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The Cowboy & The Ballerina

Hollywood has never made a love story better than this one.

He was a cowboy, and she was a ballerina. Jack Omohundro grew up in a fine southern home in Palmyra, Virginia, and Giuseppina Morlacchi was born in Milan, Italy. His education was earned on horseback, hunting in the wilderness along the Rivanna River, and hers was at La Scuola di Ballo del Teatro Alla Scala (the La Scala Theatre Ballet School), one of the most prestigious classical ballet schools in the world, where she endured marathon sessions from the age of five. During the Civil War, he became a man, joining the Army of Northern Virginia and serving as a courier, cavalryman, and spy for General JEB Stuart. She traveled across Europe, playing some of the most demanding ballet roles in Paris, Lisboa, Berlin, and London.

After the war, he traveled west on a barge that overturned in the Gulf, stranding him for a time on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Her passage to America was the fastest a boat had ever crossed the Atlantic. He earned the name "Texas Jack," delivering a herd of cattle from the Lones Star State to drought-stricken and meat-starved Tennessee. The press fawned over her performances and dubbed her "The Peerless" Morlacchi, as no ballerina in the world could match her grace and beauty.

In 1869, he traveled north from Texas towards Nebraska, where he met a young Army scout named William F. Cody. They hunted together, drank together, chased Sioux warriors, and led aristocrats on buffalo hunts across the prairie. She started her own ballet troupe, making headlines in New York and New Orleans, Boston and San Francisco, delighting critics and audiences everywhere she performed.

Newspapers carried stories about the adventures of "Texas Jack" and "Buffalo Bill." Back east, readers devoured dime novel stories of these brave scouts rescuing maidens from fierce braves and renegades. At the same time, newspapers reported on their real-life exploits, like Texas Jack leading the Pawnee tribe on a summer buffalo hunt or lassoing and capturing eight live bison for the Niagara Falls museum. As Morlacchi continued to enchant everywhere she went, newspapers reported that her legs had been insured for the exorbitant sum of $100,000, over $1.5 million today.

In December of 1872, she wrapped up a series of engagements in Chicago at Nixon’s Amphitheatre when she was approached to star in a new kind of play. We will never know why she agreed to act with untrained actors in an untried play with an untested manager. By all accounts, she didn't need the money. There was no time even to rehearse the show, as it was set to premiere just four days later, and her costars were busy capturing a pair of bears that had been released in Lincoln Park. Nevertheless, she took the part of Dove Eye, "the beautiful Indian maiden with an Italian accent and weakness for scouts." By all accounts, the first show was a disaster. Morlacchi was a consummate professional and performed her part to perfection, but Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill, her costars, had forgotten every single one of their lines. The show had only been saved by the fact that, even though they were incredibly bad actors, Jack and Bill were handsome and rugged scouts of the first degree. The show's manager decided to work with Buffalo Bill personally and asked Morlacchi to instruct Texas Jack on the finer points of acting. Buffalo Bill's wife Louisa said, "Many a time I heard Texas Jack call a dance. Many a time, I saw him swing off his horse, tired and dusty from miles in the saddle, worn from days and nights without sleep when perhaps the lives of hundreds depended on his nerve, his skill with the rifle, his knowledge of the prairie." But she had never seen Texas Jack scared—had never seen him unsure until the moment when the brave cowboy was introduced to the beautiful ballerina. “Texas Jack put out his hand in a hesitating, wavering way," she wrote, and "His usually heavy bass voice cracked and broke. There were more difficulties than ever now, for Jack had fallen in love, at sight…And never did a pupil work harder than Texas Jack from that moment!”

When the tour ended, Jack returned to North Platte just long enough to say goodbye to Ena Palmer and end that chapter of his life. He raced to Rochester, New York, where Morlacchi's ballet troupe was performing and asked for her hand in marriage. They were married on August 30, 1873, at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Rochester. I wish I could tell you that they lived happily ever after, but Texas Jack's life was tragically cut short at the age of 33 when he was stricken by pneumonia in the Rocky Mountain town of Leadville, Colorado. Morlacchi retired from performing and passed away of cancer just six years later. But the short time they shared was filled with the kind of love and adventures that Hollywood wishes it could write.

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