This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
PUBLIC COWBOY, NO. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry
by Holly George-Warren, ©2013
Oxford University Press, 2007
(From Radio Recall, June 2013)
This is probably not the book that this
Hollywood cowboy expected when he opened all
his personal papers, business records, contracts,
correspondence, fan mail, photos, news clippings,
and reams of other personal archives. Nor did he
suspect what over 100 of his close friends, work
associates, lovers, and enemies would tell this
biographer about him.
The research for this detailed biography took
Holly George-Warren over 17 years and Autry
was deceased by the time it was published in
2007. It is a fascinating examination of a terribly
flawed icon's life and career, revealing all the
moral weakness that this celluloid cowboy which
his agents successfully concealed during his
lifetime. Autry's triple obsessions (money, women,
and alcohol) are documented in this book with
The author has a strong background in the
Hollywood western. Ms. George·Warren is a
adjunct professor at State University of New York
and an award·winning writer, editor, and expert on
western films and music.
On September 29, 1907 he was born Orvon
Grover Autry in Indian Creek, TX, not in nearby
Tioga, TX as he would always claim. His widowed
mother had become the third wife of an alcoholic
ne'er-do-well , Delbert Autry. She thought she had
given her son the first name of "Orvin" but it was
mis·spelled in county records and became 'Orvon'.
Gene Autry (his professional name as an
adult) did not mind his unusual first name, but he
hated his middle name, Grover. He spent most of
his life trying to either conceal it or drop it. After he
became successful. he simply lied.about it. For
example on a radio interview with Bing Crosby in
1948 the two discussed their birth names. The
crooner confessed his true name as Harry Lillis
Crosby, white the cowboy lied, claiming his birth
name as Orvon Eugene Autry.
He grew up as an industrious lad and had a part·time job at age six, trying to help support his
mother as his father was usually in jail. Autry
dropped out of high school and never went back,
having found sufficient jobs to occupy his time.
His childhood quests to earn money (to support
himself and his famity) became a lifelong
obsession that eventually propelled him into multi·
millionaire status. Despite his wealth, or perhaps
because of it, he remained kind and generous,
donating thousands to charity, and always willing
to hand over $ 100 to a down-on·his·luck former
After a series of part-time jobs in Oklahoma,
(where his mother had temporarily moved her
family) and then back to Texas, Gene obtained
what would become his long·term, full time job as
a railroad clerk for the Frisco Line Railroad. He
got training as a telegraph operator and in that
role, would labor for several years, while trying to
launch his singing career in his spare time.
One of the most popular myths about Autry is
how his singing career was jump·started by Will
Rogers. According to Gene's tale, he was
strumming his guitar during a slow time at the
railroad station in 1928, when Will Rogers passed
by. Hearing Autry's slnging, Rogers supposedly
advised the young man that he was so good he
should be singing on the radio. According to Autry,
he took Rogers' advice and the rest is history ...
(well, not exactly.)
George·Warren traced down every possible
avenue to verify Autry's story and there is no
evidence that the incident ever happened.
Moreover. there is no evidence that the two men
ever met. Although this supposed event occurred
in 1928. Autry never mentioned it until 1937, two
years after Rogers was killed in a plane crash in
1935. Dead men tell no tales. nor can they refute
the boastful lies of others.
The author traces in detail Autry's early
successes, first as a part-time radio singer in
Texas and Oklahoma, primarily station KVOO in
Tulsa about 1928, when he took the professional
name of Gene Autry. By 1930. he had recorded a
few songs with some success and had become
part of the regulars on station WLS in Chicago,
where he was billed as "The Oklahoma Yodeling
Cowboy." WLS did not pay their radio periormers
very much, but they sent their stars out to nearby
towns tor personal appearances which bolstered
their small salaries.
While touring for WLS, Autry met a devout
Christian Science woman, Ina Mae Spivey, in
1932. They fell in love and were married four
months later. They would remain married until her
death six decades later and were apparently
happy, despite his countless affairs with other
Autry's mother died in May 1932, leaving three
youngsters with no parental support; their father
was in jail ... again. Without hesitation, Autry
brought his two sisters and a little brother to
Chicago where he and his new bride would raise
them. This would be the only parenting that Autry
and Ina did, as they were childless due to Gene's
sterility from childhood mumps.
Rushed with their success at WlS, Autry and
radio buddy, Lester ·Smiley" Burnett headed for
Hollywood, where they received small roles in
their first motion picture, "In Old Santa Fe". The
Aulry luck prevailed; cowboy star Ken Maynard
backed out of a planned chapter serial,"The
Phantom Empire" and Autry was rushed into the
He was soon being groomed as Hollywood's
singing cowboy and only two things stood in the
way of his western film stardom. He couldn't ride
a horse and he couldn't act. Autry eventually
overcame that first obstacle but he never
developed any acting ability. Fortunately, his
singing and his personality were sufficient in
those dozens of B·pictures that made him
The B-pictures also provided him with access
to a continuing rotation of leading ladies, many of
whom ended up in his bed. Autry made a point of
telling every potential conquest that his childhood
mumps made it impossible for him to sire a child.
Whether this was an incentive for them to join him
on the "casting couch" cannot be verified but
apparently few declined his propositions.
A close associate of Autry's once asked him if
it was true that he had made love to all his leading
ladies. His answer was both honest and arrogant:"Well, hell, yes, I felt owed it to them."
When WW II broke out, several of the he-man
cowboy stars (including John Wayne and Roy
Rogers) would find a way to duck military service.
Autry, patriotic to the core, not only enlisted but
volunteered to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps.
Despite his age (nearly 40) his courage and
enthusiasm steered him into dangerous flying
missions in the Burma region.
While he was on active duty, his radio show
("Melody Ranch"), his recording careers and his
movies were all on hold. It was during the war that
Autry developed his third obsession: alcohol. He
had been a moderate drinker before Pearl Harbor
but after frequent evenings in the officers' clubs,.
consuming plenty of booze, he came out of
service as a borderline alcoholic.
Even though his drinking would eventually cost
him his live radio show, there was safety in his
movies and recordings, which he could schedule
when he was sober, so these venues continued to
do weH for him and his bank accounts.
Autry started doing more personal
appearances across the country, allowing him
freedom from his wife's watchful eye so he could
drink more and find more weekend romances.
Many of the latter came from the ranks of his fan
clubs since many girls were willing to come up to
his hotel room so he "could get to know them
George·Warren reviewed fan letters from
several of these girts, one of whom was in Autry's
hotel bed on four separate visits to Chicago. Of
course, other women on the promise of a future
career in the movies, were also willing to be
Despite the untold numbers of women whom
Autry was intimate with, only one of these affairs evolved into a long-time relationship. Gail Davis,
whom Autry installed in the role of TV's "Annie
Oakley," had an affair with Autry that lasted over
eight years. He was 18 years her senior and
although they were married to two other people,
their long-term bedroom romance was never
publicly disclosed in that era. Therefore their
respective successful careers were not affected
by the affair.
While his secret affairs had no bearing on his
popularity or income, his drinking did take his
radio show off the air His contract, with long-time
sponsor, Wrigley's Gum. required a live
performance weekly. For one show, Autry showed
up so drunk he couldn't perform and the studio
aired a transcription disc of a prior program.
Wrigley representatives were very upset and
threatened cancellation if this occurred again. So
the next time Autry showed up in an inebriated
state, necessitating another transcribed show,
Wrigley pulled the plug on the series.
It was not through lack of trying by Ina to "dry
him out" (and she certainly did.) But Autry's
alcohol consumption remained a serious problem,
though unknown to the public, even though the
state of California revoked his driver's license in
1961 for alcohol violations.
His personal appearance tours began to
present difficulties. His associates of that period
told the author that Autry had two drinks before
every performance. If he had three, he started
slurring his songs and if he had four he couldn't
get in .... or out .... of the saddle. Long-time buddy,
"Pat" Buttram, used to joke about wiring Autry in
the saddle so he wouldn't fall off his horse,
Fortunately for Autry, his press agents and
assorted protectors kept his womanizing and
boozing out of the press. Even when his longsuffering
wife kept him briefly at home, away from
those two weaknesses, press releases asserted
that the cowboy star was merely suffering from
"nervous exhaustion." But some of these drinking bouts were more serious and a greater problem
for his enablers to cover up. On more than one
occasion. Autry showed up intoxicated to visit
children in hospitals so medical administrators
cut his visits very short.
Unlike fellow cowboy star, Ken Maynard,
whose alcoholism and womanizing led him to a
lonely death in poverty, Autry's "Midas Touch"
increased his swollen bank vaults over the years.
He made millions, invested wisely in real estate
and the communications industry, and eventually
was the owner of the Los Angeles Angels
baseball team. He was listed in the Forbes List of
Richest Persons ten times between 1983 and
Autry was quite literally a "self-made man" a
high school drop-out who, through determination,
hard work, and luck, made it to the top of the "Super-Rich." Ina occasionally threatened to end
the marriage and leave him with nothing but his
guitar and horse. But Autry out-liived her and then
promptly married a close associate of theirs.
Just as George Burns' daily cigars never
diminished his march to 100, Autry's drinking and
womanizing did not shorten his life span. He died
in October 1998; he was 91 years old.
NOTE: This book is available from most internet
book sellers, including the Gene Autry Museum.
Most libraries also have a copy of it. The Fairfax,
VA Library system has eight copies circulating so
it is easy to obtain.