Bonnie & Clyde live on in Texas-sized infamy
By Jennifer M. Aguilar
As the adage goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” But once in a while, history reveals a story too bizarre and unsettling to let Hollywood have all the credit. That is certainly the case when it comes to Bonnie and Clyde, two of Texas’ most notorious criminals, and in an even larger sense some of its most famous residents.
And while their story is hardly what would be described as “good” in the moral sense of the word, it is certainly one that has fascinated both moviegoers and history buffs for decades now. What many may not realize, though, is that theirs is a story penned largely in North Texas. Yes, Dallas is the city where the infamous pair met, but the duo left a trail of heartache, and at times admiration, throughout much of North Texas during their 1930s crime spree. So even though many of the buildings they visited, homes they hid in, and even banks they robbed have since been torn down in the near-century since they were killed, it is clear to see the infamous duo of Bonnie and Clyde has left an indelible mark across the Metroplex.
Though the pair had grown up and gallivanted all across Texas and the south, their trail was just starting to grow cold, decades after their deaths, when Warren Beatty brought renewed interest to both their story and small town, Texas. He did so by choosing to film the now legendary movie he directed, simply yet aptly called Bonnie and Clyde, in small towns like Lavon, Greenville and Pilot Point, the likes of which weren’t used to seeing A-list actors like Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and of course Beatty himself.
Though the 1967 film went on to win two Academy Awards and accolades for ushering in a new, more complex era for cinema, it was initially met with harsh criticism, including a pretty terrible review in The Dallas Morning News. And many of the complaints centered around the unprecedented violence depicted in its
closing scenes, and perhaps the notion that the entire film was glamorizing a couple that had left over a dozen dead victims in their wake.
Yet unlike some cinematic embellishments, the hard-to-watch finale of the film was drawn straight from real life, namely their bullet-ridden final moments in a stolen Ford (a car that was gifted by Beatty to a local wax museum, by the way, and one that still acts as a tourist attraction, though it now lives at a casino outside of Las Vegas).
In many ways the pair’s story is much like that car, incredibly marred by violence, and yet somehow revered all the same. Their entire legend centers around mixed emotions, as well.
Were they modern-day Robin Hoods for Depression-era farmers, many of whom had been displaced by the banks? That was how they were often portrayed in newspapers at the time, since they released many of their victims, and even sent them home with cash for their travels, in many cases.
Or, were they money-hungry psychopaths who found in one another an excuse to become increasingly violent? They certainly left a string of bodies and heartbroken family members in their wake.
Like so many stories, the truth behind the tales of Bonnie and Clyde probably lies somewhere in the middle. Yet in many ways at this point, over 80 years since their demise, the truth might not matter as much as the legend, itself.
That seems to be the consensus in North Texas, at least, as most cities are proud of their part in the Bonnie and Clyde story, both the truth and the fiction.
Still photographs from the filming give the tiny town of Lucas infamy even now. The October 20, 1966 issue of The Wylie News shows Wylie saddlemaker Billy Joe Rogers photographed with Beatty and Dunaway outside the Lavon Cafe. He played an extra in what is now viewed as the classic and game-changing film.
Many North Texas cities received shout outs in the film, itself. Mesquite, Arden, and Denton are all mentioned by name. And one of Clyde’s opening monologues about all that Bonnie deserves is completely Dallas-centric. He appeals to her by promising to get her a nice dress to wear to the Adolphus Hotel!
And since Beatty chose Pilot Point to do much of the filming, thanks to its well-preserved small town charm, the city has continued to celebrate its role in the film, as well as the notoriety Bonnie and Clyde lent to both its city and what might have otherwise been a forgotten part of history.
Back in 2010 the city founded Bonnie & Clyde Days to help highlight what it was actually like to live in Texas during the Great Depression, while simultaneously cementing the role the pair played in the town’s own checkered history.
Organizers touted the fact that local residents claimed to see the couple buying groceries in the town during their crime spree. Some even claim they may have hidden in the woods near Pilot Point while on the run from the law.
Again, it seems, the truth might be less important than the legend that surrounds Bonnie and Clyde, a trail that somehow lends prominence to everywhere they went, and robbed, and apparently even grocery shopped, because that is how powerful their lure remains, to this day. It’s also why the city has since declared Bonnie & Clyde Days an annual event that draws visitors to its charming Denton County square.
Of course, the pair’s gruesome true stories are still readily shared as well. Grapevine framed a copy of a newspaper discussing the couple and its ties to the city, and presented it during a City Council meeting. The University of North Texas proudly offers a Clyde Barrow Gang Collection, as part of their digital libraries. It’s even one of their most searched, and therefore most popular, collections to date.
Even the refined and affluent city of Southlake has noted Bonnie and Clyde’s infamous ties to its city, which proved to be particularly impactful. That’s because it was in the town that is now Southlake where two State Troopers were shot and killed, one on his first day on the job. And even though the Southlake Historical Society readily acknowledges that eye witness accounts vary about who actually shot the men, whether it was Bonnie and Clyde or a rogue member of their gang, those murders were what finally seemed to sway popular opinion against the pair.
Almost overnight, they went from being famous burglars that farmers were more apt to protect than the police, to heartless killers who needed to be caught at any cost, which is precisely what happened, only a short month later.
After they were gunned down, their bodies were brought back to Texas. And though they requested side-by-side burial plots, their families had different ideas. Bonnie Parker’s mother, who had never approved of her relationship with Clyde Barrow, had her daughter buried in the Fishtrap Cemetery, while Clyde was buried beside his brother, in the Western Heights Cemetery.
His family did grant him one last wish, though. His headstone bears the simple words he had personally requested for his epitaph, “Gone but not forgotten.” And that is certainly the case for both Clyde and his notorious sweetheart, Bonnie.
Separated by death and space, but never in stories. And despite all the devastation the two caused, all these years later, theirs is a story that keeps being revisited and retold. In so many ways, their ill-fated romance remains revered, and their names, if nothing else, will continue to live on, together, in Texas-sized infamy.