Reviewed by Alexander Cook
By Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005
In the 1880s and 1890s, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Annie Oakley, who specialized in Western entertainment, achieved international fame and, according to Larry McMurtry, became the first American superstars. He’s probably right, although cases could probably be made for such earlier 19th-century celebrities as self- promoting frontiersman David Crockett and actress Lotta Crabtree. Unlike “female superstars” Martha Stewart and Courtney Love (she’s a superstar?), who sprang to McMurtry’s mind when writing Chapter 4, Annie Oakley was nice to the hired help. And Buffalo Bill apparently had a way with the little people as well as royalty, but fortunately, McMurtry does not compare Cody to George Steinbrenner or Sean Penn. The Love/Stewart annoyance aside, that chapter is just fine, contrasting how Buffalo Bill lost control of his own death to Annie Oakley’s dying “as precisely as she shot, even going to the trouble to secure a female undertaker to embalm her.”
The two early superstars had the Wild West and fame in common, but they were also quite a contrast, what with extroverted Cody throwing money in the wind and often drinking up a storm while introverted Annie was saving her pennies and drinking lemonade. The dual biography concept works well here because the great showman and the “slip of a girl” were doing the Wild West thing together for some 16 years (Annie’s husband, Frank, was usually around, too), and McMurtry clearly admires what these two icons have meant to understanding and interpreting the West.
Other biographies will provide far more details about the lives of Little Missie and the Colonel, and in these 245 pages you get far more of the latter. Annie doesn’t fully step onto the stage until P. 143, but as the author writes: “There is much about Annie Oakley that we will never know — in her own lifetime very few would claim to know her well.” What you get here is quality writing, as McMurtry — the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of such fiction as Lonesome Dove — jumps around their lives, picking and choosing what to offer, sometimes at the expense of chronology or the full picture.
As with his earlier nonfiction book Crazy Horse, the often poignant observations of McMurtry are the reason to turn the pages, and the pages can be turned quickly. Not that every observation hits the mark, such as when he says that superstars cleave to other superstars and, as an example, mentions hoop sensation Michael Jordan hanging out with Larry Bird. Well, anyway, Jordan and Bird could shoot basketballs the way Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley could shoot pistols.