Happy Will Rogers Day! The boy who would grow up to become the beloved Cowboy Philosopher was born on this day, November 4, 1879. That year it was Election Day. In 2020, it is merely Aftermath Day.
Rogers’s death day, fifty-five years later on August 16, shocked the nation and elicited an outpouring of grief unlike any yet seen. Nothing could be done to undo the tragic airplane accident, but something could be done to properly remember him. A commission was formed, and Eastern Air Lines general manager Eddie Rickenbacker was chosen to head it up. Rickenbacker was every bit as hard working as Rogers and just as big an aviation booster. (Or, maybe it might be better expressed the other way around.) Yet in personality the two men couldn’t have been more different. Where Rogers was lighthearted and warm, Eddie Rickenbacker, chair of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, was serious-minded and stern. (Well, he had a warm, even soft, side, too.)
After the tragic Post/Rogers plane crash but before his assignment as chairman, Rickenbacker put out a statement, as did all public figures of the day. “The passing of Will Rogers and Wiley Post affects me deeply,” he wrote. “Will Rogers was a friend aviation can ill afford to lose.” He had “probably accumulated more hours in the air than any other layman.” [Rickenbacker, Aug16, 1935]
Two months later, Rickenbacker made a more formal statement of the Memorial Commission’s progress. It would erect “no cold shaft of marble” for “this warm, friendly man,” he wrote, after waxing poetic: “Will Rogers was a laughing man. He laughed himself and he made an entire nation laugh. His memory is wreathed in smiles–smiles that trickled through the tears of his passing.” [Rickenbacker, Nov 2, 1935]
In fact, Rickenbacker had reason to remember Rogers less than fondly. Five years earlier, late one night in September, 1930, a drunken Rickenbacker stumbled over the railing of his second-floor balcony and fell twenty feet onto the lawn below. Adelaide and a maid were needed to carry him into bed. They tried to keep the mishap under wraps, but word got out and reporters came knocking. Rickenbacker explained the fall as a result of sleepwalking, an ailment that had plagued him since the war. (He said.) The excuse fooled no one, least of all Rogers, who quipped memorably, “Captain Eddie shouldn’t go to bed without a parachute.” [Lewis 304]
The work of directing the Will Rogers Memorial Commission while running a major airlines was daunting even for Iron Man Eddie. At Christmas, he took an extended vacation to Europe. In Germany, with his whole family along, he sat down with former fighter pilots Herman Goering and Ernst Udet, who, he said, fairly burst with pride at all they had accomplished since the last time the three had met in 1922. (“…they wanted to awe me and show me they had something better than I had–and they did have, too.” [Life Story, vol. 2, 556]) But this is another story.
L. David Lewis spent a career and a good part of a lifetime researching and writing the definitive biography of Eddie Rickenbacker. He included two epigraphs. The first, from Rickenbacker, was an obvious choice: the famous quote about cheating the old grim reaper oftener than any man living. The second, from Will Rogers, seems at first glance a curious inclusion. “This thing of being a hero,” Rogers said, “about the main thing to it is to know when to die. Prolonged life has ruined more men than it ever made.” [Lewis, vi]
What’s up with that?
The answer is all there in the book. Get to know the man Lewis limns, and the meaning becomes clear. If Rickenbacker had not survived the Pacific ordeal, he would have been lionized in death even more than he was in life. The polarizing figure he became would not have returned to sour the way he would be remembered.
Conversely, if Rogers had lived, his homespun style might well have passed out of style. Signs were already evident that he was falling out of touch. (See “nigger spirituals”–times 4–on NBC’s “Good Gulf Show,” 1933, and the reaction to it. [Gragert, 451-460) If he had survived into post-war America his brand of humor might have been politely tolerated, rather than actively sought. More to the point, “knowing when to die,” appears not to have been enough for Rogers. He is hardly better remembered today than Rickenbacker. Neither man makes much impact on the Millennials’ consciousness.
Still, Rogers was right, I think. And Lewis was, too, in including it as the second epigraph for his subject. It’s just that historical memory is not that same as hero adulation.
Gragert, Stephen K. and Johansson, M. Jane. The Paper of Will Rogers: The Final Years, Volume Five August 1928-August 1935. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Rickenbacker, Edward V. Statements, August 16, 1935.
Rickenbacker, Edward V. Broadcasts, vol. 1, November 2, 1935.