Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Interview with Author Julia Bricklin on America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith

Julia Bricklin's biography on America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith will be released on April 27, 2017. Julia has authored a dozen articles in both commercial and academic journals, including Civil War Times, Financial History, Wild West, True West and California History. She also spent several years contributing to Bricklin grew up in southern California, obtained a journalism degree at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and worked in the TV/film industry for fifteen years before obtaining her Master’s degree in history at California State University Northridge. In addition to serving as associate editor of California History, the publication of the California Historical Society, she lectures in history at a Southern California college. 

The following is an interview conducted with Julia Bricklin regarding her biography, America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith.   

Judith: Julia, I'm a history buff with a particular love of U.S. history; and I love the old west history and its mythology. Shockingly, I never heard of Lillian Smith. Where was she hiding in our romanticized old west past and how did you find her? 

Julia: I was surprised to find Lillian. People ask me all the time how I discovered her, and embarrassingly, I don’t remember. I must have been researching notable women in California history and somehow stumbled over her. What I do remember is being shocked that no one had written anything about her, except as a footnote to Annie Oakley’s story.

Judith: Once you discovered Lillian's story, what set you on the path to writing the magazine article (the original article on Lillian appeared in Wild West magazine in February, 2015) and eventually the biography?

Julia: The more I learned about Lillian, the more I felt a responsibility to tell her ‘real’ story. I wanted to see if I could pull all the disparate pieces of her life together into one complete, coherent story, and thought it best to try with a shorter version. Greg Lalire, editor at Wild West magazine, was gracious enough to consider my submission and published the article in its February, 2015 issue. By the time it was printed, however, I’d already started writing the book. I felt very strongly that she deserved to have a proper biography.

Judith: Both Lillian and Annie Oakley were part of the Wild West show business life, along with Buffalo Bill Cody. It's intriguing to think of their competitiveness. Was it anything like the feud world between the Golden Age of Hollywood's Joan Crawford and Bette Davis? Describe the relationship between Lillian and Annie.

Julia: Lillian Smith first met Annie Oakley when the former was only 15-years-old, in 1886. Buffalo Bill Cody discovered Smith at a Northern California shooting competition, and (no pun intended) was simply blown away by her talent. He signed her to his Wild West Show, and told newspapers that he had found a new sharpshooting star. The problem was, Cody already had a sharpshooting star, and much like studio heads are famous for doing in more contemporary times failed to smooth things over with Oakley before Smith’s arrival.

The rancor between Oakley and Smith only lasted for the eighteen months or so they were with Cody together. They occasionally took veiled swipes at each other in the press after 1888, but really, the newspapers made more of this feud than either of the women. I like to think of their time together as more like Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield than Crawford and Davis. Oakley was wiser, like Loren. Mansfield got on her nerves because she wore flashy clothing and sort of blundered onto the scene, at least, when she first started out in show business much like Lillian.

My book is factual, but I take some liberty near the end and briefly wonder what might have happened if Oakley and Smith had spent any time together near the end of their lives and swapped stories. They might have had more in common than they thought, and one could make an analogy between them and the feud between Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds complete with reconciliation. I’ll leave it to readers to decide who would be Taylor and who would be Reynolds! 

To sum, I believe Lillian thought she might be getting a colleague or an older sister type when she joined Buffalo Bill with Oakley, and probably had no idea (at first) how irritating and threatening she was to Oakley. She learned pretty quickly that they were not going to have a collegial relationship, and acted defensively like any teenager would. I guess that’s show biz! 

Judith: After all of the research into this world, did you consider doing an updated bio on Annie Oakley?

Julia: Never. Shirl Kasper and Glenda Riley have written definitive works on Oakley, and many others have written aspects of her life quite well. Wonderful staff such as Marilyn Robbins, Eileen Litchfield, and others at the Darke County Historical Society/National Annie Oakley Center helped me tremendously with documents pertaining to Oakley and Smith. No one knows Oakley better than those folks.

Judith: Julia, where does your love of history come from? Did you have a love affair with the Old West throughout your life or did this passion for this time period come about in recent years?

Julia: I don’t know where my love of history comes from exactly, but I do know that I was the quiet, reclusive kid growing up and retreated with books much of my day. Although, my father and I used to watch a ton of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies together. We'd watch reruns on the weekends!

Judith: You wrote the biography using family records, press accounts, interviews and other resources. What were the other resources? What was your research process? How did you find the family records?   

Julia: Smith did not diary her existence like Oakley and others did. This made things a bit difficult. I had to learn how to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and that “someone else” was born almost exactly 100 years before me. I had to turn to the people she knew during her lifetime, tracking down their own records, finding and interviewing their descendants, and turning to scholars of vaudeville and wild west entertainment.  

For example: I knew Lillian lived for a time in Los Banos, California. The wonderful people at the Ralph Milliken Museum in Los Banos found transcripts of oral interviews with pioneers of Los Banos. Those transcripts discussed the amazement of townspeople at the shooting abilities of a little girl in their midst. Never assume that if something is not online, it does not exist. 

Conversely, there are all kinds of digitized records out there now, and more are being added every day. For example, the University of Iowa Libraries has added Keith/Albee vaudeville records to their online presence. These records gave me a glimpse into Lillian and her then-husband’s earning ability in the early 1900s.

I can’t emphasize how important it is to master the art of snail mail. In so many situations, people called or wrote me back with their family history and/or records simply, because they were pleased to receive an actual paper letter. I would always follow up with a paper thank-you note. In a few cases, I was blessed to start long-term friendships with some of the families who had helped me. I could never have written this book without them. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.  

Judith: Buffalo Bill Cody was a showman and obviously a wealthy one. When I read he offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could challenge Lillian's shooting skills it made me think about what that amount would be valued at in today's dollars. He travelled with his troupe internationally as well as domestically.  What else did you learn studying this early show business entertainment group? 

Julia: Well, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody could sometimes be full of beans, and everybody knew it to some extent. At any given time, he could be flush or broke. I assumed he just made the $10,000 offer, because it was good press, but apparently he told colleagues that he would like to see people try to best her. Whether he would have actually handed that amount over to anyone for beating her well, we’ll never know. All we know is that no one claimed it.

Judith: Lillian reinvented herself as a Native American named Princess Wenona. What is the backstory behind this change? Why? This would of course be perceived as somewhat politically incorrect today. On the other hand, it would define contemporary times in the idea of being what you define yourself as. How do you see it? 

Julia: There were several things going on with this ethnic reinvention. My research has led me to conclude that transforming into Princess Wenona accomplished many things for Lillian. For starters, having a Native American identity (albeit one of a “rehabilitated” one who lived among whites) allowed her to play into the popular stereotypes of that time. Secondly, it allowed her to move around quite a bit better. Lil’s weight fluctuated up and down, and since she was wearing a tunic and not a tight Victorian dress, she could have the flexibility she needed to gallop on a horse and shoot. Third, this reinvention allowed Smith to differentiate herself from not only Oakley, but also an emerging class of “college–educated cowgirls,” like Lulu Parr and Theresa Russell. Last, but not least, I think Lillian’s reinvention as Wenona allowed her to keep her somewhat fluid romantic life a little more mysterious, and therefore immune from criticism that would have certainly have been aimed at her at this time. 

Judith: Where did Lillian learn how to be an expert rifle shot and trick rider? 

Julia: Lillian had tremendous innate ability, as evidenced by her shooting of game for fun when she was a tiny child living in Mono County, California, in the wilds on the border of California and Nevada. Her father was an excellent marksman and so was her older brother Charles. The family moved to Merced County when she was about 7 or 8. At that time, in the late 1870s, cattle barons Henry Miller and Charles Lux were able to reroute hundreds of miles of the San Joaquin River to irrigate farm and grazing land in the Central Valley of California. The problem for farmers was that geese, ducks, and other waterfowl would swoop down and eat all their seed. So, Miller and Lux hired Lillian’s father to kill these birds wholesale. Lillian traveled along these canals with her father and brother, and shoot alongside them.  

Judith: Julia, can you give us a brief personal life story of Lillian? What was her family life like? Did she have a great love in life? 

Julia: Lillian Frances Smith’s parents moved to California about ten years after the Gold Rush started. Her father, Levi, was a gifted carpenter and also an expert hunter. Lillian spent most of her childhood until age 10 in California’s Central Valley, in a small town on the San Joaquin River. After she had beaten most of the adults around her home town, Levi started entering her in competitions closer to the coast, such as those in Santa Cruz, Watsonville, and Gilroy, eventually making their way to San Francisco and Sacramento.  

After touring with Buffalo Bill for two years, Lillian came home and back to the stage-parent clutches of her father. The family toured the Western U.S., living off Lillian’s shooting prize money and opening galleries in some towns using Lil’s name as a branding tool. It was perhaps to get away from her controlling father that Lil married her first two husbands. Both of her marriages were short-lived; however, Frank Hafley, her third, was a serious love. By all accounts, the two were very much in love (at least initially) and were excellent business and travel partners. As a matter of fact, there’s no evidence they legally married.  

Smith and Hafley had a couple of their own traveling shows together, in between stints with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West and the 101 Ranch Wild West. Smith had short and longer term loves after her romantic relationship ended with Hafley, but I do not believe she had any that were nearly as healthy. They remained good friends and showbiz partners even when Hafley married a cowgirl who worked with both of them.  

Smith’s last paramour, Western painter Emil Lenders, was sort of a relationship of convenience. They were attracted to one another and worked reasonably well together, but they made some poor money decisions. Both desired a certain amount of wanderlust in their life, and each was happy to give it to the other partner. That relationship ended a few years before Lillian died in 1930. Lenders eventually took up with another woman and married her, though many accounts indicate she was perfectly happy with this outcome, because she got to keep their animals. 

Judith: Julia, do you have a favorite era of U.S. history?  

Julia: I’ve always gravitated toward the history of the United States in the 1880s, because it was such a divergent time. The East coast was grappling with cities bursting at their seams and all of the issues that come with trusts, robber barons and immigration. At the same time, people were desperately seeking land and new opportunities in the West as the frontier was rapidly closing. It's an interesting juxtaposition for me.  

Judith: Who are your personal favorite characters from the short period of history defined as the old west? 

Julia: There are so many to choose from and so many flawed ones. Of course, so many people of color are completely left out of histories of the West, but I think lawman and gambler Bat Masterson was an interesting fellow. 

Judith: Do you have a favorite western film? 

Julia: My favorite western film is The Sons of Katie Elder, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin. I get a lot of eye rolls for this one, but I think there’s something primal about a bunch of kids who want to do right by their mother. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking about my own kids. In any case, I’ve always loved this movie. Coincidentally, the movie is loosely based on the Marlowe brothers, and it turns out that when he retired, Lillian’s third husband Frank Hafley bought a ranch in Ouray, Colorado that belonged to the brothers. 

Judith: If you could choose the great American western, what would it be? 

Julia: At an earlier time, I would have said The Shootist with John Wayne and Lauren Bacall, but this has been supplanted by True Grit with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. It's a wonderful movie, with all the violence and wit and well, grit that one expects from an updated classic.  

Judith: How long did it take you to write the book on Lillian? How many hours per day did you work on the book?

Julia: It took me two years to both research and write the book. I probably spent on average 4 hours per day (every day) either writing or researching it.

Judith: Will you be going on the road to promote the book? If so, where can people hear you speak on Lillian's life and work?

Julia: I will be speaking at various places in California over the summer. I'll also be in Cody, Wyoming in August at the Buffalo Bill Centennial sponsored by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. I will post speaking engagements with their dates at

Judith: Since we met while we both worked at the ABC Television Network, I can't help but ask what you are currently watching on television? 

Julia: Several shows would be on the list. The Americans on FX, Designated Survivor, Blackish and The Goldbergs on ABC, Taken on NBC and The Walking Dead on AMC.  

America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith by Julia Bricklin will be available for purchase on April 27, 2017 and it is available for pre-order through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  

You can pre-order the book at Barnes & Noble or at Amazon:
                                      Julia Bricklin, Author
                               America's Best Female Sharpshooter: 
                            The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith 

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