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Who Was Wyatt Earp?
From law officer to murderer to Hollywood consultant: the strange career of a man who became myth
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
He craved privacy while continuing to attract attention. Like other former Arizonans in California, he enjoyed meeting actors who were playing scrubbed-up versions of men like him. He became friends with an aspiring young director named John Ford, who would one day make the most pristine of Earp pictures, My Darling Clementine , and he did some advisory work for Tom Mix and William S. Hart.
Meanwhile, a Chicago-based journalist named Walter Noble Burns, who had made himself famous with his 1925 biography The Saga of Billy the Kid , wrote Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest , the first bestseller with Earp as its hero. The following year one of Behan’s old deputies, Billy Breakenridge, published Helldorado , a self-serving combination of lies and halftruths that attempted to debunk the Earp legend while nonetheless putting Wyatt at the center of the action in Tombstone.
The two books made Earp more famous than ever—and also made him furious. In 1928 Stuart Lake, a former press secretary for Theodore Roosevelt and a newspaper colleague of Bat Masterson in New York, contacted him about a possible biography. Earp was ready, but as it turned out, he had less than a year to live. He died in 1929. Wyatt and Josie had been together for fortyseven years; there is no record that they were ever married.
Wyatt’s death didn’t stop Lake; he proceeded to write most of the book in Earp’s voice. Lake’s problem wasn’t the absence of Earp but the presence of Josephine, who wanted, she told him, a nice, clean story, meaning one with minimal violence and nothing about her involvement with Behan or about the woman who had been with Earp when he arrived in Tombstone. Despite those restrictions, Lake plowed ahead, producing Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931. Perhaps a third of the book was exaggerated, and another third was simply invented, but its tone was respectful enough to please Josephine, and it became a huge bestseller. More than that, it became the basis for a Stuart Lake Earp empire, which included the John Ford movie and the highly successful television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp , which starred Hugh O’Brian and ran from 1955 to 1961, and which put Earp’s name on cap pistols, comic books, and lunch boxes.
The most extreme anti-Earp film was Doc , which portrayed him as a sadistic homosexual.
Josephine still wanted to impose her version of events on the public, and she began work on an autobiography. “Such tributes to Wyatt,” she wrote, probably in the late 1930s, “are a tremendous compensation for the many lies that have been told of him, and I intend to continue to refute those stories in whatever way I can until I die or until they are quieted for all time.” But the Tombstone chapter became a huge stumbling block, and she died in 1944 without having provided a finished manuscript. Stuart Lake became full-time caretaker of the Earp legend.
Not everyone was happy with that fact. Virgil’s widow, Allie, for instance, was jealous that Wyatt and not Virgil (who was, after all, the marshal of Tombstone) had become world-famous. She also harbored an intense dislike for Josephine that may have been tinged with anti-Semitism. Frank Waters, a Hollywood screenwriter, interviewed Allie during the 1930s and began writing what would become the foremost among Earp debunking books, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone . No one named Earp was pleased with Waters’s efforts. Josephine threatened to sue Allie when she found out about it; she needn’t have bothered. Allie and her family rejected the project too. Frank Waters saw all the Earps, not just Wyatt, as reflections of the predatory spirit of modern, capitalistic America—Wyatt was a servant of the despoilers of the West, the mining companies and Wells, Fargo—and this view soon became popular in leftist circles among writers looking to take down the most popular law-and-order symbol of the Cold War era. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone was not published until 1960, long after anyone who could stop it was dead.
The book started an anti-Earp reaction. John Ford felt betrayed by its revelations; when he made Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, he had James Stewart portray Earp as a puffed-up, whitesuited bully. John Sturges, who had directed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1957, made a 1967 follow-up film, Hour of the Gun , in which James Garner played Earp not as the principled lawman Burt Lancaster had been but as a self-styled avenger who used his badge to murder his brother’s assassins. The most extreme of the anti-Earp films was Frank Perry’s Doc (1971), with Harris Yulin as Earp and Stacy Keach as Doc Holliday. Its script, by Pete Hamill, portrayed Wyatt as a sadistic homosexual secretly longing for Holliday. The film was a Vietnam allegory: The Earps and Doc Holliday bring superior firepower to the O.K. Corral—shotguns—and blow the Clantons away, but the people rise against the evil Earps at the next election and send them packing.
From here things could only get better for Wyatt. Tombstone (1993), with Kurt Russell, and Wyatt Earp (1994), with Kevin Costner, finally took balanced views and they were the first films to feature Josephine.