Will Rogers Jr. Celebrates a U.S. Symbol on His Dad's Centenary
11/26/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
If anything ever turned me off Will Rogers," says his son Will Jr., "it was the way that people approached me for the first 10 or 15 years after his death. I heard I would never be the man my father was. I was told I had to behave, be polite, never raise hell, because—oh God!—that would destroy the name. My younger brother Jim had no compunction. But I had the name."
This month a postage stamp is being issued to commemorate the birth of Will Rogers 100 years ago in Indian territory. And once again the part-Cherokee cowpoke—who rose from rodeo roping to Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood stardom, then became a newspaper columnist and international symbol of the American spirit—is casting a long shadow. But this time it no longer darkens his son's outlook.
Now a hale 68, Bill manages the Rogers investments and is representing the family at centennial celebrations in New York, California and Claremore, Okla.—the site of Will Rogers' tomb and the humorist's adopted hometown. (Will rarely spoke of his actual birthplace, a few miles north of Claremore, because he figured "nobody but an Indian could pronounce Oologah.") Bill toils happily at his home in Tubac, Ariz., handling his father's copyrights (selections from Will Rogers' folksy column are still rerun in over 200 newspapers) and taping the cowlicked hero's old movies and radio broadcasts to preserve them.
"I think I'm basically in sympathy with everything the old man did and thought," says Bill. Recalling his youth on the family's 188-acre ranch near Santa Monica, Calif., he notes that "my dad's day was so full he made me feel like the laziest person in the world. He'd come to me and say, 'Come on, son, get your nose out of that book. Go up to the stable and ride those horses.' "
Polo was the passion of both Rogerses, and Bill hoped it would get him into Princeton. While his father was making movies like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Bill started at Stanford, then transferred to the University of Arizona to play on its crack polo team, but "damn near flunked out and went down to Nogales, Mexico and got drunk and misbehaved. Bye-bye Princeton. So he returned to Stanford and in 1935 acquired a degree in philosophy and met his future wife, Collier Connell, who, as women's editor of the college daily, had given Will Jr. a job as a cub reporter.
Unable to find work during the Depression, Will Jr. eventually turned for help to his father, who got him aboard a tanker as an engine room swabber. While Bill, then 23, was waiting to leave San Pedro harbor and praying no one would recognize him, a cousin rushed on board and delivered crushing news: Will Rogers had been killed, at 55, in a plane crash in Alaska.
Then followed Will Jr.'s toughest decade, which he survived by learning "to roll with it." He never sought help from psychiatry. "I regard it as a rather dubious science," he says. Instead he bought the Beverly Hills Citizen, which over 18 years he built into the largest weekly in the West, and personally covered the Spanish civil war as correspondent for the McNaught Syndicate. While a U.S. Army second lieutenant, Rogers was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1942. He quit two years later to join a tank battalion that fought at the Battle of the Bulge. "You're resigning from Congress to go into the Army, you coward," his fellow pols ribbed him.
Junior played his dad in The Will Rogers Story after the war and decided, "I'm not an actor." (Though that has not stopped him from plugging Washington State apples and Grape-Nuts cereal on radio and TV and promoting Massey-Ferguson tractors.) After a fling in 1957 as the host on CBS' pioneering The Good Morning Show, he went on the California State Park Commission (eventually becoming chairman) and in 1967 moved to Washington as special assistant to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Proud of his Cherokee heritage, he is an advocate of groups like the National Congress of American Indians.
Bill and wife Collier, who died in 1967, had adopted a Navajo boy, Clem, now 40 and a Tucson policeman. Their own son, Carl, 27, is a fledgling photographer. Both boys were raised in much the same style as their father and famous grandfather. As Bill says of his own childhood, "True, we had one hell of a big place, and people around us were starving. But when you finished with the patrimony, you had to produce. The whole ethic was that you make it on your own."