Was Legendary Stagecoach Driver Charlie Parkhurst Gay or Trans?
Karen Kondazian’s critically acclaimed debut novel, The Whip, is based on the true story of the famous 19th century Wells Fargo Stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst (1812-1879). What no one knew back in the Wild West — at least until Parkhurst’s body was buried in Watsonville, California — was that Charley was in fact Charlotte, a free-spirited and determined woman who chose to live the majority of her life as a man. The gripping page-turner explores themes of self-identity, forgiveness, and survival, and captivates the reader from multiple perspectives.
Kondazian fills the story with mounting action, harsh violence, and emotionally jarring sequences while staying true to the sometimes harsh culture of the Wild West. She poses the question to her readers: “What would happen if someone destroyed everything in your life? Would you forgive them? And if you couldn’t, how far would you go?”
And how much we can really know about this woman who lived her life as a man? Parkhurst didn't just live as an ordinary man — as a stagecoach "whip," Parkhurst was the Wild West equivalent of a rock star.
The true story behind Parkhurst's personal life is not the easiest to uncover, and when asked about her research on Parkhurst, Kondazian said most of it was through historical archives and personal accounts from people whose great-great-grandparents knew Parkhurst.
On one of her many trips to Watsonville, Kondazian encountered “a wonderful cranky old woman in her eighties,” who told her stories of Parkhurst that she couldn’t find anywhere else. The woman also told her a rumor that Parkhurst had relations with a runaway slave, and Kondazian novelized this story for her book.
“I took all the rumors and interviews," says Kondazian, "got some letters from the Watsonville museum, and I novelized the rumors.”
In those days, career options for women were limited — women had the choice of being a wife, a prostitute, or a teacher, says Kondazian. For those like Parkhurst, wanting something more meant putting on some britches and hitting the road.
And according to Kondazian, Parkhurst wasn't the only one who did just that. Kondazian mentions instances of women who fought in the civil war diguised as men for examples of other women who refused to let society's gender norms limit them.
Still, Parkhurst was a clear leader in this gender-swapping lifestyle during a highly heteronormative time. Kondazian posits that Parkhurst was the first woman to vote — disguised as a man — for Ulysses Grant in 1868. Kondazian empathizes with what she imagines was Parkhurst's free-spirited nature, and sympathizes with the kind of loneliness her protagonist likely felt.
“Imagine to not have anyone touch you for 30 years," says Kondazian. "To live an emotional celibate and physically celibate life."
Looking at Parkhurst's story through a modern lens provides a distinctly queer perspective on The Whip. When asked if Parkhurst would have identified as a transgender man, Kondazian replies, “Yes, absolutely.”
Then the author goes a step farther to say, “I do believe that Charlie was probably gay. I think there is the thought that she was a gay woman who put on men’s clothes and was very happy doing it. But the book isn’t written in that mentality.”
Kondazian says her her intention was to make Parkhurst heterosexual for the general public, making it harder — in the fictionalized novel — to pull off living as a man for 30 years, and to bring more depth to the love story in the book.
With a story that can be interpreted so many different ways, it's only a matter of time before Hollywood comes calling, and Kondazian is on board for a big-screen version of her book. She says she would love to have Clint Eastwood produce, Kathryn Bigelow direct, and — although she goes back and forth on who she would want to act — her current dream casting is to have Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence play Charley, and James Franco play Lee. Kondazian worked with Franco on the set of James Dean and says the LGBT ally is, “a very warm, smart and a good guy. Very talented, kind of a renaissance man.”
But until the film goes to the silver screen, Kondazian enjoys reading the letters she receives from her readers. One woman wrote to her about some of the horrible personal struggles she was going through, and said “the book gave me such courage, knowing that if a woman like Charley can survive then I can too.”
Most know Kondazian from her time on the stage and on TV, with starring roles in Kids Say the Darndest Things, and appearances on shows like Fraiser, NYPD Blue, and James Dean. Now that The Whip is in the can, Kondazian says she is working on a new novel called Looking for Jack Kerouac.
The Whip is available in bookstores, online, and as an audio-book narrated by the openly gay Emmy-nominated actress from Wild West drama Deadwood, Robin Weigert.