Even in the era of bathtub gin, flappers and daredevils sitting atop flagpoles for days on end, it was a pretty startling sight.
Here came a massive chestnut-colored horse galloping through the gates of the White House to pause beneath the President of the United States on the South Portico. Riding him was a world-famous Movie Star Cowboy, who then doffed his trademark white Stetson hat, in deference to the Chief Executive.
And so did the horse, leaving a pile of presence right then and there.
It was May 21, 1925, the day that Silent Screen Star Tom Mix came to call on President Calvin Coolidge. Just two months earlier, Coolidge had been sworn-in to serve his own four-year term, elected in November 1924 after having inherited the presidency while he was Vice President, following the August 1923 death of President Warren Harding. Coolidge didn’t need to impress anyone or raise campaign contributions by cashing in a chit from a Hollywood actor. He very much wanted him there.
Well over a century since he his first movie was made, in 1909, Tom Mix is no longer a name familiar to most Americans, but for three decades he was once one of Hollywood’s leading stars.
Although born in Pennsylvania (January 6, 1880), he always felt his home was in the West. He served as a peace officer in Texas and Oklahoma, a sheriff in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, a U.S. Marshal in Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. His expert horsemanship had even led him into the U.S. military.
Mix saw action as a Spanish-American War scout for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba, then fought in the Luzon, Philippines. From there it was the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Boer War in South Africa, and the Mexican Revolution.
His biggest fan base were young boys and men who held him up as a role model of bravery and honesty and they idolized him as a hero after his ascent in fame following the string of his successful cowboy silent movies throughout the Teens and Twenties. Insisting that he would have no drinking in his scenes or cussing on his dialogue cards, he was the good-guy cowboy, signified by that trademark white hat. Yet both is screen persona and real-life personality remained accessible and humble.
Coolidge especially wanted Mix on the day he was invited as the centerpiece treat for the thousands of disabled and permanently wounded American serviceman of World War I. The Hardings had begun this annual tradition of honoring disabled and wounded servicemen with a White House South Lawn garden party, and the men were transported there in crutches, wheelchairs and stretchers from Walter Reed Hospital and other private hospitals contracted with the recently-created Veteran’s Bureau.
For a twenty-five year old veteran at that time, Tom Mix would have been a big star from their older childhood and young teenage days. The movie star obliged, even getting down from his horse to greet the vets scattered in tents and waiting patiently on line to shake his hand.
Although both men had wives named Grace, nothing more contrasted Cal and Tom than their view of marriage. Calvin and Grace Coolidge never loved anyone but each other and kept a union of complete fidelity. Grace Mix, however, had only been the first of Tom Mix’s five wives, divorced after only one year following their 1902 wedding. Then it was Kitty, also a one-year wife, divorced in 1906. He had one daughter each by wives three and four, Olive and Victoria and the latter one had the luck to be married to Tom Mix at the time of his White House visit, and was invited along with him. Mabel, his number five, lasted longest, a full decade until the time of his 1940 death in a car accident.
Not one of Tom Mix’s wives, however, had as long and devoted a relationship with him as did “Tony, the Wonder Horse.” In fact, along with Victoria, Tom made sure to bring Tony with him to meet the Coolidges (it was actually Tony’s second White House visit there with Tom, the first being at the invitation of the Hardings).
Making some eighty-one movies together, and doing all their own stunts, Tom and Tony first appeared together in 1917’s The Heart of Texas Ryan. Tom insisted Tony be given co-star billing. An unusually intelligent horse who was able to open gates and untie Tom’s hands, Mix only had to give undivided attention in showing these tricks to the horse and Tony could immediately mimic what he saw.
When Tom Mix was given the honor of putting his hand and footprints in cement to be forever preserved at the famous Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, he again insisted that Tony be granted the same respect, and Tony’s hoof-prints are there still today, with those of the cowboy.
Tony, in fact, went on to make three films of his own, Just Tony (1922), Oh! You Tony (1924), and Tony Runs Wild (1926). One of the world’s most famous horses of his time, Tony received bagfuls of his own fan mail and made appearances all over the world with his cowboy caretaker. Tom poured a tremendous amount of love and care into Tony’s well-being, ensuring he received the proper amount of exercise, nutritional and even off-camera companionship.
After Tony injured himself in 1932 when he was 33 years old, he was retired to the Mix ranch in the San Fernando Valley in what is today Universal City. Tom started working with a “Tony Junior” but he continued to lavish love on Tony and even provided for him in his will. Tony lived to be 43 years old. In fact, he outlived Tom Mix, dying two years to the day after the actor.
Such respect for a non-human being placed Mix in high esteem with President Coolidge who showed the same sort of care for animals, an affinity shared by Grace Coolidge (to read more about this and see many photos, go to: http://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/01/25/animal-loving-grace-coolidge-and-her-famous-white-house-white-collie/)
Tom Mix appeared in nearly 300 movies, almost all of them silent, directed over one hundred films and wrote nearly one hundred scripts himself. He not only transitioned smoothly to sound movies, but also began a radio show and a Wild West Circus which toured the U.S. Enormously successful, he owned a yacht, an Arizona ranch and his famous home in Hollywood which could not be missed, his “TM” logo lit up above it at night, in neon.
One may wonder what such sort of impression this risk-taking, dashing and energetic cowboy-movie star made on the President who was famously caricatured as “Silent Cal” for his laconic nature, always depicted as cautiously unsmiling and conservative in dress and manner. Although President Coolidge was known to encourage the First Lady to dress in the flamboyant Jazz Age fashions he was invariably seen in his presidential navy blue suits and black coats.
Cal may have stayed as silent as Tom. If a picture says anything, however, he sure as hell liked to do it up when he got out west, even cracking a slight smile beneath his white Stetson.
Here’s a quick, little film bio review of Tom Mix:
- Coolidge the Comic – Who Knew? (thedailybeast.com)
- Calvin Coolidge, Vermont Native and Our 30th President (ghostsofdc.org)
- Vice President Calvin Coolidge Evacuates the Willard Due to Fire … and an Awkward Encounter (ghostsofdc.org)