Monday, June 14, 2010

Frankie and Johnny and Nellie Bly—Richard Wolkomir

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An old American folksong started running through my mind—“Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts/Lordy how they could love….” “But,” said the song, “he was a long-legged guitar picker/ With a wicked wandering eye.” And his eye wandered to Nellie Bly. That irritated Frankie so much she shot Johnny, “Rooty-toot-toot, right through that barroom door/He was her man, but he was doing her wrong.”

Was the song’s Nellie Bly the actual Nellie Bly, the journalistic superstar of the late 1800s? Why not? Then I thought about how that era’s Florida was part of the cattle-ranching Wild West. Phosphate mining was big, too, and the companies owned whole towns, along with the roughneck miners who lived in them. You had to buy everything at the company store, and you got ever deeper into debt, inducing bad moods. Knife fights, gun fights—dangerous places.

So what would bring Frankie and Johnny, and also the famous Nellie Bly, to one of these Florida phosphate towns? And how would this story be told?

I heard a voice. Where she came from, I have no idea. Slowly, though, the speaker came into focus: a precocious 11-year-old, stuck in this nastiness. Her mother, as could happen to luckless women in that age of narrow possibilities, a prostitute. Her own future: not hopeful. Susanna, however, had grit. She turned to books and self-education, hoping that would be her Pullman ticket out of Duster, Florida.

This story ends where it ends. However, being privy to inside information, I can say that Susanna surely did board that Pullman one day, and go off to achieve éclat.

--Richard Wolkomir

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