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Book Review: Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal By Stuart Lake

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My series dealing with the 125th Anniversary of the Gunfight at the OK Corral continues with a review of Wyatt Earp's authorized biography, supplemented by the detailed mention of three other books, two of which were published during Wyatt Earp's lifetime.

The book that started the whole Wyatt Earp craze was Stuart Lake’s authorized biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, published in 1931. It became an overnight success and propelled Lake from a writer who was just surviving into a franchise.  

The 1955 television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was based on the book and made Lake into one of the first television moguls. It became one of the first television series to spawn tie-in merchandising such as lunch boxes, children's books, comic books, action figures, guns, costumes, tableware and mugs. (I still have my mug).

Naturally, success breeds contempt, followers, or critics. Frank Waters, who wrote The Earp Brothers of Tombstone in 1976, was one such critic. The Earp Brothers was born in an era when heroes should have feet of clay. Cops had become Pigs. The military was evil. The United States was the bastion of all that was unholy. His portrayal of Wyatt Earp fit perfectly into such a world.

During the next 40 years, books, writers, and researchers came and went. (That’s another story). Some were good, some were bad, and a few were horrid. But a new breed of researcher/writer was being born. Stuart Lake deserves much criticism. He sensationalized Wyatt Earp, turning him into a cellulose hero.

Lake was writing during the first years of the Great Depression. The world did not need black and white reality; it needed heroes. Lake took the life story of a man, a real honest to goodness man with feet of clay, and propelled him into the pantheon of the gods. Had he been alive, Wyatt Earp would have been Lake’s greatest critic. All Earp wanted was “to set the record straight.”

Wyatt Earp was very unhappy with Walter Noble Burns and his sensational Tombstone, an Iliad of the Southwest. Burns turned Earp into a superhero, which he was not. To begin with, Burns just showed up on the Earp’s doorstep one afternoon, unannounced. Wyatt and his wife Josie had just returned from some time out in the desert up around Vidal, California where they had a little house and Wyatt could look after his mining properties.

By this time the former lawman was well into his seventies and his health was starting to fail. His sense of propriety was offended by Burns’ actions. Evidently Burns was sent away, empty-handed, but Wyatt reconsidered. He suggested Burns write the life story of Doc Holliday and wrote an incredible letter to Burns, telling Doc’s story. (It wasn’t until this year that the definitive Doc Holliday biography was finally published, authored by Dr. Gary Roberts.)

Instead, Burns sensationalized the Wyatt Earp story. By the time Tombstone, an Iliad of the Southwest was published in 1927, Wyatt was furious. His surviving Tombstone friends were somewhat amused, but former Cochise County lawman Billy "Break" Breakenridge was devastated.

Breakenridge needed to do a little public relations work to rehabilitate his image and that of his friend and old boss, Cochise County Sheriff John Behan. He also romanticized the stories of the Cowboys, the outlaws who plagued Cochise County to the point where it was on the verge of armed insurrection. "Break" took the stories of Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo and turned them into romantic cowboy versions of Robin Hood. Helldorado was published a year after the Burns' tome.

Once again, the Earps were furious. This time it was personal. Breakenridge, never wealthy, imposed on their hospitality in Los Angeles while he pumped Wyatt for information. He then turned around and turned the Earp Brothers into the villains of Tombstone. The letters that passed between Wyatt Earp and his remaining Tombstone friends John Clum, George Parsons, and Fred Dodge are a treasure of gossip, a little back-stabbing, and a tremendous source of information about those turbulent Wild West days.

While all of this was going on, Wyatt Earp was dictating his memoirs to his secretary, John Flood, with famed silent film star William S. Hart, looking over their shoulders so to speak. Hart tried shopping around what is now known as The Flood Manuscript, but the writing was so painful, it was virtually unusable. Copies of the manuscript are fairly rare, but they can be found. It is fascinating, but Flood’s writing was absolutely abominable.

Then Stuart Lake appeared on the scene. Having done his homework, Lake learned of the problems created by both Burns and Breakenridge. Instead of popping up on the Earp’s front door, he took the professional approach. He wrote a cover letter introducing himself and his work. He explained he had worked with Bat Masterson and was well aware of Masterson’s side of the story.

Lake's approach was successful, but not before the increasingly infirm Wyatt Earp tied Lake up in such an air-tight contract that it took a court order, after the death of Josephine Earp during World War II, to stop a percentage of the residuals from Frontier Marshal from going into her estate.

There are many problems with the Lake book. First and foremost, it is sensational. Wyatt Earp’s life was remarkable enough. Imagine living through a timeframe that spanned the Civil War to the Great Depression. He lived the Wild West. He was the pattern for every movie-lawman from silent films into the modern era.

John Wayne became Wyatt Earp, adapting the way Wyatt walked, and more importantly, the way Wyatt talked — slowly, enunciating every word. Wyatt Earp had a voice like a foghorn. Embellishments weren’t necessary.

Today the debates over the validity of Lake’s scholarship are as lively as ever. Noted best-selling author Allen Barra (a personal friend) thinks there is little worthwhile to recommend Lake. Pulitzer-nominated Earp biographer Casey Tefertiller (another friend) cautions that Lake became such a franchise that his later comments and letters cannot be trusted.

Some writers and researchers make the mistake of taking Lake at face value. Others make the mistake of completely discarding anything he wrote. I’m one of those in the middle. I think the more we discover about the life of Wyatt Earp the more interesting the Lake book becomes.

The more I research the subject, the more I am positive Lake did a tremendous amount of ground-breaking scholarship, not only dealing with the life of Wyatt Earp, but also Tombstone and Dodge City. There are tantalizing traces of letters in out of the way libraries. Some pop up in the strangest places. What is obvious is Lake left no stone unturned as he researched the life of Wyatt Earp.

Unfortunately, Stuart Lake was writing for a different era. Scholarship was not as important to the popular culture as heroes and escapism. In Frontier Marshal, Lake delivered just what the doctor ordered. The success was almost instantaneous. The movie followed. Hollywood beckoned and Lake never looked back. Frontier Marshal was so popular it became the most-read book, aside from the Bible, by our troops during World War II.

Then the unthinkable happened. Lake became quite ill. He put his Earp research into storage. You can guess the rest of the story. Almost everything was lost, destroyed, or stolen. I tend to think it was the latter. What remained of Lake’s research was donated by Lake to the Huntington Library, where it is one of the most popular collections. From the scant material that is at the Huntington, scholars are recreating the story of the life of Wyatt Earp and the history of those amazing days in Tombstone.

The research did exist. I know for a fact that when the great western actor, Joel McCrea, was researching the life of Wyatt Earp for the movie Wichita, his friend, Stuart Lake gave him access to everything. A witness to the collection could not believe how little now exists today.

Joel McCrea was the only actor who portrayed Wyatt Earp on the silver screen to have access to that material and who actually, personally knew Wyatt Earp. McCrea’s widow, the magnificent Thirties film-goddess Frances Dee (one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever had the honor to know and to call friend), once told me Wyatt wanted McCrea to portray him if Frontier Marshal were to be made into a movie.

There is no way any honest researcher, save for the anti-Earp faction (another story), can consider Stuart Lake’s classic Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal as anything but good. Lake was a gifted writer who knew how to spin a fast-paced, very readable yarn. It is as much fun to read today as it must have been seventy-five years ago. 

Walter Noble Burns’ Tombstone, an Iliad of the Southwest and Billy Breckenridge’s Helldorado are not exactly good. They aren’t bad, either. These books are wonderful Wild West shoot-‘em up bang bang blood and thunder cliché reads.

One can smell the aroma of the cattle lots, hear the lone whistle of the train, the squeak of the saloon sign as it blows in the wind, or the sound of jinglebobs on spurs on boots as someone walks down a wooden sidewalk. A small dust devil of dirt swirls across the street. Tinny piano music comes through the swing-door of a nearby saloon. A tumbleweed dances across the street in front of several riders who stop in front of the saloon and tether their horses.

These books are the Wild West! Accurate or not, they are classics!

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About SJ Reidhead

  • prizzlesprung

    Greetings SJ Reidhead:

    The undersigned is an admirer of the (now deceased) beautiful Frances Dee. Google forwarded your article about the Wyatt Earp books and movies. There I was pleased to find your comment about the wife of the late Joel McCrea. Would you visit the following web site and contact the webmaster Liz Chancellor?

    I think she would enjoy corresponding with you via cyberspace about Frances Dee.


  • -E

    Congrats! This article has been selected as one of this week’s Editors’ Picks.

  • wow i didnt realize how many books have been sold to this day..thats crazy