Fort Worth legend Amon G. Carter’s life and spirit chronicled in two new biographies

Amon G. Carter left his mark.

There’s the Fort Worth art museum named after him, a Texas lake, the stadium where Texas Christian University’s Horned Frogs play football, a plaza at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, a local high school and Amon Carter Peak in Big Bend National Park, which he helped bring about, not to mention a Fort Worth boulevard near where Amon Carter Field once received and dispatched airliners.

This eighth-grade dropout with a Dickensian adolescence would become a Texas media mogul as co-founder and long-time publisher of what would become the state’s largest newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and creator of the region’s first commercial TV and radio stations, today’s KXAS-TV Channel 5 and WBAP radio. And should younger generations and newcomers need to know more about this larger-than-life Texan, there are two new biographies and a play.

When he controlled the Star-Telegram, which once circulated throughout West Texas, Fort Worth reaped much from Carter’s over-the-top boosterism, philanthropy, political arm-twisting and exaggerated public displays of Texas cowboy-style rowdiness that made him a national figure. He coaxed bomber and automobile plants to North Texas, and leaned on politicians to deliver such Depression-era projects as the Cultural District’s 85-acre Will Rogers Memorial Center.

Fort Worth native Brian Cervantez, an associate professor of history at Tarrant County College, scoured the Carter papers at TCU to detail this truly Texas Horatio Alger saga in Amon Carter: A Lone Star Life.

Dave Lieber’s heavily illustrated, Amon! The Ultimate Texan works to capture Carter’s spirit – written in the first person (as it is a companion piece to Lieber’s eponymous one-man play) – while glossing over the publisher’s major short-comings. The play will be performed May 9-25 at the Artisan Center Theater in Hurst.

Both books succeed in their own chosen way.

Cervantez goes heavy on Carter’s commercial and political wheeler-dealing, but does supply colorful anecdotes. One notable omission, however, is Clyde Barrow’s profanity-laced letter of complaint to Carter over Star-Telegram coverage of a double slaying close to Fort Worth in 1934. Barrow wrote that he shot two Grapevine police officers because they had interrupted a love-making session on Highway 114 with Bonnie Parker.

The notorious bank robber took particular umbrage with the headline describing Bonnie as his “cigar-smoking” companion, and issued death threats. Never again would Carter’s paper refer to her smoking preferences, wryly noted the late Jerry Flemmons in his book, Amon: The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America (Texas Tech University Press, 1998).

Readers might get bogged down by Cervantez’s account of Carter’s work on an ill-fated effort to make the Trinity River navigable from Fort Worth to the Gulf Coast. But Cervantez supplies fascinating details elsewhere of the publisher’s power brokering.

In trying to woo General Motors to Fort Worth, Carter went so far as to negotiate lower freight rates for the automaker with Burlington Northern. In the end, GM chose neighboring Arlington but many credited Carter’s machinations for helping secure the assembly plant for North Texas.

Cervantez is at his best describing Carter’s feuds with James E. “Pa” Ferguson and Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, a husband and wife who both served as populist, corrupt governors; his break with Lyndon Baines Johnson; his complicated relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and an end-of-an era showdown with Jim Wright, the “boy” mayor of Weatherford who sought to unseat Carter’s lapdog congressman.

The 1954 story has been told before, but is worth a repeat. Wright, who would go on to become a power in Congress, found the Star-Telegram’s coverage so biased against him that he bought an ad in the paper calling out Carter for politically dominating Fort Worth.

“You have at last met a man… who will not bow his knee to you and come running like a simpering pup at your beck and call,” Wright’s ad said. “It is unhealthy for ANYONE to become TOO powerful… TOO influential… TOO dominating. It is not good for Democracy. The people are tired of ‘One Man Rule.’”

Wright defeated Carter’s candidate in the primary, and handily won the general election.

A staunch Democrat of the southern persuasion, Carter did not challenge prevailing racial views, writes Cervantez, who unlike other biographers describes black-white relations during the publisher’s career.

Carter did arrange for a special Will Rogers performance before a black audience at the Mt. Gilead Baptist Church when African Americans otherwise could not see the immensely popular columnist and entertainer. This fit Carter’s paternalistic approach to blacks, Cervantez wrote. But there was a far less benign side, the author reveals, citing a file unearthed at the TCU library.

In 1923, Carter slapped a black dining car porter for failing to grovel before white passengers, including New York columnist O.O. McIntyre. The porter was struck so hard he fell into McIntyre’s lap. We know this, Cervantez writes, because the 44-year-old Carter himself recounted the assault in a complaint to the Pennsylvania Railroad, suggesting that “impudent” northern black porters be replaced with southern ones who “know how to treat your customers.”

What was the man’s offense?

When a white passenger complained that the slow meal service must be the result of deafness, the porter had the temerity to reply that he was not hard of hearing when people talked to him.

Amon Carter: A Lone Star Life

By Brian A. Cervantez

University of Oklahoma Press, 246 pages; $29.95

Amon! The Ultimate Texan

By Dave Lieber

Yankee Cowboy Press, 127 pages. $24.95 (release date May 3); Amazon Kindle edition $9.95