By Judith Coburn
What was the best book the actor Ethan Hawke read last year? Calamity Jane’s Letters to her Daughter. (The second was Berkeley writer Greil Marcus’s A History of Rock ‘n Roll in Ten Songs) When Alta Gerrey, founder of Shameless Hussy Press, the first feminist publisher in America, heard about those choices, she rushed to her favorite Copymat on College Avenue to run off 50 new copies of the Calamity Jane book. Shameless Hussy had initially published Calamity Jane’s letters in paperback in 1976; its first edition is now selling on Amazon for $300. Hawke’s endorsement was followed by a recent shout-out from a blogger at The Paris Review.
“Calamity Jane is a feminist icon,” said Alta, who prefers to go by her first name as she did as a poet for many years on the Berkeley poetry scene.
Alta said Calamity Jane has taken her licks from mainstream biographers and filmmakers, like the men who made HBO’s Deadwood. “They just depict her as a drunk and a whore,” she said. Historians of the West quarrel over whether she was really married to Wild Bill Hickok and whether he is the father of Janey to whom the letters are written. Some regard the letters as fiction.
Alta, a cowgirl from Reno and a Cal drop-out, first heard about the letters back in the early 1970s from a feminist scholar who had a set copied from the Montana Historical Society. (The originals later burned in a fire at the Historical Society). Alta had founded Shameless Hussy Press in 1969 in Oakland. She had already published the first edition of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf;” Susan Griffin’s first two books; Mitsuye Yamada’s memoir in poetry about life in an internment camp; and Pat Parker’s lesbian poetry. For 20 years, Shameless Hussy migrated around the East Bay as Alta toted her AB Dick 360 small offset press through three marriages and countless living quarters before coming to rest in Berkeley for its last four years, 1985-89. Among many books of poetry, Shameless Hussy published children’s coloring books drawn by children.
In her introduction to Calamity Jane’s letters, Alta points out that photographs show Calamity Jane dressing as a man “to open doors they closed on her as a woman: she was a muleskinner, a scout, the only woman worker on the North Pacific Railroad, a gambler, a prospector, and she drove a stage. She also tried more acceptable roles: cook, hooker, show woman, nurse and wife.”
Many accounts from the time report Calamity Jane saved many lives, nursing miners and cowboys during the great small pox epidemic in Dakota Territory in 1876. Alta writes, “her reputation for self-defense was also legendary: one man touched her without asking and she shot his hat off, warning ‘next time it will stay on your head’.”
Whether fact or fiction, Calamity Jane’s letters are a lively account of the rowdy life on the American frontier in the 1880s. She writes that she saved Wild Bill’s life when she happened on outlaws plotting to kill him. Wild Bill survived the ambush with Calamity Jane’s help. Later he was said to observe that he shot to kill but Jane shot to wound. She describes soldiers’ mutilated bodies on the battlefield after Custer’s last stand in grisly detail, adding that it was hardly surprising since Custer’s men had themselves savaged Indian villages.
The letters are also full of longing for a reunion with her daughter, Janey.
Calamity Jane had given her daughter to friends who could raise her back east. She knew her life as a rootless adventurer hardly suited her for motherhood, especially after Janey’s father, Wild Bill Hickcock, died in a gunfight. But Calamity Jane wanted to stay connected to Janey; between tales of gambling jackpots, drunken brawls, shoot-outs and her performance in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, the letters are full of love for Janey. Remembering a visit to her daughter, Calamity Jane writes how sad she felt when she realizes her friends have not told Janey she is her real mother. Many of the letters acknowledge that her wealthy friends hoped to protect Janey from Calamity Jane’s scandalous reputation.
The last letters are sad, the writing of a broken old woman, relieved only by some recipes of cakes and breads she baked for some outlaws she took in.
The first 2016 edition of the letters, now under the Tough Old Lady Publications imprint, were quickly snapped up. “I sold every copy I could get,” says Erik Heywood, owner of Book/Shop in Temescal Alley in Oakland, and a devoted fan of Alta’s. (It was Heywood who found the Ethan Hawke tribute in the New York Times, as well as the Paris Review blog posting). “But Alta is the distributor, which means she probably gave most of them away.”
In the best tradition of small-press publishers, Alta is never without a clutch of Shameless Hussy Press editions in her tote bag, pressing freebies of the kids’ coloring books on children and editions of her two cancer-survivor memoirs on adults she meets.
Alta has just run a new edition of the Calamity Jane letters off the copier. Inquire at Book/Store, 482 49th St., Oakland (510-907-9649), or order from Shameless Hussy Press, Box 5540, Berkeley, CA 94705 ($3.95+$3.00 postage and handling). Alta will also have a table at the Bay Area Book Festival.
Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $10 a month or even less, or by making a one-time contribution.