Monday, May 2, 2016
Mrs. Wyatt Earp? There really was one and Thelma Adams talks about her wildy west, brilliantly rendered novel about her. Now in PAPERBACK
Love, loss and making history on the page. Thelma Adams tells the astonishing story of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, exotic, Jewish, and in love with the notorious Earp.
Adams is a novelist, movie critic, journalists a writer and leading New York-based film critic. Her debut novel Playdate (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books) came out in hardback January 2011, and paperback the following year. She is currently a freelance writer, most recently profiling Diane Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Clarkson for the New York Observer following three years covering the awards season for Yahoo! Movies. She was the film critic at Us Weekly for eleven years from 2000 to 2011, following six years at the New York Post. She has twice chaired the New York Film Critics Circle. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire, More, Interview Magazine, The New York Times, The international Herald Tribune, Cosmopolitan and Self. She has appeared on CNN, E!, NY1, NBC’s TheToday Show, CBS’s The Early Show, OMG! Insider, Fox News Channel, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, Bravo and VH1.
I'm thrilled to have Thelma here. Thank you, Thelma!
What could be more fascinating than a novel about Mrs. Wyatt Earp? What sparked you to write this extraordinary novel?
A novel can have many origin stories. I saw -- somewhere, somehow, nearly a decade ago -- that Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery (a word I can never spell) in Colma, California. I became obsessed. Was Earp Jewish? No. So why would the famed gunslinger, the hero (or villain) of the Gunfight at the OK Corral be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
The answer was Earp's wife of nearly fifty years: Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp called Josie by some, Sadie by her family. That was the beginning. Here was a knot that I needed to untangle, a question of Jewish identity that intrigued me.
First and foremost I wanted to know who the hell Josie was. Who was this beauty who turned up on a few pages in the many, many books that praised or reviled Wyatt in that 'the man, the myth, the legend' way. Josie did write a memoir that was edited by her descendants, I Married Wyatt Earp. It exists in multiple formats, some truer than others. But all versions are to a certain extent opaque, so far from contemporary memoirs that scratch down to the sticky embarrassing truth like Running with Scissors or Wild.
One goal of Mrs. Earp's memoir was always to restore Wyatt's good name, and by extension Josie's place beside him. Because, in the conventional history of gunfights and border skirmishes, law and order, Republican and Democrat, she only existed at his side on the frontier. And, then, she's often portrayed as a floozy, an actress or dancer, a beautiful opportunist, an exotic, a Jewess. As a historian out of Berkeley, I knew that there were many alternate histories, and the history of women and the poor are not marked by battles won or lost. A social historian has to dig deeper and read between the records in order to discover what these forgotten people were about. Once I heard about Josie, I wanted to dig deeper and discover what made her tick.
One thing I wanted to know was whether Josie really run away from home with dreams of becoming an actress with a travelling H.M.S. Pinafore troupe as her memoir says. Just that one detail seemed fantastic and marvelous because when I read the Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics for an operetta whose heroine is coincidentally named Josephine, I woke up. I realized that this was an era – the early 1880s, nearly two decades after the Civil War -- far more sophisticated culturally and socially than I'd credited it. Like that romantic heroine of the stage, mine ran into the arms of the man she loved – not the one her father (or mother) would have chosen. So this beautiful Jewish girl from a middle class Eastern European family had her own independent narrative running in her head, informed by the popular culture of her day. And she piqued my curiosity: what was it like to look out at this Wild West through Jewish eyes with Jewish values and traditions?
I knew that I could only get close to it through fiction, through imagining what impelled Josie from a good home in San Francisco to the dangers of Apaches and outlaws and scheming politicians in the Arizona territory, in Tombstone. The silver boomtown near the Mexican border couldn't be reached directly by train. It was both a land of opportunity and disaster.
In order to get myself into Josie's head, I channeled the feelings that I had, leaving home at 17 for Berkeley six hundred miles away, a place where I would determine my fate and, if not write poetry then at least live poetically. I had passion and so did Josie – and that's where we connected in the beginning. Josephine quickly discovered that she was no actress or dancer or singer – but she had a talent for drama and sweeping onto the center stage, which put her by Wyatt Earp and into his arms the very year that he fought and survived The Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Josie really came alive for me when I thought: what does it mean to be a Jewish woman in the wider world of events outside the home in a society where gentiles make the rules? How are those qualities that I see in myself – liveliness, intellect, a need for justice, a need to be heard and seen and find a true soul-mate, the weight of guilt and the past, a daddy's girl and a mother's misfortune – manifested in Josie, a woman born in the past but reborn in a novel?
Was writing this second novel different than writing your first?
Writing The Last Woman Standing was very different from Playdate, which began as a screenplay and evolved into a novel of contemporary manners – and which sold first. It contained very little research and channeled my experience of motherhood into a comic situation about a stay-at-home dad that was intended to be a cross between Shampoo and Mr. Mom. In some ways, it was chick lit with a male protagonist, which was not an easy sell. Meanwhile, I had written a very large chunk of thoroughly researched Mrs. Earp when my two children were still young on the hope that I could sell it on a proposal and continue my research and writing while raising my kids. I had shelves and shelves of primary and secondary sources.
To me, Josie's life seemed ripe for a novel – and this was before academic Ann Kirschner's acclaimed nonfiction book about Josephine, Lady at the O.K. Corral, had been published. I was then a film critic at Us Weekly, and without a commitment I could only manage two hundred pages. They were full of details – the size of a carriage and the number of horses pulling it, the style of women's clothing and cowboys' hats – but they lacked a strong storytelling impulse and the overall voice was uneven and, frankly, a little fruity. They also included the perspective of Wyatt Earp's sister-in-law, Allie Earp, a prairie pioneer with a bitter past. Her salty perspective spoke to me but it wasn't until I regained Josephine as a first-person narrator years later, and handed the story entirely to her that the book came alive. It was thanks to my agent Victoria Sanders, who read the initial pages when I pulled them out of a drawer and said in her fabulously blunt and truthful way: great idea, execution not so hot. "Get me three smoking chapters and a proposal and I can sell this," she said. I did -- and she did.
Those fresh chapters (nine rather than three) sacrificed the fascinating frontier story of Allie, but went back to the San Francisco house where Josephine was raised and fleshed out her mother (a key figure in shaping who Josephine was), her father and her siblings. In a completely fictional scene, I seated them at dinner beside the Shabbos candles on the Friday night that Josie departed for Tombstone. When Josie left home in 1880 engaged to the gentile John Harris Behan, who would become the sheriff of Tombstone and a fierce enemy of Wyatt, Josie's mother tore the collar of her best dress and sat shiva. Knowing that fraught relationship, and how earlier generations of my own family had reacted to children who intermarried, grounded the entire book. Josie lived her adventure in Tombstone one thousand miles southeast, but her mother's critical voice remained in her head along with her father's unconditional love.
What surprised you in your research? (And what did you have fun making up?)
I tried to lift the lid on the women in the story and also to weave in a bit of photographic history. The Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred in the vacant lot beside Fly's Photography Gallery, a bustling hub in town. And while C. S. Fly took the famous photo of the victims of that gunfight, it was his wife, Mollie (also a photographer) who ran the studio. She also managed the attached boarding house where the famed "Doc" Holliday lived. Central to the Fly's marriage – which was her second – was their mutual love of photography. All of this I got from research and is relatively straightforward – and could itself become the core of a book. Writing The Last Woman Standing I was always tumbling over tangential stories that seemed to cry out for their own novels.
There are wonderful photographs that have survived from this period – and one controversial risqué portrait of Josie (that has largely been discredited) wearing nothing more than a black net mourning veil. Rather than trying to determine its provenance and validity and enter a rabbit hole of a historical battle, I created a relationship between Mollie and Josie that unfolded in the studio. Their activities wouldn't have been recorded in the newspapers of the day, or the diaries of the local miners and politicians. What if Josie, who was by all accounts the most beautiful woman in Tombstone, became an artist's model for Mollie – as an alternative to selling her flesh as a prostitute? What if?
And as I researched, I discovered a startling connection to the history of art photography. This was the very time that photography was becoming cheaper, easier and more portable while meanwhile more respected as an art form. What I discovered, as I dug into Victorian erotic photography, was that one of my favorite painters, Thomas Eakins, was taking nude pictures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in the decade prior to the 1880s. In fact, contemporary to my story, the Academy dismissed Eakins for teaching from life models to a co-ed classroom. When he lifted the loincloth on a male model for a female student to see, he crossed a line.
So, I was enjoying fascinating art history research when I discovered that the famed "Doc" Holliday had studied dentistry in Philadelphia while Eakins was at the Academy. I realized that, as an educated Southerner, Holliday would have likely visited the art studio and been exposed to the latest uses of the technology. He could easily have shared that knowledge with Mollie, his landlady. The historical record seemed to confirm that my fictional direction yielded an insight into Tombstone beyond the facts of gunfights and fringed jackets. There was a rich culture in Tombstone, and a daring one, because in many ways the adventurers that congregated there were unfettered by convention. Because the boomtown was only a few years old at this point, and infused with silver and those attempting to grasp it, there was no inherited wealth or established elders. And while male writers and filmmakers have focused on the women-as-wives-or-whores trope, I tried to figure out how this freedom from societal apron strings could manifest itself among the female figures I encountered.
This inspired, and seemed to validate, a sensual scene where a distraught Josie (who has just left Wyatt's bed before he rode off to lead a dangerous posse) poses for Mollie. I personally, even a century later, would be too ashamed of my bits and pieces to pose nude but here is Josie, her emotions having risen to her skin from recent sex and deep sorrow, getting photographed: "I felt my body relax. My shoulders dropped. I released my neck, stretched the fingers, and then let my free hand fall heavily where my legs intersected. I bent my knees and curved my feet around each other. I heard Mollie behind me, exposing film, changing glass plates, moving the camera closer, changing lenses. As she did this, I relaxed more deeply—not dozing, not forgetting my pain, but suspended in the camera’s eye."
In that climactic moment, I made the leap from research to imagination.
You have profiled megastars like George Clooney, Jessica Chastain and more, and you've covered films and festivals--and been on just about every major TV show there is. What was it like for you to settle in and get solitary writing a novel?
I have always done both – film criticism and poetry. I wrote my first film review for The Daily Cal and my first published poem (possibly my only) appeared in The Berkeley Poetry Review. I struggled for a long time to accept myself as a writer, which was my own fault. I now tell people: if you write, you are a writer. Do not seek accreditation or benediction from others. I received my MFA in fiction from Columbia in 1993, the same year as I got my first professional job as a critic at The New York Post. As a critic, over the years, and as a member and chairperson of the New York Film Critics Circle, I began to travel in celebrity-heavy circles just as celebrity culture really took off. Us Weekly hired me in 2000 when they went from a monthly to a magazine published once a week. And then it started: my immersion in celebrity culture.
I still get speechless in front of certain directors and behave like a cartoon character, although my friends who attend parties with me think I display an incredible sang froid in the presence of bold-faced names. I love talking to people and so doing profiles of Clooney, the most charming man on the planet, or Chastain, a searcher with a big heart, or others that have become friends, has been relatively easy. I don't, however, claim that my heart doesn't beat faster at times, or that I don't fumble when the luncheon conversation stumbles and I'm seated next to Robert DeNiro. My answer is to find the commonality – as I do with my historical characters. I try to bring an honest me – a writer, a mother, someone who has seen many films and read many books – and not approach celebrities slavishly. The truth is that I have something to offer, too, which is authenticity.
I have always been an extrovert who loves solitude. So I relish the long quiet of writing – thinking with my fingers. That mind-fingertip connection: there's nothing like it, the pleasure of rereading and tinkering. I consider writing books like being a marathon runner, I am happiest when I am in training, in a book, capturing that rhythm. I don't long for nightlife, then, or the company of famous people. I write. I read. I watch good TV (the French cop show Spiral or the Scandinavian The Bridge, for example) or movies from my collection. I sit with my cats. I talk to my children. I do yoga, which I find helpful in connecting bigger ideas within my work. I make Ethiopian chicken in the crockpot. Yes. I have a really big crockpot. And, then, when I go to a film festival, or interview someone like Mark Ruffalo or Diane Keaton, I'm coming from a real place. Remember: they are, too.
Which brings me to the question--what kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or do you like to follow the muse?
As a novelist, I have been struggling toward structure for a long time. My first unpublished novel, Girl Empire, was a picaresque. Playdate took place over four days. The Last Woman Standing had tent-pole events: the arrival in Tombstone; the date of the lynching of Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce; The Gunfight at the OK Corral; Josie's exit after assassins attempted to kill Wyatt's brother Virgil and the town became too hot for the Earps and their friends. And, yet, there were big gaps in the narrative: she came to marry Johnny Behan, and she left attached to Wyatt Earp. When and how did that happen? What were those events that did not hit the historical record and how would I shape them to reveal my characters? I am not by nature someone who carefully plots but in this case, since I sold it from a proposal, I did have to map out how the chapters fit together for the table of contents I submitted. That was a good exercise for me. I found that even when I could not see the whole book in my head, I could often see three chapters ahead. And so I approached it as I would a writing schedule, concentrating on three chapters at a time, hitting the tent-pole events, aiming for the final chapter, which I knew before I even wrote my first one. I also follow the muse in that when characters talk, I listen. Sex scenes take on their own heat and you have to get out of the way and let your characters just do it. And I had this one minor character, a brothel owner named Madame Mustache, who just took over the pages she was on: she was a truth teller with ulterior motives and her voice took over whenever she appeared. I would say that whether you map out your chapters, or float forward in time, the muse will always find you. She will leave you, too. And that's when the marathon matters: just showing up at the computer is so much a part of the craft and the art of novel writing.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Right now I'm absolutely obsessed with my next novel, Kosher Nostra. Set in Brooklyn from 1902 to 1935, it is about the little sister of a button-man in Murder, Incorporated: the Jewish subcontractors for the mob that specialized in contract killing. It opens on the night of October 23, 1935 when the Williamsburg Boys Club killed Pretty Amberg and set the body aflame by the Brooklyn Navy Yard with their wives and girlfriends watching.
It is my first attempt at a novel of such scope – three decades in a single life. It's based on a real character that lacks a birth certificate or a notice in the newspaper: my grandmother Thelma Lorber. Her older brother was Abraham "Little Yiddel" Lorber, all of five foot two. These are little lives with big emotional arcs on the schleppy side of Boardwalk Empire. At 19, Uncle Abie stabbed a man for questioning his bravery on 14th Street in broad daylight. That made the newspapers – although it was something I learned in the archives and not from my family.
If I were E. L. Doctorow or William Kennedy, Uncle Abie would be my protagonist. But I want to figure out what it was like for Thelma (who I resemble) the wiseass little sister. She was born in 1902 into hard times and they just got harder. She depended for succor and protection on her beloved older brother Abie, only to see him get pulled into the mob and away from her. Like her sibling, she was a hedonist. But she existed in a stifling culture that didn't permit women to experiment out of wedlock. She married a man who suffered from a deep depression and died shortly after she gave birth to their only child, a son.
With Kosher Nostra, a Brooklyn novel, I want to reclaim this single mother and, like Josie, see the world through second-generation immigrant eyes. What did Thelma want from life – and what did she have to accept? How did she break the mold – and how high a price did she pay? Like Josie, she burned bright, but Thelma lacked the beauty that was Josie's ticket to a bigger stage. I want to write this novel to understand life for the family on the fringe of the Kosher Nostra, the juicy stories we don't share, the shondas, the shames, which define us in equal measure to our accomplishments.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
How am I like Josie – and how do I differ?
I put a lot of myself into Josie but in a number of key ways she is not like me. She is defined by her looks – she was by all accounts a great beauty. I'm not. And so she had the privileges that came with that, the attention from men wanted or not, the jealousies of women her looks inspired. And, because of that gift she didn't have to work at, she could lack empathy for others that struggled more than she did. Still, it was fun to slip on that skin, creamy, curvy and alive. When I needed a picture, I modeled her on the young Rachel Weisz, who has a face so breath-taking you can't look away – and you also almost can't hear what she's saying because her looks are so distracting. So, what is that like, to try to define yourself as an individual from the inside out, when people are constantly reacting to the wrapper?
I identify with Josie's desire to perform on the stage and then to discover that she lacked the required talent – she could not carry a tune and neither can I. She wanted to sing and entertain like her Gilbert & Sullivan namesake, but she couldn't. And she had debilitating stage fright. I don't but my daughter did when she was very young, so I remembered how she played the White Rabbit in an early elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland and had to be carried on the stage by her elbows when she had her solo, with older actors singing her part. I pinched that memory for Josie: the desire to be a star in the spotlight thwarted by her own fear of failure.
Growing up, what I had to set myself apart was intellect. I was a grind behind my thick glasses. I took the good student route to recognition but Josie and I share our desire to be recognized as individuals on the stage of our own lives, not as merely reflections of others more powerful or talented or famous.