The writer and bookseller Larry McMurtry, who died earlier this year at 84, was a Texas native best known for film adaptations of his novels The Last Picture Show, Horseman, Pass By (Hud), Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove. PKM’s Benito Vila, in what may have been McMurtry’s last interview, asked the writer about Western films, then talked to others in the know about the Western ‘vortex’, and the sagebrush myths that have shaped (or misshaped or warped) Americans view of themselves as ‘rugged individualists’.
Rabbit holes. Alice in Wonderland. Tripping into places that are other than what they seem to be and meeting people who look at life differently. Merry Prankster Ken Babbs was recounting the origins of the Prankster nicknames when our interview turned to his influences growing up––what he read, the films he saw. He soon came around to cowboy films, and his recalling there being one “big” movie each week that everyone went and saw. Babbs’ passion for those Westerns brought to mind fellow-Prankster George Walker citing the 1963 epic How the West Was Won as being an inspiration for the stripes the Pranksters wore and the spirit of their adventures. Watching the film high on peyote in New York City, Walker, Ken Kesey and Carl Lehmann-Haupt were taken in by the film’s five stories, each one being set farther west on America’s frontier as it shifted from 1840s Ohio to 1890s San Francisco. On the trio’s drive back to San Francisco, Walker remembers, “We had this feeling, this sense, that we were pioneers crossing the country and that carried into the flags we flew, our wearing flag costumes and the stuff we did.” That all played out in a much bigger way on the Prankster’s bus trip east to the 1964 World Fair and in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Those bits of conversation left me wondering who could give PKM readers a look at what Westerns and their myths are all about. The first name that popped into my head was Larry McMurtry, the prolific novelist, who was in the same Stanford creative writing program as Kesey and who the Pranksters stopped to see in Houston on their way east. That stop led to one of the darker episodes of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, with Prankster Cathy Casamo running off the bus high and stark naked, trying to take McMurtry’s son, James, away from him while crying out for her own little boy. McMurtry, then a professor at Rice University, went on to become known for his screenwriting adaptions of his own work––Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove––and his Academy Award-winning treatment of the Anne Proulx short story “Brokeback Mountain”––each of those stories being set in the American West. McMurtry is also well known for collecting and selling books, once housing more than 400,000 titles in his bookshop, Booked Up, based in his hometown of Archer City, Texas.
I had already corresponded with McMurtry in trying to reach his wife, the former Faye Kesey, to ask her about Kesey’s Spit in the Ocean serialized novel/magazine. That effort earned me a short reply: “I am sorry, I do not act as an intermediary between my wife and others.” I sent McMurtry my Spit in the Ocean PKM piece and one I did on Spalding Gray. When I reached out to him about Westerns, there was an immediate reply: “I’m sorry I’m only on this medium occasionally. It depends upon when my writing partner Diana can get on the computer with me. I’m computer illiterate. I only use a manual typewriter. I don’t do phone interviews anymore. You can post questions here that you’d like answered and I’ll see if I can answer whatever questions you may have.” So I sent McMurtry a set of questions. That was last November. I sent him my PKM Buffy Sainte-Marie piece this February and heard back again right away: “Hello ~ will be sending you responses this weekend. I apologize for the delay. We’ve had two challenging months here.”
His replies came by email, as promised, and I asked a few more questions but never heard back. Little did I know the 84-year old McMurtry would be dead within the month, leaving me to wonder whether if what follows is his last interview. After my back-and-forth with McMurtry, I went spelunking even deeper into “The West” and that led me to learn of films and legends I knew little of. McMurtry once described a progression in the stories of the West, that “The Indians had the god-stories, Lewis and Clark provided the epic and romance came in the hero-tales”, the latter coming from the memoirs of White settlers. Here, too, is a three-part progression: McMurtry’s interview, a discussion of Westerns with writer W.K. Stratton, and an up-close and personal look at the West with historian George Laughead.
PART ONE: McMURTRY
PKM: What are some of the books and movies that influenced you and your storytelling early on?
Larry McMurtry: I read everything I could get my hands on once I left Archer City. I read all of the classics––Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Flannery O’Connor. And on and on. The films of the 1970s were some of the finest. Five Easy Pieces, all of the Bond films; classic westerns like, My Darling Clementine, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Searchers. The Deer Hunter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chinatown, Network, Apocalypse Now. The Godfather films. The Bond films are pure entertainment. And timeless, really. The West is my heritage.
PKM: What are your first memories of being in a movie theater?
Larry McMurtry: I can’t remember when I first viewed a movie in a theater. I can tell you that I became an admirer of film as a young adult. My book Film Flam contains many of my essays concerning film. I had the habit of binge-watching films in theater. One of my essays speaks to that.
PKM: What do you remember wanting to see?
Larry McMurtry: I remember wanting to see all types of films. I was a particular fan of B movies; they were the most entertaining of the many films I’ve seen. When HUD first premiered in Dallas, I was a few minutes late to the screening and was, unfortunately, locked out of the theater. It seems they didn’t understand who I was and would not let me in.
PKM: Which are the movies you never get enough of?
Larry McMurtry: I enjoy foreign films. I am a fan of Truffaut (400 Blows), Fellini (La Strada), Vittorio Di Sica (The Bicycle Thief), Max Ophuls (La Ronde), Jean Renoir (The Grand Illusion), Antonioni (L’Avventurra).
PKM: What makes a great Western?
Larry McMurtry: What makes a great Western is what makes any film great: characters. An audience should be able to connect to the characters, or in the alternative, be convinced that those characters are real.
PKM: Who made the best Westerns?
Larry McMurtry: John Ford.
PKM: Which are the Westerns that made the biggest impression on you and that you keep finding yourself coming back to?
Larry McMurtry: All of the John Ford films. Unforgiven is an exceptional movie. The Gunfighter. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance-John Ford, dir., trailer:
PKM: And what is it about those films?
Larry McMurtry: Watch them for yourself and you will understand. Excellent stories. Excellent acting and directing.
PKM: What do Westerns tell us about ourselves? About our society?
Larry McMurtry: Stories about the West are our history. It’s a violent and brutal history, too. Westerns sometimes teach us about America’s place in the world, and often reflect the current cultural environment. The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the great morality tales of the West. It makes one question their own views on what makes someone good or bad.
PKM: What is it about the West that makes it so much a part of the American psyche/scene/experience?
Larry McMurtry: Again, it is a large part of our history.
PKM: What’s the real story behind the myth that America is made up of rugged individualists?
Larry McMurtry: Rugged individualism is an ideal, and an overrated one. That notion essentially disappeared with the demise of the 19th-century mountain men. They were true individualists. What living in the world of today has taught us is that we are all connected, whether we like it or not.
PKM: What’s the real story of the West?
Larry McMurtry: The settling of America was violent, misogynistic, brutal, racist, and decimated many of the Native American tribes in the Americas.
PKM: Which people, what person(s), have best embodied that West in your life?
Larry McMurtry: The modern West is far different from the historical West. My father was the consummate cowboy. My eight uncles were all ranchers. I wrote Lonesome Dove in part to try and understand my father.
PKM: When you took a look at the night sky in Archer City as a kid, what did you imagine was present around you?
Larry McMurtry: I wasn’t much for stargazing as a child or as an adult. I was mainly focused on what kind of lives people in other places were experiencing.
PKM: When you look at the night sky in Archer City now, what do you imagine is coming closer?
Larry McMurtry: I’m not sure what you mean by this.
PKM: And what are you glad to know is still out there?
Larry McMurtry: The Internet has overtaken much of the world of knowledge. What I am thankful for has been and remains the world of books. I am glad to know that my bookstore in Archer City still exists and that there are readers from all over the world who are interested and purchase books from my store.
Lonesome Dove (1989)-Saloon scene:
There was a short follow-up:
PKM: To clarify that one question, what I mean is: I’ve always felt an odd sense of “presence”, in animals and in daylight. At night, I imagine that same presence is free to come even closer, to observe, and, like a coyote or a raccoon, to create mischief. Is there an aspect of that in Western film? In your life?
Larry McMurtry: I am in no way a spiritual person. I wrote a letter to the pastor of my Methodist church when I was in the fourth grade, explaining to the pastor I was quitting the church. I am a realist, an atheist, and I have no thoughts or opinions about spirituality or the after life, or what inspiration the stars may hold.
PKM: What’s drawing your attention in what you see people experiencing now? What is that experience/behavior revealing?
Larry McMurtry: It appears that the pandemic has caused people, for some odd reason, to reignite the philosophy of “rugged individualism”. It’s an archaic philosophy that won’t apply to the modern world, for the very reason I said above. Whether people believe it or not and whether they like it or not, we are all connected.
The Last Picture Show (1971)-Peter Bogdonavich, dir., adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel:
PART TWO: WESTERN MYTH
A question about Sergio Leone and his Westerns went unanswered, but that wasn’t something I pressed McMurtry on. Especially because two words stuck out when I read his responses: John Ford. I reached out to Charley Plymell to see who he knew who might know Ford’s work through and through and who might be able to talk more about the West. Plymell wrote back: “Kip knows more about the West than anyone.” In his reply, Plymell cc’d Kip, W.K. Stratton, a journalist, historian and cultural observer, who has delved deep into the work of film director Sam Peckinpah and into the football rivalry between University of Texas and Texas A&M. Stratton also wrote Chasing the Rodeo, a memoir accounting for the life of his absent father, a rodeo cowboy, and describing the evolution of rodeo as a popular American institution.
Stratton’s email back read: “Many, many books have been written about Ford, who began making movies in the 1910s. The silent films––most of them two-reel shorts, most of them ‘lost’, in that there are no copies of them––were Westerns. In many ways Ford can be credited with inventing the ‘serious’ Western with the silent films he directed starring Harry Carey, Sr. He created much of the filmic vocabulary used in all Westerns. You have to see his silent masterpiece Iron Horse. He invented the revisionist Western with Stagecoach in the late 1930s, another essential film to watch. By example, he was Akira Kurosawa’s mentor as well as Orson Welles’. Welles screened Stagecoach dozens of times to teach himself how to make an art film. Ford was very much the product of his times. Many of his movies are problematic in their depiction of people of color, something Ford tried to rectify with late career movies, like Sgt. Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn. Bogdanovich interviewed Ford extensively. His book, John Ford, based on those interviews is essential reading. If you want more, Scott Eyman wrote the best Ford biography. You can’t say Ford was a good man. He treated people horribly. But he was a great artist, although he’d probably deck you if you called him an artist to his face. Ford used terminology that Charley and I heard a lot where we came from: ‘It’s just a job of work.’ That’s how Ford described his filmmaking.”
When Stratton and I spoke, we started on The Merry Pranksters and the How the West Was Won story. He pointed out Ken Kesey’s lifelong connection to the Pendelton Round-Up, an annual week-long Oregon rodeo that became the setting of Kesey and Babbs’ novel, Last Go Round. That set us off into the myths of the West, especially as they appear on film.
PKM: What makes a great Western film?
WK Stratton: The great ones are the ones in the revisionist vein, the ones that aren’t the standard John Wayne Westerns the studios were churning out to feed Middle America in the ‘60s. Those are not particularly inventive or anything. John Wayne’s career first really hit the big time in 1939 when John Ford picked him to star in Stagecoach, where he’s an outlaw and the heroine is a whore. That flies in the face of what’s expected in the traditional Western: the good guy in the white hat, the moral high ground, with the school marm as the heroine. For my money, the best Westerns are those that question that standard, stuff like some of the Anthony Mann films of the 1950s, especially the ones starring Jimmy Stewart––Winchester ’73, Bend in the River, The Naked Spur. Those are “psychological Westerns”, where there’s a questioning of traditional roles, where you get into the psychology of the characters and why they make the decisions they make. Those films take the Western in a different direction altogether.
Stagecoach, directed by John Ford-trailer:
One of my favorite directors of all time is Sam Fuller. His first important film was an extremely revisionist Western called I Shot Jesse James. He made it on a budget of about $10, and it looks like it, but he did good work given his limited resources. In the revisionist films, the line between heroes and villains gets shadier and shadier and everything is in a lot of a world of grey. All that makes a great Western. How the West Was Won doesn’t fall into that category at all. A lot of the concepts in that go back to the old stereotypes of the West. While How the West Was Won was being made, you had Sergio Leone in Italy starting to work on the film released in the United States as A Fistful of Dollars.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)-Clint Eastwood-trailer:
That one and the two other Clint Eastwood films that followed it––A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly––completely wiped away the line between good guys and bad guys. Those three were influenced by things like the Vietnam War, which was going on then, where Americans had positioned themselves as the cowboys in the wide hats, the good guys in the world. But you look at what we were doing in Vietnam, and, in reality, we were really the villains. The interesting Westerns, the ones that challenge the stereotype, came out of the silent films of the 1910s and then through B Westerns in the 1920s and ‘30s, and looked at the psychology of the characters. Those three Leone films are really funny in a lot of ways, but they are pretty dark, and they are very violent. They show the West as it was, like the silent films did: people wore really crappy clothes and they were really dirty. There was mud in the streets. When people were shot, it was a bloody, ugly thing. Leone captured a lot of that stuff. People had flies crawling on their faces and you saw horseshit in the streets.
Then you get into the stuff like Larry was doing with his novels and in the film renditions of them. You look at Lonesome Dove, the big one. He was always amused that so many people became such huge fans of that picture, and lived and died for the characters portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. He said he wanted to show these guys as being course, non-heroic figures, guys who were conflicted and did things that don’t hold up well. Duvall’s character lynches a guy. These are things that are troubling to think about. Larry thought it was interesting that that film became so successful, that the book was so successful, and that so many people romanticized what he was trying to do with it.
PKM: What other Westerns hit home for you?
WK Stratton: The Wild Bunch is, in my opinion, the best Western ever made.
The Wild Bunch-Sam Peckinpah, director-trailer:
PKM: Why is that?
WK Stratton: It’s morally ambiguous and anything that’s going to deal with the West has to be morally ambiguous because this is a morally ambiguous place. It always has been in spite of romanticized notions that it was something else. That film is set in roughly 1913 or 1914, in Mexico, during the revolution, and the main characters are these outlaws who are around 50 years old and who’ve outlived their time. They’re caught up in the horror of modern technology––this terrible, dehumanizing thing––the introduction of weaponry that can literally slaughter hundreds of people. Technological advantage. The Wild Bunch questions that. There’s an old Western saying about how a man can judge the quality of another man: is he someone you would ride the river with? Is he somebody you can trust? Is he someone who will do what he has to do if trouble comes along? That doesn’t have anything to do about whether you have a criminal past, or any of those kinds of things. It’s about, is he a person of character when it comes to this situation of riding the river? These four guys who go into that final shoot-out are indeed the guys you would ride the river with. The Wild Bunch comes down to that one core truth and it handles it fairly well. In terms of artistic filmmaking, filmmaking as a work of art, in that one, Peckinpah really hit a home run. Look at it and compare it to the great works of Kurosawa or Fellini or Truffaut, all those legendary filmmakers, makers of art films, who are studied so carefully in universities. It has all of those same qualities to look for beyond just the story––the way the story is told with the lens of the camera, and with sound and score. The Wild Bunch is a tremendous work of art, apart from being a Western.
PKM: Is there another that stands out for you?
WK Stratton: John Ford’s The Searchers. Martin Scorsese and other filmmakers, like John Milius and Peter Bogdanovich, will tell you it’s the greatest film ever made. It’s a dark, dark film with John Wayne playing a bad guy, which was really when John Wayne was at his best, when he was given dark roles. In this one, he’s a racist and he’s out to slaughter Comanches because they’ve kidnapped the daughter of his brother’s wife. He was secretly in love with the wife and she was secretly in love with him. The daughter, played by Natalie Wood, is this obsessive thing for him. It’s a Moby Dick story. Just like Ahab’s after the white whale, John Wayne’s after this Comanche chief who led the raid that resulted in the murder of the woman he loved and the abduction of her daughter. The film follows him from his trying to recover her as a child, and the years go by, you realize she’s no longer a child and she’s now a maturing young woman. That means that she has become sexually involved with a Comanche and has become part of that tribe. For Wayne’s character, it becomes an obsession of finding her and killing her because she’s spoiled goods now. These are all dark topics and disturbing in a lot of ways. A lot of people I know would describe it as a racist film. I get that, but it’s not so much a racist film as it is a film about a racist. That’s a big difference.
PKM: One or two more favorites?
WK Stratton: I have a fondness for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which was John Ford’s last important film. It’s a study in a tragedy in a way, with John Wayne being the man who really did shoot the outlaw Liberty Valance and Jimmy Stewart being the pretender to that title, then becoming a governor and a U.S. Senator based on his reputation as the killer. There are a lot of Shakespearian elements to it and it’s got a lot of Ford goofiness. Ford always had real goofy shit in his films. His sense of humor was not exactly mine but, then again, he was a guy born in the 1800s. What’s funny for previous generations isn’t so funny to us now. And Ford was like Shakespeare. He felt like when you’re dealing with a tragic topic, you have to introduce humor here and there, or it becomes melodrama quickly.
Another important early revisionist Western I like is one based on the novel The Ox-Bow Incident. It’s a film directed by Wild Bill Wellman, who was the first director to win an Academy Award with a silent film, one called Wings. He was a heroic figure from World War I, an aviator, and a man who no one messed with. The Ox-Bow Incident is about vigilantism and this American trend to get involved with that kind of shit. There’s a lynch mob that goes out and captures three guys who they think are murderers and rustlers, and rather than take them back to be processed through the court system, they lynch them. Shortly after they lynch the three “bad” guys, they find out that the person they thought was murdered really wasn’t murdered, and the cattle they thought was rustled was really legally purchased––there was a bill of sale. You have these vigilantes from a small town who suddenly have blood on their hands. The Ox-Bow Incident stars a very young Henry Fonda and a very young Harry Morgan. It’s a powerful, powerful film even today. It’s the film that got Sam Peckinpah interested in filmmaking, because it hit him so hard. It says a lot about American culture and it’s vigilante madness.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)-trailer:
PKM: Why does death always seem to be so close by in Westerns?
WK Stratton: It really was the frontier. Food was not always available. People literally starved to death. In fact, starvation is what destroyed most of the Comanche Nation, more so than any of the guns of Texas Rangers or the U.S. Cavalry or any of that stuff. It was simple starvation out on the plains when buffalo herds started to disappear. Having food was not something you could take for granted. There was also little in the way of effective law enforcement throughout much of the frontier West. People settled things themselves and often settled them wrongly. Innocent people were killed. That happened a lot. I know of a train wreck in Oklahoma involving the Santa Fe Railroad, which put a bridge over the Cimarron River and did not set the footings deep enough into bedrock to make it secure. Railroad companies were more concerned with getting track laid and connecting lines than they were in safety. One day, while the Cimarron was in flood stage, a passenger train was going over that bridge when the whole thing gave way. Dozens of people drowned in that. That kind of specter of death was always there. Schoolhouse fires. You read about those a lot in the West, where children were burned alive in schoolhouses. Fires killed a lot of people in the West because buildings were put up quickly. They were lumber buildings, with no electricity. The lighting inside those buildings was oil lamps, kerosene lamps. Those lamps were easily knocked over and kerosene spreads out burning; wooden floor, wooden walls, wooden ceilings and, boom, there you go. There wasn’t any good firefighting equipment or medical care in much of the West. Children especially got hit hard with death from disease and accident because there were no skilled physicians around to help them. Everybody knew death. Everybody knew people who had died. It was rare for you to go a year without knowing people who died, just because of those circumstances. Of course, at that time, it was much more a reality everywhere in the country for all of those same reasons. Sanitation wasn’t good in places like New York. And you see what happens in places like San Francisco in 1906, when the earthquake hit. They had buildings built without any thought to standing up to earthquakes, and the natural gas lines that had been put in the ground ruptured and caused massive fires. All of that was part and parcel of being on the frontier. Death was always there.
PKM: What do Westerns tell us about our society?
WK Stratton: The great summation of that would be the film High Noon, where society at large is shown as basically being cowardly and corrupt. There’s a point in High Noon when it comes down to a battle between good and evil, and the message is you really can’t trust other people that much––you have to take on these battles yourself. I don’t know if you’ve seen High Noon, but Gary Cooper plays a marshal in a territory town and word arrives that an outlaw, who’s been released from prison, is coming back with his gang to wreak revenge and kill the marshal, who sent him away. The marshal/Gary Cooper character has no deputies or anything. In fact, he’s about to get married and hang up the job but the town is facing this threat. He tries to get support from the town to help him meet these outlaws and they won’t do it. Because of cowardice, greed and corruption, it ends up him alone. That’s a theme of the West. It’s you alone. Gary Cooper ends up shooting the guys in the gang and then the town asks him to stay. He takes the badge off, throws it in the dirt and then gets in the carriage and leaves. I think that epitomizes what the Western says about society. It’s almost a libertarian point of view, that you have to take care of yourself and that you have to take care of your family and that you can’t depend on the government or anyone to help you out. It’s pretty much you against the world.
Our conversation carried on to other topics, with Stratton mentioning several other memorable Westerns: Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and its re-make, Colorado Territory; Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind; Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West; Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and The Lusty Men; John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre; Howard Hawk’s Red River; Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales; and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)-Robert Altman, director-trailer:
By email, he also described working with Larry McMurtry ten years ago on a piece for the Dallas Morning News featuring an excerpt from Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, a part-memoir and part-cultural mirror McMurtry wrote at age 60. Stratton noted, “Larry was proudest of his nonfiction. The only novel of his that he really felt satisfied with was Terms of Endearment. I didn’t know him well. I respected him enormously and was saddened when he died. Larry was the same age as my mother, who died about six months before he did. And they were both roughly the same age as Charley.”
PART THREE: THE VORTEX
It’s odd how every conversation involving Charley Plymell opens another door. Plymell can be described as a distinctly Western author, his hard-to-find Last of the Moccasins and Tent Shaker Vortex Voice both touring what once was an ancient sea floor, a landscape that we now experience deserts and plains. Following Plymell’s work led me to a University-of-Kansas-hosted website, Beats in Kansas: The Beat Generation in the Heartland. That site, dedicated to “the creative souls have been left out of the ‘official’ history of the period”, introduced me to George Laughead, its founder and architect. Laughead is a former Boston-based magazine publisher, who found himself back in his home state of Kansas at age 40, caring for an aging parent and wondering what was next. A University of Kansas graduate and teaching assistant, Laughead reconnected to a former history professor as the Internet became “a thing”, leading him to become part of HTML creator Tim Berners-Lee’s Virtual Library Management Committee. Laughead’s involvement there has resulted in his helping to build out the Virtual Library’s American History archive, including one on the American West.
When we spoke last month, Laughead said he started the Beat site because he had “endless space at KU because of the professor, and it was fun.” His connection to Beat history goes back to his early-1960s high school days, when he picked up a paperback edited by Seymour Krim called The Beats, that presented the work of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane Di Prima, Ray Bremser, Ted Joans, Gary Snyder and William Burroughs, among others. In the fall of 1970, Laughead taught “Electronic Media and Society” at KU, a liberal arts course that used William Burrough’s Nova Express as required reading. One of his students was freshman James Grauerholz, who Laughead says had already been reading Burroughs, and who later became the author’s lover, muse and heir. In talking about that era, Laughead explained, “It’s a long story, Lawrence from ‘67 to ‘72. It was exactly the right time to meet everybody, from Clay Wilson, who’s just passed on, to George Kimball, Charley Plymell and Jim McCrary, who all worked at the Abington Book Shop; Bruce Connor, Dennis Hopper and Roxie Powell; Glenn Todd, Alan Russo and Bob Branaman. It was a vortex.” Allen Ginsberg co-opted the phrase “Wichita Vortex” for his anti-war poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, but the idea of an expressive, expansive vortex existing in the West, and particularly in Kansas, is undeniable. Laughead’s description of his personal history puts that mysterious force in plain sight.
PKM: Your family’s been in Kansas a long time.
George Laughead: Yes. My grandfather was born in 1880 in Ohio, but his mother passed within a couple of weeks of his birth. My great-grandfather and his second wife came out to Southwest Kansas in 1885. He was a doctor, the first doctor in Coldwater, Kansas. He built down there, and eventually my grandfather ends up in Dodge City as a young man working for a guy who owns a chain of banks. At that point, you could print money, federal money, and so there are actually bills printed for Dodge City Bank that my grandfather signed. I’ve never been able to find one but they’re out there somewhere. Anything with Dodge City on it always seems to be desired by certain groups of people.
PKM: When I think of Dodge City, Gunsmoke comes to mind. What do you remember of all that?
George Laughead: We were fascinated by why men and women, and kids our age, would come to Dodge. We didn’t watch Gunsmoke. We knew it was fiction. There were no mountains near Dodge. Nothing around us looked like how it did on TV, but all these kids watched Gunsmoke and came to check out Dodge City. At night, in the summers, one of the great high school activities, and in my college years, too, was hanging out at the tourist spots––Front Street, Boot Hill, replicas of the frontier town but fairly real––and meet these kids. We’d take them home and have our parents feed them. I got to know a lot of teenagers from across the U.S. and from other countries who were coming through. Their interest in us was our fascination.
PKM: By seeking out Dodge City, by seeking out “The West”, what were they really seeking?
George Laughead: The courage of independence, I guess. The most popular writer that Adolf Hitler liked was Karl May. He wrote books about the American Old West and he’d never been here. His books were total fiction. I tried to read Karl May, but god it’s difficult. They’re this ode to escapism, to the honorable native, to living out of society, to something that never happened.
PKM: Did you like Westerns as a kid? Did you watch them?
George Laughead: I didn’t like them, but you had to watch them. That stuff was everywhere. I still have the hat Roy Rogers signed for me when he visited Dodge when I was five. It was a simpler day. TV stars would come and you’d have Gunsmoke people staying at people’s houses because those were nicer accommodations than any hotel. TV stars hanging out with the locals. Stars did that then. We enjoyed the reflected glory of it. Dodge changed a name of a street to Gunsmoke Street. I still have pictures I took, when I was 11 or something, of James Arness changing the sign. There’s a statue to Gunsmoke in Dodge. People think it’s real.
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was the big TV show if you were from Dodge. That one, I liked watching. That whole Wyatt Earp myth came from a book, called Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart Lake. He generated the myth of Wyatt Earp that people have come to know. Stuart Lake was working for the Saturday Evening Post when he came out to Dodge to cover the Last Pioneer Parade in 1929. That parade was part of the opening of a new city hall and about 200 people who were left from the Southwest Kansas of the 1880s were there, guys in their 70s and 80s. Stuart Lake came out, covered the parade, and became enamored with everything he heard about Wyatt Earp, who had passed away earlier that year. He interviewed Josephine Earp, Mrs. Wyatt Earp, his widow, or common-law widow. She didn’t like the book Stuart Lake put out, but in it he rebirths sharp-shooting lawman Wyatt Earp, who was really a gambler and a dealer.
PKM: Life, death and guns always seem to be close by in Westerns.
George Laughead: I always try to correct the total bullshit history of all these shootouts in the streets of Dodge. It didn’t happen that way. Okay? There are maybe three gunfights that matter. If you were going into bars in Dodge City, you had to check your guns. There was a system. I don’t know the methodology of the system, but you couldn’t legally carry guns into the City of Dodge. Let the NRA suck on that for a while. On the other hand, I’ve had a rifle since I was 12. That was not thought of as anything odd, a 12-year old with a .22 rifle. You went out and shot at targets. I never hunted. Of course, I had my grandfather’s pistol, and he carried one at one time, but he wasn’t a cowboy. Most cowboys didn’t have guns because they were expensive and easy to lose. The biggest cause of death for the cattle drovers, the cowboys, was drowning in rivers––getting cattle across rivers. Carrying a gun doing that wouldn’t make any sense. [Chuckles] Guns in Dodge. Dodge didn’t allow guns to be carried around. Who the fuck would want 6,000 drunk cowboys with guns?
PKM: What do Western stories tell us about our society?
George Laughead: What people overlook, what made the West work at all, was a sense of honor. If you cheated someone in a town of 6,000, everybody knew it almost immediately. There’s a moral balancing ground there. That, and people left each other alone. I sense the interference now. In Kansas, if it’s fun, it’s illegal. If it’s not fun, it’s legal. That’s my current position on Kansas. Kansas has ended up the most pinch-nosed state in the union on a lot of levels. To fall back on the Old West myth, in the period of the 1870s and ‘80s, prostitution was legal; liquor was easily available. When we got to Prohibition, Kansas was the last state to come out of it, in 1948 or something. It’s always been a puritanical state, and the right-to-lifers have made Wichita their capital.
PKM: As it gets more modern, Kansas interacts with the Beats a lot. How does that happen?
George Laughead: James [Grauerholz] bringing William back to Lawrence, in ’81 or ’82, seals the deal. Once William was here, the rest of us started working around that. Before then, it’s the Vortex thing. It pretty much falls back to the writers and artists who went to California in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That Vortex connects to a tribal, native-related mythology. There’s an actual place I’ve been to in Wichita that’s really the Vortex. It’s a bridge over water that held power for the native tribes. Our vortex in Lawrence, the blue dot in a red sea, was John Fowler’s Abington Book Shop, where we could buy things from City Lights that otherwise wouldn’t have been there.
PKM: Do you remember the film How the West Was Won?
George Laughead: Oh, yes. It was a comedy. Nothing happened like that on the frontier. Ever. It had that Old Testament element we tend to like in America. Struggle, punishment; revenge; God.
PKM: What’s been the change in the West?
George Laughead: The importance of the small towns. Back in the day, each town typically had a post office, a school, a bank and several churches, and was able to have an affect on culture within the state. In Kansas, you knew that although you were isolated, you were close to Topeka, the capital. When you went there, the legislators would talk to you. Everybody was equal in that circuit. Now, if you look to the small towns, they’re barely necessary to exist at all. That’s a difference. The small towns don’t have the weight and the capital. They don’t even control their farms or their water rights anymore. They don’t control what’s become most important: the money flow.
How The West Was Won (1962)-trailer: