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Bonnie and Clyde: Romeo and Juliet with guns

May 11, 2009 |  8:20 am

Bonnie and Clyde Who doesn’t love a love story? Add a little danger, a little tragedy and you have yourself a bona fide page-turner.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were real people, real lovers living out what would become one of America’s classic gangster love stories.

The pair tore through the U.S. in a getaway car, after robbing banks and killing cops. They also wrote love letters to each other, including lines like: "… I never did want to love you and I didn’t even try. You just made me. Now, I don’t know what to do."

Paul Schneider, in "Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend," (review), takes a closer look at the infamous couple. Through his meticulous research, we get a more personal sense of who Bonnie and Clyde really were.

JC: Why did you write this book? Why this couple?

PS: I was looking for a great story. My previous book, "Brutal Journey," was a lot of fun to write. It was about conquistadors who wandered across America 500 years ago. I was really looking for something in the 20th century with a tight cast of characters.

JC: And why did you write in second person?

PS: Interestingly, a couple things happened when I started working on this book. One of them was that I realized that there were a couple of good books about them, with an omniscient, past-tense voice -- the historian looking down. The other thing I realized as I researched is that there’s a wealth of personal narrative and interviews. So much in the voices of these people. Seemed like a shame to take that out.

JC: What was difficult about writing in this style?

PS: There’s a certain amount of fear because it is unconventional. At least unconventional for the genre I typically write in. So there’s that. In other ways, it was easy because what it allowed me to do is use an extraordinary number of direct quotes from primary sources.

JC: How long did the research take?

PS:  I read for research probably for a year. Researching and writing probably two and a half years. Bonnie and Clyde lived on the road and, in order to understand that, I had to drive out there. I put 12,000 to 15,000 miles on my car.

JC: After getting to know these two characters so well, what was most surprising to you about them?

(The answer after the jump)

PS: The first thing that is surprising -- that is surprising to everyone who gets obsessed with them -- is how physically small they were. They were both tiny people. He was five and a half feet. She was 5 feet. Clyde even said: I wouldn’t have to shoot so many people if people didn’t think I was a little kid.

What was also surprising to me is how much in love they were and how committed they were, especially at the end. How fatalistic. How determined they were not be taken alive and not to be separated. I also spent a lot of time looking at Clyde’s early life in the prison system and how brutal that prison system was.

JC: Are there other famous outlaws you’d love to write about?

PS: Yes and no. There are other fabulous outlaws I could see writing about. But I don’t think they’ll live up to Bonnie and Clyde. They are almost like a Romeo and Juliet for America, in a sense. I don’t think I’ll write about another criminal right away.

JC: Who was more lawless? Bonnie or Clyde?

PS: That’s a great question. It's one of the enduring mysteries of their life. The short answer: Clyde. He’s the killer. He’s the petty-criminal-turned-bank-robber-turned killer. One thing to say about his killing: It was always defensive. He killed cops who were trying to capture him. Bonnie -- everyone argues about. It depends on who you want her to be. Some say: “Bonnie never fired a gun!” But others want her to be a feminist heroine.

Clyde was more lawless, but Bonnie was game for anything.

JC: Tell me about Chapter 13, when Clyde is in jail and Bonnie starts seeing someone else.

PS: That’s another surprising thing about them both. It qualifies a little how much in love they were. They both had other lovers. Bonnie was even married before she met Clyde.

She was, at that time, 18 or 19. He was in jail for 14 years. It was looking grim to her for him coming back. She always had a lot of suitors. He [Clyde] does, in fact, get a parole and he comes home and finds her with another guy. But it didn’t seem to be a problem at all. She just dumped the other guy immediately.

JC: This quote on page 254: “You’ve got guns, but money is short, food is short, tempers are short. The good news is, guns can get you money and money will fix the other two. … All you need is a bank to rob, and there’s one in Ruston, Louisiana, that looks ripe.”  Does a statement like this sum up the lives of Bonnie and Clyde?

PS: Yeah. Once they were on the run, that basically does. Bonnie and Clyde were not particularly successful bank robbers. But they were spectacular escape artists. They would go to an armory and steal guns from the government. He was sort of gun-obsessed, more so than money-obsessed.

They maintained these absurd fantasies that they’re gonna buy a little house in Louisiana. But that never happens.

They are wounded and running the entire time. It’s kind of grim at the end.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Photo: Courtesy Paul Schneider