Zee James, wife of Jesse James, is one of those figures who hasn’t gotten much attention from historians. She’s overshadowed by her famous, flamboyant husband. Jesse is the man who made history with his daring robberies. Zee was the woman who worried and waited for him to come home. In writing The Woman Who Loved Jesse James, I tried to bring Zee to life, and to share her remarkable story with others.
As a history buff, I can get lost in research. I love reading old newspapers and letters, as well as biographies and historical nonfiction. I’m particularly fascinated by some of the larger-than-life characters in the American west – Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James. Mention Jesse James in any crowd and almost everyone will have something to say about him. (A surprising number of people will mention that he is a distant relative.) Everyone knows – or thinks she knows – about Jesse James.
One of the interesting aspects of Jesse – to me – is how much of a family man he was. Most people know he spent a lot of time running from the law, but many don’t know his family ran with him. They were always right there, living under assumed names, too.
They say behind every great man is an even greater woman. I started thinking about the kind of woman who would be so devoted to a man like Jesse that she’d follow him away from her home, change her name and keep his secrets. Was it love that kept Jesse’s wife loyal, or something else?
Thus began my research into the life of Zee James, Jesse’s wife. The story I found fascinated me – she was Jesse’s first cousin. They fell in love while she nursed him back to health. She waited for him through a nine-year engagement. She kept their family together through some amazingly tense and trying circumstances. Here was a woman who’d been a part of history but had lived in the shadows. I realized I’d uncovered one of the great, though tragic, love stories of our time.
Unfortunately, no letters in Zee’s own words, or diary of her experiences exist. What I learned about her I had to piece together from mentions in newspapers, family stories and legend. Zee rates only a few paragraphs in even the best biographies of Jesse. If I was going to tell Zee’s story, I would have to do it through fiction.
The Zee I portray in The Woman Who Loved Jesse James may not be like the real woman – we’ll never know. But she is true to the woman I imagined, a woman who longed for adventure, who loved her husband in spite of, and even because of, his faults, and who longed for a life she was never really able to have.