Sore Losers: An inaugural ode to a good man forgotten by history, and a reflection on America's strange preference for tales of men who stew, smolder and stalk off

1890s photo of Annie Oakley by Noah Hamilton Rose, courtesy Denver Library

Some 145 years ago, a fifteen-year-old girl was invited to participate in a private shooting match with a famous marksman and vaudevillian named Frank Butler — ten years older and amused to be in a face-off with a scrappy Ohio teenager.

Reports vary on whether Annie Oakley shot perfectly or missed one in twenty-five shots, but in any case, she beat Butler fair and square. He lost not only the match, but a $100 side bet, worth over $2400 today.

By all reliable accounts, Butler took the loss well. As proof of his regard, he gave Annie and her family free tickets for his upcoming show. Annie, for her part, showed more interest in Frank’s French poodle. The real courtship began when Frank sent follow-up letters to Annie signed with the performing poodle’s name, “George.”

Frank Butler circa 1882, photographer unknown

The couple later wed, though Annie kept her professional surname. When Frank Butler realized his wife was the more talented and beloved performer, he stepped back, out of the spotlight, becoming Annie’s manager, publicist, and most loyal supporter, protecting her good name from the haters of her day, including a certain tabloids publisher, William Randolph Hearst.

Americans have forgotten most of the important things about Annie Oakley’s life and instead remember the details that are completely false: like the idea that Annie lost that famous match with Frank. Or that they tied. Or that Frank heckled Annie or stomped off, fuming. Wouldn’t that make sense? These were the 1800s, when men were surely more backward than they are now. Annie was a fatherless, poorly educated waif; Frank was well-known at the time, though not wealthy. He needed the money and he had a reputation at stake. Wouldn’t it be normal for a man to smart over such a humiliating loss?

Well, no.

But we’re forgiven for having few public images of men losing honorably — and I don’t mean just this month, when our democracy was threatened by an attempted coup.

We learn a lot from movies and television. Our 45th president certainly does — and no doubt, his followers do, too.

Broadway and Hollywood couldn’t stomach the true Annie and Frank story — one of complete female competence and talent, and of graceful male acceptance and humility.

In a 1935 film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Annie is shown throwing the match in order to save her rival from losing his job — a nod to the concerns of the Depression era, but also the first step in eroding our cultural memory of a feisty girl who wouldn’t have done any such thing.

In the 1946 Broadway musical, Ethel Merman’s smitten Annie sings “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and loses the match on purpose. In the 1950 movie starring Betty Hutton, the character representing Frank quits the Wild West show in a snit, unwilling to be outgunned by a woman. In these versions, Annie has become not just feminine but silly, a girlish caricature — and Frank, even when he is called by another name, is unlikable as ever.

MGM studio publicity photo of Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

Even in recent revivals, the story stays the same. Annie either loses or can’t win without suffering negative consequences. Frank is an egotistical buffoon.

To the frustration of Annie Oakley’s descendants, the idea of a bratty Frank and a trivial and lovelorn Annie has outlasted what we know about the real couple. And that’s a shame. Equally lamentable is how few role models we have for an egalitarian marriage in which a man fully supports his wife’s career, taking pride in her ascent.

In that department, we have reason for cheer. If there’s one man who reminds me of Frank Butler, it’s Doug Emhoff, husband of Kamala Harris and very-soon-to-be Second Gentleman.

Frank Butler was a prodigious letter writer who stayed busy writing to newspapers across the country, defending his wife’s professional reputation. Emhoff fills a similar role, coming to the aid of not only his wife, but other high-profile women.

If Frank were alive now, he’d be tweeting — just as Emhoff did in December, defending Dr. Jill Biden after a demeaning Wall Street Journal op-ed suggested the future First Lady shouldn’t use her professional title. Using terms that Frank Butler would have used a century earlier, Mr. Emhoff tweeted: “Dr. Biden earned her degrees through hard work and pure grit.”

Whether Emhoff alone can provide sufficient role modeling as a supportive husband and decent human being, at the very least we’ll be rid of our most notable and recent example of a pathologically self-involved failure. Hopefully, stories of graceful losers will someday prove more entertaining and memorable than our stories of sore ones.

Book coach and author of ANNIE AND THE WOLVES and four other novels, published in 11 languages.

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