100 Years of Bonnie Parker

Movie buffs might already be thinking about Bonnie Parker this week, having heard about the recent death of Arthur Penn. He directed the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, the big-screen retelling of her famous crime spree with boyfriend Clyde Barrow.

What they might not know is that there's even more reason to be thinking about her. Parker was born Oct.1, 1910 – 100 years ago today.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (Wikimedia Commons)

Parker's nationwide reputation in the early 1930s was that of a cigar-smoking gun moll who gleefully robbed banks and killed anyone who got in her way. This reputation remains intact today.

To a point, it was deserved. Parker was certainly a major player in at least a hundred felonies over a two-year period. But she may not have been quite the cold-blooded killer of legend. In fact, she was a bit dismayed with the public's perception of her character, and she even attempted on one occasion to correct it.

Parker met Clyde Barrow in 1930, when she was just 19, and she was instantly smitten. Barrow felt much the same. After a short separation while both Parker and Barrow did time for various robberies, they were reunited in July 1932. By August of that year, Barrow had killed his first lawman.

That killing kicked off the Barrow Gang's crime spree… but Parker wasn't there. At the time of that murder, which took place in Oklahoma, she was visiting her mother in Dallas. However, she soon rejoined the gang and did her share of aiding and abetting.

Parker's bad-news reputation was born in early 1933, when the gang fled their Joplin, Mo., hideout with the law on their heels. They left behind most of their possessions, including a camera full of exposed film. The local newspaper developed the film and discovered a treasure trove of cheeky photos in which Bonnie, Clyde and gang member W.D. Jones goofed around and pointed guns at each other.

Bonnie Parker (Wikimedia Commons)Most famous was the photo that solidified Parker's reputation: a saucy shot of her with a cigar in her mouth, a gun in her hand, and a tough-as-nails look on her face. The photos went nationwide, and Parker became the country's most notorious woman.

She regretted it a bit, and at one point in the gang's criminal career, she instructed a released hostage to tell the world she didn't smoke cigars. Unfortunately, the hostage didn't pass along the news. It might not have taken even if he had. Ask any number of young stars today – one photo can permanently color the world's view of you, even if it's just a joke.

As the months wore on, the Barrow Gang committed more crimes… and more murders. The escalating violence, in addition to a Wanted for Murder poster that featured Parker's photo along with those of the men, did it – she was no longer just a pretty outlaw, accomplice to her murderous boyfriend. She was now seen as a merciless killer herself, never mind the fact that W.D. Jones was unsure if she'd ever fired at officers, and never mind the fact that whether she fired a gun or not, there's no evidence that she ever killed a single person by her own hand. Parker as murderer fit the profile that had been created for her, and the public bought it.

The final nail in Parker's reputation was driven on Easter Sunday, 1934, when Barrow and gang member Henry Methvin killed two highway patrolmen in Grapevine, Texas. More than one report suggests that Parker was asleep in the back seat of the car while the patrolmen were shot, and had no part in the crime whatsoever. But an eyewitness claimed to have seen her laughing heartily as she shot one of the officers over and over. He even spoke of a cigar with "tiny teeth marks" in it – surely placing Bonnie at the scene and perky enough to smoke.

Well, as Parker insisted, she didn't smoke cigars: although she was a heavy cigarette smoker, the cigar photo was a joke. And the eyewitness's story changed enough times that it was soon discredited. It remains most likely that Parker, far from gleefully killing the officer, didn't participate and wasn't even awake for the murder.

Of course, facts don't always inform public opinion. The public at large latched onto the eyewitness account and Parker was condemned as a heartless killer. And at that point, maybe her reputation didn't matter anymore. After all, she didn't even have two months to live. Parker was killed May 23, 1934, along with Barrow in an ambush orchestrated by officer Frank Hamer and his posse. She was just 23.

The legend of Bonnie and Clyde has only grown since their death, aided (and abetted no doubt) by Penn's 1967 film as well as songs by Merle Haggard, German punk band Die Toten Hosen, rapper Jay-Z and many more. The homages aren't always entirely true-to-life, but they're popular. And they continue: a new cinematic account starring Hilary Duff and Kevin Zegers, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, is due to start production in November 2010. Odds are, Bonnie smokes a cigar or two in the film.

Originally published Oct. 1, 2010