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Rogers, Will

Will Rogers

Born: September 5, 1879
Oologah, Oklahoma
Died: August 15, 1935
Point Barrow, Alaska

American journalist, humorist, and performing artist

One of the most celebrated humorists (writers of clever humor) and public figures of his day, Will Rogers offered dry, whimsical commentaries on a variety of political, social, and economic issues, and he became the voice of the "average" citizen.

Childhood as a cowboy

Will Rogers was born on September 5, 1879, to Clement and Mary Rogers. The youngest of eight children, Will was raised in a wealthy and privileged family on a ranch near Claremore, Oklahoma, which was then Indian Territory. His father, Clement, a rancher and farmer, was also a sharp businessman and an influential politician. Although Rogers loved his father, their strong personalities often led to conflict. His relationship with his mother was loving and affectionate, and when she passed away, ten-year-old Rogers was devastated.

Rogers was one-quarter Cherokee and liked to boast that this heritage, combined with his early experience as a cowboy, made him the ideal example of the American citizen. His early adult years were spent between working on the family ranch and traveling the world, and it was in South Africa that Rogers began his performing career with a Wild West show as a trick rider. He later joined a circus, then back in the United States, he worked in another Wild West show, which eventually led to a job in vaudeville, a theater style that used a variety of acts. In vaudeville he added to his performances with off beat lectures on the art of roping. Rogers's humorous chatter, casual delivery, and southwestern drawl proved a popular combination, resulting in an invitation to join the popular Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. He delighted audiences with his homely philosophy (the study of knowledge) and sharp remarks, becoming a renowned humorist and interpreter of the news.

Rogers and his wife and children moved to California, where he acted in a number of films, beginning with Laughing Bill Hyde (1918). Rogers's two-year contract was terminated, however, when the studio changed hands. He then began his own film production company, but when this failed he was forced to return to New York City and the Ziegfield Follies.

The cowboy philosopher

Three years later the first two collections of Rogers's humor appearedThe Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference and The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition, both published in 1919. The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference poked fun at the political activities surrounding the Versailles Treaty (signed in 1919, the treaty helped settle matters following World War I [191418]). The second volume ridiculed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1919, which outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Rogers posed as the cowboy philosopher, a rural American gaping wide-eyed at the shenanigans of a modern world run by crooked businessmen and dishonest politicians. Yet although Rogers's brand of popular humor appealed to the average citizen, he himself became a part of the establishment he made fun of. He befriended members of Congress as well as business leaders and at one time publicly supported the Fascist regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (18831945), who ruled Italy with a cruel and iron fist. Rogers, as quoted by James Feibleman in In Praise of Comedy: A Study in Its Theory and Practice, once stated that he wished his gravestone to read, "I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I have never met a man I didn't like."

Rogers began a secondary career as an after-dinner speaker, and his success led in 1922 to a syndicated weekly newspaper column. The first two years of these columns were collected in the 1924 book The Illiterate Digest. The columns showcase the cutting criticisms Rogers aimed at government, the influence of big business, and the then-popular topic of world disarmament (to reduce weapons) in the aftermath of World War I (191418).

The cowboy in Europe

Rogers next moved onto the international stage of political humor. The Saturday Evening Post sent him abroad and his columns from Europe were collected in Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President, published in 1926. The articles were published in the magazine in the form of fictional letters to then-president Calvin Coolidge (18721933) and were full of humorous advice to the chief executive from Rogers's European observations. The next leg of the journey for the Post took Rogers to the Soviet Union, the former country that today is made up of Russia and several smaller nations, and his columns about this experience appeared in There's Not a Bathing Suit in Russia. This 1927 volume chronicles his trip to the world's first Communist government, a political system where the goods and services are owned and distributed by a controlling central government.

During this period Rogers further expanded into another mediathe growing field of radio. He gave his first broadcast over the airwaves in 1926 and by 1930 had his own weekly slot. Like each of his speeches and syndicated columns, the radio speeches centered on a topic of current interest and were filled with Rogers's stories and sharp commentary on the issue. By the end of the 1920s Rogers was using his position in the spotlight to campaign for humanitarian causes (causes that improve the life of others). During devastating flooding along the Mississippi River in 1927, he visited the ravaged areas, gave special performances and donated the proceeds to flood victims, and testified before Congress supporting increased disaster aid to the area.

The year 1929 dealt a severe blow to the American frame of mindin October the stock market crashed and the country was plunged into a deep economic depression, putting millions out of work. Rogers continued in his role as the foremost humorist of the nation's "little people" in his radio broadcasts and journalistic essays. In one piece, quoted by E. Paul Alworth in Will Rogers, he wrote: "Now everybody has got a scheme to relieve unemployment, but there is just one way to do it and that's for everybody to go to work. 'Where?' Why right where you are, look around and you see lots of things to do, weeds to be cut, fences to be fixed, lawns to be mowed, filling stations to be robbed, gangsters to be catered to." Rogers supported the radical transformations President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945) began under the New Deal beginning in 1933. The celebrity spoke out in favor of lending a helping hand to those affected the most by the economic situation and again gave benefit performances.

He continued to star in films and indulged in his passion for airplanes. In August of 1935 a small plane carrying Rogers and a pilot friend, on their way to survey air routes from the United States to the Soviet Union, crashed over Point Barrow, Alaska, killing the entertainer. Rogers was fifty-five. His death was an occasion of national mourning. Newspapers and radio commentators praised him, a memorial was dedicated near his Oklahoma birthplace, and several volumes of his speeches, essays, broadcasts, and sayings appeared in print. Will Rogers is remembered as one of the best-loved celebrities of his era and one of the twentieth century's best-known humorists. Forty years after his death, collections of his essays and quips were still appearing in bookstores.

For More Information

Alworth, E. Paul. Will Rogers. Boston: Twayne, 1974.

Brown, William R. Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1970.

Keating, Francis Anthony. Will Rogers: An American Legend. New York: Harcourt, 2002.

Rogers, Will. The Autobiography of Will Rogers. Edited by Donald Day. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1993.

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Will Rogers

Will Rogers

One of the most celebrated humorists and public figures of his day, Will Rogers (1879-1935) offered dry, whimsical commentaries on a plethora of political, social, and economic issues. His aphoristic, sa tirical observations, which he voiced in magazine articles and nationally syndicated columns, revealed the foibles and injustices of American society and reaffirmed the humorist's role as the voice of the" average" citizen.

Born in Oklahoma into a prosperous ranching family of mixed Cherokee descent, the young Rogers was an expert rider and lariat stuntman. He appeared in Wild West shows throughout the world, and in 1905 he made his vaudeville debut. In vaudeville he enlivened his performances with off-the-cuff lectures on the art of roping. Rogers's humorous chatter, nonchalant delivery, and southwestern drawl proved a popular combination, resulting in an invitation to join the Ziegfeld Follies. His wife suggested that he vary and supplement his material with comments on contemporary personages and events. Following this advice, he delighted audiences with his homely philosophy and pungent remarks, becoming a renowned humorist and interpreter of the news. Rogers's first two books, The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference and The CowboyPhilosopher on Prohibition, were drawn from his Follies monologues. His subsequent works, such as The Illiterate Digest, There's Not a Bathing Suit in Russia, and Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President, were garnered from the newspaper columns "Will Rogers Says," "The Worst Story I Ever Heard," "The Daily Telegram," and also from his serialized correspondence from abroad appearing in The Saturday Evening Post. Rogers's death in a 1935 plane crash sent the entire country into mourning, prompting Carl Sandburg to reflect, "There is a curious parallel between Will Rogers and Abraham Lincoln. They were rare figures whom we could call beloved without embarrassment."

In his writings, as on the stage, Rogers affected a pose of ignorance, emphasizing his simple, rural background and lack of formal education. In reality he was a well-informed and thoughtful commentator, skilled in the use of the pun, metaphor, and hyperbole. By assuming the stance of a good-natured, naive country boy, Rogers was able to lampoon Congress, presidents, and foreign heads of state without occasioning offense or indignation. His The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference, for example, mocks the diplomatic stratagems of the Versailles talks, while The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition examines the futility and hypocrisy of the Volstead Act. Rogers's shrewd, fundamentally pessimistic point of view has been compared to Mark Twain's, as has his profound distrust of the motives and objectives of those in power. Unlike Twain, however, he was incapable of sustaining an idea at length. Rogers's forte was the pithy sentence—the short but highly suggestive statement calculated to effect an immediate response. While some critics no longer consider his topical humor relevant and find his intentional misspellings and grammatical errors excessive, others value his writings for the insight they provide into the concerns and opinions of the United States during the tumultuous 1920s and 1930s. Damon Runyon offered this assessment: "Will Rogers was America's most complete human document. He reflected in many ways the heartbeat of America. In thought and manner of appearance and in his daily life he was probably our most typical native born, the closest living approach to what we like to call the true American."

Further Reading

Alworth, E. Paul, Will Rogers, Twayne, 1974.

Brown, William R., Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream, University of Missouri Press, 1970, 304 p.

Croy, Homer, Our Will Rogers, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953,377 p.

Day, Donald, Will Rogers: A Biography, David McKay Company, Inc., 1962, 370 p.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 11, Gale, 1982.

Dockstader, Fredrick J., Great North American Indians, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1977; 243-45.

Feibleman, James, In Praise of Comedy: A Study in Its Theory and Practice, Allen & Unwin, 1939. □

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Rogers, Will

Will Rogers (William Penn Adair Rogers), 1879–1935, American humorist, b. Oolagah, Indian Territory (now in Oklahoma). In his youth he worked as a cowboy in Oklahoma, and after traveling over the world, he returned to the United States and worked in vaudeville as a cowboy rope-twirler, joking casually with the audience. He was an immediate success when he joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915. Rogers gained a wide audience, starring in more than 70 motion pictures, writing six books, appearing on dozens of radio broadcasts, and writing a popular syndicated newspaper column. His salty comments on the political and social scene made the "cowboy philosopher" widely known. A constant booster of airplane travel, Rogers made several long airplane trips; he was killed with Wiley Post when their plane crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska.

See his autobiography (ed. by D. Day, 1949) and writings (1973); biography by R. D. White, Jr. (2011); D. R. Milsten, An Appreciation of Will Rogers (1976); P. C. Rollins, Will Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography (1984).

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Rogers, Will

Rogers, Will ( William Penn Adair) (1879–1935) US comedian who appeared in vaudeville as a cowboy and joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1914. Through his contributions to film, radio, and a syndicated newspaper column, he became known as the ‘cowboy philosopher’.

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