In 1934, when Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in an ambush on a Bienville Parish road near the north Louisiana town of Gibsland (where Roo and I happened to have overnighted once), their joint murder and robbery spree wasn’t even two years old. Forced by their notoriety to camp in swamps, bathe in streams and live on cans of Vienna sausage and saltines, they had been living like animals. Bonnie was by then addicted to the morphine she took to fend off the pain of a leg burned and deformed months before in a crash of one of the Ford V-8s Clyde insisted on stealing exclusively, so gangrenous that Clyde, who never cared how much her rotting flesh stank, had to carry her. The public’s misguided love affair with them had lately shifted, though it would never be entirely displaced by the things about them that had elevated them to folk heroes: a good-looking anti-authoritarian couple who took no shit from anyone and had a seemingly bottomless supply of the good luck that had run out for everyone else in the Great Depression — and who were so obviously shacking up together. People understood that they would have to die, whether in the chair or in one of the vicious gunfights they routinely provoked. Yet, though everyone came to agree that no God could possibly be so benevolent as to not condemn them to rot in Hell, many Depression-era Americans were as hard pressed then as many of us are now to dislodge from their hearts even the worst villains. Maybe once that much love is bestowed it can’t all be taken back. In our collective memory, the names of their victims are forgotten while the romance of their legend looms large.
When a witness claimed to have seen Bonnie shoot a wounded and soon to be married policeman in the head, general opinion turned against them, even though the story turned out to be untrue. Someone else shot the officer. But it had gotten late in a hellish game. There was no more arguing with the nine lawmen and the numerous civilians — a reliable tally of how many has never been arrived at — who lay dead in their wake. Sure, once or twice they gave someone they stole a car from cab fare instead of killing them, but that was about as good as they got.
The Barrow Gang, as it was called before Bonnie’s poem The Story of Bonnie and Clyde was discovered among their belongings and published after they escaped from a shootout in Joplin, Missouri, consisted of Bonnie, Clyde, his brother Buck, Buck’s wife Blanche and W.D. Jones, a 16-year-old tough guy from Dallas who looked up to Clyde and emulated his murderous ways enough to participate unblinkingly in two murders in his first two weeks in the gang. None of them lasted to the end. When Bonnie and Clyde were shot by a waiting posse, they were alone in the car. Buck was already dead. He had survived for several days after a large part of his forehead and brain were blown away in Joplin before being shot again in the back in the next gunfight, in Dexter, Iowa a few days later. There haven’t been many people as hard to kill as Buck was. He lingered for another five days after he took that second bullet in the back.
In the course of the Dexter gunfight, fueled by withering machine-gun fire from 30.06 caliber, 500 round-per-minute Browning Automatic Rifles that Clyde stole from armories, and which far outmatched the numerous Tommy guns arrayed against them, Blanche’s little dog Snow Ball tried to bolt from the hellfire. Blanche forgot herself and took off after him in her famous jodhpur riding breeches. She ran right into the hands of the police, screaming hysterically a few feet from where Buck writhed on the ground.
It is Blanche who makes me think of all this because of a memoir she wrote in prison. She, Buck and Bonnie and Clyde had, not long before the end, all holed up together in a motel in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And, as a Fort Smith motel is where the hand-off of The Puppy to Harlana and Ken Steppe was conducted a few days ago, perhaps you can appreciate why this old history now comes back to me now.
It comes back because I look back on certain aspects of The Puppy’s story with the same kind of deep regret Blanche felt. Blanche never killed anyone. She never even handled a gun. All she really did was go along out of love for Buck on a ride that kept going more wrong and not know when to call it quits.
That’s the spirit in which I have come to regret my earlier, harsh appraisal of The Puppy. I know I called him a con artist. I regret that. I jumped to conclusions about The Puppy. It wasn’t his fault that I failed to peer deeply enough into his bean-sized heart — a heart that will, after all, grow up to be the heart of a wolf. Here I was, recklessly accusing The Puppy of terrible things, while a part of me was able, if not to excuse, then to understand Clyde, who had been tortured in prison and lived for, and got, revenge on the law that had, in the words of one of the friends he sprang from that prison, changed him “from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake.”
I take everything I said about The Puppy back. Please excuse the accusations I made about him. Forgive me for impugning his little character when it was the dark side of my own that came unhinged and said all those things. Don’t let his reputation suffer in your eyes just because of the things I said. The power of the press can be a dark force when it is brought to bear unfairly.
The Puppy was all right. I understand that now. Let the record be corrected so he can live his new, happy life free of the scorn I brought down on him. Instead, remember him as you might Blanche, as he is in the video, just trying to tag along with the big dog, who, in this case, is the real killer.
In the end, The Puppy wasn’t half as bad as I made him out to be.