The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have an image-destroying confession to make: I enjoy watching pro wrestling. Not enough to seek it out while channel-surfing, really, and my TV companions would never let me dwell on it, anyway—but man, is it ever a fascinating, brutal form of theater, telling Homeric and Shakespearean tales of rivalry, revenge, treachery, and heroism! And there is an epic, animal grace to the competition, like a nature documentary where rutting elk lock antlers, bellowing. Also, people get hit with folding chairs.
There were no folding chairs in the mix, however, when Millie Burke, the greatest female wrestler of the Thirties and Forties, was grappling. That’s right, there were female wrestlers in the Thirties and Forties! Enough of them for there to be “a greatest!” It was a surprise to me, too. But unlike the sport she helped invent and made famous, Millie Burke was quite real: a five-foot-two Kansas girl (born in Coffeyville, like my grandmother), who escaped Depression-era waitressing to “rassle,” and, with the P.R. savvy of her otherwise despicable husband, Diamond Billy Wolfe, built a media empire.
Burke’s tawdry, complicated, brawny story is ably handled by Jeff Leen, a managing editor for the Washington Post. He follows her rise from sideshow attraction, wrestling all comers (mostly men—her agility and lower body strength prevailed), to arena bouts before thousands of cheering fans (60% of them women), clad in her signature white costumes, rhinestone-covered capes, and full makeup, to her final championship match, where she and June Byers (one of Wolfe’s many lovers) set aside the playacting and fought for real. The match was called after an hour, because it turns out real wrestling is pretty boring to watch. The Golden Age of women’s wrestling, which Burke presided over, has faded into obscurity; but Millie’s rediscovered glory is the tale of a woman strong before her time.