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Will Rogers

Will Rogers (born William Penn Adair Rogers, November 4, 1879 – August 15, 1935) was an American cowboy, humorist, vaudeville and film actor, and commentator on national and world affairs. He was the leading political wit of the Progressive Era. By 1905 he had introduced vaudeville to his famous rope act. Success in the Ziegfeld Follies led in 1918 to the first of his many movie contracts. After 1920 he merged a writing career with his acting and became one of the foremost wits of the era. He also ventured into radio, crusaded for aviation expansion, and provided Americans with first-hand accounts of his world travels. His uncanny ability to make Americans laugh at themselves earned him the title, "prince of wit and wisdom." His earthy anecdotes and folksy style allowed him to poke fun at gangsters, prohibition, politicians, government programs, and a host of other topics in a way that could be readily appreciated by a national audience, with no one offended. His short aphorisms, couched in humorous terms, provided specific advice for improving self and society. He explained that, "I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat."

His epigrams were a delight:

When I die, my epitaph or whatever you call those signs on gravestones is going to read: "I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I dident like." I am so proud of that I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved. And when you come to my grave you will find me sitting there, proudly reading it.[1]

Early life

Rogers was born on November 4, 1879 in Indian Territory; his parents were members of the Cherokee tribe and came to Indian Territory during the removals of the 1830s. His father, Clement V. Rogers, was a leader within Cherokee society; he served several terms on the Cherokee Senate. Clement Rogers also achieved financial success as a rancher and used his influence to help soften the negative aspects of white acculturation on the tribe. Roach (1980) presents a sociological-psychological assessment of the relationship between Will and his father during the formative boyhood and teenage years. The father had high expectations for his son and desired him to be more responsible and business-minded. Will was more easygoing and oriented toward the loving affection offered by his mother Mary rather than the harshness of his father. The personality clash increased after the mother's death, and young Will went from one venture to another with little success. Only after Will won acclaim in vaudeville did the rift begin to heal, but Clem's untimely death in 1911 prohibited the full reconciliation.[2]

Rogers was a good student and an avid reader of the New York Times, but too restless at home He learned roping, dropped out of the upscale Kemper Military School in Missouri, and became a ranch hand. Wanderlust took him to Argentina in 1901, where he thought all his clever rope tricks would make him a gaucho. They laughed at him and he went to South Africa, where his career as an entertainer began. As the "Cherokee Kid" in Texas Jack's Wild West Show, he toured South Africa; in the Wirth Brothers Circus, he toured Australia and New Zealand.

Vaudeville and Broadway

At this stage Rogers' act was strictly physical, a display of daring riding and clever tricks with his lariat. He discovered that audiences identified the cowboy as the arch-typical American—doubtless aided by Theodore Roosevelt's image as a cowboy. Rogers' cowboy showed an unfettered man free of institutional restraints, with no bureaucrats to order his life. Back in the United States, Rogers worked in several Wild West shows until he discovered that audiences were just as fascinated by his frontier, Oklahoma twang. He transformed from "Ropin' Fool" to "Talkin' Fool" about 1916. He made the big time as a featured star in Ziegfeld's Follies on Broadway. At one performance, with President Woodrow Wilson in the audience, he improvised a "roast" of presidential policies that had Wilson, and the entire audience, in stitches and proved his remarkable skill at off-the-cuff, witty commentary on current events. the rest of his career he built around that skill.

He married Betty Blake on November 25, 1908. They had three sons. Fred, who died in childhood, Will Rogers, Jr., and James Rogers.


Hollywood discovered Rogers in 1918, as Samuel Goldwyn gave him the title role in Laughing Bill Hyde. A three-year contract with Goldwyn, at triple the Broadway salary, moved Rogers west. He bought a ranch in Santa Monica and set up his own production company. He made 48 silent movies, but with the arrival of sound in 1929 he became a top star in that medium. His first sound film, They Had to See Paris (1929), finally gave him the chance to exercise his verbal magic, He played a homespun farmer (State Fair [1933]), an old-fashioned doctor (Dr. Bull [1933]), a small town banker (David Harum [1934]), and a rustic politician (Judge Priest [1934], County Chairman [1935], Steamboat 'Round the Bend [1935], and In Old Kentucky [1935]). His favorite director was John Ford.

Rogers demonstrated multiple skills, and was an indefatigable workers. He toured the lecture circuit. The New York Times syndicated his weekly newspaper column, 1922-35. Going daily in 1926 his short "Will Rogers Says" reached forty million newspaper readers. He wrote frequently for the mass-circulation upscale magazine Saturday Evening Post, where Rogers advised Americans to embrace the frontier values of neighborliness and democracy on the domestic front while remaining clear of foreign entanglements. He took a strong, highly popular stand in favor of aviation, including a military air force of the sort his flying buddy General William "Billy" Mitchell advocated.

Radio was the exciting new medium, and Rogers became a star there as well, recycling his newspaper pieces; his "Good Gulf Show" ran from April 1933 until June 1935


Rogers was a staunch Democrat, but he also supported Republican Calvin Coolidge. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was his favorite. Although he supported Roosevelt's New Deal, he could just as easily joke about it:

Lord, the money we do spend on Government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money twenty years ago.[3]

Rogers served as a goodwill ambassador to Mexico, and a brief stint as mayor of Beverly Hills. During the depths of the Great Depression, angered by Washington's inability to feed the people, embarked on a cross country fund raising tour for the Red Cross.

Presidential campaign, 1928

Rogers thought all campaigning was bunk. To prove the point he mounted a mock campaign in 1928 for the presidency. His only vehicle was the pages of Life, a weekly humor magazine. Rogers ran as the "bunkless candidate" of the Anti-Bunk Party. His only campaign promise was that, if elected, he would resign. Every week, from Memorial Day through Election Day, Rogers caricatured the farcical humors of grave campaign politics. On election day he declared victory and resigned.

Asked what issues would motivate voters? Prohibition: "What's on your hip is bound to be on your mind" (July 26).

Asked if there should be presidential debates? Yes: "Joint debate--in any joint you name" (August 9).

How about appeals to the common man? Easy: "You can't make any commoner appeal than I can" (August 16).

What does the farmer need? Obvious: "He needs a punch in the jaw if he believes that either of the parties cares a damn about him after the election" (August 23).

Can voters be fooled? Darn tootin': "Of all the bunk handed out during a campaign the biggest one of all is to try and compliment the knowledge of the voter" (September 21).

What about a candidate's image? Ballyhoo: "I hope there is some sane people who will appreciate dignity and not showmanship in their choice for the presidency" (October 5).

What of ugly campaign rumors? Don't worry: "The things they whisper aren't as bad as what they say out loud" (October 12).[4]

Aviation and death

Rogers became an advocate for the aviation industry after noticing advancements in Europe and befriending Charles Lindbergh, the most famous aviator of the era. During his 1926 European trip he witnessed the European advances in commercial air service and compared them to the almost nonexistent facilities in the United States. Rogers' newspaper columns frequently emphasized the safety record, speed, and convenience of this means of transportation, and he helped shape public opinion on the subject. Rogers died in a plane crash on August 15, 1935. The plane, piloted by fellow Oklahoman Wiley Post, went down en route to Barrow, Alaska.[5]

Philosophy and style

After Rogers gained recognition as a humorist-philosopher in vaudeville, he gained a national audience in acting and literary careers in 1915-35. In these years, Rogers increasingly expressed the views of the "common man" in America. He downplayed academic credentials, noting, "Everybody is ignorant only on different subjects."[6] Americans of all walks admired his individualism, his appreciation for democratic ideas, and his liberal philosophies on most issues. Moreover, Rogers extolled hard work and long hours of toil in order to succeed, and such expressions upheld theories of many Americans on how best to realize their own dreams of success. He symbolized the self-made man, the common man, who believed in America, in progress, in the American Dream of upward mobility, and whose humor never offended even those who were the targets of it.[7]

America in the 1920s was disenchanted and alienated from the modern world. Rogers seemed to many an anchor of stability; his conventional home life and "old fashioned" morality reminded people of an innocent past. His newspaper column, which ran from 1922 to 1935, stressed both "old" morality and the belief that political problems were not as serious as they sounded. In his films, Rogers began by playing a simple cowboy; his characters evolved to explore the meaning of innocence in film. In his last movies, Rogers explores a society fracturing into competing classes from economic pressures. Throughout his career, Will Rogers was a link to a better, more comprehensible past.[8]

In 1926, the high-circulation weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post financed a European tour for Rogers in return for the publication of his articles. Rogers made whirlwind visits to numerous European capitals and met with both international figures and common people. His articles reflected a fear that Europeans would again go to war, and thus he recommended that the United States should assume an isolationist posture. He reasoned that for the moment American needs could best be served by concentrating on domestic questions and avoiding foreign entanglements. He commented:

America has a unique record. We never lost a war and we never won a conference in our lives. I believe that we could without any degree of egotism, single-handed lick any nation in the world. But we can’t confer with Costa Rica and come home with our shirts on.[9]

Rogers was famous for his use of language. He effectively utilized up-to-date slang and invented new words to fit his needs. He also made frequent use of puns and terms which closely linked him to the cowboy tradition, as well as speech patterns from the southern dialect.[10]

Rogers symbolized the American Democrat with his ability to move freely among all social classes, to remain above political parties, and to observe fair play. Second, he represented the American Adam with his independence and self-made man image. Third, he stood as the American Prometheus with his respect for the utilitarian and his optimistic faith in progress.[11]

Famous quotations

The average citizen knows only too well that it makes no difference to him which side wins. He realizes that the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey have come to resemble each other so closely that it is practically impossible to tell them apart; both of them make the same braying noise, and neither of them ever says anything. The only perceptible difference is that the elephant is somewhat the larger of the two.[12]
Every guy just looks in his own pocket and then votes. And the funny part of it is that it's the last year of an administration that counts. [A president] can have three bad ones and then wind up with everybody having money in the fourth, and the incumbent will win so far he needn't even stay up to hear the returns. Conditions win elections, not speeches.[13]
I bet any Sunday could be made as popular at church as Easter is, if you made 'em fashion shows too. The audience is so busy looking at each other that the preacher might as well recite Gunga Din.[14]
. Mother's Day, it's beautiful thought, but it's somebody's hurtin' conscience that thought of the idea. It was someone who had neglected their mother for years, and then they figured out: I got to do something about Momma. And knowing Momma was that easy, they figured, “we'll give her a day, and it will be all right with Momma.” Give her a day, and then in return Momma gives you the other 364. See?[15]
One sure certainty about our Memorial Days is that as fast as the ranks from one war thin out, the ranks from another take their place. Prominent men may run out of Decoration Day speeches, but the world never runs out of wars. People talk peace, but men give up their life's work to war.[16]
Thanksgiving Day! In the days of our founders, they were willing to give thanks for mighty little, for mighty little was all they expected. … Those old boys in the Fall of the year, if they could gather a few pumpkins, potatoes and some corn for the Winter, they was in a thanking mood. But if we can't gather in a new car, a new radio, a new tuxedo and some Government relief, we feel like the world is agin us.[17]


  1. 1930, in Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) pp. 166–67
  2. Fred Roach, , Jr. "Will Rogers' Youthful Relationship with His Father, Clem Rogers: a Story of Love and Tension." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1980 58(3): 325-342. Issn: 0009-6024
  3. Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) p. 20.
  4. James E. Combs and Dan Nimmo, The Comedy of Democracy (1996) pp 60-61
  5. Fred Roach, Jr. "Vision of the Future: Will Rogers' Support of Commercial Aviation." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 340-364.
  6. Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) p. 119.
  7. James M. Smallwood, "Will Rogers of Oklahoma: Spokesman for the 'Common Man.'" Journal of the West 1988 27(2): 45-49. Issn: 0022-5169
  8. Peter C. Rollins, "Will Rogers: Symbolic Man, Journalist, and Film Image." Journal of Popular Culture 1976 9(4): 851-877. Issn: 0022-3840
  9. Peter C. Rollins, "Will Rogers, Ambassador sans Portfolio: Letters from a Self-made Diplomat to His President." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 326-339. Quote from Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) p. 177.
  10. Bruce Southard, "Will Rogers and the Language of the Southwest: a Centennial Perspective." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 365-375.
  11. William R. Brown, "Will Rogers and His Magic Mirror." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 300-325.
  12. 1928, from Gragert, He Chews to Run, p. 1
  13. Sterling and Sterling, Will Rogers' World p. 84.
  14. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks
  15. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks
  16. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks
  17. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks



  • Ketchum, Richard M. Will Rogers: His Life and Times, 1973.
  • O'Brien, P. J. Will Rogers, Ambassador of Good Will Prince of Wit and Wisdom. (1935) online edition
  • Robinson, Ray. American Original: A Life of Will Rogers. (1996). 288 pp. online edition
  • Rollins, Peter C. Will Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood, 1984. 282 pp.
  • Sterling, Bryan B., and Frances N. Sterling, Will Rogers' World (1989),
  • Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) excerpt and text search

Scholarly studies

  • Brown, William R. "Will Rogers and His Magic Mirror." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 300-325.
  • Coleman, Timothy S. "All We Know of Nation Is What We See in the Pictures: Will Rogers and the National Imaginary in 1920's and 1930's America." PhD dissertation, Wayne State U. 2003. 183 pp. DAI 2004 64(12): 4245-A. DA3116488 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Jenkins, Ronald Scott. "Representative Clowns: Comedy and Democracy in America." PhD dissertation Harvard U. 1984. 208 pp. DAI 1984 45(4): 1187-A. DA8416931 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Roach, Fred, Jr. "Will Rogers' Youthful Relationship with His Father, Clem Rogers: a Story of Love and Tension." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1980 58(3): 325-342. Issn: 0009-6024
  • Roach, Fred, Jr. "Vision of the Future: Will Rogers' Support of Commercial Aviation." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 340-364.
  • Rollins, Peter C. "Will Rogers: Symbolic Man, Journalist, and Film Image." Journal of Popular Culture 1976 9(4): 851-877. Issn: 0022-3840
  • Rollins, Peter C. "Will Rogers, Ambassador sans Portfolio: Letters from a Self-made Diplomat to His President." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 326-339. *Smallwood, James M. "Will Rogers of Oklahoma: Spokesman for the 'Common Man.'" Journal of the West 1988 27(2): 45-49. Issn: 0022-5169
  • Southard, Bruce. "Will Rogers and the Language of the Southwest: a Centennial Perspective." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 365-375.

Primary sources

  • Gragert, Steven K., and M. Jane Johansson, eds. The Papers of Will Rogers (5 vol 1996-2006)
  • Gragert, Steven K., ed., Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers (1983).
  • Gragert, Steven K., ed. "He Chews To Run": Will Rogers, Life Magazine Articles, 1928. (1982). 133 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (1926) online edition
  • Rogers, Will, and Joseph H. Carter. Never Met a Man I Didn't Like (1991) excerpt and text search
  • Rogers, Will. Will Rogers at the Ziegfeld Follies. ed. by Arthur Frank Wertheim, (1992). 288 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Will Rogers' Weekly Articles. Vol. 1, The Harding/Coolidge Years, 1922-1925. ed. by James M. Smallwood, (1980). 431 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Will Rogers' Weekly Articles. Vol. 2: The Coolidge Years, 1925-1927. ed. by Steven K. Gragert, (1980). 368 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Will Rogers' Weekly Articles. Vol. 3: The Coolidge Years, 1927-1929. ed. by Steven K. Gragert, (1981). 304 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Will Rogers' Weekly Articles. Vol. 4: The Hoover Years, 1929-1931. ed. by Steven K. Gragert, (1981). 278 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Will Rogers's Daily Telegrams. Vol. l, The Coolidge Years, 1926-1929. ed. by James M. Smallwood, 1978. 453 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams. Vol. 4, The Roosevelt Years, 1933-1935. ed. by James M. Smallwood, (1979). 457 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. Convention Articles of Will Rogers. ed. by Joseph A. Stout, 1976. 174 pp.
  • Rogers, Will. The Writings of Will Rogers. Volume 3: Illiterate Digest. ed. by Joseph A. Stout, Jr., 1974. 230 pp. online edition
  • Rogers, Will. Autobiography (1948), ed. by Donald Day; 410pp; online edition
  • Rogers, Will. Rogers-isms: the Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference, (1919). Online at Project Gutenberg
  • Sterling, Bryan B., and Frances N. Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks: Over 1,000 Timeless Quotations for Public Speakers (And Writers, Politicians Comedians, Browsers) (1995).

Films and videos

  • Will Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 (Life Begins at Forty / Steamboat Round the Bend / Doubting Thomas / In Old Kentucky) (DVD 2006)
  • Will Rogers Collection 2 (Ambassador Bill / David Harum / Mr Skitch / Too Busy to Work) (DVD 2006)
  • Will Rogers' 1920s: A Cowboy's Guide to the Times (1976), documentary produced by Peter Rollins
  • Will Rogers: Look Back in Laughter (1987), HBO documentary