by Doug Watson
Speaking seriously, humorist Will Rogers called himself “the luckiest guy in the world,” and millions of Americans who read his newspaper columns, saw his movies, heard him on the radio, or saw him in-person on stage had little reason to doubt. But Will’s “luck”—his success—came after struggles, some failures, and some heartache.
Will was born to good fortune in Indian Territory, the son of a part-Cherokee rancher whose cattle roamed 60,000 unfenced acres of tribal land, but he watched the gradual fencing of that land, the apportionment of most of it under the Dawes Act, the coming of farmers and other settlers to what would become Oklahoma.
As he ran away from schools, Will ran away from the shrinking world of the sodbusters—he would later blame them for spoiling a “happy hunting ground.” Travels took him away from the home he knew, around the world and into the strange world of show business—first Wild West shows, then vaudeville, then the Ziegfeld Follies, then movies and radio and newspaper columns.
Will struggled against his father’s wishes that he would settle down and become involved in affairs of the emerging state. He pleaded and cajoled his Arkansas sweetheart into a marriage that briefly threatened his career on stage. Later, he moved his family from the East, where he had found success, to California, where he hoped for wealth in movies and a sunny climate. But when his movie contract was not renewed and he tried to become his own producer, financial peril drove him back to New York (seasonally, at least). There, at last, Will’s “luck” took hold, and it held for the remainder of his life.
Back in the Follies, he became Ziegfeld’s highest paid performer. Newspaper work for the Times led to syndicated columns that eventually appeared in five hundred papers around the country. A radio appearance on Pittsburgh’s KDKA presaged a series of popular radio broadcasts that extended to the end of his life. Personal appearance opportunities burgeoned, and the income not only padded his personal income but also provided assistance for many who struggled through disasters both natural and economic. Will’s movie career kept pace, too, eventually making him the nation’s most popular and highest paid screen star of the early 1930s. His voice and words entertained millions and calmed the fears of others during the early Depression years. He found personal satisfaction and relaxation on his California “ranch” west of Santa Monica, where he knew the comfort of home and family.
When he died in Alaska in an airplane crash with Wiley Post, Will Rogers was perhaps America’s best-known and most beloved private citizen. One might say that his luck “ran out” on that August day in 1935, but Will had always found satisfaction in adventure, and though he was mourned by millions, it seems likely that he would have had few regrets about having lived so that “when you lose, you are ahead.”
Yagoda, Ben, Will Rogers: A Biography. University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
Carter, Joseph, The Quotable Will Rogers. Gibbs Smith, 2005.
White, Richard D., Jr., Will Rogers: A Political Life. Texas Tech University Press, 2011.
Will Rogers: American Politics. DVD. RSU Public Television, 2012.
www.willrogers.com Website of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums (access to writings, virtual tour, podcasts about Rogers, and more).
Doug Watson is professor emeritus of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. In 2010 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Ed Hall of Fame. He has been involved in historical characterization since 1991, performing more than a thousand programs in schools, libraries, Chautauquas, and conference venues. In addition to Will Rogers, he has recently portrayed oilman/art collector Thomas Gilcrease. Doug and his wife, Kay, live in Shawnee, OK and are proud grandparents of two little girls. Doug’s favorite activities are golf, gardening, and grandfathering.
Will Rogers was raised on an open range ranch of some 60,000 acres (tribal land) and watched as it was fenced, plowed for farming, and doled out in small allotments through the actions of the Dawes Commission. His childhood hope to be a “cowman” like his father was dashed by settlers, fences, and bureaucracies.
Will moved his family from New York to California in 1919 after he signed a contract with William Goldfish (Goldwyn). Two years later, movie finances sputtered, Will’s contract was not renewed, and he attempted to make some movies on his own. The result was nearly financial ruin, and his indebtedness drove him back to the East (at least seasonally). Over the next two years, he recouped his losses and began a string of successes that brought fame and wealth, but he never forgot the near disaster.
Will observed the Dust Bowl despair of the Middle West from California. This and other regional tragedies (Mississippi River floods, Central American earthquakes, Florida hurricanes) became “causes” for Will, and he traveled, performed and collected money to aid victims of many such calamities.
When Will returned to Hollywood from a world tour in 1927, he was greeted by a delegation naming him the honorary Mayor of Beverly Hills. He played along for several months, but when the California legislature passed a law saying that “Sixth-class cities (like Beverly Hills) were to be governed by a council system,” Will joked that “If I’d known that this was only a sixth class city, why, I’d never have accepted the office.”
“There’s nothing stupider than an educated man when you get him off the subject he’s educated in. . . . We’re all ignorant, just on different subjects.”
“Live your life so that, when you lose, you’re ahead.”
“We’ll never really have true civilization until we recognize the rights of others.”
“All we hear is ‘What’s the matter with the country?’ ‘What’s the matter with the world”’ There ain’t but one thing wrong with every one of us in the world, and that’s selfishness.”
“So much money is being spent on the campaigns that I doubt if either man, as good as they are, are worth what it will cost to elect them.”
“The old pioneers thought they was living off nature . . . but really it was future generations they was living off of.”
1879 Born in Indian Territory
1879-99 Lived mostly on family ranch, attending various schools
1900-08 Traveled in U.S. and abroad; beginnings in show business (Wild West shows and vaudeville)
1908-19 Marriage to Betty Blake; life in New York and on vaudeville circuits
1915-27 Performed with Ziegfeld Follies (seasonally)
1919-21 Received movie contract with Goldwyn and moved to California
1922-35 Newspaper, radio, movie, and touring performances, in U.S. and abroad; increasing fame and financial success; increasing visibility as a political and social critic and humorist.
1924-35 Movie contracts with Hal Roach, and with Fox Pictures (talkies)
1935 Death in Alaska in plane crash with Wiley Post