Josie Marcus and the Legend of Wyatt Earp

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

WYATT EARP was an icon of the American West. Both an outlaw and a lawman, he was the only man to walk away uninjured from the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

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Ann Kirschner, dean of Macaulay Honors College, with her new book Lady at the OK Coral.

But he also attended family Passover Seders — and maybe even wore a yarmulke. Perhaps more tellingly, he is buried in the synagogue-affiliated Hills of Eternity Cemetery outside of San Francisco.

For almost 50 years Earp lived with a common-law wife who was Jewish. Her name was Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp and she was a colorful, remarkable, often confounding adventuress.

She was also mostly absent from history.

Then, earlier this year, Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus by University Dean Ann Kirschner of Macaulay Honors College was published by Harper Collins. And with that, Kirschner lifted a woman who was emblematic of Americana out of the heap of obscurity.

Josephine Marcus Earp and Wyatt Earp in undated photographs and their tombstone near San Francisco.

Josephine Marcus Earp and Wyatt Earp in undated photographs and their tombstone near San Francisco.

“We finally have the definitive story of Josie Earp, a key player not only in the events leading up to and after the infamous shoot-out but in crafting much of the mythology that’s been widely accepted ever since,” writes Jeff Guinn, a respected Earp researcher.

A noted beauty as a young woman, Josephine journeyed as an actress from her family home in San Francisco and wound up in Tombstone where she met Earp.

Ultimately, she was a participant in and a witness to more than eight decades of crucial American history, including the Alaskan gold rush, San Francisco in the Gay Nineties and the coming-of-age of Hollywood.

And every so often she retreated with her fabled mate to life lived rough in the desert.

Before and after Earp’s death in 1929, Josephine was determined to tell his tale, warts deleted. In particular, she wanted to stay out of her husband’s story — and did not want anyone to know that Earp’s third mate descended into alcoholism and despair and then committed suicide. Josephine seems to have feared that it was her fault; Earp left that woman for her. She began to create a biographical trove for Earp that, although filled with myths and omissions, put her far ahead of her time as an image maker.

“I think that the ability to spin the legend of Wyatt Earp was what made her such a modern woman,” Kirschner says.

As a child in Jackson Heights, Queens, Kirschner watched television westerns with her older brother, Joey, who dressed up in cowboy gear when the shows came on.

“Joey was my hero,” she writes. “And Marshal Earp was his.” In a recent interview she added, “But I had a sense of having grown up with an incomplete picture of the frontier … there were no real women in it.”

Surprised by a friend’s comment that Wyatt Earp is in a Jewish cemetery, Kirschner learned about Josephine — buried next to him — and was inspired to write the book. “Josephine’s Jewish background was the spark for the book,” she agrees. Kirschner’s first book, Sala’s Gift, describes her mother’s experience in Nazi labor camps during World War II.

“But her religion did not turn out to be a major factor in Josephine’s life,” Kirschner says. “Had I wanted to write a book just about Josephine as a Jewish woman, I would have been mightily disappointed … She didn’t hide her Jewish background. She was just indifferent to it …. Yet, at the greatest crisis of her life — Wyatt’s death, she turned back to her Jewish roots and buried him next to her parents.”

To research the book, Kirschner enlisted the assistance of her students, now graduates. To help shape her vision of Josephine, she discussed her research with them. They were her sounding boards. And in turn the students learned how authors write books.

“I had one of the most memorable weekends of my life working with Ann,” says graduate Dan Blondell, now the content manager at the Central Park Conservancy. “We went to Massachusetts to view a never-before analyzed and barely read archive of Josephine’s letters … research is detective work.”

About her writing process, Kirschner says she has never taken a leave to write her books. She sometimes researches while traveling, writes in the early mornings and on vacations. As for her next book, she says she’s waiting to feel “an itch. Books are like mosquito bites. They itch. It’s not there yet.” Nothing yet to compete with the story of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, which the University dean calls “a magnificent obsession.”