The truth about Calamity Jane

Doris Day made her a gender-bendin', pistol-packin' songthrush. Jane Russell stripped her down to her bloomers. But who was the real Calamity Jane?

David Thomson
Sunday 03 October 2004 00:00 BST

No one really knows why Martha Jane Cannary was called "Calamity Jane". Was she always getting into trouble? Or was she in the habit of exaggerating her troubles? Least gallant of all, there is the possibility that anyone looking as lean, mean, tough and "male" as Martha Jane (1852-1903) had a God-given "calamity" all her own. Whichever way you look at it, it's hard to believe the name had anything to do with what Doris Day may have meant when she sang "Once I had a Secret Love" in the 1953 film Calamity Jane - unless harbouring the love that dared not speak its name was itself regarded as a "calamity" in Dakota territory.

No one really knows why Martha Jane Cannary was called "Calamity Jane". Was she always getting into trouble? Or was she in the habit of exaggerating her troubles? Least gallant of all, there is the possibility that anyone looking as lean, mean, tough and "male" as Martha Jane (1852-1903) had a God-given "calamity" all her own. Whichever way you look at it, it's hard to believe the name had anything to do with what Doris Day may have meant when she sang "Once I had a Secret Love" in the 1953 film Calamity Jane - unless harbouring the love that dared not speak its name was itself regarded as a "calamity" in Dakota territory.

There's a picture of the real Ms Cannary taken in 1900, at the grave of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood. It's a large graveyard, proof of the notion that, while Deadwood was never a very large town, one of its main businesses was putting people in the ground before their time. Hickok, for instance, had been shot in the side of the head in 1876 by Jack McCall during a poker game (Hickok had been holding aces and eights - the dead man's hand). At the time, he was just 39. Of course, you "know" this in a roundabout way if you've ever seen Cecil B DeMille's The Plainsman (1937), where Gary Cooper is an adorable Hickok and Jean Arthur plays Calamity Jane - winsome, lovely, in tailored buckskins. They have the kind of romance that people had in movies of the 1930s, where the taciturn guy doesn't want to own up to love, but the girl is bursting to find her own feelings are requited. It's an act that Cooper and Arthur worked in an earlier film, another hit, Mr Deeds Goes to Town. So it's easier to think that Hickok and Jane were made for each other.

In the 1900 photograph, there's Jane, standing by the grave and its fancy iron fence, her broad-brimmed hat tilted back so the sun can fall on the rugged face and the mouth like a scar. She's smiling, but the mouth is clamped shut. Likely Ms Cannary didn't have the teeth for sentimental photography. She looks like a tough dame, held together by sun tan, rough whisky and red meat, who has been out in the wilds too long without benefit of cosmetics, doctoring or even the opportunity for regular bathing. She looks like someone who did whatever it took to survive, which could include tending bar, a little whoring, plus attaching herself to such notable figures as Hickok.

In life Martha Jane Cannary does not seem to have been romantically tied to Hickok; but there she is, 24 years after his death, posing by the grave as if to say, "Remember me, Bill". She said she was actually his widow and she wanted to be buried beside him. That came to pass a few years later. Maybe the "calamity" was losing Hickok so many years before her own demise. Maybe she just understood the legend business, and how a girl on her own in the West needed to ride whatever horse came by. It seems that she had a more lasting relationship - perhaps marriage - with a Clinton Burke. There may even have been a daughter.

These ruminations are prompted by the arrival on British television screens of the HBO series Deadwood, which attempts to re-animate the Western through social candour, foul language and a smoky de-romanticised look, in much the way The Sopranos put fresh, poisoned, blood into the gangster genre. In the recent Emmy awards, The Sopranos (also an HBO series) pretty well demolished Deadwood (it did get one award for director Walter Hill, who shot the pilot), but Deadwood has its followers and has won high critical praise for its determination to bring the great still photographs of the West to life.

Thus Deadwood, in the Dakota territory, is a place of impossible arid summers and frigid winters, with a mud season in between. It's no place to live, except that gold has been discovered in the Black Hills. Cue for song: it's Doris Day again, with "The Black Hills of Dakota", a paean to rustic beauty that even the South Dakota Tourist Board might shrink from. Deadwood the series doesn't go in for many songs or much background music. Harsh realism is the keynote, even to the extent of a kind of profane language that scholars of American history say is inaccurate (oaths in the 1880s were restrained and rather quaint). The proliferating Anglo-Saxon expletives in Deadwood owe more to The Sopranos, and the series as a whole (created by David Milch, who wrote for Hill Street Blues) has a dirty period look but a very modern feeling for local power, sexual grunge and gutter language. Deadwood's Calamity Jane (in the person of actress Robin Weigert) is in need of a medical check-up before modern male fantasies would start turning over. Keith Carradine plays Wild Bill Hickok, but he looks like a ghost, even before his early departure at the gambling table.

The real history of the West is greatly complicated (as an area for research) by the way in which people were telling stories about what happened - tall stories, enough to fill a ten-gallon hat - not just five minutes after the event, but five minutes before. Indeed, there are those who think the most authentically American thing about the West and "the wild West" was the cheerful, rampant fraud they proclaimed. It's not just a matter of Calamity Jane, near death, posing for photographs at the grave of a man she hardly knew.

In the 1880s, Edward L Wheeler was famous across the nation (but especially in the East) for dime novels about a hero named "Deadwood Dick". Dick was a great example to everyone of what a brave, forthright fellow could do in the West. He righted wrongs, he rescued ladies, he stood up to outlaws, he regularly joshed with Calamity Jane - and there's not much doubt but that he was an example who helped persuade many young men in Eastern cities (and not long out of Prussia, Bohemia, Poland and the Russias) to try their luck out West, and to spread population to that empty quarter. It is said that the popularity of Deadwood Dick helped persuade William F Cody (Buffalo Bill, to you) to set up his famous Wild West Show, a glorified rodeo/circus/royal tournament which played in most of the big cities of the US and of Europe, too.

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Trouble is, Deadwood Dick never existed. He was one more fiction to which the real Calamity Jane did her best to be attached, along with Wild Bill Hickok and the famous Deadwood stage. Cue for song? Yep, and for the most bizarre "Calam" of all (that's how she's actually hailed in the Doris Day film). That Calamity Jane was a huge hit, and it was made at the peak of Doris Day's career. There she is in the opening sequence, against glorious back projection, in her brown buckskins and her battered Union cap, riding shotgun on the Deadwood stage, bullwhipping the horses, picking off a few unruly Sioux, and belting out the song.

Doris's Jane is played very broad, in a Deadwood plainly located in the gentle, folded hills of California, in a town where Hickok is a bit of a dandy with a singing voice just like that of Howard Keel. Doris walks as if she's still on a horse. She inhabits saloons (though she only drinks sarsaparilla). She acts like the biggest tomboy of all time, so much so that you might be forgiven for thinking it's a man pretending to be a gal who wants to be a boy. And the forlorn purpose of the film - this is very much according to 1953 - is to make the gal behave like a lady. She makes friends with a saloon showgirl, and Doris (who had a famously good figure) suddenly realises that women have different bodies from men. In no time at all, she's turned her ramshackle cabin into a darling domesticated cottage, she's wearing dresses, she's done her hair and she's singing "Once I had a Secret Love" (for Bill, of course).

It's a movie in which the text is so obvious and coarse that many viewers are driven to search for subtext. So it's no surprise that by the Sixties, Calamity Jane had become a gay favourite (and "Secret Love" something of an anthem for the closeted). Why not? The pressure to convert Calam into a nicely behaved, marriageable sweetheart was close to hysterical. And so, Calamity Jane became a strange heroine for gay liberation and the battle for women's rights. After all, with a fond gaze, you could say to yourself - just consider the courage, the ingenuity, the independence (et cetera, et cetera) a Martha Jane Cannary needed to survive in the West.

No one could escape those feelings when looking at the graveyard picture, even if a closer acquaintance with the life-story suggests that whoring, lying, gambling and clinging to any great story she could find also played their part with Calamity Jane. But she does seem to have been alone most of the time, in much the way that pioneering wives and mothers were often left alone to guard the homestead, feed the children and watch for savages as the husband went off after gold - or escape. The history of the West is also full of self-enacted divorces, the break-up of families, of orphans, foundlings and of white women who ended up living with the Indians, and sometimes found that experience more settled than being with their wandering, white husbands.

For years Hollywood pounced on Calamity Jane as a chance to get an attractive star and a love story into Westerns. That's what accounts for Jean Arthur in The Plainsman, Frances Farmer in Badlands of Dakota, Jane Russell in The Paleface, Yvonne De Carlo in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass and Doris Day. But those castings come from the days in which Wyatt Earp was Burt Lancaster and Billy the Kid might be Paul Newman.

And in so many ways, of course, that was a kind of bogusness that audiences learned to mistrust. By the Sixties, the classic Western had been exposed not just as a pack of lies but as a terrible obstacle to understanding American history. Do not minimise that damage. Americans may have given up the Deadwood of Doris Day for the shabby setting of the TV series, but American history has not yet taken hold in the schools or public discourse in a useful way; and the neglect of liberties at home as much as the pursuit of tyrannical ways abroad is testament to that.

But the effort of revision and reform is underway. The history of the West now employs proper research: it is the careful scrutiny of retrieved bullets from the Battle of the Little Bighorn site that has established the actual suicide of many soldiers in Custer's doomed and once glorious Seventh Cavalry. And that battle occurred only two months before Hickok's death and a couple of hundred miles to the west. In other words, that escaping movement of the Sioux and Cheyenne under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse was because their treatied reservation in the Black Hills of Dakota had been defiled by gold miners and the empire of Deadwood.

The key movie in this process is Wild Bill, a very big flop, made in 1995. That picture was based on a play, Fathers and Sons, by Thomas Babe and on the novel Deadwood (1986), by Pete Dexter - that novel was very carefully researched, and nearly all its characters were provable and recorded figures in the real history of Deadwood. Its main achievement is to make Hickok plausible - an intransigent but honourable outsider, beset by failing eyesight and hounded by people who seek a reputation in out-gunning him (all thanks to a great performance by Jeff Bridges). But a secondary virtue was the rescue of Calamity Jane, presented as a rough, raw woman, appealing but uneducated, who has a rare talent for tending the sick in times of plague.

The movie was written and directed by Walter Hill, one of the few living directors who likes to make Westerns, and the man later hired to do the pilot for the TV series. It is full of real history: the way Hickok's long hair is in dire need of being washed; the actual onset of glaucoma; his mishap in shooting down a deputy who was coming to his aid; and Hickok's fondness for Jane being offset by his shyness and his belief that the glaucoma had come from associating with women of a certain profession. The Calamity Jane in Wild Bill is Ellen Barkin, and she is far and away the best Jane we have had so far - tough, uncouth, likely to slug a man and knock him over, mistress of the whip and the gun (and of several men in a town of transients), but pretty, pretty smart and undoubtedly sexy. One of the most valuable correctives to the nostalgia of historical studies, and the way in which we patronise the quaint past, is to recall that at any given moment in our history men and women were proud of how sexy they were.

There is poetic licence in Wild Bill, however. At one point, it is suggested that Hickok even joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - and so we see Bridges, very awkward on stage, with Keith Carradine's flamboyant Cody. I don't think that ever happened - the Wild West Shows did not start until several years after Hickok's death.

You might be forgiven for saying, "But didn't Calamity Jane work in the Wild West Show - along with Sitting Bull?" Well yes, Sitting Bull was there for a time, and somewhere in a memory torn between history and the movies I think I heard that Sitting Bull actually met Queen Victoria. But, no, the lady sharpshooter in the Wild West Show was Annie Oakley. Annie's real name was Phoebe Ann Moses (1860-1926). She never saw the real West until the show went there, but Annie is as vivid in history as Jane. Indeed, she's Barbara Stanwyck in Annie Oakley, Geraldine Chaplin in Buffalo Bill and the Indians (another flop, but a brilliant study of how show business changed the West), and much more than that, she is Annie Get Your Gun.

That was a 1946 Broadway sensation, music by Irving Berlin, book and lyrics by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, with Ethel Merman as Annie and songs like "I Got the Sun in the Morning", "Doin' What Comes Naturally" and "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun" - all sentiments that Calamity Jane might have subscribed to as easily as Annie Oakley. Judy Garland was meant to play the part in the 1949 movie, but illness made her drop out and Betty Hutton took over. So Hutton, Howard Keel and Louis Calhern (as Buffalo Bill) joined in the great song that says it all for these ladies and Americana, "There's No Business Like Show Business".

'Deadwood' continues on Sky One, Tuesdays, 10pm

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