It’s surely no exaggeration to call Will Rogers the most beloved American of his era. From the height of the Oklahoma cowboy-philosopher’s popularity in the early ’20s to his death in a 1935 airplane crash, Rogers not only starred in The Good Gulf Show, the second most popular weekly radio program on the air — Amos ‘n’ Andy was first — but was voted the No. 1 box office attraction in Hollywood (having made an effortless transition from silent films to talkies). He also barnstormed from coast to coast as a lecturer and stand-up comic and wrote the nation’s most widely read and most politically influential syndicated newspaper column. To replace him today, writes Ben Yagoda in Will Rogers: A Biography (Knopf), would require ”the separate attributes of Johnny Carson, Roy Rogers, Clark Clifford, Walter Cronkite, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Russell Baker, H. Ross Perot, and James Reston.”
Born one-quarter Cherokee on a ranch in Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1879, Rogers came by his rustic persona honestly. He participated in some of the last cross-country cattle drives in American history, performed a stint as a professional rodeo cowboy, and, in 1905, got his big break in vaudeville as a novelty roping act after New York newspapers publicized his capturing a runaway steer in Madison Square Garden.
But it was the combination of his down-home twang, his caustic wit, and country-come-to-town common sense that made him such a comforting figure to millions of anxious Americans amid the social, technological, and moral upheavals of the ’20s and ’30s. ”If you looked at Will Rogers the right way, you could see Ben Franklin. You could see Davy Crockett. You could see Abraham Lincoln.” Yagoda himself, who teaches English at the University of Delaware, isn’t the most vivid stylist in the world, but this solid, informative biography is clearly a labor of love — and it shows on every page. B+