Will Rogers

by Ben Yagoda. Knopf, $27.50. Will Rogers, vaudeville rope twirler, newspaper columnist, political commentator (sometimes a cannily foresighted one), and the most popular film star of his time, was the son of a prosperous part-Cherokee rancher in what was then the Indian Territory. By 1885 a Cherokee leader could claim “that there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a house of its own. There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not owe a dollar.” Such a state of things could not be allowed to continue, and Congress took steps to abolish it. One of the victims was Clem Rogers, who saw bad times ahead and began to worry about his feckless son, a lad addicted to horses, parties, music, and gadding about, but impervious to spelling and grammar. Young Will took off for Argentina via England and returned by way of South Africa and Australia, supporting himself by playing cowboy in any Wild West show that came handy. Managing the family’s much-reduced ranch was not to his show-business taste. With one thing leading to another. Will Rogers became the most widely known and beloved American since Mark Twain. As Mr. Yagoda ably recounts Rogers’s story, it appears that the foundation of his success—aside from genuine stage charm—was a combination of sharp intelligence and amiable disrespect. He could make people think without making them feel guilty—a rare and now seemingly lost art.