Dorothy Johnson: A true Montana character

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In this troublesome era of anger, violence and blame, it’s well to look back to a kinder time, and the good and heart-warming story of a remarkable Montana character.

Dorothy Johnson grew up in poverty in Whitefish, and despite a life of crushing adversity, her achievement as a writer has been compared by some critics to that of Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Mary Austin, Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. She has been described as possibly the greatest writer of Western fiction who ever lived.

Johnson’s tough trail to the top is illustrated by a photo taken by later Pulitzer Prize winner Mel Ruder of the Hungry Horse News, which she found hilarious, and used on her personal stationary. It shows her from the backside struggling to mount a horse in a maneuver that even Mel’s dog found embarrassing.

From her early years Dorothy Johnson showed great promise as a writer, but her life was always a struggle. Her father died on Christmas Eve when she was 10 years old. In her teens Dorothy survived by finding work as a telephone operator and the “stringer” covering Whitefish for the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake.

Inspired by University of Montana Professor H.G. Merriam, Dorothy graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in English. On her meager salary as a stenographer, she paid off the gambling debts of the deadbeat husband who had deserted her. A short story she wrote at that time was published by the Saturday Evening Post. Encouraged, Dorothy soon moved to the great publishing center of New York City.

Dorothy was able to support herself and her mother primarily as a proofreader and editor. Writing at night in her tiny Greenwich Village apartment, she sent literally scores of beautifully crafted short stories to dozens of publishers. For an agonizing 11 years, she did not sell a single story. Steadfastly believing she was the greatly talented writer Professor Merriam had assured her she was, determined Dorothy resolutely refused to give up. In her papers from that period, though, was found, “It always breaks my heart when I get turned down. It doesn’t get any easier to take. You should be able to get calluses on your soul.”

Mostly male editors and publishers who received her stories couldn’t believe their readers would accept that the author of these powerful and often violent stories was a woman. When her stories finally began to be published in the World War II years, her bylines usually appeared as D.M. Johnson.

Returning to her beloved Whitefish in 1945, Dorothy’s story sales again slumped. When her work at the Whitefish Pilot newspaper couldn’t support her and her aging mother, she accepted a faculty position in the University of Montana School of Journalism and as manager of the Montana Press Association.

Her never-ending night writing continued in Missoula, and sales again picked up. Her big break suddenly happened when her story “The Hanging Tree” was made into a movie in 1959. Starring fellow Montanan Gary Cooper, it was a blockbuster. No longer disguised as “D.M.,” Dorothy Johnson was suddenly and dramatically recognized for who she was.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” staring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart soon followed on the silver screen, with similar blockbuster success.

Dorothy Johnson’s life was a tough struggle in a man’s world before there was a women’s movement. She bravely broke the barriers of her time.

Looking back, Dorothy noted that her characters were “purely imaginary.” She commented, no doubt with a twinkle in her eye, that she “regrets this because I would like to meet some of them.”

Bob Brown, of Whitefish, is a former Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.

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