Friday, September 11, 2009

The Grande Dame of Western Literature

By Jean Henry Mead

While I was interviewing for my third book, Maverick Writers, I was devastated when Dorothy Johnson died in 1984 before I could make the trip to Montana to see her. I still have two of her letters tucked away as keepsakes, written on humorous stationery picturing Dorothy mounting a horse, her dog covering his eyes with his paws.

Miss Johnson is best known for three short stories that were adapted to film: “The Hanging Tree," which starred fellow Montanan Gary Cooper; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which partnered John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart; and “A Man Called Horse,” which was so successful that several sequels followed.

A prolific writer of stories set in the frontier West, she also wrote novels, non-fiction books and articles. “Lost Sister” won the 1956 Spur Award from Western Writers of America as “Best Short Story” of the year. Well known for her painstaking research of the pre-1890s West, she often said she preferred the 19th century to the 20th, “because we know how it all came out.” In her novels of Plains Indian life, Buffalo Woman and All the Buffalo Returning, she wrote about the changes of both landscape and lifestyle that resulted from white settlement of the western U.S.

While a senior at Whitefish High School, class of ’22, she began her professional writing career, serving as a stringer for The Kalispell Daily Inter Lake. She attended Montana State College, later renamed Montana State University, to major in pre-med until she realized that she would have to dissect a cat. Transferring to the University of Montana, she majored in English and was taken under the wing of Professor H.G. Merriam, who founded The Frontier, a campus literary magazine, for which Dorothy contributed articles throughout her college years, switching form poetry to prose. She then worked for nine years at Gregg Publishing Company before joining the staff of The Woman magazine as managing editor and contributor under a number of pseudonyms.

In her free time she continued to write fiction. Her first sale was in 1930 to the Saturday Evening Post, which paid her $400 for a story about Bonnie George Campbell. It was eleven years before she sold another.

In 1950 she resigned her editorial post with The Woman to return to Whitefish as a reporter-photographer for The Whitefish Pilot, but confessed that her reporting skills were inadequate because she was too shy to interview people she didn't know. But during the years she served as secretary-manager of the Montana Press Association (1953–1967), her successes as a novelist continued to grow. She was also teaching at her alma mater as an assistant professor of journalism. She later worked in New York for 15 years as a magazine editor before returning to Big Sky Country in 1950, where she taught magazine writing at the University of Montana.

A 1982 Writer’s Digest article written by Kathy Crump described Dorothy Johnson as “Petite, animated, witty, crusty and feisty” as well as someone who didn’t "fit the rough-and-tumble image of a teller of tales about outlaws and Indians and cowboys," although she kept a pistol nearby when writing western short stories.

“There’s something about a Colt .44 beside the typewriter that inspires me,” she said.

Branching out into novels and historicals when the western short story markets began to dry up, she sold her antique pistol collection, including her Colt .44, but kept a .38 “hawg laig,” loaded with scattershot, which she used to clear rattlesnakes from her land in Rattlesnake Gulch on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana.

Not all her books were about the West. Three of her later books were about Greece, which she called her "heart's home." She visited the country five times and said she was "just mad about it." She was "overwhelmed" by the reception she received in Athens during the showing of the film "A Man Called Horse." She said, laughing, "To think a kid from Whitefish was speaking in Athens, the city of Pericles and Socrates and Plato. Of course, they weren't there anymore, so Athens had to take what it could get."


Helen Ginger said...

She sounds like someone you would want to get to know, maybe sit in front of a fireplace with a glass of wine and talk with.

Straight From Hel

Jean Henry Mead said...

Yes, she was a trailer blazer (no pun intended) for a woman of her era, with a great sense of humor. I missed seeing her by just one week, one of the great disappointments of my writing career.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article about one of my favorite writers. I've watched the "Hanging Tree" many times.


Mark W. Danielson said...

I always love your stories, Jean. They're very informative and help keep writing in perspective.

Beth Terrell said...

Hm. I never tried putting a Colt beside my computer. Wonder if a Glock 9 millimeter would work.

Chester Campbell said...

A great non-interview, Jean. We get to know her pretty well anyway.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Mark. I'm fascinated by successful people and I don't mean financially successful.

Jean Henry Mead said...


I'm not sure whether Dorothy Johnson was serious about the gun by her typewriter. She was probably joking.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Chester. I wish it had been an interview. :)

Beth Terrell said...

That's okay, Jean. I was joking, too. Though if it would make me a brilliant writer, I'd try it:)

Anonymous said...


What a fascinating story about a fascinating lady. I never heard of her until I read your article. Thanks for sharing!