O.K. Corral’s Jewish Gal
Every March brings us Women’s History Month. Among this year’s highlights is the publication of a new biography of an American Jewish woman — Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp — by another American Jewish woman, Ann Kirschner.
If the Earp name sounds familiar, that’s because Josephine’s common-law husband, Wyatt, has occupied the limelight of American Old West mythology. Remember that famous shootout in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881? The one dramatized in films such as “My Darling Clementine,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “Tombstone,” and “Wyatt Earp”? Turns out that the fight had something to do with a certain Jewish girl. In her new biography, “Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp,” Kirschner restores Josephine to her rightful historical place. (In her previous book, the acclaimed “Sala’s Gift,” Kirschner explored her mother’s Holocaust story.)
Kirschner, whose career began as a lecturer in Victorian literature at Princeton University, currently serves as University Dean of Macaulay Honors College of The City University of New York. In a recent interview with The Sisterhood, Kirschner discussed what’s remarkable about Josephine — and what it was like to research her story.
THE SISTERHOOD: What role did this Jewish woman play in the iconic American episode of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral?
ANN KIRSCHNER: The gunfight was the result of a simmering conflict between factions favoring Wyatt Earp on the one hand and Johnny Behan on the other. Both were lawmen in Tombstone. Their competition had political and economic roots, but it was also a love triangle, with Josephine Marcus Earp in the middle. She came to Tombstone in 1881 to marry Johnny Behan. But Johnny turned out to be a womanizer who had no interest in making Josephine his legal wife. She left him and had an affair with Wyatt Earp, and suddenly the rivalry got personal.
You write: “As Nora Ephron would memorably say of herself, Josephine was not in denial; she acknowledged that she was a Jew, but being Jewish was not in the top five things she wanted you to know about her.” What, then, were the top five things she wanted people to know?
She wanted you to know that she was the legal Mrs. Wyatt Earp, that she was the daughter of wealthy Germans, that she was well respected by important people, that she associated only with highest levels of society, and that she was a delicate, vulnerable lady. None of which was true!
Your book extends and deepens our understanding of nineteenth and early-twentieth century American Jewish history beyond, say, New York and the Lower East Side. What did you discover that surprised you?
So many things! With an Easterner’s ignorance, I had no idea that Jewish communities were a presence in frontier boomtowns like Tombstone. There were Jews on Wyatt Earp’s jury after the gunfight! They celebrated the High Holy Days in Nome, Alaska! I underestimated the size and prominence of the early Jewish community in San Francisco, but never dreamed that it suffered from the same German/Polish snobbery that I thought was a more recent New York invention. I enjoyed learning about Alaska Commercial Company, which was owned by Jewish families in San Francisco, and had a profound influence on the shape of modern Alaska. Isaac Benjamin’s book “Three Years in America, 1859-1862” is a remarkable eyewitness account of the American Jewish community at the time, and has a treasured spot on my bookshelves.
In the course of your research, you write that you “encountered some villains, who were not so fond of women or Jews, so they wished nothing but obscurity — or trouble — for Josephine and me.” This may surprise some readers, who would otherwise think that both women and Jews have left such hostility in the past. Can you reflect a bit on this?
I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, so I never indulged myself in the fantasy that anti-Semitism is a hideous monster of the past. Nevertheless, I was sad to meet folks who otherwise seem like you and me and yet indulge in casual slurs or evince a lack of awareness when they were being tone deaf to stereotypes. Sometimes this took the form of mockery, like one person imitating Josephine yelling “VYE-AT!” in a heavy Yiddish accent. I also had people argue with me that I was too quick to take offense when Josephine was described in a 1971 recorded interview as “just a typical little East side Jewess who never did anything for anybody without getting paid for it.”
You observe that Wyatt Earp actually had more Jewish friends than Josephine did, and that late in her life, Josephine stooped to label her enemies ‘kikes’ and ‘sheenies.’ What do you make of this?
Josephine had few positive associations with being Jewish. She never went so far as to disclaim her religion, but it was not a source of strength and pride. Her nasty language reflected the anti-Semitic climate of the time, and while it seems bizarre that a Jew would say those things, it suggests how disconnected she felt. “They” were “kikes and sheenies,” not her. And yet at the greatest crisis of her life, Wyatt’s death, she turned back to a Jewish cemetery as his final resting place.