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Tom Clavin Interview: "Tombstone" Reveals True Tale of the Earp Brothers

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Image attributed to Gordon Grant

Tom Clavin

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper and website editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator and a reporter for The New York Times. His books include The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend, Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission and The Last Stand of Fix Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat.

Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell is Clavin’s latest offering, and it tells the true story of the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. In the book, released April 21, 2020, the bestselling author peers behind decades of legend surrounding the story of Tombstone to reveal the true story of the drama and violence that made it famous.

"The Earps were not angels. They weren’t villains either."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tom, how are you and your family doing during these strange times of the pandemic?

Tom Clavin: Well, we’re fine. For me, as long as this social distancing, staying home and not going out, working at home and wearing sweat pants every day for as long as it lasts, I’m going to look normal (laughs). Once everybody goes back to the old normal, then I’m going to be different than anybody else (laughs). I’m always in a pandemic.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you think each of us will continue to stay six feet apart from others and continue to wash our hands thoroughly several times a day once this is all over?

Tom Clavin: I think so, if we can, although it may take a year for the manufacturer to come back with the cleaning wipes that we all take for granted. Our mothers were always right when they said, “Wash your hands.” If we had listened to mom, we wouldn’t have this pandemic. I’m not a big believer in masks, but when the CDC finally came out and said that it’s probably a good idea, I saw a real uptick in people doing it. A couple of years ago for my birthday, I asked for a package of handkerchiefs from my daughter, and I opened them up, and they were the size of dishtowels (laughs). I dug them out of the drawer, and if I go into a post office or grocery store, I’ll go in with that on, if it makes people feel more comfortable.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Now traveling back to 1881 …

Tom Clavin: Yes!

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you write Tombstone to complete your trilogy after writing Dodge City and Wild Bill?

Tom Clavin: Well, definitely. It was kind of an accidental trilogy because I’d done Dodge City and had no intention of visiting that era and any of those characters again. I was actually under contract to do a different book. It was a World War II story that I was deeply involved in when Dodge City got published. I went on the Dodge City publicity tour, and while I was on the tour, my editor called and said that I’d gotten on the bestseller list. Obviously, the publisher at St. Martin’s Press was very happy about that. I stayed on it a few weeks. Then when I got back to New York, my agent and I and my editor were having a lunch to celebrate how nicely Dodge City was doing. She said, “Could you put your World War II book on hold, and can we think of a character from the West who’s worthy of being written about in a book?”

We may have spoken about this last time, but that’s how Wild Bill came about. So Wild Bill comes out, and it’s not quite a prequel, but it sort of takes place before Dodge City. After the Civil War, Wild Bill, being the lone gunman type of lawman, and then after that, you have Bat and Wyatt being young men in the mid to late 1870s in Dodge City. It just seemed like, “Let’s complete the arc. Let’s bring it up to Wyatt and his brothers in Tombstone.” So it does complete what ended up being an existential trilogy.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: From books and even films, people have some preconceived notions about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. So how did your research lead you to the real story of the characters and events?

Tom Clavin: Well, I did not have an agenda going into this story. Then when I did the research, I found that you had really two sides of the coin when it came to the Earps and their experiences in Tombstone. One was the deeply romanticized version, which began even while Wyatt was still alive in the 1920s. You’ve seem him portrayed in movies, especially as you look at what’s considered a classic film, My Darling Clementine, by John Ford. It’s considered one of his best films, and it is a good film but it’s filled with inaccuracies such as Doc Holliday dying during the gunfight at the OK Corral.

So I didn’t have any agenda. I just wanted to research and find out what is really the story here. I go back to the contemporaneous sources as much as possible. So here’s what the facts tell us about this. The Earps were not angels. They weren’t villains either. Even a lot of times, the Clantons and the McLaurys were portrayed as villains. They’re not necessarily villains. They sort of represented the lawless crowd, but they weren’t bad people. So the real story is sort of the middle ground, and I wanted to tell it as truthful as possible, then let the readers make up their own minds. And while they’re doing that, tell a good story (laughs). That’s the bottom line. Tell a good story.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I ran across the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Tom Clavin: Oh, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Yeah.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: There were about 20 historical inaccuracies listed for that movie.

Tom Clavin; Yeah, and that’s a pretty good movie. The film called Tombstone with Kurt Russell is considered a very good movie, and it’s got a terrific performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. In every scene, you expect him to keel over and die. He’s so persuasive as somebody with a serious lung disease. However, during his time in Tombstone, Doc Holliday was the healthiest he had been in his adult life (laughs). He did exactly what that doctor back in Georgia told him, “Go find a place that’s warm and dry, and you’ll be okay,” which is what he did when he was in Tombstone. Unfortunately, the way things worked out for him was that he had to leave Tombstone kind of in a hurry, and that turned out to be a death sentence for Doc because he couldn’t continue to enjoy that climate that was giving him an extension on his life.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were the events that led to the gunfight at the OK Corral?

Tom Clavin: On the one side, you had the cowboys who have obviously been romanticized very much in our culture and books. In John Wayne’s entire career, it was a romantic portrayal of the cowboy and that genre of people. But in the 1870s, and into the early 1880s, the cowboys were chased out of Texas into New Mexico and chased out of New Mexico into Arizona. Their lifestyle, their view of things was they should be able to do whatever they want and wherever they wanted to do it. When they had all this money from the cattle drive, if they wanted to shoot up a town and spend their money, they should be able to, and they weren’t quite grasping that America was changing around them. People wanted communities that they could raise their families in a safe environment.

So specifically at a time in the late 1870s to 1880/1881, they were collaborating with some (let’s say) ranchers who were not completely on the up and up. There was a tremendous hunger for beef, and the ranchers couldn’t grow them fast enough, so they would send the cowboys across the border into Mexico and steal them, then bring them back across the border, re-brand them and sell them to the US Army and sell them to Tombstone and some of the other communities that were growing at that time. You even had law enforcement that were on the side of the cowboys and ranchers. The Sheriff of the county in Tombstone, John Behan, was a friend of the cowboys.

You had that, and the other side was people in Tombstone that wanted to see it become a prosperous, civilized town that was going to be the San Francisco of the southwest. Reluctantly, the Earp brothers became the law enforcers representing that view. They didn’t want it. They came to Tombstone to get into the mining business, so they could finally strike it rich, which was something that had been alluding them for a long time, and so it was like almost inevitable that you’re going to have this clash of the old way of doing things, the more lawless way of doing things and the new way of doing things, which was that you had a justice system, you had law and order, you had schools and churches. Again, reluctantly, the Earp brothers got themselves in the middle of these two opposing forces.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And the vendetta ride from hell?

Tom Clavin: (laughs) I point out in the book that, as far as we know, Wyatt never actually said, “Tell ‘em I’m coming, and hell’s coming with me!” That was purely the screenwriter in the movie Tombstone. Kurt Russell did a good, enthusiastic reading in the film. Again, Wyatt was not a killer. All through our culture over decades and decades when people talk about the great gunfighters of the West, the tough guys of the West and the cold-blooded figures of the West, Wyatt Earp is often mentioned in the same breath. But, as far as we know, he wounded a man who eventually died from his wounds when he was a deputy marshal in Dodge City. To our knowledge, Wyatt had not killed anybody, and suddenly, in the wake of the O.K. Corral, we have his brother Virgil ambushed and maimed for life. Then three months later, we have his brother Morgan ambushed and killed.

So it was kind of uncharacteristic that he hunted these guys down and killed them. That was not Wyatt Earp, but he was forced to do something before they took what was left of his family. He still had some other brothers and still had Doc. So he got Doc, his brother Warren and some other people, and off they went on this vendetta ride that was partly successful in the sense that several people were killed including Curly Bill Brocius, but it also got to the point that it had to stop because they had a posse on their tail. When Wyatt and Doc had the choice of either giving themselves up or get out of Arizona and seek sanctuary elsewhere, that’s what they chose. They didn’t believe in the justice system they left behind in Tombstone.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is it true that Wyatt preferred to pistol whip his opponents rather than shoot them?

Tom Clavin: Yeah. I think he learned this when he was a part-time peace officer in Wichita. Wyatt was unusually tall for that age. He was six feet tall, which for today is not that unusual, but in the 1870s when the height for the average man was probably 5’ 5”, Wyatt was a tall man. He took the peace and being a peace officer quite literally. So if there was going to be some kind of a confrontation, he would whip out his pistol and use the butt of the pistol to crack somebody on the top of his head. He called it buffaloing. The person would be seeing stars and fall to the ground, and Wyatt would haul them off to the nearest jail. So that was his preferred way of doing things.

Abilene, Dodge City, Wichita and Tombstone were growing towns where people wanted to raise families and become small business owners, ranchers and clergymen. Women were raising families, and that was what these towns wanted. To have their either elected or appointed lawmen firing pistols was a very dangerous environment for families. So, yes, Wyatt found buffaloing much more effective than shooting.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was the relationship between Doc Holliday and Kate Elder?

Tom Clavin: They had this very powerful relationship. They were both heavy drinkers, especially Doc Holliday. I’m no expert on these things, but in most cases, when you have a couple that are heavy drinkers, there’s going to be some pretty violent arguments. They had their share of violent arguments and breakups, but they couldn’t stay away from each other for very long. Doc depended on Kate to a certain extent. She saved his life. When he was down in Texas, he killed a man who had cheated at cards. There was a hanging mob coming for him, and Kate helped him escape. She took care of Doc because he was indeed a sick man. So she took care of him, and she was dependent on him for the income. Doc was a good gambler, and he made money gambling. If she had not had Doc to help pay their way, she may have ended up going back to being a prostitute. So they had this very close relationship that was also very turbulent.

It’s interesting. Kate Elder contended that, toward the end of Doc’s life, she nursed him and was there when he died. We really don’t have any other account of that except hers. You’d like to believe the story that she was there when he died, but you can’t offer it as absolute fact because Kate made up some things about her life years later when she talked about her life experiences. She may have made up this, but you’d like to think it was true.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Kate Elder lived to about 90 years old?

Tom Clavin: Yeah, and she didn’t have the easiest life, as a kid and as an adult with the alcohol. Just being a woman of the frontier where life is really hard for women and to live that long is incredible.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Didn’t Wyatt’s dad, Nicholas Earp, have about 10 children?

Tom Clavin: Oh, Nicholas Earp had two with his first wife, then she passed away. He had eight with his second wife, Virginia Earp. I think there were two daughters that did not live to adulthood. I think the youngest one, Adelia, passed away during world War II or something like that. She was born when Lincoln was president, and she didn’t die almost until Truman was president (laughs). In those days, it was because of the high mortality rate for infants and for children. Obviously, too, it was a lack of knowledge of birth control and a lack of preference for birth control. Big families were not that unusual, so Nicholas Earp was not unusual for having so many kids.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I read that he was a difficult man to deal with. How much did he influence his children in those days?

Tom Clavin: He had a very powerful influence on several of his sons because he was a very restless man. He was always picking up his family and moving someplace else and moving back and forth to a couple of places two or three times. That certainly had to influence Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren because they were always going on to the next place thinking they could find success in each place, and that was what Nicholas was looking for so much of his life. He wanted to finally find that success as a businessperson that was eluding him, and that was certainly the philosophy of Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt also. That’s what Tombstone represented to them, a fresh start and a chance to finally be successful in business. It looked so promising. They really thought it was going to be it.

At one point, you had five Earp brothers all together in Tombstone as a family. They were a clan. They could be successful and nurture each other and even live in a compound together. But then forces beyond their control really turned them into reluctant lawmen, and that led to the gunfight and vendetta ride and leaving Tombstone.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I always thought Johnny Ringo was a great name for an outlaw (laughs).

Tom Clavin: It is. You’d think it was invented by Hollywood, and of course, if I remember in the great western Stagecoach, directed by John Ford, John Wayne plays a character called the Ringo Kid.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was controversy surrounding Johnny Ringo’s death.

Tom Clavin: That’s another example how things can be either romanticized or fictionalized because there have been a number of tales. Even the movie Tombstone where we have Val Kilmer portraying Doc Holliday, they have Doc sort of sneaking back into Arizona and then the shootout with him killing Johnny Ringo even though all the evidence points to that physically not happening. There were versions back in the day that had Wyatt Earp killing Johnny Ringo. That didn’t happen.

I can understand it’s hard for people to believe that Johnny Ringo, this outlaw that was such a tough guy, might actually take his own life, but that’s what the evidence supports. So little was known about psychology at that time, but it was known that Johnny Ringo had serious depression issues. He was sitting around the campfire one day watching his father blow his head off with a shotgun. That would have an effect on most people. So he had some really genuine, serious depression issues. But there’s no other evidence to explain how he died other than suicide.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who knows how many people suffered from mental illness back then.

Tom Clavin: No. You’ve seen movies and TV shows that refer to somebody as being touched in the head. That’s an old expression and was a way to refer to somebody that either had some kind of biological problem or had a mood disorder. I don’t think we’ll ever see a TV show called “Dr. Quinn, Frontier Therapist” (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you dedicate Tombstone to your brother James?

Tom Clavin: Unlike the Earps, I don’t have a bunch of brothers. I just have the one. Right from the beginning with Tombstone, I was trying to think of what doorway I wanted to go through to do this story. I really wanted to focus on the brothers and their relationship because it was, to me, something special. You had five Earp brothers in Tombstone at the same time. What a golden opportunity it could be, but unfortunately it turned into tragedy. But I wanted to really focus a lot onthe brothers and on Virgil, Warren, Morgan and Wyatt. So when the time came to do a dedication, I thought it just made a lot of sense to me that I’d dedicate it to the one brother that I have, and I’d give him a discount on the price of the book (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, from Facebook, I know you’re a fan of either Titus Welliver or Bosch.

Tom Clavin: Well, both. I first saw Titus Welliver when he was on The Good Wife. He played a prosecuting attorney that kept losing to Alicia (laughs). I thought he was very good. I’ve read all the Michael Connelly books on Bosch, and when I saw Titus was being cast as Bosch, at first, I didn’t know if that would work. That wasn’t the way saw Bosch described in the books. He was huskier and a more solid kind of guy, but I started watching from the first season, and I just think he’s terrific. Now I can’t think of anybody else that would do as good a job than he does in that role.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tom, what else do you watch, and do you watch certain shows or films to coincide with the book you’re writing at the time?

Tom Clavin: For my own personal entertainment, I tend to bingewatch something. I just finished the second season of The Sinner with Bill Pullman. There’s a British show called Broadchurch that I just finished watching. Now I’m madly in love with Olivia Coleman.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Crown?

Tom Clavin: I’m only halfway through the first season, so I still have Olivia to look forward to in that show. I think I’m wanting to do Ozark with Jason Bateman, too. It’s true that when I’m working on a book, part of my initial preparation is that I make a list of movies that I want to watch while I’m working on a book because it helps me get into the zone a little bit better. I do have to be careful about fictionalized movies that could leak into a true and accurate story.

But while working on Tombstone, I watched the movie Wyatt Earp, I watched the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and I watched My Darling Clementine. There’s a Joel McCrea movie where he plays Wyatt Earp. I try to watch some of these classic, great westerns. I watched The Ox-Bow Incident even though it has nothing to do with Tombstone. It’s just a great western. Ride the High Country is one of my favorite films of all time, so writing a book about the West gives me an excuse to watch that again. I find that very, very helpful. Hollywood romanticizes and fictionalizes true stories, but I think I’m old and wise enough to separate the inaccuracies from just the ambience, the atmosphere, the feeling you get from watching a great western. I’m in the middle of writing a book about the American West.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And that was going to be my last question (laughs).

Tom Clavin: I have two next projects really. You know, I do a solo book, and then I do a book with my friend, Bob Drury, and the last book we did together was Valley Forge. We just finished a book, which will be out next year in 2021, on Daniel Boone, especially during the American Revolution. So that’s the next one that will come out and will have my byline on it, but that’s not going to be out until probably the first quarter of 2021. And I finally had an opportunity, now that I filled my trilogy, to revive that World War II book I was writing on, and I’ll probably have that done in June. I love the story.

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