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Superstardom was born in the West


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

By Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. $26.

Few famous Americans have been more misunderstood than William Frederick Cody, the plainsman-turned-showman who was indisputably the nation's first superstar. "The Last of the Great Scouts" died nearly 90 years ago, but he is always with us, as the novelist Larry McMurtry persuasively argues in The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America.

There never was anyone quite like Buffalo Bill, or Annie Oakley for that matter. The Colonel (it was a honorary title) and Little Missie (as Cody called her) set the standard for superstardom -- that most American of institutions. Significant innovations in transportation and communication made that possible. They were household names. No one, McMurtry believes, has ever rivaled them.

Barnum admired Cody. Mark Twain did, too. Queen Victoria came out of mourning to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Even the pope went to see the show. We settle for far lesser superstars now.

For many Americans, well into the century just finished, Buffalo Bill was the American West. His West was our West. His Wild West -- he never called it a show; to Cody it was not a show, not a circus, not fake -- was a dramatization of something that was real to him, or had been real and was no longer. Cody did not need the historian Frederick Jackson Turner to tell him that the Wild West was no more. But they might have exchanged views on this.

Both men played the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Their near-collision is my favorite Buffalo Bill story. Cody shrewdly rented the ground next to the fair and did a roaring trade while poor Fred Turner, a newly minted Ph.D., read his famous paper on the closing of the American West to a tiny audience of heat-stricken academics in town for the fair. The pedagogues (who more or less ignored poor Fred) had just seen proof positive that the Old West would never die. They'd spent the afternoon with Buffalo Bill.

In the tradition of Buffalo Bill, McMurtry never lets mere facts get in the way. But worse things can happen. And Buffalo Bill has withstood worse things, too. Like the buffalo, Cody was always an easy target. So much written about him is simply wrong.

And that's partly his fault too. He's been pecked to death by chickens. There are probably Americans in the age of Kumbaya who think of Cody as a despotic, racist ravager of the plains -- an anti-Christ to the Dances With Wolves West we now cherish. But anyone familiar with his life knows that Indians, including Sitting Bull, liked Cody. The old Sioux holy man (who joined the Wild West for a year) was especially fond of Annie Oakley, too. Cody was kind to Indians. He was generous. He let orphans come to his show for free. He hired those down on their luck. He was a soft touch. He always stood his round. He probably stood too many rounds.

As to the slips, Cody probably never rode for the Pony Express, as McMurtry believes. An examination of his boyhood published by the Kansas State Historical Society shows that Cody told an occasional stretcher. McMurtry appears unfamiliar with that research.

"Pony" Bob Haslam, a real Pony Express rider, was not the first man out of St. Joe on the evening of April 3, 1860, when the Central Overland, California and Pikes Peak Express Co. began its madcap cross-country mail service -- the most famous failed business in American history. Even Pony Bob, who lived in Nevada and Utah, never made that claim.

The remarks about John Wayne that McMurtry says film director Howard Hawks made were made by another director, Raoul Walsh. And the last line of John Ford's masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was attributed to Ford by McMurtry rather than to the character in the film who spoke the line.

McMurtry says there has not been a biography of Buffalo Bill since Don Russell's great standard work in 1960. But Robert Carter did a solid job of reviewing the Cody story in 2000. Small things, but untidy.

Annie Oakley is part of McMurtry's essay, too. Odd that American feminists have not canonized Little Sure Shot, as Sitting Bull fondly called her. She was better than most men at most men's things. She made men nervous. (Is there a graduate student in the house?)

Oakley was hard as nails. She shot a cigarette out of Kaiser Wilhelm's mouth on a dare, drank only lemonade (it was free to members of the Wild West) and was cheap, as the poor often are. She lived a long life. Her shooting exhibitions -- and she could shoot, even as an old lady -- almost always against men who fancied themselves good shots -- were the stuff of legend. But then so is much of our American West, a world the critic Bernard DeVoto called "the borderland of fable."

McMurtry's affectionate and thoughtful meditation on Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, and the beginnings of superstardom is a pleasure to read, and he is right about the big stuff. They don't make them like that anymore.

Christopher Corbett, author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express, is writing another book on the 19th-century West.

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