Frankie and Johnny were lovers
O Lordy, how they could love
Swore they’d be true to each other
True as the stars up above
He was her man
But he done her wrong.
– From the song, “Frankie and Johnny”
Frankie Baker sat by the window, playing a nonstop game of solitaire with a deck of worn-out cards. She had a drawer filled with newspaper clippings about a song that made her famous but far from rich. They were a haunting reminder of a fateful event from her past that the world wouldn’t let her forget. “Frankie and Johnny” was based on a true story—a dramatic tale that took on a life of its own.
Edgefield Manor (now McMenamins Edgefield, in Troutdale, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge) was a safety net for those facing old age and dwindling resources. This facility opened in 1911 as the county poor farm. Many of the Edgefield residents had fascinating lives, but Frankie’s story is near mythic. Tender portraits of Ms. Baker displayed at McMenamins Edgefield simply acknowledge her as she was—a thoughtful, resilient, real person. The legend of “Frankie” however, is larger than life.
The American folk ballad, “Frankie and Johnny” has been recorded more than 256 times by musical artists from all genres you can think of. Lead Belly, Johnny Cash, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, and Stevie Wonder all have their renditions. “Frankie and Johnny” is a standard of the American songbook, yet the lyrics are anything but. There are an estimated 300 different lyrical versions of this urban fable.
Over the last century, the drama embedded in “Frankie and Johnny’s” three minutes of music has been adapted into vaudeville shows, plays, a ballet, and several movies featuring stars such as Elvis Presley, Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. Playwright John Huston’s exaggerated depiction of Frankie from 1930 has Hollywood written all over it:
“She was a beautiful, light brown girl, who liked to make money and spend it. She dressed very richly, sat for company in magenta lady’s cloth, diamonds as big as hen’s eggs in her ears. There was a long razor scar down the side of her face she got in her teens from a girl who was jealous of her. She only weighed about a hundred and fifteen pounds, but she had the eye of one you couldn’t monkey with. She was a queen sport.”
So…what’s the real story?
Frankie Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1876. She was part of the Black community of Chestnut Valley, and by her early twenties, Frankie lived in the red-light district and infamous center of ragtime music. (Coincidentally, she lived at 212 Targee Street—the same apartment building in which jazz dancer Josephine Baker spent her childhood at the turn of the 20th century.)
Frankie’s seventeen-year old boyfriend, Allen Britt (known as Albert) was a saloon piano player. One night in October of 1899, Albert appeared at the Orange Blossom’s Ball—a cakewalk dance—with another young woman, Alice Pryar. Frankie saw them together and angrily confronted Albert. They shouted at each other as onlookers gawked at their quarrel. Albert refused to go home with Frankie, so she went back to her apartment alone. Shaken up by the experience, she tried not to let his cheating bother her. Yet, she went to bed with a gun under her pillow, unsure of what Albert was capable of. He had hit her the night before.
At three o’clock in the morning, Albert stumbled home and reignited their fight. The argument escalated until Albert threw a lamp and charged at her with a knife. Desperate and afraid, Frankie shot her man. Albert staggered down the street to his parents’ house, and was taken to the hospital, where he died four days later.
At Frankie’s murder trial, she explained how she was only protecting herself. Her bruised eye and fresh knife scars were evidence of Albert’s attack. Frankie was acquitted by reason of self-defense. The Judge even handed her back the gun.
Salacious news travels fast, and Albert had not even succumbed to his wounds before he was already proclaimed dead in a song, according to Paul Slade, author of Unprepared To Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads. St. Louis songwriter, Bill Dooley, printed up one-page sheet music of his new song, “Frankie Killed Allen,” and sold it on the street for ten cents. The song was a viral hit among the city’s saloons. A reporter at the time described it as a “sorrowful dirge”. Frankie couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the song or being stalked by strangers because of it.
Albert’s parents demanded the songwriter change their son’s name, out of respect. “Allen” was changed to “Johnny”; and Alice Pryor became “Nellie Bly”. And Frankie? No such luck.
She couldn’t escape the reminder of that terrible incident. And the song became dancier, catchier. The lyrics claimed “Frankie” was vengeful, ruthless, even that she was executed. But in all its variations, as “Johnny” appeared as everything from a cowboy to a hustler, from lyrics obscene to clean, no one spoke of the male character’s own violence. In every version of the song, “Frankie” killed out of jealously, but never self-defense.
Frankie moved out of St. Louis, just to get away from that dreaded tune. She moved to Omaha in 1901, thinking she could live peacefully without hearing it. But the song was already sweeping the country. The first copyright on the song, now titled “She Done Him Wrong”, was in 1904 and credited to ragtime composer, Hughie Cannon (who also wrote the popular “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?”). Despite the change in scenery, Frankie remained tied to the song.
Frankie came to Portland, Oregon in 1915, invited by friends, to take in the city’s annual Rose Festival. And she stayed. She worked as a housekeeper in a hotel until she saved enough money to open her own shoeshine business (a “bootblack stand”) downtown on NW 6th and Flanders. But her most-loathed song still followed her. The first audio recording of “Frankie and Johnny” was in 1921 by the Paul Biese Trio, which sealed its fate as the song that never ends.
On the silver screen, the first glamourous, devil-may-care caricature of “Frankie” was captured by Mae West in the 1933 film with Cary Grant, She Done Him Wrong. The sultry, comedic starlet sang a jazzy rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” in the pre-code Hollywood blockbuster.
Frankie was outraged that her reputation was stained by the film, which painted her as a murderess harlot. To add insult to injury, Mae West was making it rich off of Frankie’s life story. “Mae West made thousands of dollars,” Frankie explained to reporters. “You’d think she could spare some for a person like me. But she never sent no money. Not a cent.”
Frankie sued Paramount Pictures for $100,000 in 1935. The folklore expert, brought in from Paramount, initially confirmed that the song was from 1899. But after consulting with the movie studio, he “realized” that it could be traced back to an earlier murder in the 1840s by a different “Frankie”. He claimed the song was popular with Union Soldiers during the Civil War. The consultant said he had simply “changed his mind” and the lawsuit was dismissed. (The fact that “Frankie and Johnny” was never found in print until the 20th century does not support this theory.)
The publicity from the trial only fanned the flames of interest in the song, and another film version came out in 1936: Frankie and Johnny, starring Helen Morgan and Chester Morris.
Frankie, even more determined, sued Republic Pictures for defamation in 1938, and this time for twice as much: $200,000. The case went to trial in 1942. The lawsuit, filed in St. Louis, claimed that the movie depicted “incidents in Frankie’s life, and that such portrayal was wrongful, wanton, willful and malicious.” Frankie proved she wore simple cotton dresses, not expensive gowns or diamonds. But as Frankie tried to distance herself from the song’s female villain, the less believable it seemed that the character was even based on her. The fact that white actors always played “Frankie and Johnny” did not help convince the all-white jury.
The lawyer defending Republic pictures declared: “Frankie Baker wants to appropriate for her own use one of the finest ballads in American folklore. If you give her a verdict, she will have a claim against everybody who ever sang the song. Send her back to Portland, Oregon, and her shoe shine business; for an honest shine, let her have an honest dime. Don’t make her a rich woman because forty years ago she shot a little [black] boy here in St. Louis.”
The way in which Frankie’s traumatic story was twisted and morphed into popular entertainment was unfortunately, not uncommon. Frankie’s story “speaks to a larger cultural silencing of women’s experiences with violence. This silencing proved especially pernicious for African American women…” – Frankie and Johnny: Race, Gender, and the Work of African American Folklore in 1930s America by Stacy I. Morgan.
In 1949, the Urban League of Portland awarded Frankie their Lifetime Membership Award, the first award of its kind. She had continually supported the organization since the Portland chapter’s formation in 1945, despite her limited income. The award gave Frankie some local press after many years, and of course, renewed interest in “Frankie and Johnny”. However, articles about her were sympathetic and let Frankie tell her side. “I exist and that’s about all,” the 73-year-old Frankie told a reporter from the Oregon Journal in 1949. “I do for myself as long as I can.”
By this point, Frankie could no longer sustain her shoeshine business and soon moved into Edgefield Manor in 1950. The same year, however, she was transferred to the state hospital; as she got older, her mind was not as strong as it once was. Reports state that she was aggressive towards other residents, but the circumstances are unknown. When she was admitted, the doctor asked Frankie how long she had lived in Portland, and she said about 100 years. And about that song, the song she railed against her entire life? She told him that she was the one who wrote “Frankie and Johnny” after all.
Frankie Baker passed away in 1952. More than seven decades later, McMenamins Edgefield features expressive, vibrant artwork created in Ms. Baker’s memory, and strives to keep her brave and fiery spirit ever present.
“When the weather’s mild and the flowers are in bloom, Frankie wanders the neighborhood picking California poppies and four-leaf clovers.” – The Oregon Journal, 1949