Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and The Beginnings of Superstardom in America by Larry McMurtry

They were as different as different could be--the flamboyant showman, Buffalo Bill Cody, who did more than any other single person with his Wild West Show to create the image of the Old West that is still with us today, and his premiere star--Little Sure Shot, Annie Oakley, a woman so quiet and private, prim and discreet, that a real warts and all biography of her is practically impossible. Buffalo Bill lived his life on the stage, endlessly exploiting, recreating, and exaggerating episodes and adventures from his past as an Indian scout, guide, and fighter, but Annie was all business on stage, totally focused on her marksmanship, and never wore her heart on her sleeve and was so modest that when she died she insisted on having a female embalmer attend her remains.

This book is not a regular from the cradle to the grave biography of its two subjects, and I think it is probably better suited to readers who already possess a little knowledge than to a complete beginner.

The book examines certain key episodes from the life of Buffalo Bill that made him a living legend and the hero of over 1700 dime novels and probes them for veracity. But although it does solve the mystery of why Annie Oakley's hair turned prematurely white and relates the story of her big libel suit against several newspapers, the lion's share of the book is devoted to Buffalo Bill and his ups and downs both financial and personal, like when he instituted divorce proceedings against his long-suffering wife, Lulu, and she accused Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra of being overattentive to her husband. This lack of equality or balance between the two subjects is most likely due to the private nature of Anne Oakley which is a difficult barrier for any biographer to surmount.

Overall, if you are interested in the personalities involved in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and have a little prior knowledge already, this is an interesting book to pass the time with.

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