Influential Whitefish author Dorothy Johnson inducted into Gallery of Outstanding Montanans

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"A witty, gritty little bobcat of a woman."

That's what Missoula writer Steve Smith said about author Dorothy M. Johnson in her obituary.

And Smith knew her well. His biography of Johnson, "The Years and the Wind and the Rain" was published a few weeks before Johnson's death on Nov. 11, 1984. It chronicled her "love affair" with the English language and the perseverance that shaped a writing career of more than 60 years.

"She'd take a sentence, file it, polish it, until it just crackled," Smith said in Johnson's biography.

Johnson wrote 17 books and more than 100 short stories in a life that spanned 78 years, most of it in Montana. She's one of two state greats to be inducted in The Gallery of Outstanding Montanans on Wednesday at the State Capitol.

The other inductee is the Rev. Anthony Ravalli, who came to the Bitterroot Valley's St. Mary's Mission, where he worked with American Indians and developed the state's first gristmill and sawmill in 1845.

The gallery was created by the Legislature in 1979 to honor Montanans who made contributions of state or national significance, Montana Historical Society Director Arnold Olsen said.

Johnson's "writings captured the spirit of the land she loved," he said.

She's best remembered for three of her works that were turned into motion pictures: "The Hanging Tree," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "A Man Called Horse." Films based on her books featured Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, among other movie stars.

Johnson was invited on the movie set of "The Hanging Tree" and didn't find much good to say about the film world, recalled Jackie Adams of Kalispell, who knew Johnson when the author was director of the Montana Press Association.

"She had acid comments about that," Adams said.

But that was Johnson - outspoken, offbeat, witty.

Adams, a former owner of the Whitefish Pilot, remembered how Johnson drew a crowd at press-association conventions every time she was the banquet speaker.

"Her speeches were always hilarious," Adams said. "She was kind of funny-looking. She was short and dumpy and had those Coke-bottle glasses."

Johnson was born in McGregor, Iowa, but moved to Whitefish with her family in 1913. Growing up in Whitefish and not being a Montana native didn't sit well with her. She made a point of it in her popular book, "When You and I Were Young, Whitefish."

"It has long embarrassed me that I was born in Iowa," she confided in her book. "That's a perfectly good place to come from; my mother was born there, too, but for a person living in Montana, having old roots in the state carries prestige. I am expected to have been born here, instead of a little town called McGregor on the Mississippi River."

Johnson was 7 when her family moved to Whitefish. Her father died a couple of years later, leaving her widowed mother to raise her. Johnson graduated from Whitefish High School in 1922.

In her book about Whitefish, she told how her mother gathered society news for the Whitefish Pilot.

"There was a certain style of writing that readers liked and my mother deplored," Dorothy wrote. "She would mutter, 'House guests! Where would they put 'em - in the barn?' She abhorred 'An elegant luncheon was served consisting of (every item named), and a good time was had by all.'"

"When You and I Were Young, Whitefish" showcased Johnson's sense of humor, Adams said.

"You could hear Dorothy in every page of that book," she said.

Johnson studied creative writing under renowned English professor H.G. Merriam at the University of Montana and graduated in 1928.

She tried marriage for three years, wedding in 1927 and divorcing in 1930. After that, she did office work in Washington and Wisconsin while she pursued free-lance writing. In 1935 Johnson moved to New York and began a career in advertising and journalism, including a six-year stint as editor of "The Woman" magazine.

Johnson sold her first short story to The Saturday Evening Post in 1930 for $400. Other magazines snubbed her for years, but she was persistent and worked to refine her style.

She came back to Montana in 1950 and became news editor of the Whitefish Pilot. Her sense of humor and no-nonsense prose made for some interesting front-page stories, such as the June 22, 1951, edition that declared: "City Hall Has Birds in Belfry Again," a spirited account of city officials trying to rid City Hall of pigeons.

"The whole pigeon invasion is said (by a stool pigeon) to be part of a larger plot involving moose, bears, deer and pheasants, which have previously tried to take over the town," she quipped.

One time she mused in a Whitefish Pilot editorial how much fun it was to have full control of the paper when publisher Gurnie Moss was out of town.

By 1953 she had joined the journalism faculty at the University of Montana. In her teaching she emphasized "persistence, detail and precision."

Parkinson's disease and other illnesses slowed her writing later in life, but she was a frequent "letters to the editor" contributor to the Missoulian, and on her death, one observer called them "a smile from a stranger on a gray day."

In the Missoulian's series, "The 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century," writer Jeff Herman recounted the time in 1975 she was summoned to a neighbor's house after a rattlesnake was found in the cellar.

"Although a previously summoned posse had captured the offender, Dorothy, an honorary police chief of Whitefish, showed up with her .38-caliber 'hawg laig,' vowing to dispatch the varmint," Herman wrote. Clad only in a muumuu, she descended the cellar stairs "clutching the long-barreled six-shooter in her trembling hands … fortunately, no shots were fired."

Johnson was always good company, Adams said. She'd show up in Whitefish every now and then for special occasions.

A 1960 photograph in Whitefish's history book, "Stumptown to Ski Town," shows Johnson presenting the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award to first Whitefish city librarian Mable Engelter.

Way back when, she was on hand for the grand opening of the now-defunct Hanging Tree bar and restaurant in Whitefish, named after her novelette.

Another history book, "Hellroaring: Fifty Years on The Big Mountain," features a photo of ski patrollers Bud Eschwig and Gil Baldwin hauling Johnson in a toboggan. Johnson wanted to go to the top of the mountain shortly after the ski resort opened, so the patrol pulled up up in a sled, Marguerite Schenck recalled in the book.

"When they were coming down the hill, Ed [Schenck] happened to see the toboggan as he stepped out of the lodge and said, 'Here comes the toboggan! This is no accident; it's Dorothy Johnson!'"

Johnson reportedly got good mileage out of that story at the many after-dinner speeches she gave as a famous western writer.

Another famous Montana writer, A.B. Guthrie Jr., summed up Johnson's success in his foreword to her biography. Guthrie wrote that Johnson's works "are marked by clean prose, a fine sense of organization and contrast and laconic wit."

"Edmund Gosse once said that the secret of successful fiction was a continual slight novelty. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, Miss Johnson never needed to be told that. She knew instinctively."

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at

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