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Born in a Wagon Yard,
the Buck Started There

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

No, really, Frank Buck wasn't a cartoon character.

Maybe his unusual if particularly fitting surname - given that he became world renowned as a pith helmet-wearing-big-game hunter from Texas who "brought 'em back alive" from Africa and other exotic locales -- is what led to a mistaken perception that Buck was only a fictional hero like the Green Hornet, Superman, Batman, or the Incredible Hulk.

But for three decades of the 20th century, no confusion clouded the public's awareness of Frank Buck, as big a name as Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh or Mae West.

True, Buck's life story does read like one of those giant 25 cent comic books that publishers used to put out for summer reading just before schools let out. The only difference is a bit of mildly adult content centering on a succession of trophy wives.

Buck was born in a Gainesville wagon yard on March 17, 1884, but his family moved to Dallas when he was five. Early on, he became interested in birds, snakes and other critters. He didn't do very well in school, except for geography. That's how he learned about African lions and jungle creatures from orangutans to giant pythons. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade back when high school ended after the 11th grade.

Around 1900, Buck hired on as a cowboy in San Angelo. By then, however, the romantic days of horseback drovers pushing a herd of cattle up the trail to market had ended. Buck's "trail drive" took him from West Texas to Chicago via a railroad cattle car.

The 17-year-old decided to stay in Chicago, soon landing a job as a bellhop at the plush, 400-room "absolutely fire proof" Virginia Hotel. The 10-story hotel also rented rooms to permanent residents, one of whom was Amy Leslie (her real name was Lillie West), the 46-year-old drama critic for the Chicago Daily News. Somehow, the animal magnetism that would make Buck so successful in dealing with assorted African and Asian species attracted the lady journalist, and after a courtship that must have moved faster than a hungry cheetah chasing a gazelle, they were married.

How long that May-December romance remained blissful can only be a matter of conjecture, but when Buck won $3,500 in a poker game in 1911, he used the money to go to Brazil without Mrs. Buck. In South America he captured assorted exotic birds and long before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cared about such things, he brought them to New York and made good money selling them to zoos and circuses. Soon, he was off to Singapore and much of the rest of the world. Within two years, he was divorced and married to a Chicago secretary who did join him on his oversea expeditions in search of wildlife and adventure.

The second Mrs. Buck must have been game at first, but after their divorce, she declared to a reporter: "As long as I live, I don't want to see any animals wilder or bigger than a kitten."

While Buck had no qualms about making money off the wild animals he captured for sale to zoos and collectors, he didn't have any desire to kill them. In fact, the only animal he ever shot was a large python that could not otherwise be discouraged from eating his hand.

"I have made it my business to bring them back alive," he said, "for I have only feelings of kindness for every creature that breathes on this Earth."

Whether his reluctance to kill was based on true sentiment for the animals or simply to make his business model work, he went on to capitalize on that reputation. And he did it with humanely designed traps and snares before tranquilizer darts made capturing game much easier.

By 1928, Buck had captured the heart of his third and final wife and bought a house in Encino, CA. Being a bloodless big game hunter had made him financially well off, but as was the case for millions of Americans, the Great Depression changed that.

Having been married initially to a newspaperwoman, Buck clearly realized the value of publicity. The world traveler from Texas told his story to Edward Anthony, who turned Buck's adventures into "Bring 'Em Back Alive," published in 1930. The book became a best seller, with a successful movie version released two years later. Seven additional books and seven movies - in some of which he played himself - made him a cultural icon during the Depression and on into the 1940s.

The handsome, mustachioed Texan had traveled much of the world, but in his 60s, Buck came home to Texas. Not to Gainesville or Dallas, but back to where his adventure had begun, San Angelo. (His older brother, Walter Buck, lived there.)

In 1948, he enjoyed a hero's return to Gainesville for the dedication of a zoo named in his honor. A year later, he produced his final film, an Abbott and Costello comedy, "Africa Screams."

Just when he found out his smoker's cough was actually lung cancer is lost in medical records that probably no longer exist, but he died in a Houston hospital on March 25, 1950. As he had earlier written, and obviously knew better than most, "Life in the jungle is a constant struggle for the survival of the fittest."



Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - September 10, 2015 Column

See also:
Bring 'Em Back Alive: Frank Buck by Archie P. McDonald

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