Rupert Cornwell: The life, death and rebirth of Bonnie and Clyde

Out of America: The gangsters met their grisly deaths 75 years ago. As the anniversary is commemorated, will their real story at last be told?

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Just maybe, this Saturday will be the biggest day in 75 years for the small community of Gibsland, in northern Louisiana. The reason may be found on a grey stone marker, eight miles south of town on Route 154. "At this site, May 23, 1934," the inscription reads, in battered capital letters, "Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were killed by law enforcement officials."

Which is of course almost as much of an understatement as to call Adolf Hitler an Austrian-born watercolour artist. At that spot, on that day, a criminal legend was born, and every May, Gibsland holds a festival to commemorate it. The only problem is, where Bonnie and Clyde are concerned, reality and myth are one.

Clyde was a small town hoodlum and Bonnie was his girl, a slip of a woman just 4ft 10in tall. They did not operate alone, but as part of the Barrow gang. Indeed, Bonnie's role is disputed to this day. No murder warrant was ever issued against her even though, by the FBI's count, the gang killed at least 13 people during a two-year crime spree along the back roads of the south-central US. Indeed, no one seems to have seen her fire a shot, and certainly "not during the five big gun battles I was with them", the gang member W D Jones recalled years later. But, he added: "She was a hell of a loader."

Not that the FBI will shed tears over the brutal summary justice inflicted on the pair that warm spring morning long ago. Bonnie and Clyde were killed by deputy sheriffs from Texas and Louisiana, not FBI agents. But the bureau was deeply involved, and the case helped cement its place in the national imagination. Until 1934, it was just another government agency. After "The Year of the Gangster", during which John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd also were cornered and gunned down by federal agents, the FBI too became a myth.

But Bonnie and Clyde were special. More even than the others, they possessed the outlaw aura of the Old West – an aura magnified by Hollywood's subsequent alchemy. Their story above all bears out the immortal line from John Ford's The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, when a worldly wise local newspaper editor explains the news business to a truth-seeking and aggrieved young reporter: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The legend began from the moment of their death, as 20,000 people attended Bonnie's funeral. More than 60 years later, collectors of crime memorabilia were paying $200 for a one-inch square piece of cloth from the blue trousers Clyde was said to have been wearing when he died. The real Ford V-8 in which the couple perished now resides in a Nevada casino resort south of Las Vegas, though other "death cars" have been claimed.

Sealing the legend was Arthur Penn's celebrated movie of 1967, in which Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway elevated the doomed small-town lovers to impossible glamour and beauty, creating the prism through which the world now sees them. The car used in the movie is currently on loan to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment here in Washington DC, but normally resides at the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum in Gibsland, on the site of Ma Canfield's Café, where the pair ordered take-out sandwiches minutes before meeting their end on Route 154. Today it is run by L J "Boots" Hinton, son of Ted Hinton, the Dallas deputy sheriff who was a member of the six-man posse that took them down, and whose 1979 book Ambush: The Real Story of Bonnie and Clyde Boots will happily sign for visitors who buy it.

He was only a few months old when his father made history but "I was raised in all this – the story's been with me all my life." This year, though, is special, he says. "We're ramping real high." On Friday night, up to 150 historians and Bonnie and Clyde buffs are expected in Gibsland for dinner and debate. The subjects will include some old chestnuts (was Bonnie pregnant when she died? Was Clyde's last sandwich a BLT or fried bologna?) and some new ones, stemming from the release of new files from the Dallas FBI – not to mention a couple of just-published books, three separate Broadway musical projects, and The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, an independent movie that starts shooting this summer, with the surely impossible goal of separating fact and legend.

On the big day itself, Hinton reckons, 10,000 to 15,000 may show up in Gibsland (normal population 1,100) for re-enactments of robberies by the Barrow gang, and the gory finale in which Ted Hinton and his partners pulverised the lovers with 180 bullets. For his son, the issue is straightforward. "I don't mind the historians and the authors abusing some of the facts, so long as they treat it fairly, as the love story it is. Clyde was a drug-store bandit. Bonnie was his girl. It's as simple as that."

But nothing's that simple, least of all amid the Great Recession of 2009. Inevitably, this 75th anniversary evokes the Depression that formed the social backdrop to the original story. Then, even more than now, the economy had broken down; Bonnie and Clyde were held by some, even at the time, as the ultimate rebels against an unjust, uncaring system. Penn's film, product of the rebellious, anti-authoritarian 1960s, struck a similarly ambiguous chord. Were they bad – or somehow good? Were Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger and the rest merely cold-blooded killers? Or were their deeds somehow mitigated by economic circumstances?

One thing, however, is for sure. They don't make bad guys like Bonnie and Clyde any more. These days if anything, banks and bankers are not victims, but perpetrators, of crimes. Celebrities like Phil Spector and O J Simpson may turn into criminals. But surely never again will common criminals turn into celebrities like Bonnie and Clyde.

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