On Meeting Wyatt Earp

In 1955, when The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp appeared on the television screen, I already considered myself an historian. I watched the show not as a kid craving a Western but as an impassioned analyst who wanted to see what they got right in the stories. By then I had several times devoured Stuart Lake’s 1931 book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was the only published Earp biography written by someone who had actually sat down to interview Wyatt before he died. Lake was the historical consultant for the TV series. Every Tuesday night at 8:30 pm I filled my one-TV-program-a-week quota set by my parents, watching the show, each time staying with the credits to the end to see my favorite entry: “Historical Consultant, Stuart Lake.”

One thing I learned very early in my career: No matter how introverted or private you are … tell people about your passion. A case in point. When I was 10 years old, one afternoon – to my surprise – I was summoned to the home of the neighborhood witch. I had no idea why. I’d never seen the inside of her house. When I left her strange-smelling parlor and reentered the normal world of sunshine and birdsong I carried in my hand a magazine I would never have known existed. Inside its covers was a grand article on Wyatt Earp. This was the first of many papers that would fill boxes containing all-things-Earp.

When I was 12, a girl 4 years my elder called me on the phone. (This in itself was unheard of – a teenaged girl calling me.) Her father was a pilot. She told me, “You’re going to need to get down to the airport and wait at the Delta entrance. Hugh O’Brian is coming through town. Daddy says you should be there at 20 till 1. Can you get there?”

After a stunned moment of silence my reply must have sounded desperate. “I’ll get there!”

My good mother knew what this meant to me. She told me to get in the car, and off we went. There I stood alone outside the airport entrance as my mother idled in the waiting line of cars nearby. There was no one else waiting but me. At a quarter to 1, a big black limo pulled up and out stepped TV’s Wyatt Earp in a dark suit similar to the ones my father wore to work. Forcing myself into action I stepped forward and introduced myself. He shook my hand and smiled. Then I heard myself say, “Can I help you carry your bags?”

He had plenty of help, but he picked out an appropriately sized briefcase and handed it to me. It was a gracious move. Hugh O’Brian was known to take a personal interest in the man he portrayed, so we walked the long corridor side by side and talked the entire time about some of the decisions Wyatt Earp had made – most notably – the killing of Frank Stillwell, who had assassinated one of Wyatt’s brothers and maimed another. I was impressed with Mr. O’Brian’s knowledge. At the departing gate I surrendered the luggage and we shook hands again. Then I retraced my steps down the long terminal to find my mother. That long walk back “alone” seemed somehow important to me, and I think my mother had anticipated that.