Doc Holliday in Film and Literature, by Shirley Ayn Linder, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., 2014, $40
“Doc Holliday spent most of his life dying”—that’s the fine first line of the introduction to a book that will interest Georgians, dentists, gamblers, gunfighter aficionados, Tombstone residents and anyone else who has ever cracked a book or checked out a movie referencing John Henry “Doc” Holliday. For someone supposedly fearless to a fault due to a diagnosis of tuberculosis in late 1872, Doc defied the odds in real life (living 17 more years) and in popular culture (where he remains larger than life to this day). Author Shirley Ayn Linder turned a master’s thesis in history at the University of New Mexico into this well-researched and entertaining book. “His story,” writes UNM professor Paul Andrew Hutton in the foreword, “is replete with romance and tragedy—the doomed, fatalistic Southern aristocrat roaming the frontier in search of an end to a tortured life—and is one perfect for history, fiction and film.”
Linder’s first chapter gives a brief but solid overview of Holliday’s life and mentions early fantasies about the legendary figure. She then proceeds with a largely chronicled examination of how Doc was treated through the decades. In the 1920s the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Walter Noble Burns had things to say about Holliday. As a character Doc, according to Hutton, makes his first film appearance (the actor remains unknown, though he was probably Bert Lindley) in 1923’s Wild Bill Hickok. In 1932’s Law and Order, and many other films that follow, Holliday dies either before or during the infamous gunfight near the O.K. Corral instead of many years later in Glenwood Springs, Colo. In 1946 came My Darling Clementine, a celebrated Western despite its bad history and a far too healthy Doc in Victor Mature. In the 1950s John Myers Myers and Pat Jahns wrote books about the dentist turned gambler, while Kirk Douglas portrayed another healthy looking Doc (although he did have a mean cough) in the popular Hollywood film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. During the turbulent 1960s, Linder writes, “the interest in Doc’s trials and tribulations didn’t wane, but the retelling of his biography took on a decidedly critical tone.” Getting a handle on the real Doc continued to be a struggle in the 1970s and ’80s.
In the 1990s Doc came across as somebody worth knowing and perhaps someone even more interesting than Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (with Val Kilmer portraying a well-educated Doc) and Wyatt Earp (with Dennis Quaid as a fittingly thin Doc). Since then Holliday has reappeared in books by Ben Traywick, Karen Holliday Tanner and Gary L. Roberts, who wrote what Linder calls “Doc’s definitive biography.” The author also cites significant magazine articles about Holliday that appeared through the years in various publications, including Wild West. There is clearly no end to the legend. This man doomed to die in the West before his time (like most gunfighters, but even more so because of his disease) has become one of the frontier’s ultimate survivors.