Before Paris and Nicole

Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley aren't just relics of the Wild West, argues "Lonesome Dove" author Larry McMurtry -- they're America's original celebrities.

Published June 16, 2005 3:28PM (EDT)

At the end of the 19th century, Buffalo Bill Cody was arguably the most famous man in the United States, because he looked sharp while riding a horse. And Annie Oakley was arguably the most famous woman, because she looked comely while firing a gun. Commonplace as such superficiality may be -- characteristic of celebrities from Ronald Reagan to Paris Hilton -- the popularity of Cody and Oakley is hard to fathom in our megaplexed, multichannel, celebrity-saturated society. Not only were they, as Larry McMurtry notes in "The Colonel and Little Missie," our first superstars. Adjusted for ego inflation and the explosion of media bandwidth, they were also, and will likely remain, our foremost.

Exactly who Cody and Oakley were, though, becomes less clear with each attempted biography. The greater the scrutiny, the less certain their history. Every detail is questionable. With his novelist's eye and footing in the West, McMurtry is positioned to deliver as good a book on the pair as we're likely to get. He has succeeded for the most part, by telling us all that isn't known about them, that we might more fully appreciate the extraordinary story of their fame.

Annie Oakley isn't quite as much of a mystery as Buffalo Bill. Having apparently led a less eventful life, there are fewer events concerning her that may be apocryphal. Still, we can't be certain even of her real name: While we know that she changed it to Oakley -- after a respectable neighborhood in Cincinnati -- nobody is quite sure whether she was born Phoebe Ann Moses or Phoebe Ann Mozee. As for the year of her birth, it seems to have been 1860, though for most of her life she insisted on 1866. What nobody doubts is the desperate poverty of her childhood in Darke County, Ohio. McMurtry puts it best when he writes, "Charles Dickens had nothing on Annie Oakley."

Somehow she figured out how to shoot. One story claims that, as a young girl, she picked up her father's shotgun and hit a squirrel between the eyes. Another story makes the creature a bird, and holds that the recoil broke her nose. Either way, the animal probably became supper, and by the time she turned 15 she was bringing in game full time for a local grocer.

Or not quite full time: Like any good shot, she also entered skeet competitions, as ubiquitous in 19th century rural America as pickup basketball games are in Chicago or Detroit or New York today. That's where she met her future husband, the marksman Frank Butler. We don't know for sure whether she beat him at their first meeting by two clay pigeons or one. We do know that he became her manager, and, within a few years, she was an international superstar.

Buffalo Bill became famous first, though, and provided the stage upon which Oakley's legend was made. He had a 14-year head start. William Frederick Cody was born in Iowa in 1846, and, while not as bad as Oakley's, his childhood in the bloody Kansas territory would also have given Dickens a run for his money. ("In these parts," McMurtry notes, "the Civil War lasted something like twenty years, rather than four.") Then, in the same spontaneous, inevitable way that Annie got her gun, Buffalo Bill landed in the saddle. His first job, at age 11, was delivering messages for the Western freighting firm that would shortly found the Pony Express.

That did not make him, as legend has it, a part of the Pony Express, let alone its star rider. The mount he was assigned was a mule, and the extent of his run -- from freight yard to telegraph office -- was all of three miles. McMurtry believes that, by the time the Pony Express came along, 14-year-old Cody had advanced enough to become its youngest messenger, but the best proof McMurtry can muster is only that it makes a good story. (All the supporting evidence from Cody's day, as McMurtry ably demonstrates, is not the least bit plausible, and the documentary evidence is spottier than Buffalo Bill's arithmetic.) None of which would make much difference -- since nobody has ever doubted Cody's skill as a rider -- except for the fact that he pretended to have been a Pony Express messenger, for more than 30 years, as the centerpiece of his performance in "Buffalo Bill's Wild West."

In his world-renowned entertainment -- which seems to have been a cross between a vaudeville act and a military parade -- he also pretended to have done a bit of Indian killing. In particular, he was fond of showing how he'd taken "the first scalp for Custer" while he was employed as a scout by the Army. If he did so, it was in 1876, shortly after the massacre at the Little Big Horn had left Gen. George Armstrong Custer dead alongside 250 of his men.

According to Buffalo Bill, the scalp belonged to a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hand, whom Cody caught early one morning leading a raid on the Fifth Cavalry. Yellow Hand challenged him to a duel. "We fired at each other simultaneously. My usual luck did not desert me, for his bullet missed me while mine struck him in the breast. He reeled and fell, but before he had fairly touched the ground I was upon him, knife in hand, and had driven the keen-edged weapon to the hilt in his heart. Jerking his warbonnet off, I scientifically scalped him in about five seconds."

This turn of events has been refuted by many people, from modern historians to eyewitnesses in Cody's own brigade. One account holds that Cody shot the Cheyenne's horse and a fellow cavalryman hit the Indian. A differing account has another scout -- Baptiste "Little Bat" Garnier -- killing the warrior in a ravine, and leading Cody to the body several days later because Buffalo Bill wanted a souvenir for his wife in North Platte, Neb. Lulu Cody got the scalp all right, and Buffalo Bill used it in shows for the rest of his life, persistently calling the warrior Yellow Hand, when in truth the man's name was Yellow Hair, and calling him a chief, when he was a mere lookout. "In fact Yellow Hair had not been a famous Indian," McMurtry writes, "he became famous with his death."

Indeed, the same was true of the Pony Express, which was made mythic posthumously as part of Buffalo Bill's show. And it was true of Cody's role as a hero of the West as well -- he called himself a colonel because he liked the title -- although of course he was alive and well at his center-stage apotheosis. "[I]t's easy to forget that the narrative of his life is one story and the narrative of his fame is another," McMurtry writes. Easy to forget, and essential to remember.

Then why the outsize celebrity? Annie Oakley was a good sharpshooter and Bill Cody was a good scout. Nobody ever disputed that. But by no means was either the best, even in these dubious areas of achievement. Others shot more clay pigeons than Annie. Many others slaughtered more Native Americans, to say nothing of buffalo, than Cody. But, had they been better at what they did, had that been the basis of their fame, they certainly wouldn't have been superstars.

More than she was for her shooting score, Oakley was endearing to audiences for her pout when she missed a tossed penny and for how she kicked the ground with her boot when she hit the mark. As for Buffalo Bill, had he been a real Indian fighter, out taming the frontier, he wouldn't have left the plains to perform in London, with a troupe of Native Americans, in front of Queen Victoria. "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," which traveled the world in various guises from the 1880s until Cody's death in 1917, was presented as historical reenactment -- Cody never called it a show -- but the only history it really reenacted, by interminable repetition, was the history it invented.

In truth, the West was not won but lost, irretrievably, and Cody and Oakley became legends by turning it into a myth, almost perfectly devoid of authenticity. McMurtry notes that "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" was popular, against all predictions, in cities such as San Francisco, because people living in such still-remote outposts "might prefer, for an hour or two, the fantasy rather than the reality." He seems mystified, though, by testimonials by the likes of Mark Twain, who asserted that "[d]own to the smallest detail the show is genuine ... wholly free from sham and insincerity." He wonders whether Twain was drunk when he wrote those words. Twain probably was -- a safe bet any day -- but McMurtry's perceptiveness unaccountably deserts him at this juncture: Like Buffalo Bill, Twain was a storyteller, and recognized the truth that legend makes of itself.

Indeed, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" was a more appropriate moniker than Cody may have recognized. By the turn of the century, the Wild West was more or less Buffalo Bill's own possession, and, along with Annie Oakley, he was its chief asset.

Today we condemn celebrities for their shallowness. Their appearance is their talent. They're a cultural null set. But, if we are to believe that Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley are meaningful -- to acknowledge that we are a product of the stage-set Wild West they brought us -- we would do well to give the likes of Paris Hilton more credit. The emptiness of celebrity is the vessel of our collective legend. Superstardom is our heritage.

By Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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