The way I do it is I stand in the middle. I’m in the desert this time, gazing at the landscape as the dogs chase rabbits and roadrunners around me. My back is turned to Highway 80, to RVs and the other signs of post-nineteenth-century life, though they aren’t that plentiful. Before me, almost all round me, is an empty, sweeping, sometimes rolling desert expanse ringed by a moonscape of mountains. It startles me with its beauty. I hadn’t expected it. I’m only a mile from Tombstone.
I conjure. It is easy enough to see Doc Holiday or the Clantons, ghost-like, riding their horses through the brush, over the shallow gullies. Like a slow superimposition in a film, I can draw out of the atmosphere Wyatt
Earp and Josie Marcus – the Jewish prostitute who was his third and final wife, of over forty years – talking by a bush as he woos her away from Sheriff Johnny Behan. What I imagine probably more miraculously than anything else is the notion that these people and the moments of their lives – because they have become so legendary – continue to occupy some alternate dimension of the coordinates that surround me. As if every period of time – every instant – continues to occur in some fractional off-frame, a parallel universe just a little invisibly, dimensionally beyond sensory apprehension. Until I conjure. And then I envisage that Earp and Marcus, in clandestine conversation in the desert in 1881, are an event somehow more concrete than my own occupation of that space, standing there in all my mundaneness in 2008, an experience the ephemeralness of which I exhale with every breath.
The famous line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But though there are disputes about many of the “facts” of Earp’s life, there is little, really, about the genuinely legendary nature of the life. Testimonies to his fearlessness and strength of character, by men nearly his equal in legend, like Bat Masterson, are many. That of the seven men who stood their ground during the gunfight at the OK Corral (really two lots down the street, but legends are created of words, and “two lots down from” doesn’t work) three died, three were wounded, and only Earp emerged unscathed is firmly established. And we must acknowledge the force and will of the man who led what is known as the three week “Earp Vendetta Ride” in pursuit of the men who murdered his brother Morgan five months later, leaving anywhere from five to fifteen men dead.
The town lives up to its legend too. It was named by the silver miner Ed Schieffelin, who was told by soldiers at the nearby fort that the only stone he’d find in Apache country was his tombstone. It had – still has – the most compellingly named newspaper in journalism: The Tombstone Epitaph. (Every tombstone needs one, said its founder, John Clum.) Of those buried on Boot Hill, by far the largest number were shot, or murdered in some other way. Many are of unknown identity. More than a few were killed by Apaches, as Tombstone is in Apache country, in what is now known as Cochise County. Some were hanged or lynched. Of one, it says on his grave marker, “Here Lies/ George Johnson/ Hanged By/ Mistake/ 1882/ He Was Right/ We Was Wrong/ But We Strung/ Him Up/ And Now He’s/ Gone.” By my rough count in just the years 1881-1882 (the gunfight at the OK Corral took place on October 26, 1881; Morgan Earp was murdered March 18, 1882) about 40 people were killed in a town of roughly 5000, nearly one every two weeks. It was a helluva town to try to live and not unlikely die. (And by the way, down a slope from Boot Hill, erected in 1984 is the Jewish Pioneers Memorial, dedicated by both groups to “the Jewish Pioneers and their Indian Friends.”)
Earp was one of the few of his stature to die of old age, at 80 in Los Angeles in 1929. Doc Holiday died of
tuberculosis at 36. Big Nosed Kate, Doc Holiday’s lover, lived to 90. Hungarian by birth, she was the daughter of the physician to the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who was deposed three years after her family’s arrival. A long, sordid journey and tale took her from that life to Tombstone. When she died in 1940, it was in the Arizona Pioneers Home, which was founded to offer a refuge to the aging pioneers of the Arizona Territory. What the legends and the movies don’t tell us is that the “pioneers” were not simply agents of their personal destinies, for good or not so. The Clantons and the Earps represented interests who were vying for control of the land and its mineral wealth: the Clantons post Reconstruction Southern Democratic forces, the Earps Eastern Republican businessmen.
It was Josie Earp who lived the longest, dying in 1944, just two years before John Ford’s My Darling Clementine was released and only 11 years before the television show – about what seemed such a remote past – that I watched as a child.
But even these words, fairly plain, tend to build a monument. A monument, too, is The Birdcage Theater, the only wholly intact original structure of Tombstone from those early days. For nine years, the theater, bar, gambling house, and bordello was open 24 hours a day. All of the famous were regulars, and Russian Bill, supposedly of royalty, who attended every night for two years until he tried to earn his unwarranted reputation as a bad guy by stealing a horse, for which he was hanged. And “Curly” Bill Brosius, who got shaves in a corner room with windows on the show, and was later killed by Wyatt Earp during the Vendetta Ride. Greats performed there: Eddie Foy of later Vaudeville fame, Lilly Langtry, Bernhardt. (How worlds collide.) A poker game ran non-stop downstairs from opening day to closing, right outside the prostitute’s “crib” where Josie would receive Wyatt.
“Those aren’t theater boxes” she told me. “They’re bordello rooms.”
Now a museum of its past and of its former patrons, I arrive by serendipity just before twilight – the final and only patron during my visit. I have the building to myself. To stand in the middle. To perform my magic. When new owners took possession in 1934 and opened the theater for the first time since its closing in 1889, they found much of it and its contents undisturbed. Photos, guns, knives, paraphernalia and old newspaper clips encircle me. The faro table where Doc Holiday played and sometimes dealt. The grand piano just feet away, and the space between in which Holiday and Johnny Ringo held opposing ends of a bandana and drunkenly shot at each other, missing. The craps table. The stage. The twenty-six people killed there.
Just before she left me to myself, the guide who escorted me in drew my attention to the “birdcages” that ring the main room along the ceiling.
“Those aren’t theater boxes” she told me. “They’re bordello rooms. Even the wall paper, what’s left of it, is the original.”
For twenty dollars for the night, a man got a bottle and a woman. Maybe ten feet above the action of the gambling tables and the stage, he could drink and watch the activities, then without diffidence draw the curtain. An act that intimate in a place that public, separated by only a curtain. So near in space, so far in nature. Like two events, two people, in the same space one hundred and twenty six years apart.
So I have all the elements. It isn’t hard. To see the crowded room. The cards. The dice. The theatrics on stage; the drama on the floor. Shots being poured. The shot ringing out. A shout. The general honky-tonk and the orgasmic grunts of hungry men from the cribs above. I can think it’s all there in the space around me, an atomic-vibration off from the world I inhabit, events made material and permanent by the words that continually inscribe them. And then I think, no, it is all long gone, the players forever emptied from that space. One man strikes it rich, another is murdered, a woman does what she must to survive. Some of it is remembered and talked about, some of it is not. But human time is not a compiling of moments, layer upon layer, like old newspapers there to be drawn from down in the pile. It is a fuse, burning up our moments as we live them, leaving behind its historical ash, but moving only forward, from opening to closing night, to another actor and another dusty wind, to me standing one day in the shadows, and beyond.
Tombstone, Arizona; December 2008