill was unkillable, though. As the twenty-first century opened, so did a revival of the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, with Bill and Annie Oakley belting out Irving Berlin’s triumphal anthem to the glories of show business. Ethel Merman, who created the Annie role in 1949, coined the word for the show’s effect on audiences: “socko.” Berlin instinctively knew what made Buffalo Bill indestructible. He was pure show business, and, as the song proclaimed, there is no business like it, or any other business that so fascinates so many Americans today. With the cultural ascendancy of television, American politics and news are now in many respects branches of show business.
Politicians without star quality—called “charisma” when discussing politicians—have little chance of reaching high office. Presidential campaigns rely almost entirely on the entertainment and advertising techniques of television. News that cannot be told with pictures is likely to be ignored. So is news that the mass audience would rather not know about.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West introduced America to entertainment’s power to sweeten reality for the masses by turning it into make-believe. Typically, the show declined to call itself a “show.” When its trains rolled into town, what they unloaded was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, not a Wild West show, but the Wild West itself. It was the real thing, except that, of course, it wasn’t.
Cody—or was it Nate Salsbury?—had discovered that millions would pay to see dramatized portrayals of the real world, provided much of the realness was left out.
Smoking out the human Bill Cody encrusted inside his Buffalo Bill suit is hard work after he becomes a performer. Here he falls victim to the public relations art, which almost always has a deadening effect on the biographies of actors and performers. Cody’s press agent, John M. Burke, was fine for getting out the crowds, but under his ministration Cody’s story feels more like a public relations handout than a biography.
Events of his frontier life were dramatized in the show, but they seem closer to poetry than history. McMurtry calls these scenes “tropes,” suggesting that literary liberties had been taken. As with modern television’s “docudramas,” show-business fakery drives out history, and Cody the human being becomes a wooden Indian fighter.
Young Cody the practical frontier lad is an appealing character in the Boy Scout vein. He was born in Iowa in 1846. By the 1850s the family had moved to Kansas, a battleground of murderous neighbors where slavers and abolitionists were staging a preview of the coming Civil War. Cody’s father, opposed to making Kansas a slave state, died of injuries after being knifed by a pro-slavery man. Eleven years old, Cody started working to support his mother. He was eager and resourceful at work and very good handling horses and mules.
He serves briefly with the Union Army of the West during the Civil War. A railroad company retains him to supply meat for work crews, and he kills perhaps three thousand buffalo. Like several other men in similar occupations he is nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”
Once the metamorphosis from frontiersman to entertainer begins, the human Cody becomes elusive. After helping produce something called “The Old Glory Blowout” in Omaha—it combined equestrian showmanship and a buffalo hunt—he announced he was going to present a show to be called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, America’s National Entertainment.”
At the end even the praise of people who obviously loved him reads like a publicity handout. Dan Muller, whom he took in as a homeless child and helped raise to manhood, was quoted saying he had a heart “as big as his show tent, and as warm as a ranchhouse cookstove.”
Cody’s partner Nate Salsbury was not so warmed by that expansive heart. In 1901, old, ailing, and eager for legal reasons to affirm that he “was the reason for Buffalo Bill’s worldwide fame,” Salsbury composed a document titled “Sixteen Years in Hell with Buffalo Bill.” It was not meant to be published and wasn’t. Salsbury wrote it to support potential legal claims by his heirs to his share as a longtime partner in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. It was to be “a club” for his heirs to use on Cody “if he ever attempts to blacken me in support of his overwheening vanity.”
Salsbury’s account makes tart reading, and Professor Warren quotes it at length. Calling Cody a “Tin Jesus on horseback,” Salsbury says he “abused every man in our employ who ever showed that he did not regard the Hero as the head and front of the Showman’s Universe.”
He dwelt heavily on Cody’s drinking. After staying sober for a full show season, Cody regarded himself as “a paragon of virtue and self-abnegation,” Salsbury wrote, but when he resumed drinking “he forgets honor, reputation, friend, and obligation, in his mad eagerness to fill his hide with rot gut of any kind.” Cody justified his excesses, he wrote, on grounds “that he is so great a man that all the world excuses him because he is a hero and an ‘Old Timer’ who saved America from going back to the wilderness [as] Columbus found it.”
Cody’s marital infidelities were not overlooked. In Rome, so drunk that “he could hardly get into his carriage,” Cody visited important people with a woman not his wife. On being shown into the British minister’s residence, “he remarked to his concubine that ‘We can beat this in Nebrasky at a fifty-cent admission shakedown.'”
Finally: “And this is the gentleman that ladies and gentlemen have delighted to honor. Bah.”
Salsbury’s document did not become public in Cody’s lifetime, but in 1904 Cody himself brought on a public relations breakdown by applying for a divorce from Lulu, his wife of thirty-eight years, who chose to fight it out in court. Her motives are unclear, but McMurtry suspects that, rascal though he was, she may still have loved him. Cody seems to have been an absentee husband almost from the start of the marriage. Still he was home often enough. Lulu bore him three daughters and a son. The boy, whom he named Kit Carson Cody, died in childhood. So did their daughter Orra.
Lulu and Cody had met in St. Louis during the Civil War. The daughter of a middle-class merchant, she had grown up in the French-speaking quarter of St. Louis. “To Cody, she was a dazzling, beautiful woman at home in the largest city he had ever seen,” Warren supposes. He was twenty and she about the same when they married.
McMurtry thinks the marriage was a constant mixture of melodrama and farce with “genuinely heartbreaking” elements:
Lulu had married for love, but her husband moved her to an ugly prairie town [North Platte, Nebraska] and left her. She spent much of her life feeling abandoned. Cody was never any particular help with the children. He provided well financially…but he didn’t provide well emotionally.
Though he sent Lulu ample sums, which she used for personal real estate investments, he also squandered money on other women. He financed a theatrical career for a favorite mistress. When Lulu caught him misbehaving she might wreck a hotel room in a rage, but after thirty-eight years with him she was determined to stay married.
Professor Warren’s account of the divorce proceedings is exhaustive and morbidly entertaining in the manner of stories in which highly respected people are systematically stripped of their dignity and made the butt of laughter. Cody’s extensive career as a sexual philanderer was explored. Humorists had sport with the fact that Buffalo Bill, savior of the settler’s cabin from Indian attack and champion of domestic bliss in so many shows, was now fighting his own wife. Cody charged that Lulu had poisoned him.
It was a divorce lawyer’s dream of paradise. Even royalty was introduced with preposterous speculation about Cody’s having romanced Queens Victoria and Alexandra. The word “preposterous” was the judge’s as he expunged royal names from the record. Cody’s claim that Lulu had tried to poison him was supported by evidence that he had indeed collapsed while having drinks with his wife during a Christmas visit home in 1900. Something had clearly overcome him. It turned out to be a love potion called Dragon’s Blood which Lulu had bought from a Gypsy. “What it contained nobody knows,” McMurtry writes, “but its purpose, of course, was to enable Lulu to recapture Bill Cody’s affections. After thirty years she was still trying.”
Ruling for Lulu, the judge refused Cody his divorce. Lampooned in the press and widely censured by clergy and other agents of moral uplift, Buffalo Bill, having invented much of the modern repertory of public relations, was the self-made victim of a public relations catastrophe. Warren concludes that “the hero of the ‘Settler’s Cabin'” was, finally, “an outcast.”
November 3, 2005