Americans struggling through the Great Depression didn’t have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to provide a nightly lampooning of the rich, powerful and foolish, but they did have Will Rogers. “I am not a member of any organized political party," he famously observed, "I am a Democrat.”
Born in the Territory of Oklahoma in 1879, Rogers became a working cowboy. In about 1900, he assembled a circus act that performed roping tricks, and took it to New York City theaters, where he headlined in vaudeville for a decade. He started touring nationally, offering witty commentaries on the news, and he began a syndicated "Daily Telegram" which soon ran in 500 newspapers. (His columns are collected here.)
By early 1932, Rogers was traveling around the world, mostly by air. “Believe me,” he told the New York Times, “a birdseye view is all one wants to take of most of Asia. We think we have our troubles back home, but Asia is all trouble. There is nothing humorous there; it is mostly misery.”
Still, visiting a Chinese general proved memorable: “He made me eat from 9pm til 1am with chopsticks. That didn’t bother me so much because I’d never learned to eat with a fork. All I had to do was jump from knife to chopsticks, with none of this fork politeness business to bother me. You mustn’t get too set in the ways of one civilization if you want to slip into another civilization in a hurry."
Rogers’ telegrams also made serious points, and he argued repeatedly that the U.S. should avoid international tangles. From London: “I would like to stay in Europe long enough to find some country that don’t blame America for everything in the world that’s happened to them in the last 15 years -- debts, depression, disarmament, disease, fog, famine, or frostbite.”
From Paris: “Flying to Berlin in the morning to see the country that there has been so much talk about saving. I can’t see the difference nowadays when a country has been saved and when it hasn’t.”
And on the steamship to New York: “We are pulling in a day late. Even the oceans have depressions.”
Visiting Washington after his arrival, Rogers met with Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson and discussed the war in Asia. The Japanese “figured on taking Shanghai for lunch and it’s been seventeen days and they haven’t got it yet. Had a fine visit with Mr. Dawes and his money loaning gang. J.P. Morgan and eighteen international bankers were in line ahead of me to get in. But the whole place here has a spirit of better feeling. Anyhow, the corpse is showing life."
Rogers was having a pretty good Depression, by the way. The New York Times reported that his Hollywood contract guaranteed him $60,000 annually, in addition to an amazing $3,000 per week for his columns. Not funny money.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors Professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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