Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

November 3, 2009

Wrestling with the Devil

It took a Faustian bargain for Mildred Burke to break the gender barrier in wrestling. Her biographer, Jeff Leen, tells Gelf about her forgotten legend.

Justin Adler

Jeff Leen describes the subject of his book The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend as the "Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth of women's wrestling." Yet few self-described sports fanatics could tell you who Mildred Burke is. Through extensive research into the history of women's wrestling, Leen aims to rectify that oversight, shedding light on a woman who rose from a small, Depression-stricken Midwestern town to become one of the most important wrestlers of all time—only to sink into obscurity upon her death.

Jeff Leen. Photo by Sarah Leen.
"Any woman who decides to enter the wrestling ring understands she owes some kind of debt to this woman."

Jeff Leen. Photo by Sarah Leen.

Over a five-year span, Leen, a managing editor at the Washington Post, spent almost every spare minute of his time examining any form of literature that related to Burke and retracing the path of her career. The resulting biography recounts not only Burke's tale, but life during the golden age of American wrestling. It also describes the incredible amounts of physical and psychological drama that Burke brought upon herself to get the top.

Gelf spoke with Leen by phone to learn what it's like researching an obscure sports figure who passed away decades ago, and how his own Midwestern roots and 30 years as an investigative reporter helped him write The Queen of the Ring. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: How did you get involved in writing a biography on the iconic but little-known character of Mildred Burke?

Jeff Leen: I grew up in St. Louis in the '60s, and at the time it was the world capital of professional wrestling because that's where the National Wrestling Alliance was based. As a kid, I was very into sports. I would go into the drug stores and I would always look at the sports magazines. The wrestling magazines were full of muscular men. In the back of the magazine there was an old picture of a woman flexing her huge biceps. I wondered what a woman was doing in a wrestling magazine. It turned out she was a champion wrestler who was training her own wrestlers at the time. Her wrestlers would wrestle men and sometimes beat them.

The whole thing was very intriguing. It stayed in my mind and I often wondered what her story was. Eventually I learned that she wrote her own book, which she worked on for 30 years. But it never came out.
Then in the late '90s, when Seabiscuit came out, it made me think of Burke's story as Seabiscuit in a wrestling ring. They both were underdogs from the Depression: small, undersized characters with great will and great strengths of purpose triumphing over tremendous odds. Both Seabiscuit and Mildred Burke broke out in 1937, which I thought was more than a coincidence.

Gelf Magazine: So growing up in the Midwest shaped your affinity for wrestling?

Jeff Leen: It's a very Midwestern story. Growing up in the Midwest allowed me to understand what pro wrestling means and why it's so popular. The Midwest is a place where wrestlers used to barnstorm throughout the country, and proving your manhood in the ring was a right of passage. It's not as deep-seated on the coasts. Burke rose out of the Depression and created herself as a glamorous powerful athlete, even though she was 5'2'', 120 pounds, and she was not a beautiful woman. She overcame that and garnered so much media attention. Her story is a story of someone growing up on the margin and making it to the limelight.

It's in the Olympics, and there are now 6,000 girls wrestling in high school. She was the embodiment of the spirit of women breaking out and achieving this unattainable thing. It's the ultimate story of a woman making it in a man's world.

Gelf Magazine: In writing the book, you were tracking down information on stories whose central characters have died. What were some other challenging aspects of the research process?

Jeff Leen: It was a truly difficult challenge because the wrestling business has a code called kayfabe, in which the truth about the business is hidden from the public. Penetrating the kayfabe was a challenge in itself. The fact that many of the characters were dead was another challenge.
I just decided that this was going to be an investigative book and I approached the project like I was doing an investigation for the Washington Post. I did more than 100 interviews, talking to every living person I could find. I went out and tried to get every piece of paper I could find. I guarantee you that this is the first wrestling book that makes use of property records, marriage records, divorce records, and court records. I went to the National Archives. I used FOIA with the Justice Department's investigation of the wrestling business. I reviewed Justice Department memoranda, with interviews with wrestlers. There is an archive of wrestling material at Notre Dame consisting of 75 banker's boxes of material and 15,000 letters. I went there and spent a week going through the material. I also read all the famous books about wrestling.
Also, a big, important step was getting Mildred Burke's unpublished autobiography from her son and getting the rights to use it in my book. That was the starting point for my research; if she said something, I went out to confirm or knock it down.

Gelf Magazine: Having worked as an investigative reporter and editor for the past 30 years, did you find that there was any element of the research process for this book that was new to you?

Jeff Leen: I just started triangulating everything. There is a service called—it's a giant database of over 80 million newspaper pages. Mildred Burke's celebrity and career path took her through several backwater towns in the Midwest, because women's wrestling was still banned on the coasts. This service gave me more than 1,000 articles about her that were in mainly dead newspapers. It was a treasure trove of information. It allowed me to follow and track her, year by year.

Gelf Magazine: Was it tough to write about physical and psychological abuse Burke suffered, most of which came from her husband/manager Billy Wolfe?

Jeff Leen: I thought that was the most interesting part of it. If I could give a subtitle to this book, I would call it, "What would you do for a dream?" What are you willing to put up with in order to get what you want? Her dream was to be a world champion wrestler, under the bright lights with a huge crowd. To get there she had to hook up with Billy Wolfe, who had all the knowledge and connections. He was her mentor and trainer. He was also a terrible womanizer, he beat her, he cheated on her, and he took most of her money. She made a deal with the devil because that's how much she was willing to give up for her dream.
It was a very symbiotic relationship because they hated each other—they could not stand to be around one another. But that's how much they needed each other. Without Billy Wolfe, Mildred Burke would not have been the first great woman's professional wrestler.
Wolfe was a combination of Colonel Tom Parker and P.T. Barnum. He was the first one to put women in a mud-wrestling match, which gained national exposure. He came up with all these strategies for promotion. He was a tough, ruthless, cunning, very smart individual.

Gelf Magazine: I found it interesting that Billy Wolfe's circuit included African-Americans and gay wrestlers. Were you surprised to learn of the varied demographics on Wolfe's roster?

Jeff Leen: Billy Wolfe was a man's man for the 1920s and '30s—he was a sporting man. But he did not have a prejudiced bone in his body. He promoted women, even though most male wrestlers and wrestling promoters scorned the idea. Once he saw African-American baseball players, he thought, "Why not wrestlers?"
I spoke with an African-American wrestler who said, "He broke the race barrier for us." That's an achievement. It's the same thing with the gay wrestlers who worked for him. He was alright with their sexuality as long as they were good wrestlers and they could draw a crowd.

Gelf Magazine: How many modern day WWE wrestlers know of Mildred Burke?

Jeff Leen: I think that most of them know of her in the sense that baseball players know Ty Cobb, because she is that important in the business. She made the early breakthroughs. When the first pro wrestling hall of fame was created, she was one of the first people inducted. She was the only women. She had tremendous impact within the wrestling community. Any woman who decides to enter the wrestling ring understands she owes some kind of debt to this woman.

Mildred Burke

Mildred Burke. Photo courtesy Jeff Leen.

Gelf Magazine: How long did the book-writing process take you from the time you started the research to the completion of the book?

Jeff Leen: It took me five years because I continued my job at the Post, running the investigative unit. Essentially I worked on the book at night and during vacations. It ate all my spare time.
My wife and I took a three-week vacation where we drove from Washington, D.C., to Columbus, Ohio to Chicago, down through Bethany, Missouri, then to Kansas City, where she had her first match. We made it as all the way down to Coffeyville, Kansas, before heading back up to St. Louis. We just followed her trail through all those dusty towns in the Midwest.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel Mildred Burke still has an influence on WWE's Divas?

Jeff Leen: If there had not been a Mildred Burke, I don't think there would be any women wrestlers. She was the Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth of women's wrestling. Everyone came after her.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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