by Ben Yagoda, Knopf, 409 pages.
He began his career at the turn of the century doing rope tricks in circuses and on the vaudeville stage. When he died in a plane crash in 1935, he was the most popular man in America, a movie star and a humorist, and a political commentator whose syndicated column reached forty million people every day. “He is what Americans think other Americans are like” was how one observer analyzed his appeal. Others, Yagoda writes, noticed that “the older and more worldly he got, the more socially at ease he was with senators and tycoons, the worse the grammar and spelling in his columns became.”
Rogers’s determinedly folksy style can seem quaint to contemporary readers, but in this lively, well-written, and handsomely illustrated biography, Yagoda explores the ways in which he still serves as an American icon. When at the Democratic Convention in New York last year the actor playing Will Rogers in a musical on Broadway stepped up to the microphone and delivered a speech Rogers had given in 1931, it brought down the house.