On May 23, 1934, the day the law finally caught up with Bonnie and Clyde, a tow truck hauling the couple’s shot-up Ford — their bloody bodies still inside — pulled into the itty-bitty town of Arcadia, La.
It was a circus.
Word had spread that the outlaws were ambushed on a nearby country road. Thousands of people from nearby towns showed up hoping to see, and maybe even touch, the bodies of the murderous lovers whose exploits had captivated the nation.
″One girl I went to school with wound up with one of Bonnie’s shoes,” a town resident recalled decades later. “People were taking pieces off the car for souvenirs.”
The surreal scene is depicted in the new Netflix film “The Highwaymen,” staring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas Rangers who hunted down Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after they killed 13 people on a multistate crime spree.
The movie is a classic chase story, but it’s also a study in the country’s long obsession with fame in any form — whether lurid, violent or outrageous. Bonnie and Clyde had it all.
“If they were around today,” said John Lee Hancock, the film’s director, “they would have more Instagram followers than the Kardashians.”
How Bonnie and Clyde became stars is a story that cultural historians, biographers and, of course, filmmakers have been chewing on for decades. It’s about journalism, the economy and especially the rise of images — both still and moving.
Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits took place during the Great Depression, when people were beleaguered.
Newspapers, themselves trying to survive, figured out that readers were tired of stories about the miserable economy. According to Jeff Guinn, the author of “Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” readers wanted diversion — sports heroes, movie stars, gangsters.
Babe Ruth, Bette Davis, John Dillinger.
“But nothing was as engaging as Bonnie and Clyde,” said screenwriter John Fusco, who spent more than 15 years researching and developing “The Highwaymen.” “They were glamorized because of the Bonnie element — lovers on the run outside of society just really attracted the public.”
Bonnie and Clyde, and their Barrow Gang, seemed to know it, too.
After a shootout in Joplin, Mo., police discovered that the murdering bandits conveniently left behind a camera at the scene. This was Bonnie’s path into America’s living rooms.
“In one snapshot she held a grinning Clyde Barrow at mock gunpoint,” Guinn wrote. “In another, she propped one foot on the fender of the V-8 sedan — a very unladylike posture — and then compounded the shock value by waving a handgun that she also brandished or wore in several other pictures.”
There was even a photo of Bonnie with a cigar hanging from her mouth. The photos were given to a local newspaper and used for a wanted poster. Once they hit the wire services — the pre-Internet in many ways — newspapers across the country printed them, as did true-crime magazines.
“They wanted to cram as many Barrow Gang stories into their publications as possible before the cops inevitably caught the kids and ruined a good story line,” Guinn wrote.
The legend of Bonnie and Clyde grew and grew. They became so large in the country’s imagination — Hollywood-like actors directing their own real-life drama — that the fans who showed up in Arcadia to literally get a piece of them were stunned by what they saw and later learned about them in newspapers.
Bonnie, for one thing, wasn’t tall and glamorous like a Hollywood starlet. As for Clyde, Guinn wrote, “One onlooker, disappointed by Clyde’s scrawny frame, announced, ‘He was nothing but a little bitty fart!’ ”
They had big guns, but they were anything but tough. Both limped badly. Bonnie’s leg had been injured in a car wreck. Clyde, while in prison for earlier crimes, chopped off two of his toes to avoid hard labor, unaware that he would be paroled a few days later. Whoops.
Still, America wasn’t done with them.
More than 10,000 people showed up in Dallas for each of their funerals. And then a seemingly unbelievable chain of events transpired.
The stolen V8 Ford that Bonnie and Clyde were killed in — dubbed the Death Car in the media — was returned to the Kansas woman who owned it. She drove it home to Topeka, bullet holes and all, then rented it to a showman known as the Crime Doctor, who took the car on a tour around the country.
At an event in Texas, the two Texas Rangers who hunted down the killers — Frank Hamer and Maney Gault — showed up and hopped onstage, according to Guinn’s book and other accounts. Hamer slapped the Crime Doctor in the face.
Like the legend of Bonnie and Clyde, the car has survived as a grotesque symbol of fame.
Today, anyone can go see it. The car is displayed in the lobby of Whiskey Pete’s Hotel and Casino in Primm, Nevada. Or just search Instagram for “Death Car.” There are plenty of photos.
Read more history on Retropolis: