“Josie and Me”
I fell in love with Josie, Wyatt Earp’s wife, in a little antique store in western Colorado. She was at the counter, gazing at me through dark and brooding eyes. Josephine Sarah Marcus was the delectable young actress who stepped off the stage in Tombstone in 1889 and into the heart of Wyatt Earp. The lovely actress Dana Delaney played Josie in the 1993 film, Tombstone, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer, performing incredibly, as Doc Holliday. Born in 1861, Josie was only 18 years old when she, traveling with a theater company, arrived in the little mining community in southern Arizona near the Mexican border. A few months later she posed at Fly’s Photography Studio in Tombstone wearing only a diaphanous black veil over her remarkably beautiful young body. The result: possibly the most provocative and hauntingly erotic photograph of the nineteenth century.
I found this photograph in that little antique store in western Colorado. It was one of thirty prints made off the original plate which had recently been purchased at auction for $3,000 by a collector of historical material. On the back was a short history of Josephine and Wyatt Earp. I debated the $150 asking price for a week or so, and of course, always a sucker for beauty, I succumbed. (This exquisite photograph has been reproduced in various books on western history, but, shamefully, the photograph has been air-brushed to a non-revealing Puritanical black.)
Reading a bit about Josie Earp, I discovered that she did not die until 1944. Well, I thought, since I was born in 1942, I had been alive while Josie, Wyatt Earp’s wife, had been alive. I was alive when at least one of the characters of the old west was still alive! Wyatt Earp himself lived until 1929, and the actor Tom Mix, who had starred in the first film about Wyatt Earp, was a pallbearer at his funeral.
A retired professor and good friend, Henry Klugh, told me that in 1938, when he received his Eagle Scout Award, it was presented to him by a former officer of the Confederate Army. The officer was 93 years old and showed up for the ceremony wearing his Civil War uniform. Many of us here at lakeside are old enough to remember the countdown as the last few living Civil War soldiers finally faded away.
Richard Cordell, a favorite professor of mine when I was at Purdue University, once told me he had known a woman whose best friend saw Samuel Johnson, one of England’s greatest literary figures, walking down the streets of London in 1780! How does that work? When he told me this, he himself was at retirement age, 65, and this was in 1964. The woman he had known when he was a boy (around the turn of the last century) was very old back then, and her grandfather had been her best friend. And so...assume the woman might have been born around 1820 (which would make her 85 or so when my friend knew her) and assume her grandfather might have been born fifty years earlier, and there you easily have it, a ten-year- old boy walking around London in 1780.
Around 1983, when I was living in Denver, Colorado, the city celebrated the birthday of its oldest citizen, a woman of 110 years. That means she was a teenager at the time of Custer’s Last Stand in 1876. My own grandmother, although long gone, used to tell me tales told to her by her own mother and father when they were living in Missouri shortly after the Civil War...how her family occasionally fed Jesse and Frank James, local heroes, as they ran from, at least to her community, a questionable law.
Last month I flew back to Ohio for a few days to spend time with my father. He will be 92 years old in August. The United States began in 1776 and the country is now 230 years old. My father, at 92, has in his lifetime lived through 40% of the entire history of the United States!
The Biblical span of Man is “three score and ten,” 70 years. Using that figure of 70 years as a typical span of life, although we live significantly longer now, let us take a look at history. The Iliad and The Odyssey are often called the first two books of Western Civilization. Scholars suggest 800 B.C. as the approximate date of their composition. That means about 2,800 years have elapsed since Western Civilization “began.”
What is 2,800 years? Consider this: a gathering of only 40 people at The Lake Chapala Society will, in their combined lives, have lived the entire span of Western Civilization! Forty lives times 70 years equals 2,800 years! One can imagine a scene out of a Mel Brooks or Monty Python movie where, indeed, 40 members of The Lake Chapala Society are laid end to end and history is accumulated over their bodies. (The moment I hear “end to end” I also of course remember Dorothy Parker’s quip: “If all the girls at the annual Yale Prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be surprised.”)
Here at the end of this short column about our lives in time, about how long our lives are and about how little time has actually lapsed, I think again of the photograph of Josie Earp that still greets me daily...a muse of sorts. Even now, as I approach middle age, I could still fall in love with Josie, although she has been dead these many years. Remember the Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour movie, Somewhere in Time, where a Chicago playwright travels back in time to locate the woman in the vintage portrait on the wall of a grand old hotel? Maybe something like that will happen to me. And to Josie.
In the meantime, stuck in time as we all are, it might be timely to end with these words written by a character, dying of cancer, in a John D. MacDonald novel: “...the heart stays young...so damnably yearningly unforgivably young...”