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

4 Replies to “Dorothy M. Johnson: How the West Was Written”

  1. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was a thoughtful insight into human nature with complex heroes at odds with one another. It is spell-binding and thought provoking, and is relevant to any time and any culture – not ‘just another western’. Thanks so much for sharing the story behind this great piece of literature!

    1. Hi Sue, thanks for sharing your thoughts. . .I completely agree. I am happy that Dorothy’s work received the recognition it deserved over the years, and particularly glad that most of that recognition happened in Dorothy’s lifetime. She was an extraordinary woman!

  2. I just finished reading Indian country by dorothy, I really enjoyed the short stories. I have seen all the movies made from her stories, what an awesome writer.

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