Bonnie Parker, gun-toting girlfriend of trigger-happy Clyde Barrow, didn’t smoke cigars; she wrote poetry. The title of investigative journalist Jeff Guinn’s latest book, Go Down Together, is taken from one of Parker’s poems, the haunting “The End of the Line,” in which she predicts death at the hands of “the laws.” Guinn, who has previously written fictional musings about Santa and Mrs. Claus, now takes on a more nitty-gritty topic: the desperate, violent and short lives of Bonnie and Clyde.
This meticulously researched and cleanly written narrative, which draws upon family memoirs, letters, diaries, historical documents, interviews and the most definitive books done by Barrow historians to date, effectively strips away the romantic fancies fed to the American public about Bonnie and Clyde over the last 75 years, especially those in the 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Guinn’s superior investigation of his subject, focused through an objective lens, blends almost seamlessly with skillful pacing and appropriately placed tension–storytelling at its best.
Clyde and Bonnie were both from the wrong side of the tracks in Dallas: poor, uneducated and trying to survive, along with their extended families, the devastation of the Depression years. Before they met at a party on January 5, 1930, Bonnie was unemployed and hoping for fame and glory as a poet, or as a Broadway starlet. Then she met Clyde, well-dressed but not tall or particularly handsome, someone who “liked making all the decisions.” Petite, feisty Bonnie fell immediately in love and the attraction was mutual. Clyde, who barely had a high school education, started out with odd jobs, supplemented his meager income with stealing chickens, then, influenced by his big brother, Buck, graduated into car theft (the Ford V-8 was his favorite, and he even sent Henry Ford a complimentary letter extolling the virtues of the car).
From 1930 to 1934, Bonnie and Clyde, with the help of other ne’er-do-wells who comprised the ever-shifting Barrow gang, inexpertly robbed small businesses, banks and eluded the law, shooting their way (although Bonnie never fired a shot) to the open road and yet another heist. They zigzagged around the South, always returning to their families in Texas, and lived mostly in the cars they stole, camping in the countryside or staying at motor courts. Their lives were harried, cramped and tense. The media loved them and the public–with many people seeing the couple as latter-day Robin Hoods who were getting the jump on rich, corrupt bankers–did too.
Guinn clearly explicates Bonnie and Clyde’s journey into crime and mayhem. Included is an excellent overview of Depression-era America and an interesting look at the U.S. law enforcement system in the 1930s–especially illustrated by how the posse that brought the lovers down was formed. Guinn takes us through the bad decisions, robberies, car chases and ill-judged shooting sprees to the inevitable end of these outlaw lovers, who died in a brutal barrage of bullets on a lonely Louisiana dirt road on May 23, 1934. It was as poet Bonnie had predicted: “Some day they’ll go down together . . . to a few it’ll be grief–to the law a relief–but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”
Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.