On the edge of Columbia, S.C., a sleek, silver-gray Cadillac pulls out onto the boiling asphalt and accelerates west toward one of the arterial highways that lead to big cities: Atlanta, Memphis, Washington or New York. Or to smaller ones like Gaffney, Macon or Knoxville. At the artificially cooled comfort of the wheel is a woman with artifically arched eyebrows and darkened, curly hair that falls onto her shoulders and sets off the bright moisture of the cosmetics on her smiling lips. Lillian Ellison feels at home on the road, even when she is leaving Columbia.
There is work to do in America on this day, a villain to be foiled or even a villain to be played for the sake of a hero. Not all Americans understand that, but thousands do and will pay to see it. And this woman, who says she was once loved by Hank Williams, will later stuff her tights with a unique muscularity and experience gained from nearly a quarter-century of performing as a champion to earn her bread and once more be at home before the cheering and jeering of some of those thousands.
It began in earnest in Baltimore in 1956. A dozen rivals had been eliminated one by one by the hair-pulling, eye-gouging, sternum-pounding scourage of a young wonder from the South, and the archfoe was at hand. June Byers fell in two straight that night. And from the chaos of drop kicks and stomping boots, from the spotlighted, roped mat emerged Moolah - MOO-lah - "The Fabulous Moolah," the new and perennial queen of women's wrestling.
Between then and tonight's date at the Capital Centre, there have been hundreds of matches, hundreds of thousands of miles traveled by pavement and flight pattern. Years of being champ. Now a middle-aged businesswomen of sorts who is pretty good at wrestling - or, at least, "Everybody tells me I am - she is resting up at home before driving off to yet another match. She loves driving her Caddy. She loves her Moolah manor on Moolah Drive. Two brick columns mark the entrance. "Private Property," the signs say.
Inside are The Fabulous Moolah's 38 acres. All the buildings are painted red with white trim: The 13-room, two-story, plantation-style house with the white columns; the barn-like structures beyond; the seven-room boathouse; the rental houses on the far side of her two bass lakes, where The Moolah fishes and swims.
Standing at the back door to greet a visitor, Ellison apologizes for her wet hair and for using a floor fan instead of the air conditioner that day. She is concerving energy. Richly tanned, her black hair falling damply in ringlets toward her stylish beige eyelot top, she doesn't look much like a Moolah, or any other kind of wrestler. She evokes the image of a rounder-faced Elizabeth Taylor who has spent her life in less lavish dressing rooms and under much harsher spotlights. The resemblance continues as Ellison speaks, with a soft, slow, alto voice that is quite charming. She has been swimming that afternoon, she explains, after a busy morning of telephone conversations with "Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, all kinds of places." All having to do with wrestling.
The Fabulous Moolah leads the way to a large den that circles a big horse-shoe-shaped bar. ("I don't like the stuff, so I dont drink it," she says."But I keep it for people who do."). There is a marble fireplace, an organ, a piano with a zebra-striped bench. Zebra stipes are abundant: the ashtrays (Moolah does not smoke, either); a throw rug on the cream-colored carpet; a striped sofa. Even the telephone has stripes. It is quite a room. And the floor fan does a pretty good job of keeping one corner of it cool. The queen of wrestling serves iced tea in that corner and sits back to talk.
"My first husband was Johnny Long," she says. "He was a big name in wrestling in this part of the country back then. Johnny started booking me. This was the time when I really develoed my wrestling.
"We would go early before Johnny's bouts and work out together. I got used to lifting up a six-foot man, so when I got in there with those girls - no problems."
The marriage to Johnny Long lasted for nine years. He was followed by Buddy Lee, another wrestler, but her career again exacted a price. "It was the same thing," she says. "He wanted me to stay home. But I had to go on the road and go after it. He was jealous of my success.
"I love wrestling, you see. There was a famous country singer who wanted me to quit wrestling. You would know hiw name if I told you. He said to me, "Lillian, I love you and I want to marry you. But you've got to give up wrestling." I had to say: "No. Wrestling is my life."
"It was Hank Williams."
There was a third husband, outside wrestling, but that marriage is also over, Ellison says, and her companion now is Katie. As The Fabulous Moolah says, "I've got a midget who lives here and helps me with the house. She travels with me sometimes, too."
Katie, dressed in royal blue wrestling tights, comes to the door and asks Ellison to take a call on the zebra-striped phone. Katie is Diamond Lil, midget wrestler of some renown. On the phone is a press agent calling just to say hi for a wrestling promoter Vince McMahon. "God's gift to wrestling," she says after the call, "God's gift to the world." McMahon's been mighty helpful to her, too.
She wasn't always a champion on the go. Once she was an 8 year old girl whose mother had died before her time. Twelve older brothers helped to mold her athletic skills, developing her natural talents for playing ball, tennis and other sports. Even wrestling, which she loved the best.
"I was close to my mother," the Fabulous Moolah says. "When she died my dad tried to make it up by spending a lot of time with me. He started taking me to wrestling matches every Tuesday night down at the Township Auditorium. The more I watched it, the more I liked it."
Ellison "kept after the coach of the wrestling team at (high) school. They only had a boy's team, but I told him I had 12 brothers. My dad knew how good I handled my brothers, so he didn't mind. The coach finally let me practice with the boys."
Her dad's graduation present was a trip to South Africa, tagging along with a boxing brother. So, in a gym in Johannesburg, a 15 year old girl says to a sports promoter, Tiger Simpson: "I want to wrestle."
"Why do you want to wrestle?" Tiger responds.
"I want to wrestle for the money," she says.
"For the moolah?" says he.
"That's right," says she.
"Well, that would be a good name for you. Moolah," says Tiger Simpson, noticing the long, red hair Lillian Ellison had at the time. "That hair makes you look like a slave girl," he says. "That's what we'lll call you. "Slave Girl Moolah.""
Back home, the soon-to-become "Fabulous" one encountered a promoter named Wolfe, "the czar of women's wrestling," who looked the 100 pounder up and down, probably rubbed his chin a little, and said: "I'll tell you what. If you can gain up to 140 pounds and hold your own, I'll give you a chance to wrestle." She did, and he did.
The rest is history, sort of. The record books in professional wrestling aren't exactly orderly or complete. Suffice it to say that The Fabulous Molah has won most of her bouts. And she wrestles three times a week, the whole year. Always against fierce, or seemingly fierce, opponents.
"Look, Leroy, that'n was tryin" to bite the othern's nose off!"
"You know, I've broken almost every bone in my body - almost," she says. "The most painful one...I got my collarbone broken in D.C. once, honey. This girl jumped on me and I heard it snap. It was, what do you call it, a compound fracture? The bone was sticking up through the skin like this, and the doctor jumped into the ring and said, "Lillian, don't move."
""Don't worry, I said," I don't think I can."
"But the fans were great. They were crying real tears for me. I love the fans in D.C. From the time I leave the dressing room 'til the time I leave the ring, people are booing and booing. And, when I leave the ring, they're cheering all the way back to the dressing room."
Sounds fine. But some people take their wrestling quite seriously, and there have been reports over the years of an occasional fan pulling a knife or coming after her with a chair. The Fabulous Moolah is not always the good woman in a sport in which somebody is expected to get bashed if they're a meany. She often wears black tights.
"I was partnered with a midget in a tag-team match in Baltimore one time, and I had a hold on this girl I was wrestling when I looked around and saw this big ol" woman from the audience trying to pull the midget out of the ring. I couldn't let her do that. She was just going to pull her right out into the audience.So I grabged this girl, my opponent, by the hair and threw her at the woman, but she still didn't let go of the midget. So I grabbed the woman herself by the hair and threw her.She bounced off the second row, and she let go of the midget. The cops came and took her off."
Now, Ellison dabbles in handling other wrestlers herself, but not as a promoter and not on a large scale. "I've got a gym out here, and I train a few girls when I'm in town. I'll put two girls together and see how it comes out. The ones who do pretty good, I'll get a few bookings for. I think I would probably like to do a little something with that part of wrestling later, but right now my main business is still in the ring."
At home in Columbia, The Moolah can sit back and be Lillian Ellison. "I've got me a nice little tractor, honey, and I cut all that grass around the lake. That's hard work, but it's good for you. I was raised that way. Working. And I love the outside.
50 Situps a Day
"I've picked cotton. I've hoed cotton. I love to garden. I have a big freezer just full of string beans, potatoes, cabbage...all that good stuff."
Before digging into the great outdoors, The Moolah begins her typical day at home by brushing her teeth, doing 50 situps, maybe running around the lake (a mile or more) and sitting down to a breakfast of homemade biscuits, cheese grits, country ham, cantaloupe and perhaps one egg, because she doesn't particularly like eggs.
If it's Sunday, she'll go to church instead of to the garden.
Outside, there is the gym, a dusty barn-like building that houses The Moolah's garden tiller and a wrestling ring and weights, Lilian Ellison's Girl Werestling Enterprises. She points across the lake to the property that was trimmed off her estate by plans for a new beltway. "I laughed all t,e way to the bank, honey," she says of the loss.
Moolah likes her moolah. "It's worth plenty" to be at the top of the wrestling world. She won't say how much (just as she won't reveal her age), but she does note sizeable contributions to charity.
"On this trip to D.C.," she says, "I'll be wrestling Vivian St. John. She's very good. She's lean. In her spare time she works as an exercise instructor in Fort Lauderdale. She's 6-foot-2, and with those long legs she's hard to get away from. I'm only 5-4, you know, and she only has to take a step to catch up with me." CAPTION: Picture; Lillian Ellison as The Mighty Moolah