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Celebrity Culture's Birth

McMurtry takes on Buffalo Bill & Annie Oakley

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The Colonel and Little Missie

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was known internationally as a former scout, hunting guide and Pony Express courier in the West, but the majority of his life revolved around show business. A man who built his legend, in part, on Indian scalping actually killed few Native Americans and hired hundreds of them for his national tours.

His most famous partner, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, was also a combination of PR savvy and actual adventure. Despite being a leading attraction in the wildly popular Buffalo Bill's Wild West tour, she grew up in Ohio and never saw the traditional sites of cowboys and Indians until she joined Cody's show.

In Larry McMurtry's hands, the fact and fiction of these 19th Century celebrities -- precursors to everyone from Mary Pickford to Madonna, the author asserts -- come to life. McMurtry serves up tasty morsels, such as Oakley's penny-pinching ways (she was rumored to subsist on the free lemonade Cody provided).

As McMurtry notes, the duo makes for a compelling compare-and-contrast exercise. Cody was relentlessly optimistic, overly generous with money, a chronic drunk, a serial flirt and adulterer. Oakley, whose childhood was wracked with abuse and poverty, was a taciturn and blunt miser, revealed little about her relationships, and enjoyed a happy marriage.

Cody considered his long-running tours "caravans of history" when, in fact, they were glitzy spectacles much more akin to modern-day show business, taking advantage of rail lines and intercontinental ships to make smash box-office treks to scores of cities across America and Europe.

The troupe's tropes -- trick shooting, Indian rituals, rodeos and Western finery -- became ingrained in American mythmaking.

Part of the pair's legend can be attributed to a sense of style. Oakley made a back-leg kick her signature after firing off impressive shots, while Cody fancied a casual sophistication, introducing buckskin fringe as Western couture. As McMurtry puts it: "It is hard to overestimate how far a man can go in America if he looks good on a horse."

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