July 23, 2012

Will Rogers, Native superstar

An article explains why Will Rogers was arguably the greatest Native star in history. Yet today people remember him only dimly, if at all.

Will Rogers: Actor, Comedian, Political Pundit, Truth Teller—And Proud Cherokee

By Steve RussellAccording to my grandparents, the news of one man dying in August of 1935 struck them like the deaths of both Kennedy and Lennon, a simultaneous earthquake in both politics and entertainment. The New York Times devoted 13 full pages to coverage of this death two days after it happened, almost four pages the next day, and the ink kept flowing for more than a week. On the Times‘s editorial page, the editors with whom that man had clashed many times opined: “He came to hold such a place in the public mind that, of his passing from the stage it might be said…that it will ‘eclipse the gayety of nations.’ Let us hope…some one may arise to help us as he did to keep our mental poise, to avoid taking all our national geese for swans, and by wholesome laughter make this world seem a better place to live in.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “His appeal went straight to the heart of the nation. Above all things, in a time grown too solemn and somber he brought his countrymen back to a sense of proportion.”

On the day of his funeral, 51,000 people waited five hours in the hot Los Angeles sun for a brief chance to pay their respects. Every movie theater in the country went dark for two minutes; the CBS and NBC radio networks observed 30 minutes of silence in his honor.

The man himself would probably have been most moved by a story recounted by one of his many biographers: “In Locust Grove, Oklahoma, half a dozen Cherokees were building a fence when an old man drove along the road to tell them the news.… After a time, some of the Indians spoke of how they had known Will or remembered a favor he had done for someone. Then one said, ‘I can’t work any more today,’ and all of them stacked their tools and quietly walked away.”

Will Rogers was born on November 4, 1879, in Oologah, Cooweescoowee District, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory. He came into this world with a slightly more pretentious handle than “Will”—William Penn Adair Rogers. He was born, as is Cherokee custom, into his mother’s Paint Clan. His family was typical of the intermarriage that had been going on in the Cherokee Nation starting in the 17th century. His Paint Clan mother, Mary America Schrimsher, was one-fourth Cherokee by blood. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, known as Clem, was one-eighth. Then as now, a person was either a Cherokee citizen or not, regardless of blood quantum, and the Rogers family was. His father attended the Cherokee Male Seminary and then served the Cherokee Nation as a judge and later as a senator. His mother studied music at the Cherokee Female Seminary near Tahlequah. Rogers used to say, “I had just enough white in me to make my honesty questionable.”
Comment:  As you can see below, Rogers's humor and insight is still relevant. Too bad today's pundits aren't as clear about the problems facing America.

For more on Will Rogers, see Will Rogers Educational Website and Will Rogers on Wall Street.


Anonymous said...

A lot of Will Rogers jokes have become memetic even today: "The best government money can buy" is a famous one.

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see:


Will Rogers Started Poor, Died Rich, and Left Behind a Lot of Laughter