In which a young reporter discovers the secret behind a lonely woman’s suicide in a phoenix hotel room.
(Phoenix, Arizona, August 14, 1948.)
“What’s the verdict, Doc?” asked the detective sergeant, scratching the itch that had just developed on the side of his neck.
The doctor straightened up wearily from his examination of the body that lay on the bed in the Phoenix hotel room. His face was drawn and grey.
“Bullet wounds in the abdomen and head were almost certainly self-inflicted,” he said. “I’ve seen a number of these in my time. It’s always pretty grisly. No exception here. Only consolation is she probably died more or less instantly.”
He took out a large handkerchief, and mopped his brow.
“Sure is hot today!” he remarked.
“Arizona in August! What can I tell you?” answered the police officer. “Why’d she shoot twice, Doc?”
“Probably just wanted to be sure,” said the doctor. “Did she leave a note?”
“Right here,” replied the sergeant, holding out a piece of writing paper with the heading, ‘Adams Hotel’.
The doctor glanced at the note. His eyes fastened on the key sentence:
“I don’t want to live without my husband.”
“What happened to her husband?” he enquired.
“We don’t know yet, Doc,” said the sergeant with a shrug. “We’ve only just identified the victim. Apparently her name is Eloise Walker. She checked into this hotel about a week ago. The desk clerk said that he hasn’t seen much of her since she arrived.”
“Well, I think we can safely say that this was a straightforward suicide as a result of two self-inflicted gunshot wounds,” said the doctor, fastening the clasp on his medical case. “I’ll report to the coroner for East Phoenix, and the death certificate should be a formality. I guess you fellers will contact the next of kin. Any idea where she came from?”
“There’s an envelope in her purse addressed to her,” answered the sergeant. “Seems she lives in Winslow.”
“That’s north-east of here apiece, isn’t it,” said the doctor.
“Close to two hundred miles off,” commented the sergeant. “Up in Navaho County on the road from Flagstaff to Albuquerque.”
“Wonder what she was doing down here,” remarked the doctor in a puzzled tone.
He scratched his head, then he picked up his bag and said briskly:
“Gotta get going, sarge, but I’d be curious to know who the lady is and what happened to her husband. Keep me informed, will you.”
“Sure will, Doc,” replied the police officer with a wave of his hand to his departing colleague.
“Come in here, Nolan,” barked the editor of the Phoenix Herald, “and bring your pad and pencil.”
“On my way, chief,” replied Pete Nolan, snatching up the requested articles and heading for his boss’s office.
News Editor Frank Temple was sitting hunched behind his desk, shirt-sleeves rolled up, unlit cigar sticking from the corner of his mouth. He looked up as Pete entered.
“Take a look at this story in the ‘Republic’, kid,” he growled tossing a newspaper across the desk.
Pete picked up the copy of Phoenix’s leading newspaper, and rapidly perused the article that his boss had outlined in red. When he had finished, he glanced inquiringly at his boss.
“Not much there, boss,” he ventured cautiously. “Fifty year old widow commits suicide in a Phoenix hotel room, apparently distraught at the sudden death of her husband. Not that unusual.”
Temple fixed him with a piercing glare.
“If you’re gonna be a good newsman, you gotta develop an instinct, a nose for a good story,” he said. “Sure it don’t look like much, but don’t you wanna know more about it? Who was this dame? How come her husband’s death hit her so hard? People lose their spouses all the time, but they don’t all go shoot themselves. There’s a story there! I just know it!”
“The ‘Republic’ don’t seem to think so,” argued Pete. “They buried the story on page eight!”
“The ‘Arizona Republic’ has dominated circulation in this town for years,” said Temple scornfully. “They’ve got fat, lazy and complacent over there. We’re the newcomer on the block. We need to hustle for stories! This is your chance, kid! Get out there and find the story for me. I know it’s there! I’ve been in this business twenty-five years, and I can always smell out a story with potential. Besides, you ain’t busy right now, are you?”
Pete shook his head.
“No, I can’t say as I’m exactly snowed under,” he admitted.
“Off you go then, son,” said Temple. “Start with the cops. Talk to Sergeant Murphy. He was the investigator on the case.”
Pete grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair, and headed for the newsroom door. He was still skeptical about the prospects for a story, but he had learned to respect his boss, an experienced reporter who he had pulled off a number of famous scoops during his time on the street.
“Her full name was Eloise Fox Wilson,” said Sergeant Murphy, reading from his notebook. “She and her husband managed a ranch up north in Winslow, Arizona. It’s a small town, population around six thousand, on the highway between Flagstaff and Albuquerque. Her husband’s name was Chuck Wilson. He was apparently devoted to her, and nursed her through a serious bout of tuberculosis that lasted about six years. She was on the road to recovery when poor Chuck dropped dead one day from a massive heart attack up in Winslow. He was only forty-eight, and I guess his loss threw her into a tail-spin. He died only just over two weeks ago. For some reason she felt she had to get out of Winslow, so she came down here to Phoenix, and checked into the Adams Hotel. We interviewed the staff, but none of them seem to have had much contact with her. She kept herself to herself, took her meals elsewhere, and didn’t talk much to anyone. Then one of the maids came to clean her room one morning and found her dead. Hotel manager called the police. The doctor reckoned she shot herself around three o’clock in the morning. Her room was at the far end of the hotel with a lot of unoccupied rooms around her. So no-one heard the shots. That’s about it, son. That’s really all I can tell you. Coroner’s verdict was suicide. No further investigation necessary on our part. Case is closed. If I were you, kid, I’d head up to Winslow, and see what you can dig up there.”
“I’ll have to ask my boss,” said Pete ruefully. “We’re a small operation. I don’t know if the budget will run to a trip up north.”
Nevertheless, as it happened, Frank Temple decided that it was worth the risk to send his intrepid young reporter to Winslow for a few days, but he gave Pete strict instructions to watch his expenses very carefully!
“Real nice people, the Wilsons,” said the storekeeper. “Didn’t see them in town too much. Only came in from the ranch when they needed supplies. Course we saw more of Chuck, seein’ as how his wife was awful sick for quite a while. He was real devoted to her, nursed her through it.”
“She suffered from tuberculosis, didn’t she?” asked Pete. “How’d she develop that?”
“It ain’t so uncommon in these parts,” said the storekeeper. “Ranchers and rodeo performers pick it up from contaminated steers.”
“Did you say rodeo performers?” asked Pete with a sudden spark of interest. “Was Mr. Wilson involved in the rodeos?”
“Not sure,” remarked the other man, stroking his jaw. “Seems to me I heard that they both were. Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Wilson too at one time. Say, you should talk to Hank Garland down on Elm Street. He was a bronc rider in the rodeos back in the thirties. He could tell you.”
“Thanks,” said Pete with gathering excitement. “You’ve been most helpful.”
“Think nothing of it, young feller,” replied the storekeeper amiably. “You just let me read that story o’ yours when it’s finished!”
“Oh sure,” drawled Hank Garland. “I knew Chuck real well. And his wife too. ‘Cept she didn’t go by Eloise Wilson in the rodeos. Called herself ‘Fox Hastings’. Fox was her last name when she was single, and Hastings was her first husband’s last name.”
“So she was married before,” asked Pete, intrigued.
“Sure, sure,” said Hank. “I knew her first husband too. Mike Hastings. They were hitched when she was real young. Married about ten years, then they got divorced.”
“What happened?” asked Pete.
“Don’t rightly know,” replied Hank cautiously. “Guess the rodeo circuit’s tough on a marriage. Lot o’ hard grind, bad food, and rough digs. Still, her first husband, Mike, taught her all those trick riding skills. She was just a green kid, but she had a lot o’ talent, and she learned fast. Soon she was ridin’ the fastest broncs on the circuit. And she was a natural showgirl. Boy, could she work those crowds! She’d dress up in scarlet shirts, wear flashy bandanas, and set red ribbons in that bright ginger hair of hers. Then when she started bulldoggin’, her career really took off!”
“What’s bulldogging?” asked Pete curiously.
“Lord, you never been to a rodeo, son?” exclaimed Hank.
“Can’t say that I have,” admitted Pete sheepishly.
“Bulldoggin’s one of the most dangerous contests in rodeo,” declared Hank. You ride a horse up alongside a galloping steer, and you jump down and grab that critter by the horns and wrestle him to the ground. They say it was first invented by the famous black cowboy, Bill Pickett. Men been doing it for years, but Mrs. Fox Hastings was one of the few women to try it! And if she warn’t the first, she was surely the best! First attempted bulldoggin’ at the Fort Worth Rodeo in Texas in ’24, and lo and behold she wrestled that steer to the ground in seventeen seconds flat, and that’s a record that’s stood ever since!”
“Remarkable!” exclaimed Pete. “A woman wrestling with a steer! That must’ve been something to see!”
“Sure was!” agreed Hank, rising to his feet. “I got a photograph over here somewhere.”
He hobbled painfully across his front parlor, and returned a few moments later with a picture that he handed to the young reporter. The photograph was somewhat faded, and creased around the edges, but Pete’s attention was immediately captured by the expression of triumph and glee on the young woman’s face as she grinned up from the mud toward the camera, her arms firmly encircling the neck of a collapsed steer. She was wearing jeans, cowboy boots, a man’s shirt, and an old-fashioned leather football helmet!
“The cameramen loved her!” said Hank. “They were just tickled to death that this young woman had such strength and determination as well as a good deal of skill. It ain’t easy throwin’ a steer. Some of those critters weighed up to twelve hundred pounds! No two steers are exactly alike. You gotta know the animal’s size, its strength, the formation of its horns, the build of its neck and shoulders and more. You gotta time each move to a split second. But you know Fox used to say to me: “If’n I can just get my fanny out of the saddle and my feet planted, there’s not a steer that can last against me.” Now that’s confidence, that’s belief in yerself. She was a star and no mistake!”
Pete continued to peer fascinated at the image in the photograph. Such flair, such assurance, he thought.
“Course she had a shrewd manager, feller name of Fred ‘Foghorn’ Clancy, and he knew how to build her up. He called her ‘the nerviest cowgirl I ever saw’, and he’d give the newspapers names for her like ‘The Red-headed Daredevil of the Arena’ and such-like. The reporters and photographers just lapped it up!”
“I wonder if maybe her fame got too much for her husband to handle,” suggested Pete. “After all, you said that he taught her the basic skills and got her started. Perhaps she just got too famous and he was jealous.”
“Mebbe so, mebbe so,” said Hank cautiously. “I couldn’t say for certain. They both performed for royalty at Wembley Stadium in England in 1924. Her husband, Mike, was acquainted with the Duke of Windsor, the guy who abdicated to marry that American divorcee. Mike was an admired and accomplished performer, but his wife became the most celebrated and photographed cowgirl in rodeo history. The press folks were buzzin’ all around her. Cain’t have been easy for him! All I know is they seemed to drift apart, ended up divorced, and then Fox was with Chuck Wilson.”
“Her second husband was a rodeo performer too, I believe,” remarked Pete.
“That’s right, he was. Not as spectacular as Mike Hastings, but a good steady man, and he was a rock in Fox’s life. She could lean on him, rely on him. I could see that he just worshipped her. They traveled the circuit together from New York to Los Angeles. They were real happy, and they settled down on a ranch in Arizona towards the end of their rodeo careers.”
“Did she get hurt much?” asked Pete.
“Oh sure!” replied Hank. “Broke several bones, One time she bust a rib at the Fiesta de Vaqueros in Tucson. Most folks would have bowed out of competition to recover, but not Fox. She reckoned that she had a contract to perform and shouldn’t let the management down, so she just had that rib taped up and went out and bull-dogged her steer in each of the next three days! She was a tough one alright!”
“I like the story you’ve written so far, kid,” said Frank Temple. “That material from the old cowboy is solid gold. I like the stuff about her rise to fame on the rodeo circuit, her two marriages and the tragic tale of how she ended up dead and alone in the Phoenix hotel room, but I think you need some more background on the beginning of her story. Where was she from? How did she get started in the rodeo?”
“Records say she was born in 1898 in Galt. That’s a small city just south of Sacramento. Her parents were Wesley and Susan Fox. They put her in a boarding school when she was fourteen years old. Two years later she ran away from school, and joined the Irwin Brothers Wild West Show where she met her first husband, Mike Hastings,” said Pete, reading from his notes.
“Had any luck finding this Hastings feller?” asked Temple.
“Not so far, chief,” admitted Pete, but I’ll keep digging.”
“You do that, son,” ordered Temple, “and meanwhile we’ll run the first part of your story!”
“Am I speaking to Mike Hastings?” asked Pete cautiously.
“Mebbe,” was the terse reply. “Who’s calling?”
“Pete Nolan, reporter for the Phoenix Herald. We’re writing a story about your ex-wife, Fox Hastings, who was found dead in a Phoenix hotel room last week,” said Pete.
There was a pause at the other end of the line, and a sharp intake of breath.
“I wasn’t aware she’d passed,” said the voice hesitantly, “and yes, I am Mike Hastings.”
“The focus of our story is her dramatic life on the rodeo circuit,” continued Pete, “and I’d sure appreciate your help, filling in some details about her early career. If you don’t mind answering just a few questions, that is.”
There was a further pause.
“You know that Fox and I got divorced,” said Hastings finally. “It wasn’t real amicable. How do I know you ain’t going to do some kind of hatchet job on me? How do I know you’ll be fair and tell the truth?”
“We won’t be making judgements of people, Mr. Hastings,” assured Pete. “We mostly just want to tell the story of her life. She was a remarkable figure, a woman in a very rugged and dangerous profession. That’s our real focus.”
“Well, okay,” said Hastings grudgingly, “but I reserve the right to refuse to answer any questions if I think it’s too personal.”
“Of course, Mr. Hastings,” agreed Pete. “That’s your privilege. In fact, you can hang up on me anytime, and I’ll not bother you again. Now, tell me, how and when did you first meet Fox?”
“She was called Eloise then,” began Hastings, “She was just a kid, hanging round the Wild West Show where I was working. She’d run away from a school in California, looking for excitement, for adventure. I understood her. I’d run away from home myself with the same dreams, and found work breaking wild horses. We became friends. She was only sixteen. I was seven years older, and I’d already been on the rodeo circuit almost five years. She wanted to be a bronco rider, so I showed her the ropes. She was pretty green at first.” He paused and a soft chuckle could be heard on the line. “She fell off a lot in the beginning, but she was plucky, and a fast learner. You need strength and endurance, and she had that in spades. She also had a real feel for the horses. She knew how to get control of them, show them who was boss. Some of the bronc riders can be hard on the horses, try to break their spirit, but she was simply firm and confident. In no time she was riding some real fast, real tricky mounts.”
“So as you worked together, you got closer personally,” prompted Pete.
“Very nicely put, young feller,” replied Hastings with a tinge of amusement. “But you’re right. Eloise was so full of life and energy I couldn’t help but fall for her. So we got married, and we went out on the circuit together.”
“What did you think when she wanted to start bulldogging?” asked Pete.
“I thought she was crazy,” admitted Hastings. “Told her so myself! But I knew there was no stopping her once she’d made up her mind. She loved the limelight. And by golly, she was a tough skillful steer wrestler. As good as most men, better‘n some!”
“So what happened to the marriage?” asked Pete boldly.
At once he felt the tension on the other end of the line, and feared that he had overstepped the mark.
“I think I told you, son, that there’s some areas that are out o’ bounds,” said Hastings in an icy tone, “but this I will say, maybe Eloise or Fox, as she became known, just grew a bit too big fer them britches she wore! She loved the limelight, like I said, and by heaven the crowds and those photographer fellows just couldn’t get enough of her. She always had her smile ready for that camera, always ready to grab that fresh slice of publicity.” He paused reflectively. “I guess we just grew apart.”
“Well, I think that gives me all the information I need,” declared Pete diplomatically. “I want to thank you, Mr. Hastings, for being so frank and filling in some gaps in the story.”
“Just how did she…” said Hastings hesitantly, and his voice faltered. “It…it ain’t made the papers here yet,” he concluded.
“She committed suicide,” replied Pete. “She left a note saying that she was depressed at the loss of her husband Chuck, who had died of a sudden heart attack, and that she couldn’t live without him. Did you know Charles Wilson, Mr. Hastings?”
“I knew Chuck,” admitted Hastings. “He was a decent feller. I used to see them occasionally on the circuit. I never had no problems with him. He likely made her happier than I could have done!”
“I’m sure you were important in her life, Mr. Hastings,” said Pete. “After all it was you who got her started on her chosen career.”
“Well thanks, son,” replied Hastings. “It’s nice of you to say so. I’m sorry she had to die that way. She must have been real lonely at the end. I’ll say a prayer for her tonight.”
“Great story, kid,” said Frank Temple heartily. “You really captured the human angle. Her drive and ambition, her rise to fame, her tragic end. This should sell a few papers!”
Pete felt a certain distaste rising in his gorge. He wanted to tell his boss that his intention in writing the story had not been to sell papers, but to pay tribute to an unusually courageous woman who had carved out a glittering career in the masculine world of rodeo.
As if sensing the young man’s discomfort Temple continued:
“Look, son, I understand. If you didn’t have that strong urge to find out the truth and tell the story, you’d not be the fine reporter that you already are. Don’t listen to an old cynic such as me. I know you’ll always treat the people in your stories with respect, and you’ve certainly done that here. Your tribute to Fox Hastings goes quite a way to make up for the lonely despair of her death. You put her life in perspective and showed what an unforgettable woman she really was. You done good, kid!”
Thus when young Pete Nolan stepped out of his editor’s office, there was a proud tilt to his shoulders and a fresh jaunty swing in his step.
I was attracted to tell the story of rodeo performer, Fox Hastings, by her obvious charisma and her unshakeable determination to excel in her chosen profession. She attained tremendous popularity, and pioneered a path for women in a sport dominated by men. Although she was certainly no feminist in any conventional sense, she was nevertheless one of the very first really successful female athletes and thus a role model for any young woman who observed her meteoric career.
My story is a fictionalized account based on reports of real events in the life of Fox Hastings, but it is not intended to be a biography. I have invented characters freely, notably Hank, the former rodeo performer, the police sergeant, the doctor, the editor, the reporter and the Winslow storekeeper. All their actions and dialogue are the product of my imagination. Whilst Mike Hastings, Fox’s first husband, is obviously a real person, his telephone conversation with the reporter in my story is entirely fictional. However, the facts of Fox Hasting’s life which underpin my story are to the best of my knowledge accurate and true. I apologize for any errors or liberties I may have taken.
Eloise Fox Hastings Wilson was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1987. She was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth in 2011.
RIP, Fox. You are remembered!