America has had a lot of cool people over the years, but rather than just pick the fifty coolest, we thought it would be a good idea to do something a little different and pick one person per state and then rank them that way. This isn’t a list of the greatest Americans ever – although most of these people are pretty great – it’s a list of the coolest, so it won’t just be loaded with former Presidents, although there are a couple. Some of the people chosen were cool because they were so brave or so courageous that they can’t help but be considered cool, while some were just, well, cool. In the end, what they all have in common is that they are the coolest person from their state (or from a state they weren’t necessarily born in but with which they are closely associated), which makes them one of the fifty coolest Americans ever.
Yeah, not a lot of cool people have come out of Maine over the years, but Dorothea Dix is probably the coolest of the bunch. She spent her life tirelessly fighting on behalf of insane people who also happened to be completely broke, and her efforts basically created the first public American mental asylums, which might not sound that cool, but trust me, it’s cooler than anything you’ve ever done.
Wyoming’s had a lot of cowboys and tough guys in its history, but you know what’s cooler than a tough old cowboy? A tough old lady. And Esther Hobart Morris was definitely that, running herd over camps filled with tough guys as the very first female Justice of the Peace in the United States. She also played a role in women getting the right to vote, and once had her own husband arrested for being a drunken degenerate.
A bit of an upset here, since the obvious choice would probably be Benjamin Franklin, but I went with Margaret Mead. I mean, was Ben Franklin ever known as the “Prophet of the Sexual Revolution?” Nope. But Margaret Mead was, as she took her anthropological studies of sexuality in the Pacific islands, looked at repressed America, and basically said hey, let’s be more like these dudes and lady dudes who unapologetically like to bang, and really, what could be cooler than that?
You would think Louisiana would have produced a lot of cool people over the years, but not really. That’s because you’re actually just thinking of New Orleans, and so who better to pick here than the man who actually founded New Orleans, Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne? Anytime you can say that a dude founded one of the best party cities in the entire world, you have to give him his cool points. Also, he’s an ancestor of a certain Guyism writer, which, let’s be honest, just puts him over the top.
While Lewis and Clark were bumbling their way across America, just a couple of white boys who would have died in the country without help, little ol’ Sacagawea from what was to become Idaho stepped in and kept them alive long enough to reach the Pacific. Given that she lived in a time when you had to be a white dude to make the history books, the fact that she became famous as a Native American woman shows just how cool she must have been indeed.
Sure, he might look like a dude who has bodies in the crawl space, but H.P. Lovecraft also invented Cthulhu and came up with the Necronomicon. He was obviously a supremely weird dude, but he was weird in that eerie, slightly sinister way that is undeniably pretty cool. Besides, it’s Rhode Island. The runner-up was DJ Pauly D.
It’s hard to find truly cool people in some of these out of the way states, but Mary Ann Shadd Cary deserves her spot on this list. After all, she was the first black woman publisher in the United States, and during the Civil War she served as a recruiting officer before then serving an important role in the woman’s suffrage movement. She’s one of those people history doesn’t talk about much, but it should because she was pretty undeniably cool.
Count Basie’s jazz orchestra was a pop-culture fixture for a half a century, and in that time he developed a reputation as one of the godfathers of jazz, which is pretty much the coolest music style a dude can master. Plus, his name is Count Basie, which makes him sound like a pimp or a vampire or something.
The daughter of slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune didn’t let that get her down, and instead went on to become an adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt and founded one of the first schools for black students, a little school in Florida that went on to become Bethune-Cookman University, which is still one of the top traditionally African-American schools in the country. And you complain and give up every time your Xbox acts up.
Not many people have exuded a certain effortless cool like Sidney Poitier. It’s not just that he’s a great actor, it’s that he can walk into any room in the world and immediately be The Man. That’s enough to make him the coolest person from Florida, just barely beating out the dude who took bath salts and then tried eating people.
There’s a little bit of competition here from Harry Houdini and Orson Welles, but in the end Wisconsin’s representative has to be Les Paul, the man who revolutionized the rock and roll guitar. How cool is Les Paul? Well, he’s one of the very few men to have his own exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and some guitar players – including Slash, who’s pretty much made up of cool molecules – will only play a guitar if it has Les Paul’s name on it. Cool? Cool.
Aside from being the Godfather, Marlon Brando was the dude who uttered maybe the coolest line in movie history – “What do you got?” – after being asked what he’s rebelling against. It was a scene that defined cool for an entire generation, and it worked so well because at the time nobody was cooler than Brando.
In order to be cool, you’ve got to have at least a little outlaw in you, and perhaps nobody defines that romantic outlaw spirit like Billy the Kid. Sure, he killed some dudes and broke some laws, but none of us are perfect.
No branch of the military is cooler than the Air Force. After all, it’s all about flying awesome jets and what little kid - or big kid - doesn’t think that’s cool? And Chuck Yeager was the coolest of the Air Force cool. He’s the first dude who broke the sound barrier by flying a jet so fast that it caused one of those badass sonic booms. I bet that got him laid once or twice.
Sure, Paul Newman’s portrayal of Butch probably unfairly makes him seem cooler than he really was, but still, like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy represents a certain doomed outlaw romanticism that sits at the heart of American coolness. Besides, who else am I going to pick from Utah? Donny Osmond?
Okay, so he was a Russian, but he gets the nod here because he spent twenty years living as an exile in Vermont because he was too real for the Soviets to handle. A badass novelist who spent all his free time shit-talking the communist leadership even though he knew they might send him to a Gulag, Solzhenitsyn made Vermont cooler just by his very presence. Besides, in his old man years he rocked a beard that was at least a 7.5 out of 10 on the Rasputin Cool Beard scale.
Relax, Elvis fans, he’s repping another state. Wilma Rudolph is the choice for Tennessee. She was considered the fastest woman on Earth during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and along with Cassius Clay aka the future Muhammad Ali, the 1960 Summer Olympics turned her into a worldwide superstar and icon, especially within the Civil Rights movement. Her homecoming after her Olympic glory was the first racially integrated event in her Tennessee hometown’s history, and in 1994, after U.S. troops finally left Berlin, Germany, the local high school voted to change its name to the Wilma Rudolph High School. That’s how cool she was.
Sure, Texas has lots of cowboy-hat wearing heroes, but none of them were as cool as Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who overcame the rampant sexism of her era to become probably the best athlete in American history. She excelled at every single sport she played, and even though she didn’t even start golfing until she was in her mid-20’s, she quickly became the Tiger Woods of the LPGA and was so dominant that she eventually started playing with the dudes in the PGA. She changed the way a lot of people looked at women as competitors, and did so largely without controversy, earning respect simply by being a badass. And that’s cool.
Okay, so he was born and raised in Washington D.C. and he died in Los Angeles, but in between Marvin Gaye was all Detroit’s, baby. And really, nobody embodied smooth cool like Marvin. He could seamlessly transition from melting panties to making powerful political statements, and nothing on this planet has ever been cooler than his rendition of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
Jujiro Wada was an enigmatic Japanese adventurer who moved to Alaska and quickly became a legend, tackling the business and trade worlds with a swashbuckling style that could have come straight out of a movie. Along the way, he became a marathon runner, was arrested multiple times in various disputes, escaped a lynch mob, and helped found the city of Fairbanks. His coolest exploit? Blazing the trail that eventually became home to the Iditarod.
Chief Joseph, the legendary chief of the Nez Perce tribe of the Pacific Northwest, led his people on a desperate march away from soldiers, and in the process his courage and refusal to give in was so profound that it earned the admiration even of the white Americans who were after his land. He’s an enduring symbol of resistance and of the human spirit surviving in the face of overwhelming odds, and what could be cooler - or more American - than that?
Sure, John Adams was great, and Will Hunting had clever quips about apples, but nobody in Massachusetts history did anything as cool as Clara Barton, who founded the Red Cross, an organization dedicated to peace and to aiding the suffering of those who need it the most. She was a woman of supreme courage, and it’s her example that still lies at the heart of the Red Cross, which can be found in areas of the world that everyone else fears to tread.
Come on, it’s John Wayne. If you need me to explain why he’s cool, then cool is something you’re probably never going to understand.
See John Wayne, multiply times 10.
Before Tombstone, there was Dodge City, where Wyatt Earp made his name as the baddest lawman in the West. Look, it’s hard to seem cool as a cop, especially to the jaded degenerates of today, but Wyatt Earp is one of the few in American history who pulled it off, which is a testament to Earp’s enduring cool.
Okay, so Frank Sinatra was from New Jersey, but he’s also closely associated with Las Vegas’ boom, so Nevada it is. You could argue, but really there are shockingly few notable cool people who have been born in Nevada, and there’s a reason why Sinatra was called “The Chairman of the Board.” That’s because he was the undisputed boss. Even cool dudes like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin kissed his ring. Now that’s cool.
Woodrow Wilson Keeble was a full-blooded Native American who was a badass war hero of both World War II and Korea. He was in the thick of things at Guadalcanal during World War II, but it was in Korea where he took things to a whole new level of cool. After being wounded four different times in a five day period, including taking grenades to the face that blew off his nose, two gunshot wounds in the arm, and massive amounts of shrapnel from another grenade that had to be painfully picked out piece by piece, Woody told the doctors to go to hell, refused to quit and charged up a mountain with his men, single-handedly destroyed three enemy machine-gun bunkers and won the day. Yeah, he was pretty cool.
Sequoyah was so cool he invented an entire language, Cherokee, that was then adopted en masse by his people. The language was so complex, in fact, that the military even adopted it to use as one of their coding languages during World War II. So, you could say that not only did Sequoyah invent a language, he helped beat Hitler.
It was only a matter of time before the Mississippi-born Elvis showed up on this list. Forget the fat jokes and the rhinestone suits, and just remember that with a sneer and a shake of the hips, Elvis ignited an entire country, and helped change the culture forever. There’s a reason he’s called “The King,” and that’s because when he was at his best, there was nobody cooler.
For the most part, Alan Shepard seems like a pretty square dude, but here’s the thing: the dude’s been to space, which is cooler than anywhere you’ve been. And what’s more, he wasn’t just some tag-along astronaut. No, he was only the second person in history, and the first American, to ever exit our atmosphere and chill in space. He risked it all – remember, every dude who had tried to do it before had died – just to touch a piece of the universe no American had touched before. Captain Kirk probably had a poster of this dude on the wall of his cabin on the Enterprise.
Everything about Johnny Cash was cool, from the deep, sonorous voice to the pilled-up hellraising, to the beat-up old man making other grown-men cry with freakin’ cover-songs. He’s the Man in Black. What more needs to be said?
Jimi Hendrix was so cool that people could barely even process it. They still can’t. Whenever someone talks about Hendrix, they sound like they’re talking about an alien or a god or something. He just existed on an entirely different level from everybody else.
Perhaps the most important figure behind Jazz Fusion, Miles Davis gets the nod against a crowded Illinois field which includes, among others, Bill Murray, Harrison Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Hugh Hefner and Richard Pryor. Look, you’ve got to be cooler than cool to take the prize there, but that’s just what Miles Davis was, suavely killing everyone in his black sunglasses, and taking jazz to a whole new level that managed to influence all pop music to come.
Prince could probably impregnate you just by staring at you, and yes, I know that there’s a good chance you’re a dude. Just one look and guitar lick and you’d be sprouting ovaries.
First of all, the dude has the coolest name on this list. You can’t have a name like Thelonious Monk and not be completely and utterly cool. Second, his improvisational style of jazz might be the coolest thing anyone has ever played, and I mean in the history of the human race.
John Brown was the first dude who decided he was sick of just bitching about slavery and decided to do something about it. He was a holy terror, a walking, talking force of nature who ignited the bloody pre-Civil War battles over slavery in Kansas before heading back East, where his daring raid on Harper’s Ferry was the emotional trigger that made the Civil War inevitable. In the end, he was hanged for his actions, and like Obi-Wan Kenobi, his death made him more powerful than ever, as his example, in the words of one historian “killed slavery” and that he, in the words of another, “gave his life so that millions of other Americans might be free.” His name is still a dirty word in the South, 150 years later, and any time you can rile up old rednecks for over a century, you know you’re pretty damn cool.
Byron White was a football superstar who probably could have just kept playing and nailing cheerleaders back in the day, but instead he decided to give it all up to follow a path that eventually landed him a spot on the United States Supreme Court. Yeah. He was the NFL’s leading rusher and highest paid player, a veteran of World War II, and the 12th longest serving member of the Supreme Court with 32 years of service. I’m guessing that’s at least 968% cooler than your resume.
Crazy Horse is the dude who whipped General Custer’s ass at Little Bighorn, and remains one of the great heroes of the Oglala Lakota Sioux people. How cool was Crazy Horse? Well, they’re building a stand-alone memorial to him in the Black Hills of South Dakota to tower over the county down below. The name of that county? Custer County. Owned for all eternity.
Steve McQueen’s nickname was “The King of Cool.” Any questions?
I originally went with Sitting Bull here, but my guardian angel reminded me that Evel Knievel existed, and I don't care how cool badass you are, you just aren't cooler than Evel Knievel. The dude broke hundreds of bones over the course of his life just because he refused to accept that he was supposed to accept the natural order of things. He would have jumped the sun if he got the chance. I'm just saying, Sitting Bull never tried jumping the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle, but Evel Knievel did, and I think Sitting Bull would have respected such an intrepid spirit warrior.
Rosa Parks could have just let that white dude have her seat, but to hell with all that. She said “Nah,” made that cracker get his own seat, and inspired a cultural revolution. She may not have been “cool” in the conventional sense, but inside, where it really counts, it’s hard to find anybody cooler. Dignity is cool.
The dude was the first person to walk on the moon. Just think about that for a second, let it really sink in. That’s probably the coolest thing anyone has done in the entirety of human history. Sure, he didn’t do it all by himself, but when his feet touched that moon-rock, he obliterated all that had been thought possible, and made an entire world believe that it could do great things.
There’s a lot I could say here, but instead I think I’ll just refer you to this YouTube video.
I really, really wanted to say Doc Holliday for Georgia, but how can you go against Martin Luther King? The dude was probably the most important figure in the entire Civil Rights movement. He basically stuck a huge middle finger in the faces of all the old bigots, marched down streets, stood down cops, and fired up a whole nation of people who never had a voice. And he did it all knowing that one day it would probably get him killed. That’s not only great and brave, that’s cool as hell.
After escaping from slavery, you’d think most people would just want to get as far away as they could. But not Harriet Tubman, who was so cool that she kept going back to rescue people as the most iconic figure of The Underground Railroad. If she was caught, she would have been whipped or killed, but thanks to her heroism, she was directly responsible for saving 300 people. She then served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War, and when that was over helped fight for women’s suffrage. There are people who look cool, and then there are people like Harriet Tubman, who was cool where it mattered most.
It was kind of a toss-up here between Cochise and Geronimo, but I went with Cochise, the famed Apache chief who successfully fought the attempts to take his land for over a decade before dying of natural causes, one of the last Native American chiefs to live and die on his own terms. He’s a symbol of the indomitability of the human spirit, and of the never say die attitude that America holds near and dear to its heart. He’s Cochise, baddest of the badasses, and one of the coolest dudes who ever lived.
Josephine Baker was a goddamn rock star. Back in the day, after becoming the first black woman to become an American entertainment star, she left for Paris and became the hottest thing in the whole world. Then when World War II hit, living in Paris, she aided the French resistance and was awarded the French military honor, the Croix de guerre. Think of the hottest, the coolest, and the most talented women in the world. Now imagine that all those women are the same woman, and then imagine that woman is also a war hero, and you have Josephine Baker.
Believe it or not, Kentucky was the hardest state to pick from, with Ali, Hunter S. Thompson, and of course, Abraham Lincoln all calling the state home. It was really hard to go against Lincoln, who was really great, but honestly, are you going to tell me that gangly ol’ Lincoln was cooler than Muhammad Ali? Ali was one of the coolest dudes who ever lived anywhere. He wasn’t just a cool athlete, he was a pop-culture giant and a symbol of human dignity during the Civil Rights movement. He is everything we mean when we say someone is cool. I’ll grant you that Lincoln was greater, but Ali was cooler.
Theodore Roosevelt was like a real life Bill Brasky, a dude who was so ridiculously cool, that he hardly seemed real. He was America’s most renowned outdoorsman, a war hero, and oh yeah, a successful and popular President who, among other things, was responsible for the Conservationist movement and is considered the father of American Progressivism. He coined the badass phrase “Talk softly and carry a big stick.” He was so cool that when he died in his sleep, the Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, said "Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight." Yeah, he was cool.
This might get a little long, but bear with me, okay? How cool was Daniel K. Inouye? Well, let me tell you a story. During World War II, fighting in Europe as part of a unit made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, Inouye, the squad’s platoon leader, led a charge against the last remaining and most heavily fortified line of Germans in Italy. He and his men were pinned down by machine gun fire but Inouye stood up to lead an assault, was shot in the stomach, ignored it like a boss, and led his men on a wild charge anyway, where he destroyed one of the three remaining machine gun nests single-handedly.
Inouye was then informed, “Yo, you might die if you don’t get some help,” but he told the doctors to screw off, led his men on a second charge, single-handedly destroyed the second machine gun nest and then collapsed from blood loss. A solid day, right? Well, it wasn’t over. Inouye then crawled to the third machine gun bunker, raised up ten yards away, pulled the pin on a grenade, and was then shot in the elbow, severing his arm, which dropped, holding the grenade in the safety position still in his hand. Whoa.
Inouye’s soldiers rushed to his aid, but he told them to stay back because he was worried the grenade might go off and kill them, and that’s when things really went crazy. With an arm missing, bleeding to death from a gut-shot, Inouye reached down with his left hand, pried the grenade loose from the hand that had just gotten blown off, tossed it in the bunker and blew the Germans all to hell. He then charged the one remaining German soldier, shot and killed him with his rifle even though the German shot him again in the leg, and then collapsed unconscious, having single-handedly beaten the Germans even though his body looked like it had just been dissected. When he woke up, he proclaimed, “Nobody called off the war!” Goddamn.
Look, all by itself that’s enough to get him a top spot on this list, but after that was done, he went on to become a United States Senator, and reached the highest political office an Asian-American has ever reached when he was named the President Pro Tempore of the Senate in 2010, which capped off a 50 – yes, 50 – year career as a Senator. Argue all you want for anyone else on this list, but Daniel K. Inouye is the coolest American who ever lived.
(Previously published on October 30, 2013.)
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