As researched and written by Jeff Guinn, the story of Bonnie and Clyde is almost exactly the opposite: two poor kids who bungled almost every stickup attempt, mostly killed out of panic rather than premeditation, and were doomed from the moment a smart, pragmatic lawman was hired to hunt them down.
Guinn says much of what was reported about the duo was fabricated, and a number of violent crimes were inaccurately attributed to them, further fueling the legend — and the price on their heads.
Interview By Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What drew you to this story?
Guinn: In a sense, all my books are about how our culture takes history and re-shapes it into whatever mythology suits our collective needs and interests at a given time. I wanted to answer two questions in Go Down Together. The first was, why would two young people willingly give up their lives for a very brief period of lawbreaking? Second, why would a nation find them fascinating and elevate them to the same sort of iconic heights enjoyed by Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth just a few years earlier? There had to be some sort of event-driven sociological chemistry at work. What was it?
What's the most compelling or surprising aspect of this story that you can reveal?
Guinn: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were perhaps the two most incompetent criminals who ever pulled guns and told victims to stick 'em up. Going in, I assumed like everyone else that they had a certain flair for banditry. They didn't. Theirs was a reign of error as much as terror. They botched at least half the heists they attempted and were sometimes reduced to breaking into gum machines and stealing change for meal money. Yet they had reputations as criminal masterminds.
What is it about Bonnie and Clyde that allowed earlier accounts to flourish?
Guinn: Their timing was perfect. They began their two-year spree at the height of the Depression.
Newspapers around the country were failing; no one could afford a nickel to read the latest stories about farm foreclosures and Dust Bowl disasters. But desperate Americans wanted entertainment, and highly-exaggerated tales of a young Romeo-and-Juliet bandit couple filled the bill. So reporters wrote about dashing Clyde and sexy Bonnie, often making up completely tales of how they robbed the rich, gave to the poor and baffled any lawmen foolish enough to pursue them. It was all hoakum, but the public ate it up, and Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed the publicity.
Is there a hero?
Guinn: True heroes are scarce in the real story of the Barrow Gang. Clyde and Bonnie were young and desperate, but so were millions of other American kids who still didn't turn to theft and murder. The lawmen who eventually tracked them down all lied about their roles and tried to capitalize financially on the May 23, 1934 ambush in Louisiana. But there is someone involved who's gotten a bad rap. Blanche Barrow Caldwell, Clyde's sister-in-law, was nothing like the blowsy, screechy Blanche portrayed in the epic 1967 film with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
The real Blanche was young, very pretty, and only along because she wanted to talk her husband Buck out of running with Clyde and Bonnie. She was heroic in saving a badly-wounded Buck during a shootout in Platte City, Missouri, and chose to stay with him when he was trapped a few days later in Iowa rather than making her own escape. Poor Blanche - when she saw Bonnie and Clyde in late 1967, she said, "That movie made me look like a screaming horse's ass!" She deserved better.
Why is the book titled Go Down Together?
Guinn: Though just about everything else most people believe about Bonnie and Clyde is far more myth than fact, theirs was a genuine love story. Time and again, each had the opportunity to leave the other and have a better chance to remain free from capture. But there was never any question - they would stay together until the end, and they knew that the end would be death. Their mutual devotion was absolute. Not long before their deaths in the Louisiana ambush, Bonnie discussed funeral arrangements with her mother, and gave Mrs. Parker a poem she'd written titled The End of the Line. (Bonnie fancied herself as a fine poet, but in most cases the only distinguished thing about her verse was elegant penmanship.) The final stanza of the poem has worked its way into history:
Some day they will go down together,
They'll bury them side by side.
To a few it will be grief
To the law a relief
But it's death to Bonnie and Clyde.
And they did go down together in a hail of bullets, but they weren't buried side by side. Bonnie's mother loathed Clyde and thought he'd led her daughter into sin. Today, their Dallas graves are about three miles apart. But in our minds, and certainly in our mythology, they're inseparable - and that would please them very much.
BONUS QUESTION: If Bonnie and Clyde were, in fact, such failures as criminals, why should we care about them? Why write a book about bumblers, and why bother reading one?
Guinn: In a very real sense, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are less important for themselves than for what they represent. They reflect a time in our history when there was a huge chasm between a few very rich Americans and millions of poor ones. Young people born into poverty had no hope for improving their lives. Yet modern media - movies, newspapers, magazines - shoved into their faces images of fancy cars, fine clothes, glamour in every conceivable form - on a daily basis. When ambitious kids want things they can't have by following the rules, they break them. That's immutable fact.
The parallels between the Barrow Gang era and modern-day America are staggering. Once again, many struggling people don't trust the government, think of the banking industry as the enemy, and feel helpless to save themselves and their families by doing what they are told to do (obey all the laws, trust the government). We can either learn from the past or, in some more modernized form, repeat it.
Simon & Schuster, Inc., is a division of CBS Corporation.
Jeff Guinn is the bestselling author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction. An award-winning investigative journalist and former Books Editor and Senior Writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Guinn is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and lives in Fort Worth, Texas.