Theirs was the most Texan of love stories: the good-hearted woman in love with the two-timing man.
Bonnie Parker was generous, sensitive, adventurous, compulsive, and doggedly loyal, a small flower of a girl with reddish-gold hair and profoundly blue eyes, vulnerable and fragile and yet tough as nails and willful to the extreme. Clyde Barrow was a scrawny little psychopath with jug ears and the sense of humor of a persimmon, cruel, egotistical, obsessive, vindictive, and so devoid of compassion that he appeared to care more for his machine gun and his saxophone than he did for the women in his life. She had the soul of a poet; he had the heart of a rattlesnake. She wanted a home and children. He wanted revenge. Yet she loved him desperately, and over the course of their 21-month spree of robbing, killing, and running from the law, he came to love her too. Visiting their grave sites on a cold, blustery day in early December, I couldn’t help thinking: This is as good as it gets for people like them. Born losers, they made a pact with the devil and with each another. By himself, Clyde Barrow would today be a pathetic footnote, another gangster from that remarkable era when desperadoes such as John Dillinger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd captured the public fancy. Alone, Bonnie Parker would be long forgotten. Together, Bonnie and Clyde are an intrinsic part of our mythology. The ill-fated West Dallas lovers had no illusions that they would come to anything except the worst ending and had specifically requested that they be buried together. Bonnie’s mama nixed that idea. “He had her for two years,” Emma Parker said. “Look what it got her. She’s mine now.”
In the 66 years since they were shot to pieces by a posse on a lonely stretch of road near Gibsland, Louisiana, they have become cult figures, able to transcend generations. Thousands of Bonnie and Clyde devotees connect through dozens of Web sites. They argue over such minutiae as Bonnie’s shoe size (three), the real color of the 1934 Ford V-8 “death car” (cordoba gray), and who really pulled the trigger on Hillsboro jeweler John N. Bucher in 1932 (an obscure Barrow gang member named Ted Rogers). Relics are scattered across the country, some in the most unlikely of places. The death car is on display in the lobby of Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm, Nevada, 45 miles south of Las Vegas, as is Clyde’s blood-soaked and bullet-tattered shirt. The shirt alone cost the casino $85,000. A collector in Colorado is replicating the car to the exact condition as when it was stolen in Topeka, Kansas, in 1934. Another devotee is building a one-twenty-fifth-scale model of the car, complete with bullet holes, broken glass, and tiny models of the torn bodies of Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie’s bloody eyeglasses are owned by a man in Massachusetts. Clyde’s sunglasses, one lens shot away, are part of the collection at the Red Man Museum in Waco, which also includes Bonnie’s makeup kit and a tablet of her poetry. Locks of their hair and pieces of their clothing, salvaged at the scene of the ambush by ghoulish spectators, reside in anonymous private collections. (Only quick action by lawmen prevented one trophy hunter from amputating Clyde’s trigger finger.) Many of the guns carried by the two outlaws ended up in the estate of Texas Ranger captain Frank Hamer, who led the six-man posse that performed the summary execution. The most intriguing of these weapons is a Colt .38 detective special that was taped to Bonnie’s inside thigh when she was killed. Hamer called it her squat gun, since she was “squatting on it” at the time of her death. He speculated that she hid it in one of the few spots “no gentleman officer would search.”
Their legend is depicted in songs by singers as diverse as Merle Haggard and Brigitte Bardot, and in poems, plays, books, and at least eleven movie versions. Four movies and companion books were produced by J. Edgar Hoover, whose intent was to glorify the FBI and destroy the glamour of the outlaws. “I’m going to tell the truth about these rats,” Hoover vowed. “I’m going to tell the truth about that dirty, filthy, diseased woman.” Director Fritz Lang’s “You Only Live Once,” shot about two years after the fatal ambush, completely rewrites history, telling of a truck driver (Henry Fonda) wrongly accused of murder during a bank robbery and sentenced to death. Like Clyde Barrow, he mutilates himself and gets his wife (Sylvia Sidney) to smuggle a gun into prison. Bonnie e Clyde all-italiana, a 1983 Italian film, depicts them as a pair of bumblers.
The best and most popular film is director Arthur Penn’s 1967 screen masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde. It’s the story of two likable social misfits, played by a 28-year-old Warren Beatty and a previously unknown actress named Faye Dunaway, whose sexuality, bravado, and just-folks demeanor allow the outlaws to emerge as folk heroes. The screenplay prescribes that the first time Clyde shows Bonnie his gun, she touch it “in a manner almost sexual, full of repressed excitement.” To impress her, Clyde immediately robs a grocery store. Crazed now by desire, she smothers him with hugs and kisses as their car careens wildly down a country road. Clyde rejects her advances, setting up one of the movie’s several memorable premises: that Clyde was either homosexual or impotent. “I might as well tell you right off,” he confesses. “I ain’t much of a lover boy.” Angry and hurt, Bonnie tells him, “Your advertisin’ is just dandy. Folks would never guess you don’t have a thing to sell.” But Dunaway’s Bonnie is a woman who is bored and desperate to leave her dead-end job as a waitress. Naturally she is intrigued by Clyde’s promise of excitement and adventure. Soon they are bopping from bank job to bank job, making Keystone Kops getaways to the jaunty banjo strains of