Wyatt Earp spent his last years trying to set the record straight on the story of his life. His biographer Stuart Lake had something more in mind: He was going to create the Icon of the American West. But the legend might never have been told if its author had run out of the patience it took to deal with Mrs. Earp.
On January 14, 1929, an obituary appeared in The New York Times, announcing:
NOTED GUN FIGHTER OF OLD WEST IS DEAD; End Comes to Wyatt Earp at Los Angeles After Life of Battling ‘Bad Men.’
“Gun fighter” wasn’t how Wyatt Earp wanted to be remembered. He would have much preferred “lawman” or “businessman” (see sidebar, P. 29). But a host of articles and books published in the 1920s had pegged him as a gunman, and Wyatt found it harder to confront a writer with an active imagination than a cowboy with a pair of loaded six-guns.
In May 1925, in response to a typical yarn in Scribner’s Magazine, Earp railed: “I have never carried a gun only upon occasion and that was while on duty as an officer of the law, and I am not ashamed of anything ever I did. Notoriety has been the bane of my life. I detest it….” Wyatt complained bitterly in letters to his close friend and silent movie star, William S. Hart, “I am tired of seeing so many articles published concerning me which are untrue.”
But the bogus national newspaper and magazine articles kept coming, and several books pushing distorted versions of Wyatt’s life began appearing, too. Frederick Bechdolt’s When the West Was Young came out in 1922, and that was followed in 1927 by Walter Noble Burns’ landmark book Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest.
Wyatt was finally beginning to understand that with or without him his story was going to be told. Even worse, in a period when money was scarce for the Earps, others were profiting from his story while he and his wife, Josephine, lived in near poverty.
So on Christmas Day 1927, when writer Stuart N. Lake (1899-1964) wrote to the retired lawman suggesting a collaboration on his biography, Wyatt saw it as a chance to set the record straight. Still, Wyatt dragged his feet.
“Just what you say about your desire to write my biography is a question I cannot answer right at the present moment,” Earp wrote back to Lake. “For several months, I have been confined to my bed with an attack of illness and I am just beginning to get on my feet again. Now I am planning a trip into the country to build my health up, and after that, I shall be able to interest myself in other things, I hope.” Eight months passed before the Western legend and the professional writer actually sat down to talk in August 1928 at Earp’s rented bungalow on West 17th Street in Los Angeles.
Wyatt had become interested in Lake’s proposal at least partly because the writer was recommended by his old partner Bat Masterson, who by then was working with Lake at the New York Morning Telegraph newspaper. “I am particularly interested in what you say about Bat Masterson,” Earp wrote Lake. “He and I were very staunch friends; a finer man never lived.” But there was another, more pressing reason. Earp had become a close friend of actor Hart, who wanted to make a movie based on Wyatt’s life. What was needed was a book that could be its basis.
Earp already had a manuscript, but it was hopelessly unreadable even though he had spent years pouring out his story to its writer, John Flood. In Flood’s defense, it should be noted that he was earning his keep as a bookkeeper in those days and didn’t have any experience with the kind of books with words in them. Flood also doubled as Wyatt’s devoted and unpaid secretary, and in a letter published in The New York Times, he said that he also later served Wyatt’s widow, Josephine, in the same capacity. (For an account of Flood’s failed attempt to write Wyatt Earp’s biography go to www.historynet.com/magazines/Wild_West and see “Flood and Earp,” by R.C. House).
Flood was, indeed, close to the Earps. Not long after they met in Los Angeles in 1906, he and Wyatt went to the Mojave Desert to explore mining claims, and they became fast friends before the trip was over; Wyatt came to regard him as the son he never had. After trust had been built between them, Wyatt asked Flood to help him write his autobiography. Getting out the true story was only one reason. There was also the prospect of that movie deal, but most important of all was that Wyatt needed the money. Although he had been well rewarded for his adventures over the years, both he and Josie were avid gamblers and hadn’t managed to stay ahead of the game in their senior years.
Not long after Lake and Earp started their meetings in August 1928, it became apparent that Josephine had taken charge of the business end of the project, and that she was going to be a fly in the ointment. In a letter to Earp after their second meeting that August, Lake wrote: “I hope that Mrs. Earp has been to her attorney and has become reassured about the business end of the collaboration. You tell her that I appreciate her feelings in the matter, and know that she must be fully satisfied before anything else. To my mind, the agreement I offered was horse-high, bull strong, and hogtight with each of us getting an even break….I wish that Mrs. Earp could come to feel that way.”
Another letter from Lake to Earp, this one written in September 1928, makes it clear that Josephine was also going to exert a protective hand over the content of Earp’s life story. “I am certain that our book will be what Mrs. Earp calls ‘a nice clean story,’” Lake wrote. “Possibly I don’t mean that as she does…I am certain that we are going to turn out an accurate picture of a time and of a man, rather than any wild tale of blood letting and whooping gun play.”
If Wyatt needed any additional motivation to finally tell his life story, it came in November 1928 in the form of yet another untruthful book—Helldorado: Bringing Law to the Mesquite, by Billy Breckenridge. Perhaps more than anything else, Billy’s book brought Wyatt to the breaking point. Billy had been a Cowboy-friendly deputy under Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, Wyatt’s nemesis in Tombstone. Despite their strained past, Wyatt had warmly cooperated with Billy when Breckenridge came around looking to interview him for Helldorado. Wyatt was stunned by the vicious lies contained in Billy’s book. He wrote to Lake on November 30, 1928: “…in the story of the street fight, Mr. Breckenridge tells that the Clantons and the McLowreys were unarmed and that they threw up their hands. All of which is very interesting, and probably explains how Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday were wounded during the fight.”
Wyatt’s old Tombstone friends were even more biting in their reviews of Breckenridge’s tall tale. In a letter to the former mayor of Tombstone, John Clum, old Tombstone friend Fred Dodge wrote: “You know Billy and I know Billy. He was in those days a nice girl, and in his declining years should be a nice old lady, instead of trying to make himself a hero of ‘Helldorado.’”
Less than two months later, Wyatt Earp was dead, and Lake was left alone to deal with his widow. Lake knew that he might have a problem with Josephine’s eyes poring over his work, and on January 17, 1929, the day after Wyatt’s funeral, he wrote to her, “I do want to assure you, however, that the work of the biography will go on, to as speedy a conclusion as is compatible with accuracy…and the proper quality of the work.” He hoped to earn her confidence, continuing, “More than ever, now, I also want you to place your confidence in my desire to do whatever is best with the story of Mr. Earp’s life….nothing can or will be done of course, without your sanction.”
But it was not to be, and in the ensuing months Josephine repeatedly harangued Lake, urging him to quickly finish the book. In February 1929 in a typical reply, Lake wrote her: “I just cannot afford to hurry the book. It must be historically accurate.…Remember please, that I am just as anxious, more so than anyone else. Not only have I spent the money for materials, but ever since we first started on this thing I have done not one other bit of work, have had no income.”
In the fall of 1929, Lake wrote to Josie with the news that Houghton Mifflin had agreed to publish the book, adding: “If you leave it to me, you’ll get a life story of Mr. Earp that will establish him in his rightful place. And that will make a little money for you at the same time.”
Josephine had several reasons to rush Lake along. To be sure, she needed the money that she hoped the book publishing rights would bring. But just as much she worried the more research Lake did the more likely he would stumble on information that interfered with her desire for a “nice clean story.” In fact, Lake had already discovered that Josie had something to hide, and he wrote the editor at Houghton Mifflin seeking advice: “Bat Masterson, and a score of old-timers, have told me that she [Josephine] was the belle of the honkytonks, the prettiest dame in three hundred or so of her kind….Sadie [Wyatt’s nickname for Josephine] has proceeded on the theory that all I know is what she has chosen to tell me, has tried to cover up with a tissue of lies and deceptions which has been so transparent as to be pathetic. I have not chosen to disillusion her about her success. She dreads beyond my power to describe the chance that I may stumble on to the truth, fears that I may know it now, but lacks the courage to out with it and ask me to tell her what I do know….She is the key to the whole yarn of Tombstone. Should I or should I not leave that key unturned?”
Over the next few months, most of his letters involved pleading with her to return signed contracts to him, and most of them seemed to have gone unanswered. By year’s end, it was clear to him that it was the sign of a deeper problem. “…[I]t is very evident that you’ve been after some more advice, and from someone who knows no more about the business of writing and the selling of what has been written than a jackrabbit,” Lake wrote. “ …[If you] would forget what these amateurs and would-bes tell you, you might come to some greater confidence in me.”
Lake had read Flood’s manuscript, and written to Wyatt: “Frankly, and with more sympathy than censure for Mr. Flood, I can understand why his well-meant effort was not more successful. There are tricks to all trades, and no trade is trickier than writing.” Toward the end of his letter to Josie, Lake revealed his suspicion that it was John Flood who was second-guessing him. “I haven’t time for the Flood type of interference,” he wrote, “well meaning no doubt, but more of a nuisance than anything else….And let me urge you again that if you feel you cannot deal with me without advice from others, you get some competent advice. I wouldn’t mind that half as much.” That letter was the last one between the partners over the next four months.
When Lake sent Josie a check for half the fee he collected for a Saturday Evening Post series based on the book, she responded with a demand to see what he had written, and proceeded to rewrite it. It was a preview of what she had in mind for the book itself, and she defended her changes by writing, “The deleting of the profanity in the articles…did not detract from their potency; all the atmosphere of the West was still present, and the tales were fully as vivid, and, with it all, they were raised to a plane of dignity and respectability….”
Later, after Lake sent her the manuscript for the book, she fired off a letter to let him know that it was not acceptable: “[S]ome changes will be necessary. The title, ‘Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal,’ I am not satisfied with. I would prefer much more that the title be just ‘Wyatt Earp.’ Thus far, what I have read of the story impresses me more as that of the blood and thunder type than a biography.”
“The sooner you quit fussing about it, the better off you’ll be,” Lake responded, “and if you keep in mind what you told me…that you were going to quit listening to everyone who had something to say about this book, and so that you will not be constantly upset and perturbed. [This] task has been made no easier for me by constant heckling and interference which is in no way warranted. I have been patient, tolerant, sympathetic and understanding. I have wasted hours of time trying to explain and re-explain things which have been misconstrued or distorted. Despite that, I have been successful with my end up to this point. The patience that I own is being strained to the breaking point.”
If Lake made any changes at Josephine’s suggestion, it isn’t mentioned in their correspondence. One suggestion he ignored was to shorten the title. The book was published in 1931 as Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.
In his Foreword, Lake noted that the things Wyatt Earp did made him a legend while he lived. But he added: “In true perspective, he is recognized as something more, as an epitomizing symbol of a powerful factor…in the history of the Western United States of America. The Old West cannot be understood unless Wyatt Earp is also understood.”
The book, a bestseller from the start, went a long way toward adding to that understanding, even though critics argue about its authenticity to this day. Most of all, it was a great read and an adventure story that was just what the doctor ordered for an America struggling through the Great Depression. And it transformed Wyatt Earp from a curiosity to a flesh and blood American hero.
For Americans who preferred to get their history in a movie theater rather than from a book—that, after all, was the original idea—Lake sold the rights to the Fox Film Company for $7,500 and dutifully split $6,750 (the amount after an agent received his commission) with Josie. Frontier Marshal, starring George O’Brien, was released in 1934. In that loose adaptation of Lake’s book, O’Brien’s character was called “Michael Wyatt” instead of Wyatt Earp. And it wasn’t even the first sound movie with a central character based on Wyatt Earp; that honor goes to the 1932 Universal production Law and Order, starring Walter Huston. A second Frontier Marshal movie, this one starring Randolph Scott, arrived in 1939; not only was it a big improvement over the first version but its hero was actually named “Wyatt Earp.” In 1942 Richard Dix portrayed Wyatt in Paramount’s The Town Too Tough to Die, but that film was based on Burns’ book Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest. Another movie directly based on Lake’s book was John Ford’s historically inaccurate but excellent My Darling Clementine, with Henry Fonda as Earp, which came along in 1946.
And that was just the beginning. Wyatt Earp has been portrayed on the screen by, among others, Joel McCrea (who had been Wyatt’s number one choice when the talk first turned to film), Burt Lancaster, James Garner (twice), Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Will Geer, James Stewart and Harris Yulin (see how the various Wyatts rate in the sidebar on P. 35). Surely more actors are waiting in the wings to give their own impression of the Frontier Marshal on the big screen. When television came along, Hugh O’Brian played the title role in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran for six full seasons (beginning in September 1955) and was among the top 10 shows for two years. It followed Wyatt on the various stages of his life and was based on Lake’s book.
And what of Josephine Earp, who fought and interfered with Lake at every turn? With money finally coming in and positive reviews for the book appearing nationwide, she was suddenly quite well disposed toward Lake’s effort. In December 1931, she wrote him, “It is very gratifying to see so many favorable comments concerning both Wyatt and the manner in which the story of his life has been presented.”
On January 30, 1936, Mrs. Earp wrote to reader Billy Bell of New York City: “Your interesting letter was most welcome to me….Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal is the only story Mr. Earp ever wrote of his life. It has given me pleasure to know you of the younger generation place my husband’s memory in so high a place.”
Wyatt Earp’s legend was safe.
Eric Weider, whose passion for the Wild West starts with the Earp brothers, is president of the Weider History Group, Inc. John Rose is consulting editor for Wild West. Suggested for further reading: Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart Lake; Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend, by Lee A. Silva; Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, by Allen Barra; Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller; and Celluloid Adventures (featuring a section called “Wyatt Earp on Film”), by Nicholas Anez.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.