Lee A. Silva’s life reads like a novel. Cowboy, lifeguard, cabbie, hunting guide—and all of that was while he was attending San Jose State College in the 1950s. Since then he has sold Porsches and Rolls-Royces, been a deep-sea diver, headlined singing acts in Las Vegas with friends Stan Williams and Gil Sabourin and acted in daytime TV soap operas as well as on the series Rawhide.
For the past quarter century, however, Silva has earned a reputation as a Western historian and an authority on Old West firearms, writing for a number of magazines, including Wild West, and authoring several books. His most recent undertaking is a self-published multivolume biography of Wyatt Earp. Already out are Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend. Volume I: The Cowtown Years and Volume II, Part I: Tombstone Before the Earps (the latter co-written with wife Susan Leiser Silva, who died in 2008). Silva recently spoke with Wild West about Wyatt Earp and Western history from his office in Sunset Beach, Calif.
‘I realized from the get-go that the story of Wyatt’s life was so controversial that it couldn’t be written as a traditional biography. So I put all the controversy into the text and let the reader try to decide what the truth was’
How does one go from appearing in soaps and Rawhide, to singing in Vegas to writing about Wyatt Earp and Tombstone? And which career was the hardest?
In college in the mid-1950s I sang and played guitar at parties and had been asked to be the fourth member of a San Francisco group that, without me, became the Kingston Trio. And I had also studied creative writing. So I knew I at least had some basic talent. I made a lot of money in the new car business. But in 1962 I went through a guilt-ridden divorce, my father was murdered in Mexico by the American Mafia, and I had almost died from a noncontagious form of hepatitis. When 1962 ended, I knew I needed a long-odds challenge to recover my self-esteem. So I went to Hollywood to try to be a movie cowboy and get paid for shooting guns and riding horses. I ended up in some daytime soaps and as a deputy sheriff in the TV series Rawhide. In 1964 my best friend Stan, whom I had been singing with all my life, decided to join me. We started a deep-sea diving business and were living a zany bachelor life of diving during the day and singing in Southern California night clubs at night. I wrote a TV pilot about us, it got changed to four younger guys, and it became The Monkees TV series, which I never made a dime from. After a bad diving accident in which Stan almost died, we went to Las Vegas, and we headlined our own show there in 1965 and 1966. But in 1967 I was blackballed by the musicians’ union for testifying to the FBI about illegal musicians’ union kickbacks to the Mafia boys in Las Vegas. I went back to Southern California and continued to sing nonunion. And in 1972 I began writing Old West nonfiction for several magazines and have been writing ever since. So if I hadn’t been blackballed by the musicians’ union, I’m not sure if or when I would’ve starting writing professionally.
I think that acting was the hardest. Not only do you convincingly have to become someone else, but your facial expressions and body movements are even more important. Singing was the most rewarding, because you can feel the reaction of the audience and react in turn. But I like the privacy of researching and writing the most, without the pressure of being your best on camera or onstage.
What was actor William S. Hart’s role in the retelling of Wyatt Earp’s story, and what was your connection to Hart?
Hart wanted to play Wyatt Earp in a movie. He also tried to help Wyatt publish his autobiography. But the manuscript was so poorly written by Wyatt’s man Friday, John Flood, that it was derisively rejected. Hart’s career as the “John Wayne” of the silent film Westerns was also fading at the time, and he apparently just gave up on the Wyatt Earp project. But I think that Hart’s interest in Wyatt’s life was the impetus that motivated Wyatt to keep on trying to tell his “true story” right up until his death in 1929. I am a Western movie buff, and Hart had always interested me, because he strove for authenticity in his films. And I had read his autobiography and some of his other books.
When he died in 1946, Hart left his estate to the county of Los Angeles, and in 1987 the estate fell under the jurisdiction of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. My best friend, Don Chaput, was curator of history at the time, and he asked me to inventory and appraise Hart’s gun collection at the Hart Ranch.
Since you specialize in guns, what can you tell us about legend of Earp and the Buntline Special?
During production of the Colt Single Action Army Model from 1873 to 1941 the factory had always offered to make any barrel at a cost of $1 an inch more for any length longer than the standard 7 ½ inches. And in 1876 the factory made up a batch of extra-long barrels that it kept in stock clear up until 1941. After a lifetime of research I came to the conclusion that Ned Buntline did present five 10-inch-barreled (not 12-inch) “Buntline Special” Colts to ex–buffalo hunters Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Neil Brown and Charlie Bassett, as bribes to try to get them to go East and join his latest theatrical play to replace Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok. The factory only kept shipping records and not production records; so if Buntline picked up the guns at the factory, that is why there are no current records of them. For 120 pages of more explanation see Volume I.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about Wyatt Earp?
That he was a braggart, self-promoter and publicity seeker all his life. Quite the contrary is true. Especially after the scandal created by his decision as referee of the Sharkey/Fitzsimmons heavyweight boxing match in San Francisco in 1896 to award the fight to Sharkey because of an “invisible” low blow by Fitzsimmons, Wyatt pretty much shunned publicity for the rest of his life, preferring the solitude of his mining claims of the Southern California desert.
What was old Tombstone like?
Some people envision Tombstone as a dirty, crime-ridden boomtown full of lonely miners, prostitutes, con artists, crooked gamblers, rustlers and stage robbers. And some people envision it as a boomtown that had saloons and restaurants that rivaled the best in San Francisco, a town sparsely populated by God-fearing families who went to theatrical plays at Schieffelin Hall and went to church on Sundays. Both are partially correct.
Explain how Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend came about.
The letters that Wyatt and William S. Hart wrote back and forth during the late ’20s have become a treasure trove about Wyatt’s life. So when Don Chaput phoned me in January of 1988 and asked me if I wanted to annotate the Earp/Hart letters, we originally intended to co-author a book about Wyatt trying to tell his own story during the last 10 years of his life. But Don retired as curator emeritus, and he published Virgil Earp and other Tombstone books and left me with Wyatt and Tombstone. And 23 years later I’m still at it.
How has the Earp story been handled?
In most cases the serious historians just didn’t take enough time doing their primary research. And the buffs just want to sit back and let everyone else do the research. The scholars will continue picking everything apart without ever agreeing about anything. And the filmmakers just don’t give a damn about historical facts.
You wanted to do things differently?
I started the Wyatt Earp research in January of 1988. And I published Volume I in March of 2002. I realized from the get-go that the story of Wyatt’s life was so controversial that it couldn’t be written as a traditional biography. So I put all the controversy into the text and let the reader try to decide what the truth was. Plus I wanted to paint a picture of the geographical and historical background of his life, not just write Lee Silva’s biased conclusions about what did or didn’t happen. And I loaded Volume I with photos. It won a couple of awards as the best book of the year, even though I purposely broke most of the golden rules of publishing. And I have a stack of letters telling me that it is the “book that Earp aficionados have been waiting for.”
How important were the “cowtown years” in shaping Wyatt Earp and his legacy?
In the 19th century the cowtown bigwigs didn’t want lawmen who dealt with troublemakers by killing them and scaring off the other cowhands to another cowtown. They wanted lawmen who could defuse a problem before any killing happened. And that’s what made Wyatt Earp’s initial legend in the cowtowns. His legend was made not by how many gunfights he was in, but by how many gunfights he wasn’t in, because he was a master at intimidating other men, and he could usually get close enough to a troublemaker to “buffalo” him over the head with his pistol or coldcock him with his fists before any gunfire started. But that type of law enforcement didn’t make much newspaper ink in the East.
Why break Volume II, which covers the Tombstone years, into two parts?
It was simply a matter of health problems and my biological clock ticking down. I had such a tremendous response to Volume I that I wanted to get something else into print as soon as possible, just in case. The other reason is that Volume II had gotten bigger than Volume I anyway, so breaking it down into more than one volume was the only pragmatic thing to do.
What was Tombstone like before the Earps arrived?
That’s what Volume II, Part 1 is mostly about. Tucson had become the dumping ground for the crooks and con artists that the San Francisco vigilantes had run out of California. And the Texas Rangers had chased many of the rustlers, murderers and bad guys out of Texas and into New Mexico and Arizona Territories, and especially into Tucson. A backwash of disillusioned California gold seekers also got bogged down in Tucson along with the usual parade of prostitutes, gamblers, psychopaths and lonely rainbow chasers. So when the silver boom hit in Tombstone just 70 miles south of Tucson, the mining camp was at first a cesspool of human flotsam.
And how did it change after they came to town?
Virgil Earp was a deputy U.S. marshal the entire time and twice was city marshal and chief of police; Wyatt was a county sheriff for six months, a sometime policeman, a deputy U.S. marshal in 1882 and worked covertly for Wells, Fargo the entire time; Morgan was also a sometime policeman. With Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan in cahoots with the outlaws, the Earps, in essence, became the only law in and around Tombstone.
When can we expect Part 2 of the Tombstone years, and what will it include?
Part 2 will be the legend-making days of the O.K. Corral shootout, the murder hearing and Wyatt’s bloody vendetta. It’s mostly all written, but because of ongoing health problems I’ve given up on forecasting a release date.
What about the other two volumes?
Volume III is about Wyatt’s post-Tombstone years, and Volume IV is the last 10 years of his life that Don Chaput and I already drafted years ago.
What have you learned about Wyatt Earp since you started this project?
That he wasn’t Hugh O’Brian, who is recognized as the mythical vision of Wyatt Earp the good guy, and the only actor who will always be Wyatt Earp in the public eye. As for the real Wyatt Earp, when you do the homework and look at all his lifetime associations, he ends up being the good guy, not the bad guy that anti-Earp historians claim he was.
How bad were the bad guys?
In Texas hard cases like John Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius had been psychopathic killers. But they weren’t that bad in Tombstone until they shot up one of the stagecoaches and back-shot Virgil and Morgan Earp. Mostly, the bad guys were stage robbers and rustlers turned loose in a vast territory that meager law enforcement couldn’t control.
And the McLaury brothers?
I believe that the McLaurys had simply gotten caught up in the greed and ease of selling rustled beef at no-questions-asked low prices, even to the righteous citizens, restaurants and butchers of Tombstone, and even to the U.S. Army.
Other than your books, what’s the best go-to source for anyone interested in Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral?
The lifetime bulk of works by Glenn Boyer and Ben Traywick are the go-to sources for the best overall pictures of Wyatt Earp, despite what the anti-Boyer whiners crow about. As for one single book, Casey Teffertiller’s Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend includes not only Teffertiller’s primary research, [but] also had the lifetime research of historians Carl Chafin and Jeff Morey. Equally as important is the meticulous research in Tim Fattig’s Wyatt Earp: The Biography and Ben Traywick’s Wyatt Earp, Angel of Death. And Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, is a must-read, even though it is often wrongly discredited as being fictionalized. Most of the other books either aren’t just about Wyatt Earp or were written by authors who just didn’t take the time to get it right.
How important was your late wife, Susan, to these books?
What can I say without hurting? Sue got me away from typewriters and cut-and-paste editing and into computers. More than that, our lives were entwined by our interests in research and writing. Without her help, optimism and encouragement, I doubt if any of the Wyatt Earp books would have been published. But I’m still on a guilt trip about the fact that she insisted on spending the last year of her life working on Volume II instead of finishing her historical novel Rivals, about the 10 years in Boston leading up to the Revolutionary War. She was a meticulous researcher and a better writer than I am, and she had spent 20 years writing this magnificently detailed story that I sincerely believe would have made her a 21st-century Margaret Mitchell.
You also found time to write a historical novel about the 1950s. Tell us about The Mexican Operation.
The Mexican Operation is semiautobiographical. I lived the story for 15 years. I fictionalized it to create a couple of characters to tie the story together better, and I also didn’t want to end up murdered like my father was. But mostly it was written as a tribute to him and what he tried to do to help the Mexican people, and it is also an exposé about how the Las Vegas Mafia made millions off of Mexican immigration in the 1950s in order to raise money to build up Las Vegas. I call it the roots of the current illegal immigration problem.
What’s next for you?
I’m on a 10-year stint writing a gun column for Wild West, and I’m also writing for The Rampant Colt (the Colt Collectors Association journal). And I’ve got many other articles to write. I’m getting some Hollywood interest in turning The Mexican Operation into a movie or TV miniseries. I promised Sue that I would publish Rivals. And I’d like to finish a novel of mine, titled Oso Flaco, that was 80 percent written before I started in on Wyatt Earp, about the first white man to settle in California. And, of course, I’d like to polish up the other Wyatt Earp volumes. But I think I need a couple more lifetimes to get it all done.
For more information on Lee A. Silva and his books visit his Web site.