Like most people growing up in the last decades of the 20th century, I can’t remember the first time I heard of Bonnie and Clyde. They were always just there, like Pecos Bill, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, or Paul Bunyan. They existed in the imagination as a blend of history and fiction, part of a larger-than-life cast of folk heroes that helped explain some aspect of the American character.
My interest only deepened when I saw Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 film and fell for songs like Serge Gainsbourg’s beautiful elegy to the lover-outlaws. Moving to Dallas made their story a little more tangible. In time, I sought out the porch of the Barrow filling station, some of the banks they held up, the storefront cafe where Bonnie once worked, and the streets of West Dallas that still looks very much like they did when it was rife with two-bit criminals and known as the “Devil’s Back Porch.”
But it wasn’t until late last year when I stumbled upon an obscure YouTube interview of Clyde Barrow’s nephew, Buddy, that I began to think about another, little-known side of the Bonnie and Clyde story. In that interview, Buddy speaks about some of the grief his family endured during the decades after Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down outside of Gibsland, La. He also speaks the families’ desire to bring some closure to the past by moving the body of Bonnie Parker to a burial plot next to Clyde. The Barrows have kept it empty and waiting for her since 1934.
Listening to Buddy, I realized that he and his family had their own story to tell. It was not about bank robbing and car theft but about how the actions and mistakes of two people can profoundly shape and determine the lives of all of their relatives. To be a Barrow or a Parker was to unwittingly assume a mantle of infamy, shame, stigmatization, and, eventually, public fascination and popular acclaim. It took Buddy and Rhea Leen much of their adult lives to come to terms with the legacies of the aunt and uncle they never met. And for the other members of the family whose stories they relate, Bonnie and Clyde were not a myth, but a sibling, son, or daughter whose crimes and deaths hovered over their own fates.
You can’t understand who Bonnie and Clyde really were until you understand the families that helped shape them, and you can’t understand the full impact of the Bonnie and Clyde story until you see how it shaped those families. The story of the Parkers and the Barrows is a less-than-romantic affair of personal suffering, familial guilt, hereditary anguish, alcoholism, poverty, heartbreak, love, loyalty, and perseverance. It is something more than the myth. It’s the stuff of real life.
I attempt to tell that story in the May edition of D Magazine. It is online today. You can read it here.