The woman known as Bicycle Annie has found her way to my pages of Austin memories on several occasions. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, she was a frequent sight along the Drag (the part of Guadalupe on the western edge of the UT campus) and other downtown Austin streets. As her nickname would suggest, she was often on her bicycle or walking along as she pushed it. Most Austinites and UT students of those decades remember her, some referring to her as the Indian Princess, other referring to her as simply Bicycle Annie. She seemed to eschew interaction with others (if not outright resent it) and, was, accordingly, left alone with the mental issues we assumed upon her.
But, as I learned recently, her real name was Zelma O’Riley. This information arrived at my doorstep from Diane in Wichita Falls, a relative of Bicycle Annie’s who has been researching her life. Through an exchange of emails precipitated after she discovered my blog entries, Diane shared with me what she has learned about this well-known, yet unknown, woman who once roamed our streets and garnered a place among local legends.
So, thanks to Diane, I have the opportunity to tell you that Zelma was from Durant, Oklahoma, where her father, John O’Riley was a professor. John and wife, Mary Catherine Harkins, had five other children including, Lester, Arlee, Zula, Lula, Ora, and Lela. Mary Catherine was a full-blooded Choctaw Indian who actually came to Durant on the “Trail of Tears.” The family was purportedly very wealthy, and raised their children quite traditionally. Zelma, who was very intelligent, moved to Fort Worth for a few years, and then finally to Austin to go to college at UT. Here she started the publication “Up and Down the Drag” in 1941.
In an edition of “Up and Down” from November, 1947, she wrote what I think are the most prescient words I’ve ever heard: “It will take a woman to save America.” She saw herself as this potential savior of the country, and explained that her principal campaign plank was: preparedness. The advertisement read, “Vote for Zelma O’Riley for First Woman President of the United States – she is Irish, she is Indian and she will care for you.” Also, it is known that as the daughter of a strong Indian woman, one of her main causes throughout her life was Native American rights.
To finance her publication, Zelma sold subscriptions and advertising along the Drag. But even after she stopped publishing”Up and Down,” she would periodically continued to sell advertising once in a while to fund herself. It’s possible to believe that she actually intended to publish it again. Whether her intentions were real or part of a delusion fantasy, many businesses bought “ads” to make her leave them alone.
While stories circulated about her being married to the man of her dreams and his death causing her to go into a depression, Diane says these are not true. She was never married and never had any kids. Her having a house in Hyde Park was also a fiction, although the Blue Bonnet Courts where she appeared to have lived is at the northwestern corner of that neighborhood.
Diane reports that throughout her life, Zelma visited Durant, in addition to Dallas where she stayed with her niece (Diane’s grandmother). Strangely enough, Diane’s uncle went to college in Austin and had many encounters with Zelma although he did not know at the time that he was her great-nephew. He only knew her as “Bicycle Annie” for years. Additionally, there are rumors that she attended Law School at one point to understand the judicial system to better “fight the power.” The law school attendance cannot be verified, but in characterizing Zelma as a pioneer activist, Diane finds it credible.
Apparently, the niece (Diane’s grandmother) knew Zelma suffered from some mental problems and tried to keep up with her without much success. After her grandmother’s death, Diane found Zelma’s obituary and a few copies of “Up and Down the Drag” among her things, which sparked her interest in this unusual relative.
Zelma passed away April 30, 1991, and is buried in Durant in a Choctaw burial ground.
As troubled and as unconventional as Leslie ( our once-celebrated local transvestite), Zelma is significant to me because she is a piece of the original weirdness of the Austin I knew and loved. In sharing our memories of her, Zelma links me to other Austinites who cherish yesterday’s city. While our Indian Princess could be a bit shocking and disagreeable, she made a unique mark in our psyches, tying us to this unique city.
May Zelma remind us — in these times of antipathy toward the homeless — that even the most unappealing person was once child and part of family that cared about them. And even if we can’t comprehend their world, they are still human beings, deserving of our compassion and understanding.
I hope our Indian Princess is at home resting in a world of peace and love. Austin sends you prayers and remembrance, Zelma. And on a personal note, I think you were right about a woman president.