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A Woman Behind the Western Legend

The True Story of Wyatt Earp

Jun. 17, 2013
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Primarily as a result of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp is rooted into the American dream of the Old West. Few know that his ashes were buried in a Jewish Cemetery in 1929. Ann Kirschner’s well-researched Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp (Harper) exposes what many never knew about Earp and his times, but also significantly repositions what we did know with a commanding narrative.

That Tom Mix, the first cowboy movie star, was a pallbearer at Earp’s funeral should be an immediate revelation: Wyatt Earp lived long enough to realize his own cultural impact on film, song and literature.

Earp was the only person who left unscathed from the violent confrontation at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on Oct. 26, 1881. His two brothers and the opposing “bad guys” were apparently not destined for immortality. As a result of many screen portrayals, Earp’s ally Doc Holliday certainly has lived on well enough; however, it was Earp who walked away unharmed and into tabloid and ultimately silver screen significance.

In reality, Earp was ruthless, an unmitigated killer who wore a badge sometimes. Holliday is the one who entered public memory as the elegant scoundrel, standing by his true friend, Earp; actually, they made a good team as neither had much of a social conscience. Earp’s legend as a noble keeper of the law was established through the relentless public relations efforts of his common-law wife, Josephine Marcus. Every American kid in the 1950s slung a Wyatt Earp cap gun or had a plastic Earp toy to gallop across the living room floor in pursuit of rustlers and wranglers out to do no good. We have the woman behind the legend to thank.

By the time Marcus died in 1944, she already saw her paramour carry the day as the penultimate good guy but had no idea what was ahead as a result of her brand management. Kirschner might have done better to offer explanations for why Marcus took this role upon herself, but even though her prose is often fraught with over-sentimentality, she does present a nicely researched narrative that certifies Earp was one thing culturally, while quite another in real life. There could be a category such as “alt-Earp” in which we have a romantic desire for a certain kind of reality (as in alt-country music), which is nothing close to the actual past and represents a revisionist hope for the present.

Marcus was a courageous woman, born to Polish-Jewish parents around 1860. She ran away from home at 18 after her family moved to San Francisco. The images in the book show a beautiful woman in show business, touring the Arizona Territory with H.M.S. Pinafore when she met Earp. She was already the paramour of a corrupt deputy sheriff and a love triangle quickly evolved; the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is correctly defined as the consequence of this triangle, not as an act of valor with Earp as the hero. The bad guys he confronts so famously are pals of the sheriff who wants Earp out of the geometry.

In reality, Marcus stayed in show business with Earp as her star. In the end, she was as much a frontier heroine as she was one of the first Jewish entrepreneurs to shape American fiction, movies and the like, establishing a world of entertainment loosely based on fact. Lady At The O.K. Corral is more Earp’s story than hers, but this is not so much the author’s failure as it is Josephine Marcus Earp’s success.    


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