In between robbing banks, fleeing the law and killing, Bonnie and Clyde had a hobby: poetry.
After a roughly two-year crime rampage, the infamous duo — Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow — died in a shootout with police during an ambush in Louisiana on May 23, 1934. It was a death foreshadowed in the final stanzas of one of Bonnie's poems, which begins with an acknowledgement of the couple's bad reputation:
You've read the story of Jesse James
Of how he lived and died
If you're still in need of something to read
Here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.
Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow Gang,
I'm sure you all have read
how they rob and steal and those who squeal
are usually found dying or dead.
The poem concludes with the recognition that someday they will be caught:
Some day they'll go down together
And they'll bury them side by side
To few it'll be grief, to the law a relief
But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.
These stanzas, penned while the duo was on run, are in a collection of Bonnie and Clyde poems that will be auctioned off by Heritage Auctions in Dallas on May 4, along with a notebook and some photos.
It was no secret in the 1930s that Bonnie wrote poetry — some of her poems made it to print. Her poetic ways were even featured in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde when Faye Dunaway recited Bonnie's lines.
A lesser known fact is that Clyde also dabbled in poetry. In one poem, he wrote:
Bonnie's just written a poem
The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.
So I will try my hand at poetry
with her riding by my side
As we travel down the highway
never knowing where it will end.
Never very much money
and not even a friend
His poem ends with the conclusion that Bonnie's poems were better:
Now that's not as good as Bonnie's
so I guess I will call it a flop
but please God just one moore visit
before we are put on the spot.
Both of their poems have the same themes, according to Don Ackerman, the consignment director for Heritage Auctions.
"They're trying to justify their existence," Ackerman told NPR's Scott Simon. "They're saying that they're getting bad press — that they're really not that bad."
For example, Clyde writes, if they're tying someone up to a tree, they would be careful to tie them up "not so tight that after we were gone, they could not get themself free."
Clyde's spelling and grammar skills weren't always very strong. Later in the poem, he writes, "We have never shot at annyone that wasent after us."
Bonnie and Clyde's poems have a sense of fatalism to them; they write of life on the run, never expecting to be free and an awareness of their ultimate doom.
"Even going to jail doesn't seem to be an option," Ackerman said. "I think they realize that they're eventually going to be killed by the police."
Clyde had been in prison before, from 1930 to 1932. He had a brief period of escape after Bonnie smuggled a gun to him but was quickly recaptured. According to a memoir by Blanche Caldwell Barrow, the wife of Clyde's brother Buck, Clyde cut off two of his toes while in Texas' Eastham Prison Farm because he desperately wanted to get out of hard labor there.
He didn't want to go back to prison. Bonnie didn't want to go to prison either, Ackerman said, which is why she never turned herself in even though it was thought that police might be willing to go easy on her.
During the Great Depression, the duo were almost folk heroes — sort of like Robin Hood and Maid Marian, Ackerman said. Indeed, Bonnie and Clyde were often glamorized, he said.
Their poems help turn them into real people again and show them as doomed lovers and partners in crime.
"There's an authenticity to it," Ackerman said. "It has a very poignant aspect to it."
When the poems go up for sale, he estimates they will sell for upward of $10,000 apiece, because Bonnie and Clyde are household names. Though Bonnie and Clyde were aware of their notoriety, their poems give a message that's far from their Hollywood image of sophisticated gangsters living life in the fast lane.
Instead, they write about just trying to get by.
We donte want to hurt annyone
but we have to steal to eat
and if its a shootout to live
then thats the way it will have to bee.
An earlier broadcast of this story incorrectly stated that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's rampage lasted for five years. It lasted two years.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Bonnie and Clyde - Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow wrote poems between robbing banks and killing people before they died in a shootout with the law in 1934. And now some of the poems they wrote, along with a notebook and photos, are going up for auction. Don Ackerman is consignment director for Heritage Auctions. They're putting the items up for bid. Mr. Ackerman, thanks for being with us.
DON ACKERMAN: Thank you.
SIMON: Where do the poems come from? Who's been keeping them?
ACKERMAN: They were actually consigned to us by Clyde Barrow's nephew.
SIMON: It was known during their lifetimes that Bonnie Parker wrote poetry. It would occasionally make it into print. As a matter of fact, we have a clip from that famous Arthur Penn film of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway where Faye Dunaway, as Bonnie Parker, reads some from one of her poems.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BONNIE AND CLYDE")
FAYE DUNAWAY: (As Bonnie Parker, reading) You've heard the story of Jesse James of how he lived and died. If you're still in need of something to read, here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Now, Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang. I'm sure you all have read how they rob and steal, and those who squeal are usually found dying or dead.
SIMON: What are most of the poems about?
ACKERMAN: Well, it's pretty much along those same lines. They've - were written while they were trying to elude the police. They're trying to justify their existence. They're saying that they're getting bad press, that they're really not that bad. Like, if they tie somebody up to a tree, they don't tie them up too tightly so that when they leave, the person can get away. But it's really very redolent of the gangster type of language that was popular at the time in the Warner Brothers movies. But when you're reading the poetry, there's sort of a fatalism involved there. They know that they're doomed and that they're never going to be free.
SIMON: Is there a poem you could read for us?
ACKERMAN: Clyde also wrote a poem. And his spelling skills weren't very good. His grammar was not very good. But he's got, like, a 13-stanza poem. I'll try to read a couple of stanzas from it. (Reading) Bonnie's just written a poem - "The Story Of Bonnie And Clyde." So I will try my hand at poetry with her writing by my side. As we travel down the highway never knowing where it will end, never very much money and not even a friend.
And then he concludes (reading) now, that's not as good as Bonnie's, so I guess I will call it a flop. But please, God, just one more visit before we are put on the spot.
SIMON: Boy, what's it make you feel like to read that?
ACKERMAN: These people are sort of like folk heroes. And it's a really - it adds a really a personal touch to it. And there's an authenticity to it because, I mean, it's not a Hollywood movie. This was actually written by the real people. And they're really doomed lovers. So, I mean, it's sort of - it has a very poignant aspect to it.
SIMON: These poems and photos, I gather, are slated to go up for auction on May 4, right?
ACKERMAN: May 4, yeah. They'll be put up for auction here in Dallas.
SIMON: Yeah. There are some people who won't handle this merchandise, aren't there?
ACKERMAN: I don't think so. A company has a policy not to handle serial killers, like John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson. But when it comes to the gangsters, like, from the 1920s and 1930s, that's a different category as far as we're concerned. I don't think too many people would find this objectionable.
SIMON: Don Ackerman of Heritage Auctions, thanks so much for being with us.
ACKERMAN: OK. You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.