We have a really special treat for you today. Recently, Holly George-Warren author of Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry interviewed Jacqueline Autry. Ms. Autry, the second wife of Gene Autry, currently serves as Director and Chairman of the Board of the Autry National Center, the governing body for the Museum of the American West, Southwest Museum of the American Indian, and the Institute for the Study of the American West. The transcript is after the break.
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Holly George-Warren: Hi, this is Holly George-Warren, author of Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, speaking with Mrs. Gene Autry about our book, just published by Oxford University Press. Hi Jackie.
Jacqueline Autry: Hi Holly, how are you?
HGW: Good, thanks. I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the points in the book that you actually had the good fortune to get to hear first hand from your husband when he used to reminisce about certain important parts of his life to you. I remember at one point during one of our interviews you told be about his memories about that fantastic tour of the United Kingdom in 1939 when he was just greeted practically with hysteria by just mobs and mobs of people and it was kind of really the equivalent then of Beatlemania for us in the 1960s in America. Could you tell me a little bit about it?
JA: Yeah Holly, you’ve got to understand that in the 30s and 40s Gene Autry was probably considered the equivalent to what would be a rock-star today. And that’s the way he was treated not only in the United Kingdom but all over the world. Women would give him their room keys and invite them to their home or whatever. So, you know, it was a very tough situation for a good-looking guy who was out on the road all the time. But yes, he enjoyed his trip to Ireland. I remember him telling me that during 1939 it was just the start of World War II and Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks were in England and could not get out of England because all the transportation over there had been literally booked up. And so they asked Gene if there was any way Gene could help them and he said “well, I have a large state room on this ship back to the United States and I’d be happy to share it with you.” To make a long story short, ultimately Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks did get out of England and did not have to share a room with Gene. But this trip to Ireland I think is a very fond memory for him. I know that when he was over there in 1939, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, who were little girls at the time, were rabid Gene Autry cowboy fans and Gene actually gave a private performance to the future Queen and her sister at the palace there in London.
HGW: Well I guess he was considered American royalty, really, to them in their eyes.
JA: Well he was, and I remember and I actually have something on tape from a young man by the name of Ringo Starr, who saw Gene perform at the theater Royal many, many years ago.
HGW: Oh I guess it was probably in ‘53 because I know Gene went back over in 1953.
JA: Yes, it probably was. And here was a little boy who was 5 years old who saw, and he describes this on the tape, “I saw this cowboy in a white suit on this horse and he had his leg over the pummel of the saddle, and he sang ‘South of the Border,’” and he said “it just gave me chills and ever since then I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy.”
JA: So this is Ringo Starr talking I think probably when he was in his 50s somewhere and it was a wonderful experience I think for him because people looked up to Gene. Gene was a role-model, he always portrayed that on the screen. He didn’t drink, he didn’t say foul things and Pat Butram, who was Gene’s co-star in many of his films, said that “Gene Autry was a babysitter for 3 generations of children” because people knew they could take their child to the movies and see a great movie and not hear anything bad.
HGW: And also just an inspiration to young men like, say, Willy Nelson and Johnny Cash who, like Gene, grew up pretty hard-scrabble, you know, working the land and wanting to make something of themselves, get off the farm, and they saw Gene on these Saturday matinees signing songs, playing guitar, getting to be a movie star, and here’s a guy who came from a Texas / Oklahoma small town. And the fact that he was able to create this incredible life for himself through his talents and through his wits and performing charisma gave them the hope that they could do the same thing.
JA: Well they tried to emulate him a great deal and it’s not only Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. You have Glen Campbell who well tell you that he knows every Gene Autry song that Gene ever recorded and can remember every word. Glen started out the same way and he really thought that Gene Autry got him started in his career. Another man, Marty Robbins, just loved Gene Autry and as a matter of fact he wrote a song called “My Hero” to try to convey how much he adored this man. Roy Clark, another one. So many young men back in the 40s and 50s actually got their start because of Gene because they thought that Gene was absolutely the best singer and the best cowboy and of course there used to be a lot of fights, I remember, between kids as to who was best, Roy or Gene. And since Gene was the first one that came along and, unfortunately as you know, Gene had to go into the service after W.W.II, it made it difficult for him to stay out in front of his public. But Roy certainly got a great start in that time period and of course the kids would fight, as I said, as to who was the best. And then along came Hop-Along Cassidy and that took care of both of them.
HGW: Right. Well I think that as far as the longevity goes and just the legacy I would have to say that Gene Autry is the one that really, because he started the musical Western, and he started the whole idea of the singing cowboy being so popular in our culture and also, until Gene came along, country music itself was just, you know, the audience was mostly small rural areas in the southeast, southwest, but once he started singing those country songs on national radio in Chicago and of course in the movies, Americans all over the country grew to love country music cause they learned it from Gene Autry so I think that’s quite the legacy.
JA: Well Holly, your book has done a wonderful job in not only telling the true-life story of Gene Autry, but also validating a lot of things as well as changing a lot of the things. You know, we tend to remember things in a certain way and when it’s documented in another way, as you have done in your book, I think it’s absolutely fabulous that you’ve done this and you’ve taken the time to do all the research because I even believe to this day a lot of the things that Gene told me that he truly believed were nothing more than a figment of his imagination and created somewhere down the line by a public relations person and he said it so often and so many times it became part of the reality of his life.
HGW: Wow. Well that’s old Hollywood for you, I guess, and that’s what books like this one, PUBLIC COWBOY #1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, published by Oxford University Press, is here to try and set the story straight, but also to really try to capture Gene Autry, the flesh and blood man and what he was really like. Jackie Autry, I just can’t thank you enough for your participation in the book, in the research, in getting to speak with me today, and I just appreciate it so much.
JA: Well, I hope the people will go out and buy this book. It’s well worth reading. Everyone that’s read it has said it’s outstanding and I have looked at all the reviews that you’ve been getting, Holly, and they are wonderful. And if people haven’t seen the reviews of the book, to get a star from Publishers Weekly, or to get the types of raves and reviews from the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times you’ve had, it really is kudos to you.
HGW: Well thank you very much, and I look forward to continuing the celebration of the centennial of Gene’s birth throughout the year and the wonderful exhibit that opens in June at the Autry national center in Los Angeles, and the big fan club gathering in August, and then the gala commemorating Gene’s birthday September 29th at the Autry national center and I thank you so much for letting me be a part of that.
JA: Thank you, Holly, and I look forward to seeing you real soon.