Will Rogers was America’s best-known humorist during the first three decades of the twentieth century. He began his entertainment career as a Wild West show trick rider and roper but easily and successfully made the transition to the stage, film, and radio. His down-home style and wit appealed to audiences of all types. Ironically, this proud part-Cherokee became know as America’s “Cowboy Philosopher.”
Born on November 4, 1879, on the family ranch near Oolagh, in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Rogers was the last of eight children of Clement Vann Rogers, a former Confederate army officer, rancher, banker, and leader in Cherokee affairs, and his wife, Mary America Schrimsher. Rogers proudly proclaimed throughout his life that that he was an Oklahoma cowboy and one-quarter Cherokee Indian. “My ancestors didn’t come on the Mayflower but they met the boat,” he quipped in Will Rogers: His Life and Times.
Rogers attended the local one-room Drumgoole School for a while, but he was such a restless student that his parents enrolled him in Harrell International Institute in Muskogee, Oklahoma, a girls’ boarding school that his sister Mary attended. He then spent four years at Willie Halsell College, a private boarding academy in Vinita, Oklahoma. Next he attended Scarritt Collegiate Institute in Neasho, Missouri, but his passion for roping led to his expulsion. After a two-year stay at Kemper Military Academy in Booneville, Missouri, the 18-year-old Rogers quit school for good to travel and work. Though he never graduated, he had roughly the equivalent of a high school education.
Rogers always liked doing riding and roping tricks more than anything else. He went on his first roundup when he was just a toddler and learned to throw a rope from Uncle Dan Walker, a black cowboy, before he was five. Rogers won his first prize in a roping contest on July 4, 1899, in Claremore, Oklahoma, the place he always called home. He entered rope contests whenever he could, picking up tricks from his competitors. He continued to practice his repertoire of fantastic rope stunts throughout his life.
After leaving school, Rogers worked on cattle drive and managed his father’s ranch until he decided to make his way to Argentina in 1901. His world travels eventually landed him in South Africa, where he tended cattle for a couple of months before joining Texas Jack’s Wild West Show in 1902. Rogers started as a trick rider in the show, but soon his rope act earned him the billing “The Cherokee Kid—The Man Who Can Lasso the Tail Off a Blowfly.” Texas Jack reportedly gave him some advice that he followed throughout his professional life: get off the stage before the audience has had enough.
In 1905 Rogers made his New York debut at Madison Square Garden. He broke into vaudeville the same year at Hammerstein’s Roof Garden in New York City. His act consisted of riding his pony, Teddy (clad in felt-bottom boots buckled like galoshes), onto the stage and doing a variety of rope tricks to soft orchestra music.
During this early period of his career, Rogers married his longtime sweetheart, Betty Blake, and they had three of their four children. Rogers’ career took off only after he started talking during his tricks, more because of his delivery and superb timing than any particular jokes. In general, he would concentrate on his lassoing, then make an impromptu remark half to himself.
Rogers was on the verge of being fired from a vaudeville show owned by famed impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., when he followed his wife’s suggestion to use newspaper stories as a source of comedy. His constant reading gave him enough new material for three daily performances, which he prefaced with: “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.” He later used the same phrase in his newspaper column. Known as “the columnist of the theater,” Rogers found over the years that the more serious the situation, the more audiences laughed at his parody. In 1916 he joined Ziegfeld’s tremendously popular Follies and appeared in several editions of the show until 1924.
Rogers’ entertainment career extended beyond the vaudeville stage. He opened in his first Broadway musical, The Wall Street Girl, in 1912, and went on to perform in many stage successes in the United States and England. In 1918 Rogers appeared in his first motion picture, a silent film entitled Laughing Bill Hyde. After signing a two-year contract with movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, he moved his family from New York to California.
By 1929 Rogers had made the transition to talkies, starting with They Had to See Paris. Talking pictures allowed him to showcase his onstage persona and play himself. In all, he appeared in 17 motion pictures. He was probably the highest-paid actor of his time and certainly one of the best loved. He first aired on radio in 1926. Beginning in 1930, he gave a series of popular weekly broadcasts.
Roger’s various careers overlapped considerably. In 1920, then widely known as a theatrical performer and movie actor, he wrote a series of articles for the Los Angeles Record about the Republican and Democratic conventions. Although asked to run for legitimate public office, he never did. By 1928 he was a recognized commentator on political conventions.
In 1922, Rogers had started writing a humorous weekly newspaper column for the New York Times. The column later appeared in most American Sunday papers. Rogers is said to have been the most widely read—with an estimated 20 million readers—and frequently quoted newspaper columnist of his time. After two years, Rogers collected his favorite columns for a book, which, like some of his earlier film shorts, bore the title The Illiterate Digest. The well-received volume prompted reviewers to recognize him as “The Cowboy Philosopher,” an “everyman” who skillfully voiced the feelings of the average American.
From the earliest days of his career, Rogers expressed concern for victims of misfortune, donating both his earnings and talents to charitable causes. He pledged ten percent of his 1918 salary to the American Red Cross and gave the organization $100 per week for the duration of World War I. As his popularity increased in the late 1920s, the press generously covered his continued humanitarian activities. He also was an advocate of relief for farmers and the unemployed.
Rogers visited every state of the Union and traveled around the world three times. An early booster of air travel and safety, he often flew around the country to his engagements. He flew with most of the outstanding aviators of the time and when unable to take a commercial flight, he would catch a ride on an airplane carrying the U.S. mail, weighing himself outfitted in flight gear and paying the equivalent sum as if he were a package. Rogers was in several plane crashes during his career. The third crash, which occurred in Chicago in 1929, left all of his ribs fractured.
In 1935 Rogers and his fellow Oklahoman aviator Wiley Post set off for what Rogers called “a vacation.” It most likely would have been a flight to the former Soviet Union via Alaska if fate had not intervened. An aviation record holder, Post had donated his historic airplane to the Smithsonian Institution. For the Arctic trip, which Rogers was financing, Post piloted a craft assembled from parts to more than one model. Though certified as airworthy, the plane was hard to control in some situations.
On August 15, Post and Rogers stopped on Walakpa lagoon near Point Barrow, Alaska. Shortly after taking off for their next stop, the plane lost power and nosedived into the water, splitting apart and killing them both instantly. Reportedly, the last word Rogers typed on his typewriter was “death.” Betty Rogers is said to have learned of her husband’s death in Connecticut where their daughter, Mary, was starring in the play Ceiling Zero, about a young woman whose father dies in an airplane accident. Rogers died at the age of 55.
The New York Times dedicated four full pages to Rogers in the wake of his death, while general newspaper and radio coverage lasted for a week. In his memory, the nation’s movie theaters were darkened; CBS and NBC television stations observed a half-hour of silence. A squadron of planes, each towing a long black streamer, flew over New York City in final tribute to this hero and friend of aviation.
Buried in California, Will Rogers’s body was moved in 1944 to a gravesite beside that of his wife and their fourth child, Fred, who had died of diphtheria as an infant. The tomb sits in the garden of the Will Rogers Memorial at Claremore, Oklahoma. His chosen epitaph was one of his favorite sayings, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” In the 1990s Roger’s legend lives on in the Tony Award-winning musical Will Rogers Follies, among other tributes. He remains one of the most revered popular figures of the twentieth century.
Source: Native North American Biography edited by Sharon Malinowski and Simon Glickman