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Interview: Author Tom Clavin Brings The Wild West To East Hampton

Courtesy of Tom Clavin

This Saturday evening the East Hampton Library on Long Island will hold its annual fundraising event. It’s called Authors Night and it’s organized by Alec Baldwin.

The event is lavish. A cocktail reception followed by several dinner parties where 100 authors are scheduled to mingle with 500 participants. Among those authors will be Tom Clavin. His works include military histories on the Korean and Vietnam Wars, profiles of sports figures and co-authoring a New York Times bestseller about the Sioux warrior Red Cloud called The Heart of Everything That Is. His latest work is Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West.

Tom Clavin recently sat down to talk with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Hello, Tom.

Hello. Thanks for having me on your program.

Is this your first year participating in Authors Night?

No, my recollection is my first year was 2007, so I guess this is a 10-year anniversary for me and you can imagine it was a much smaller affair then. It was just like, let’s get a few authors together and put the books on display. As you mentioned in your intro, it’s become quite the lavish event.

Why is an event like this important?

Well, there used to be an event called “Meet the Writers” that was held at the Elaine Benson Gallery for decades. You know in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. And they gave out the John Steinbeck Award there to people like Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson and E.L Doctorow, and when Elaine Benson died that event sort of fell by the wayside. It wasn’t an event that represented the literary history and present of the East End of Long Island. So some bright person associated with the East Hampton Library said, “Why don’t we do it and make it a fundraiser for us?” That has probably raised over the past ten years over $1 million to the library. But I think it’s important to the literary community because it gives them a chance to put on display who are the people affiliated with eastern Long Island and what are they writing and let’s meet them. Let’s get them to subscribe to our books. Let’s have a conversation.

How did you come about to write your latest book about Dodge City?

Dodge City fascinated me because it was where Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson who are only in their 20s and are still young men, it’s where their reputations began. This is way before Tombstone, the O.K Corral. Who wants to watch or read about the O.K. Corral? We’ve done it a million times. But this is when they were young men and best friends and had each other’s back and sort of set up a boilerplate justice system that was an example to the rest of the American Frontier.

In the author’s note of your book you say that a lot of what people think they know about Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson is wrong. People of a certain age like me think of Wyatt Earp as a handsome Hugh O’Brian and of course the debonair Gene Barry being Bat Masterson.

Well, yes and no. I mean the Wyatt Earp that most of us are familiar with is the Wyatt Earp of Tombstone. He was much more mature and self-assured lawman who was always on the right side of a fight and that was not the Wyatt Earp of Dodge City. He was a young man recovering from a couple tragedies in his life. Meeting up with Bat Masterson who becomes his best friend. Bat was an adventurer. An explorer, an army scout, a buffalo hunter and the two of them…they found were in a city, that justifiable was called the wickedest city in all of the American West. Anything goes. The laws just were rampant. And basically they were given a couple badges and a couple of guns and were told to do something about it. And they did.

There is a third character in your narrative and that’s Dodge City. Many people tend to link Earp and Masterson with Tombstone, Arizona, not Dodge City, Kansas, because of the famous gunfight at O.K Corral. What do you want your readers to know about Dodge City?

Dodge City was really the crossroad for the American frontier in the 1860s, especially the 1870s. The railroad came in so that meant all of your ranchers were coming up from Texas, as far south as the Rio Grande, bringing their cattle through to Kansas where they put them on the railroad cars, sold them for lots of money and all of these cowboys had lots of money in their pocket and they were dusty and thirsty for 8-10 weeks on the trail so that became a very raucous, lawless place.

The book also includes the James Brothers, Billy the Kid, Belle Starr, the famous female outlaw. They all at one time had adventures in Dodge City. So Dodge City I think is a place that a lot of people, they know the expression and even to this day will say, “Well, it’s time to get out of Dodge,” and we know what that means. That means it’s time to get away from the trouble but where did that come from? So a lot of parts of the book is the troubles and the shootouts and the confrontations and the excitements that were Dodge City. 

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.