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How Mrs. Wyatt Earp rewrote history

Let us now praise great men -- and let us take a good look at their women. You’ll find many who were remarkably talented and forceful in their own right, others who were minor footnotes and forgotten muses.

I was thinking about these partnerships when I went in search of Mrs. Wyatt Earp, the “Lady at the O.K. Corral.” Fascinated as I was by this unknown woman with a famous last name, I had to acknowledge that she was no Eleanor Roosevelt or Madame Chaing Kai-shek. Her most memorable act was burying her legendary husband in a Jewish cemetery. 

Her past was hidden, obscured by more than a century of willful deceit, some of it by her own hand. She was there, at the O.K. Corral, but history was silent about her role. 

Josephine may never have said “I do,” but she was game about saying “I will.”

What led her to run away to the wilds of the Arizona Territory? And what was the story behind her 50-year partnership with the most famous lawman of the Old West?

She was charming and sexy, a restless spirit who adored her common law husband. She wanted to be an actress, but found her greatest role as Wyatt Earp’s partner and the protector of his legacy. 

In place of the gunslinger, gambler, saloon-keeper, and pimp, Josephine Marcus Earp gave us a “nice clean story” that scrubbed Wyatt spotless as a Sunday school teacher, a successful and generous businessman and a loving husband. Always ready to fight those who would turn his violent past into the stuff of lurid fiction and film, she tried to turn the real man into a senior statesman in a kind of reverse Pygmalion effort – and she mostly succeeded.

Josephine may never have said “I do,” but she was game about saying “I will.” She never had a permanent home, and with an insatiable desire for new experiences and fortune-seeking, she and Wyatt followed the boomtowns from Tombstone, Arizona to California, Washington, Nevada, and Alaska. 

They never planned for the future – until they discovered that they could no longer endure the rough and tumble life of their younger years. In place of the exotic ripe beauty and saucy adventuress of Tombstone, the mirror showed Josephine a fat old lady with frizzled hair and a shapeless housedress. Wyatt Earp aged into an aristocratic-looking old gentleman, still handsome and lean, though more likely now to be holding the Saturday Evening Post than a gun.

Their final years were spent in the last expression of the frontier: Hollywood, where Wyatt was lionized as the embodiment of the Tombstone era.

Something about the Old West is buried deep in the American heart. We can’t understand America without the frontier, and we can’t understand the frontier without Wyatt Earp – and how can we interpret his legend without knowing the irresistible woman who shaped it?

I thought about other women-behind-the men from a time when women had far fewer choices: literary wives such as Happy Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald, first ladies Abigail Adams, Edith Galt Wilson and the most comparable to Josephine, Nancy Reagan who also adored her famous husband, toured with a road company, and gave up an acting career of her own, saying “My life really began when I married my husband.” 

All of these kindred spirits are strong women who sublimated their own ambitions to those of their husbands, admirable at another time though of course hard to aspire to today.

When I think of the Lady at the OK Corral, I have two warring songs in my head. One of them is the music to Wyatt Earp, the television show that ushered in the modern era of Earp-worship, starring the square-jawed, slim-hipped Hugh O’Brien, and a theme song so memorable that it should be illegal. The second is an Annie Lennox song, “Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves” which declares the time is over when “behind every great man there had to be a great woman.”

Somewhere in between lies the stuff of history and the choices made by women.

Ann Kirschner is the author of "Sala’s Gift." Her new book, "Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp" was published on March 5 by HarperCollins.