My babysitter, Betty, God rest her soul, hardly ever got to eat chocolate when she was a child. There were several reasons for this, namely: (1) it was the Depression; (2) she was poor; and (3) she was Black. It was such a rare occurrence, in fact, that she’d tasted chocolate only once before–when she was about three or four–and that was because it was her parents anniversary. The second time was when she was eight. And that was because Bonnie Parker gave her some.
Betty’s parents were God fearing, church on every Sunday, kind of people. They didn’t smoke or dip, rarely danced, and they never touched a drop of alcohol. They would, from time to time, feed escaped convicts that showed up on their property that laid just beyond a massive cotton field separating them from the prison farm.
The family felt sorry for these desperate, ragged men with eyes as big as saucers. “Don’t let ’em catch you with none of this,” her father would tell them when he handed over knapsacks of whatever food could be thrown together on the fly. And they almost always got caught, usually within a few hours, when the family would see them trussed up on the back of a flatbed truck, headed back to the farm.
One afternoon Betty, her brother and father were on their way home from church services when they had a flat. Her dad was wrestling with the jack when they heard the rumble of a wound up engine headed their way. “That’s a V-8,” her dad said. A moment later a sleek black Ford came hurtling around the bend. It barely slowed when a wheel slipped into a rain gorged rut and splattered the side of their broken down jalopy–then it just kept on going. Or so the family thought.
Just down the road a bit, the Ford suddenly stopped and then turned around. “Oh Lordy,” her father murmured, “what’s goin’ on here?…”
The Ford pulled up on the opposite side of the road and, bam, just like that, no warning what so ever, a man jumped out of the drivers side; a jaunty sawed-off fella, wearing a nice shirt and pants and a cocky, lopsided grin. He left the motor running.
“Don’t trouble yourself mister,” her father said nervously. “Just a flat. No need to mess up those nice shoes. No sirree.” But the man was undeterred. He limped around to the back of the Ford. “You’ll be here all day with that slipshod jack of your’s,” he said.
From the corner of her eye, Betty saw her little brother disappear behind the blindside of the Ford. She tugged on her father’s sleeve. He stooped to her level, his hands gripping her shoulders. “Go get your brother,” he whispered urgently. “But papa…” she stammered, suddenly shy at the prospect of encountering a stranger. “Get girl,” he hissed and she was caught off guard by the hardness in his eyes.
Reluctantly she trudged across the muddy road, approaching the car from the front end trying to avoid the stranger. She glanced at the windshield as she rounded the bumper. Intense beams of light bounced off water droplets and glass. Still she caught sight of a wispy silhouette in a beret. A woman.
She stopped in her tracks when she saw her brother at the passenger side door. Not tall enough to reach the handle he was on his tip toes, a scrawny arm extended from the window. “Darnell!” she called.
High pitched laughter came from the open window. “He’s okay. Let him be,” a friendly voice chided. “Darnell!” she yelled, disregarding the voice. “Leave the nice lady alone. Papa said so.” More laughter. “Darnell’s not goin’ anywhere child. He’s eatin’ chocolate candy.” And then the scrawny arm beckoned to her. “You want some?”
Betty told me this story when I was a seven years old, searching for female role models to identify with. I had seen the film Bonnie and Clyde with my mother and my aunt Ida on one of their epic days of cigarettes, gossip and movies. Those were good times, special days, when my mom didn’t have to work long hours in the beauty shop, before alcohol stole my aunt’s sense of humor and charm.
Back then I was thrilled by the character Bonnie, portrayed by Faye Dunaway. She was tall and glamorous. Beautiful. She called her own shots, defending not only herself but her handsome boyfriend too. They were equals. Co conspirators. She was brave and her name came before his. I thought this extraordinary. It was the nexus of my fascination with them. And Betty’s story affirmed them–particularly her–worthy.
Only, they weren’t. It simply just wasn’t true; not the story Betty told me (I still believe every word), but my perception of it and of them–especially her.
Bonnie Parker wasn’t tall. Or glamorous. Or beautiful. And while she was cute and feisty, (and most likely the smartest of the two) she didn’t call her own shots–Clyde did. Her name came before his because it sounded better in the school-girly, grandiose poems she wrote and because the press got a hold of those poems and published them in sensation seeking newspapers. And though she was fanatically protective of Clyde, willing to kill or be killed for him, she was, for the most part, just the girlfriend along for the ride, not much different than a Hell’s Angels old lady.
When they pulled over to help Betty and her family, they weren’t doing it to be neighborly. Nor were they making a before-their-time civil rights statement. They were looking for attention. More than money, more than the respect of their peers, more even than fast cars or fancy clothes, it was what they craved the most and the aforementioned press was happy to oblige, sexing up the scruffy little couple to the hilt.
As a journalist and reluctant contributor to the tabloids, Edward Anderson was up close and personal with the press’ duplicitous complicity in the clash of reality versus image. He resented it even as he consented to it.
On top of that, he sympathized with Bonnie and Clyde. They were outsiders; so was he. They were disrespected and misunderstood; so was he. They got pushed around and Clyde, in particular, pushed back. Bonnie stood by her man. Anderson admired that.
Bonnie and Clyde were killed only a few weeks before Anderson began his writing stint in the Texas hill-country. The title of his novel, Thieves Like Us, comes from the character T-Dub’s explanation of his ideology that most every politician, police officer, preacher, lawyer etc., is a thief, no better or worse than he is. Like the novel’s main character Bowie, T-Dub is a bank robber.
With regard to psychology and morality, Bowie and his girlfriend Keechie are worlds apart from the real couple who inspired them. For instance Bowie is pliant and gullible despite his hard upbringing and desperate criminality. And though he has spent several years in prison for a murder he did commit, he is kind. His murders (two of them, close range shootings) are the result of frenzied hand to hand fighting gone from bad to worse.
In some ways Keechie is the harder of the two, most definitely she is the smartest. Having grown up with a criminal, alcoholic father, she is not as trusting. Still, she too possesses a child like innocence. She and Bowie are inexperienced lovers. This draws them closer, making them fiercely protective of one another.
Bowie and Keechie’s demise stems from their involvement in the jailbreak of an undeserving, unappreciative cohort. Here reality and fiction converge.
Ralph Fults met Clyde Barrow on an imposing, albeit, rickety prisoner transport vehicle called the One Way Wagon. On his way to Eastham prison farm, wearing a steel collar and lead attached to Fults in front and and another prisoner in back, Clyde was understandably wary of where he was and, even more so, of where he was going. Fults filled him in. It was going to be rough, a little slice of hell, to be honest, but he could make it out alive–as long as he didn’t try to run. Run once, they would beat you black and blue; run twice and it’s a bullet to the back of the head–if you got caught, of course.
The way Fults remembered it, Clyde was “just a schoolboy going in (prison) and a rattlesnake coming out.” Though this analysis is overly generous (Clyde had been accused of murder previous to his incarceration, most probably unjustly) never-the-less, he was assuredly worse when he was granted an early release. At Eastham there is little doubt he committed murder, bludgeoning his repeated rapist to death with a pipe.
After lights out Clyde and Fults and some other convicts would huddle up, conspiring (fantasizing, Fults thought) about a massive prison break and forming a gang from the escapees. Clyde’s greatest aspiration was to be a gang leader. Some three years later, he put his plan into motion when he and Bonnie orchestrated the breakout of his sometime partner in crime, Raymond Hamilton and three other convicts, from Eastham. Though well thought out and executed, it didn’t go off without a hitch. One of the escapees, Joe Palmer, shot and killed a guard.
Despite being responsible for the murders of at least eight lawmen and four civilians, Bonnie and Clyde’s primary pursuers had been two Dallas deputies and a Texas highway patrolman. One of the deputies, Ted Hinton, knew Bonnie personally. He had been a regular of a cafe she had waitressed in.
The Eastham breakout put Bonnie and Clyde on the map. For the first time they had the respect of some of their criminal contemporaries. Fort Worth underworld kingpin O.D. Stevens hired Clyde to break him and two of his lieutenants out of Tarrant County jail. Facing a probable death sentence, he funneled the outlaw $18,000 to pull off the break. Clyde never got the chance to set it up.
The tide turned against the bandit couple when Clyde and an associate murdered a young, newly married police officer. The press ran exposes on the wife in mourning and the previously tolerant public soured against Bonnie and Clyde.
All over the tristate area of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana newspapers had a field day making fun of “inept, cowed law enforcement” unable and unwilling to reign in the “jailbreak mastermind and his bloodthirsty gun moll.” Tired of the tirade and anxious to appear tough on crime, Texas governor Ma Furguson commissioned legendary Texas Ranger and bounty hunter Frank Hamer to bring in the outlaw couple dead or alive. Hamer, in turn, assembled a six man posse that included Hinton, furnishing them with an arsenal of powerful Remington Model 8’s, a Monitor Machine rifle and Browning Automatic Rifles, the same firearm Bonnie and Clyde favored.
One of the Eastham escapees was a throat cut named Henry Methvin. In exchange for a pardon, he turned snitch on Bonnie and Clyde. With Methvin’s help, Hamer tracked the couple to Bienville Parish in Louisiana. There the posse set up a roadside ambush. Due to the couples desperate brutality and prowess with firearms, Hamer’s plan from the get-go was to blindside them. He didn’t want to risk them getting off a single shot. They didn’t.
The photograph is of six men four standing left to right and two squatting in front of those standing. The men–all solemn–are looking directly at the camera except for the second man standing to the the right, Ted Hinton, and the first man up front, Frank Hamer. Hinton is grimacing, staring off to the left. Hamer appears drained, a cigarette dangles from his lips; he looks to the right.
Probably the men’s ears were still ringing from all the gun fire. Certainly they were coping with the after effects of no sleep, too much sun and coffee, the drip, drip of waiting and, finally, the sudden explosion of adrenaline.
There is a saying among the Rangers: “Rangers lead the way.” On that sticky spring morning, Frank Hamer was true to the motto, though he didn’t fire the first barrage of shots. Those were squeezed off by deputy Prentiss Oakly, who aimed his powerful Remington Rifle with a modified clip at the drivers side window of the fancy grey ’34 Ford Deluxe. One of the bullets whizzed through the open window and hit Clyde Barrow in the temple blowing a chunk of his brain out the right side of his head. He was killed instantly.
As the car slowed and veered off the road, the rest of the posse opened up on it and its occupants. The Ford came to a stop in a ditch. Hamer raced down the incline where he and the others had been camouflaged. He blew out the rear window with his machine rifle, firing directly into a slumping Bonnie Parker. Then he moved to the front end and fired through the windshield at her again.
A few minutes later, while wisps of gunsmoke still lingered, Dallas police officer Ted Hinton began filming the aftermath of the carnage with his 16 mm camera. He would later admit to having a crush on Bonnie back in the days before Clyde, when she served him breakfast at Marco’s Cafe.
“What did they look like?” I asked Betty.
She couldn’t tell me much about Clyde since she didn’t get a good look at him. “He was short. Had black hair,” she recalled. “My dad said he had big ears.”
But Bonnie she remembered vividly. “She was a tiny little thing. Everything was thin. Her nose. Her lips. Her fingers. She was wrapped in a patchwork quilt.”
“Are you cold?” she remembered her little brother asking. “I’m always cold,” Bonnie said.
“She looked sickly. Old with out being old. But she seemed happy. Except for her eyes. Her eyes darted all around. All the time. Back and forth.”
Bonnie and Clyde were killed not too long after their encounter with Betty and her family. Betty’s father drove to Arcadia Louisiana to see their bodies. He didn’t get there in time but did get to see the death car.
“When we told people about meeting them, nobody believed us,” she said. “Those were hard times. Lots of folks told stories about meeting Bonnie and Clyde in those days.”