Dorothy M. Johnson: How the West Was Written

Dorothy JohnsonTo say that Dorothy M. Johnson was just a Western writer would be like saying that John Wayne was just a Western actor or that John Ford was just a Western director. Dorothy M. Johnson was a trailblazer, a bar raiser and a woman ahead of her time. She was the woman who wrote the short story, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which, incidentally, was made into a movie starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. But, of course, there’s a lot more to her story than that.

Wild Montana Skies

Dorothy Marie Johnson was born in 1905, in McGregor, Iowa. But she barely had a chance to settle in before her parents moved her to Montana. A doctor had suggested the climate would be better for the health of Dorothy’s father. Unfortunately, Dorothy’s father died shortly before her tenth birthday. Left on their own, Dorothy’s mother worked two jobs to support them. By the time Dorothy was in high school, she was contributing to the family finances, as well. She got her first writing gig as a newspaper stringer for The Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. She also worked as a part-time telephone operator.

A love of learning led Dorothy to do things few women of the day did. For starters, she finished high school. Following graduation, she attended Montana State College in Bozeman. Her future career in medicine came to a screeching halt when she was asked to dissect a cat. Cats and Western lovers alike can be thankful that she changed her college and her major. She transferred to Montana State University in Missoula and changed her major to English! That made sense. She had been writing since childhood. While at MSU, she had articles published in a literary magazine. Like a regular John Boy Walton, she had the need to put words on paper!

She Met Up With a Gambler

Dorothy JohnsonWhile in college, Dorothy met a smooth-talking soldier at Fort Missoula. She married in haste, but she didn’t repent in leisure. The marriage ended in 1929. He left her with gambling debts, regret and a determination to remain single for the rest of life! The reason she couldn’t repent in leisure was because Dorothy had resolved to finish college and pay off every one of her ex-husband’s debts.

Following college, Dorothy took the only job she could find, which happened to be in Washington State. She worked. She paid off debts. And she wrote. That writing resulted in her selling her first professional story to The Saturday Evening Post. More than a full decade passed before she sold her second story!

Blame It All On Her Roots

Eventually, Dorothy made a move far away from her beloved West. For fifteen years, Dorothy Johnson lived in New York. She took whatever writing jobs she could find before becoming the editor of The Woman magazine.

Her favorite ways to fill her free time were reading Westerns at the New York City Public Library or going to the movies to see (You guessed it!) foreign language films. I’m just joshing! She saw Westerns! Dorothy was homesick for the West. That homesickness inspired her to put her own Western stories to paper.

Dorothy JohnsonKeep in mind that women didn’t write Westerns. Heck no! Westerns were too gritty for delicate flowers of femininity to write. That was man’s work! Women were expected to write about garden parties, lemon meringue pies and the latest fashions. But, Dorothy Marie Johnson didn’t care about stereotypes. She wanted to write Westerns. The only adjustment she made was to change her byline from Dorothy Marie Johnson to Dorothy M. Johnson. She thought it sounded less flowery!

Dorothy M. Johnson didn’t write girly stories that happened to be set in the West. She wrote about shootouts, heroes and villains. Her writing didn’t shy away from violence when a story called for it. She never wrote off the cuff. Her writing required research.

Dorothy Johnson Books

Take Me Home, Country Road

At the first opportunity Dorothy returned to the West she loved so well. She took an unexpected twist in her career path and taught college writing courses, earning the respect and admiration of her students. Be still my heart! The thought of sitting in a classroom with Dorothy Johnson holding a piece of chalk makes my insides quiver!

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance wasn’t the only short story with Dorothy M. Johnson’s less flowery byline to be made into a movie. The Hanging Tree, which starred Gary Cooper and A Man Called Horse, which starred Richard Harris were also based on her short stories.

She wasn’t above being excited by her newfound celebrity. She relished it! And, who can blame her? To tell the truth, I don’t think I could like anyone who didn’t get just a wee bit giddy at rubbing elbows with Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne. Oh, let’s face it; I would be tempted to steal John Wayne’s footprints from the front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, a la Lucy Ricardo! And I like Dorothy M. Johnson all the more for knowing she kept autographed photos of the celebrities she encountered.

Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne

Chiseled In Stone

Dorothy M. Johnson died in 1984, at the age of 78. She had written seventeen books, more than fifty short stories, and more poems and magazine articles than you could shake a #2 Ticonderoga pencil at.

One of her proudest accomplishments was that Dorothy M. Johnson was self-sufficient. She worked hard. She paid her dues. And she paid her way. In fact, she requested that “Paid In Full,” be written on her tombstone. Instead, it simply says, “PAID”.

Forever and Ever, Amen

In 2000, the Western Writers of America voted on the top five Western short stories of all time. Few people were surprised that none other than Dorothy Johnson had written four of the five winners. The woman knew her way around the English language. She had the ability to hook people from the very beginning and once she had them hooked she knew how to reel them in.

In 2005, Sue Hart, of Montana State University, Billings, completed a documentary of the life of Dorothy Johnson. The film was a mere thirty minutes, in length, but it took four years to make. Titled, Gravel in Her Gut and Spit in Her Eye, the documentary aired on PBS channels in November 2005. If you haven’t already fallen in love with Dorothy M. Johnson, you need to carve out a half hour to watch it. You’ll thank me. After all, she wasn’t just a Western writer.

Happy Trails y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Two-Gun Nan Aspinwall: Redefining Woman’s Work

Nan Aspinwall and her horse, Lady EllenWhile much of the U.S. is sitting around lamenting the fact that we don’t get the next season of “Downton Abbey” until January, I thought it would be fun to explore the life of a different sort of lady. These days, Nan Aspinwall and her horse, Lady Ellen, may not be as familiar to most people as the Dowager Countess and her granddaughter, Lady Edith, but believe you me, Nan’s story doesn’t disappoint!

Nan Jeanne Aspinwall was born in Nebraska in 1880, but she was not your typical female of the day (or any day, for that matter). She was not a gal to be satisfied working on her quilt squares or doing other “proper” womanly things. Instead, she honed her skills as a sharpshooter, archer, trick roper, stunt rider and bull rider. But that’s not all…

Her Name was Nan. She was a Showgirl.

Nan AspinwallDid I mention that Nan became a showgirl? I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill hurdy-gurdy girl. Nope. Nan was a bona fide, la-di-da, “Oriental dancer,” who went by the stage name, Princess Omene. It was 1899 and the lovely Nan had surely gotten in on the bottom floor of Nebraska’s burgeoning belly dancing industry!

Husband Frank GableIn life, one thing tends to lead to another. It certainly did for Nan. East met West and, by around 1905, Nan’s performing background collided with her Western skills. She hung up her harem pants and hip scarves and picked up a gun and a rope. She began appearing under the name, “Montana Girl,” and showcasing her skills as a sharpshooter, horse woman and roper. In 1906, she began appearing with her first husband, Frank Gable, as a “Lariat Expert.” They performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Troupe. She must have been worth seeing, because, Nan eventually became the highest paid performer with the troupe.

Redefining “Woman’s Work”

Buffalo BillWe can’t be surprised to learn that Nan was never one to back away from a challenge. Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill must have known that when, in 1909, they suggested that she take a little horseback ride. Well, maybe they didn’t suggest it as much as they dared her to do it. And maybe it wasn’t just a little horseback ride. Maybe it was a solo, cross-country horseback ride.

If a woman riding a horse across country doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, remember that no woman had ever done it. Ever. They weren’t exactly daring her to see the U.S.A. in her Chevrolet! They might as well have dared her to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean! (Fortunately, her story has a happier ending than Amelia Earhart’s would, almost thirty years later.)

Challenge Accepted!

Nan AspinwallBy 1910, Nan was ready to accept the challenge and tackle a ride from San Francisco to New York City. She knew she would need a Thoroughbred horse. She found her travelling partner in pretty mare named Lady Ellen. Nan and Lady Ellen set off in September of 1910. They were carrying basic supplies and a letter from San Francisco’s Mayor McCarthy addressed to New York’s Mayor Gaynor.

Along the way, Nan refused to let anyone else tend to Lady Ellen. She reported that she even shoed the horse fourteen times, during the journey. Theirs was not a one-sided relationship, though.

Lady Ellen was credited with saving Nan’s life, when the duo became lost on the mountains of Utah. Nan’s attempt to take a short cut had backfired, as short cuts so often do. The pair roamed aimlessly until nightfall, without food or water. The following morning, Nan tied Lady Ellen and climbed a peak in an attempt to get her bearings.

Nan’s attempt failed. She also failed to find the spot where she had tied Lady Ellen. While Nan wandered around the mountainside, Lady Ellen neighed with impatience. It was the sound of those neighs that guided Nan to her horse. The pair spent another day trying to get off the mountain. Finally, Nan left everything up to the horse. Lady Ellen led and Nan followed. They went up a peak and down a slope that was so steep they slid much of the way. The bottom of that slope found them in a railroad camp, where the railroad men cared for them for about a week.

There were other adventures along the way. Nan told stories of shooting up a couple of inhospitable towns. People should have known better than to mess with Two-Gun Nan!

Are We There Yet?

Nan AspinwallAll told, the two traveled for 180 days and covered 4,496 miles. On July 9, 1911, the New York Times reported, “A travel-stained woman attired in a red shirt and divided skirt and seated on a bay horse drew a crowd to City Hall yesterday afternoon.” Nan was a celebrity! With celebrity flair and the showmanship that had so defined her life, it is reported that she ended the trek by riding Lady Ellen into the freight elevator of a 12-story building and taking it to the top floor!

Newspaper reports also mention that Nan was awarded a diamond medal for endurance by Richard K. Fox, the publisher of The National Police Gazette. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Frank Hopkins took that part of Nan’s story and “made it his own.” It was featured in the movie “Hidalgo,” even though there are no substantiating reports to indicate that Frank Hopkins received such a medal.

Into the Sunset

Nan AspinwallFollowing the ride, Nan and her husband started their own Wild West Show. Frank Gable died in 1929 and Nan’s show biz career ended. She married again, in the 1930s to Al Lambell. Little is known about her life, during that time.

Nan’s story was recounted in 1942, on a radio broadcast of “Death Valley Days.” In 1958, the infamous ride of Two-Gun Nan was the subject of an episode of the “Judge Roy Bean” television show. And, in 1960, Nan served as technical advisor for a television episode of “Death Valley Days,” which focused on her history-making ride.

Nan Jeanne Aspinwall Gable LambellIn 1964, Nan Jeanne Aspinwall Gable Lambell died at the age of 84, in San Bernardino, California. Her death certificate listed her occupation as a life-long housewife. Yep, she spent the last thirty years of her life doing “womanly things” and blending into the crowd. I still wish that death certificate had listed her occupation as a “sharpshooting, bull-riding, trick roping, stunt-riding, belly dancing, dare taking, split skirt wearing, adventure seeking, trail blazer turned housewife.” Take that, “Downton Abbey”!

Happy trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Sergeant Reckless: The $250 Hero

Sergeant RecklessVeterans Day is upon us—the day set aside to remember those who have served in our country’s military. When I was trying to decide how to approach today’s blog post, I had my usual brainstorming session. (Yeah, that’s pretty dangerous territory.) Of course, there have been many great military heroes who would meet my criteria of being a true story of the American West. But how many of those would tie in with my great affection for horses? That’s when I knew who the subject of this Veterans Day blog post had to be none other than the remarkable Sergeant Reckless!

A Korean War veteran (and a horse!), Sergeant Reckless was named one of America’s 100 Greatest Heroes by Time Magazine, in a 1997 special collector’s edition. Yes, she was right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa. Yet, few people today know about this great American hero. Let’s see if we can change that.

The $250 Investment

RecklessReckless wasn’t born a sergeant. She wasn’t even born a U.S. citizen, but she was to become one of the greatest war heroes in U.S. history. Reckless was part Mongolian and part Thoroughbred and originally belonged to a Korean stable boy. The stable boy’s older sister had lost a leg in a land mine accident and he selflessly sold his horse to pay for her prosthetic leg. In 1952, Lt. Eric Pederson purchased the horse for $250.00 of his own money. At the time, Lt. Pederson had no way of knowing that his investment would pay off in such a monumental way.

Reckless was purchased for the purpose of carrying ammunition to the front lines for the 77mm Recoilless Rifle Platoon of the 5th Marine Regiment. She even got her name from the Recoilless. Eventually, Recoilless was changed to Reckless after the platoon’s nickname, “Reckless Rifles.” It was soon apparent that Reckless was no ordinary packhorse and that she was far from reckless in her behavior.

Taking Horse Training to a New Level

Reckless supply routesFor a horse to carry supplies and ammunition, during combat is impressive. For a horse to evacuate the wounded is noble. For a horse to learn how to do all of those things without the benefit of a handler is so monumentally extraordinary that I had to look in Roget’s Thesaurus just to discover that I couldn’t come up with anything more fitting than “monumentally extraordinary!” It only took a couple of trips for Reckless to memorize each supply route. And, somehow, she was able to locate the injured men and take them to receive medical treatment without any direction from anyone.

RecklessReckless was taught to lie down when under fire and how to avoid becoming snared by barbed wire. And, she showed a good deal of horse sense by learning to run for a bunker when she heard, “INCOMING!”

All in a Day’s Work

Reckless solo tripsOne day, in March of 1953, Reckless made fifty-one solo trips to resupply the units on the front line, at the Battle of Panmunjom-Vegas (also known as the Battle of Outpost Vegas). Throughout the course of that day, she covered a total distance of more than thirty-five miles and hauled over 9000 pounds of ammunition! That’s not even taking into consideration the number of wounded she carried down the mountain to safety. With every trip up the mountain to deliver arms, she’d bring down wounded soldiers. That’s thirty-five miles, up and down mountains, with enemy fire coming in at a rate of five hundred rounds per minute!

RecklessThe very idea of a riderless horse voluntarily walking into open combat makes me gasp. During the three-day Battle of Panmunjom-Vegas, Reckless was wounded twice. Both times, she was hit by shrapnel. One hit was above the eye and the other was on her left flank. Yet, she continued her trips. She even shielded four marines who were attempting to make their way to the front lines. For her valor, Reckless was promoted to Corporal! Following the war, she was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal and a Korean Service Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with bronze star, and other honors.

But Reckless didn’t let rank go to her head! When not facing combat conditions, she proved useful for stringing telephone wire and packing other supplies. It is said that Reckless could string as much telephone wire as twelve men!

Reckless telephone wire

She Ate Like a Horse

Paddy Derby

Her platoon didn’t just love her for her acts of valor. They loved her because she was just plain lovable! It’s not difficult to imagine how much comfort and entertainment she must have provided for a bunch of war-weary, homesick Marines.

Reckless eatingReckless was allowed to freely roam the camp, which led to some interesting situations. She made herself right at home. If she was cold, she slept in any tent of her choosing. If she was hungry, she ate. She ate like a horse, and yet, not like any horse you’ve ever known! She loved a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and a cup of Joe! It’s hard to believe she wasn’t born in the U.S! She was also fond of Hershey bars, cake, beer and Coca Cola, although the platoon medic did advise that she not be given more than two bottles of Coke a day. Moderation is important, even for war heroes!

If she felt she was being ignored…Well, let’s just say it was best to not ignore Sergeant Reckless. She was known to chow down on blankets, helmet liners, hats and poker chips, when she felt she wasn’t receiving enough attention. She was not a woman to be trifled with!

Semper Fidelis

RecklessWhen the Korean War ended, Sergeant Reckless went stateside, to Camp Pendleton. On November 10, 1954, Reckless took her first steps on the soil of the country she had served so well. She was home. Her arrival coincided with the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, which she attended. Always a lady, Reckless rode an elevator, ate some cake and then polished off the flower arrangements!

In 1954 and 1955, Reckless was featured in editions of The Saturday Evening Post. In 1955, she was the subject of the book, Reckless: Pride of the Marines. She made public appearances and even appeared on Art Linkletter’s “House Party” television show. Had it not been for an ill-timed typhoon, she would have appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Camp PendletonWhile at Camp Pendleton, Reckless received two promotions, one to sergeant and, in 1959, to staff sergeant. Her promotion to Staff Sergeant included a nineteen-gun salute from General Randolph Pate, who presided over the ceremony. There was also a parade of 1,700 troops, from Reckless’ old outfit!

Reckless retirementAt Camp Pendleton, Reckless produced four foals, three of which survived. On November 10, 1960, Reckless was retired from full-time military service, with full military honors. According to Marine documents, Reckless was provided with room and board, in lieu of retirement pay.

Reckless funeralReckless passed away in May of 1968. She was believed to have been nineteen or twenty years old. A plaque honoring her remains at Camp Pendleton. A statue of Reckless was unveiled in Semper Fidelis Memorial Park at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, on July 26, 2013. That was one day before the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.

And so, as we observe Veterans Day, let us not forget about the most decorated horse in U.S. military history. Semper Fi, Reckless. Semper Fi.

Watch this video of the beloved Reckless, as told by someone who knew her well!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

The Diving Horses of Atlantic City

Atlantic City Diving HorsesThere are some things that would never pop into my mind no matter how many nights I battle insomnia. Oh, I’m not saying I can’t come up with some pretty oddball ideas, but I’m relatively certain that I never would have thought of asking horses dive off a giant pier in Atlantic City. When I have too much on my mind and cannot fall asleep, I generally count sheep. But Dr. William Frank Carver was not the sort of man to be content with counting sheep! He had visions of diving horses, and remarkably, a desire to fulfill them.

Boardwalk Empire

Doc Carver was a one-time partner of Buffalo Bill Cody, a guy who knew a thing or seven about drawing a crowd. When Doc Carver’s partnership with Buffalo Bill went sour, Doc organized his own Wild West show. Knowing that sometimes it pays to be straightforward, he called his show, “Wild West.” Unfortunately, Buffalo Bill was already using “Wild West” for his show’s name. The two rivals spent a lot of time in court. Eventually, Carver’s show fell apart and he didn’t have the resources to reorganize.

Doc Carver & Buffalo Bill Cody

Doc Carver maintains that the idea for diving horses came to him when he was crossing the Platte River, in 1881, and there was a partial bridge collapse. According to his story, his horse took a dive into the water and POW, the idea for diving equines was born. Now, that may be true. But it’s also important to remember that Carver was a showman who wasn’t above stretching the truth if he felt that it made a pretty good story. In fact, it is believed that he pushed his birthday back about 14 years to make his adventure stories more plausible. So, whether he came up with the idea while he was plunging into water on horseback, or if it came to him during a night of fretful sleep, he is still credited with the idea.

Doc Carver's Diving Horses

Al Floyd CarverEven in the 1800s, nepotism was alive and well. Doc’s new partner was his son, Al Floyd Carver. It was Al Floyd who built the ramp and tower for the diving horses. Doc’s daughter, Lorena Carver, became the first “girl on the diving horse” when she rode Doc’s horse, Silver King, off of the tower built by her brother. It takes all kinds, but I personally believe that Lorena drew the short straw in that family business! The diving horses went on tour and eventually became a permanent fixture at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.

Pier into the Past

Diving Horse ExhibitionIt is believed that The Great Carver Show first opened in the mid 1890s. (Remember, dates were not Doc Carver’s strong suit.) Oh, there were other acts, but the diving horses were the cash cow in that business venture! Crowds swarmed to see the spectacle of a horse and rider taking a plunge from a 40 to 60ft-high platform into a 10ft pool of water.

Diving HorseLorena wasn’t the only thrill-seeker. The show featured many riders in its history. As you might expect, this career was not without dangers. Lorena herself was said to have suffered an average of one broken bone a year. That doesn’t sound so bad…considering. I am happy to report that I found her obituary and Lorena lived to the ripe old age of 95!

There is one report of a rider, by the name of Oscar Smith, who lost his life in 1907 when something went wrong with a dive. In truth, we don’t really know how many injuries were sustained over the years. But we do know about the most famous one.

Sonoma WebsterSonora Webster joined The Great Carver Show in 1923. According to her memoirs, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, Sonora’s mother had seen an ad that read, “Wanted: Attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel. See Dr. W.F. Carver, Savannah Hotel.” Sonora did join the show. She even joined the Carver family when she married Al Floyd Carver. In 1931, Sonora was blinded in a horse diving accident. It seems she went into the water with her eyes open and both of her retinas were detached. But, remarkably, that was far from the end of her career. Sonora continued diving for eleven more years! She was such an expert that the crowds didn’t even realize she was blind for about five of those years!

Wild Hearts Can't Be BrokenThe 1991 Disney movie, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, was inspired by Sonora’s memoirs. While certain liberties were taken, the essence of Sonora’s story is still there. It tells of her love for the horses and her perseverance that was too strong to keep her sidelined. Like her sister-in-law, Sonora lived a long life. She passed away in 2003, at the age of 99!

Take a Dive

Horse and Rider High DiveThroughout the years, animal activists have had a thing or two to say about the diving horses. Even in the days of Doc Carver, protestors filed suit against him, alleging cruelty to animals. The judge dismissed the case after examining the horses and finding no indications of abuse. Sonora’s sister, Annette, who also rode diving horses, maintained that no horses were ever injured, during all of the years of the act. Other sources indicate that is not true.

There is no doubt that the sport was not without risk. Horses often dove four times a day, seven days a week. One riderless horse is known to have died when it was practice-diving directly into the Atlantic. The dive went fine, but the horse became confused and swam out to sea. By the time lifeguards recovered the horse she could not be resuscitated.

By the Seashore

Public Outcry over Diving HorsesFollowing the death of Doc Carver, Al, Sonora and Lenora continued the show. However, in 1978, the condition of Steel Pier caused an end to the show. Even though some people have wanted to recreate the act, times have changed. In 2012, there were plans to reestablish the diving horses of Atlantic City, which were shelved due to public outcry.

So, we are left with the film footage and still photos from decades of horse diving. I don’t know about you, but the images always send a little shiver down my spine. And tonight… who knows? I may just find myself counting diving horses instead of sheep.
Watch this video footage of the amazing diving horses!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia