Outlaw Love

Evan conceived of this as a cover story last spring when I mentioned at a meeting that I was writing a novel set in Dallas in 1934 in which Bonnie and Clyde are characters. It seemed like a natural magazine piece for February, the month of love, which, now that I think about it, probably steered me to write a love story.

I’d already been working on Bonnie and Clyde research for months, but I directed my thoughts to reworking the material into a magazine piece starting in early November, shortly after returning from vacation. I knew from previous research that the Dallas Historical Society had scheduled a Bonnie and Clyde tour in Dallas in early December, so I made plans to get aboard their bus. The tour was conducted by a writer named John Neal Phillips, who had written a book on Bonnie and Clyde using an old Barrow gang member, Ralph Fults, as his primary source. I had already read three other books on the subject plus many pages pulled down from the Internet. Plus back issues of the Dallas Morning News; I read all of 1933 and most of 1934, page by page. Reading Phillips’ book, however, put the story in a new light. He debunked many of the widely accepted beliefs, for example, that Blanche Barrow was the whiney hysterical character presented in the 1967 movie version. Also, visiting the actual sites where Bonnie and Clyde lived, gave the story a resonance that would have otherwise been missing. The Barrow family grave site described in the story was a great experience—the common headstone over Clyde and his brother Buck’s grave read: “Gone but Not Forgotten.” At Bonnie’s grave I observed fresh flowers and many other tokens, confirming that this was a much visited site. Incidentally, going back through those old copies of the Dallas Morning News was fascinating. I found myself reading the ads, the want ads, even the sports pages. I had to discipline myself to focus on the subject, otherwise I’d still be at the Barker History Center reading 67-year-old “news.”

The story basically broke down into three parts. First, a setup, a broad narrative addressing what the story is about and why the legend of Bonnie and Clyde continues to haunt our imaginations. Then a section that concentrates on Bonnie. Finally, a section that focuses on Clyde. Within these three sections I tried to weave my story of their lives and adventures. I used some material from the various movie versions to illustrate how different generations had tried to come to grips with the pesky pair of lovers and some different takes from different books. The parts about J. Edgar Hoover, I thought, were especially revealing—where this pathetic old fairy describes Bonnie as a “filthy, diseased woman.” I grew up listening to the legend of Bonnie and Clyde, particularly from my old granny, who was a poor country girl and like many poor people who lived through the Depression had some sympathy for the pair. Granny remembered a bank robbery in her hometown of Denton that was supposedly done by the Barrow gang, though I couldn’t locate the specific bank holdup that she spoke of. It was all part of the myth, some real, some imagined, all fascinating.

Visiting West Dallas was an eye-opener. Until I took the Dallas Historical Society tour with John Neal Phillips, I had never really seen first-hand the area they used to call “The Devil’s Back Porch.” It’s just across the viaduct from downtown Dallas. Looking back across the river at the majestic Dallas skyline, as Bonnie and Clyde must have years ago, I could understand how underdogs feel and could experience some of their resentment and hostility. Amazingly, Clyde’s family lived in a squatters’ camp next to the railroad track, as did many other families during the twenties and thirties. I had read in several sources that during Clyde’s funeral, a small plane flew over his grave site and dropped a floral wreath. Additional research turned up the fact that the airplane was hired by Benny Binion, king of the rackets in Dallas during the thirties. I’ve written about Benny before in TM. He’s one of the main characters in the novel I’m writing—tentatively titled, Deep Ellum. Benny Binion was my original inspiration for writing this book—Benny and my own conflicted feelings for the city of Dallas, where I was born the same year Bonnie and Clyde were killed and where I worked as a young newspaperman. Ironically, I hadn’t really thought that much about Bonnie and Clyde until I began researching Benny and Dallas.

All stories are hard to write. But once I picked up the narrative thread—once I found my voice—the story seemed to tell itself. The key to laying it out was thinking of it as a love story, a story of two lovers set against the background of the Great Depression, where life was hard and choices few. I tried to not glorify them but to show that they were not monsters either, but reflections of their time. Writing the story, I felt a certain warmth toward Bonnie. I’ve known women like her, loyal and romantic and not always wise. I think I would have liked her. Clyde, on the other hand, was the psychopath that I describe in the story. Bonnie and Clyde aren’t Romeo and Juliet, but their love story is not unique: The theme of the good-hearted woman in love with the two-timing man runs through every culture.

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