July 29, 2021
So, I asked all my Wyatt Earp authors and friends to weigh in on whether they believe Wyatt Earp is still the hero of the Tombstone story after all the revelations of him being a horse thief and a pimp. I asked everyone to keep their comments to 100 words. You have perhaps seen some of their succinct commentary in the past several days on this blog.
One particular friend took his sweet time turning in anything and I kept bugging him to give me something, anything. I even called him and asked him to dictate a sentence, or two, over the phone. Then, the day before yesterday I get this.
Is Wyatt Earp Still the Hero?
The seed of Earp’s fame was planted, fertilized, and carefully nurtured by Stuart Lake, a gifted writer who had once been a press agent for Theodore Roosevelt. Lake crafted a remarkable American epic in Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal published by Houghton Mifflin in 1931. This was perfect timing for the public was eager for tales of the American frontier just as the generation that had “won the West” was dying off. Western histories by Walter Noble Burns, Emerson Hough, Frederick Bechdolt, and William McLeod Raine had all recently done well and Lake also enjoyed considerable success as his Earp biography became a bestseller and was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. Lake’s Earp was central to the frontier story. “The Old West cannot be understood unless Wyatt Earp is understood,” he wrote. “More than any other man of record in his time, possibly, he represented the exact combination of breeding and human experience which laid the foundations of Western empire.” Thanks to Lake an itinerant gambler and sometime lawman that lived rather precariously on the dark underbelly of frontier boomtown life emerged as the towering legend of the incorruptible marshal who tamed the toughest towns in the West. Lake’s book was optioned by Fox studio for $7,500 and would be filmed four times (Frontier Marshal with George O’Brien in 1934, Frontier Marshal with Randolph Scott in 1939, My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda in 1946, and Powder River with Rory Calhoun in 1953). Over forty films have been based on Earp’s career and Hollywood has played the critical role in creating and sustaining his glossy legend. Lake’s book also provided the inspiration for the ABC television series starring Hugh O’Brian that premiered in 1955. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ran for six seasons and its success helped initiate a decade-long period where westerns dominated the small screen.