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Will James: From Prison to Fame

After his release from prison, James continued to drift around the West, sketching and working various ranch jobs. In 1919, James found himself in Reno, Nevada, where he and two cowboy friends (Fred Conradt and Elmer Freel) formed a trio and nicknamed themselves "the one-elevens." He spent time with the Conradt family, sketching for them and speaking frequently of his artistic ambitions.

[Will James and Elmer Freel pretending to fight on horseback. UNRS P2270-25]

James and Fred's sister Alice fell in love and were married in 1920, while James was living and attending art school in San Francisco, California.

Young Will
[A young Will James and Alice Conradt. UNRS P2270-18]

During the early 1920s, Will and Alice James wandered throughout the West, driven by James's burgeoning artistic career.  With Alice's encouragement, he experimented with the written word and found writing to be a talent that complemented his artistic ability. Over the years, James wrote and illustrated over twenty books and numerous articles based on his image of the West: a West of cowboys and rangelands; a West that was disappearing before his eyes. His work found a devoted audience among children and adults alike—among people hungry for stories of his slice of life on the range. After James's success, the couple made their home in Washoe Valley, Nevada, and then in Billings, Montana.

Will Alice
[Will and Alice James, Washoe Valley. UNRS P2270-20]

James's career took him from Nevada to New York, from Yale to Hollywood.  He published in numerous magazines and was awarded the Newberry Medal, recognized by many as the country's highest honor for children's literature, in 1927 for Smoky, the Cowhorse.

[Newberry Medal awarded to Will James for Smoky]

The secrets of his true identity and childhood James kept to his death.  His bestselling autobiography,Lone Cowboy: My Life Story, tells his version of events.  Not even Alice was aware of the truth, although from time to time she was party to rumors and statements by James himself that seemed to contradict what she knew about his life. Fame and keeping the truth of his past hidden weighed heavily on James: he began to abuse alcohol, with tragic effects on both his art and his relationship with Alice. He died alone in Los Angeles in 1942 at the age of 50, with unfulfilled dreams of writing the great American novel, set in the West. 

James's life story was both a story of great happiness and success, and at the same time a story of tragedy.  Always, the West was at the center his story, in both the true narrative of his life and the falsified narrative that proved too heavy for him to carry.  Many years after James's death, Anthony Amaral revealed a more historically accurate but no less thrilling story of James's life in Will James, The Gilt Edged Cowboy.