Advanced Search
Ben Yagoda
Ben Yagoda
Will Rogers: A Biography
ISBN: 0806132388
Will Rogers: A Biography
Ben Yagoda discussed his book "Will Rogers: A Biography," published by Alfred A. Knopf. The book examines the life and career of the famous political satirist. Mr. Yagoda also discussed the research he conducted in preparing to write the book.
Will Rogers: A Biography
Program Air Date: September 25, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Ben Yagoda, who was Will Rogers?
BEN YAGODA, AUTHOR, "WILL ROGERS: A BIOGRAOHY" Well, for one thing, when he died in 1935, he was described by Joe Robinson, the majority leader of the Senate as "America's most famous private citizen and probably its most beloved private citizen," which was one of the things that struck me when I started doing research for this book -- how incredibly famous and popular he was at the time, and how today, especially before the broadway musical "Will Rogers Follies" was such a success, he was more or less forgotten.
LAMB: When was the first time you ever thought about Will Rogers?
YAGODA: It was probably sitting in a movie theater when the ushers came around jingling the cups for the Will Rogers Foundation, which actually has nothing to do with him or his family. That was one of the first things I found. The foundation was started after his death in '35, which was such a shock. Will Rogers is known for his charitable work. This foundation started. They asked the family if they could use the name. The family said yes, and they've been going on ever since. But I really didn't know much about him at all. Up until I started the book it was sort of a name, an image of somebody throwing a rope or a lariat and, of course, his two famous quotations, "I never met a man I didn't like," and "All I know is what I read in the papers." That was it.
LAMB: I now remember the movie thing. It was just not normal for them to pass buckets around to get money in a movie theater. What was the purpose of that?
YAGODA: Well, they still do it. It's certain periods of the year, maybe twice or three times a year. The motion picture and entertainment industry put their support behind this foundation that collects money for medical research and they allow the theaters to be used as fund-raising venues.
LAMB: How did you go about finding out about Will Rogers?
YAGODA: Well, my biggest and best resource was a place called the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, which was near his birth place. He was actually born in Oologah, Indiana Territory, now Oklahoma. But he always claimed that Claremore was his birth place because he said people couldn't pronounce Oologah. But at this Will Rogers Memorial, which is a combination museum and library, are deposited all his papers, all his letters, all his notes. He kept voluminous notes. He was an entertainer on the vaudeville stage in the Ziegfeld Follies for years and years, and he would write down comedy routines draft after draft after draft, and they're all there.

When I was first contemplating writing the book, I took a trip out to Oklahoma to see what was there and there was a notebook and my eye spotted it. It said "letters to Will Rogers from famous people." I was flipping through it, and there were letters from Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a friend of his, Calvin Coolidge, Bernard Baruch, people like that. And there was a letter from Charles Lindbergh who, it turned out, was also a friend of his. Will Rogers in the 1920s was the number one proponent of aviation in the country. He was just an incredible enthusiast. When he died, ironically in an airplane crash, it was estimated he had logged more miles than any non-pilot in the country. Anyway, Lindbergh had written him this letter in 1929. He said, "Dear Will, I'm glad to see that you're riding the airlines. I hope you keep out of single-engine planes at night." Knowing how he had died, this just came as a shock. I had read other Rogers biographies. This quote was not in any of them. I said there's great material here, and the more I looked into him, the more fascinating he became to me.
LAMB: It may be an odd way to do an interview about a book on a man's life, but let's start at the end. You've got this picture right here of a single-engine plane. What year did he die and how did he die?
YAGODA: The year was 1935 and he was with a man name Wiley Post, who you might find a photo of in there as well, who was one of the most famous aviators of the day, next to Lindbergh probably the most famous. Wiley Post had established the record -- not only record, he was the first man to fly solo around the world, which was one of the greatest feats, if not the greatest, in the history of aviation to this day. He was a one-eyed aviator. He was known by his trademark eyepatch. Born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, and Will Rogers being from Oklahoma, they had a bond. They'd been friends for some years. Will Rogers, one of the things that drove his life at the time was he wrote a daily column that was in 400 newspapers around the country, including the front page of the second section of the New York Times. He was the first signed columnist the Times had, and its only columnist for a long time. He wrote a daily column of a few paragraphs and then a weekly column, a much longer piece. He had a need to fill that with material. You know, there was only so much that he could generate out of his head, so he would go on trips. He loved to travel, but part of the reason to go on trips was just to gain material for his column.

Wiley Post at that time was trying to explore possible air links between the U.S., Alaska and Siberia for air mail routes. He needing funding for his trip. Will Rogers was very rich, had plenty of money, loved aviation, so it seemed like a perfect match. He'd always wanted to see Alaska. So they went up there and they toured the state, the future state, for some weeks. Then finally they were going, only for Will's column to gather material, to go up to Point Barrow, which is the northernmost point in the Western Hemisphere. There was a man there, an old trader and trapper who Will thought would be great material.

So they took off from Fairbanks, I believe. Then Wiley got lost. It was a cloudy day. He couldn't spot the coast where they were. They landed beside a lagoon that was only a few miles away from Point Barrow. They found an Eskimo there, and you see some Eskimos in that photograph. Gave him directions to Point Barrow. They took off, and after the plane took off, it immediately turned around and crashed, killing both men instantly. The cause of the crash is still not known for sure. The two most plausible explanations are, number one, he simply ran out of gas and the engine failed. They'd been traveling all day. And number two, that the carburetor froze because of the conditions, that maybe when they landed they turned the engine off and didn't allow it to warm up in time. But in any event, it crashed and both men were killed instantly.
LAMB: He was what age in 1935?
YAGODA: He was 55 years old, soon to be 56.
LAMB: You refer in the back and acknowledgements to a couple of his sons that cooperated with you on this. Are they still alive?
YAGODA: One is. One of the sons, Will Rogers Jr., died about a year ago, shortly before the book came out. He was a wonderful man, a great help to me.
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
YAGODA: He was, I believe, 81. He had had a varied career. He had been a congressman -- which was ironic considering that Will Roger's best cracks were directed at Congress -- a newspaper publisher, a TV personality. His son Jim, who's younger than Bill Rogers, is still alive, and he's a retired rancher in Bakersfield, Calif.
LAMB: How much time did you spend with both of them?
YAGODA: Well, I had very productive interviews with both, interviews of, oh, I'd say, four to six hours. The really wonderful thing that they did was they allowed me to use all of Will Rogers's published and unpublished writings, which had never been really used before in any biography, especially the letters he wrote to his future wife when they were courting in the early part of the century. Just wonderful, wonderful letters. The Rogers' sons, who control the estate, allowed me to use that as much as I wanted.
LAMB: Before you got into doing this book, what were you doing for a living?
YAGODA: I had been a freelance journalist. I'd been a movie critic for the Philadelphia Daily News. I'd been a staff editor at several magazines. I felt the time had come to really write that book, and I pretty much lucked into what I found out to be a perfect subject.
LAMB: Where do you live?
YAGODA: I live in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
LAMB: What's happened to you since this book came out? It's been a while since the book came out.
YAGODA: The book came out approximately a year ago. Well, since I finished the book, I've started teaching journalism at the University of Delaware, and that's now my full-time job, which is interesting to be on the other side of the coin -- instead of doing it, teaching it. That's been very good, and I continue with my freelance magazine writing and I'm looking for another book. It's tough to find one that matches up to this as a subject, though.
LAMB: On the back of this book it says "Will Rogers for President," and it starts off -- and these are your words, I gather -- "Newspapers started promoting a Rogers candidacy in 1931." How?
YAGODA: Will Rogers in his column had become an extremely important political voice in the country. There was a article at the time that was written wherein a Washington politician was quoted as saying, "We could never have another war in this country unless Will Rogers is for it." He was humorous, but he was also serious. He was both. There's no real parallel today that I can think of. People like Molly Ivins are somewhat close. He said things in a humorous way, but he had a very strong point of view. He was read by 40 million people every day. They would pick up the newspaper at the breakfast table, read what Will Rogers had to say, and a lot of people didn't know what they thought about an issue until they read what Will Rogers had to say.

In 1928, the old humor magazine Life -- not the picture magazine, but this was humor magazine -- had run "Will Rogers for President." It was a joke. Robert Sherwood, who was the playwright, was the editor then, and it had been his idea to kind of poke fun at the political process, like Pat Paulson on the "Smothers Brothers Show," to run Will Rogers for president. The funny thing was that many people didn't take it as a joke. Henry Ford for one, who was a friend of Rogers, wrote in to say, "Hey, let's take this seriously. Rogers would be much better than who we have in the White House now." There wasn't any real groundswell at the time. However, in 1932, the Depression had hit two years earlier. There seemed to be no way out of it. The traditional solutions seemed to be not getting us anywhere. Only a couple years later, Huey Long, who was in some ways a similar figure, a populist figure who wasn't from traditional politics, would really seriously take the idea of running for president.

So people started saying, "Why not Will Rogers?" He was a humanitarian. He'd gone on relief tours to help out people suffering from drought. Several newspapers put him up as a candidate. The governor of Texas endorsed him. Some Democratic groups in various states said, "He's our candidate, too". There was a real groundswell of support, so much so that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and with this country being in such a bad state and Herbert Hoover running again, it was a pretty sure thing that the Democrats would win. As I said, FDR was a longtime friend of Will Rogers. He wrote him a letter, in essence saying, don't run. You're a lifelong Democrat. "Don't do anything to make the donkey chase his own tail" was the way he put it. He didn't say in so many words "don't run," but the meaning was clear.

Of course, he really didn't have to worry. Rogers never gave any serious thought to that. He valued his freedom. He was making close to a half million dollars a year from his column and from his movies. He was also the biggest movie star in Hollywood in 1933. He was voted the number one box office attraction in the country by the nation's theater owners. So the President at that time made much, much less than that, if only for the financial loss. But he just knew, he was wise enough and smart enough to know that he wasn't cut out to be a politician, so he never gave any interest or encouragement to the idea.
LAMB: At the end of your introduction you list a whole bunch of people that you say are really Will Rogers, that he'd have to be a little bit of each of these people. They include: Johnny Carson, Roy Rogers, Clark Clifford, Walter Cronkite, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Russell Baker, H. Ross Perot and James Reston. Let me just test you on a couple on these. Why was he like Roy Rogers? Who's still alive?
YAGODA: Yes, and I talked to him when I wrote in the book. Roy Rogers is called Roy Rogers because of Will Rogers. He wasn't his son or related. Do you know what Roy Rogers real name is?
LAMB: Well, I read it in the book.
YAGODA: OK, I won't test you. Leonard Sly. He was in a singing group called the Sons of the Pioneers and met Will Rogers at a charity benefit, was so taken by him, was so impressed that when he had a movie contract a few years later, they said, "Well, you can't be Leonard Sly. We'll name you Rogers. You'll be Leroy Rogers." "Leroy, I don't like -- Roy." Well, Roy Rogers I stuck in partly because of that connection, but partly because of the folksiness, the down-home cowboy aspect. That was a big part of Will Rogers's persona, was the cowboy. When he first started in vaudeville -- there you see the photographs of him in his vaudeville years. That was taken in 1905 when he first started in vaudeville. He was a rope spinner. He was known as the cowboy rope spinner, so it was a big part of him.
LAMB: Why did you pick this for the cover or did you?
YAGODA: It was not my choice, but I think it's brilliant. One of the things I liked about it was that the image that we all have of Will Rogers is much like the one that's on the paperback edition of the book of him as an older man. That's the image we see again and again and again. But Will Rogers as a young man was this very handsome, dashing figure. It was just a fresh kind of image. But he had that cowboy persona to him. He actually was a cowboy. His father was a wealthy cattle rancher in the Indian Territory. Will worked on the ranch. He worked on a Texas ranch for six months on a cattle drive, so he came by that legitimately.
LAMB: Now, how was he like Clark Clifford, and who was Clark Clifford?
YAGODA: Clark Clifford was the man famous as the advisor-friend to presidents from Roosevelt or Truman on to the present day. Will Rogers, unlike just about any commentator, especially humorous commentator, that I know of, had incredible access. He was very good friends with FDR. His best buddy in Washington was a Texas congressman named John Nance Garner who, after Will was his friend, became speaker of the House and then vice president under Roosevelt. He was friends with Joe Robinson, the majority leader. He would come to Washington three or four times a year from his home in California, just drop his bag in Garner's office and just prowl through the corridors of Congress. There you see a photo of Will and John Nance Garner on Garner's Texas ranch. He had a ranch that grew softshell pecans. Will Rogers said he's broken many a tooth on Garner's softshell pecans. So he had incredible access to the corridors of power.
LAMB: John Nance Garner's famous quote, "The vice presidency ...
YAGODA: A bucket of warm substance he said it was worth. That was his quote.
LAMB: The one that they often quote in newspapers is that it's no better than a bucket of warm spit. I had noticed you had another version of it in the book.
YAGODA: Right.
LAMB: How about Walter Cronkite?
YAGODA: Well, I put Walter Cronkite in there. And, of course, in that list I was using a little hyperbole, because in poll after poll Walter Cronkite comes out as the most trusted person in America, and Rogers had that quality. That's why people supported him for president. They really felt they could trust him.
LAMB: Johnny Carson?
YAGODA: Johnny Carson is -- and Jay Leno I'll add to that as well -- a very strong parallel. Carson and Leno will come out every night, have these very pointed political jokes about what happened the day before, exactly what Rogers did in his daily column. As I said, it came out every day. He would comment on the previous day's news with a very funny point. In fact, I've seen Leno or Carson tell a joke and say, "Hey, Rogers told that joke 70 years ago about a different person." You know, they're not stealing, but there's only so many ways you can make fun of a politician's inanity.
LAMB: Can you go somewhere and find all of his jokes?
YAGODA: Yes. Oklahoma State University -- not all of his jokes, but all of his columns, all of his published writings. Oklahoma State University put out a 20-volume edition, and that to me was an invaluable resource in doing that book.
LAMB: What does it cost to buy that?
YAGODA: Probably $25, $30 a volume, so whatever the arithmetic is, several hundred dollars to get every one. A true Will Rogers fan, I guess, would have his complete works.
LAMB: You also list James Reston, Bill Cosby, Russell Baker and H. Ross Perot.
YAGODA: Yea, Perot I stuck in there. I also wrote a little bit in the introduction about the similarities between Rogers and Ronald Reagan. When I was researching the book, I requested former President Reagan's office for an interview. In watching Rogers's movies and newsreels and watching Ronald Reagan, there's an eerie similarity. Will Rogers was famous for starting sentences with "well," the word "well." He tilted his head the way Reagan did. There was the same kind of geniality to him. I was convinced that he was important figure for Reagan. Of course, when Reagan was growing up in the '20s and '30s, Rogers was all over radio, movies, etc. He didn't grant me the interview. But also in that political sphere when I was writing the book was Perot, where there are also similarities. I mean, they were from the same part of the country. Rogers, one of his political feelings was a strong distrust for Wall Street. He hated borrowing money, being in debt in any way, similar to Perot. You know, my personal feeling is that Perot's witticisms and one-liners are a little studied and rehearsed and part of an image campaign. Rogers, I think, came by them a little more naturally. But still there were a lot of similarities to Perot.
LAMB: You say at some time during his life he didn't write his stuff, his column.
YAGODA: Actually that's a little misleading. The striking thing was just how much of it he did write or how little of it he didn't write. These 20 volumes, I tried to figure out how many words, somewhere between two and three million words. Basically he wrote every one. What he didn't write were his movies. He made 20 movies through the Fox, later 20th Century Fox, Company between 1929 and '35, and they were done by screenwriters. The only other example that I found, and I'm not conclusive on this, was I talked to Morey Amsterdam, who's. of course, the famous comedian on the "Dick Van Dyke Show."
LAMB: Still alive?
YAGODA: Still alive, as far as I know. When I talked to him, he was very much alive. He said that he met Will Rogers when he, Morey Amsterdam, was a 15- or 14-year-old cello player-comedian, comedian-cello player, on a charity bill in Los Angeles in the early '30s. They got to be friends, got to talking and that occasionally Rogers would show Amsterdam one his columns and say, "What do you think about this?" Amsterdam might suggest an improvement or occasionally he might submit a gag or two. That's, of course, Amsterdam's testimony, and I don't say it's true or not true. That's just what he says. But that's the only indication that any word that was published under Rogers's name was not written by Rogers himself.
LAMB: When I was reading your book talking about the fact that he had 40 million readers a day and that he had a lot of money that he was making -- I think at one point before the Depression $180-some thousand a movie?
YAGODA: Right.
LAMB: That was a lot a money then.
YAGODA: Yes, he was making close to half a million dollars a year.
LAMB: It led to today, trying to compare it with people you see today, besides the ones you mentioned. How would he fit in the Rush Limbaugh role?
YAGODA: I kind of purposely left Rush Limbaugh out, although there are parallels. I mean, they were both incredibly popular commentators on a grassroots level. I feel that Limbaugh . . .
LAMB: Was he as political as Limbaugh is today?
YAGODA: In content, absolutely. That was his main subject in his column, was politics.
LAMB: Was he funny?
YAGODA: He was funny. He was humane. He was never mean-spirited, never bitter. He could be pointed and sharp, but the reason why he was so beloved was that his basic humaneness came through everything he wrote.
LAMB: You've read about his visit to a dinner one night with Calvin Coolidge, and when the aide wrote a book later on, he had some negative things to say about him. What was that about?
YAGODA: The details are not that fresh in my memory. So many things Will Rogers did -- the movies, the column, the radio -- there were no ratings then, but he had a weekly show in the early '30s that was probably the second-highest rated show after Amos 'n' Andy in the country. It was on Sundays, and churches reported downturns in attendance when he was on. The other thing he did, and he sort of pioneered, in the late '20s was the lecture circuit. He went on a one-man show around the country. It's sort of more common today. In fact, people like James Whitmore go on a one-man show as Will Rogers. But he was one of the first to do that, and he would go to six or seven cities a week and do a show. He'd just sit on the stage. Well he'd start off standing. The show would be two and a half, three hours long, and at the end, he'd just be sitting on the edge of the stage dangling his legs and say, "Go on home, I'm sick of looking at you," to the audience.

But, anyway, one of the sort of set pieces and high points was the account of his night at the White House with Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge. After his trip to Europe in 1927, he had been invited to spend the night at the White House. He gave this comic rendition of it, saying that he arrived and the train had been delayed and he was really impressed that Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge waited dinner for him, using that colloquialism, that they delayed dinner for him, just like any American household and described some of the conversations they had and got a lot of comic mileage. A few years later, actually probably 15 or so years later, the man who had been Coolidge's sort of aide-de-camp but more of a butler or a major-domo at the White House and was for many presidents came out with a book.
LAMB: Hopkins
YAGODA: Was that his name? He said, "Well, no, they didn't wait dinner for Rogers. It was all exaggerated." He seemed to still carry a chip on his shoulder after all those years. I think Rogers was using a little poetic license in his description of the visit.
LAMB: Under the acknowledgements you say, "More than likely what drew me to write about a good man was having a good man for a father." How is that?
YAGODA: Well, pretty much what I said. As I told you before, when I started off on Rogers, I didn't know anything about him, just these couple of quotations. As I got more and more into it, I was more and more fascinated. On the one hand, just because of all the things he did and represented, things about America, things about the media culture of the 20th century, things about his background, having grown up in Indian Territory, a quarter-blood Cherokee, his father having fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, as many Cherokee did. And then moving on through vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, silent movies, the talking pictures, American humor, he just seemed to represent so much. So that was one of the things that excited me about the book. But another that kept me going with it and that sort of was a bit of a deeper appeal, I also need to quote a line. One of Rogers best friends was the actor Joel MacRae, the movie actor who died actually about two or three years ago. I was not able to talk to him, either. But he in another interview had said, "There's a word for Will Rogers. That word is glory. He lent a little bit of glory to everything he touched."
LAMB: This is family right here.
YAGODA: Yes, that's his wife Betty, his younger son Jim, who's still alive, his older son Bill.
LAMB: Jim on the far left?
YAGODA: Yes. And his daughter Mary, who died about four or five years ago. MacRae said he lent a little glory to everything he touched, and, you know, that's a pretty big statement. But as I went through the book, researching it, reading his writings, I got a sense of what he felt, that he was this decent, humane, good-hearted, good-spirited man. There are a lot of people like that, my father being one. But what's rare is being able to communicate that as well as he did to as incredibly wide an audience as he did. That to me is the real accomplishment of Will Rogers.

He hated people who talked about what Americanness was, what being a true-blue American was. He hated people who posed and made portentous statements about how great they were. But somehow in his subtle way he was able to communicate those values in just a masterful way. As I said in the book, I think one of the things that drew me to that was the example my father, who unfortunately died before the book came out. But he just had that same kind of decency, and he told me about remembering reading Will Rogers's columns in the '20s and '30s and enjoying them at the time.
LAMB: Where was your father living when he died?
YAGODA: In New York City. When he died he was living in New Rochelle, N.Y., where I grew up, but he was a young man in New York City at the time.
LAMB: Is our mom still alive?
LAMB: Still live there?
YAGODA: Yes, in New Rochelle.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
YAGODA: I went to high school and the public schools in New Rochelle, and then onto Horace Mann School in the Bronx, N.Y., a private school. Graduated from Yale with a B.A., and I got a master's degree in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.
LAMB: What year did you get out of Yale?
YAGODA: In '76.
LAMB: Why did you study at the University of Pennsylvania?
YAGODA: Well, as I said before, I was a freelance journalist and you've probably talked to a few freelance journalists over the years and know a little bit about the hardships of that endeavor. So at that time I had the idea -- I had done teaching at Temple University on adjunct basis -- said, I would like to do this full-time. Here's a way that I can continue my writing but also have a steady position, support, colleagues, and be able to communicate what I know how to do and maybe help out some young people. So it just occurred to me that the way to pursue that goal would to be get an advanced degree. So I did this later in life. I went to school part-time at the University of Pennsylvania, was able to defray a little of the cost because my wife works there at Penn. It still was expensive. I chose American Civilization just because, as you can tell from the book, that's where my interests lie. Even though I planned to teach journalism, it seemed that I should get a degree in something that really interested me, so that was the story of that.
LAMB: What was your biggest feeling about Will Rogers or surprise after the book was finished compared to what you thought going into it?
YAGODA: Really, I found this out fairly soon after starting, how incredibly famous and popular he was. It's a puzzling thing. He was described, I think, in some length, the position he had at the time, and he was really at the height of his popularity when he died in 1935. But there was I growing up in the '60s, '70s, never hearing hardly anything about him except when they came along in the movie theaters asking for donations. I still puzzle over that a little bit.
LAMB: Can you see his movies easily? Do they pop up on movie channels?
YAGODA: No, and that's one of the reasons for it. I don't know why this happened, but 20th Century Fox, which owns the rights to his movies, when television started buying up films in the '50s, 20th Century Fox didn't sell the Rogers films. I don't know whether that was because TV wasn't interested or they didn't want to sell them or they were holding out for a better offer or what. So as a result, with the exception of one of his films which went into the public domain, "Judge Priest" directed by John Ford, one of his best films, films were not shown on television at all. That's a big reason.
LAMB: Still aren't?
YAGODA: For the most part, yes. Two or three years ago, Fox put out four of the films on videotape: "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," which he made one of the versions of; "Mr. Skitch"; and one or two others. So they're now out there -- the rest still aren't. Another thing that happened was, he died in 1935. He was so much a part of his times, just for the fact that his column every day was commenting on that day's events. But more than that, he was really a creature of his times. All of a sudden, the world changed so rapidly. There you see him with his buddy, FDR. They're at a rally in 1932. On the far left was Roosevelt and then his son, I believe James, Sen. W. G. McAdoo from California and James Farley, the postmaster general; Will Rogers cracking up FDR. All of a sudden things changed so much. World War II happened, and the revelations about the Holocaust and what was going on, the atomic bomb. It was just such a radically different world that somehow Rogers didn't seem relevant anymore and became somewhat forgotten, certainly for those who hadn't experienced him.
LAMB: I thought it might be interesting to read a little bit of this telegram that he sent FDR after his election. Was that the election in '32?
YAGODA: Right, right.
LAMB: If you've got it, too, you can join in on this exercise. I know when I read it, it said a lot of things about what he thought, I guess, about politics.
YAGODA: Absolutely. A little bit about politics, a lot about public relations. When I read this over the years, this telegram, which I think is a remarkable document, it occurred to me more than once that Bill Clinton could use somebody to give him a telegram.
LAMB: Well, you've got it there. Why don't you go ahead and read it?
YAGODA: He sent this several weeks after Roosevelt won in a landslide and Roosevelt was at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he went for the healing waters for his polio. He sent him this telegram and he said -- and stop me if I've gone on too long here -- he said, "I didn't wire you on your election because I knew you wasn't reading any of them anyhow. Now that all the folks that want something are about through congratulating you, I thought maybe a wire just wishing you could do something for the country when you get in and not wishing anything for me. Well, I thought the novelty of a wire like that when it was backed up by the facts might not be unwelcome. Your health is the main thing. Don't worry too much. A smile in the White House again -- by the way, when was the last one -- why, it will look like a meal to us. It's the biggest job in the world but you got the most help in the world to assist you. Pick you some good men. Make them responsible for their end. If Europe don't pay up" -- and that was about the debts from World War I that were still owed to us by European nations -- "well, fire your secretary the Treasury and get one that will make them pay. If people are starving and your granaries are full, that's your secretary of Agriculture's business, is to feed them. If Nicaragua" -- even then a hot spot -- "Nicaragua wants to hold an election, send them your best wishes but no Marines. Disarm with the rest of the world but not without it. And kid Congress and the Senate; don't scold them. They're just children that's never grown up. They don't like to be corrected in company. Don't send messages to them, send candy. Let your secretary of State burn up the notes that come from Europe. Don't you have to attend to a little thing like that. Europe's not going to do what they've threatened to do. All those things are just something to give diplomates an excuse for existing. Keep off the radio until you've got something to say, even if it's a year. Be good to the press boys in Washington, for they're getting those merry-go-rounds every few weeks now. Stay off of that back lawn with your photographers unless you got a Helen Wills" -- the tennis star -- "or your fifth cousin, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Nothing will kill off interest in a president quicker than weeklies with chambers of commerces and women's political organizations. Now, if some guy comes running into your office telling you what Wall Street was doing that day, tell him, 'Wall Street? Why there's 115 million of my subjects that don't know if Wall Street is a thoroughfare or a new mouthwash. Its happenings don't interest me.' Why, governor, you can go in there and have a good time. We want our president to have some fun. Too many of our presidents mistake the appointment as being to the Vatican and not to just another American home."
LAMB: A lot of times you see misspelled words and clumsy English. On purpose?
YAGODA: Well, yes, in the sense that he didn't know any better. In other words, he didn't affect it. There were rumors that spread when Rogers around that he really had an Oxford education and was just putting on that cowboy pose. Not true. He never actually graduated from high school. His father, who, as I said, was a wealthy rancher, sent him to very good schools, but Will never got along with school and he left school before graduation in high school to become a cowboy in Texas. So he didn't have a lot of learning, never mastered punctuation, capitalization, spelling, nothing. Early in his writing career, copy editors would clean up that stuff, put in the correct spelling and correct punctuation, until wisely his editor said, "No, don't do that. That's part of what makes Will, Will." So it was not a put on. Later in his life he got so fed up with capitalization that he got a typewriter that had only capital letters on it, so the question of a capital or a lower case letter would never come up. But it wasn't an act. That was him.
LAMB: Mussolini?
YAGODA: That was Will Rogers's probably biggest bad call. When he toured Europe in 1927, he had a meeting with Mussolini. Even then Mussolini was a controversial character. It wasn't as clear that he was a force for evil in the world as it later became. He was still controversial. He had usurped powers and was on his way to becoming a dictator.
LAMB: What's this picture right here?
YAGODA: That is a photograph that Mussolini inscribed to Will Rogers. It's of Mussolini horseback riding, jumping over a bar. It says "Al Senor Rogers," to Senor Rogers, "complimente," compliments of Mussolini, "28th Maggio," of May, 1926. But Rogers -- to my mind one of his weak spots was that he had a kind of liking for dictators. He had one quote to the effect that as long as the dictator makes the right decision, there's nothing wrong with him. Well, you know, to our ears today, that sounds like really off the mark. I think that was a legitimate criticism I have of Rogers. One of the reasons why he liked FDR so much was his strong presidency. He tried to take powers away from Congress. Rogers liked that. He just didn't like Congress. He didn't like the endless posturing debates back and forth.

A lot of his criticisms were well-taken. But as a commentator, he often went back and forth between wanting to be taken seriously, take positions on issues of the day and almost retreating into comedy, making statements almost tantamount to, "Well, just kidding." He never really wanted to go out on a limb except in rare instances. When the Depression happened, that was one of them. He was so outraged by that that he felt government should take action. For the most part, he would often retreat to comedy. His comments about dictators, about Mussolini, is an example of that, where he didn't really want to follow through. He wanted that safety net of being a comedian and a humorist.
LAMB: Did he ever consider behind the scenes running for office?
YAGODA: Absolutely not.
LAMB: Never?
YAGODA: No. Certainly not that I found any instances of.
LAMB: His son, Will Rogers Jr., ran what year? Do you remember?
YAGODA: I believe he ran in '42, '40 or '42. In '40 it was. In '42 we were in the war. He did not run for reelection and enlisted in the armed services. After the war, he ran in the Democratic primary for Senate in California. The seat, I believe, that Richard Nixon eventually won. Will Rogers Jr. lost in the primary and didn't get to run for senator.
LAMB: I'm confused with the images of James Whitmore and Will Rogers Jr. and Will Rogers. But did I see growing up Will Rogers Jr. on television?
LAMB: Doing what?
YAGODA: Well, he's done a lot of things. He was a commercial spokesman. He was the first host of the program that CBS put on as competitors to the "Today Show." In the mid-1950's, the "Today Show" had been popular at NBC. CBS started one, which now they have still but intermittently has been on the air. He was the host of it. He also, for a period in the '70s, worked in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington as a statesman. So he did a lot of different things.
LAMB: Now Claremore, Oklahoma, where is it?
YAGODA: It is about 20 miles outside of Tulsa.
LAMB: What's the facility look like if somebody were to go there and visit? Can they get in?
YAGODA: Oh, absolutely. It's one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state of Oklahoma, thousands and thousands of people. It's a wonderful museum with memorabilia from Rogers's career. They show these movies. They have the videos of them that can't been seen anywhere else. There's dioramas and posters from his movie career, and there's a recreation of his office the way it looked -- that he worked at in California.
LAMB: How popular is the place?
YAGODA: Very popular. In the peak of the summer, hundreds and hundreds of people come in every day. The other place that's open to the public is his ranch. He called it his ranch. He wrote in his column once, "We call it a ranch. It isn't really one, but that don't do any harm." It's called that, where he lived in Pacific Palisades, Calif., near Santa Monica. Because after Will Rogers died, most of his money, pretty much all of it, he put into real estate -- much of it mortgaged, a lot of taxes. When he died, that income was cut off, and although he did have life insurance, it left his family with having to pay those taxes, pay those mortgage payments.
LAMB: This photo is of, it's just a . . .
YAGODA: No that's not it actually. That's his previous home in Beverly Hills. That was his first home in California. There's a couple of shots of the Santa Monica place in the book. But when he died, his widow and his family had to pay the upkeep, mortgages and taxes and didn't have the resources to do it, so they made an arrangement that after Mrs. Rogers's death, it would be donated to the state of California as a state park, and it's been kept up and restored exactly as it was when the Rogers family lived there. It's just a beautiful location. That's some shots of it. The top is the living room with that picture window that was donated by Flo Ziegfeld, Will Rogers's old boss in the Ziegfeld Follies.
LAMB: How do you donate a picture window?
YAGODA: "Donate" is probably the wrong word. He paid to have it installed and built. There was no picture window at first and Flo Ziegfeld was visiting and said, "You have this beautiful view. You have to have a window. I'm going to pay to have a window installed."
LAMB: This photograph right here we showed earlier, it seemed to me a lot about what you wrote about exemplifies the way wrote his columns.
YAGODA: That's right. That's his old, I forget what kind of car it is.
LAMB: LaSalle.
YAGODA: LaSalle, exactly. He would drive to the movie studio. That was his job then, making movies. He would go to Fox every day. But before he could do his scenes, he had to write out his daily column that was due every day. It was due at the Western Union office at 2, so shooting could not start until Will Rogers had done his column for the day. They gave him this fancy dressing room in the southwestern motif. It was more than a dressing room; it was a bungalow. In fact, it still exists. Not to digress from a digression, but I was on a talk show in California, and I was talking about this bungalow he had, beautiful southwestern style, that he spent no time in. Somebody called up on this call-in radio show and said, "I'm sitting in it right now." It's still on the Fox set. It's the production center for "The Simpsons." So Will Rogers's former dressing room was still around now being used for "The Simpsons."
LAMB: What's your reaction to the reaction to the book. You've had a year now to see how this book did.
YAGODA: Very heartening. One of the things that I found -- and I didn't realize it, although I said my father had read Will Rogers -- I only found that out after I started talking about doing the book -- he didn't talk about it much as I was growing up -- but many people who are in the age of 30s up to 50s came from families where Will Rogers was revered. Even though these people now didn't remember him -- they were very young or hadn't been born yet when he died -- they remembered it, and now when this book came out they wanted to find out about him. They still remembered all the talk about Will Rogers from when they were kids. Then older people, people who were, say, 70 and up, remember Will Rogers personally. They remember him on the radio, in the movies. It's been fascinating talking to them about their reactions to the book and their memories of Rogers.
LAMB: Can you tell us how many hardbacks sold?
YAGODA: Approximately 16,000 were sold.
LAMB: How's the paperback doing?
YAGODA: It's actually being released just as we speak.
LAMB: What's it cost?
YAGODA: It costs $14.
LAMB: Do you expect a better sale of the paperback than the hardback?
YAGODA: You know, Brian, I don't know how that works. I figured that it's about half the price, so that will induce more people. However, the real Will Rogers fans probably went out and bought the hardback.
LAMB: The hardback is still in the bookstores.
YAGODA: I don't know.
LAMB: Yes, it is. What I'm holding I bought in the bookstore.
YAGODA: Good. So I need a fancy spreadsheet to plug in those things. But my guess it'll be probably about the same. That would be my guess.
LAMB: Page 286 in the hardback, I wrote down "political philosophy" because it seems to be a whole page, one thing after another about what he stood for back then. "Pro income tax and anti-tariff, he doggingly stuck up for the farmers whom he correctly saw as getting the blunt end of Republican economic policies of the '20s."
YAGODA: Right. It was a little hard to extract, but he had a fairly coherent political philosophy. I called it neo-Jeffersonian, because it was in favor of the farmers.
LAMB: What's anti-bunk?
YAGODA: Anti-bunk? Well, that means just against -- you know what bunk is.
LAMB: But wasn't that his political party?
YAGODA: That was his political party in 1928 when they ran him as a gag. It was the Anti-Bunk Party. He was a populist. He distrusted big business. He distrusted Wall Street, as I said before. He hated speculation of any kind.
LAMB: I'm reading from where you said, "He felt consumer buying on credit and stock market speculation, both of which reached unprecedented proportions by the end of the decade, was something close to a evil that he correctly felt would end in disaster."
YAGODA: Right. All through the '20s, he was talking about how stock market speculation was a bad thing, credit was a bad thing. He was looking at that not as a real economic thinker but as sort of his moral philosophy. He didn't like the idea of speculation. The stock market crashed, the Depression came, seeming to prove him right.
LAMB: "His skepticism about the efficacy of the League of Nations and the World Court and the succession of international conferences held in the '20s and '30s qualified him as an isolationist."
YAGODA: Yes, he was an isolationist. Unlike other people called isolationists, he really was consistent. He opposed U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua, places like that, as well as being anti-League of Nations. It's interesting to speculate what position he would have taken into the late '30s and early '40s as World War II was starting to brew. I really wouldn't even hazard a guess.
LAMB: You start right off in the beginning about these two most famous comments. "All I know is what I read in the papers," and, "I never met a man I didn't like." Is that true? Where did he say that?
YAGODA: Both of them he said many a time. In fact, even when he was alive, they were his trademarks. The folks at the Will Rogers Memorial, Pat Lowe the librarian there has come up with a list of eight occasions where he said a variant of "I never met a man I didn't like." Actually the way he phrased it was, "All I know is just what I read in the papers," which isn't grammatical but is a little bit more effective. He wrote an early magazine column for Life. That was the heading for it. And then later in his weekly column, he would start off every column with that sentence and then go on from that. That's a little easier to discuss. That was an exaggeration, but not much of one. He read about 10 newspapers a day. He loved newspapers. He would go through one after another. Didn't care for books. He said "too many adjectives in them." But he loved newspapers, and it was just a sort of declaration of intellectual modesty. You know, he's not going to put on airs.
LAMB: On the "I never met a man I didn't like," you said the first time he said it was in a meeting with Leon Trotsky or around that meeting?
YAGODA: Yes. On his tour of Russia -- I guess it was 1926 -- he tried to meet Trotsky, who was the figure after Lenin's death who was most famous to Americans, although he said that he heard a bird from the Caucasus named Stalin was really running the show. But he tried to meet Trotsky and was not allowed to do it. He said, "Well I wish they had because I've talked to all people of public life all my life, and I never met one that I didn't like." I've spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what he meant by that. Because it was certainly not true. It was not literally true. There were people didn't like. Partly it was hyperbole.
LAMB: Who didn't he like, do you remember?
YAGODA: Well, Warren G. Harding for one.
LAMB: Didn't like him personally?
YAGODA: Well, yes. Not that he was associated with him that much, but Harding stood him up. He was supposed to come see a show that Rogers gave, and he didn't come because he was miffed at some comments Rogers had made about him in a previous night's show and in his column. When Harding wasn't there, Rogers addressed the audience and said, "Well, I never met a big man who couldn't take a joke on himself," not mentioning Harding but making it perfectly clear who he meant.
LAMB: I don't know if you remember the Harold Ickes story? This is the same father of the Harold Ickes who's in the White House now?
YAGODA: That's right, the father who was the Interior secretary under Roosevelt. I don't think Rogers had anything against Ickes, but he had a problem with spelling, as we said, and also pronunciation. There was a dam then called Ickes Dam being built. Rogers called it "Ikeys" Dam. Apparently Harold Ickes could not stand it. He blew up when he heard his name mispronounced that way. I came upon an oral history that one of his aides gave, and it said that when Ickes heard that, he just blew up and wouldn't have anything to do with Rogers ever again for the rest of his life.
LAMB: Do you have another book in mind?
YAGODA: I have a few. None have been crystallized. As I said, I feel that I found such a wonderful subject here, I haven't been able to find one that lives up to it. Then again, one of the reasons why it took me so long to find this, all the good subjects have been taken, it sometimes seems. So it's been tough finding another one, but I'll be there.
LAMB: What would Will Rogers be like today in this society and what can you learn from what you've learned about him for today's modern writer, politician, personality?
YAGODA: That's a tough one. That really is. I hope you've saved that for last because I don't know.
LAMB: You mean you hope we run out of time?
YAGODA: Yes, right. Cut me off right in the middle as I'm stumbling around here. I hope this isn't a cop-out, but I think that question is not answerable, at least the first part, what he would be like today, because I feel the times are so different. You know, you read that list of people -- Clark Clifford, Johnny Carson, Bill Cosby, Walter Cronkite -- that I said would have to be a combination to be Will Rogers today. Part of that was because he was such a remarkable person that he did so many things. Part of that is that the times have changed so much. The '20s and '30s were the last time when someone could adopt that many roles. The society is fragmented today so, you know, Michael Jackson is a record star. Well, that's what he does. Occasionally you might cross over to one other medium. But Michael Jackson is the king of pop; Rogers was the king of movies, the king of newspapers, the king of radio, the king of the lecture tour, the king of politics. It just couldn't happen today.
LAMB: You dedicate this book for William Van Rogers and for Gigi?
YAGODA: Gigi's my wife, and she deserves that dedication. William Van Rogers was the man known Will Rogers Jr. It wasn't technically Will Rogers Jr. because Will Rogers Sr. had a different middle name. It's interesting that you should mention that now because it ties it with that other point. Will Rogers Sr. was such a remarkable person. In a very odd way, his three children each inherited a different aspect of him. His daughter was an actress, was on the stage. His son Jim loved horses, as Will Rogers did, and became a rancher. His son Bill inherited several things, his interest in politics, interest in writing and literature -- he was a great appreciator of literature -- and also a real decency and goodness. That was why I dedicated the to him. He carried -- and Jim, too -- the two of them really carry that torch of Will Rogers in a way that was very inspiring to me. So unfortunately, as I said, he died before the book came out.
LAMB: Where did you write the book?
YAGODA: Up in my office in my home hunkered down behind my computer.
LAMB: What time of the day do you like to write?
YAGODA: It's not a question of preference because I have these two kids that have kind of squeeze the two ends.
LAMB: How old?
YAGODA: Now 3 and 6, but as the book was being written, you know, 3 and 0, 4 and 1 and so on. I squeeze four, five, six hours in the middle of the day, 9 or 10 to 4 or something like that.
LAMB: On a scale of easy to hard, where do you come in on that for writing itself?
YAGODA: For this book?
LAMB: Just you as writer. Is it easy for you to write or hard?
YAGODA: It depends on what I'm doing. I wouldn't say this book was easy but once I got the material, it was so good, and the structure, which I find usually the hardest thing of writing, the broader structure was there. It was the chronology of his life. If I had finished writing about 1912, I'd say, "Oh, God, what do I do now?" Well, 1913. It's right there. I try not to just do "and then this happened and then that happened," but the chronology was built in. So I would come up and I'd see where I stopped the day before and I would try to advance the story a little bit, make it readable and try to provide some insights about what was going on in the culture. But it was not like Red Smith said about writing -- you know, opening a vein and letting the blood out. It was more pleasant than that.
LAMB: This is what the cover of the book looks like, at least the hardback version. "Will Rogers" is the biography, and our guest has been Ben Yagoda. Thank you very much.
YAGODA: Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.