Who was Frank Buck?
In the 1920’s, when pulp magazines ruled the planet, stories of larger-than-life characters were their stock in trade. The heroes were steeped in mystery, intrigue, and danger, and were often globe-trotters, found in settings and plots that most of America could only dream of. The world of the 20’s and 30’s was immensely larger than it was today, and places like Africa, South America and Asia represented not just foreign cultures, but alien worlds. For everyday America, the “Orient” represented a culture as different to what they knew as Mars did. Writers of the day, when they needed big characters to interact with mysterious plots, only needed to look as far as the newspaper.
Frank Buck grew up a terrible and mostly absent student in the area surrounding Dallas, Texas. As a boy, he collected birds and small animals, often dreaming of a life of adventure. While he was still a boy he went to work as a cowpuncher, and rode cattle cars to Chicago. Once there, he never looked back.
He spent time working odd jobs to finance his travel. While still a boy, he met Amy Leslie, a travel and adventure writer, and the two wed. She was 46 at the time, and he was 17. Twelve years later, after living separate lives for years, the two divorced.
In 1911 Buck won big in a poker game and used his finances to travel to Brazil, at that time considered a wild frontier, where he collected and brought to New York a variety of exotic animals. Surprised by his fortune, he traveled the world collecting animals, bringing them back to zoos in the US. It was this practice that earned him the name Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck.
Buck lost all his fortune in the crash of ’29, and he was forced to borrow money to get him back on his feet. Earlier in the decade he signed a three-year contract to become the director of the San Diego Zoo, but clashed with… well, everyone, and was released from his contract after only three months. He soon returned to animal collecting.
In 1932 he befriended war correspondent Floyd Gibbons. Gibbons convinced Buck to write about his travels and adventures. Frank Buck went to work with author Edward Anthony and published Bring ‘Em Back Alive, which became an instant best-seller, and later on Wild Cargo. These best-sellers framed Frank Buck as the animal expert of his generation, and his exploits were the stuff of legend. Many books followed, but these were just the beginning of his fame.
In 1938, Frank buck joined Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus as their star attraction. Although he considered himself a scientist rather than an entertainer, he stayed with the circus for years. He also served as the purveyor of exotic animals for the circus, bringing them rare birds and reptiles, camels, elephants, a trained orangutan, ‘Gargantua the Gorilla,’ and “monkey mountain,” an act made up of over 600 monkeys.
Buck’s legend grew, and Tinseltown took notice. He stared as himself in many short Hollywood movies, as well as teaming up with Abbott and Costello in Africa Screams! He also starred as Frank Hardy in the Columbia serial Jungle Menace.
Buck married twice more in his life, but was never on a first-name basis with marital bliss. He retired to Texas, and eventually passed away from cancer, due to his life-long habit of cigarette smoking. The Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas was named for Buck, and was started initially with retired performing animals. In 1982, a television show, Bring ‘Em Back Alive was based on his life.