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She was Mrs. Earp but you can call her Josie

The Last Woman Standing

By Thelma Adams

Lake Union Publishing

298 pages, $14.95 (paper)

By Susan Wloszczyna

When conjuring an image that defines womanhood in the Wild West, it’s not unusual to fall back on the narrowly defined  categories popularized by classic Hollywood horse operas.

Think of the devoted pioneer wife and schoolmarm spinste joined by their polar opposites, the forlorn prostitute and the spitfire dance hall gal exemplified by Marlene Dietrich in “Destry Rides Again.”  There were also real-life sharpshooters such as Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, whose legends inspired spritely musicals – “Calamity Jane” with Doris Day and “Annie Got Her Gun” with Betty Hutton.

But standing apart from these dusty archetypes is one Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp. That last name gives away just one reason that the common-law wife of the fabled Tombstone, Ariz., lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp continues to fascinate and confound scholars. For one, she was the comely and voluptuous Brooklyn-born Jewish daughter of a baker father who shared 47 years of her life with the iconic gunslinger. Earp, who died in 1929, at age 80 would be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Colma, Calif., which suggests Josephine had a considerable say in such important matters.  Some even believe that the third Mrs. Earp was partly responsible for instigating the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral since the laconic Wyatt and Sheriff Johnny Behan, the sweet talker who originally beckoned her to Tombstone with a promise of marriage that he failed to keep, stood on opposing sides of the shootout .

Josephine – who preferred to be called Sadie and, later, Josie – found a place on screens big and small at least three times in the form of  Marie Osmond in the 1983 TV movie “I Married Wyatt Earp,” Dana Delaney in 1993’s “Tombstone’ and Joanna Going in 1994’s “Wyatt Earp.”  But the actual facts of her story have been muddied with mythologizing and misinformation, much of it the fault of Josephine herself before she passed away in 1944.

According to a 2013 biography by Ann Kirschner, “Lady at the O.K. Corral,” Josephine often protected Earp’s reputation as well as her own by concealing or ignoring certain details about their semi-shady pasts – such as his owning gambling saloons or housing prostitutes in his establishments. The author also failed to dig up many insights on how her faith influenced her.  A reviewer at forward.com, Hilene Flanzbaum, felt frustrated by how little the book was able to flesh out its central figure. She ended her critique with this observation: “If I were a fiction writer, I would jump on this opportunity to re-create the woman’s story. Novelists out there – I see a best-seller in the making.”

Apparently, Thelma Adams, a veteran film writer who has written for “The New York Post” and “Us Weekly” while currently a columnist for “New York Observer,” had the same light-bulb moment when she came up with the idea for “The Last Woman Standing.”  She also possessed the imagination and gumption to spin her own invented yarn spun from her research into the early days of this headstrong and adventurous lady. Uncorseted  from the need to only stick with the facts,  Adams cherry-picks what she desires from what few nuggets have been confirmed or simply speculated  about Josephine’s history, such as her claim that she ran away from home with a traveling  troupe of performers at 17. She chooses to have an elderly version of this now-fading beauty provide the narration for the period she spent in the Arizona silver-rush town among underhanded cattle rustlers, bullying outlaws, opportunistic business owners, dangerous Apaches and bawdy ladies of the evening – all leading up to when she and Earp officially became a couple.

Adams starts at a full gallop by opening the first chapter with a rather bold if anachronistic pronouncement, “Tombstone kicked my ass and I kicked it back.” Josephine later adds, “I wanted to straddle my man like a pony and ride into the sunset. Pardon me for spreading my legs so soon. You hardly know me. But you will.“ The author clearly wants to lasso her readers from the get-go and keep them tied up in her prose. But after the rather florid introduction, the engaging tale settles into a pleasant canter and reveals itself to be part coming-of-age story as the 19-year-old Josephine arrives in Tombstone after an exhausting three-day trip via train and stage coach from San Francisco; part feminist empowerment fiction as this young city gal escapes her disapproving mother and takes control of her own destiny; part titillating romance with steamy sexual encounters; and part portrait of an unsettled post-Civil War America where Republicans and Democrats try to stake their claim on the political seat of power.

The book does achieve a certain intimacy with its subject’s point of view that is quite distinct from the usual male-dominated stories from the era. Take this description of Josephine’s initial encounter with Earp: “I felt a weight on one cheek. I sensed eyes staring at me. I don’t know how that’s possible, but it happened just that way, as real as the feeling of sunshine while your eyes are closed.” Adams certainly knows how to paint a scene with poetic words, but surprisingly, her reveries of hot-and-heavy lustiness are sometimes afflicted by “50 Shades of Grey”-style gushing, such as when our heroine finally loses her virginity with Behan. She sums up her newfound bedroom abilities thusly, “Not only did I not disappoint,  I exceeded expectations. Viewing that fire in Johnny’s eyes unleashed a chutzpah in me previously unknown.”  Obviously, Adams exposes her own  brand of chutzpah in these pages, too.   

The portions where Adams most successfully brings the past into the present is whenever the cool-headed Wyatt saunters onto the scene. I couldn’t help but visualize a young Sam Elliott, who was brother Virgil in ”Tombstone,”  in the role that has been played by such actors as Burt Lancaster, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. Her depiction of how Wyatt and his brothers held off an angry mob  500 strong that aimed to hang a teenage gambler who shot a mining engineer after a contentious  poker game told from Josephine’s point of view as she peers out the window of a brothel is infused with compelling tension and suspense. That chapter turns out to be just a rehearsal for Josephine’s breathless account of her nerve-wracking situation during the deadly O.K. Corral showdown.

Truth can be stranger than fiction, they say. But Adams does a pretty bang-up job of blending the two while embellishing Mrs. Earp’s rightful place in Western lore.

Susan Wloszczyna is a former film writer for USA Today and a contributing critic to Roger Ebert.com.

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