The True Story Behind Willie Nelson’s Moving Christmas Classic, “Pretty Paper”
Meet the late Frankie Brierton, a very real and very brave Fort Worth street vendor with a heart-breaking disability.
The lyrics to “Pretty Paper,” Willie Nelson’s emotional Christmas classic, are so much more than pleasant rhymes. The words, first made famous by Roy Orbison, tell the tale of Frankie Brierton, a very real and very brave street vendor with a heart-breaking disability.
“Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh / There he sits all alone on the sidewalk / Hoping that you won't pass him by.”
Thanks to some serious digging by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and with some help from their Palo Pinto County readers, in 2004 the paper was able to identify the man who spent decades peddling pencils in front of the old Leonards Department Store in downtown Fort Worth. Both Nelson and Orbison encountered the crippled old man while they were living in the bustling city, which inspired both musicians to tell his sad tale.
Brierton’s daughter, Lillian Compte, explained to the Star-Telegram that her father’s legs were weakened by childhood spinal meningitis, and that he never felt the need for a wheelchair. Instead, he learned to get around by crawling on his hands and knees.
During the 40s, 50s and 60s, Brierton crept on all fours along Houston or Throckmorton streets outside Leonards, wearing thick gloves and knee pads made from old tire tread. He also wore a custom leather vest with a pencil rack and coin box sewn onto the back. According to Compte, he also sold pencils at the Fort Worth Stock Show, at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas and on Main Street in downtown Houston.
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He earned a living without government assistance, Compte told the Star-Telegram. Neither she nor Brierton, who died in 1973 at the age of 74, ever considered that “Pretty Paper” was about him.
“He was my father — that’s all I knew,” she said. “He sold pencils. He crawled around on his hands and knees. But we never did without.”
Listen to Nelson’s moving rendition of “Pretty Paper” above.