Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster. 245 pp. $26

For so long celebrity has been so much with us -- too much with us -- that we take it for granted. In an age when the newsstands are crowded with cheesy fanzines, the checkout aisles with sensational tabloids, the cable channels with inside gossip about the rich and famous, the newspapers with up-to-the-minute gasps of excitement celebrity (or fame, as it once was known) becomes commonplace and trivial, an assembly line producing one flash in the pan after another. Once a thrill -- remember Bogie? Elvis? Marilyn? Dr. J? -- celebrity is now a bore.

All of which means that it's just about impossible to recall a time when there was no such thing, when a few people were famous -- Teddy Roosevelt, maybe, or Madame Curie -- but when celebrity as we know it simply did not exist. It requires circumstances that did not arise until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Larry McMurtry rightly mentions two -- "rapid and reliable rail transport" and "management and publicity" -- but a third is the most important of all: the ability to make images rapidly available to a mass audience. If Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley were, as McMurtry contends in this odd but interesting book, "the first American superstars," then it is primarily because "their images were recognized the world over" because of the posters that depicted their exploits in melodramatic fashion and the photographs that made them come alive to people who never had the opportunity to see them in person.

The posters were the approximate equivalent of the television shows and movies that broadcast images all over the world today, and the photographs were the approximate equivalent of People magazine and its innumerable rip-offs. McMurtry's argument that Cody and Oakley were the first celebrities as the term is now understood is debatable, but he certainly is right that their renown was extraordinary.

Though McMurtry presents the pair as equally famous, they don't get equal treatment in "The Colonel and Little Missie." Primarily it's a book about Buffalo Bill, and though McMurtry never quite comes out and says so, the reason is obvious: He simply is the more interesting. Annie Oakley was "reserved, modest to the point of requiring a female embalmer, so frugal that many of the troupers believed that she lived off the lemonade that Cody and [his manager] served free to all workers." When she hauled out her rifle and displayed the marksmanship that audiences came to see she was "a showperson through and through," but mainly she was "Quakerish, quiet." (As nobody needs to be told who's seen Irving Berlin's wonderful musical "Annie Get Your Gun," she had a happy marriage to her fellow trouper Frank Butler, but that makes for precious little drama and thus leaves McMurtry little to write about.

Buffalo Bill was something else altogether. As e.e. cummings wrote in the poem that immortalized him for the ages, "Jesus/ he was a handsome man." He'd been something of a heroic figure in the last days of the frontier West -- though not quite as much a hero, McMurtry suggests, as showbiz and legend insisted -- and he knew how to play the part: "Cody's fame depended . . . on his truly smashing appearance, which only seemed to get better once his hair began to turn white. He was also a superb horseman. People just seemed to like to watch Buffalo Bill Cody even if all he was doing was riding around an arena waving his hat."

Before he became Buffalo Bill, Cody was an unusually capable horseman who did various jobs and engaged in various skirmishes, just about all of which were inflated beyond recognition as truth metamorphosed into legend. He was an Indian fighter for a while, and he probably did kill one Indian, but he liked Indians a lot more than he hated them, and they liked him back. He rode with the Pony Express for a while, or so he always said, and he made Pony Express acts a major part of his Wild West show, but "absolute proof that Cody rode with the Pony Express is elusive." He was a skilled scout and courier, and "it was on horseback that he looked most like himself -- as I have said elsewhere, it is hard to overestimate how far a man can go in America if he looks good on a horse."

Once he turned to show business in the 1880s, Cody became an actor, and what he presented was fiction. The important thing to understand, though -- and this McMurtry gets exactly right -- is that Cody believed it was fact. His "instinctive decision [was] not to call the show a show. It was, in his mind, and in the minds of most of the spectators, history, not fiction -- easy to understand fiction that allowed the audience to participate vicariously in the great and glorious adventure that had been the settling of the West, an enterprise not yet wholly concluded even in 1886." It was "Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which meant that in his mind it was history -- our history -- and not just a collection of sharpshooters, trick riders, and the like."

Now as then, when it comes to the West, we Americans want nothing except fiction. Scholars by the cartload, some of whom McMurtry cites, are poking away at the myths and legends of the West, but in the popular mind the West is now and ever will be Buffalo Bill, John Wayne and John Ford, the last of whom, McMurtry writes, "is said to have decreed that if you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend." McMurtry places Buffalo Bill in that context:

"People liked to see Cody ride his horse fast and pop a few glass balls. He wanted to embody history -- the history he had been a part of -- and to an extent he did. In this matter he and his audiences were one in that, somehow, they wanted the West, the gloriously dangerous West, the mythic romantic West, the cowboy-and-Indian-filled West, and Cody came closer to giving it to them than anyone else because he had it in himself and audiences could see that. He invented rodeo, sponsored cowboys, supported and promoted Indians, many Indians. He drew forth . . . seventeen hundred dime novels. Thanks to his shows millions of people came to know, or to think they knew, at least a little of what westering, in the broadest sense, had been like."

Yes, his "life work was no mean achievement" and "Annie Oakley's stardom was real," but it's disappointing that McMurtry didn't pursue his point in the logical direction. It's not just the West that Americans want to fictionalize and romanticize; it's the entire American past. Colonial Williamsburg, Disney World, all the theme parks and historic sites to which so many millions so eagerly flock -- all sanitize and prettify the past even when (as at Williamsburg) some of their organizers try to be faithful to historical truth. The Colonel and Little Missie (their affectionate names for each other) started more than the mania for celebrity; they also put us on the road to Never-Never Land.