… was born 154 years ago today (1860).
As the star attraction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, she thrilled audiences around the world with her daring shooting feats. Her act helped fuel turn-of-the-century nostalgia for the vanished, mythical world of the American West. Over time she became an American legend — the loud, brassy, cocksure shooter celebrated in the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” But that legend had little to do with the real Annie Oakley. Although famous as a Western sharpshooter, Oakley lived her entire life east of the Mississippi. A champion in a man’s sport, she forever changed ideas about the abilities of women, yet she opposed female suffrage. Her fame and fortune came from her skill with guns, yet she was a Quaker.
Larry McMurtry’s excellent essay “Inventing the West” from the August 2000 issue of The New York Review of Books tells us about this famous performer.
Annie Oakley (Phoebe Ann Moses—or Mosey) grew up poor in rural Ohio, shot game to feed her family, shot game to sell, was pressed into a shooting contest with a touring sharpshooter named Frank Butler, beat him, married him, stayed with him for fifty years, and died three weeks before he did in 1926.
When Annie Oakley and Frank Butler offered themselves to Cody the Colonel was dubious. His fortunes were at a low ebb, and shooting acts abounded. But he gave Annie Oakley a chance. She walked out in Louisville before 17,000 people and was hired immediately. Nate Salsbury, Cody’s tight-fisted manager, who did not spend lavishly and who rarely highlighted performers, happened to watch Annie rehearse and promptly ordered seven thousand dollars’ worth of posters and billboard art.
Annie Oakley more than justified the expense. Sitting Bull, normally a taciturn fellow, saw her shoot in Minnesota and could not contain himself. Watanya cicilia, he called her, his Little Sure Shot. Small, reserved, Quakerish, she seemed to live on the lemonade Buffalo Bill dispensed free to all hands. In London she demolished protocol by shaking hands with Princess Alexandra. She shook hands with Alexandra’s husband, the Prince of Wales, too, though, like his mother the Queen, she strongly disapproved of his behavior with the ladies. In France the Parisians were glacially indifferent to buffalo, Indians, cowboys, and Cody—Annie Oakley melted them so thoroughly that she had to go through her act five times before she could escape. In Germany she likened Bismarck to a mastiff.
In 1901 she was almost killed in a train wreck. Annie claimed that it was the wreck that caused her long auburn hair to turn white overnight; skeptics said her hair turned white because she left it in hot water too long while at a spa. She continued to shoot into the 1920s. In her last years she looked rather like Nancy Astor. Will Rogers visited her not long before her death and pronounced her the perfect woman. Probably not until Billie Jean King and the rise of women’s tennis had a female outdoor performer held the attention of so many people. She became part of the “invention” that is the West by winning her way with a gun: a man’s thing, the very thing, in fact, that had won the West itself.
Annie was her nickname as a child. Oakley was a stage name. Offstage she referred to herself as Mrs. Frank Butler.
Photo taken 1902 when Oakley was 42. Click image for larger version.