I make no claim as to the truth of this interview…but it feels right. Source
San Francisco, California
Newspapers have me dead twice already—burned up in a house fire and shot by a lover, but I got out of the fire in time, and the bullet missed. The fire was here in San Francisco, and the shooting was in Argentina. Been stalked by the reaper since I was born, in ’78, a yellow fever year.
I disappeared into the pages of history, yet here I am, ninety-two. But you want to learn about Sundance—Harry Longabaugh. Don’t ask me to spell it.
For the longest time, the Pinkertons was after Harry and me. Now I miss them. There was one fella who asked to be taken off the trains so he could hunt for me fulltime—oh, a woman likes being chased. Detective or sweetheart, don’t make much difference. The U.S. marshals hounded us too, and private eye-types hired by Wells Fargo and the banks—spies or cops or whatever you want to call them. Thugs, mostly.
Frank Smith, H.A. Brown, Harry A. Place, Harry Long. Those was Harry’s other names. Alias Sundance.
You might say Harry and me was in demand.
He was horrible. Write that down. Said he’d tried to please everybody all his life, and all it got him was mad. He picked his nose—with two fingers. Never mind what you’ve heard, I was never his girl. I wouldn’t even touch his sleeve. He and Harry was not as loyal to each other as you might think. George LeRoy Parker was his real name. It took Harry’s image down, to associate with the likes of him. I told him so.
How It All Began
With tapeworms. Harry got big ones at a stockyard and put them in jars. The day I met him, he was with a medicine show. Harry’s boss got to wear the feather headdress and moccasins; Harry wore a fancy suit he bought from an undertaker, and he took the money, telling folks what a bargain they were getting, saying he himself passed a tapeworm size of an eel. Sometimes he’d point to a particular jar and say the worm in there was his. People loved it.
Anyway, it was June, 1897, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, and I was nineteen. My ma sent me to buy whatever medicine was for sale. I rode three miles on muleback from my family’s farm, wearing a bonnet to keep the sun off my face. I spotted the medicine wagon parked at the square. Money and bottles of Kiowa Kure-All Pills changed hands as fast as customers could shove dollar bills at the man in the nice suit: Harry. Harry’s boss was one fast-talking fake Indian. He shook that headdress so the feathers wagged up and down. Some of ’em fell off, and youngsters stuck ’em in their hair. A man pulled up and started selling bottles of beer, “to wash the pills down with, folks, don’t wait till you get home, get better right this minute.” They were all in cahoots, beer seller and white Indian and good-looking young fella in the suit.
When Harry and I saw each other, the medicine show, the whole Wild West just flat disappeared, with only his blue eyes locked on my face. Fifty people in that crowd, but he picked me out with a look, and in that instant, I didn’t hear nothing, didn’t see nothing except him, all square shoulders and white teeth and the sun on his hair. People mobbed him. I thought of a lighthouse on a rocky island. Waves crashed against the rocks, but the lighthouse stood tall and shining. That was Harry. I untied the strings of my bonnet and let it fall so he could see my black hair. His boss said to me, “You seem to have hypnotized my assistant.” Everybody laughed, and Harry laughed without taking his eyes off mine. Choosing me, is what he was doing. It’s a wonderful feeling, being chosen. I stuck out my hand with Ma’s dollar in it, and the crowd parted. Harry was Moses strolling through the Red Sea. He gave me a bottle of pills and folded his hands over mine, and his smile went up into his eyes when he said, “Wait for me.”
“I will,” I said, before we even knew each other’s names.
When the crowd thinned out, the boss whipped off his feather headdress and took off for the saloon.
Harry said, “Harry Longabaugh, at your service,” and bowed. His hat fell off and a little boy caught it and sailed it to him. Harry dusted it against his knee and said to me, “I saw you riding into town from a mile off.”
It was a gift, he said. Other people needed field glasses to see as well as he could. Made him a good hunter, he said, and a good shot.
“I’m buying this stuff for my ma, just so you’ll know,” I said. “I’m not sick.”
He held my mule by the bridle and said, “I’ll tell you a secret.”
Kiowa Kure-All Pills was nothing but little strings, he said, rolled up tight and covered with sugar paste. People swallowed the pills and passed the strings and thought it was goodbye, tapeworm.
“I want my money back,” I said.
“All right,” he said and handed me a dollar. “Now I’ve made a bad impression on you. Can I make up for it?”
“How?” I said.
Harry snapped down the canvas flap on the medicine wagon and said, “Wait here.” He went into the general store and came out with a bunch of yellow bananas and a sack of oranges. He skinned a banana and fed it to my mule and gave the rest of the fruit to me. I peeled an orange and ate it, piece by piece. It was sweet and cool. It took the dust out of my mouth.
Last week, a gal come here from a college to talk to me, and when I told her about the fruit, she said, “Just like the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve. That’ll be my…” and she used a long funny word for homework. I got in the spirit of it and said, “Yes, and we was stark naked, too,” and she got mad. I was only trying to help.
Yes, I’ve seen the movie. They got some things right. It shows what I felt for Harry. But they got Butch all wrong, and I never rode a bicycle with him. I went to see the movie with my great-granddaughter, Linda. She cried at the end, and when we went out in the lobby, she yelled, “This is her! Etta. My great-grammaw,” but nobody paid any attention to us.
So Harry gave me oranges.
“Tell your mother fruit’ll do her more good than pills,” he said.
“Tell her yourself,” I said.
“Sounds like an invitation,” he said. “I accept.”
Well, Ma liked Harry, but she couldn’t keep a secret. She blabbed the truth about the tapeworm pills to friends and neighbors, and soon Harry got fired and was looking for another job. I said, Why not rob a bank?
I’d said it to others. He was the first one who saw I meant it.
Why It Wasn’t Just Any Love Story
Because of the ranch. You ever been to Argentina? Big sprawling grasslands, moon over jagged mountains. Steak every night. Everything smells better there, even fire. Cowboys with banjoes and all of them working for us, raising cattle.
Other women that run with outlaws, they tend to be common. Pearl Starr. Have you ever seen a picture of her? And Bonnie, that went with Clyde? Little piece of mean-eyed trash. No, Harry would never’ve gone for Pearl or Bonnie.
So the ranch, and me, made Harry different. It was the sweet look I had in the one picture known to be both of us, yes, that one. Harry had just bought that watch and chain for me at Tiffany’s, and Mr. Tiffany himself pinned them on my blouse. I’ve still got it, and it still keeps time.
Speaking of pictures, here’s Percy, my son, and Linda, my great-granddaughter that took me to the movie. Percy’s father owned a grocery store in Oregon. I was married to him for thirty years. So, no, Percy and Linda aren’t any kin to Harry.
What She Knows of the Sundance Kid’s History
Born in Pennsylvania in 1867, ran away from home at sixteen, went out west to find adventure. Stole a horse and spent eighteen months in Sundance, Wyoming, only time he was in jail. He nicknamed his own self. Got out of jail, went up to Calgary, and worked as a cowboy. In 1892, robbed a train in Montana. Claimed he didn’t steal another thing until I said that about robbing a bank. “I’m working on something big,” he told me when he came out to the farm in the evenings.
We slept together in my room. Ma didn’t care, and Pa and my brother was gone to the gold fields. Ma could see I loved Harry. He found out I liked Indian names. He’d say them so each name made a whole world. “Gall. Red Cloud. Young Man Afraid of His Horses.” He’d say a name and kiss me, and then, well.
Anyways, by then, the Indians was tame. Sitting Bull’d run with the circus, the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, back in 1885. People paid to see him ride a horse and shoot a gun, and they clapped when his long braids flew around. By 1890, he was an Indian for real again, dancing the Ghost Dance and trying to save what was left of the Sioux. I was just a little girl when he got shot at the Standing Rock Agency.
Back to me and Harry. June 28, 1897 was so hot, the wash dried on the line before I got it all hung. A boy came galloping out to the farm with a note from Harry. He’d robbed the Butte County Bank with four of his friends.
For three years, I didn’t see him. He wrote me, though. Wait for me, Etta. He was at the Robber’s Roost in Utah with Elza Lay and the Wild Bunch. When other men came to see me, talking marriage—even the head of the Butte County Bank, I’m not making that up—it was easy to turn ’em down, because I was in long-distance love. I stayed on the farm with Ma. Tended sheep and chickens. Taught a hen to ride on a dog’s back. Called ’em my Wild Bunch.
Thought you’d appreciate that. Your nose wrinkles when you laugh. How old are you, anyway?
Marriage to Sundance
In 1900, Harry robbed a bank in Nevada, struck it rich, and sent for me. I went by train to St. Louis, where he was waiting. He had a preacher lined up. We said the I do’s and went out for fried chicken. The fly in the ointment was Butch, and the federal marshals that was after him and Harry. That was why we went to South America.
Butch was seasick the whole time, and I had to tend to him. Harry and I talked about having babies, but I said, “We’ve already got a child, a thirty-four-year-old baby.” Harry laughed, but I was mad.
Life got better. Harry and Butch bought that beautiful piece of land in Argentina and put my name on the deed, too. Seven, almost eight, years I had with Harry. That’s all I’ll say. Some things, a person likes to keep private.
Death of Sundance
A gun battle with soldiers in San Vincente, Bolivia in 1908, is the official story. Harry and Butch, blown to smithereens. That’s what people want to believe.
But talk to Butch’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson, youngest of the thirteen Parker kids, now a state senator from Piute County, Utah. She’ll tell you Butch came to a family reunion in 1925. He was trapping and prospecting. Died in Spokane, Washington, in 1937. Lula talks to the papers all the time. Sometimes she claims he went to Europe and got a facelift and ran for governor under a different name.
Harry? Some say he got killed in Uruguay in 1911 while robbing another bank. Or retired to Casper, Wyoming, called square dances till his voice gave out, and died of old age about 1936.
There may be graves in San Vincente, Bolivia, but the bodies ain’t Harry and Butch. There’s many miles and many tongues between Bolivia and the rest of the world, twisting up the truth.
Harry and Butch never left the ranch in Argentina. Pals don’t always stay on good terms. Things had been so nice. We’d made friends with other ranchers. One of the wives offered to teach me piano. She’d played with a symphony orchestra in La Paz, she said. Now I wonder if there ever was any orchestra in La Paz. I was there once with Harry, and it was empty and dusty like the rest of Bolivia. But I wanted to learn piano. It was the most I ever wanted anything besides Harry.
So Harry sent to Buenos Aires for a piano. The day it come, I was so excited. Big and beautiful, it was, of mahogany wood with a top that lifted up, and a swerve in its side. I sat down on the bench and drew my fingers up and down the keys, set my feet on the pedals, and songs came out. Real music. The ranch hands heard it, and the neighbors. My songs carried on the wind, and soon a crowd filled the house—a party, with food. Beer. Dancing. Every time I touched those keys, music came out, like in a dream. I didn’t need even one lesson.
Butch got drunk and picked a fight about where the piano ought to go. I said, It stays here by the window. Butch said he don’t want it there, and he shoved it so hard it smashed into a wall. Talk about the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Harry drew his gun, and so did Butch, and they shot each other faster than you could say Middle C. The piano strings snapped, the legs cracked, and it sagged like it was dead, too. The neighbors screamed and stampeded. Jumped on horses and was gone. Party over, and my husband and his trouble-making friend, dead.
I got the ranch hands to dig the graves. The foreman, Juan Miguel, read out of the Bible. Psalms sound pretty in Spanish. At sunset, I brought out a lantern, and Juan Miguel kept on reading out loud.
Harry’d left me enough money to pay the taxes for two years. That was two years I didn’t laugh or cry, either one. I was in shock. I put flowers on Harry’s grave, such as bloomed on those high plains. The days of steaks and banjoes was over. I was a widow woman, with my beauty froze over, and gray coming into my hair.
What Became of the Ranch
That foreman, Juan Miguel, I liked. I let him live in the house. We was never married. He was the one who took a shot at me. How is it the newspapers got hold of that, enough to get it almost right, when nobody knows about the piano party?
Juan Miguel said, “Etta, stick this feather on your hat”—it was from a condor, great big bird of the Andes—“and I’ll aim for it.”
I was packing my trunk to go back to the States. It was just time, was how I felt. I put the feather on my hat and stood up straight. Would Juan Miguel kill me? I almost didn’t care. He plugged the feather, ruined the hat. I clapped the trunk shut, and he hauled it to the wagon and drove me to the train depot. It was a long way on a narrow road. A horse could lose footing and slide down the mountainside.
What if Juan Miguel was the man I was meant to be with? A part-Indian cowboy with skin like saddle leather, and easy with a rope? He could make a lasso sing, keep a rope humming in a circle above his head, then bring it down around a bull’s neck. He loved me enough to cry when I left, but I didn’t even look back.
Somebody else must be living there now. You could go. Ask around till you found it. I’m done talking about it. It hurts too much. Ask something else.
What Etta Place Wants People to Know
When my son Percy was ten years old and had the mumps, I remembered the trick about a chicken riding on a dog. I told Percy to go to his window, and I went out in the yard and put a rooster on the back of a hound. The rooster kept falling off. After a few tries, it stuck. Percy’s face lit up, and I knew he’d get well. Percy’s father ran a grocery store in Oregon. I told you that. Sure, I helped. Weighed cheese. Counted nails. The customers saw the rooster riding the dog, and they loved it. Best show in town, especially for Oregon in the nineteen-teens.
Of course my kinfolks know my real name. Linda, my great-granddaughter, told her Girl Scout troop, and her mother told her church sewing circle, but nobody believed ’em. Linda and me are more like friends than relations, never mind the age difference. She took me to a peace rally at Golden Gate Park. We ate snow-cones and made friends with everybody, even tourists.
Why San Francisco? Why not? You can live cheap and easy with a hot-plate and a shared bathroom. There’s Chinese markets close enough to walk to. I’m lucky. Not every landlord’ll let you keep cats. There’s a new one I want to catch. Here, take this bowl. Help me get my coat on.
Sidestepped by History?
Bend down and look under the cars. It’s got a white nose. No, my name in the phone book’s not Place. You know that. But say Etta Place in the story. It still feels right. Etta Longabaugh used to make Harry and me laugh. Tickles your mouth.
What if the star was me? If they made a show about my own real life? The girl that took Harry from tapeworms to Hollywood.
I see it! Here kitty, kitty, come here.
Put the bowl down so he’ll smell the milk.
There, kitty, that tastes good, don’t it?
Say I’m wearing one of those ruffled white dresses, with dark hair piled up and my skin still creamy. Say I’ve got some secret that keeps me beautiful, like the girl in the movie. Write it with me in the middle. Not off to the side.
But keep that scene where Harry and Butch rush out of hiding, and everything freezes. You hear all that gunfire, and you know they’ll die. I can see why people like that part. It builds up and builds up, with fighting and music, and they’re bleeding and hurt but still cracking jokes, with no way out except through that door, surrounded by police. Outnumbered. Brave. Turning into heroes before your very eyes.
My great-granddaughter cried. She couldn’t stop, even when I told her it wasn’t like that. She grabbed my hand and held on, like I could change things. Like I could say none of the bad stuff was true.