In the early 1950’s when my family got our first TV set—it had a whopping 12″ screen with a green tint—we kids tuned in to The Tim McCoy Show, which aired early Saturday evenings on a local Los Angeles station, KTLA, Channel 5. McCoy told stories about the Old West, gave lessons in Indian sign language, and interviewed old-timers who were in the mining camps and on the cattle ranges during the late 19th century. I was enthralled. Indian dancers made frequent appearances. A regular guest was Iron Eyes Cody, who we all thought was an Indian chief. Hollywood thought he was an Indian chief. Iron Eyes himself thought he was an Indian chief. He was actually a Sicilian from New Orleans who had passed himself off as an Indian chief for so long he came to believe his own fantasy.
Following McCoy’s tales and guests came a western, usually one starring Tim McCoy. By then we had our cap guns out, ready to fire at the bad guys on the screen. McCoy’s show was so successful that after two years it was lured to KNXT, Channel 2, the Los Angeles CBS affiliate. KNXT continued McCoy’s Saturday show but added Tim McCoy’s Wild West, a weekday afternoon show featuring McCoy talking about the history of the Old West. For me it couldn’t have been better. That race of people called adults must have thought so too, because in 1953 McCoy’s show was awarded an Emmy as the best Los Angeles-broadcast children’s program.
In those years I knew little about Tim McCoy, other than that he had starred in westerns, had been a real cowboy, and was often referred to as Colonel McCoy. Little did I know he had lived one of the fullest, most varied, and most adventurous lives imaginable.
Timothy John Fitzgerald McCoy was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1891. His parents were Irish immigrants, the father from County Limerick and the mother from County Kilkenny. The father came as a young boy with his Gaelic-speaking family of fierce Irish nationalists. The family settled in upstate New York in a community of immigrants whose first, and often only, language was Gaelic. When the Civil War erupted, the father enlisted in the Union Army. He was 16 years old. He served mostly in rear areas and survived the war unscathed. Ironically, he was wounded after the war in the Fenian invasion of Canada in July 1866, hoping along with other Fenians to divert Britain’s attention to Canada and allow Ireland to win her independence. The mother, described by Tim McCoy as “pretty, with dark auburn hair, a rosy complexion and an ever present twinkle in her eye,” arrived in America in 1870 as a young woman. Within months she became a McCoy. The couple would have six children. Tim was the last.
By the time Tim was growing up his father was police chief of Saginaw, a lumber town that had experienced a boom in the 1860’s and 70’s. “Ours was a home filled with warmth and affection,” recalled McCoy, “and my family orientation, as might be expected, was nationalistically Irish and devoutly Catholic.” His boyhood years were typical for youths of that era in the Upper Midwest, except his dad was the chief of police and the commander of the local chapter of the G.A.R. Because of the participation in parades by the police and Civil War veterans, McCoy learned to play the drums and the bugle so he could march along with them.
There was also a Naval Reserve unit in Saginaw, and having lost their bugler, they asked McCoy to join. He was only 13. His case was pleaded up the chain of command—even the Michigan governor got involved—and finally the Navy granted McCoy special permission to join. Five days before his 14th birthday he enlisted in the Naval Reserve. He drilled weekly and went on summer cruises. On his first cruise the ship began pitching and rolling in rough water, and a seasick McCoy regretted his enlistment—for about a day. He would stay in the reserve unit until he went off to college three years later.
McCoy’s father was a voracious reader and developed a sizable library in the family home. More than anything, he read history. “I cannot even begin to speculate,” noted McCoy, “how many times he plowed through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” McCoy said his father got him reading history by taking away his dime novels and telling him, “If you want some really thrilling adventures, go into my library and find the works of Alexandre Dumas. . . . You’ll be entertained and, if you’re lucky, you might even learn something.”
At 17 McCoy was admitted to St. Ignatius College in Chicago. He lived off campus with maternal uncles and aunts. His courses were demanding, and he had to study as never before. Moreover, many of his classmates were intent on becoming priests and were academically brilliant. It was no easy time for McCoy, especially because he had no desire to wear a clerical collar, and he was beginning to question religion in general. For pleasure he read historical fiction, although it was no longer Dumas’s The Three Musketeers but now Owen Wister’s The Virginian. He couldn’t seem to get enough of the Old West, cowboys in particular.
His interest in the West was first piqued by dime novels and getting to meet Buffalo Bill Cody when the frontiersman and entertainer brought his Wild West show to Saginaw in 1898. McCoy was captivated by the spectacle of it all, especially the riding and shooting. Since his father was the police chief, McCoy was able to tag along with his dad to Cody’s tent outside the arena. He said he stood awestruck before Buffalo Bill. After that experience McCoy was certain to be at the Saginaw stockyards whenever a shipment of mustangs arrived from the ranges of the West. Cowboys came along with the wild horses and would break them before they were auctioned. McCoy sat on the top rail of the corral to watch the action. Eventually, one of the cowboys handed McCoy a rope and showed him how to use it. McCoy practiced hours on end and soon was allowed into the corral to rope horses.
During the fall of 1908 the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show came to Chicago. McCoy slipped away from school to watch the performances. His imagination was again set on fire as it had been ten years earlier. He made up his mind: He would go west. At the end of the spring semester in 1909, without telling anyone, he boarded a westward-bound train with a few dollars in his pocket and a change of clothes and a toothbrush in a small satchel. On the train, by happenstance, he found himself seated next to a horse trader from Lander, Wyoming, who was one of those involved in shipping mustangs to the East.
At Grand Island, Nebraska, the horse trader put McCoy to work with Jim Dollard, breaking mustangs for market. The horse trader told McCoy that Dollard had killed two men in one day in Lander. “Now, look here,” the 18-year-old McCoy told the horse trader, “I know I’m a newcomer to the West but you don’t have to feed me that dime-novel stuff.” The horse trader laughed and told McCoy it was true and that Dollard had just been released from the penitentiary and was back to “breaking horses instead of stones.” Sporting a drooping red mustache, Dollard “looked me up and down with his sharp green eyes,” said McCoy, “the coldest eyes I had ever seen. If a look alone could kill, Dollard was capable of disposing of considerably more than two men in a single day.”
After several long days breaking horses with Dollard, McCoy boarded a train with the horse trader and began the run to Lander in west-central Wyoming, just south of the Wind River Reservation. The line to Lander had been completed only two years earlier, and the town gained the motto, “Where the rails end and the trails begin.” The horse trader took McCoy to an inexpensive boardinghouse and then left for his own quarters. The horse trader would leave for the east the next morning, and McCoy never saw him again.
Dropping his gear in his room, McCoy stepped out of the boardinghouse and onto the wooden sidewalks of Lander’s main street, which, appropriately, was dirt. Cowboys strolled into and out of saloons, music came from a dance hall, horses were tied to hitch racks, a few Indians stood about. In front of one saloon, said McCoy,
was a group of four or five cowboys who were having a grand time and feeling no pain. They were the most picturesque bunch of Westerners I had seen up to that time and I was particularly impressed by one of them, a tall, weathered, lean man with a long black moustache. He was wearing a high-crowned, auburn-colored beaver Stetson hat tilted back on his head, a yellow silk bandana tied rakishly around his neck, an emerald green shirt and a pair of puffy, white Angora chaps, which exploded from his legs, setting off elaborately tooled leather boots.
McCoy was thrilled by his first night in Lander—it was everything he dreamed the West to be. He treated himself to a steak dinner with all the trimmings, and pie and ice cream for dessert. It cost him 50 cents. He retired to his room and lay on his bed, listening to the sounds of raucous cowboy laughter, honky-tonk piano, and the clump of high-heeled boots on the wooden sidewalks accented by jiggling spurs.
The next morning reality struck. He was in the West, still somewhat the Old West, but he needed a job, and he wasn’t an old hand. Fortunately, a rancher 50 miles to the north needed a few men to work his hayfields. It was a start. For the next two months he harvested and stacked hay on the Double Diamond ranch. The foreman liked McCoy’s work, and when the fall roundup began he put the 18-year-old greenhorn on a horse. McCoy was elated and rushed down to Lander to buy all the trappings of a cowboy.
Meanwhile, McCoy had written his father saying he didn’t want to be a college man but, instead, a cowboy and was now in Wyoming. “Well, son,” replied his father, “it’s your own grave you’re digging. I just hope you aren’t going to be a horse’s ass all your life.”
McCoy spent the next half-dozen years working on several different ranches, but more often than not he found himself working for “Irish Tom” Walsh, who had grown up like McCoy’s father in a Gaelic-speaking community and had “a brogue you could slice with a meat cleaver.” While punching cattle for Walsh, it was learned that McCoy was a rather good tenor and knew dozens of songs, which delighted the cowboys, who had grown tired of what they called “Texas songs” such as “The Old Chis holm Trail.” McCoy nightly entertained the cowboys and quieted the cattle. Soon he had a nickname, “Irish Tom’s Canary.”
During these years he also came to know the Indians well, especially the Arapahoe. A romantic by nature, McCoy was fascinated by the stories the older Indians would tell of the days before the reservation when they followed buffalo herds and fought their enemies, mostly other Indian tribes and only occasionally white men. McCoy learned some of the Arapahoe language and came to master sign language, common to all the Indians of the High Plains. He became friends with several Arapahoe, including some who had fought at Little Big Horn. He became closest with Goes In Lodge, who made him a tribal brother.
McCoy also learned all about the notorious hired gun Tom Horn from a firsthand source, deputy sheriff Joe Cahill. Horn’s downfall, said Cahill, was mistaking a 14-year-old boy for his rustler father and shooting him to death at 300 yards. While Horn’s killing of suspected rustlers for a rancher’s bounty wasn’t legal, authorities didn’t put much effort into bringing Horn to justice. The death of the boy, though, caused outrage, and Horn paid for it by climbing the gallows steps in 1903. In McCoy’s days in Wyoming, a similar hired gun, Sam Barry, was plying his trade. McCoy said Barry’s arrival in an area usually put a stop to any rustling without Barry even firing a shot. Whenever Barry did kill a rustler, he sliced off the rustler’s ear as evidence of a job completed.
When McCoy went to town, it was south to Lander with a population of 2,000, east to Thermopolis with 1,500 folks, or north to Cody, a town with not many more than a thousand residents, but one that featured Buffalo Bill’s exquisite Irma Hotel. The old showman could usually be found at the 30-foot-long polished mahogany bar in the hotel’s saloon. McCoy became well acquainted with the celebrity he had first met in Saginaw in 1898. Cody looked a lot older, but still drank prodigious quantities of whiskey and captivated all standing at Irma’s bar with stories of derring-do in the Old West.
By 1915 McCoy had grown tired of taking care of other people’s cattle and filed for a 640-acre homestead on Owl Creek, some 45 miles west of Thermopolis. He had to plunk down $27.50 for the property initially and make improvements amounting to $1.25 an acre during the next five years to gain fee-simple title. Improvements normally took the form of building a cabin and barn, digging a well, and erecting corrals and fences. Since his arrival in Wyoming, McCoy had learned well not only the cowboy trade but also the cattle business, and by 1916 his ranch was taking shape. To generate cash flow, McCoy continued to punch cattle for Irish Tom.
During the winter of 1917 the talk of America’s possible entry into “the European war” dominated many a saloon conversation. McCoy’s interest was especially piqued, though, by an article by Teddy Roosevelt he read in the Denver Post. Roosevelt proposed an American force that he would lead, which would include a company of cavalry similar to the Rough Riders of Spanish American War fame. Roosevelt theorized that cavalry could break through the German front and wreak havoc operating as raiders behind the enemy’s lines. “At the time I read that article,” said McCoy,
I was twenty-six years old, bursting with energy, enjoying good health and filled with that roving spirit which has always constituted a substantial part of my make-up. And, like many young people, I had the brashness, or spunk, that comes when you’ve passed most of your time on life’s hills rather than down in the valleys.
As soon as he finished reading Roo sevelt’s article, McCoy began writing a letter to the former president. McCoy said he would recruit a force of 400 cowboys from Wyoming and Montana for Roo sevelt. McCoy addressed the envelope to “The Hon. Theo. Roosevelt, New York City, New York,” reckoning the post office would get the letter to Teddy. Two weeks later a rider dispatched from Thermopolis galloped up to McCoy and handed him a telegram. It was a reply from Teddy: “Bully for you! Do proceed! Roosevelt.”
Article and telegram in hand, McCoy spent the next several weeks recruiting. In less than two months he had 400 men signed up. With Wyoming and Montana under a deep blanket of snow and nothing to do but sit around bunkhouses looking at catalogs, everyone was raring to go, anticipating a grand adventure in Europe. No one was more excited than McCoy, who sent word of his success to Roosevelt. In late March, McCoy received another telegram from Roosevelt: President Wilson would not approve the plan. Wilson gave several excuses, but the real reason was his fear that Roosevelt would once again become the darling of the American public.
Ironically, a week after Wilson scuttled Roosevelt’s plan, Congress declared war. McCoy immediately was on a train for Cheyenne, where he got a letter of recommendation from the governor, and then on to Fort Logan near Denver. After several twists of fate he was sent to OCS at Fort Snelling, near St. Paul, Minnesota. He excelled in officer’s school and then even more so in cavalry school, where he was promoted to captain upon graduation. The promotion was an unusual distinction normally bestowed only upon veteran lieutenants. Before he left for posting at Fort Riley, Kansas, he married his girlfriend from Wyoming, Agnes Miller. Suddenly, McCoy was a cavalry captain in the U.S. Army and a married man.
At Fort Riley, McCoy became part of the officer corps tasked with turning recruits into cavalrymen. His life was made easier only when he was allowed to make cowboys noncoms to aid in the training. Despite a rigorous and intense training schedule, morale was high: All were preparing for the day when they would be making thunderous and glorious saber-wielding dashes on the backs of galloping steeds through enemy lines. Realists rather than romantics won the day, though. The use of modern machine guns and artillery pieces on the front in Europe was making it clear the days of cavalry charges were over, and word came to Fort Riley that the bulk of the cavalry forces would be converted to field artillery.
Shortly afterward, McCoy was transferred to West Point, Kentucky, where he led a funeral march of hundreds of cavalry troops, all wearing black arm bands, with heads bowed, while a band played a dirge. In the center of this procession was a caisson with a black-draped casket and a placard that read “United States Cavalry. Died 1918. RIP.”
McCoy spent the rest of the war at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, attending officers artillery school and then commanding a battery of horse drawn .75mm pieces. By the time the armistice was announced he was a lieutenant colonel. He thought of staying in the Army, but without a war he was afraid the boredom would kill him. Back to his Owl Creek ranch went McCoy and his wife. With his savings from the Army he was able to purchase 400 acres of land from the M-Bar, giving him a sizable spread of more than a thousand acres.
He wasn’t home for long before the new governor, Bob Carey, an old friend from McCoy’s first roundup, offered McCoy the job of adjutant general of Wyoming. McCoy accepted immediately and was now a brigadier general at the age of 28. McCoy’s headquarters were in the capitol at Cheyenne, but he was able to move about the state at his own discretion. This allowed him to keep an eye on his ranch, meet Wyoming’s old pioneers, recruit reserve troops from all corners of the state, and maintain contact with Goes In Lodge and other Arapahoe. The Arapahoe were especially impressed with their young friend, who had become a mighty chief with a star on his shoulder. They decided he needed a new name. In a ceremony conducted by Yellow Calf, the medicine man and buffalo caller of the tribe, McCoy was dubbed Bannee-i-natcha, meaning Soldier Chief.
During the next several years, McCoy bought another 1,500 acres of land and leased an additional 2,500 from the federal government. His Owl Creek ranch now spread over 5,000 acres and provided grass and water for 350 head of cattle. McCoy and his wife now had three children, two boys and a girl. He was respected and prosperous and should have been content, but the adjutant general of Wyoming longed for new adventures. Then, one day early in the fall of 1922, into his office in the capitol came a small, nattily dressed man carrying an alligator-skin briefcase. “Have you ever heard of Famous Players-Lasky?” the man asked. McCoy hadn’t. The man said it was a Hollywood motion-picture company currently making a western, The Covered Wagon, and 500 Indian extras were needed. For some reason, continued the man, it was proving impossible to get the Indians, and the movie was now behind schedule and over budget.
The man offered McCoy a handsome contract for providing the Indians and a job as technical advisor for the movie. After McCoy ensured that there would be contracts for all the Indians as well, a deal was struck. McCoy resigned as adjutant general, and because of his connections, his friendship with many Indians, and his mastery of signing, within weeks he assembled 500 Arapahoe, Shoshoni, and Bannock and nearly as many horses at the filming location in Milford, Utah. In two months the location shoot was completed. McCoy was a hero, and Jesse Lasky now wanted him in Hollywood to stand on stage with some of his Indian buddies to introduce the movie before each of its showings at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Lasky offered to pay the Indians and cover all their expenses and a contract of $1,000 per week for McCoy. The former dollar-a-day cowboy grabbed a pen and signed.
After a wildly successful four-month run at Grauman’s, it was off to London for six more months of the same. In the meantime, The Covered Wagon was shown in theaters across the United States. It was a spectacular success.
Once back in Hollywood, McCoy went to work as a technical advisor on a second movie, The Thundering Herd. While on location in Bishop, California, he drove over to the Walker River Reservation in Nevada and located Wovoka, the Paiute medicine man who created the Ghost Dance. Despite the tragedy of Wounded Knee, which the Ghost Dance had precipitated, Wovoka still believed himself to be the messiah, although he had lived in obscurity ever since the early 1890’s. A reticent Wovoka was animated when McCoy said there were Arapahoe now in Bishop who had trekked to Nevada to meet him back in 1890 and still believed in his medicine. Wovoka agreed to visit them the next day. McCoy had a studio limousine chauffeur Wovoka to Bishop, who then addressed the Arapahoe with great solemnity. To demonstrate he still had strong medicine he performed his magic on an Arapahoe suffering from tuberculosis. The Arapahoe said he suddenly felt good and even participated in a ceremonial dance with the other Arapahoe, something he hadn’t been able to do for years. Three months later he died of TB.
When his work on The Thundering Herd was finished, McCoy was hired to introduce John Ford’s The Iron Horse as he had done with The Covered Wagon. His Indian friends were making money they had never dreamed of, and they all thought it was far better than rotting on the reservation. For some time now they had been calling Tim McCoy by a new name, High Eagle, because he seemed so powerful and sagacious, soaring high and observing all. In turn, McCoy formally named his Owl Creek ranch Eagle’s Nest. His herd had expanded to more than a thousand head. He built a new log house and a new barn, and added a bunkhouse and more corrals. He couldn’t be called a cattle baron, but he had a very substantial operation that provided a comfortable income.
Just when he had settled into his new digs, Hollywood called again. Irving Thalberg of MGM wanted McCoy for a screen test. McCoy was a six-foot, handsome, blue-eyed blond, who could ride and rope, shoot and fight, and sign and track like an Indian, and Thalberg thought he’d be perfect to star in westerns. Moreover, studio publicity agents didn’t have to invent a matinee idol: McCoy was in reality a cowboy, Arapahoe blood brother, rancher, and cavalry officer.
Thalberg showed McCoy the footage of his screen test and asked him what he thought. “To tell you the truth,” said McCoy, “I wouldn’t walk across the street, let alone pay a dime, to see that fellow.” Thalberg smiled and patted McCoy on the arm. “Maybe we have other ideas. C’mon, let’s go up to my office and talk contract.”
From 1926 to 1929 McCoy starred in 16 MGM movies, mostly westerns. He even wrote the script for one when Thalberg grew upset with the staff writers. McCoy made the studio gobs of money, and gobs for himself. However, he was away from home nearly all the time, and his marriage was suffering. He tried to strike a new deal with MGM, but Louis B. Mayer stalled and equivocated, so McCoy said goodbye. For the next two years he starred in a serial, The Indians Are Coming, for Carl Laemmle; then, in 1931, he signed with Columbia Pictures. Instead of slowing down, the pace picked up, and over the next four years he made 32 movies. It was during this time that Hollywood began timing western stars on their quick draws by counting the number of frames on film from hand movement to smoke from the gun barrel. McCoy was a frame or more faster than anyone else. But his success in Hollywood finally destroyed his home life; Agnes filed for divorce.
McCoy wanted more flexibility to do other things, but Columbia wouldn’t grant it when contract negotiations came up in 1936. McCoy left Columbia but continued to make movies, now with small production companies that allowed him to tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus, and then with his own wild-west show. The latter folded after a money-losing tour. McCoy recouped his losses with the eight movies of the Rough Riders series, released by Monogram Pictures. McCoy starred alongside Buck Jones and Raymond Hatton. Monogram would have liked another eight movies, but there was an open U.S. Senate seat in Wyoming, and some friends convinced McCoy he should run. McCoy had spent little time in Wyoming over the last decade or more, and that hurt him. He lost in the Republican primary.
A few months earlier, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and McCoy thought if he couldn’t serve his country in the Senate, then it would be back in the Army. Although he was 52 years old, he still held a reserve commission as a lieutenant colonel, and off to war he went. He served in the Army Air Corps—later the Army Air Forces—in Europe and was promoted to colonel. He had a number of adventures, but spent most of his time behind the front lines in operations and intelligence. On one leave he got a military hop back to Paris and spent time drinking and carousing with Ernest Hemingway.
When the war was over, McCoy returned to Hollywood, but soon learned there wasn’t a great demand for cowboy actors in their mid-50’s. However, he was fortunate on another front. While at a Hollywood party, he met a blonde Danish journalist, Inga Arvad. For both of them it was love at first sight. They were married in 1946. Although only 32, Inga had a background nearly as colorful as McCoy’s. She had excelled in her studies growing up, becoming fluent in four languages, but was also noted for her beauty. At 17 she was crowned beauty queen of Denmark. After a brief marriage to a wealthy Egyptian diplomat, she married Paul Fejos, an Hungarian film director and anthropologist. They spent two years in the Dutch East Indies studying tribes on remote islands, whose huts were adorned with the shrunken heads of their enemies. The natives thought Inga a goddess from another world.
Once back in Europe she became a correspondent for a Danish newspaper and in 1935 interviewed Hermann Göring, Josef Goebbels, and Adolf Hitler. Captivated by her, Hitler declared her the ideal of Nordic beauty and granted her a second interview. In 1936 Hitler invited her to the Berlin Olympics, and she sat in his private press box. In 1939 she moved to New York and enrolled in the graduate program at the Columbia University School of Journalism. By 1941 she was writing a syndicated column profiling government officials for the Washington Times-Herald. A reporter for the paper and good friend, Kathleen Kennedy, thought Inga should meet her brother, Jack, a young ensign in the Navy.
Inga and Jack were soon an item. Sources close to the future president said it was the only time he was truly in love. She clearly enjoyed his company, but later said, “At the time, he was a boy, not a man.” However, the relationship wasn’t allowed to die a natural death. The FBI thought Inga might be a Nazi spy. She was shadowed everywhere, her telephone was tapped, her mail intercepted, and her apartment searched. With no evidence, Kennedy’s superior officer called Inga a Mata Hari, and Kennedy was transferred from Washington, D.C., to a post in South Carolina and then to sea duty with a PT boat squadron. Before the war was over Inga moved to Hollywood and went to work as a screenwriter at MGM.
Tim McCoy acted in a few more movies in the 1950’s and 60’s, but only in small roles or cameos. Altogether, he appeared in 93 movies. He and Inga had two sons and remained happily married until her death late in 1973. He died a little more than four years later.
I recall Tim McCoy from my childhood, and how neat it was for us kids to have cowboy heroes. I also think of his real life when the Hollywood hip and the liberal left of today ask mockingly and sneeringly of Tim McCoy, “Oh, was he one of those cowboy actors?” Indeed, he was, and you are not worthy to wipe the muck from his boots.