Surely you’ve heard authors bemoan getting enough rejection slips from publishers to paper a room. But what if the author were the famed frontier lawman Wyatt Earp, and the man sending his book-length autobiography around was Western silent film idol William S. Hart?
From about 1925 until Earp’s death in 1929, that pair of American legends time and again got stinging publisher reactions like these: “We have been unable to find a place for it in the Saturday Evening Post ”; “I am deeply disappointed….The writing is stilted, florid and diffuse”; “We do not care particularly for the style in which it is written.”
Earp left Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in 1882, following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and its dramatic aftermath. He spent his remaining nearly 50 years suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune stemming from bad press. In his eyes, more often than not, the lionizing was overdone. Conversely, he was haunted by the untruths allegedly concocted by his many enemies.
Still, Earp generally reacted to the rejections of his autobiography with diplomacy. The one who sputtered most over the book’s poor reception was Hart. The two had become closely acquainted soon after World War I.
For years after Wyatt Earp’s marriage, common law or otherwise, to Josephine Marcus, one-time girlfriend of Earp’s archenemy in Tombstone, Sheriff Johnny Behan, the childless but always devoted Earps traveled and lived in Alaska and elsewhere in the West. They ultimately settled in Los Angeles.
A scandalous article about his lawman life by J.M. Scanland in the March 12, 1922 , Sunday Los Angeles Times apparently tipped the scales for Earp, who’d had enough of being raked over the coals. Something had to be done to set things right. Josephine fumed about it in a March 24 letter to Hart. More than a year later, on July 7, 1923 , Earp wrote the famous Western actor that a Hart movie about him might once and for all establish the truth about the Earp legend. As late as April 1925, Wyatt still had it on his mind.
By this time Earp had a personal secretary, John H. Flood, Jr., and he put Flood to work committing his life story to typewritten page. Earp contacted Hart about looking over the manuscript Flood was working on. “I am tired of seeing so many articles published concerning me which are untrue,” wrote Earp.
Endorsing the effort in early 1926, Hart sent Flood’s manuscript to the Saturday Evening Post for possible serialization, and the string of rejection letters began. A bit later, Walter Noble Burns, a man who was to become famous in furthering the Earp legend for better or worse, visited the aging lawman about doing a biography. Earp declined, saying the Flood book was done and he had high hopes for it. Hart learned of the visit and further cautioned Earp on September 9, 1926, “But my dear friend, Wyatt Earp, it [Burns’ Saga of Billy the Kid ] was copped in many instances word for word from a story published many years ago by Charlie Siringo called The Life of Billy the Kid .”
Names that were to become literary legends showed up on some of the rejection letters. One, signed “T.B. Costain,” the later famous author Thomas B. Costain (1885-1965), dictated the Saturday Evening Post ‘s gloomy verdict. The Thomas Y. Crowell company’s dismal sign-off with the initials “T.Y.C.” suggested that he book had “a trifle too much gunplay in it for the average reader….There is too much straining for effect….We are reluctantly declining the book.” The former lawman didn’t let his disappointment show when he wrote Hart in December 1926, “Whatever the outcome, I shall not be discouraged.”
Hart also tried Houghton Mifflin—the house that soon after published Hart’s autobiography and would ultimately produce Stuart N. Lake’s Earp biography after Earp’s death. The Earp autobiography came back with a thanks but no thanks. Hart was not pleased. “I cannot see what is the matter with them,” Hart wrote Earp. “It may be some literacy defect they can see which is beyond our vision. However, I am hammering at them until the hot places freeze over.”
Then, in February 1927, Bobbs Merrill editor Anne Johnston was highly critical and painfully constructive with the “stilted, florid and diffuse” comment. She added, “Now one forgets what it’s all about in the clutter of unimportant details that impedes its pace, and the pompous manner of its telling.” Of all the turndowns, this was at last the wake-up call Earp, Hart and Flood needed.
Although he still suspected Burns of plagiarism in the Billy the Kid volume, Hart now suggested him as collaborator-reviser to Earp soon after editor Johnston’s rejection. The light had come on. Apparently that idea, though, died aborning, as Wyatt learned that Doubleday, Page & Company was planning to publish Burns’ Tombstone: Iliad of the Southwest . Burns had put it together from other sources and hadn’t checked his facts with Earp. Feeling that it would probably treat him unkindly, Earp fired a letter to Doubleday with a copy and letter to Burns. Even though he might have fumed, his approach in the Doubleday letter was restrained. He suggested that Burns’ request to do a book about him was untimely and “impossible as already a manuscript to that nature was being prepared by myself.” He wrote, “I appeared that the story of Doc Holliday [Burns’ expressed intention to Earp] had faded out and that the story was being built more about myself….I could not sanction any story about myself, the material for which had been gathered elsewhere….I am somewhat perplexed as to Mr. Burns’ intentions.” Still, the book come out.
By mid-December 1927, Hart had another provocative suggestion for a collaborator. Burns’ Tombstone had been critiqued in the Literary Review by a virtual unknown named Bernard DeVoto. “I do not know who this gentleman is but I believe that this is the man you should go after to try to write your history,” Hart wrote Earp. DeVoto went on to become one of the most distinguished and disciplined Western historians of his time, if not of all time.
Earp was taking action against Burns and Doubleday for publishing Tombstone without his approval. He was also contacted by a little-known San Diego writer, Stuart N. Lake , whose personable approach may have shortstopped any enthusiasm Earp might have had about a DeVoto connection. He found Lake’s inquiry, he wrote Hart, written “in a modest unassuming manner and explains that his material has been used by the Saturday Evening Post , The Outlook , and others.” His confidence in Lake was underscored in two subsequent letters to Hart. July 4, 1928 : “Mr. Lake came up from San Diego in June….We had an enjoyable visit—a nice, modest fellow….There is a feeling of assurance.” November 13, 1928 : “He knows his business, and I am sanguine that the story will be a winner.”
Still, to the very end, Wyatt had publishing concerns. “Perhaps my health will be back to normal when this business is all done with,” he wrote Hart on December 30. His last letter to Hart on January 7, 1929 , six days before his death, dealt with the Houghton Mifflin possibilities.
He died dissatisfied with the work of Walter Noble Burns. When Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal appeared after Earp’s death, the outspoken emotional Josephine Marcus Earp was infuriated by certain liberties she felt Lake had taken with what she considered the truth (see article in the April 2008 issue of Wild West Magazine).
But what of the unpublished Earp-Flood manuscript? It remained in limbo for 50 years among the effects of Josephine Earp. It surfaced in 1981, and a limited number of facsimile copies of the manuscript were made, bound and sold. Typical of its “stilted” style is the excerpt from the opening of the monumental O.K. Corral Gunfight, which made Wyatt Earp a legend:
“Throw up your hands, Clanton!” “All of you.”
Crack!—–e-e-e-e-e-ING! “Uh!” and Morgan Earp went reeling, crashing into his brother Wyatt,at his left, while a trickle of red spouted form end to end of his shoulders as the bullet ploughed its way through. And a ring of smoke drifted into the lot from beneath the neck of Tom McLowery’s horse, the first shot of the day.
Crack! And McLowery’s horse went into the air, the flash from Wyatt’s gun streaking half way down the lot as Tom McLowery’s head appeared above the animals’ neck. With the blood spurting from a wound in its withers, the horse darted into the road….
Indeed, the manuscript is “stilted, florid and diffuse.” But it becomes easy to see how with a great amount of editing, revision and additional consultation with the story’s subject himself, this could have resulted in a document of historic magnitude. DeVoto could have managed it.
As it stands, the Flood manuscript pinpoints many of the facts, but it takes intense concentration to read and fathom them. Perhaps Flood was affected by the silent silver screen of his day. The exaggerated display of intense emotion, the stiff posturing, the abrupt movements—virtually wordless cinematic effects as opposed to smooth narrative flow—characterize Flood’s development. In truth, the manuscript is sparse on dialogue, and that dialogue is still and unreal.
Flood also falls into the trap of the untried, unpublished writer—himself seeing the events with clarity and presuming too much on the knowledge and imagination of his reader. Throughout the book the reader is led through open-ended episodes and up blind alleys; action that seems to build to a climax instead wanders away into ambiguity, leaving the reader to wonder if he has missed something. Reader bewilderment doesn’t build bestsellers.
Still, Wyatt tells of single-handedly backing down the mob in the attempted lynching of Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce, and of sole responsibility for the gunfight deaths of Curly Billy Brocius at Iron Springs, and of Johnny Ringo at Turkey Creek Canyon.
A sort of pall of mysticism as well hangs over the entire effort; the reader is still not exactly sure that the wool isn’t being pulled over his eyes. Yet a provocative point emerges in the long denouement: Was Wyatt Earp psychic? Was there indeed a guardian angle hoveling over one of the West’s most involved gunslingers? One brother was maimed, another assassinated in Tombstone. Yet in gunfight after gunfight from Wichita and Dodge city to Tombstone and after, Wyatt was never as much as nicked, though shot at plenty. Many time he wound up with bullet holes in his clothing.
For some reason, Flood concentrates on this particularly in the episode of the assassination of Morgan Earp. In several instances, Wyatt vividly recalls being warned away or urged to action by some presence around him—when he is on the street, when is is alone in his room in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and later at Bob Hatch’s Pool Hall, where he goes moments before his brother is gunned down.
Later, during the weeks of vendetta, Wyatt senses another warning out of the blue as his six-man posse approaches Iron prings, where Curly Bill Brocius is killed by Wyatt while cooking a meal. When most of Earp’s posse deserts him, he and Texas Jack Vermillion take on the balance of Curly Bill’s gang, a firefight that clearly exceeded the O.K. Corral in intensity and then some, according to Flood. As the riders approached Iron Springs, Flood handled it this way:
Before them was a rift in the plains, a well-worn channel cut by the torrents that swept the canyons and the slopes of the Mustang Mountains; a spread of willows just showing above the boundless gray; a patch of glistening sand, fifty feet in all—this was Iron Springs.
Be careful Wyatt, death is waiting for you by the waters bubbling at your feet. The sound rang in his ears, and reaching out of the void, the hand of invisible power grasped the bridal [sic] of his horse.
“Hold! There’s something wrong here!” and the animal slowed to a walk.
Cautiously now, the six riders approached the brink of the wash, fifty feet in front. Opposite, fifteen feet below the level of the plain, a growth of emerald willows mingled with the gray of the mesquite; bunch grass, rank and gone to see [seed], covered the ground beneath; buck bush and purple sage.
Five paces closer, and the dazzling whiteness of a canvas tent flashed into sight just under the bank; if the occupants were anywhere close by, they must have sought refuge within. The only evidence of life was the canvas doorway flapping back and forth in the fitful breeze in front, the sparkling, dancing brook away across the other side and the—–[sic]
“Curly Bill!” shouted McMasters.
“Curly Bill” shouted Holliday.
And there was the sound of sudden hoof beats retreating down the mesa. [Signifying that most of his posse has fled.]
Just beyond a shallow pool where the brook trickled forth, a spiral of thin gray smoke ascended straight in the air above the camp-fire glowing in the shade. A coatless individual, clothed in a woolen shirt and breeches, had just dipped a large metal spoon into a steaming kettle that swung above the blaze; he was stirring something that was cooking.
At the sudden shout, at the sound of his name, the man looked up. Then he dropped the spoon as if it had been coals of fire in his hand. And, almost losing his balance in his haste to reach something beyond him by the pool, he seized a shotgun lying on the ground, a sawed-off shotgun, the messenger’s shotgun which he had stolen from the Bisbee Stage.
Bang! And the wind of it carried away the frock coat of a lone deputy [Earp] looking down at him from the mesa fifty feet away.
Bang! Bang! Two shots but one report—a puff of smoke from the mesa. And the man beside the fire pitched forward at the edge of the pool. There was a rush of crimson, and the man on the mesa saw it staining all the sand….
Thus Curly Bill was dead and the fight at Iron Spring was joined as Curly Bill’s gang tried to escape.
The trackdown of Johnny Ringo shows re mark able similarities. He’s found alone after a long search, beside a campfire at Turkey Creek Canyon . While Earp’s six-man posse keeps Ringo pinned down, Earp circles behind his quarry. In Flood’s version, that episode concludes this way:
There was no doubt now, in the mid of the deputy, as to the identity of the man; the profile of Ringo was towards him in the full light of the sun.
“Now!” said Earp to himself, and he straighted up.
“Ringo!” he shouted.
Crack! And the smoke spurted from the muzzle of Ringo’s rifle as he wheeled about.
Crack! And Earp started down the slope. “I know we were on the right trail,” he said.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Despite its flaws, Flood’s manuscript remains a land mark contribution to the voids in the lore of Wyatt Earp. Sadly, though, as with its chief character, it didn’t make the grade in giving us chapter and verse of how it all really happened.