It is always surprising to those of us connected with the Tom Mix Museum that a man who had such an incredible, adventuresome life would have so many false stories written about him, some of which might even have originated with Tom himself! In the next few paragraphs we will try and present a few facts about Tom, his life and times, unadorned with some of the more persistent fables. He did not ride with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the Spanish American war. He was not in fact a Texas Ranger, although in 1935 the governor of Texas made him an Honorary Ranger. The truth about his life is quite astonishing enough with no fiction added.
Tomas Hezekiah Mix was born in or near Mix Run, Pennsylvania on January 6, 1880. He was killed in a single-car accident on October 12, 1940, near Florence, Arizona. The 60+ years in between contained a lot of livin'. Tom enlisted in the Army on April 26, 1898, giving his occupation as laborer and his birthplace as Driftwood, Pennsylvania, a small village about 5 miles from Mix Run. He gave his name as Thomas E. Mix and his height as 5'8". Tom never liked the name Hezekiah and used Edwin, his father's first name, as his middle name throughout his life. He enlisted for three years and was discharged on April 25, 1901. He reinlisted for another three years and in 1902 while on furlough from the Army married Grace Allin. He never returned to the Army and on November 6th, 1902 was listed as AWOL but was never court-martialed.
Tom came to Indian Territory soon after his marriage to Grace and for the next several years worked at quite a variety of jobs. He was a bartender in Guthrie, a laborer at the Dewey Portland Cement Plant, a drummer in the Territorial Calvary Band, a ranch hand on the 101 Ranch, a performer in the 101 Wild West Show and a night marshal in Dewey. Grace apparently was not able to adjust to life in Indian Territory and returned to her home in Pennsylvania in 1903. Shortly after her return home Grace's father had the marriage annuled. In 1905 Tom married Kitty Perinne, whose father owned a hotel where Tom stayed in Oklahoma City. Tom's second attempt at marriage didn't last much longer than his first and he and Kitty were divorced in 1906.
While working as a bartender in Guthrie Tom met two of the Miller brothers. Owners of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. Although Tom was good with horses he had never worked as a cowboy and the Miller brothers gave him his first ranch job. This proved to be a significant turning point in Tom's life as his association with the Miller brothers led to his performing in their famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Show business captured the young Tom Mix and even though it was only a part time profession for several years it eventually led to the movies and to the making of one of the most famous movie stars of all time.
In 1909 Tom married Olive Stokes, a part Cherokee beauty from Dewey, Oklahoma. He had first met Olive at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis when she was only 17. Legend has it they were introduced by Will Rogers. Olive was raised on a ranch just a few miles west of Dewey and could ride, rope and was even known to bulldog steers. A cowgirl who could hold her own with most any of the performers in the wild west shows, beautiful and accomplished, Olive seemed to be the perfect match for Tom. They were, however, divorced in 1917 and Olive turned out to be Tom's middle wife. Tom and Olive had one daughter Nadine Ruth Jane Mix, born in July of 1912 on the Stokes ranch while Tom was performing in a wild west show in Montreal.
Tom performed in several different wild west shows and and it seems only natural for Tom to have migrated from the wild west show to the movies. Tom's first movie was made for the Selig Polyscope Company, on Sherman Moore's ranch, the Horseshoe L, just outside Dewey, Oklahoma at the base of Blue Mound. The movie was called Ranch Life in the Great Southwest and in addition to Tom, Henry Grammar, who later became a champion steer roper, appeared in the movie. Tom became hooked on the movies and the movies became hooked on him. Those of us accustomed to the movies of the 21st century would find the movies of the early 1900's to be primitive in the extreme. They had no sound, were in black and white and were generally about 15 minutes long. And the public could not get enough! Between the years 1909 and 1917 Tom made 236 movies for the Selig Polyscope Company. It is interesting to note that while Tom is universally remembered as a western movie star almost half of his Selig movies (105) were not westerns. Stop by the Museum one of these days and we will show you one of these old black and white movies in our old fashioned movie theater.
Tom and Olive Mix
In 1915 a new young lady was brought in by Selig to work alongside Tom. Her name was Victoria Forde. It may be no coincidence that not long after Miss Forde started working with Tom that he and Olive were divorced. Despite having one of movies brightest new stars, in 1917 the Selig Polyscope Company was in financial trouble. When it was suggested that the horses that worked in Tom's movies not be fed on the days they did not work and that he fire several of his cowboy friends Tom left Selig and began looking for another production company. Instead of shopping around Tom decided he wanted to work for William Fox the owner of Fox Studios. Mr. Fox liked the fact that Tom did all of his own stunts and they soon struck a deal that included not just Tom but also his horses and his cowboys.
Tom and Victoria Forde
An Angelic Attitude
Tom was good for Fox Studios and they were good for Tom. When he was hired by Mr. Fox, Tom was paid $350. a week. A lot of money in 1917 but he became one of the highest paid movie stars of his time eventually earning over $17,000 a week. In addition to being on a solid financial footing the Fox Studio movies played to a much wider audience than the Selig movies. The wider exposure afforded by Fox undoubtedly contributed to Tom's move from a simply prolific actor to genuine world famous movie star.
Initially Tom's films at Fox were similar to those he had made at Selig. One reel quickies. The public, however, was becoming impatient with 15 minute movies and soon Tom and Fox were making multi reel feature films. In 1917 Tom made four one reel comedies and two feature dramas. In 1918 he made six feature films and only one single reel. As Tom became more popular the budgets for his films grew, his costumes became more elaborate and and he became more popular at the box office. Tom Mix made 85 films with Fox studios making both he and William Fox millionaires. The days at Fox were Tom's finest in the motion picture industry. Sadly only a few of the movies from this period are available in the United States today.
Tom and Victoria seemed compatible enough but it may have been because they lived much of the time apart. Tom spent much of his time on location and since his movies were taking more than a few days to film, even though he was only making six to 10 movies a year, he was away from home much of the time. This was fine with Victoria as long as she didn't have to join him on location. She was a city girl and loved the excitement of Hollywood. Not very long after Victoria and Tom were married she gave up her film career to concentrate on promoting Tom and his movies. And she was a very good promoter. She was also very good at spending Tom's money and he was no slouch himself. He was one of the highest paid entertainers of his time and one of the biggest spenders. Tom and Victoria had a daughter they named Thomasina in February of 1922 so Tom obviously wasn't gone all the time. In the mid 20's Tom started performing again with the 101 Wild West Show when not making movies for Fox.
Being the highest paid cowboy star in Hollywood also meant his movies cost the most to make. In the late 20's Tom was also getting less than sterling reviews on some of his movies and despite the fact that most all of Fox's profits came from Tom Mix movies Fox and Tom parted ways in 1928. Tom signed with FBO (Film Booking Office) studios, which was owned by Joseph P. Kennedy, father of future President John Kennedy. Tom made five films for FBO. All were made in 1928 although the last one, The Big Diamond Robbery, was not completed until January 1929. Unfortunately, none of the FBO films are available today. Tom was never very happy at FBO. He was used to the big budgets of Fox and things were quite different at FBO. For one thing Tom's salary was only a little over half of what he had made at Fox. For another the sets, the scripts and just about everything else associated with the FBO movies were low budget. Joe Kennedy didn't get to be one of the world's richest men by throwing money around.
1929 was not one of Tom's best years. Early in 1929 Victoria took Thomasina for an extended European vacation where she proceeded to spend money as if Tom were bringing it in as fast as ever. Which was not the case. Marriage number four was not doing well. One of the few bright spots for Tom in 1929 was his association with the Sells – Floto Circus. He signed on to tour with the circus in April and once again was back in his element. Tom loved people. He loved performing and he loved the accolades but he also returned the appreciation of his loyal fans by signing autographs, sometimes for hours after his performances. However, shortly after signing with the Sells Floto Circus Tom was charged with tax evasion for the years 1925-1927. There was never any evidence to indicate that Tom was the instigator, or even aware, of the faulty filings. Nevertheless, he had signed the forms, which had been prepared by his accountant, and eventually paid a hefty fine. Tom was extremely upset that his reputation as a good guy had been tarnished by his accountant. We all know what else happened in 1929. Tom lost the great majority of his fortune and his Arizona ranch following the stock market crash. 1929 was not a good year – for the country or for Tom. (to be continued)