Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Gender-Fight at the OK Corral

Review: Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams


I recently watched again the Kevin Costner depiction of the young Wyatt Earp, backed up by Randy Quaid as the alcoholic Doc Holliday. 

There's Kurt Russell's offering of the remorselessly-ethical lawman in Tombstonealthough I thought he and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday were miscast in each other's roles. 

I also think of Burt Lancaster's seminal portrayal of Earp and Kirk Douglas' nuanced Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral. (For the younger viewers, that's the version with Star Trek's "Bones," DeForrest Kelly, as Wyatt's brother Morgan.)

But all those popular outings of the Earp-versus-Clanton shoot-out that famously left Wyatt Earp "the last man standing" are focused on the men. Josephine Marcus, the mail-order bride of Sheriff John Behan who wound up as the mistress, and then the wife, of Wyatt Earp instead, barely appears in Tombstone, the single film of the three that includes her.

Thelma Adams sets the record to rights with this wonderful novelization of the famous gunfight from the point of view of Wyatt Earp's second wife. 

She begins with Josephine Sarah Marcus as the wild-child daughter of a Jewish baker in San Francisco, waiting impatiently for the summons to join her fiance John Behan in Arizona. She had met the handsome fellow while touring with the Florodora-like Pinafore dance troupe the previous year. The teenage runaway fell in love with the face and charm of Behan, hired to escort the ladies and protect them from their unruly audiences.

Behan persuaded her to return home until he sent for her, promising her that he would do so as soon as he secured the position of Sheriff in Tombstone. Josephine was thrilled by her fantasy Western lawman, and eager to escape from the fate of a good Jewish daughter, to marry as her parents direct. Her mother was, if not resigned to the match, at least reassured by the bride-groom's prestigious position in a Western city.

Little did Josephine or her mother know; Tombstone at the time she met Behan was little more than tents and wild miners, a camp still divided between Blue and Grey five years after the close of Civil War hostilities in the civilized East. Josephine does not know for certain, but comes to suspect during the three-day trip from the city to Tombstone, that her chaperone from San Francisco, Kitty, may have once been her fiance's mistress. Further, her erstwhile groom is having second thoughts about marriage, and sees his Sheriff's position as a golden ticket to bribes and kickbacks. 

And as Josephine steps out of the stage in Tombstone just twelve months before the shoot-out, she will encounter the real deal: an upright straight-shooting fellow (in both senses of the phrase) who will capture her heart.

Adams' novel gives us a real sense of the West, and a concept of the hard lives of its women. Marcus herself is shown as a courageous and inventive person, willing to risk everything—twice—for the desire of her heart. She is also shown to be a worthy partner to the legendary Earp. In this, Wyatt Earp's own words might well serve for his wife of fifty years:
"We know the truth, but we believe in the legend." —Wyatt Earp, My Fight at O.K. Corral