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Winning the Wrangler

Volume VIII, Issue Two | June 2013

Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison

I’ve never received an award that hasn’t surprised and thrilled me. (Okay, so I haven’t gotten that many awards. Maybe that’s why I’m always so surprised and thrilled.) But no award has brought more pride and pleasure than the 2012 Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. I won in the juvenile fiction category for The Quilt Walk.

To say I was stunned is putting it mildly. The Cowboy Museum, formerly The National Cowboy Hall of Fame, is about cowboys. And there isn’t a single cowboy in The Quilt Walk. But the museum embraces values we hold dear in the West. I got to thinking about that while I was in Oklahoma City to accept the award. That was the week of the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Texas, explosion. As horrific as those two events were, they brought out the best of America—compassion, sacrifice, patriotism, determination, and a spirit of survival. Those are values we prize in the West, and the very ones being celebrated by the Wrangler Awards.

Oklahoma City was filled with cowboys for the two-day event. The men wore hats and boots, even with black-tie attire, and not to be outdone, the women donned fringe with their silver and turquoise jewelry. The ceremony featured celebrated westerners along with western royal families. John Wayne’’s son and granddaughter were there, along with Joel McCrea and Duncan Reynaldo’s sons. Lou Diamond Phillips was the host, and Wes Studi was inducted into the hall of fame. Ordinary ranchers were honored, too, and their tributes were the most moving. These were men who spent their lives ranching and made their mark not just with financial success but with their hard work and humbleness.

My award meant even more to me because it came on April 20, a special day in my life. I referred to it in my acceptance speech:

My husband, Bob, and I were married 50 years ago today. I’m pretty sure that back then, we weren’t planning on spending our 50th wedding anniversary in Oklahoma City. But after this wonderful anniversary party you’ve thrown for us, we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I’ve changed in 50 years, and I think the Cowboy Museum has, too. Back then, this award probably wouldn’t have gone to a children’s book that included domestic abuse, lack of options for women—and quilting. But we’ve come to realize the West is a big tent and that diversity adds to its richness.

Thanks to the National Cowboy Museum for his honor. And thanks, Bob, for our life together. —SD

Hookers and Me

As long as I’ve been a writer, I’ve been intrigued with the subject of prostitution. I’ve always wanted to use it as a subject for a novel. Finally, I have. Fallen Women, which comes out in October, is the story of a wealthy New York woman who comes to Denver to find out about the death of her estranged sister, who was murdered in a brothel. The prostitutes in Fallen Women are not just high-class parlor house inmates but the pitiful drug- and alcohol-addicted women who operated out of cribs. The crib girls were the end of the line.

I began researching Colorado prostitution some 40 years ago when I wrote my third nonfiction book, Cherry Creek Gothic. It’s a history of Denver’s architecture, and I included a chapter entitled “Sporting Women.”

Back then, most historians who wrote about Denver’s tenderloin were men, and they captured the salacious side of prostitution. They wrote about “the whore with the heart of gold” and blamed austere wives for driving husbands to seek illicit sex. Writers captured the glamorous life of brothels and the wild women who worked in them. I suppose that in the beginning, I, too, viewed the “soiled doves” of the Gilded Age as no more than naughty women. Then I came across an article from an unnamed newspaper that described the death of a lower-class prostitute and the filthy crib in which she lived:

The walls and ceiling were absolutely black with smoke and dirt, excepting where old, stained newspapers had been pasted on them—on the ceiling, to exclude rain and melting snow, and on the walls, to cover up spots from which the plastering had fallen. The floor was rickety and filthy. Around the walls were disposed innumerable unwashed and battered tin cooking utensils, shelves, for the most part laden with dust, old clothing, which emitted a powerful effluvium, hung from nails here and there; or tumble down chairs, a table of very rheumatic tendency, on which were broken cups, plates and remnants of food, were scattered all over its surface. An empty whiskey bottle and a pewter spoon or two. In one corner and taking up half the space of the den was the bedstead strongly suggestive of a bountiful crop of vermin, and on that flimsy bed lay the corpse of the suicide, clad in dirty ratted apparel, and with as horrid a look on her begrimed, pallid features as the surroundings presented. No one of her neighbors in wretchedness had had the sense to open either of the two little windows in the room to admit pure air, hence the atmosphere was sickeningly impure and almost asphyxiating. “My God!” exclaimed Coroner McHatton, used as he is to similar scenes and smells in his official capacity, “Isn’t this awful?”

I realized when I read that piece that while there was a glamorous side to prostitution, more common was the degrading life most “women of the town” lived. Many prostitutes were disease-ridden, addicted to alcohol and drugs, and their working years were short. The more I read about these women, the more I was annoyed by the tongue-in-cheek reporting that treated prostitutes as amusing objects. One reporter wrote about a “cat fight” between two women from Leadville’s row: “The fight was short and bloody. The air was thick with wigs, teeth, obscenity and bad breath.”

Feminist historians changed our view of prostitution in the Wild West. Today, we know there was a broad range of “fallen women” – from high-class parlor-house girls to impoverished hookers roaming the streets. We know, too, that prostitution in those days was not just a moral issue but an economic one. There were few ways women could make a living in the 19th century, particularly if they were poor and illiterate. Many of the girls who turned out had been abandoned by lovers or husbands and had no other way to support themselves. In Butte, Montana, for instance, widows sometimes worked out of cribs during the daytime when their children were in school.

Men made money off the “frail sisters,” and those men were not just pimps but wealthy entrepreneurs who supplied the necessities for the hookers and owned the houses on Denver’s Holladay Street, where the brothels were located.

My goal in writing Fallen Women was not to present a titillating