In writing The Last Woman Standing: A Novel of Mrs. Wyatt Earp Thelma Adams draws on her significant experience. As a respected writer in the entertainment industry with a history degree from UC Berkeley and an MFA from Columbia University, she uses her background with discernment to make smart choices about a very interesting subject. What was it like to be a woman coming of age in the Wild West? And particularly, what was it like to be the woman who became Wyatt Earp’s wife?
Josephine Marcus escapes the secure, and hence mundane, future her Jewish immigrant parents wish for her. She reaches for something different and persists in her striving, even when she recognizes she may have clung to the wrong thing, or certainly the wrong man.
Ms. Adams’ prose is fresh and smart and the feminist sensibility she gives to her subject matter makes for an engaging story. Her keen visual perception is translated into words, which in turn form pictures in our minds–a beautiful cycle of imagination and its translation. The thoughtfulness she employs to explore Josephine’s fears, motivations, and triumphs, pays homage to the gravity of her task–to portray a historical figure with emotional integrity.
BCB is happy to invite Ms. Thelma Adams to discuss her insightful biographical novel.
Amy M. Hawes: As I read The Last Woman Standing, it was difficult to believe that no one had thought to write a biographical novel about Josephine Marcus, the beautiful and feisty wife of Wyatt Earp. After a little bit of Internet research, I discovered there are a couple works on the subject but they are very controversial. These accounts provide a much less flattering view of Ms. Marcus than you show in The Last Woman Standing. What kind of material did you discover as you researched this intriguing woman and how did you decide what to include and what to discard?
Thelma Adams: I trained as a historian at UC Berkeley so I have experience parsing sources: what is reliable, who has an axe to grind? Cue Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.” And that meant, in the case of the west, the last man holding the smoking gun and still standing. I wanted something different. I wanted to make the women of the west come alive – and Josephine in particular. I read both versions of Josephine’s memoirs to get a shape of the story of her time in Tombstone, which is the narrow focus of this particular novel. From watching a million biopics as a film critic, from the Academy-Award winning The King’s Speech to the ridiculous J. Edgar, I knew that framing was everything.
Also, there’s a lot of judging and shaming of women of that time as there is now. Was Josephine a prostitute or wasn’t she? Was she a dancer in an operetta or a “lewd” dancer? I needed, through fiction, to find the dimensional woman that was not defined by these judgments any more than Wyatt Earp was judged a murderer by his enemies or a hero by his supporters no matter how many men he gunned down. So, in answer to your question, I discarded judgments and aimed for emotional truth because, while I honored the facts and they provided the tent poles for the narrative, I embraced fiction.
AH: Josephine’s beauty is essential to the story but whether it is a blessing or a curse can be debated. Your novel opens with Josephine looking back on her younger days as she says, “Beauty brings trust in the universe, and then, in that cruel joke, over time it rescinds your power.” Certainly, the existence of actual photographs of Josephine must have piqued your imagination, as you included descriptions of them in The Last Woman Standing. Did you extrapolate the role Josephine’s beauty played in her life from these?
TA: Surprisingly, the surviving photographs of Josephine do not reflect the beauty that was described in historical sources. There’s one absolutely stunning, semi- nude photo that’s beautiful – but its provenance is a matter of debate. I used images of the actress Rachel Weisz at about the same age – such a beauty – to describe Josephine’s looks. I also know how hard it is for women who were stunning when they were young to age and lose that power over men (and women) that they once had. I find that interesting. What happens when a beautiful woman walks down the street and no longer catches men’s eyes, the attention wanted or unwanted? At some point, a beautiful woman has to develop character and depth beyond that surface splendor or she risks being lost as she ages. What I found in the love story of Josie and Wyatt was that he was a man attracted by her beauty who stayed because of her inner glow and sense of moral justice.
AH: When Ms. Marcus leaves her home in San Francisco to go to live with her soon-to-be fiancé Johnny Behan, her mother rends her clothing just as though her daughter has died. Her father, however, gives her a kiss and an envelope, which contains a letter expressing his unconditional love for her. It seems as though her father’s love both makes her trust Johnny’s love more than is prudent but also offers an emotional template so she’s able recognize the unconditional love Wyatt offers. He, like Behan, is struck by her beauty but seems to see a deeper beauty within that will not fade with time. Do you believe Wyatt and Josephine would have ended up together “no matter what,” or was it a prerequisite that somewhere inside her heart and mind she could intuit the difference between conditional and unconditional love?
TA: Great question. From my own experience, I can say that once you are wooed and then betrayed sexually by an unfaithful charmer, it opens your eyes to the deeper qualities necessary in a partner. You are less likely to appreciate fidelity until a mate has cheated on you. (Or at least that was my experience.) Love, like everything else, is a learning curve. Josie had the power to love and threw it away on Johnny. Wyatt had loved deeply in the past and did not believe he could love again, or that he even deserved love. In Josie, he rediscovered his ability to love and be loved. Mutual love is a great beautiful gift in the human condition.
AH: As a film critic you must have a highly developed ability to evaluate visual input and explain what you see in words. In writing The Last Woman Standing and your previous novel Playdate, did you find yourself using a similar process to convert images in your mind into text? Or, did you discover writing a novel is very different from critiquing films? Does one skill play into the other?
TA: You’re right: writing a novel is very different from critiquing film. I began my writing life penning poetry – and so turning images into words and polishing, polishing them was where I started. Not just images but emotions, scenes, momentary visions. But the two – criticism and fiction writing – formed a two-way street. I learned a lot about storytelling from seeing many, many movies – particularly how to end a story because so many movies you see second-guess the ending or have multiple endings and that’s a pet peeve of mine. You should land an ending the way a gymnast sticks at the end of a floor routine. Also, as I mentioned, seeing so many biopics that started too soon in the story and ended well after the downward spiral had worn the audience out taught me another lesson about biographical fiction: find the juice of your character’s life story and tell that. And, in reverse, writing fiction helps me critique films: it gives me empathy for the writer and the collaborative process. I also critique films first for their storytelling: does the narrative flow, is the script solid, and are the characters believable?
AH: Politics is certainly a hot topic these days, but I was very surprised to learn how much influence politics had on a town like Tombstone, Arizona. I think in our collective imagination the “Wild, Wild West” was a place where there was no law, no politics. Yet, politics is a crucial component of Tombstone and you use it to paint contrasts between Johnny Behan and Wyatt Earp. Can you tell our readers a little bit about the politics of the Wild West and how it influenced your story?
TA: The politics were vivid and potent in this era – as they are in contemporary America with its great divide between Republicans and Democrats. It’s crucial to remember that in the early 1880’s, less than two decades after the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had been a Republican. On July 1, 1881, an assassin shot the Republican President James A. Garfield in Washington, DC, although the recently-elected leader did not die of his wounds until eleven weeks later, about five weeks before the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Even the issue of gun control can be traced back to this period – the Earps had a hell of a time getting the cowboy element of Tombstone to leave their guns off while they were in town. That conflict is also at the root of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – the right to carry. In the book I described the cowboys that banded together at a critical lynching of Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce (an actual event) this way:
They were mostly Texans and transplanted Southerners, Democrats, and Confederate sympathizers who resented the Republican law-and-order Earps and the business interests they defended. Many had come west to Arizona to escape Northern domination.
When I turned in the first draft of my novel, I had referred to this schism but my editor prodded me to bring the issues forward and to clarify these political divisions between Republican and Democrat, Yankee and Confederate. On an individual note, John Behan was raised in the South; Wyatt Earp in the North. And Josie grew up in San Francisco, far from the rivalries of the Civil War and its aftermath.
AH: More of my ignorance was exposed when you paint Wyatt as a sympathetic good man who truly wants to treat everyone fairly, including criminals. How did you tease out the real Wyatt Earp from the collage of fantasies that exist?
TA: You make a series of choices. I chose to be pro-Earp – not everyone in the historical record is. But I’m seeing him through Josephine’s eyes. I decided that he was deeply affected by his first wife’s death in childbirth. This was a personal fork in the road for Wyatt. He also had good solid male friendships that lasted until his dying day; his pallbearers included men from Tombstone who he met decades earlier. The ability to command that kind of loyalty, not only from Josephine but from his friends including Doc Holliday, spoke to me as the writer. And I built him as a fictional character from the ground up, always keeping in mind the reactions of those around him, of those who wrote about him in diaries and contemporary newspapers, and even those who despised him. And he was always a part of a pack, the Earp brothers, who were very tight and had each other’s backs in Tombstone. He was not a lone ranger. Even though he wasn’t the oldest he was the leader – and that speaks to his character. Still, is this the “real Wyatt” of your question? Hmm. He is a fictional character based on my careful curation of the facts. When all is said and done, no one was in the room with Josephine and Wyatt – or on their fateful camping trip under the stars in the Arizona wilderness.
AH: It takes a lot for Josephine to finally see the truth of Johnny’s character. Do you think this is simply because she is young and naïve, or is it because she can’t face the terrible mistake she’s made in trusting him?
TA: All of the above. Even when Johnny has been awful to Josephine, he still has the power to charm her; she still wants to believe she hasn’t made a terrible mistake by leaving her family for this gentile man’s marriage proposal. There’s a certain amount of face-saving here, and stubbornness, and naiveté. And, after her unexpected visit with the brothel owner Madame Mustache, Josephine fears having to support herself alone in Tombstone through prostitution – or having to return home with nothing to show for her rebelliousness but shame.
AH: Josephine finds great comfort in the pure beauty of the night sky. It becomes a grounding force, which renews her ability to hope all will be well. Whether this characteristic is real or imagined, it is easy to believe that the Arizona sky would have a soothing influence. Can you tell us what inspired you to incorporate this into the storyline?
TA: Josephine writes of this natural beauty in her memoirs, which are often very descriptive. She and Wyatt often camped in the wilderness together, just the two of them, throughout their lives. The Western landscapes in all their drama become a spiritual salve for her. It’s a sense of rapture that she didn’t achieve from her Jewish practice. As a Jew who had difficulty connecting to the Hebrew services in my suburban conservative synagogue, I identify with this feeling of spirituality in nature. Now, I live in New York’s Hudson Valley; I’m constantly entranced by the beautiful quality of light here captured by the landscape artists of the Hudson River School. So this is a point where I connected with Josie and projected my religious feelings onto her.
AH: Congratulations on the release of your second novel! Is there a third story that is pestering you to get written?
TA: Definitely! I am writing about another strong sexy Jewish woman in my manuscript Kosher Nostra. The historical fiction spans thirty years and focuses on the rebellious little sister of a mobster in Brooklyn’s Murder, Inc. Inspired by my grandmother Thelma Lorber – and her older brother Abraham “Little Yiddel” Lorber – the fictional story examines the mob’s impact on lower-class Eastern European immigrant families. Like Josie, Thelma burned brightly, but she lacked the beauty that was Josie’s ticket to a bigger stage. I like to think of this book-in-progress as the schleppy side of Boardwalk Empire. As an avid viewer of Law & Order, I’m proud to say there’s a corpse in chapter one.
I also anticipate more novels of Mr. and Mrs. Wyatt Earp: they were together for nearly fifty years of boom and bust living from the racetracks of San Diego, California, to the gold fields of Nome, Alaska. There are many more adventures to be explored. At certain times Wyatt and Josie even lived with her Jewish immigrant parents in San Francisco. I can’t yet imagine what it was like under that roof but I’m eager to realize it on the page when the time comes.
AH: Thank you Thelma Adams, for taking the time to chat with BCB. It’s been a pleasure!
Credit: Marion Ettlinger
Thelma Adams is an established figure in the entertainment industry. For two decades, she has penned celebrity features and film criticism for high-profile publications. Her portfolio of actor interviews includes Julianne Moore, George Clooney, Jessica Chastain, and Matthew McConaughey, among many others. While covering film for the New York Post, US Weekly, and Yahoo Movies, Thelma became a regular at film festivals from Berlin to Dubai, Toronto to Tribeca. She sits on the Hamptons International Film Festival Advisory Board and twice chaired the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle. Her debut novel, Playdate, published by Thomas Dunne books, won high critical acclaim. Adams is often recognized, as she has been invited to share her expertise on many broadcast outlets, including appearances on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s Early Show, and CNN. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a history degree from UC Berkeley and earned an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Hyde Park, New York, with her family. Learn more at www.thelmaadams.com