I was just at Randall’s picking up some Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream for Katie, O’Doul’s for Tom, and mango sorbet for myself when I happened to glance at the magazine rack at the checkout stand. “Oprah’s Cocaine Relapse!” shouted the headline on the National Enquirer. “Stedman furious as her secret lover TELLS ALL. PLUS: THE SHOCKING VIDEO!”
How ironic. I’d just been reading about Annie Oakley, eager to blog about her, and not sure where to start, her life is so rich with stories. Leave it to the National Enquirer to give me the nudge. I’d write about the media libel that almost took down Annie Oakley’s reputation. Who’d have thought that Oprah Winfrey and Annie Oakley would have something in common?
Actually, that’s not so strange. Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was, in her day, as big a superstar as Oprah Winfrey is today. As most everyone knows, Annie Oakley was to shooting what Lucille Mulhall (see last post, “America’s First Cowgirl”) was to roping. For 17 years, she received second billing as an expert markswoman with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, at a time when women were largely restricted to home, church, and school. In 1887, she set sail with the troupe to England where they performed for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. For six months, they remained in Europe. Royalty from all over Europe came to see the show and Annie Oakley was one of its biggest attractions. She shot glass balls that her husband Frank Butler sent skyward. She charmed the audience with her girl-like antics. “The loudest applause of the night is reserved for Miss Annie Oakley, because her shooting entertainment is clever, precise, and dramatic,” a London reviewer wrote. (1)
Annie Oakley never walked onto the stage. She skipped in, bowing, waving, and throwing kisses. She had some thrilling riding tricks but her most famous antic involved shooting a target with the aid of a handheld mirror. She would turn her back on her target and take aim at it by looking in the mirror. Sometimes the target was an apple sitting on the head of her dog, Dave. Then she would prop her shotgun over her right shoulder, aim it behind her, and shoot without turning around. When she hit the target, when she almost always did, she would do a little jumpkick then skip happily out of the arena. The audiences loved it. If she missed the target, though, she would turn her face to the crowd and pout dramatically. The audiences loved that, too.
No doubt about it. Annie Oakley was an entertainer. But she never lost sight that she was foremost a lady. As an athlete, she might have been more comfortable in pants but she refused to wear them, considering them unladylike, and wore A-line or pleated skirts instead. Her costumes were always wholesome, her legs below her short skirt covered entirely by dark, pearl-button leggings, and her shirt longsleeved, covering neck and wrists. Her starched white blouse with its high collar gave her a prim look. She was considered by her friends as “straitlaced.” (1)
When she traveled, she and Frank shared a tent, which Annie made homey with knick-knacks, photographs, a welcome mat, and sometimes a white picket fence. Annie Oakley took great care to keep up respectability.
So it came as a great shock to her when she learned of an article that appeared in two Chicago newspapers on August 11, 1903, smearing her good name. The papers reported that someone by the name of Annie Oakley was in a Chicago jail after pleading guilty to stealing “the trousers of a negro” to get money to buy cocaine. (2) “ANNIE OAKLEY ASKS COURT FOR MERCY–Famous Woman Crack Shot…Steals to Secure Cocaine,” screamed one headline.The bogus story was picked up by newspapers nationwide.
At the time, Annie was 42 years old and had just finished starring in The Western Girl. Any plans she may have had of continuing her acting career on the stage came to an abrupt halt. She filed lawsuits against 55 newspapers for blackening her good name. She spent the next seven years testifying in court about the damage done to her reputation by the false newspaper articles. She won 54 of the 55 lawsuits. The woman who had been arrested that August day turned out to have been an impostor posing as Annie Oakley who had confessed to the crime. Her name was Maude Fontenella. She had once performed in a burlesque Wild West show as “Any Oakley.” It was the fault of a Chicago reporter named Ernest Stout who filed the false story, saying that the police inspector had verified that the woman was the real Annie Oakley. (2) Annie Oakley was neither a thief nor a drug addict.
The scandal behind her, the verdicts just, Annie went back on the road with another wild west show, though now she wore a brown wig. Her hair had turned completely white.
I’ve read the National Enquirer on Oprah. It seems that Oprah has admitted on TV to past cocaine use. But, fortunately, in these modern times, her past indiscretion did not ruin her reputaiton.
(1) Macy, Sue. Bull’s Eye: A Photobiography of Annie Oakley. National Geographic Society: Washington, D.C., 2001.
(2) Kasper, Shirl. Annie Oakley. The University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1992.
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