Montana’s First Lady of Letters: Remembering Dorothy Johnson
June 28, 2011
No one told more compelling stories about the West than Montana’s own Dorothy Johnson.
Montana author Dorothy Johnson
Four of her short stories occupy the list of the top five western short stories as voted by fellow western writers. Now a 30-minute Montana PBS documentary celebrates the life of this western woman who looked like your grandmother but was known for her in-depth tales of cowboys, Indians and frontier life. Johnson could turn a phrase and raise an eyebrow like no other.
The PBS documentary “Gravel in her Gut and Spit in her Eye” aired on Montana PBS Nov. 21. The project was a four-year effort led by Sue Hart, a Montana State University-Billings English professor, who was a friend and fan of Johnson. Hart wrote the script and co-produced the program. She joined forces with producer Gene Brodeur, director Bill Bilverstone and film director Lansing Dreamer. The ensemble researched the project, and they also raised the money for what Hart described as a labor of love.
“I wanted to make sure that people never forget her,” said Hart. “It always bothered me that when you mentioned her name people didn’t know her, but when you mentioned her work they did.” Johnson wrote “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “A Man Called Horse” and “The Hanging Tree,” all of which made it to the big screen as full-length films.
From Johnson’s collection of pistols to her sense of humor, the television program spans her life as a writer, teacher and editor. Stories for the documentary were collected from interviews with friends, fellow writers, personal letters and journalism students from her days as a professor at University of Montana. Margot Kidder lent her voice to the documentary, reading Johnson’s words. Johnson was an inspiring teacher who insisted on the best from her students, many of whom contributed to the project’s funding.
Time magazine once compared Johnson’s stories to those of Bret Harte and Mark Twain. All told, Johnson wrote 17 books, 52 short stories and countless articles that spanned a 60-year career as writer and editor. In 1957, the Western Writers of America gave Johnson the organization’s highest award, the Spur award, for her short story “Lost Sister.” In 1976, the group presented her with the Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award for bringing dignity and honor to the history and legends of the West.
Last spring, Riverbend Publishing of Helena produced a collection of Johnson’s works under the title of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” The book contains a portion of that book, as well as excerpts from “A Man Called Horse,” “The Hanging Tree” and “Lost Sister.”
Johnson moved with her family to Whitefish in 1913. She wrote for the Whitefish Pilot newspaper and taught journalism at the University of Montana before venturing into books. She sold her first magazine article to the Saturday Evening Post in 1930 for the huge sum of $400. Her primary tools were perseverance, hard work, impeccable research, and humor. “You must be willing to bother,” she told an audience of aspiring writers. “You must be explicit in what you write. The writer owes the reader answers to all questions, but the writer must first think of the questions.”
After leaving the state to work in Washington and Wisconsin, Johnson returned to Whitefish in 1950. She was the secretary/manager of the Montana Press Association and was made an honorary member of the Blackfeet Tribe in 1959. She died in 1984 at the age of 78.
Last March, Johnson was inducted into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans at the state Capitol, adding to her list of accolades as Montana’s First Lady of Letters.