“There’s no excuse for dressing like trash in this line of work.”
– Charles Arthur Floyd in McMurtry and Ossana’s Pretty Boy Floyd
When did criminals become our national heroes? Names like Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, and Jesse James are bandied about in the same breaths as presidents and philanthropists. What is this fascination with those who perpetrate our society’s dastardly deeds? Is it the exciting lives they lead? Driving around in fast cars, guns blazing, always looking over their shoulders, knowing that one false move will lead to death – or worse, imprisonment. We live vicariously through these people’s bold rebellion against the social mores we try to live by.
Movies, of course, help us by glorifying the lives and the legends behind the names and faces plastered on the post office walls or saloon fronts. Classics like Bonnie and Clyde – personified by the much-more-attractive-than-the-real-thing Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – with Paul Newman and Robert Redford going out in the proverbial “blaze of glory” – only serve to cement these images in our minds. Even the portrayal of George “Baby Face” Nelson as a crazed madman in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? will likely be most people’s introduction to the gangster.
But why do we place these people on pedestals? Is there something special about them as human beings, or are they just normal folks who needed money and found a quick way to get it?
The last seems to be the motivation behind Charles Arthur Floyd’s entry into a life of crime. It turns out, according to Michael Wallis’ book Pretty Boy, that Charley (as he preferred to be called – he hated the “Pretty Boy” moniker) just couldn’t stand the idea of working for a living. Plus, he liked to travel. When his brother Bradley was called off to service, Charley envied that Bradley had seen Paris and the like, and took a job as a harvester in order to see the country (or at least get the hell out of Oklahoma).
Fortunately, once he tried it, he found he had a talent for robbery. That’s everyone’s dream, isn’t it? To do what you want and be able to live off it? Perhaps that is another reason we hold desperados in such high esteem – they set their own hours, live on their own terms…
From childhood, Charley’s heroes were Jesse James and Jack Dempsey (he would name his son Dempsey), two men who earned their livings through violence. Now, I’m not making a judgment here, but I think any psychologist would say that Charley’s future was assured from that fact alone. The fact is, though, that Charley was good at what he did, and even the tellers he robbed spoke highly of him. He was always polite, only shot in self-defense, and rarely got away with more than a few thousand dollars. And, after all, since the money was insured, he was only hurting the big fellows, right? That, and his habit of giving money to whomever he saw in need – often to his own detriment – made him into a sort of Robin Hood figure, a folk hero, if you will.
The only problem with being a folk hero is that people attribute things to you that you never did. This caused Charley no end of trouble. He was constantly being seen by eyewitnesses, committing crimes he never did. Therefore, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the burgeoning Bureau of Investigation (“Federal” would not be added until later, around 1935), took it upon himself to capture Charley at any cost. In fact, the name “Pretty Boy Floyd” would not be as well-known today, had it not been for Hoover’s personal vendetta against Charley; Hoover used his capture as a method of shameless self-promotion.
The main crime that Hoover placed on Charley was the Kansas City Massacre. On June 17, 1933, five police officers were killed – and two wounded – in an ambush inside of Kansas City’s Union Station. Several people said they saw Charley in attendance, and he was coincidentally in Kansas City at the time, but evidence clearly points to his absence from the station. Hoover, however, just looking for a reason, any reason, latched onto this and raised Charley’s Public Enemy Number from Eight to Two (just below John Dillinger). When Dillinger was cornered a short while later, Charley was suddenly promoted to Public Enemy Number One, and the sole objective of Hoover’s professional career.
From that point on, Charley was followed relentlessly, all the way to his final scene at Edith Conkle’s farm. The way McMurtry and Ossana write it, Charley attempted to run into the nearby woods, and in his intense concentration, did not feel the policemen’s bullets piercing his flesh. Finally his body gave out from the loss of blood and he slowly fell to the ground, looking up to see multiple guns trained on him. One officer asks, “Are you Pretty Boy Floyd?” “Charles Arthur Floyd,” Charley corrects and then dies. Such a nice Hollywood death, wonderfully lyrical. But then the novel was expanded from a screenplay, so what can you expect?
McMurtry and Ossana’s novel Pretty Boy Floyd takes license with some events but stays true to the facts in general. Placing Bill “the Killer” Miller as Charley’s first robbery partner in 1925 when they would, in fact, not meet until 1930 is one example of artistic license. Also, the authors changed some names, particularly that of Charley’s girlfriend Beulah’s mother Sadie. The novel calls her Lulu, which is not mentioned in either of the two biographies, most probably because her scenes are the least based on fact. Considering her prominence in the novel, and her slight mention in the other books, I suspect most of “Lulu’s” actions are the product of imagination.
Of the two biographies, Wallis’ is the most entertaining. Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd paints Charley as a genial sort who just happened to be a bank robber. To his credit, Wallis attempts to paint a picture of the surrounding era, but his description of the events happening in other parts of the country – as well as sidebars regarding the histories of Jesse James and moonshine-making – while entertaining in themselves, take away from the story at hand and merely seem like tangential filler. He also has an odd penchant for telling the origins of everyone’s names, a habit I eventually found annoying.
King’s book is more hard-nosed, sometimes feeling as if it wants to paint Charley in a bad light. Where McMurtry and Ossana, and Wallis focus on Charley Floyd the man, King almost exclusively writes about his actions, such as robberies and murders (one major point being his conviction that Charley was in fact part of the fabled Massacre). On the surface, The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd is more exciting, but in the end less remains with you in terms of “who this man is” that King is writing about.
An example of King’s distancing of himself from Charley Floyd is his use of the unfamiliar “Floyd” – or worse, “Pretty Boy” – when referring to his subject. McMurtry and Ossana prefer to call their character “Charley,” while Wallis vacillates between that and the familial nickname “Choc,” the origin of which stems from a moonshine by-product named after Choctaw beer (“originally a synthetic drink made of barley, hops, tobacco, fishberries, and a small amount of alcohol, [from] the old days of the Choctaw Nation”). This “cloudy ferment that was found in the bottom of [a corn] mash barrel” was simply called the “choc,” and Choc Floyd “dipped out cups of [it] and slurped it down every chance he got.”
King’s book is almost like a thesis: with 20 pages of endnotes, every reference is clearly cited. Wallis is satisfied with a simple bibliography in the back of the book, and the only reference to any research at all in the McMurtry/Ossana novel is a quote in the front from Wallis’ work, placed with one each from Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” and The Grapes of Wrath.
These three books – all mainly about the same subject and all written in vastly different manners – combine to paint a picture of a legendary figure. The two bios, while repeating much the same material, approached their subject from different points of view. Additionally, McMurtry and Ossana chose to exemplify Charley Floyd’s heroic status through the convention of fictionalized storytelling. I found the differing methods to be equally successful in portraying different aspects of the man who was Charles Arthur Floyd; and I found it very interesting that I was able to glean the authors’ opinions on their subject through their words.
I was reminded of the quote from Citizen Kane: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” That phrase echoes my own sentiment that only one book cannot tell the story of a man. Who knows if even three can? All I know is that I feel that reading all three of these books gave me a more complete portrait of Charley Floyd than any one could have done, and that I will in the future be reading biographies with a warier eye.
(Simon & Schuster, 1994)
(St. Martin’s Press, 1992)
(The Kent State University Press, 1998)