The Real Story Of Bonnie And Clyde

Three quarters of a century ago Saturday, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow took their final bullets. But their fame was just beginning. They'd be immortalized in books and movies, most notably in the 1967 film. Biographer Jeff Guinn tells host Jacki Lyden they were nothing like the glamorous couple played on the big screen by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(Soundbite of movie "Bonnie and Clyde")

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Ms. FAYE DUNAWAY (Actress): (As Bonnie Parker) Hey, what's your name, anyhow?

Mr. WARREN BEATTY (Actor): (As Clyde Barrow) Clyde Barrow.

Ms. DUNAWAY: (As Bonnie Parker) Hi, I'm Bonnie Parker. Pleased to meet you.

LYDEN: Seventy-five years ago today, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, in a stolen V8 Ford, drove out of Gibsland, Louisiana and straight into history.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

LYDEN: Their lives may have ended on that dusty highway, but Bonnie and Clyde live on as two of the most famous criminals to capture the public imagination.

Jeff Guinn is the author of the new book, "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde." He's with me from KERA in Dallas, and that's kind of appropriate because it's in Dallas, right, where the two of them grew up, met and fell in love?

Mr. JEFF GUINN (Author, "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde"): Just across the river from here, in fact.

LYDEN: Jeff, tell me about their childhoods growing up in the Depression era.

Mr. GUINN: Bonnie and Clyde came of age in the slum of West Dallas across the Trinity River from Dallas itself, and it was one of the worst slums in all of America. They not only had nothing growing up, but it was clear to them they'd never have anything because this was an era in America where law-abiding poor people remain just that - poor.

LYDEN: So they kind of topped into that seething of Depression-era rage. I mean, they were creatures of their context as Depression heroes because they took control of their lives in a certain way when other people couldn't.

Mr. GUINN: One of the very ironic things about the whole Depression is that when it arrived, the poor people in Texas didn't even know that things had changed at all. But in the Depression, when Bonnie and Clyde made the conscious decision that they would, in fact, live as criminals from there on out, their timing was perfect and that they started doing these things at the exact moment so many Americans saw banks as the enemy, the government as the enemy and wanted any kind of entertainment to take their minds off their troubles, and the media fed into this, and in a sense, Bonnie and Clyde became the first two modern icons created by the media in America.

LYDEN: I want to talk about that sense of glamorous creation a little bit because a lot of people today, I believe, when they think of them at all, do think of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the 1967 movie, and you couldn't have a more glamorous pair of people. We all know the reality has to be a lot different from that.

Mr. GUINN: Well, the movie is wonderful entertainment, but it's less than five percent historically accurate.

Bonnie and Clyde did not emerge sort of as full-blown, glamorous figures, suddenly driving around the country holding up banks. They very rarely tried to hold up banks because they were two of the most inept criminals who ever pulled a gun. Most of their burglaries were committed in mom-and-pop grocery stores and filling stations along the back roads.

LYDEN: These people are from another era. Do they still exert what you might call a romantic pull on us today?

Mr. GUINN: They do, and the reason they do, if we examine their lives as a story, then it has everything: young kids rebelling against authority, there's the Romeo and Juliet thing, true love, and think they're really mostly interesting to us finally because of the way they die in this bloody, graphic, ambush when, essentially, they're blown, in the words of one of the deputies during the shooting, into a pile of wet rags.

Would they have been as interesting to us if, let's say, they'd surrendered meekly that day, got long prison sentences and came out sort of bent, worn-out old people? No, I don't think so. You had to have the great supposed tragedy and the drama of their deaths, and that's why, in various forms, the story's held us ever since. It's been 75 years, and yet thousands of people still troop out to look at their graves every month.

LYDEN: Jeff Guinn. He's the author of "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde."

Thank you very much.

Mr. GUINN: Thank you.

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