The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend
One of my most irritating memories of the early and mid-1980s is my younger brother's insistence on having TV wrestling in the background on Saturday mornings. Even at age nine, the “sport” seemed staged, hokey, and fake. But imagine a time when wrestling was based on skill as much as show, when young American women saw it as an escape from poverty as much as a pass into celebrity. Author and Washington Post editor Jeff Leen skillfully transports readers back to the period when wrestling had a cult following in his biography of the most famous female wrestler in America.
Exhaustively researched, The Queen of the Ring, Leen's biography of Mildred Burke, who helped shape the world of American and, later, Japanese women's wrestling, is a fast read. With an engaging writing style and a sympathetic voice, Leen chronicles the surprising rise and equally devastating fall of a tough, beautiful, and gullible Burke.
Drawing heavily on her unpublished autobiography, Leen shows the many sides of Burke. She was arrogant and grasped for the riches she never had, but also generous to those down on their luck. A savvy marketer who crafted an image, Burke was also innocent and all too trusting. A woman of many contradictions, Burke became a champion in professional sports, but she was almost always down for the count in her personal life.
Burke's success in a sport that was openly hostile to women—some states outright banned female wrestling competitions, considering it immoral—was no small feat in an era when women were largely seen and not heard, if they were seen at all. But with her manager and husband Billy Wolfe (if there's ever been a villain in black, it's this guy), she endured humiliation, emotional and physical abuse, and financial setbacks.
As a picture of the times, it's hard for the reader not to be outraged by the way women athletes were treated by managers, promoters, and their own husbands. It's equally telling that Burke eventually opened a school to train housewives to "fight back." What we now call domestic violence was still largely acceptable.
Whether or not you're interested in sports, The Queen of the Ring is an interesting look at both the woman and the era she helped define.