Meet the man who never met a man he didn't like

September 05, 1993|By Neil A. Grauer

WILL ROGERS: A BIOGRAPHY

Ben Yagoda

Knopf

370 pages. $27.50 In the pressroom at the 1928 Republican convention, H. L. Mencken pointed at Will Rogers -- a headliner for the Ziegfeld Follies, tireless lecturer, movie and radio star, and author of a short newspaper column containing insightful quips -- and remarked ruefully: "Look at the man. He alters foreign policies. He makes and unmakes candidates. He destroys public figures. . . . Millions of Americans read his words daily, and those unable to read listen to him over the radio. . . . I consider him the most dangerous writer alive today."

Rogers, who was sharing a hotel room with Mencken at that convention, protested. Surely no one took his jokes seriously, he said. Mencken adamantly replied: "They are taken seriously by nobody except half-wits, in other words by approximately 85 percent of the voting population."

While Rogers' latest biographer, Ben Yagoda, writes that it is impossible to determine how much of Mencken's outrage was genuine or in jest, the extraordinary scope of Rogers' professional activities and the impact they had on the Americans of his day cannot be underestimated. In a meticulously researched, admiring but not hagiographic book, Mr. Yagoda probably delivers the definitive account and assessment of Rogers' life, character and accomplishments. Rogers was an American original, beloved by his countrymen -- and rightly so; he was "a decent man who knew how to communicate decency masterfully."

Mr. Yagoda, an assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware, is the first biographer of Rogers (1880-1935) to have unlimited access to his papers, including his letters and unpublished manuscripts. He has made the most of the material, presenting as well-rounded a portrait of this compulsively public but remarkably private and "unexpectedly complex" man as we are likely to have.

Born in the Oklahoma Territory, one-quarter Cherokee Indian, Rogers was the son of a prosperous rancher but gave every indication that he would never amount to much himself. Booted out of various schools, he became proficient only in roping (taught to him by a black hired hand); drifted around briefly as an actual cowboy, and then began a show business career that would be astonishing in its variety and success.

Mr. Yagoda perhaps makes a little too much out of the fact that Rogers -- renowned for having said he never met a man he didn't like -- actually had few close friends. That could be said of most of us. What is more interesting and revealing is Mr. Yagoda's observation that Rogers -- for all his sunny, outgoing, optimistic nature and demeanor -- could occasionally be extremely sensitive to criticism, defensive to the point of pettiness and subject to dark, pessimistic moods.

Rogers appears to have had a "nihilistic, stark and cold" view of human existence, Mr. Yagoda writes, citing the blunt "philosophy of life" Rogers wrote for his friend, historian Will Durant: "What all of us know put together don't mean anything. Nothing don't mean anything. We are just here for a spell and pass on. . . . Live your life so that whatever you lose, you are ahead."

Mr. Yagoda can be almost poetic in expressing his admiration for his subject, but acknowledges that much of what Rogers did -- his daily newspaper commentaries, his books, recordings, radio broadcasts and motion-picture performances -- "initially seem antique to a later generation." His films, which made Rogers the country's top box-office star by the time of his death, have aged badly, and most of his writings would require copious annotations.

Perhaps that is why Mr. Yagoda cites few complete examples of Rogers' brief columns and quotes only a smattering of the legendary insights that appear in many of these pieces. Some now seem "positively Nostradamesque" -- such as his 1925 observation: "As soon as Germany gets strong enough so that she thinks she can lick both of them [England and France] there will be another war."

Yet many of Rogers' wittiest observations have a timeless quality, making them as pertinent now as when he said them ("Politics ain't worrying this country one tenth as much as parking space"). The genius of such comments, Mr. Yagoda notes, lay in the implicit assertion that no matter what problems confront us, "things haven't changed so much after all." In this way, Rogers could ease the minds of both the troubled and the complacent. Such a view can lead to the worst kind of provincial conservatism, of which Rogers was guilty on occasion, the author writes. That he avoided it for the most part is further tribute to him.

This book does not gloss over Rogers' chief failings, is eminently fair, and thus makes the extent of achievements all the more impressive. During an age of turmoil and upheaval, Rogers did more than just espouse "the old time values, he embodied them," Mr. Yagoda writes, and that was the key to his personality and acclaim.

When Rogers and pioneer aviator Wiley Post were killed in an airplane crash in Alaska, the outpouring of public grief was immense, genuine and justified. In a eulogy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Rogers "a man who helped the nation to smile," certainly among the highest accolades anyone could receive."

Mr. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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