One of the dining booths at the Onion Creek Grill in Larry McMurtry’s hometown, Archer City, Texas, displays a decorative poster of Buffalo Bill Cody. That poster, plus a childhood memory of hearing one of his ranching uncles recall that he once saw the silver-haired Cody in performance, inspired the Lonesome Dove author to write his latest book, The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America.
In previous books and essays, McMurtry often zeroed in on the difference between the frontier West and the myths that followed. No one is more responsible for creating those myths than Buffalo Bill, whose own mythic image was fashioned from hundreds of dime novels before and after the 20th century began.
However, the real roots of The Colonel and Little Missie” can be traced to McMurtry’s 1990s novel Buffalo Girls. The main character, Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary), narrates the story of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as it traveled to England to entertain Queen Victoria during her Golden Jubilee in 1887.
The premise for The Colonel and Little Missie is that Cody and sharpshooter Oakley were the nation’s first superstars, in a theatrical sense, the John Wayne and Madonna of the day.
McMurtry builds a credible case, especially as he delineates the difference between the story of Cody’s life and the story of his fame. The story of Cody’s fame is, after all, at the heart of Old West myths because they bridge 19th-century dime Westerns to Hollywood’s Westerns.
Cody did, however, experience the frontier West. He briefly rode for the Pony Express and served as a scout for the U.S. military and for wealthy hunters before starting his show business career.
Cody became the most famous man in the world, even though all he did in his Wild West shows was shoot glass balls out of the air and parade around on his horse. But, he looked fabulous on a horse, and that was all it took. Well, that and a good publicist, John Burke.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West touring show featured re-enactments of Indian attacks on stagecoaches, and Cody’s own episode of garnering “the first scalp for Custer.”
The other critical attraction that made the show an astonishing success was Oakley’s sharpshooting segment for 16 of the show’s 30 years of touring. Her stage mannerisms — a little back kick when she hit her target and a short pout when she missed — made her nearly as famous as Cody.
McMurtry portrays Cody as a generous (especially in his humane treatment of the Indians in his troupe), hard-drinking womanizer and Oakley as a petite, prudish, tightfisted performer who never traveled west of her native Ohio except with the Wild West show.
McMurtry’s double biography shifts back and forth between Cody’s and Oakley’s life stories and zigzags between different episodes in their lives out of chronological order. That makes the readers’ task a little difficult until McMurtry’s overarching superstardom theme begins to materialize.
The book’s narrative sometimes is repetitive. The casual, humorous tone is entertaining, though, because of McMurtry’s trademark dry wit.In addition to the “superstardom” theme, McMurtry could have made another claim. Led by Hollywood, the United States entertains the world today as no other nation does. Entertainment remains a top U.S. export. Was not the groundwork for this phenomenon laid by the European tours by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West more than 100 years ago?