In the history of show business, how many women have gotten rich and famous with these attributes?
- 5 feet, 2 inches, 120 pounds
- A face that "lacked conventional beauty''
- A "bull neck''
- 14-inch biceps
- A "boyish'' 31-inch chest
- And: "Legs so muscular and stout that they vaguely conjured up the image of a centaur.''
Author Jeff Leen may have found the one and only. In The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend, he tells of Mildred Burke,who from 1937 to the mid 1950s was the champion of our silly, bloody faux sport, professional wrestling.
The champion of female wrestling, that is, though from time to time she also took on men and, usually, took them down.
The aberrant often makes the best stories, and Leen, an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, takes full advantage. He recounts how "Muscles'' Burke became a national celebrity, featured in Time and Life magazines, a top-paid athlete and even something of a sex symbol: A popular pinup calendar featured her with flesh oiled, "flexing her biceps and posing in a revealing zebra-striped two-piece swimsuit and high heels.''
Burke, born in 1915, had an instinctive gift for the grunt and groan game, both the real moves and holds of the gym and the choreographed versions the fans saw in the arenas. She had an early grasp of the entertainment values that came to trump all others: image or persona, and sheer spectacle, including violent action.
Burke pioneered the use of entrance music as she strutted to the ring - a "saber dance'' from the ballet Gayane - and when both men and women wore drab ring outfits and black boots, she flaunted satin and silk robes festooned with ermine and rhinestones, as well as rouge, eye shadow and lipstick. (She may have inspired her friend and contemporary Gorgeous George, who put his own cross-dressing spin on many of the same adornments.) Burke put out - and then put over, as they say in wrestling - a potent combination of strength and femininity. "On the mat, I'm as tough as a picnic egg,'' she told a reporter, "But . . . I'm still all woman and twenty six inches around the waist.''
Her fame came mostly, however, through her long, unholy alliance with Diamond Billy Wolfe, her husband, promoter and eventual mortal enemy. (From him Burke got the habit of adorning herself with flashy diamond jewelry.)
Wolfe is at least as compelling a character as Burke, a paternalistic predator who bedded much of his young female talent, pimped some of the girls out and took half their earnings. This conscienceless impresario considered that "their bodies were his due.'' Over the years he married several of his charges, including a 20-year-old when he was 60. He beat them savagely, Burke included. Yet, as Leen also relates, many of these women remembered their "Daddy" with affection.
No doubt she was mistreated by Wolfe, but Burke had what today we might call "issues'' of her own. She married two much younger men who'd been her chauffeurs, seemingly confusing long-distance driving ability with love. One such paramour was Billy Wolfe's son, her stepson.
For all its lurid aspects (as usual, the best parts), Burke's strange story can also be read as an inspiring Depression tale. A high school dropout, she was married at 17, pregnant and divorced by 18.
Before vamoosing, however, that first husband took her to a wrestling match. From then on, Burke drove herself to become, instead of the pathetic, abandoned victim she could have been, a wildly successful Someone. A champion.
In the telling Leen evokes a bizarre subculture, the brutal, wacky world that was pro wrestling's Golden Age. As the recent documentary Lipstick and Dynamite also showed, these "lady wrestlers'' were tough women; here we meet Gladys "Killem'' Gillem, a heel or villain who made a career of dropping matches to Burke, the virtuous "babyface,'' along with June Byers and Johnnie Mae Young, among others. The matches' outcomes were rigged, but the skill, the injuries and the grinding travel were real. At one point Leen describes Burke's body as "a patchwork of pain and wounds.''
Leen is understandably sympathetic to Burke, but he's not in the tank. He debunks her claim of being undefeated her entire career (whatever that means in a fixed game). The book is extremely well researched and documented; Leen had access to an unpublished autobiography and to her surviving son, Joe (Burke died in 1989).
Leen can deliver gripping scenes, including a gruesome car accident in which Burke's trunk flies open and a "fluttering cloud'' of her publicity material wafts out over the carnage. At times Leen struggles with his material to sustain the drama - a climatic match ends in a quasi-draw. And a coda about 21st century schoolgirls competing with boys (in real, amateur wrestling) seems like padding. Overall, though, it's a most rewarding read, an untold tale that completely deserves this telling.
Biographers and pro wrestlers really face the same crucial question: Can you, Mildred Burke or Jeff Leen, conjure up and portray a character compelling enough to hook the paying customers? Will the story line you unfurl keep 'em hooked? In the parlance of the arenas, can you "get heat?''
She did and he does.
John Capouya teaches writing and journalism at the University of Tampa. His biography of wrestler and pop culture icon Gorgeous George was published last year by HarperCollins.
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The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend By Jeff Leen,Atlantic Monthly Press, 356 pages, $25
Festival author Jeff Leen, above, will appear at the Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24, on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.