Page last updated at 10:38 GMT, Saturday, 23 May 2009 11:38 UK

Oklahoma's 'Cherokee Cowboy'

Travelling through Oklahoma, Kevin Connolly recalls the life of Cherokee-American Will Rogers, a star of silent and talking movies.

When someone is a real star you know it because on the day of their death, the world seems to turn more slowly and feels as though it is just a little further from the sun.

Will Rogers and Jimmy Rogers in the film Strange Border
Will Rogers was born in 1879

Well on the day Will Rogers died in 1935 for most Americans the sun felt a very long way away indeed.

He was a passenger in a seaplane which crashed back into the water seconds after it took off from the surface of a lake where the pilot had landed to ask a group of Eskimos for directions.

He and the round-the-world aviator Wiley Post had been lagoon-hopping in Alaska planning to prospect an air route for postal services to Russia.

Rogers was a Wild West show performer, vaudeville comedian, a movie star and newspaper columnist. But somehow, he was more than any of those things.

In the depths of the Great Depression he helped Americans make sense of a world which had stopped making sense on its own.

His fame has not perhaps transcended the generations as the fame of some celebrities does - it is the light of a distant star - but as word of his death began to spread, the US experienced one of those moments of collective numbness which marks its very darkest hours.

Elusive quality

I knew a little about him because he was part of a kind of private pantheon created for us when we were children by a great-uncle with a gift for weaving disjointed recollections of old films and news stories into a romantic vision of the past.

Child actor Jackie Coogan in Tom Sawyer
One of Hollywood's highest paid actors, Jackie Coogan brokered a $1m deal

He did it so well that it was many years before I realised that people like the American child-actor Jackie Coogan and the Polish pianist and politician Ignacy Paderewsky had ceased to be household names in everyone else's house 30 or 40 years before I was born.

Most of the characters in this pantheon I now realise were at the peak of their powers in the late 1920s when a new kind of fame was inventing itself around the spread of the radio, the rise of cheap photo magazines and the coming of the 'talkies'.

It was like a magnesium flashbulb going off in the darkness of history and it burned a jumbled assortment of boxers, footballers, actors and politicians into my memory forever.

But there was always a quality of elusiveness about Will Rogers in particular. He filled and defined his own times so completely that it was hard to piece him back together again for ours.

Cowboy and Indian

And then, last week, I found myself driving through the plains of Oklahoma where Will Rogers was born, and I found his life story and the role he played in the America of the Great Depression starting to make a little more sense.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers starred in more than 70 films

He was born into a part-Cherokee family in Oklahoma before it became a state and worked as a ranch hand on some of the last great cattle drives that swept beef herds across the prairies to the stockyards of Kansas.

In a country where they set great store by their founding myths he could thus argue that he was both a cowboy and an Indian. And he relished the heritage of both.

Where other distinguished Americans trace their lineage back to the Pilgrims who came across the sea from England, Rogers liked to say "My people met the boat."

And he started out in show business doing cowboy roping tricks in the theatre in an act that involved riding his horse onto the stage.

Reassuring words

When his newspaper writing made him more famous still, they called him the Poet Lariat.

And it was that newspaper column more than his films or his work on the radio and stage that made him such an important presence in the America of the early 30's.

He was a natural comedian whose irreverence to politicians was tempered with a sort of kindliness which would make him seem hopelessly tame in our world

He wrote as he spoke - all "kind-a", "should-a" and "could-a" - and in a country which instinctively values folk wisdom above book learning his tone was re-assuring, asserting the timeless certainties of American values and reassuring his readers that the political leaders he encountered were for the most part likeable men.

There was an innocence about him which has not travelled well through the years and he is often quoted as having said he never met a man he did not like.

It cannot have been an easy message to sell in the America of the Great Depression but businessmen and politicians probably were likeable enough when they were in Rogers's company.

He was a natural comedian whose irreverence to politicians was tempered with a sort of kindliness which would make him seem hopelessly tame in our world.

He was said to have wept when he heard that some gentle ribbing of President Harding had irritated that least impressive of leaders.

At the memorial centre which the people of Oklahoma built for Will Rogers a statue captures him perfectly.

Still a cowboy on horseback heading optimistically in death towards the distant prairie horizon he so far transcended in life.

He once said: "The secret to being a hero is knowing when to die," but you sense that for the people of Oklahoma, when Will Rogers died his lonely death in Alaska, that for once his timing let him down.

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