Bonnie & Clyde: 75 Years Later

This weekend — Saturday, May 23, to be precise — marks the 75th anniversary of the day Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in a police ambush. But even if they met a violent end, it’s clear that they gained even greater immortality because of it, with the media today seemingly as entranced with the crime couple as were the newspapers back then. Dan Zak’s article “My, They Hold Up” in the Washington Post earlier this month began to explore our enduring fascination with their story, and two recently published books are capitalizing on theanniversary year: Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde and Paul Schneider’s Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend, both reviewed here by the Post.

I’m planning to teach Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde in one of my courses at George Mason next year (and that film, along with several similar ones, is featured in my next article for Mystery Scene), so I’ve been exploring the story myself recently, and while I haven’t had a chance to check out Guinn’s book, I’ve already delved into Schneider’s and found it thrilling — not just because of the story itself but because of Schneider’s dramatic approach. While he emphasizes, for example, that any quoted dialogue is verifiable, he admits and even indulges the fact that this story is “rife with rumor and lacquered with legend” and he uses some of the techniques of the best creative nonfiction to bring the story to life: lyrical passages that attempt to plumb Bonnie’s thoughts, for example, and a second person narration to put us directly in Clyde’s shoes. Here’s the final shoot-out scene, for example — and I don’t feel badly quoting from so late in the book, since almost everyone knows how the story ends: 

Bullets sound a lot louder when you’re not pulling the trigger yourself, did you ever notice that? It’s strange, too, how the sound seems to get to you later than the actual shove of the lead against and then through your body. If you haven’t been shot you might not know how bullets kind of hit you like a fist and push you, knock you around. It’s only later that you realize they’ve gone through you and out the other side. That’s if you live; you realize there is a hold in you that is leaking like a rusted-out bucket.

It’s like an echo, the way the sound gets there after the bullet, until one of them has gone through your brain and you don’t hardly hear them normally at all. That’s a good thing about bullets, you guess. Rata rata…”

I’m still browsing through the book at this point — haven’t read it cover to cover yet — but I have very little hesitation in recommending it to others here on this milestone weekend. And while Clyde wasn’t much of a drinker — Ray Hamilton claims he “never saw him take a drink of whiskey in my life” — I’ll raise a quick toast to the pair myself on Saturday evening to honor their passing.

And for another tribute, take a moment to reread Bonnie Parker’s own poem “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” reprinted at History Matters, a website co-hosted by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media.

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