From Clementine Carter in My Darling Clementine (1946) to Josie in Wyatt Earp (1995), the legendary Wyatt Earp is shown in movies as going to battle at the OK Corral not just for justice but for the woman he loves. Unbeknownst to many, these female characters are based on an actual woman, Josephine Marcus, who was Earp’s wife for over forty years and seemed to embody the axiom that behind every powerful man is a powerful woman. Lady at the OK Corral by Ann Kirschner attempts to bring Josephine out from behind Wyatt’s shadow.
There is no doubt that Josephine Marcus led a fascinating life. The daughter of Jewish immigrants, she ran away from home to join an acting troupe when she was a teenager and traveled the west. In one dusty town she met Johnny Behan, who convinced her to move to Tombstone and live with him as his wife and a salary-free governess to his son. It was in Tombstone that Josephine met and started an affair with Wyatt Earp, who was not only married himself but also Behan’s arch-rival. It was a real-life love triangle with all the drama of a soap opera. After the gunfight at the OK Corral, Josephine and Wyatt continued to chase fortune and glory at the edge of the American frontier.
With such a theatrical and provocative personal history to work with, Lady at the OK Corral is a book that should be interesting, and it is–as long as it focuses on Wyatt Earp. Unfortunately, the parts of the book that focus on Josephine are boring and feel like filler. Not because Kirschner didn’t have enough source material on Josephine–she wrote her own memoirs and there are plenty of people who knew her when she was still alive–but because she’s simply not the hero of the story; Wyatt is.
One hesitates to blame Kirschner for this, seeing as how Josephine spent most of her life putting Wyatt in the spotlight, making him look good and elaborating on his heroic deeds. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that she did the same in her memoirs and Kirschner simply relied too heavily on them. To be fair, Kirschner does try to balance the memoirs out with other sources, but these sources are mostly connected to Wyatt and the history of the Earp brothers.
For someone who was clearly of her own mind, Josephine’s life does seem to revolved around men a lot. She’s a woman who has little to no agency: moving to Tombstone because of a man, not because she wants to get away from home; and then returning to her family in San Francisco because Wyatt wants her out of Tombstone. There she waits for Wyatt. Which is fine, but doesn’t make for super-interesting reading. It’s cruelly ironic that a book purporting to be the biography of a woman doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (quick rundown of the Bechdel Test: a story has 1. a female character who 2. talks to another female character about 3. something other than a man).
As stated, Lady at the OK Corral isn’t a bad popular history book. If you’re interested in Wyatt Earp (which I definitely am after reading this; he was a total badass), then you’ll find it worth reading. But as the biography of a female pioneer, it’s strangely unfocused and generalized. Whether this is due to the subject, the author, or a lack of resources, Lady at the OK Corral isn’t Josephine Marcus’ story; it’s the story of Wyatt Earp told from her perspective.
by Tasha Brandstatter