In 1928, Will Rogers was flying to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in the early days of commercial aviation. The first leg of the flight was from Los Angeles to Las Vegas aboard a Western Air Express open-cockpit, canvas covered Douglas M-2 biplane. There was room for mail and only one passenger, and that was Rogers.
The “airport” in Las Vegas in those days was just a dirt strip in the desert. Fred W. Kelly — a Gold Medal winner at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm — brought the plane in for a landing to refuel. As the plane was rolling down the “runway,” a wheel hit a rock, flipping the plane over on its back.
Both Will and Fred were hanging by the seat belts. To get out, they had to unhook their seat belts which they did — both landing on their heads.
“This wouldn’t have happened to me if I’d been going to the Democratic convention,” Will quipped.
Fred loved telling that story.
Will Rogers may have been America’s greatest humorist and satirist. Every day he scanned as many newspapers as he could to find material for his syndicated column.
“A breakfast without a newspaper is a horse without a saddle,” Rogers said. “You are just riding bareback. Take away my ham, take away my eggs, even my chili, but leave me my newspaper.”
Years later, that research would send him on a flight that would cost him his life.
Rogers was born on a ranch near Oologah in northeast Oklahoma in 1879, youngest of eight children. His parents, Mary America Scrimsher and Clem Rogers, a successful rancher, were both part Cherokee.
As a boy, he was taught the lariat by a former slave and became an expert rider and roper. Those skills would lead him into performing at Wild West shows and seeing much of the world — England, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Canada — sadly ending in Alaska.
After his Wild West days, Rogers broke into vaudeville and then Broadway. While performing rope tricks on stage, he would wisecrack about events of the day gleaned from the newspapers. That mixture of folksy humor and sharp insights into society and politics would become his trademark.
Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, his wit and common sense attitude brought him worldwide fame.
He also starred in or worked behind the camera in more than 70 movies — silent and talkies.
When the dour President Woodrow Wilson came to one of his stage performances, Rogers gingerly teased him. The president took it well and met him backstage. “You can always tell a big man from a little one,” Rogers wrote later. “The big ones don’t get sore when you joke about them.”
By 1922, his reputation earned him a columnist job with McNaught Syndicate. From then on Rogers and his typewriter were inseparable.
That same year, he went on radio. Politicians, government and bigwigs were his favorite targets. Politicians eventually relished being ribbed by him.
“I don’t make jokes,” he’d say. “I just watch the government and report the facts.”
“America has the best politicians money can buy,” and “A fool and his money are soon elected.”
“There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you,” and said, further chiding, “About all I can say for the United States Senate is that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation,” and “The Senate just sits and waits till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him.”
The New York Times wrote, “Will Rogers had what it takes to tickle the national funny bone. His wry countenance, with its occasionally wistful expression, was comical to see, and his consciously cultivated drawl lent a rustic savor to his sophisticated quips.”
One of his most famous quotes — “I never met a man I didn’t like,” is not exactly what he said. His words were, “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.”
Rogers married Betty Blake of Oologah in 1908 and they had three children. In 1922, they bought acreage in today’s Pacific Palisades next to Santa Monica and built a weekend home, then moving in full time several years later.
Wiley Post was a world-famous aviator in the period between the two world wars. He would stand out in any crowd because he lost his left eye in an oil rig accident and wore a patch over it like a pirate.
He used the insurance money to buy his first plane.
Post was born near Grand Saline, Texas, in 1898 — to cotton farmer parents, William Francis and Mae Quinlan Post, the family moving to Oklahoma when he was only 5.
Like Will Rogers, Post was also of Cherokee ancestry. When he was about 15, he became hooked on aviation after seeing barnstormers at a county fair. He learned to fly and joined the U.S. Army Air Service in World War I.
In 1931, Post and navigator Harold Gatty made a record round-the world flight in a single-engine Lockheed 5C Vega named “Winnie Mae,” then Post did it again solo two years later. Flight time: eight days, 15 hours and 51 minutes.
He set other flight records and also designed the first pressurized suit for high altitude flying.
In 1935, when Will Rogers learned that Post was planning another round-the-world flight, to survey a possible air route from the West Coast to Russia, he asked if he could fly with him to write about it in his column.
For the flight, Post designed and built his own plane using the fuselage of a Lockheed Orion and wings from a Lockheed Explorer. Lockheed wouldn’t do the job — considering the design unsafe.
Rogers had long been an enthusiastic promoter of aviation, making flights over much of the world — some say about 500,000 miles — claiming that it was safer to travel by plane than by train.
After the plane was completed and test flown, Post and Rogers flew to San Francisco and then Seattle, where they planned to install floats for water landings in Alaska and Siberia, replacing the wheels.
When the ordered floats didn’t arrive in time, he attached a larger pair intended for a bigger plane. That made Post’s plane a bit nose-heavy.
On Aug. 7, they took off from Lake Washington in Renton and headed north, stopping at Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
They left Fairbanks on the 15th, planning to land at Point Barrow, where Rogers hoped to interview local trader and patriarch Charles Brower.
They never made it.
Disoriented by cloudy weather, they landed in a lagoon at Walakpa Bay, 15 miles southwest of Barrow — Alaska’s northernmost point. After talking to Eskimo Clair Okpeaha and his family, Post decided to try to make it to Barrow. A hundred feet in the air the engine stalled.
Because the hybrid plane was nose-heavy, it couldn’t stay in the air at the low takeoff speed and plunged nose first into the water and flipped onto its back.
The world lost one of its greatest pioneer aviators and America’s beloved cowboy-philosopher, writer, entertainer and icon of the 20th century. Will Rogers was 55, and Wiley Post 36.
Okpeaha ran to Barrow to report the sad news. Soon the whole world knew.
Twelve thousand movie theaters dimmed their lights for two minutes, and 1,000 people met the plane in Seattle that carried the men’s bodies back to California.
Will Rogers “looked for the good in everyone,” Andy Hogan of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum said. “He just felt like everyone deserved more than what he got — and what he got, he didn’t really deserve.”
Rogers loved America, and loved to chide the bigshots and politicians who ran it.
“I know things are going to get better in spite of both sides,” he said. “Then when things do get better, then you’ll hear the yell that will go up. The Democrats will swear that recovery was due to them. Now the Republicans — they’ll say it was due to them.
“Nobody (wants) to claim the credit for the country blowing up, but wait until it starts picking up and they’ll both be on it then.”
We’ll see come election time.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
• • •
In 1969, when Fred Kelly — the pilot with Will Rogers when they crash landed in Las Vegas in 1928 — visited the Rogers home in Pacific Palisades, a suburb of Los Angeles, the docent was telling the crash story to a tour group not knowing that Fred was a visitor. Everyone was surprised and thrilled to meet him.
“My father was one-eighth Cherokee Indian and my mother was quarter-blood Cherokee. I never got far enough in arithmetic to figure out how much injun that made me, but there’s nothing of which I am more proud than my Cherokee blood.”
— Will Rogers
On radio with the girls…
“Will Rogers first appeared on the radio in February of 1922 at KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh, Pa. He was accompanied by the Ziegfeld Girls, from Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld Follies were a Broadway show that ran in New York City from 1907 through 1931. They became a radio program in their own right in 1932 as The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air.”
— KDKA-AM Radio
Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.
— Will Rogers
America’s the same today…
“The rest of the people know the condition of the country, for they live in it, but Congress has no idea what is going on in America, so the President has to tell ‘em.”
— Will Rogers