Book review: The Queen of the Ring by Jeff Leen

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By Mark Adams
Sunday, August 16, 2009


Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and The Making of An American Legend

By Jeff Leen

Atlantic Monthly. 356 pp. $25

Wrestling comes in two varieties: the genuine, boring kind practiced since Milo of Croton's heyday in the 6th century B.C.; and the fake, wildly entertaining sort that created Hulk Hogan and resurrected Mickey Rourke's acting career. Likewise, the literature of the grappling arts can be split into two weight divisions: heavy treatises analyzing the methodology of the half Nelson versus cotton-candy reminiscences of Spandexed superstars. Jeff Leen's fine new biography of the pioneering lady wrestler Mildred Burke, "The Queen of the Ring," might be in a class by itself. It's a serious history of one of this country's goofiest pastimes.

Millie Bliss was a pregnant 18-year-old working at her mother's Kansas City restaurant in 1934 when salvation walked in. Squat, cauliflower-eared, desperately in need of orthodontia, Billy Wolfe was also a wife-beater, a thief and the sort of fellow remembered decades later for having arranged a girlfriend's sterilization while she underwent an appendectomy. Burke's attraction to him was practical. She wanted to wrestle, and Wolfe managed a troupe of lady grapplers. After ignoring Millie's pleas for months, he finally offered the new single mom a tryout -- against a man. She body-slammed her opponent in under a minute.

In short order, Millie Bliss became Mildred Burke, then Mrs. Billy Wolfe, then one of the top female wrestlers in the Midwest. The not-exactly-happy couple barnstormed with a troupe that included teenagers, lesbians and eventually, African American women. Wolfe, whose predatory libido matched his name, tried to bed every woman he employed -- and fined those he caught sleeping with other men.

Burke took on all comers. She defeated men, she defeated women, she defeated her husband in his clumsy attempt to arrange a ménage à trois. As her fame grew, she developed a signature look in the ring: white tights, full makeup and a Ginger Rogers coif. The glamour lasted only until the hair-pulling and hammerlocks commenced.

Pro-wrestling fandom, of course, requires a suspension of disbelief longer than Andre the Giant's wingspan. Leen deftly describes the sporting world's soap opera as "a child of the carnival and a cousin of the long con," in which "deception is rife and determining facts is a fraught business." Thus, it is impossible to know if Mildred Burke's swift ascension to the throne of women's wrestling was attained by merit or arrangement. What was clear, however, was that Wolfe and Burke had created a phenomenon. Despite being banned in many major cities, women's matches drew 3 million customers in 1942.

Leen is an investigative editor for The Washington Post, and as references to old census reports and dusty draft records accumulate, one senses that he's left no stone unturned in researching Burke's story. The early chapters, in which he piles on supporting evidence, sometimes have the feel of preliminary bouts before the main event. "The Queen of the Ring" comes alive, though, with the arrival of Burke's first great foil, Gladys "Killem" Gillem, the professional patsy whose chances of beating Burke on any given evening were roughly equal to the Washington Generals' odds of upsetting the Harlem Globetrotters. Leen makes the case that while the matches were almost always fixed, it wasn't unknown for challengers to attempt a double-cross and steal the title. Burke's superior technical skills -- in particular, her deadly, thigh-powered "alligator clutch" -- helped her keep the title longer than Wolfe wanted her to.

As a character, Burke is far less interesting than the charismatic monster Wolfe. (Her unpublished autobiography, which Leen cites heavily, seems to be another outlier in the wrestling canon: a colorless pro-wrestling tell-all.) But "Queen" is less Burke's tale than it is the rich story of the golden age of women's ring rivalries, and Leen unearths truckloads of wonderful details along the way: lady wrestlers in swimsuits sunning themselves on the fenders of moving cars between engagements; a reporter tallying the diamonds that Wolfe wears to one interview at 55 carats; Burke backstage combing out the blond locks of androgynous ring villain Gorgeous George and complaining that Wolfe has blacklisted her; George handing over $5,000 and urging her to "beat that son of a bitch."

Cameos and anecdotes aside, though, when Leen knits pro wrestling into the larger culture, such as his exploration of the sport's relationship with the mushrooming medium of television, his tale soars like Hulk Hogan leaping from a turnbuckle. ("One promoter estimated that 90 percent of the TV wrestling audience was female," Leen writes.) The author even makes a plausible connection between Burke's fame and the rise of al-Qaeda. And as the narrative accelerates toward a good-versus-evil climax worthy of Wrestlemania, not even the most committed jihadist would dare miss how the story turns out.

Mark Adams is the author of "Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad and the Ultimate Starvation Diet."

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