Public Cowboy No.1 The Life and Times of Gene Autry

By Holly George-Warren

Oxford Press, 406 pages, $28

Reviewed by Ken Burke, May 2008

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Gene Autry was the undisputed King of All Media - radio, movies, records, TV and endorsements - long before the title existed. In this exhaustively researched biography, Holly George-Warren chronicles Autry in all his guises: Oklahoma railroad worker, struggling radio singer, recording artist, movie star and multi-millionaire. Her crisp journalistic style showcases a wealth of behind-the-scenes material from every known facet of the singing cowboy's public life, imbuing each chapter with the thrill of discovery.

The author portrays the artist as both driven and shrewd. Indeed, the most compelling chapters detail his business feuds with Republic Pictures, who refused to up his pay when he became their top draw. When a court order forbade him to take the stage, Autry simply paid for a ticket and put his horse Champion through his paces from the seats. Smarter than most Hollywood types, he fiercely protected his image and worked obsessively to stay on top. As his career declined, he drank and had affairs, but cleverly expanded his broadcast empire and co-founded baseball's California Angels.

George-Warren ends her complete coverage of Autry after the early 1960s, when for all intents and purposes, he had stopped being a public cowboy. This stylistic decision allows Autry's persona to ride off into the sunset with his humanity and star power fully intact. Brilliantly researched and annotated, this is an essential work.