Cowgirl Fascination: Annie Oakley

Photo Annie Oakley 1

Just under the wire, on the last day of 2019, I was able to squeeze in my goal of visiting the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. There, I was introduced to Annie Oakley.

Born Phoebe Ann Moses in Ohio in 1860, Oakley’s father died when she was 6-years old. She was sent to live at the city poor house, but returned home as a teenager. She helped feed her family and eventually paid off their farm’s mortgage with her hunting skills, selling the excess to a local hotelier. When the hotelier set up a shooting contest between the fifteen-year old, five-foot tall Oakley and well-known marksman, Frank Butler, Oakley won, scoring 25 out of 25 shots. Smitten with her moxie, the two courted and eventually married, traveling together as a shooting act. When Butler realized it was Oakley the crowds wanted to see, he took a step back and became her manager. It is said the stage name Oakley came from the Cincinnati neighborhood they lived in.

They soon set their sights on becoming a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. William F. Cody was a soldier, hunter and showman who turned his real life adventures into the first outdoor western show. Known for his foresight and business acumen, he was soon celebrated as one of the most famous Americans in the world. His use of press agents and poster advertising was innovative for the times. Realizing how essential Indians were to the shows, he paid them the same wages as the other performers. Their families traveled along with them and were encouraged to retain their language and rituals.

In 1885, Oakley auditioned and was hired on the spot. That year, she performed in 40 cities and then made a grand three year tour of Europe. In 1893 alone, the show performed for 6 million people and made a profit of $1 million. Patrons were fascinated with the ingenuity and efficiency behind the scenes as they were the show itself. Every night, the cast and staff of over 500 plus horses and buffaloes (along with grandstands and acres of canvas cover for the 20 thousand ticket holders) moved to the next town. Depending on the destination, they were housed in either walled tents or railroad sleeping cars. Three hot meals a day were served and their entourage even included its own fire department.

In a male dominated profession, Oakley was able to retain her femininity and become the most famous sharp shooter in American history. She was known for her ability to hit small size objects, such as a dime at 90 feet or the ash from a cigarette, once held in the lips of the Crown Prince of Germany. She headlined with the show for almost 20 years, retiring after a car accident. She still kept shooting even with the brace she wore due to a fractured hip and ankle, giving exhibitions, holding charity events and teaching women to shoot. The celebrity cowgirl died at age 66 and it is said that Frank died of a broken heart a few weeks later.

Photo Annie Oakley 2

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Farrah Before Farrah  

Photo Farah

I feel as if I knew Farrah Fawcett, even though we’ve never met.

Never needing an excuse to visit Austin’s Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, we were quick to RSVP for two recent free events. After enjoying cocktails and hors d’ oeuvres on the patio and a walkaround the gardens, we visited a new exhibit entitled “Mentoring a Muse: Farrah Fawcett and Charles Umlauf,” which included works by both Farrah and Umlauf, along with an informative lecture. We returned to the patio a month later, but this time we were treated to a presentation entitled “Friends of Farrah,” at which her nephew and her childhood friends, the “amigas” (Spanish for “female friends”), shared memories and personal stories with us.

Farrah, a Texas girl from Corpus Christi, attended college at the University of Texas at Austin and studied art. It was there that she met Charles Umlauf, the professor and mentor that she shared a lifelong friendship with. Her artistic talent, while incredibly impressive, was something that most never knew about. Overshadowed by her beauty, the only freshman to be named one of the “10 most beautiful coeds on campus,” she was soon discovered by a Hollywood agent and left before graduation.

She rose to international fame when the photo of her posing in a red swimsuit became the best selling poster in history. And, who can forget the TV show Charlie’s Angels? In 1996, she was named one of the top 50 greatest TV stars of all time. Four Emmy award nominations and six Golden Globe nominations later, Farrah was still the same soft-spoken, sweet girl from Texas that her small circle of friends and family knew and loved.

Farrah’s “amigas” told stories of accompanying her into a venue, their amazement at the total silence that would ensue and Farah’s nonchalant way of making everyone comfortable. Scripts were always piled high on her bedroom floor, her phone was constantly ringing and she spoke of experiencing a constant emotional tug between being famous and longing for anonymity (especially when there was strife in her personal life).

Farrah remained a sculptor all her life. She and Umlauf seem to share a secret language, both becoming the others muse. With him, she was able to express the part of herself that she kept hidden from the world. Was Farrah’s deep connection to Umlauf the justification of her artistic side and her decision of a road not taken?

One of the “amigas” told the story that when Farrah was diagnosed with Cancer and lost her hair (she died at age 62), she visited her and couldn’t help but think “…Wow, if she doesn’t have the most beautifully shaped bald head!…” The “amiga” tearfully told the audience that there was nothing the beautiful Farrah would have wanted more than to be honored for her art. At that moment, the lights flickered, the microphone squealed, the audience gasped and I knew she was there with us.