● Lady at the O.k. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp
By Ann Kirschner
Harper Collins, 304 pages, $27.99
As a kid, I perfected a strategy for beating anyone at “Twenty Questions.” I always chose not someone famous, but the wife of someone famous. My opponent would say, “Was she an actress?” No. “Was she a writer?” No. “But then how do I know her?” You get the picture. The person I had chosen had not done anything except marry someone famous. If you played this game with me more than a few times, of course, you knew my strategy and would eventually say, “Was her husband famous?” In Ann Kirschner’s new biography, “Lady at the O.K. Corral,” it remains questionable whether her subject, Josephine Marcus Earp, common-law wife of the famous lawbreaker and lawmaker Wyatt Earp, has done anything but marry the guy.
But wait a second — you say his wife was Jewish?
In her introduction to the book, Kirschner describes her amazement at learning that Wyatt Earp’s wife was Jewish. She remembers the many years she sat in front of her family’s black-and-white television, watching Westerns with her brother. The female characters were either prostitutes soon to be dead or spinster schoolteachers left to die loveless and alone. If a woman did become a wife, (with the notable exception of “High Noon”), the adventure was over. Indeed, weddings and wives often signaled the end of these old Westerns.
The viewer never wanted to think about the hero in a life without saloons and card games and gunfights. More specifically, for those who have watched movies about Earp himself, they have seen [Henry Fonda}(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TCbWu1PhLU), Jimmy Stewart, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner, as well as half a dozen others, portray Earp, without the benefit of spouse, Jewish or otherwise. The fact that Earp had a common law wife — and a Jewish one at that — with whom he lived for 46 years is remarkable.
It is Kirschner’s job to make this more than just a quirky factoid of history and convince her readers that Marcus Earp is worthy of the meticulous and responsible biography she has written. It is not an easy task, nor is it fully accomplished. The author can make virtually nothing of the fact that Marcus Earp was Jewish, because it appears that there is nothing to tell. The woman cared not a lick about being Jewish: She knew few people who were Jewish, nor was anyone to whom she was related mindful of a religious or cultural inheritance.
On the other hand, Kirschner can make hay only of this marriage: It is clear that being the wife of Wyatt Earp was the only thing that mattered to anyone, including Marcus Earp. At some point, Kirsch hypothesizes that Marcus Earp might have been partially responsible for the shootout at the O.K. Corral (the event from which she takes her title), because at that historical event, Earp her lover-to-be, faced Johnny Behan, her lover soon-to-be-dumped. There is some evidence to point to this, and it is certainly fun to think about — although in any case, she remained far from the bullets and may not even have been in Tombstone at the time.