Hats off to Tom Mix, for the iconic Western film star led a charmed life — if one doesn’t hold being born back East in Pennsylvania against him. Yet on closer inspection, it appears much of Mix’s success stemmed from having been in the right place at the right time.
In 1898, at the outset of the Spanish-American War, Mix enlisted in the Army, though his unit never went overseas. He later went AWOL to get married — the first of five times. He met wife No. 3 in Medora, North Dakota, among whose denizens were President Theodore Roosevelt and many of the Rough Riders who’d joined Roosevelt on his celebrated charge up San Juan Heights in Cuba during the late war. Thus, it was Mix’s address and horsemanship that scored him an invitation to ride in Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade, not the later Hollywood publicist’s fiction that Mix had been a Rough Rider himself.
Venturing to Oklahoma in 1910, Mix bounced around as a sometime bartender, handyman and lawman before joining on as a hand at the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. A few years earlier, at the urging of neighboring rancher Gordon W. Lillie (better known as Pawnee Bill, a business partner of world-famous showman Buffalo Bill Cody), the Miller boys had started their own touring Wild West show, and Mix joined the production as a top rider and shot.
Then Hollywood came calling.
Between 1909 and ’35, Mix starred in nearly 300 films, thrilling millions of young theatergoers with appearances in Saturday matinee “oaters” astride his sorrel Tony the Wonder Horse, both of whom did their own stunts. The actor’s image remains familiar to fans of the genre as one of the earliest Western film stars, though remarkably only nine of his films were “talkies.” In his heyday, he was Hollywood’s highest-paid actor, opened his own frontier town, befriended and served as a pallbearer to Wyatt Earp and was named an honorary Texas Ranger.
Tom Mix’s charmed life came to a tragic end on Oct. 12, 1940, when he wrecked his car at the site of a washed-out bridge north of Tucson, Arizona. He was 60.
A lasting symbol of Mix’s legacy is his trademark 10-gallon, wide-brimmed, off-white beaver felt hat, made by the John B. Stetson Co. and named after the actor. One of the original Tom Mix Stetsons is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.