Tom Mix was big in every
way. Bigger than you can imagine. A handsome,
barrel chested man. The biggest
star. The biggest hero to a generation
or two of boys. As big as the enormous hats he wore. He
even died in a big, flashy way
speeding down an Arizona highway in
a fancy open Cord 812 Phaeton on
October 13, 1940 at just 60 years of age.
Mix was born January 6, 1880 in Mix Run, Pennsylvania where his family, as the place name infers, had deep
roots. It was a small, unincorporated village in the remote north central part of the state
near what became the Elk State
Forest. His father was a stable master and the boy grew up
around horses and was an unmatched rider by his early teens.
He also was enamored
of the small traveling circus shows that came through
town. He dreamed of running away
to join the circus and practiced acts
in the barn—including using his sister as a target for knife throwing. That got him a good whipping from his father.
Restless and eager for real adventure. Mix rushed to enlist
in the Army for the Spanish American War under the name Thomas Edwin Mix—he was glad to lose Hezekiah—just
the first of many reinventions. He never saw action in that brief war, but did
become a sergeant of artillery serving in the Philippines in 1900-’01 although he was
never actually deployed against the Filipino insurrectionists.
Back stateside he
met a young woman, Grace I. Allin
and married her while on furlough in July 1902. He never returned to duty and was officially listed as a deserter that November. Desertion from the peacetime Army was not
uncommon in those days and unless the AWOL
soldier was nabbed close to base
or picked up by police somewhere on other charges the military did not have
the resources to pursue arrests. Mix often referred to his Army service in
later years, including allowing people to assume that he was in Cuba, perhaps even as a Rough Rider and some people in the Army
must have been aware of his status as he rose to fame. But no action was ever taken against him
and the Army afforded him a veteran’s funeral
with full honors. The revelation
of his status as a deserter came only when serious
biographers began to research his purposefully murky early years.
Mix’s marriage didn’t last as long
as his enlistment. It was annulled in less than a year, probably
because he had run off to Oklahoma to become a cowboy.
A master horseman already and marksman
with both a rifle and a handgun as a result of a youth spent
roaming the Pennsylvania woods and as soldier, he slid as effortlessly into his
new identity as a Colt .44 into a well-oiled holster. In no
time at all he was a top hand with a
growing reputation. But he also was something of a showman from the beginning, splitting time between real ranch work and playing the cowboy for a young nation
still enthralled with tales of the West.
In 1903 he turned up as drum
major of the Oklahoma Cavalry Band,
at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
The next year he was back in Oklahoma
in the dual roles of bartender and Town Marshall of Dewey. This short
stint as a part time lawman
would eventually loom much larger in
the legend he created about himself.
Always the lady’s man, Mix married again 1905 to Kitty Jewel Perinne of whom little
is known but whose name makes the
imagination dance. That marriage, too,
fizzled in divorce after a
year. A certain pattern in domestic
relationships was beginning to
The same year as his marriage Mix
turned up in a troop of 50 cowboy riders
led by the legendary marshal of Deadwood and Rough Rider Captain Seth Bullock in Theodore
Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. Many
of the other riders were also former Rough Riders, leading many to conclude
that Mix was as well—an assumption he
never did anything to disclaim.
By 1906 Mix was working on the biggest and most famous of all Oklahoma ranches, the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch.
The sprawling ranch, which bred
horses as well as raising cattle, employed hundreds of cowboys. One of the wranglers was a roping
wonder named Will Rogers.
After the spring round-up hands on the ranch traditionally conducted their
own cowboy contests—rodeos they would come to be
called—displaying riding, roping, and shooting skills. Up in Cheyenne,
Wyoming they had already discovered that such cowboy games were great draws for tourists whose appetite
for cowboy adventure had been whetted
by Buffalo Bill Cody and other wild west show troupes. The 101 outfit had also been contracted to provide stock to those shows and to the rodeos
springing up around the west. Their own
private competition was itself opened to the public and began to draw
crowds. The Miller Bros launched
their own touring 101 Ranch Wild West
Show in 1906. And Tom Mix was, from the beginning the star.
Tom Mix, second from left, with members of the wild west show troupe he assembled for the 1909 Alaska-Youkon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. He had plans to tour with the show but persistent rain in Seattle kept down receipts and his first independent circus failed.
He also competed in other rodeos and
in another type of completion called cowboy
games where riding and shooting events were combined. He was named national champion in those in Prescott,
Arizona in 1909, and Canyon City,
Colorado in 1910. In the meantime he
had married yet again, this time to horsewoman Olive Stokes on January 10, 1909 in Medora, North Dakota. Together
they appeared in other shows including the Widerman
Show in Amarillo, Texas, Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition,
and Will A. Dickey’s Circle D Ranch. His childhood dreams of becoming a circus
star were folding into his life as a cowboy
Mix was back at the 101 Ranch in
1910 when the Selig Polyscope Company,
an early motion picture studio,
contracted with the Miller Bros to provide stock and performers for a series of one reel films.
Westerns were already a hot commodity in the fledgling film industry. The first
American movie with a plot, the
12 minute long Great Train Robbery in 1903 set the stage for a flood of oaters.
One of the leading actors in that film, Bronco
Billy Anderson became the first
movie star that the public knew by
name and was by then producing, directing, and staring in popular westerns at Essenay Studios in Chicago.
Mix first appeared as part of the ensemble in a short Selig film, The
Cowboy Millionaire in 1909. The
following year he was featured in a
sort of documentary called Ranch
Life in the Great Southwest which showed
off his prodigious skills as a
rider, roper, and rough and tumble
cowpoke. The movie was Selig’s biggest hit to date.
In no time Mix was not only being billed as the star, he was writing and even directing his own films, which introduced
elements of comedy and romance to the action mix. Subsequent films
were not shot on the 101 ranch but at the Selig studios in the Edendale district of Los Angeles and later on western sets built at Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Mix with Selig co-star and third wife Victoria Forde.
In a few short years Mix made over
100 mostly single reel shorts for Selig, and some two reelers late in the association as the single reel short fell out of favor for dramatic films. Beautiful
teenage actress Victoria Forde became
his favorite leading lady and,
inevitably, his lover. After 10 years with Olivia, he divorced her
and married Forde the following year.
Mix now had three ex-wives
and a daughter, Ruth, born in 1912, who he had
to support as well as a current one—a monetary
burden that both drained him and
made him ambitious for fat paychecks.
As his marriage was crumbling so did
Selig studios, which had few hits beyond Mix.
The company went bankrupt and
William Fox bought the Edendale
studios. He also signed Mix and Forde to very generous
contracts guaranteeing Mix control of
his own films and a dedicated production
unit. That was in 1917. Mix would stay with the studio until 1928
making both him and Fox wealthy beyond
either’s dreams. And in the process
would redefine the film western in startling
Up until this time whatever wild
plot and adventures, western films tried with greater or lesser success, for realism in costume, accouterments, and settings. Not
surprisingly. A lot of their audience could clearly recall the “Old West”
and what it looked like. Real western heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody himself or legendary
Oklahoma lawman Bill Tilghman
were showing up in films. Bronco Billy
was always careful of realistic setting.
Over at Famous Players-Lasky (the future Paramount) the biggest western star of the day, a former New York stage Shakespearian actor named William
S. Hart was a notorious stickler
for complete authenticity in his films.
Even his own Selig pictures had
mostly been rooted in the realities of ranch life.
Mix, the real cowboy, rodeo rider
and circus performer had no illusions about
his ability as an actor. But he had learned a thing or two about grabbing an audience. He knew that colorful costumes drew attention in big arenas. Instead of dusty, worn working clothes, he now appeared
in highly tailored costumes—tight trousers tucked into richly decorated high heeled cowboy boots, two pearl handled revolvers in tooled
belts strapped to his hips, crisp
shirts often double breasted
with decorative piping around a yoke and arrowhead slit pockets, silk kerchiefs
knotted at the neck. And above all, an enormous hat. No cowboy ever rode the range in anything like it.
About that hat…Photos of working cowboys from the 1870’s on show that they wore a wide variety of headgear. Usually wide brimmed hats but depending on the region, personal taste,
and what was available at the general store when they needed one the sombreros varied with peaked
crowns or flat ones, stiff brims or floppy ones, brims curled
or slouched or pushed up in front—a popular
look borrowed from cavalry troopers. Around the turn of the century cowboys on the northern part of the range began to sport what was called the Montana crease, a hat with a high crown peaked in back sloping forward with a center crease. This became the famous ten gallon hat described in dime
novels. Along the southern border with Mexico, some Texas cowboys sported a trimmed
down version of the vaquero’s
sombrero with a high, round crown
and wide brim turned up all around. Mix began to wear specially made Stetsons combining
both styles. They were big, flashy hats—he wore them in white or black interchangeably. Soon
other cowboy stars like Hoot Gibson,
Ken Maynard, and Col. Tim McCoy were wearing them.
In a case of life imitating art, they took off with real working cowboys as
well, supplanting other styles for a
decade or so. Cowboys also saved up for fancy shirts and boots
to wear to town on Saturday night or to dances,
going back to ordinary working clothes the rest of the week. Even they wanted to be Tom Mix.
Mix’s films were filled with humor.
He seemed not to take himself too seriously in stark contrast to the grim probity of William S. Hart’s
heroes. And they were chock full of action from the beginning
to the end, lots of chases, trick riding, fist fights, leaps from
great heights, and daring-do stunts
of all kinds. And Mix did all of the
stunts himself, with the camera catching
him in the kind of close-ups that
actors who used stunt doubles could
Audiences ate it all up. Every Fox film seemed to top the previous
one. He did six or seven films a year
now, far down from the hectic pace of the Selig one reelers. He had a budget
for large casts, impressive scenery, big props like steam engines, paddle wheel river boats, epic
wagon trains, mass herds of real long horns—whatever he needed.
Fox built him his own facility at
the Edendale studios, a 12 acre set nick named Mixville with “… a complete
frontier town, with a dusty street,
hitching rails, a saloon, jail, bank, doctor’s office, surveyor’s office, and the simple
frame houses typical of the early Western era.” Also on the lot was an Indian village with tepees
set against plaster mountains that looked real on film, and a whole ranch set up. When scripts called for it Mix could shoot on location in California, Nevada,
A big part of the show was now Mix’s
horse, Tony the Wonder Horse, a big handsome chestnut with a white blaze face and white stockings. Tony could perform all manner of tricks
and stunts including untying Mix’s
hands, opening gates, loosening his reins, rescuing Mix from
fire, jumping from one cliff to
another, and running after trains. Tony became so popular that he was sometimes co-billed with Mix and had his name in
the title of three films. His popularity inspired other equine
co-stars—Ken Maynard’s Tarzan, Gene Autry’s Champion, Roy Rogers’ Trigger,
Hopalong Cassidy’s Topper, and the Lone
In his first films at Fox Forde was
his co-star and love interest. She
decided to retire and devote herself
to homemaking with the coming the couple’s daughter
Thomisina (Tommie) in 1922. After that a parade of beauties took turns being rescued and swept off their
feet by the hero.
As Mix’s films became more and more
popular, his salary grew. He made $4,000 a week in 1922 and just three
years later Fox was glad to shell out $7,500 a week—an enormous sum at the time. And Mix spent
it as fast as he made it, always paying his share to his train of
ex-wives. He always wore his immaculate
trade mark Stetsons and expensive tailored clothing, much of it western
style. He drove the latest, fastest, and most expensive cars. He erected one of the biggest mansions in Hollywood
with his own stables and an electric
sign with his name on the roof. He liked to make the rounds of nightclubs,
studio parties, premiers, and film events. He and William S. Hart, and a young filmmaker
named John Ford, regularly played cards and drank with legendary lawman,
gambler, and sporting man Wyatt
Earp. Mix was a pall bearer at Earp’s funeral
and famously broke down and cried.
When Fox refused
yet another big raise, Mix let his contract there lapse in 1928. He was tiring of movies and beginning to feel his age and the effects of accumulated
injuries from years of doing his own stunts. Joseph
P. Kennedy offered him a fat
contract to make films with his independent
studio, Film Booking Office of
America, soon to be merged into RKO. He did his last silent films there that
year. The films also featured his first
daughter Ruth. They were money makers for the small studio, but
without the vast network of Fox theaters, couldn’t generate as many viewers as his earlier
Mix decided to quit films and return to his first
love—the circus. Ruth joined his
act. He was the headline star of the Sells-Floto
Circus in the 1929, 1930 and 1931seasons, pulling down $20,000 a week—more than
he ever made in pictures.
In 1931 Mix’s
marriage to Victoria Forde ended, likely because of the appearance of Mabel Hubbell
Ward who became wife number 5 in ’32.
The expense of yet another ex-wife lured him back to pictures when Universal offered him a contract to
make talkies with complete control
of his production unit. He made nine
films for Universal. Legend has it that they were failures because Mix had a high voice. Untrue
on both counts. All of the films
were box office successes, and Mix
had a fine, rich baritone voice. He was
not, however, an actor adept at reading lines and he knew it. His performances seemed more stilted than in his silents.
Both he and his
beloved horse Tony were injured. He
retired Tony and brought on Tony
Jr. But it wasn’t the same. His own injuries were becoming painful. Mix
decided to retire from film once again and return to the circus.
This time he
toured with the Sam B. Dill Circus,
which he bought out and re-named the Tom Mix Circus with Ruth,
who had starred in a score of Poverty
Row studio B westerns and serials herself, as his partner. He toured with the show in 1935 and then went
off on a European tour leaving Ruth
in charge at home. Without his draw, with then Depression hurting ticket
sales, and the expense of a large troupe, the Tom Mix Circus failed while he was away. Probably unfairly,
he blamed his daughter causing a permanent rift between them. When he died she was cut out of what was left of his
Mix had been approached several times to do his own radio show. But the money offered was far less than he
could make doing either film or circus.
Finally Ralston Purina offered
him a deal for a radio series built
around his name and character, but in which he would not have to perform. Tom Mix would be played by a series of actors
during the show’s long run from 1933 to ’51.
Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters starred Artells Dickson, Jack Holden
from 1937, Russell Thorsen in the early ‘40s, and Joe “Curley” Bradley from ’44 to the end of the series. Country
comedian and story teller George Gobel was one of the supporting players.
issued a highly popular series of Tom Mix
comic books and featured his image on
cereal boxes. Through the radio show, comics, and in the early ‘50’s television airings of his
old movies including his silent films new
generations continued to idolize
Mix even after his death.
Faced with big
bills from the collapse of the circus, Mix was lured back to movies one more
time to do a 15 episode serial, The
Miracle Rider for tiny Poverty
Row studio Mascot Pictures. The studio paid him $40,000 for just four
weeks of work. It paid off for them. They grossed over $1 million from the Saturday matinee nickels and dimes of a new generation of adoring
fans. It was Mix’s last film appearance.
Mix spent his
last years making personal appearances
around the U.S. and spending money he no longer could replace.
On October 4,
1940 Mix had been larking around
Arizona. He stopped to visit an old pal, Pima County Sheriff Ed Nichols in Tucson. Later he stopped by
the Oracle Junction Inn, a saloon and casino where he had a few
drinks and called his agent to enquire about future bookings. Then it was off to Phoenix. He was speeding down State Route 79 at an estimated
80 miles an hour when he came upon a bridge
that had been washed away by a flash flood. He slammed
on the breaks skidding on the loose gravel. An aluminum suitcase stuffed with money, traveler’s checks and jewelry
tore loose from the luggage rack on the trunk behind him
and slammed into Mix’s head, shattering his skull. The car turned
over and slid into the dry arroyo but he was already dead.
After an elaborate Hollywood funeral with full military honors, Mix was laid to rest
in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Despite earning
over $6 million in his movie career he left
only a few thousand dollars—and
a lot of debt in his estate. His wife, ex-wife Victoria Forde, and
daughter Thomisina each received small bequests.
Tony Jr. out lived his master, but died exactly two
years later to the day.
Mix was the inspiration of songs, and literature. Darryl
Ponicsan wrote a cult favorite novel,
Mix Died for Your Sins. Hoaxer
Clifford Irving imagined Mix joining
the Mexican Revolution Tom Mix and Pancho Villa. Philip
José Farmer made him a leading
character as Jack London’s traveling companion in two of his Riverworld
science fiction novels.
James Gardner's Wyatt Earp and Bruce Willis at Tom Mix teamed up to solve a sordid Hollwood mystry in Blake Edwars' Sunset.
Bruce Willis played Mix teaming up with James Garner’s Wyatt Earp to solve a Hollywood mystery in the 1988 Blake
Edwards film Sunset.
In the ultimate pop culture tribute, Mix is one of the faces on the cover of
the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.