The twangy-voiced Missourian who cried over his region's defeat in the Civil War was a mythic and bewildering figure. Snaking his way into...

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The twangy-voiced Missourian who cried over his region’s defeat in the Civil War was a mythic and bewildering figure. Snaking his way into the history of his own era and beyond, giving himself to the dreams and nightmares of little boys on the 1870s American prairie. His very name seemed to hang out in the open air like a menace, with an unspoken threat and hardness around it. As if it were a Colt .45 in a holster lying on a barren wooden table.

Jesse James.

Sometimes, by candlelight, he scanned books written about him — the popular paperbacks that fancied up his exploits and that children devoured and traveling book salesmen guarded as if shielding sacraments. Then he resumed his murdering and robbing ways.

Contradictions rolled across his short life, blurring facts.

He was pasty and short and his face was pockmarked. But women who had never laid an eye on him were convinced he was the handsomest of men.

A belief circulated that he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Not so.

He did have some manners, and in noisy frontier towns he was spotted strolling with a walking stick.

But President Ulysses S. Grant thought him a lowlife and wanted him brought to justice. And a nobody named Robert Ford — a Jesse James groupie in his early 20s, a follower dazzled by his fame and glory — shot an unarmed James, 34, from behind on April 3, 1882, and became famous himself. He flashed his reward money. He signed autographs, squired belles and starred in a stage show about the shooting. Ford had secretly met with Missouri Gov. Tom Crittenden, striking a deal to keep his freedom if he were able to kill James, and in doing so, he eclipsed the legend of Jesse James — for a while. In time, his world turned dark; the populace turned on Ford. Catcalling his name, spitting where he had stepped.

And it was that cold and mesmerizing fact — how fame can turn inside out, how a legend flows outward from death, how a coward lives and breathes — that attracted novelist Ron Hansen years ago. And, more recently, attracted Brad Pitt, who stars (opposite Casey Affleck) in the cinematic version of Hansen’s 1983 novel with the bullet-blunt title: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The movie, which opens in New York and Los Angeles later this month, is more a character study of the two men than Western shootout fare.

“When I was starting to write the book,” says Hansen, “one of my colleagues said that the 19th century has really been influenced by two James families: William and Henry James in the East, and Frank and Jesse James in the West. They shaped American consciousness.”

Fame begets horrors

It was in early 1880 when James first met Ford, an aimless cowpoke. Ford’s brother Charley was already a member of the James gang. The relationship of the Fords and James was further cemented because of Martha Bolton (Alison Elliott in the film), the Fords’ sister. James often relaxed at her house and a rumor circulated that the married James was smitten with her. In time, Robert Ford went on robberies with James and told many people how much he admired him.

But the James gang’s fame begat the horrors of the time and kept the eight-column headlines rolling off the presses.

“What’s interesting about the period in which Bob Ford shoots Jesse James is that Charles Guiteau is (arrested) for shooting President James Garfield” two months after the James shooting, says Hansen. “Robert Ford saw all the attention a killer could get.”

Rampaging myth

Myths are ripe to be probed and attacked.

To be peered into and around. “He’s the Elvis Presley of the 19th century,” Hansen says of James. “He became famous before his death because of the novels that were being written about him.”

The myth of Jesse James rampaged as if on a white horse, carrying a man who many were wont to believe held a code of ethics and a desire to redeem their own lost pride. They were, for the most part, rural whites who were ground down by the Civil War and existing hand-to-mouth. “They bought into the idea of him robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. He was their champion,” says Hansen, who teaches literature at Santa Clara University.

James murdered more than a dozen people — some say 17. Gary Chilcote, director of Patee House Museum and Jesse James Home in St. Joseph, Mo., cites that number: “These are murders where we can put a name, face and time to them.”

Riding across the West, across Nebraska and Missouri and Minnesota, wearing a long black coat and hat with upturned brim, sporting bullet scars from the Civil War, Jesse James grew full of himself. He traveled at night. He was elusive, enabling many to believe there was something nearly holy about him. “He was really pretty ruthless. He knocked people around,” adds Hansen.

Pinkerton detectives rode hard after him as he rode after the express trains he robbed. But they couldn’t corner him.

History and imagination

There were those who thought James a creepy individual, believing, as he did, in superstitions, flaunting his paranoia by relentlessly questioning friends. Hansen would write in his novel: “He could neither multiply nor divide without error and much of his science was superstition. He could list the many begotten of Abraham and the sixty-six books of the King James Bible; he could recite psalms and poems in a stentorian voice with suitable histrionics; he could sing religious hymns so convincingly that he worked for a month as a choirmaster. … And yet he thought incense was made from the bones of saints, that leather continued to grow if not dyed, that if he concentrated hard enough his body’s electrical currents could stun lake frogs as he bathed.”

The fiction Hansen created around the facts provided for him the cowboy music and nuance and rhythm of the times. “The way I try to write scenes is to be as authentic to history as is known,” he says. “I say, ‘This is Jesse as I imagined him, though.’ I’m trying to convey the psychology and spirit of the situation.” Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of Arizona-based True West magazine, a big admirer of Hansen’s book, says: “His work sets the stage for historical drama. My impression after reading it is that he only enhanced the gaps where we didn’t know what exactly happened.”

After Hansen’s novel came out and received the fine reviews it did (The Washington Post called it “electrifyingly good,” and the Christian Science Monitor said Hansen “has broadened our perception of the West in much the same way as the best historians”), he was gratified. He got a teaching job, then another. He wrote other novels.

Then, out of the blue — or whatever color makes up the day of a novelist who lives with his wife, novelist Bo Caldwell, and teaches and plays golf now and then — his phone rang.

Something about Brad Pitt.

“Like Batman”

Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik was in Melbourne, hanging out with friend Rowland Howard, the Australian rock musician, when they strolled into a second-hand bookstore three years ago. Howard picked up a title, started reading it, then stopped. “He said, ‘Wow, this would make a good movie,’ and he handed me the book,” recalls Dominik. It was Hansen’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

Dominik purchased the book, left the bookstore, and started reading. “It knocked me out.”

His latest film project had collapsed. He needed work. So he phoned his agent in California. “My agent said, ‘Jesse James? Oh, I can sell that. Jesse James is like Batman.’ “

The wonderful and enduring and rollicking and complex myth of Jesse James was aloft anew.

Dominik — with only one movie under his belt, the critically acclaimed “Chopper,” about a crazed Australian convict — had talked off and on with Pitt about working together. Pitt, who, like James, hails from Missouri, read the book, listened to Dominik’s pitch and signed on to play James. “Brad committed within 48 hours. It rarely happens that way,” confesses Dominik.

Before he began filming, Dominik studied daguerreotypes from the era. Old photos of villains with pinched faces, with light-colored eyes; men in suspenders with cryptic smiles.

He had his James in Pitt.

“And one night I was watching TV with my girlfriend. I see this face, this actor, and I said to her, ‘Who is that?’ And she said, ‘That’s Casey Affleck.’ He looked like Bob Ford to me. So I had Casey come in and read for the part. He was fantastic.”

And so he had his assassin.

Passing the torch of fame

Ford was actually one of the few assassins who enjoyed their celebrity. He went on tour in a stage show with brother Charley, who had been with him in the house when he shot James. They reenacted the murder onstage, something the film also depicts. “When they started out doing it,” Hansen says of the dramatic presentation, “they were essentially movie stars. Then the attitudes began to change about them. They were vilified. They were haunted by, essentially, bad press. Those first stories that had appeared about them were about these brave men who took on Jesse James. But then, more and more people began to find them reprehensible.”

Robert Ford’s glory had seeped from the blood that flowed from the skull of Jesse James.

By 1892 Ford was living in Creede, Colo. He was operating a makeshift dance hall. Dressing in spiffy clothes, staring at himself in mirrors for unnaturally long periods of time. In early June of that year, a man by the name of Ed O’Kelley, an out-of-town deputy sheriff, arrived in Creede. He walked over to Ford’s dance hall and evenly called out his name. Ford had his back to the man. When he turned around he was staring at a shotgun and the man wielding it who would kill him.

In prison, O’Kelley — the man who took the last breath from James’ killer — received heaps of fan mail. It came from around the country and across oceans. The warden and other inmates were astonished at his celebrity.

O’Kelley was pardoned early because of illness, but years after his release from prison he was shot dead by a policeman following a burglary.

Jesse James’ blood — as had Robert Ford’s blood — flowed on.