DOC HOLLIDAY’S FAMILY AFFAIR

DOC HOLLIDAY’S FAMILY AFFAIR

“I was in love once. My first cousin. She was… We were both so…
She joined a convent over the affair.
She was all I ever wanted.”

Doc & Wyatt's Last Game

Doc & Wyatt’s Last Game

Those are Doc Holliday’s words in his tragic but touching final scene from the film “Tombstone,” the cult classic that made Doc lovable and relatable again after a generation of his being cast as a movie villain. In Kevin Jarre’s brilliant version of the West’s most famous gunfight, gambling dentist Doc Holliday is lawman Wyatt Earp’s most loyal friend – and the heart of the whole story. Partly that comes from Jarre’s own script which gave Doc so many quotable lines. Partly that comes from actor Kurt Russell’s generous editing of the filming script that cut out many of Wyatt’s lines in favor of a focus on Doc. For as every follower of Westerns knows, if you have a sympathetic Doc Holliday, you have a hit movie.

But what about that iconic final scene, as Doc confesses his young love and then dies? Was that Jarre’s dramatic invention or Russell’s addition? Or was it based on something from Doc Holliday’s own life?

Ashley & Melanie: The fictional Doc & Mattie?

Ashley & Melanie: The fictional Doc & Mattie?

According to old Holliday family stories, the young romance between Doc and his first cousin really happened – and may have been one of the reasons he left Georgia. The girl was Martha Anne “Mattie” Holliday, daughter of Doc’s uncle Robert Kennedy Holliday. Doc (then just John Henry Holliday) grew up in the little city of Griffin, Georgia, while Mattie grew up in Jonesboro, thirty miles or so up the road. Although the families were a bit separated in those horse-and-buggy days, they gathered together whenever they could, often at the home of Doc’s medical doctor uncle, John Stiles Holliday, in nearby Fayetteville. Mattie was eighteen months older than John Henry, but the two were close as children and remained close – and reportedly even had a romance when they were teens. While we might not consider cousins as appropriate sweethearts, in 19th century America cousins did sometimes fall in love and marry. As Margaret Mitchell says in the classic novel of the Old South, Gone With the Wind: “The Wilkes and Hamiltons always marry their own cousins.” She was referring, of course, to Ashley Wilkes (Scarlett O’Hara’s crush) marrying his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.

Olivia De Havilland as Melanie Hamilton in "Gone With the Wind"

Olivia De Havilland as Melanie Hamilton in “Gone With the Wind”

And that’s where the story of Doc and his cousin Mattie crosses into the story of Gone With the Wind, for Mattie Holliday was also cousin to author Margaret Mitchell, and became the real-life model for the fictional Melanie Hamilton. Mitchell even borrowed Mattie’s name, and not just the initials M.H. In her later years, Mattie Holliday became a nun and took the name Sister Mary Melanie, and was known as Sister Melanie Holliday. And could it be just a coincidence that the name Melanie comes from a Catholic saint named Melania who married her own first cousin? Catholics were more restricted in their marriage choices and not allowed to marry “in the first degree” (meaning a first cousin), only in the more distant “second degree” (meaning a second or less related cousin) — what became known as “kissing cousins.” When Saint Melania discovered her error she left her husband and took religious orders, entering a convent. Did Catholic Mattie Holliday have the same dilemma, loving her own first cousin but not being allowed to marry him?

Saint Melania

Saint Melania

We’ll never know the personal thoughts and private emotions of Doc Holliday and his beloved cousin Mattie, but we do know that they remained close through the years and kept up a correspondence throughout his travels in the West. When he died in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the local paper recorded:

“He had only one correspondent among his relatives – a cousin, a Sister of Charity, in Atlanta, Georgia. She will be notified of his death, and will in turn advise any other relatives he may have living. Should there be an aged father or mother, they will be pleased to learn that kind and sympathetic hands were about their son in his last hours, and that his remains were accorded Christian burial.”

Letters from a lost love?

Letters from a lost love?

His personal belongings, and their letters to one another, were sent to Sister Melanie in Georgia and kept in the Holliday family for many years. After Sister Melanie’s own passing the letters were often shared at family gatherings – until her younger sister burned them to keep them private. But did she find and burn them all? Or might there still be some of those letters remaining as written proof of Doc’s lasting affection for his cousin Mattie? It’s one of the mysteries that makes Doc Holliday remain one of our most fascinating – and romantic – of Western legends.

Fun Links:
Filming Script for the movie “Tombstone”
True West Magazine article on the Tombstone script
Gone With the Wind Tour
31 Kissing Cousins
Kissin’ Cousins: Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes

Sunset for a Southern Lady

Sunset for a Southern Lady

I first met Susie in a filing cabinet at the old Margaret Mitchell Library in Fayetteville, Georgia.  Not that she was actually in the filing cabinet, of course.  It was her book I discovered there, tucked away in a file labeled “Holliday Family,” and where I was searching for information for the newly begun restoration of the circa 1855 Holliday House in Fayetteville, forty miles south of Atlanta.  The house was a classic antebellum beauty, with tall white columns across a wide front veranda, a breezeway between the twin parlors, fireplaces in every one of the eight large rooms and hand-blown glass in the multi-paned windows.  But it was an aging beauty: 150 years old and being considered for demolition when I found it and fell in love and started up a community action group and then a non-profit organization to save it and restore it as a museum of Fayette County history.  As the home of a Civil War-era doctor, it was interesting enough, but with the family’s connections to Gone With the Wind and Doc Holliday, it seemed a priceless piece of Georgia’s history.Continue reading

Dancing with Doc Holliday and Rhett Butler

Dancing with Doc Holliday and Rhett Butler

I’ve always found it kind of neat that I was born on Margaret Mitchell’s birthday, November the 8th. Gave me an interesting connection to the writer I so admired from the first time I read Gone With the Wind as a young teen. Don’t remember the year, but do remember how I loved living in the world she created – and how I hated the ending she gave me! No romance with Ashley, whom I adored (so much more interesting in the book than in the movie, sorry Leslie Howard)! Just a shocking, “I don’t give a damn,” from Rhett at the end of those 1200 captivating pages.

Of course, I wanted to fix that awful ending, and imagined how the book should have gone. Being a born writer (well, as long as I can remember, anyhow), it didn’t seem like too much of a task to me. Just pick up the story where Margaret left off, following Rhett down the street to his own adventures before meeting up again with Scarlett. This was before the copycat novels Scarlett and Rhett Butler’s People tried to do the same thing, and my version was sooooo much better! Rhett would return to New Orleans (not Charleston, as in those other books), where his secret son with Belle Watling has been living in a fancy boarding school. That was Belle’s idea, not wanting her son to know who his mother really was, and Rhett went along with her plan, not sure how to tell the fine Butler family that there is an heir born of a prostitute…

Hmm. Seems like a theme that appears elsewhere in my writing. Maybe I get that nobleman-in-disguise storyline from another childhood favorite of mine, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (Mark Twain himself shows up in several places in my Southern Son saga). Fiction is derivative, after all, as a writer can only write what she’s lived or read or otherwise imagined.Continue reading