The most famous outlaw couple in American history could have been “Eleanor and Clyde”. That’s not the way Hollywood tells it. But in reality, long before Clyde Barrow met Bonnie Parker, he had fallen in love with a Southern beauty named Eleanor whose initials were tattooed on his arm. This tidbit and others in the true story of Bonnie and Clyde are revealed in an exhaustively researched new book, Go Down Together.
Seventy-five years after the outlaws’ deaths, author Jeff Guinn delivers an intense but fascinating new look at Bonnie and Clyde that rubs the gloss from the mythos and replaces it with a patina of true grit. Guinn whisks us back to the world that could spawn this kind of legend. “The Devil’s Back Porch” he calls it: the post-World War I American South—dusty, sterile, hopeless and poverty-stricken.
Clyde Barrow’s family lived in a tent city. Bonnie’s family looked to climb the west Texas social ladder until her brick-mason father died and left them broke.
Clyde had originally hoped to form a band; he was a decent musician. Bonnie had aspirations to become an actress or a poet. Instead he turned car thief and she languished as a waitress and prostitute. “Why don’t something happen?” Bonnie wrote in her diary.
It did, at a party where Clyde met Bonnie and they fell in love. He already had a long prison record, which suited Bonnie just fine. If the only way for poor folk to get ahead was to take from rich folk, then Bonnie and Clyde had their joint business plan laid out.
But these two weren’t Robin and Marian, and they certainly weren’t Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway from the 1967 movie. Clyde was short and skinny, Bonnie tiny and worn, and in the last months of their lives both were horribly crippled. At one point, police tracked the Barrow Gang’s car by the trail of bloody bandages left on the highway.
And, as Guinn relates, Bonnie and Clyde didn’t commit many of the acts—particularly the murders—they were accused of. Their crime spree only lasted from spring 1932 to May 1934.
But in the worst of the Depression, Americans ate up accounts of the Barrow exploits as a form of entertainment.
The gang fed the newspapers terrific stuff, including the staged photo of Bonnie holding a gun and smoking a cigar. For folks living hardscrabble lives, the fact that the gang robbed the same bankers who were foreclosing on their farms made the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde even sweeter.
Guinn succeeds marvelously in re-creating the spirit of the times, the desperation of unemployment and financial ruin. It’s a zeitgeist becoming chillingly familiar today, and that gives this book a wallop even Guinn may not have imagined when he started writing it.
The book’s only problem is that it may contain too many details. Guinn, an investigative journalist, is a little too clear-eyed; he could have allowed himself more lyricism in his prose.
But the legend still stands under its own power. Bonnie and Clyde’s death dance is more terrifying told in real time here than it was in the film’s famous special effects scene. And Guinn wisely allows Bonnie to tell of her fate in her own poem. Knowing the law was closing in, she wrote: “Some day they’ll go down together/ and they’ll bury them side by side ... / It’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”