Muchnick Book Club: QUEEN OF THE RING by Jeff Leen

I’m most of the way through a wonderful new book, The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations at The Washington Post.

This is a biography of Mildred Burke, who along with her husband, wrestler-turned-booker Billy Wolfe, took women’s wrestling out of carnivals and into arenas and onto TV screens from the 1930s through the 50s.

Back in 1990, when Frank Deford was editor of the short-lived sports daily newspaper The National and Dave Meltzer was the paper’s pro wrestling columnist, Deford wrote a story for Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer yearbook about Burke’s adventurous and tragic life. Her marriage to Wolfe was a loveless, abusive business arrangement; Burke actually took up with Wolfe’s son, her stepson, while the senior Wolfe built a harem of her wrestler-foils out of a hotel and gym in Columbus, Ohio, and exploited them sexually as well as financially.

In 1954 Burke lost wide recognition as the female champion in a terrifying Atlanta match against June Byers, Wolfe’s hand-picked successor. Wrestling has been “worked” (with predetermined outcomes) from the earliest days, and working supplanted “shooting” (real fights) pretty much across the board by the twenties at the latest. Occasional public “shoots” (rather than private gym shoots, the old way of settling both male and female championship disputes) persisted. But Meltzer and other historians identify Burke-Byers as the last true public professional wrestling shooting match in the United States.

After retirement Burke trained wrestlers. Movie buffs may recall All the Marbles (1981), starring Peter Falk as the manager of a ladies tag team called the California Dolls. Burke consulted on the wrestling scenes, training the mostly Japanese stunt doubles. A sequel called The California Dolls Go to Japan was contemplated, but scrapped after All the Marbles failed to do big enough box office.

With access to Burke’s archives and unpublished autobiography, author Leen has produced an authoritative and readable account of a great story that fills in important gaps in American cultural history. When it comes to serious books about wrestling, your humble blogger’s motto is, “Let a hundred flowers bloom.” Especially when they smell as good as this one.

My pleasure in touting The Queen of the Ring is doubled by learning that Jeff Leen is fellow St. Louis Mafia — he grew up watching my Uncle Sam’s Wrestling at the Chase on Channel 11 and as a fan of the St. Louis Wrestling Club shows at Kiel Auditorium. So I know he will forgive me if I deliver a couple of gentle “cupped chest licks.”

Leen writes that Mildred Burke “emerged during the depths of the Great Depression alongside two other hardscrabble underdogs, the spectacular colt Seabiscuit and the Cinderella Man, boxer James J. Braddock.” Please, Jeff, a little discretion! No need to walk around with a sandwich-board sign labeled, “Will sell movie rights for food.”

Second, sad to report, Leen more than once quotes … yes, Roland Barthes, on pro wrestling and mass symbolism. I believe we’re past the point where every goddamn baseball book has to quote Jacques Barzun (“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” — if I got the quote wrong, I know I’ll be hearing about it.) And I think we’re also more than ready to retire Barthes from the new literature on “sports entertainment.”

As Dick the Bruiser used to say to Edouard Carpentier: “Come on, you frog, I’m willing.”

Congrats, Jeff.

Irv Muchnick

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July 2009

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