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This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.

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PUBLIC COWBOY, NO. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry
by Holly George-Warren, ©2013
Oxford University Press, 2007
Retail $28
(From Radio Recall, June 2013)

This is probably not the book that this Hollywood cowboy expected when he opened all his personal papers, business records, contracts, correspondence, fan mail, photos, news clippings, and reams of other personal archives. Nor did he suspect what over 100 of his close friends, work associates, lovers, and enemies would tell this biographer about him.

The research for this detailed biography took Holly George-Warren over 17 years and Autry was deceased by the time it was published in 2007. It is a fascinating examination of a terribly flawed icon's life and career, revealing all the moral weakness that this celluloid cowboy which his agents successfully concealed during his lifetime. Autry's triple obsessions (money, women, and alcohol) are documented in this book with uncanny accuracy.

The author has a strong background in the Hollywood western. Ms. George·Warren is a adjunct professor at State University of New York and an award·winning writer, editor, and expert on western films and music.

On September 29, 1907 he was born Orvon Grover Autry in Indian Creek, TX, not in nearby Tioga, TX as he would always claim. His widowed mother had become the third wife of an alcoholic ne'er-do-well , Delbert Autry. She thought she had given her son the first name of "Orvin" but it was mis·spelled in county records and became 'Orvon'.

Gene Autry (his professional name as an adult) did not mind his unusual first name, but he hated his middle name, Grover. He spent most of his life trying to either conceal it or drop it. After he became successful. he simply lied.about it. For example on a radio interview with Bing Crosby in 1948 the two discussed their birth names. The crooner confessed his true name as Harry Lillis Crosby, white the cowboy lied, claiming his birth name as Orvon Eugene Autry.

He grew up as an industrious lad and had a part·time job at age six, trying to help support his mother as his father was usually in jail. Autry dropped out of high school and never went back, having found sufficient jobs to occupy his time. His childhood quests to earn money (to support himself and his famity) became a lifelong obsession that eventually propelled him into multi· millionaire status. Despite his wealth, or perhaps because of it, he remained kind and generous, donating thousands to charity, and always willing to hand over $ 100 to a down-on·his·luck former associate.

After a series of part-time jobs in Oklahoma, (where his mother had temporarily moved her family) and then back to Texas, Gene obtained what would become his long·term, full time job as a railroad clerk for the Frisco Line Railroad. He got training as a telegraph operator and in that role, would labor for several years, while trying to launch his singing career in his spare time.

One of the most popular myths about Autry is how his singing career was jump·started by Will Rogers. According to Gene's tale, he was strumming his guitar during a slow time at the railroad station in 1928, when Will Rogers passed by. Hearing Autry's slnging, Rogers supposedly advised the young man that he was so good he should be singing on the radio. According to Autry, he took Rogers' advice and the rest is history ... (well, not exactly.)

George·Warren traced down every possible avenue to verify Autry's story and there is no evidence that the incident ever happened. Moreover. there is no evidence that the two men ever met. Although this supposed event occurred in 1928. Autry never mentioned it until 1937, two years after Rogers was killed in a plane crash in 1935. Dead men tell no tales. nor can they refute the boastful lies of others.

The author traces in detail Autry's early successes, first as a part-time radio singer in Texas and Oklahoma, primarily station KVOO in Tulsa about 1928, when he took the professional name of Gene Autry. By 1930. he had recorded a few songs with some success and had become part of the regulars on station WLS in Chicago, where he was billed as "The Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy." WLS did not pay their radio periormers very much, but they sent their stars out to nearby towns tor personal appearances which bolstered their small salaries.

While touring for WLS, Autry met a devout Christian Science woman, Ina Mae Spivey, in 1932. They fell in love and were married four months later. They would remain married until her death six decades later and were apparently happy, despite his countless affairs with other women.

Autry's mother died in May 1932, leaving three youngsters with no parental support; their father was in jail ... again. Without hesitation, Autry brought his two sisters and a little brother to Chicago where he and his new bride would raise them. This would be the only parenting that Autry and Ina did, as they were childless due to Gene's sterility from childhood mumps.

Rushed with their success at WlS, Autry and radio buddy, Lester ·Smiley" Burnett headed for Hollywood, where they received small roles in their first motion picture, "In Old Santa Fe". The Aulry luck prevailed; cowboy star Ken Maynard backed out of a planned chapter serial,"The Phantom Empire" and Autry was rushed into the leading role.

He was soon being groomed as Hollywood's singing cowboy and only two things stood in the way of his western film stardom. He couldn't ride a horse and he couldn't act. Autry eventually overcame that first obstacle but he never developed any acting ability. Fortunately, his singing and his personality were sufficient in those dozens of B·pictures that made him famous.

The B-pictures also provided him with access to a continuing rotation of leading ladies, many of whom ended up in his bed. Autry made a point of telling every potential conquest that his childhood mumps made it impossible for him to sire a child. Whether this was an incentive for them to join him on the "casting couch" cannot be verified but apparently few declined his propositions.

A close associate of Autry's once asked him if it was true that he had made love to all his leading ladies. His answer was both honest and arrogant:"Well, hell, yes, I felt owed it to them." When WW II broke out, several of the he-man cowboy stars (including John Wayne and Roy Rogers) would find a way to duck military service. Autry, patriotic to the core, not only enlisted but volunteered to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Despite his age (nearly 40) his courage and enthusiasm steered him into dangerous flying missions in the Burma region.

While he was on active duty, his radio show ("Melody Ranch"), his recording careers and his movies were all on hold. It was during the war that Autry developed his third obsession: alcohol. He had been a moderate drinker before Pearl Harbor but after frequent evenings in the officers' clubs,. consuming plenty of booze, he came out of service as a borderline alcoholic.

Even though his drinking would eventually cost him his live radio show, there was safety in his movies and recordings, which he could schedule when he was sober, so these venues continued to do weH for him and his bank accounts. Autry started doing more personal appearances across the country, allowing him freedom from his wife's watchful eye so he could drink more and find more weekend romances. Many of the latter came from the ranks of his fan clubs since many girls were willing to come up to his hotel room so he "could get to know them better."

George·Warren reviewed fan letters from several of these girts, one of whom was in Autry's hotel bed on four separate visits to Chicago. Of course, other women on the promise of a future career in the movies, were also willing to be seduced.

Despite the untold numbers of women whom Autry was intimate with, only one of these affairs evolved into a long-time relationship. Gail Davis, whom Autry installed in the role of TV's "Annie Oakley," had an affair with Autry that lasted over eight years. He was 18 years her senior and although they were married to two other people, their long-term bedroom romance was never publicly disclosed in that era. Therefore their respective successful careers were not affected by the affair.

While his secret affairs had no bearing on his popularity or income, his drinking did take his radio show off the air His contract, with long-time sponsor, Wrigley's Gum. required a live performance weekly. For one show, Autry showed up so drunk he couldn't perform and the studio aired a transcription disc of a prior program. Wrigley representatives were very upset and threatened cancellation if this occurred again. So the next time Autry showed up in an inebriated state, necessitating another transcribed show, Wrigley pulled the plug on the series.

It was not through lack of trying by Ina to "dry him out" (and she certainly did.) But Autry's alcohol consumption remained a serious problem, though unknown to the public, even though the state of California revoked his driver's license in 1961 for alcohol violations.

His personal appearance tours began to present difficulties. His associates of that period told the author that Autry had two drinks before every performance. If he had three, he started slurring his songs and if he had four he couldn't get in .... or out .... of the saddle. Long-time buddy, "Pat" Buttram, used to joke about wiring Autry in the saddle so he wouldn't fall off his horse, Champion.

Fortunately for Autry, his press agents and assorted protectors kept his womanizing and boozing out of the press. Even when his longsuffering wife kept him briefly at home, away from those two weaknesses, press releases asserted that the cowboy star was merely suffering from "nervous exhaustion." But some of these drinking bouts were more serious and a greater problem for his enablers to cover up. On more than one occasion. Autry showed up intoxicated to visit children in hospitals so medical administrators cut his visits very short.

Unlike fellow cowboy star, Ken Maynard, whose alcoholism and womanizing led him to a lonely death in poverty, Autry's "Midas Touch" increased his swollen bank vaults over the years. He made millions, invested wisely in real estate and the communications industry, and eventually was the owner of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. He was listed in the Forbes List of Richest Persons ten times between 1983 and 1994.

Autry was quite literally a "self-made man" a high school drop-out who, through determination, hard work, and luck, made it to the top of the "Super-Rich." Ina occasionally threatened to end the marriage and leave him with nothing but his guitar and horse. But Autry out-liived her and then promptly married a close associate of theirs. Just as George Burns' daily cigars never diminished his march to 100, Autry's drinking and womanizing did not shorten his life span. He died in October 1998; he was 91 years old.

NOTE: This book is available from most internet book sellers, including the Gene Autry Museum. Most libraries also have a copy of it. The Fairfax, VA Library system has eight copies circulating so it is easy to obtain.