Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, by Jeff Guinn

I was twelve when the Arthur Penn movie about Bonnie and Clyde hit the screen and like a lot of people in that generation it seemed like the definitive story about the pair. The movie portrayed them as an attractive and romantic couple, nearly taking a moral stand against the forces of law and commerce in a time of great poverty. And, wow, they dressed cool, too, as they swept through the midwest from one successful robbery to another.

This was an eye-opening look, then, at a pair of minor criminals who spent two years together basically surviving in their cars and robbing a series of small businesses to get gas. There were occasional successful bank robberies, for amounts of seldom more than a few hundred dollars. Those were more a matter of luck than skill. Jeff Guinn tells of one case where they cased a bank so poorly that they didn’t realize it was closed in bankruptcy and the only employee was an elderly guard.

Clyde Barrow is shown as the son of a large family of impoverished farmers. A serial car thief he was put into a work farm prison where he killed the man who was his serial rapist and eventually had a friend cut off two of his toes to avoid work, then found he’d been paroled a few days later.

Bonnie Parker is revealed as a young starstruck girl, already married once when she met Barrow, who became bizarrely loyal to him even after spending jail time when Clyde abandoned her following a botched robbery.

During the first part of their time together Clyde was more interested in hatching ways to free friends from various jails and prisons than in becoming a criminal mastermind. When the robberies did start it was quickly followed by several early incidents of shootouts, including the killing of a sheriff and his deputy. This made it nearly impossible for them to stay in one place for any length of time. They, and whoever happened to be in the “gang” at that time, slept in the car and ate outside, usually a meal of cold beans as they were afraid to even start a fire. The few times they settled into a single place they were found out and involved in shooting. In one of these they lost most of their weapons and also left behind the camera that made them notorious, making Bonnie seem like a cigar chomping gun moll. Another led to the death of Buck Barrow, Clyde’s older brother, and the near blinding of Buck’s wife Blanche.

As they neared the end they were broke, underweight, and suffering from various wounds, including Bonnie’s leg, nearly stripped to the bone by battery acid following a nighttime car accident. Clyde refused to take her to a hospital and she mostly survived on aspirin, salve (which kept the wound from healing), and stolen narcotics.

It’s a gritty, honest (though not entirely unsympathetic) look at a couple whose fame outshined their skills, and who went on a two year spree ending in an ambush arranged by someone they trusted. A fascinating book for any fan of true crime, thirties lore, or who doesn’t mind having a vision of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway altered forever.