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Where do you go to see a rare but fascinating exhibit about a legendary figure of America’s Wild West?
Paris, of course, at least until March 12, 2011. And who would that person be and where in Paris would one find the exhibit?
As unlikely as it sounds, it’s at the little heralded but quite professional museum of the French postal system, L’Adresse Musée de la Poste, in the city’s Montparnasse quartier and it’s all about Calamity Jane, America’s most famous cowgirl.
“Calamity,” as she was nicknamed, became a mythic figure in her own lifetime. People told stories about her leading the Gold Rush and riding for the Pony Express—great copy even though the Gold Rush took place a few years before she was born and she would have been eight years old during the 18-month tenure of the Pony Express. But she did fight Indians, protect settlers, and was pals with Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok
Fittingly, when she passed away in 1903 at the age of 51, officially from a lung infection that was no doubt complicated by strong alcohol consumption, she was buried, as she had asked to be, alongside Hickok in the cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota.
By that time, however, she had become the heroine of numerous newspaper articles and dime novels that had made her a well-known figure throughout America and, when her body lay in state for some time before final burial, vast numbers of Americans came to Deadwood to pay her their final respects. Her gravesite there still is accessible to visitors.
Calamity was born Martha Cannary in 1852 in the family of a poor farmer who, lured as were many pioneers of the time by the prospect of riches or at least a better life to be gained, had left his home in the state of Ohio with his family to head toward the unsettled prairies and gold-laden hills of the American West.
Not all found what they were seeking, however, and with her father and family indebted and adrift in the state of Montana, Martha, at the age of 15, was adopted by a family in Wyoming in return for her help in doing their household chores.
Rebellious and adventuresome of spirit, however, she quickly left her foster home and shifted her attention and time to the local saloons where she passed her time drinking, dancing and bantering with the local cowboys and soldiers from a nearby military base.
A born tomboy, she learned to ride horses, whip a lasso, smoke black cigars, shoot, drink and swear like a boy. She signed on to assist the U.S. Army as a guide in the Black Hills of South Dakota for General George Armstrong Custer—and evidently had the good sense to leave the general’s service before he managed to get all his troops slaughtered at Little Big Horn
Although she often dressed as did cowboys and, like them, packed a holstered revolver at times, she also made it a point, as the occasion demanded, to don totally correct women’s garments and, when she did so, to studiously avoid smoking and drinking. Often then, quite ladylike, she even carried an umbrella.
Most of the time, however, she lived a vagabond life during which she frequented saloons and army bases and worked periodically serving as a substitute nurse helping people suffering from smallpox or doing laundry in the local houses of prostitution.
She was tagged with the name Calamity Jane by a South Dakota newspaper reporter because of the frequency with which, particularly when she was indulging her penchant for alcohol, she wound up causing all kinds of arguments, trouble and commotion. Or, another story goes, an army captain she rescued after he ws shot called her “Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” Anyway, the title stuck.
Although she never married and studiously denied doing more than the laundry in brothels where she worked, she did bear two children our of wedlock. One was a son who died. The other was a daughter, Jessie, whom she confined to foster parents because of her patent inability to settle down to the duties of a wife or mother.
Like Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, she also starred for a time in the kind of travelling Wild West spectacles that were popular in America toward the end of the 19th century. But, at the end of her life, despite her celebrity status as one of the nation’s first really liberated although singularly cantankerous women, she wound up generally alone and penniless.
It’s hard not to wonder at this stage why on earth the post office museum in Paris, of all places, is the site of so much Calamity Jane and American Far West memorabilia, carefully organized to be understandable for French and English speakers and abundantly stocked with ancient photos, documents, films, antique western gear of the times and fact-packed letters addressed—but never sent—from Calamity to her daughter.
The trigger was the publication, after 10 painstaking years of research, of a book in French by French author Gregory Monro titled “Calamity Jane, Memoirs de l’Ouest,” and the post office’s simultaneous issuance of a special collector’s edition of a four-stamp carnet of Calamity Jane stamps.
A filmmaker by profession, Monro first spotted Calamity Jane when her character appeared in a comic book about an imaginary French cowboy hero, Lucky Luke. Thinking first about the possibility of doing a film about her, he started researching her traces in the western towns she had frequented. By chance, he stumbled upon a woman who possessed and sold him the originals of the never-mailed letters to Calamity’s daughter which already had been the basis of a published book.
With those and the various memorabilia he had collected on his travels, Monro published his book about Calamity and provided much of the instigation for the post office museum’s exhibition.
If you visit it you’ll not only have a really original adventure to relate to your friends but you’ll also have the possibility of stocking up on Calamity Jane stamps. Not everyone can do that.
Calamity Jane—Mémoires de l’Ouest
L’Adresse Musée de La Poste
34 Boulevard de Vaugirard
Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday and holidays
Reservations: 01 42 79 24 24. Metro : Montparnasse-Bienvenüe
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