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Taking Aim at Jesse James & History

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

The twangy-voiced Missourian who cried over his region's defeat in the Civil War was such a mythic and bewildering figure. Snaking his way into the history of his own era and beyond, giving himself to the dreams and nightmares of little boys on the 1870s American prairie. His very name seemed to hang out in the open air like a menace, with an unspoken threat and hardness around it. As if it were a Colt .45 in a holster lying on a barren wooden table. Jesse James.

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Sometimes, by candlelight, he scanned books written about him -- the popular paperbacks that fancied up his exploits and that children devoured and traveling book salesmen guarded as if shielding sacraments. Then he resumed his murdering and robbing ways.

Contradictions rolled across his short life, blurring facts.

He was pasty and short and his face was pockmarked. But women who had never laid an eye on him were convinced he was the handsomest of men.

A belief circulated that he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Not so.

He did have some manners, and in noisy frontier towns he was spotted strolling with a walking stick.

But President Ulysses S. Grant thought him a lowlife and wanted him brought to justice. And a nobody named Robert Ford -- a Jesse James groupie in his early 20s, a follower dazzled by his fame and glory -- shot an unarmed James, 34, from behind on April 3, 1882, and became famous himself. He flashed his reward money. He signed autographs, squired belles and starred in a stage show about the shooting. Ford had secretly met with Missouri governor Tom Crittenden, striking a deal to keep his freedom if he were able to kill James, and in doing so, he eclipsed the legend of Jesse James -- for a while. In time, his world turned dark; the populace turned on Ford. Catcalling his name, spitting where he had stepped.

And it was that cold and mesmerizing fact -- how fame can turn inside out, how a legend flows outward from death, how a coward lives and breathes -- that attracted novelist Ron Hansen years ago. And, more recently, attracted Brad Pitt, who stars (opposite Casey Affleck) in the cinematic version of Hansen's 1983 novel with the bullet-blunt title: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The movie, which opens in New York and Los Angeles later this month, is more a character study of the two men than western shootout fare.

"When I was starting to write the book," says Hansen, "one of my colleagues said that the 19th century has really been influenced by two James families: William and Henry James in the East, and Frank and Jesse James in the West. They shaped American consciousness."

And as Hansen was writing, assassination attempts were in the headlines. Someone tried to kill President Gerald Ford. Someone tried to kill President Ronald Reagan. Every attempt brought forth the ageless headlines of other assassins: that of Martin Luther King Jr., of Huey Long. A roll call of history's fathomless wanderers, assassins down through history, up to modern times, who got themselves in the headlines.

Assassins calmly walking; assassins looking for fame. As if they were but undiscovered talents.

"It is not always hatred," Hansen says of the killers and their motives. "Sometimes it's hero worship. I wanted to look at the intricacies between Robert Ford and Jesse James."


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