Tom Clavin Interview: Bestselling Author Demythologizes the Legendary Figures of Dodge City
Image attributed to Tom Clavin
Bronx native, Tom Clavin, is a bestselling author and has written for The New York Times and contributed to such magazines as Golf, Men’s Journal, Parade, Reader’s Digest and Smithsonian. Two of his books, co-authored with writing partner Bob Drury, The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend and Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue, have been New York Times bestsellers.
Other books either authored or co-authored include Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam, The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat and Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission. Clavin’s latest solo effort, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, was published February 28, 2017.
"The idea that Wyatt Earp walked into a bar and at any moment could pull his gun out and plug somebody then knock back a couple of shots of bourbon was not what he did. He was not a gunfighter. His way of trying to subdue somebody was that he’d knock them out. He’d bat them over the head with his gun, knock them out and haul them off to jail. Then he'd bring them in front of the judge the next morning."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tom, you wrote a book on the Sioux warrior Red Cloud called The Heart of Everything That Is, so why did you decide to revisit the Old West in this book, Dodge City?
Tom Clavin: Well, my reasoning is that Bob Drury and I had done the book The Heart of Everything That is, which was very successful. When we were talking about another book with Simon and Schuster, I wanted to revisit the Old West, not necessarily the same kind of story, but within the same decade or two and over the same general geographic area. I started researching Bat Masterson. Most people know the name Bat Masterson, but they don’t actually know what he did. Was he an outlaw? Was he a lawman? Was he a gambler? So, I started researching.
Bob and I talked to the folks at Simon and Schuster about doing a book on Bat Masterson, and they just weren’t too keen on it. They were steering us into doing a 20th century kind of story, then we discussed with them what became Lucky 666. But, I couldn’t get rid of this idea that there was a good story there. As part of my research, I found out that Wyatt Earp and Bat were very young men when they first got acquainted with each other and became very good friends as buffalo hunters years before they were lawmen.
That intrigued me because that was a different take, especially with Wyatt Earp because he’s so often portrayed as the O.K. Corral guy, the Tombstone Wyatt Earp, the dangerous gunslinger Wyatt Earp, just a lot of the mythical stuff that’s been in the movies for decades. I found in Dodge City that I could do a different story because both he and Bat were very young. Bat was only 22 when he got elected Sheriff of Ford County.
They were inexperienced, and here they were in what was known as the wickedest town in the West. Wyatt, Bat and several others who were really the first generation of frontier lawmen were given the job of cleaning it up. If chaos reigned, nobody would want to go out that way and raise families, start farms and businesses.
So, that’s what got me interested. I wanted to go back to the American West anyway. It was just a question of finding the right story. I got really excited about this one, but it wasn’t the next one Bob and I were going to do. I have a pattern. Between every Drury/Clavin book, there’s a Clavin book. So, Dodge City became it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Everyone does think of Wyatt Earp as a lawman. What did you find were his more lesser known personal qualities?
Tom Clavin: Wyatt was very loyal to his friends. He was very loyal to Bat Masterson. They became very close friends. When he first met Doc Holliday, he was a lawman in Dodge City. It was not years later in Tombstone, to the puzzlement of a lot of people. He became good friends with Doc and was very loyal to him. Wyatt wasn’t a drinker. He couldn’t drink. It made him sick, so his drink of choice was coffee.
The idea that Wyatt Earp walked into a bar and at any moment could pull his gun out and plug somebody then knock back a couple of shots of bourbon was not what he did. He was not a gunfighter. His way of trying to subdue somebody was that he’d knock them out. He’d bat them over the head with his gun, knock them out and haul them off to jail. Then he'd bring them in front of the judge the next morning.
Wyatt’s only credited, so to speak, with killing one man his entire lawman career, and even that is in doubt a little bit. He became a lawman because it was a way for redemption. When he was living in Missouri, he met a girl that he fell in love with and they got married. She got pregnant, he found a piece of property and put a house on it. Wyatt was ready to stay in Lamar, Missouri, for the rest of his life and raise a family there. That was going to be his life, and he seemed to be rather content with it.
Then, his wife died and the baby died with her, and Wyatt was just totally grief stricken. He became an outlaw. He was even put in jail for being a horse thief. So, when he got a chance to be a lawman for the first time by sort of accident in Elsworth, Kansas, and then later in Wichita, it was a redemption for him. He saw that by being on the right side of the law and by championing law and order, that was a way to not only redeem himself, but he could become something that meant something in society instead of the bum he was on his way to being.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are some of the more infamous gunslingers that showed up in Dodge City?
Tom Clavin: One reason Dodge City was a magnet for people was because when the railroad came, all the cowboys and trailblazers ended up there. It was a place to make money. You had gamblers migrating there. You had prospectors on their way to look for gold and silver and all kinds of desperadoes. So, there’s that.
As it got the reputation of being the wickedest town in the West, that also appealed to some people. You had what they called “soiled doves,” the prostitutes. The people went there to be bordello bouncers. They could find work doing that. In fact, Wyatt and his brother did some of that for a while. You would have people that had a connection to Dodge City. It was like six degrees of Dodge City. They either passed through Dodge City or lived there for a while.
That’s why I could put Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin and Wild Bill Hickok in the book. Even Theodore Roosevelt makes an appearance in the book. You’ve heard of six degrees of Kevin Bacon? (laughs). Everybody in Hollywood is connected in some way to Kevin Bacon. At that time in the West on the frontier, people had some connection to Dodge City. Frank and Jesse James were lying low as cowhands, and they showed up in Dodge City. Bat Masterson actually became friends with them. Bat and Frank James corresponded until the end of Frank’s life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When I was scanning the book, I came across a rather colorful character named Chalkley Beeson who was a violin player, ran the Long Branch saloon and started a cowboy band (laughs).
Tom Clavin: Yes, he did. That was one of my favorite stories to put in the book because there was a real struggle in Dodge City to become civilized, to become a place that people would want to start businesses, raise families and build churches and schools. I think it was very symbolic that Boot Hill graveyard was doing a steady business for years, and then when Dodge City began to be tamed, they dug up the bodies and moved them so they could build a school there. I think that was such a symbolic thing to do.
The school is built where Boot Hill used to be. The Dodge City band was another example of them feeling they could actually provide entertainment for folks and do concerts. As the book points out, the Dodge City band was around for a long time, and years later it was invited to play in Washington in front of the president.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In those days, saloons were not only just a place for drinking, but for entertainment purposes, too.
Tom Clavin: Exactly. They had singing and dancing. They had a theater in Dodge City that was semi-legitimate. You’d have people who were doing the circuit who were actually entertainers from Chicago or Denver or wherever. But, the saloons themselves provided singers and dancers.
One of the stories in the book is about a guy named Ham Bell. He was a businessman and off and on a lawman in Dodge City, but he also owned a saloon. He was the first one to import a group of women entertainers who did the Can Can. He wanted to introduce Dodge City to this sensational entertainment that was “sweeping Europe.” That it came to Dodge City was another example of the town raising its profile as a place of sophistication.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Whenever Dodge City is mentioned, people usually think of the long-running TV western Gunsmoke. Are you a fan of the western genre?
Tom Clavin: I definitely am. I always have been, but what’s interesting is I re-watched a lot of films that I hadn’t seen in many years if there was a connection to Dodge City. It was remarkable to me how either embellished or downright wrong or just made up some of these stories were in some of these films. I’m not talking about some cheap Grade B westerns.
There is a movie called Dodge City with Olivia de Havilland that was total fiction. It starts off promising, with the railroad coming to Dodge City, but them it goes off the rails, so to speak, accuracy wise. One film that really surprised me was My Darling Clementine, which is considered a classic western directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp.
Again, we’re talking about Tombstone. We’re not talking about Dodge City, but it is Wyatt Earp, and they portray the O.K. Corral as having Doc Holliday dying before the gunfight even takes place, with no discernible reason. They have Virgil as Wyatt’s younger brother, not his older brother, and I was curious if they made those changes because they didn’t know any better or if they felt it was more dramatically pleasing.
So, one of the things about working on the book was that I had to separate all the fiction that has been attached to especially Wyatt. I found that the real story was really as interesting, if not more so than a lot of the made-up stuff over the decades.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Weren’t there gunslinger “myths” about both Wyatt and Bat?
Tom Clavin: Well, with Wyatt, a lot of the myths about him came about later in life. There were some dime store novels about Wyatt, Bat, Wild Bill Hickok and some of the other lawmen of the frontier. But, with Wyatt, when he stopped being a lawman, he was a fairly young man in his 30s. He wanted to become a wealthy businessman and kept chasing his dream of striking it rich that never came true.
It was later in his life basically when they started looking for material for the silent westerns in the 1920s, that they started looking at Wyatt and came up with these stories. He made a few dollars as a consultant for films, including for director John Ford. All these myths came about after Wyatt died. There was a book published a couple of years after his death called Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. It’s an exciting book, but at least 50% of it is totally fabricated, and that’s the Wyatt Earp that most people know and not the real Wyatt Earp.
Every so often, someone would write an article in the newspaper about bloodthirsty Bat Masterson and all the blood on his hands, and it would say to not make Bat mad because he’ll just gun you down like the dirty dog you are (laughs). Bat spent the last 15 years as a newspaper reporter and columnist in New York City. People, at this point, would’ve read the dime novels and headlines in the newspapers. They would’ve seen Bat Masterson hanging out in a saloon on Broadway at 11:00 at night and would’ve thought, “There’s a dangerous gunman.”
Every so often, some out-of-town guy would say, “Bat, show me your Colt 45 with the 22 notches on it.” That was the story about him, that he had gunned down 22 people, when in truth, he only killed two. Bat would produce the Colt 45 with the 22 notches on it, and then the person would beg to buy it, thinking that if he went home with Bat Masterson’s gun, he’d be the most famous person in town.
Bat would sell it to the guy for some nice piece of change, and the guy would be deliriously happy. The next day, Bat would go to his favorite pawn shop and buy another Colt 45 and put 22 notches on it (laughs). He paid a lot of bar tabs that way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you sort the facts from fiction during your research for the book?
Tom Clavin: I really tried to put things in three categories, one that had stories that were not true or probably were not true, and there was nothing to support them being true. The next category would be that the stories could be true, or there was reason to believe they were true, like from Wyatt or Bat’s recollections or some observer. With no evidence to say a story was not true, I put it in the book. But, several times I said to the readers that this is what I think is true, but there are people who would argue with that.
The third category would be the stories that actually had supporting information that made them true. There’s a story in the book about Clay Allison. He was like a psychopathic gunman and a shootist. He came to Dodge City looking for Wyatt Earp. Wyatt had shot somebody he knew, and Clay was going to avenge his friend. There’s got to be a dozen “Clay Allison comes to Dodge City looking for Wyatt Earp” stories. It was difficult to try and pin down the one that was most likely true. Some stories had him show up one year or in the fall when he actually showed up in the spring. I think what’s in the book is the most authentic Clay Allison story. There’s a very good chance that is what happened.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has there been any talk of taking the book to the big screen?
Tom Clavin: Yeah. My film guy is talking to the folks at DreamWorks. They’ve expressed interest in it, and we’ll see what happens. I have no idea what their intentions are because, not that I pay much attention to these things, but in addition to feature films, I think DreamWorks also has a hand in TV.
My personal ideal would be that they’d do a limited series on AMC or FX because there are so many adventures in the book before, during and after the Doge City days. Bat was an army scout, and he spent months tracking down four sisters who had been kidnapped by Indians. He finally found them and returned them. That’s a story about Bat Masterson, and I think it would be hard to try to fit all of this information into a two-hour movie. I would love the idea of doing a multi-part thing and be able to include so many of these colorful characters.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The next book about George Washington will be co-authored with Bob Drury?
Tom Clavin: Yes. It’s George Washington at Valley Forge. We’re focusing on that particular six-month encampment from December 1777 to June 1778. We’re having a good time on that book. It’s been a little bit weird for me because Lucky 666 came out and I’ve been involved in 1943. With this book, I’m in the 1870s. Then, I have to flashback to 1778 (laughs). So, it’s a little bit crazy, but that’s going well, and that book will be out in the fall of 2018.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you strictly concentrating on authoring books these days, or do you still write for the Times, or the “failing,” “fake news,” as the president described it?
Tom Clavin: No, I don’t. I don’t even have time for fake news. I don’t have time for real news or fake news (laughs). It takes time and effort to make stuff up, too (laughs). There’s a small chain of weekly newspapers where I live, and I’ll write the occasional column for them on a subject that interests me. They’re nice enough to indulge me, so I can still nurture some of that ink in my veins.
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