Ernie Pyle was not the first famous journalist to visit Oklahoma and make light of it, but he was drunker than most, and he stayed longer.
Richard Harding Davis, editor of Harper’s Weekly and the best-known journalist of his day, arrived by train in 1892 and declared Oklahoma City to be “a freak of our civilization,” went to Anadarko and made disparaging remarks about “blanket” Indians and observed, with all the East Coast elitism he could muster, “Seven houses in the West make a city.” The classiest people he could find were the officers of Fort Sill.
Almost a half-century later, Pyle showed up to cast a bleary eye on Oklahoma and make things slightly better. Like Davis, he was just passing through, but unlike Davis, he did it several times.
In 1935, the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance sent Pyle on a seven-year junket through America in search of odd and unusual stories that would, like the daily comic strips, divert readers from the contemplation of the Great Depression. As it turned out, Indiana-born Pyle liked the West. And Oklahoma was its doorstep ” not the real thing, but close, geographically speaking.
Pyle first saw Oklahoma City in 1936. Driving in from the east late at night, he believed he was approaching a beautifully lighted metropolis of grand design, wherein all the buildings were exactly the same height. They were oil derricks, of course, and after rubbing elbows with the locals for a couple of days, Pyle thought he knew enough about the oil boom ” and the debate over conservation that it had spawned ” to inform his readers.
‘ALFALFA BILL’ LETS ERNIE DOWN
Pyle came down on the side of development, and he came down hard. In a jaw-dropping paragraph, he called for, among other things, the destruction of the state Capitol, to make room for more “silvery steel shafts,” otherwise known as oil wells.
“Cheat the poor folks,” he wrote. “Ruin the homes. Squander gas. Throw away fortunes. Who cares? It’s fun. “¦ It’s great. Wheeee!” When latter-day admirer David Nichols edited that column for his 1989 collection of Pyle’s travel pieces, he left out the “Wheeee!” Perhaps, like Howard Dean’s “Yea-haw!,” it was too much even for the faithful.
Perhaps Pyle was drunk when he wrote that paragraph; he usually was. Scripps-Howard co-worker Richard Hollander said Pyle was subject to fits of “alcoholic insanity.” He had other issues as well: His traveling companion was his wife, Jerry (known to readers as “That Girl”), a pill-popping alcoholic who took an occasional fling in the general direction of suicide. Pyle’s impotence complicated their relationship. Silvery shafts, indeed. Dr. Freud, a metaphor awaits attention.
Oh, and Oklahoma City had too many billboards on the west side of town. Pyle said they were “comical.” If he knew they were hiding stockyards and Hoovervilles, he didn’t say so.
In his quest for the odd and unusual, Pyle drove 150 miles (out of his way, he claimed) over bad roads to find former Gov. William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, then living on a farm near Broken Bow. In the early Thirties, Alfalfa had been subject of considerable bizarre reportage, owing largely to his considerable bizarre behavior, but not lately, and Pyle had questions: Was there really an idiot standing at Murray’s front gate to scare away visitors? Had Murray actually cut a large hole in the middle of his living room floor for better ventilation? Did he speak Choctaw to his hogs?
Pyle described Murray as “the hillbilliest-looking statesman you ever saw ” no shirt, winter underwear, plow shoes unlaced, handkerchief around his neck, an upper front tooth out, long hair, white whiskers. “¦ He cussed a lot, but his grammar was good and he was nobody’s fool.” Unhappily for the journalist, Murray “acted just like any other ordinary human being.” Pyle had wanted the ex-governor to “put on a show,” but instead, he confessed, Alfalfa Bill “let me down.” There was no idiot, there was no hole in the floor, and Murray spoke no Choctaw to the hogs.
He was nobody’s fool, and least of all Pyle’s.
THE ELUSIVE MR. ITT
During a later visit, Pyle found an Oklahoman more to his liking: The man’s name was Shorty Miller and he lived with his wife in a broken-down truck near Lawton. Miller told Pyle he’d participated in almost all of Oklahoma’s various land openings. But he had never stayed long on an acreage, preferring to let others earn the money while he figured ways to separate them from it.
Miller was an old-time huckster. He had learned ventriloquism. He had sold soap, neckties, patent medicines and spot remover. He had exhibited scruffy assemblages of faunal debris he touted as mummies. He once hired an 8-foot-2-inch farmer, applied paint and nose rings, and advertised the man as a captive from “darkest Africa.” The farmer quit when Miller refused to pay him more than $25 a month.
At one point, Miller purchased a monkey-like creature from a woman who claimed to have caught it in the Panhandle. He paid $50 for the animal and earned $21,500 exhibiting Mr. Itt, as he named the thing, but subsequently lost all the money through bad investments. When Mr. Itt died, Miller had Itt stuffed because he loved Itt so much. Where Itt was at the time of Pyle’s interview remains a mystery. Pyle didn’t ask the burning questions. He was paid to be superficial.
In 1939, Pyle visited the new Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, remarking in print that nearby Chelsea had a better claim to the late humorist, but had never been credited for being the home of Oklahoma’s favorite son because Rogers had preferred to be identified with a bigger burg.
Pyle made no mention of Gene Autry, later known as Chelsea’s most famous telegraph operator ” the one Rogers supposedly heard singing and advised to try for a job in radio. If anyone in Chelsea or Claremore had told Pyle the story about Rogers giving Autry his start, the journalist would have retold it. He didn’t, because Autry hadn’t concocted it yet.
A year earlier, Pyle had interviewed Autry in California at the apex of the performer’s popularity and Chelsea was not mentioned. When Autry eventually did create the fiction, family and close friends knew better, but the cowboy actor kept right on telling it anyway, until, like Bosnian gunfire in a Hillary Clinton stump speech, it achieved eternal verity.
Pyle left his interview with Autry bearing, he reported, a great deal of Autry-endorsed merchandise, including a toy pistol. “So as I sit writing about the No. 1 western movie star, there is a cartridge belt around me, and a holster on my hip. “¦ And after each paragraph I whip out my Gene Autry cap-gun and shoot my beloved right between the eyes.” Hmmm. Shooting blanks. Oh, Dr. Freud “¦
In late April 1939, about a week after 89er Day, Pyle offered his public a cursory, ambiguous and thoroughly perfunctory assessment of Oklahoma. It was, he wrote, neither “wild nor bleak” nor “dull and prosaic” (suggesting, of course, that he’d once thought it was), but was instead “a little bit of all of these “¦ and a million other things, too.”
Oklahoma had cowboys and Indians, oilmen and sodbusters, dust and tall buildings, and Bible-thumping persons of the cloth. Pyle noted also that the state possessed “excellent universities,” but that was a few years before John Steinbeck made them embrace football. Oklahoma, Pyle wrote, “gave us Will Rogers and Wiley Post and the Barrow gang,” which helped, along with oil and all that other stuff, to make it “one of America’s richest and most interesting states.”
And so was every other state he visited, lest tar and feathers await him on his return. Or maybe it had all started to run together, the blurring assisted by too much driving, too much That Girl, too much suitcase living, too much liquor. That might be enough to rip Bonnie and Clyde from the bosom of Texas and make Oklahomans of them.
‘PURITY OF THE SOIL’
Born in 1900, Pyle was still young enough to be drafted in the days after Pearl Harbor. In lieu of infantry service, he became a war correspondent. And, irony of ironies, he was embedded with infantry, slogging through North Africa and Europe. It was tougher work than driving around America. It also required Pyle to linger in the embrace of sobriety for longer periods of time, lest he step on a mine.
He received a Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished war correspondence” in 1944, which was similar to his reportage during the late Thirties, except for the bullets and blood. Pyle went to war still on the scout for the odd and unusual. He neither knew nor cared what the war was about, according to historian Paul Fussell, himself an infantryman during World War II. Fussell said Pyle produced “Joe Blow Stories,” sketches of hometown boys written for hometown consumption ” feel-good prose, short on substance.
A fair number of Pyle’s Joe Blows were Oklahomans. He called them “good old boys,” even the officers. In Sicily, Pyle was hospitalized with Oklahomans from the 45th Division, the Thunderbirds. He had the flu; they were wounded. Pyle described the Oklahomans as “drawling and soft-spoken,” reflecting the “purity of the soil” from which they sprang.
“An Oklahoman of the plains is straight and direct. He is slow to criticize and hard to anger,” Pyle wrote, “but once he is convinced of the wrong of something, brother, watch out.” The Oklahomans, he said, were “madder about the war than anybody I had seen on that side of the ocean. They weren’t so mad before they went into action, but by then the Germans across the hill were all ‘sonsabitches.'”
‘ERNIE TALKS OUR LANGUAGE’
By the late summer of 1944, Pyle had endured his fill of war. He had covered the Normandy invasion. He was tired, heartsick and feeling, he said, “wobbly” and “confused.” He wanted to leave the combat zone, but he knew his columns were fixtures in newspapers on the home front and did not think his work ” his important work ” was finished.
He returned to the United States in September 1944. That Girl chose the occasion of his homecoming to stab herself in the neck several times with a pair of scissors, but lived. Going from one bloody mess to another, Pyle left in January 1945 to cover what remained of the war in the Pacific. He flew from Hawaii to the Marianas on a military transport piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Don Skirvin, of the Oklahoma City hotel Skirvins. The lieutenant commander invited Pyle to sit in the cockpit and observe dawn breaking across the ocean. Pyle called the experience “an exaltation.”
On April 18, 1945, on the small island of Ie Shima, a few miles west of Okinawa, a Japanese sniper shot Pyle through the left temple. Seven months later, in New Mexico, That Girl died of uremic poisoning.
As the print journalist most identified with World War II, Pyle owed his popularity to an ability to communicate with the average reader ” something he had honed to near-perfection with his travel writings in the Thirties. Lee Hills, editor of the Oklahoma News, told Pyle in 1938 that subscribers said, “Ernie talks our language.” Pyle’s writing, Hills said, was “folksy, human and as unsophisticated as nine out of 10 readers.”
Pyle was a better writer on the front lines during the war than he’d been on the dusty highways of Thirties America, perhaps because he drank less, perhaps because That Girl was far away or perhaps because he wrote for a higher purpose: producing stories to comfort a nation anxious about its fighting men and women. Whatever the reason, he was better.
And so, therefore, were the Oklahomans he met ” an affably garrulous crowd, drawling out their stories and cursing the enemy. Theirs were tales, as Pyle presented them, of American gumption and adaptability in the face of adversity. Who wouldn’t want to read, for example, about Pvt. “Beans” Riley from Pawhuska, who used to be a top jockey until he ballooned all the way up to 132 pounds, but who loved horses and became a veterinarian, and who served as a medic in the war because horses and people were pretty much the same, except that one was bigger than the other and required more medicine?
Who wouldn’t want to read that, back home in Oklahoma or anywhere else in the country?
For Oklahoma readers, at least, it had to beat the hell out of a monkey from the Panhandle or Alfalfa Bill’s underwear.
Well, for one out of 10 readers, anyway. “William W. Savage Jr.
Editor’s note: The following analysis was written by University of Oklahoma history professor William W. Savage Jr., author of several books on popular culture, the American West and Oklahoma.