Jess McCabe // 6 December 2005
The myth of Calamity Jane has been re-ignited of late by Deadwood, the US tv series based on the historical ‘Wild West’ town of the same name. And the closest tv has ever got to Shakespeare in terms of dialogue and language.
Salon.com reviews a new biography of her real life by James D McLaird, which seeks to burrow down through the layers of fiction to reveal a semblence of the truth. And what McLaird uncovers is not the “19th century gunslinger, drinker and cross-dresser” of legend but the Courtney Love of her day. Substance abuser and prostitute, cook and laundress, dance hall girl and mother. And author of her own legend, which she helped build up through numerous, misleading newspaper interviews.
“Who knows why we still thrill to her badness? She was a maverick, outsize and free-spirited, seemingly self-reliant yet vulnerable, who gave men a run for their money through her cursing, drinking, riding and gunmanship (which may explain why McMurtry cut her down to size by making her half a woman). Like so many pop culture icons, she lived fast, died young and was quickly canonized, yet her fictional self so quickly preempted the real one that it’s almost impossible to say her legend is anything but fiction. In the end, a cowboy who knew her in Spokane (where she was the “keystone around which all the excitement and life of the new town was reared”) provided the most concise eulogy for Calamity Jane: ‘She was a good woman [,] only she drinked.'”
It could be that – like pirates – Calamity Jane is best left mythologised. But if you are interested in digging deeper, it sounds like this is as good a place as any to start.