Pinkie Lee Koehn, 12-year-old aspiring actress, was missing. She’d vanished the weekend before the debut of a silent comedy, “Too Much Flapper,” a Knoxville-based film in which she’d played a small role. The movie’s director, James Baret, abruptly left town about the same time.
Pinkie had lived with her parents in a modest house on Atlantic Avenue, in North Knoxville. After the police had been working on the case for several days, her father, a bricklayer, offered a $50 reward for the safe return of his 12-year-old daughter.
Two months later, filmmaker Baret was located in Buffalo, N.Y. He and his partner, Leona Hazlett, were arrested for kidnapping. The two were jailed for several weeks, as Tennessee and New York discussed terms of extradition. New York’s Gov. Al Smith, then the Democratic nominee for the presidency, was briefly involved.
What happened next isn’t obvious in the papers, but after some days or weeks, Baret and Hazlett were freed, likely because the only evidence against them was a circumstantial coincidence. They’d disappeared from downtown Knoxville a couple days after Pinkie did. They went back to their lives and, despite Baret’s Hollywood aspirations, obscurity.
As is always the case in a disappearance, odd details about the girl’s personal life kept surfacing in the press. Pinkie wasn’t your typical kid. She wrote short stories, some of which had reportedly been published. She was preoccupied with movies. And just before her disappearance she’d also been trying on a different name. Joan Windsor she liked to be called. It sounded more Hollywood.
She was still missing when the amazing new Tennessee Theatre opened on October 1, 1928. In the Tennessee’s second week, one featured performer was a nationally known clairvoyant from Kansas. Known as the “Psychic Marvel,” Gene Dennis was rumored to have been talking to the police about the Koehn case. She gave public prognostications at the Tennessee, between movies and performances by the house jazz band. One night, Mrs. Emma Koehn attended, and stood up to ask Dennis about Pinkie Lee.
“Your little girl is dead,” the young psychic intoned. “I can see her grave near a great fall. A mist is around this fall, and the mist from a rainbow.”
Though discounted by police, her words launched a theory that Pinkie was buried at Rainbow Falls, in the not-quite-open Smokies national park.
Another week passed, as the Parent-Teacher Association, convinced that Pinkie might still be alive, helped the bankrupt Koehns renew a nationwide effort to find her. Her photo appeared in 700 dailies throughout America.
On the evening of October 24, Pinkie Lee showed up alive and healthy, in Asheville, working in a restaurant and living with a local family.
Whether News Sentinel reporter Bayard Yadon played the major role in tracking her down depends on which daily you read. In the News Sentinel, he was the hero; in the Journal, he was unmentioned. Deputies brought her home. She was getting homesick, she said, and happy to return to Knoxville.
Now 13, Pinkie told her story. She’d done some traveling.
That first Saturday she went missing, she’d caught a night train to Chattanooga, where she stayed in a cheap rooming house. Traveling on a child’s fare, she rode to Nashville, then Louisville, then Cincinnati, where she learned she could look older if she wore pumps. Claiming to be 18, and named June Windsor, she got a job as a waitress. She even got her tonsils out there, as she worked in the nurses’ home. But she got bored of Cincinnati. When she heard about how pretty Asheville was, she got on the bus again. In Asheville, she tried on a different name, Dolly Benton—and learned to fry doughnuts for a train-station cafe. Occasionally, she said, people seemed to recognize her. Then she saw her own picture in the paper, and suddenly wanted to go home.
She’d run away on her own, she said. Mr. Baret had nothing to do with it. “That story beats anything I ever heard of,” she said. No, the 13-year-old just needed material for a book, with the working title of “When Girls Leave Home.”
Pinkie Lee Koehn didn’t settle down right away. While still a teenager, she married and divorced a North Carolina boy. She was in her late teens when she befriended a prominent young Knoxvillian a couple years her junior, I.C. King Jr., son of a well-known federal and county official. They ran away together in an improperly borrowed car, and were arrested in New Mexico in 1934. Married, for years they ran a family grocery on Sevier Avenue near Island Home. She was said to be particularly protective of her past, and did not readily admit, even to close friends, that her name was once Pinkie Lee Koehn.
Spending her later years in a Knoxville retirement home, the woman many believed had died at age 12 in 1928 died at age 94, in 2010. She lived 66 years longer than did the psychic who declared she was dead.
Bradley Reeves of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound has tried to track down the movie Baret made. He fears it no longer exists. “Too Much Flapper” was made just for the Riviera to show, and it’s unknown what became of it after its 24 reported showings in that big theater in June, 1928. It was typical that there would be only one print of a film like that, Reeves says. Sometimes they turned into goo, sometimes they literally exploded. Sometimes they were just thrown out. Reeves wonders if it was one of the casualties of the fire of 1963 that gutted the Riviera. The fire didn’t kill anybody, and the movie theater itself eventually recovered, open in a modernized form for several more years. But maybe that fire consumed a 35-year-old two-reeler called “Too Much Flapper.” It’s possible that no one alive today has any memory of seeing it.
But if you happen to have a couple of reels of old film lying around, Bradley Reeves would like to have a look at them.