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Bonnie and Clyde (Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow)

BONNIE AND CLYDE (BONNIE PARKER AND CLYDE BARROW)

During an era when the exploits of gangsters such as Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Karpis-Barker gang filled the pages of newspapers and provided plots for popular movies, Bonnie Parker (October 1, 1910–May 23, 1934) and Clyde Barrow (March 24, 1909–May 23, 1934) stood out as icons. Between 1932 and 1934, when they drove through Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, committing the crimes for which they became notorious—twelve murders, scores of robberies, and nearly a dozen incidents of hostage-taking—Bonnie and Clyde came to stand for a variety of sometimes conflicting images. They were known as romantic lovers, and as a modern-day Robin Hood and Maid Marian who fought back against the predatory rich. Tabloid readers knew them as the "snake-eyed killer" and "cigar-smoking gun moll" (an image Bonnie despised but helped create). The recipients of an enormous amount of publicity on the radio, in newspapers, and in crime magazines, they contributed to their own legend through photographs they took of one another, poems written by Bonnie, stories they sent to detective magazines, and even through a letter Clyde sent to the Ford Motor Company, extolling the Ford as the car he always stole when he had the opportunity.

Both Bonnie and Clyde came from poor families—Clyde, the son of tenant farmers, was born in Ellis County, Texas, and Bonnie was born in Rowena, Texas, and raised by a poor widow. They met in 1930, when Bonnie was working as a waitress in a Dallas café and Clyde was wanted by the police on burglary charges. During the time that they spent together, they became famous for their abilities as escape artists. They drove their stolen cars through the Texas countryside at speeds of up to seventy miles an hour, evading police traps while other gang members, including members of both their families, were caught. They even managed to smuggle weapons into the Texas prison system to free their confederates.

Their crimes seemed to many emblematic both of the frontier spirit of the West, and of the new freedom made possible by the mass production of the automobile. Before meeting Bonnie, Clyde was just another two-bit crook—their romantic partnership elevated their criminal status. His love of his many guns, all of which he named, placed him squarely in the tradition of the western outlaw. However, as an armed woman during a period when marriage rates plummeted, male unemployment rates were high, and pundits decried a crisis of masculinity, Bonnie Parker simultaneously inhabited the gun-toting role more familiar to men and played the role of the supportive girlfriend, highlighting the cultural contradictions of American womanhood.

Bonnie and Clyde were shot down by lawmen in an ambush on May 23, 1934, in rural northwest Louisiana. They died almost literally in one another's arms; their "death car," which was exhibited at public events for years thereafter, as well as their bodies, became targets for souvenir hunters. Clyde's funeral attracted thirty thousand spectators, and Bonnie's was mobbed, too—the largest wreath there was sent by an organization of Dallas newspaper boys, perhaps in thanks for the half million newspapers the account of the final ambush had helped them to sell.

See Also: "BALLAD OF PRETTY BOY FLOYD"; CRIME; HEROES.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fortune, Jan. The Fugitives. 1934.

Jones, W. D. "Riding with Bonnie and Clyde." Playboy 15, no. 11 (November 1968): 151, 160–165.

Milner, E. R. The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde. 1996.

Phillips, John Neal. Running with Bonnie and Clyde: TheTen Fast Years of Ralph Fults. 1996.

Treherne, John. The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde. 1984.

Laura Browder

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