They don’t think they’re too tough or desperate. They know that the law always wins; they’ve been shot at before, but they do not ignore that death is the wages of sin.
Some day they’ll go down together; and they’ll bury them side by side; to few it’ll be grief, to the law a relief, but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.
— From “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” by Bonnie Parker
When I was but a young, impressionable yoot — more of a pre-yoot, actually — I read a paperback book co-authored by Emma Parker and Nell Barrow. These two women were, respectively, the mother and sister of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The book was my first exposure to the Depression-era outlaw lovers, and the impression I took away was of two likable, adventurous and misunderstood folk heroes — unfairly and brutally pursued, and eventually killed, by the mean old cops who just had no sense of humor.
When I saw the 1967 movie in which Bonnie and Clyde were inaccurately portrayed by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, I cheered for them. A pox on that mean old Frank Hamer, who was inaccurately portrayed in an unlikable way by Briscoe Darling from the Andy Griffith Show. I took it personal when Dunaway/Parker and Beatty/Barrow went down in a hail of machine gun bullets.
I have long since quit regarding the Parker-Barrow duo as heroes, folk or otherwise, and I view the 1967 movie as embarrassingly bad. I am however still fascinated with the pair and I have continued to read about them. I hardly claim to be a Bonnie and Clyde-ologist but I suspect they were neither folk heroes nor cold-blooded, remorseless killers.
They committed crimes, certainly, and as I understand it, about a dozen men — mostly lawmen — were mortally wounded by guns wielded by Clyde Barrow or others in the small, loosely organized Barrow Gang that ran with him.
I don’t usually describe criminals as fascinating. I’m not that interested in criminals or hoodlums of any era — not Billy T. Kid, not Jesse James, not the other Depression-era crooks, and certainly not the serial killers of the modern era.
So whence cometh my fascination with the two undersized criminals Bonnie and Clyde? Maybe it’s because I do tend to have a bent toward the anti-hero, which is why I have been fascinated by a few people whose lifestyle I’d never want to emulate — Wild Bill Hickok, John Lennon and Joe Namath, for example.
I have been reading through a book called “Go Down Together,” a book about Bonnie and Clyde written just last year by Jeff Guinn. The title is from a poem Bonnie wrote about herself and her boyfriend in which she (accurately) predicted that they would go down together.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but I am finding that it neither excuses nor judges the pair. Yes, they had rough, poor upbringings and they were have-nots in a society where it was very difficult to make it over to the haves. But the strong-willed Clyde squandered numerous opportunities — even after he had started committing crimes that started out as petty — to get away from that lifestyle and hold a job.
Bonnie and Clyde were, as the book’s jacket asserts, “perhaps the most inept crooks ever, and their two-year crime spree was as much a reign of error as it was of terror. Lacking the sophistication to plot robberies of big-city banks, the Barrow Gang preyed mostly on small mom-and-pop groceries and service stations.
“Even at that, they often came up empty-handed and were reduced to breaking into gum machines for real money. Both were crippled, Clyde from cutting off two of his toes while in prison, and Bonnie from a terrible car crash caused by Clyde’s reckless driving. Constantly on the run from the law, they lived like animals, camping out in their latest stolen car, bathing in creeks and dining on cans of cold beans and Vienna sausages.”
Were they heroes? No way. Anti-heroes? Perhaps. And as much as I despise and don’t excuse crime, I don’t dislike them. Maybe I’d feel different if one of the cops who fell before their guns was one of my family members.
In an online customer review of another book called The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde, the reviewer writes, “Despite their crimes, I came to like the people that I read about here. It’s not at all difficult although they are not portrayed sympathetically.”
On the morning of May 23, 1934, a fusillade of gunfire from an ambush posse near Gibsland, La. fulfilled Bonnie’s prediction that they would go down together.
She was wrong about one thing. Bonnie and Clyde were not buried side by side.
Steve Nash writes his column for the Brownwood Bulletin on Thursdays. He may be reached by e-mail at steve.nash@