Books

Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Grove Press

The Queen of the Ring

Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend

by Jeff Leen

“In a class by itself. A serious history of one of this country’s goofiest pastimes. . .one senses that [Leen has] left no stone unturned in researching Burke’s story.” —The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date July 13, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4482-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.95
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date August 11, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1882-0
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date August 11, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9993-5
  • US List Price $15.95

About The Book

The Queen of the Ring is the story of Mildred Burke, the longest reigning champion of female wrestling. In this in-depth account, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeff Leen pulls back the curtain on a forgotten era when a petite midwesterner used her beauty and brawn to dominate America’s most masculine sport.

At only five feet two, Mildred Burke was an unlikely candidate for the ring. A waitress barely scraping by on Depression-era tips, she saw her way out when she attended her first wrestling match. When women were still struggling for equality with men, Burke regularly fought—and beat—male wrestlers. Rippling with muscle and dripping with diamonds, she walked the fine line between pin-up beauty and hardened brawler.

An unforgettable slice of Americana, The Queen of the Ring captures the golden age of wrestling, when one gritty, glamorous woman rose through the ranks to take her place in athletic history.

Praise

“A story as bizarre and titillating as wrestling’s own carnival roots. . . . Flavored with authentic speech and dedicated to accuracy, this biography is the tale of an underdog who triumphed.” —Publishers Weekly

“Leen can deliver gripping scenes . . . a rewarding read, an untold tale that completely deserves the telling.” —St. Petersburg Times

“In a class by itself. A serious history of one of this country’s goofiest pastimes . . . one senses that [Leen has] left no stone unturned in researching Burke’s story.” —The Washington Post

“You won’t be disappointed . . . Leen has [Burke’s] story pinned to the mat.” —USA Today

“This is a wild and fascinating peek into a lost era of when American wrestling was a spectacle of true athletics, not just preening and play-acting. Mildred Burke makes Hulk Hogan look like a wimp.” —Carl Hiaasen, author of Nature Girl and The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport

“Jeff Leen has made a fabulous contribution to the sports-history canon. The Queen of the Ring is a marvelous evocation of an era, and a riveting portrait of a one-of-a-kind American moll.” —Sally Jenkins, author of The Real All-Americans

“A book as engrossing and entertaining as it is unlikely. Through meticulous research and fine storytelling, Jeff Leen gives us not only the biography of a remarkable female athlete, but the strange, compelling tale of a lost epoch.” —Rick Atkinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943

“Everybody who cares about professional wrestling will want to read Jeff Leen’s biography of Mildred Burke. But I have never cared about professional wrestling, and I read every page avidly. Why? Because Leen is a great reporter and writer who has produced a superb book within the genre I hold dear: biography.” —Steve Weinberg, author of Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller

“This is a jaw-dropping book. Leen’s rediscovery of the life and times of Mildred Burke reads like Ring Lardner, seasoned by Raymond Chandler. The Queen of the Ring is tight, tough, and droll—and like its protagonist, an American original.” —Steve Coll, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 and author of The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century

“It’s not really about wrestling. It’s about greed, desire, treachery, and most of all guts. Millie Burke had ’em. And Jeff Leen has all the goods.” —Richard Ben Cramer, author of New York Times best-seller Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life

“With sheer storytelling brio, Jeff Leen rescues the greatest female wrestler who ever lived from the obscurity she never deserved. Burke triumphed over grinding poverty, predatory managers, cheating , callow lovers, beatings in and out of the ring, and a motley cast of ravenous schemers and con men that would make Damon Runyon blush. Leen brings them all to life in this jaw-dropping saga of hard times, huge dreams, and one tiny woman’s indomitable will.” —Steve Friedman, author of The Agony of Victory

“Jeff Leen, a brilliant editor and investigative reporter, spins the inspiring tale of remarkable Millie Burke, the Cinderella Woman of the 1950s, the rhinestone Rocky of a vanished golden age. With brains, beauty, brawn, and indomitable will, Millie will have everyone cheering and women of all ages flashing their muscles.” —Michael Capuzzo, author of Close to Shore

Excerpt

1 — The Match of the Century

On August 20, 1954, as America slipped into the conservatism of the Eisenhower era, a professional wrestling match unlike any other took place in Atlanta, Georgia. To begin with, two women were wrestling for the world championship. The opponents, the champion Mildred Burke and the challenger June Byers, were widely considered to be the two best female wrestlers in an era when wrestling skill still mattered. Bitter rivals, they once had worked closely together for the same manager, a man known as Diamond Billy Wolfe, who had been the husband of Burke and the lover of Byers. But this was no catfight over a man. It was a business dispute, pure and simple, aimed at settling the question of who would run women’s wrestling throughout the nation.

Most astonishing was the character of the match itself. In an age when every other pro bout was a faked exhibition designed to fool spectators, Burke and Byers planned to wrestle for real, to conduct what was known inside the game as a “shooting match.”

Pro wrestling had been fixed for years, and by the 1950s the ring action had become more and more florid in its fakery, but the ability of wrestlers to “shoot” still set them apart. Shooting ability protected champions from opponents who might think of deviating from the script and pulling a double cross in the ring in a bid to steal the title. In the past, when powerful promoters could not agree on who should be champion, they let their wrestlers shoot for the title. But that had not happened in decades.

So Burke and Byers would shoot, with no time limit. The first woman to win two falls by pin or submission would receive the championship belt and effective control of the business. Since the public was never told outright that wrestling was staged, it would likewise not now be told that this match was for real. Only the wrestling cognoscenti would know; this match was for their benefit, not the fans. The Atlanta bout was not merely an aberration; it was one of those moments that in later years can be seen as a signpost for the passing of an era. The fading epoch would come to be known as the Golden Age of Wrestling, a period when television and the strong interest of women fans won for wrestling its highest place thus far on the American scene. Female wrestlers had their own place in this renaissance of their sport; wrestling’s golden age had been a time when women built like gymnasts had donned tights, laced up boots, and filled wrestling arenas as equals to men.

Mildred Burke had put the women there. More than just a champion, Millie Burke had pioneered women’s wrestling as a viable arena attraction in America. She was its Babe Ruth and its Jackie Robinson. At her peak she earned $50,000 a year, as much as Joe DiMaggio and more than twice that of the legendary golfer Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, who was widely considered the greatest female athlete of the century. A Baptist girl from Kansas who followed an improbable dream, Burke had 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. She began by wrestling men in carnivals, pitting a preternatural balance and command of leverage against local pride and male muscle in dried-up Dust Bowl towns throughout the Midwest. When she was starting out, she was so fast in the ring they called her the Kansas Cyclone. She was a small woman, petite, only five feet, two inches tall, and 120 pounds in the beginning, but she had a bull neck and fourteen-inch biceps in an age when women didn’t have biceps. ‘muscles’ had been another of her early nicknames. Her legs were so muscular and stout that they vaguely conjured up the image of a centaur: a human torso atop the trunk and legs of a horse. Despite the muscles and her lack of conventional beauty, many men found her extremely attractive. Her pinup calendar, which featured her flexing her biceps and posing in a revealing zebra-stripped two-piece swimsuit and high heels, had found a happy home in newsrooms across the country.

Those who paid to see her could tell she was an obvious master of “scientific” wrestling. She expertly employed the most painful and punishing holds of the day: the wristlock, the step-over toehold, the body slam, the body scissors, the head scissors. When she drop-kicked an opponent in New Jersey the crowd gasped; they didn’t think a woman could do that. What she had envisioned and then created was something no one had seen before: a female champion who was both feminine and strong, beautiful and powerful, combining the physique of an athlete with the sex appeal of a bathing beauty and the glamour of a movie star. “Sure, when I’m on the mat, I’m tough as a picnic egg,” she told a reporter in the early days in her flat, slightly nasal midwestern accent that always made even the most outrageous pronouncements sound merely matter-of-fact. “But when I’m dressed for the street or home, you won’t find anybody who would take me for a wrestler. I’m still all woman and twenty-six inches around the waist.”

Against all odds, she had broken the barriers to give women’s matches a place as the main event on wrestling cards with men. Millie Burke had wrestled before thousands from Los Angeles to Boston, from Miami to Mexico City, from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. In Havana, the Cuban president himself had welcomed her to his marble-lined palace. In Washington, she had basked in the adoring attention of senators. In Manhattan, she had performed eighty body-bridge exercises on the desk of Robert L. Ripley, who enshrined her in his Ripley’s Believe It or Not. She had been written up in Time and Life and by hundreds of newspaper hacks across the land. Leading a life lit by flashbulbs, she went out into the night draped in diamonds and furs and the finest silk dresses. More than all that, she had come along when the entire industry of pro wrestling was in a precarious position, rocked by scandals brought on by newspaper expos’s of fixed matches and fake champions. With her speed and skill and style, Millie Burke had helped save the sport and send it on to its greatest heights in the new age of television. Yet now it was she who was in the precarious position. On the eve of the Atlanta match, Burke was unusually quiet as she sat in the dank locker room at the city auditorium, an aging redbrick structure at the corner of Courtland and Gilmer streets. She had just turned thirty-nine, and time and her trade had coarsened her features and added twenty pounds, most of it muscle, to her frame. By her side was her twenty-year-old son, Joe, the one constant in her life. He noticed immediately that something was wrong. His mother had always been loose and joking before her matches, the picture of confidence. She had learned early that wrestling was mostly mental, and she had armored her mind against panic, controlling her emotions, sensing the fear in others and using it to her advantage. Now it was she who felt the fear and it made her tight. She was hurting and the stakes had never been so high. Her son became fearful too. He thought of all of her injuries and for the first time he was afraid she might lose.

She shouldn’t be here. Throughout her career she had been a physical marvel but now she was a near wreck, a patchwork of pain and wounds. In twenty years in the ring, she had dislocated both thumbs, broken ribs, torn up both knees. Three years earlier, she had narrowly escaped death in a spectacular automobile accident; five of her ribs had been snapped near the spine. The convalescence she needed had been cut short, for she was not just a champion and an icon but also a business and there was money to be made. Her neck and ribs were never free of residual pain. Her long-standing weak point, a gimpy right knee that occasionally slipped out of joint, had been reinjured in a recent match; bloody fluid had been drawn but the swelling and soreness remained. She should have postponed the match but her circumstances and the pride that had driven her from the beginning wouldn’t allow it.

Local dignitaries came into her dressing room, as they often did before a big match. The chief of police arrived to wish her well. Burke told him that Joe was now her driver and the boy needed a license. Could the chief help? You come by my office tomorrow, Joe. I’ll fix you up. That had been the kind of life she had lived for nearly two decades.

The wrestling card would begin at 8:30 p.m. Burke and Byers would be working the co-main event on a bill that included a passel of colorful pachyderms: Buffalo Boy Zimm, Chief Big Heart, Bowery Boy Jack Steele, and El Toro. But the women’s match was the one everyone wanted to see.

“All eyes of the wrestling world will be watching the ladies’ title match in which Mildred Burke, the present queen, will meet Miss June Byers, title contender,” the Atlanta Journal article announced. “Most Important Match of the Year Scheduled for Atlanta,” the wrestling programs headlined. “National Wrestling Alliance members, promoters and wrestling officials from all over the United States are making plans to attend.”

The hype left out the fact that Burke was hurt.

“These two clever girl wrestlers are both in tip-top condition and both have plenty of experience behind them. The match promises to be one of the hardest fought contests of the season as both are equally determined to win and each is confident in her own mind she can defeat the other. The girls have asked that the match be a two-out-of-three-fall affair, with no time limit. There must be a winner.”

A “grudge match,” it was called. That wasn’t hype.

Millie Burke’s grudge was not with June Byers; it was with Byers’s manager, the emperor of the women’s wrestling business, Diamond Billy Wolfe. Once he had been Burke’s manager as well as her husband. Billy Wolfe was an American archetype, the lone man who builds an empire through vision, courage, ruthlessness, and the general greasing of palms. He had been the brain behind Burke’s wrestling brawn, a fast-talking, fast-thinking carnival barker of a businessman whose steely toughness powered her rise. “She’s my prize package,” he told a newspaper reporter in the early days. “She’s got balance and a sense of timing. And did you feel her muscles? Let the gentleman feel you, Millie. What biceps for a dame, huh? And feel that muscle under the shoulder. Not only that, but Millie’s got magnetism like an actress or a lady preacher. When she comes out into the ring, everybody takes to her.” Her muscles and his mind had made the industry of women’s professional wrestling in America. They both gloried in the money they made and used it to cover themselves with precious gems. But the male peacock outdid the female. He sported diamonds on his belt buckle, watch fob, cuff links, and stickpin. He had four diamond rings, including one with a ten-carat stone. “His diamonds make him shine like a chandelier in a gay ’90s dining room—$60,000 worth,” a Washington Post columnist noted.

At their height, Wolfe and Burke had thirty women wrestling for them and filling arenas across the country. A ladies’ man surrounded by female flesh and more than willing to partake, Wolfe slept his way through almost half of them, but Burke didn’t care. Theirs had always been a business relationship rather than a loving matrimonial bond, a mutual dependency based on pure pragmatism. She wanted only to be champion, and she was willing to do whatever it took. Then it all came apart. It turned into a legal and financial fight, a war of money, for the business they had created. The last battle of the war would be of muscle and blood and bone, two women for one championship to settle it all.

June Byers entered the ring, and then the call came for Burke. The champion always went last. Millie Burke walked out of the dressing room, Joe trailing her. Like Byers, she wore full makeup—rouge, eye shadow, and lipstick—looking her best. Her auburn hair was dressed in a careful marcelled wave. The hair would be tossed and the makeup smeared and sweated off within minutes of action in the ring, but that first impression on the crowd meant everything.
Tonight, as she nearly always did, Millie wore wrestling tights of brilliant white satin, a one-piece swimsuit that had been reinforced with elastic for industrial use in the ring. At a time when most wrestlers donned drab black togs, she had been the first to regularly wear white. People had protested; it was obscene, it made her look naked. She didn’t care. With her innate sense of ring style she knew that the white reflected the harsh descending light back into the crowd, making her sparkle like a diamond. Her deep tan contrasted nicely with the white satin. Her matching white wrestling boots, size five, were custom-made using the finest soft leathers at Barney’s, a little shop in downtown LA, for sixty dollars—a month’s wage for a workingman when she started buying them back during the Depression. Her robe was the crowning gesture. Again she chose white, satin and silk, trimmed in ermine and encrusted over every inch with rhinestones. It was worth every ounce of the physical effort it took to wear it. “When the powerful ring lights hit those rhinestones, it was a shimmering symphony,” she later wrote in an autobiography that has never been published. Around her waist, to complete the effect, hung her most prized possession: her championship belt. It weighed fifteen pounds and was said to be twenty-four-carat gold with four sapphires, six amethysts, and a seven-carat diamond. She had held the title so long her cameo had been inserted into it.

Before her were a cone of white light and a small square of white canvas cut against a roaring, darkened circle of humanity, thousands disgorging emotion in waves of sound. “Wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights,” a French philosopher would write a few years later. “In both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.” The arena was a smoky, airless place, a swirl of heat and noise. A segregated crowd of white faces stared back at her, an audience of adults in suits, hats, and dresses. In her heavy robe and belt Burke climbed into the ring and under the ropes, as she had on a thousand occasions, one leg at a time.

Bouncing on the taut canvas, she eyed Byers and listened as the ring announcer spoke and the crowd quieted. The announcer gave the weights. Burke was stunned by how big and powerful Byers looked. The Texas woman held every physical advantage. She was younger, bigger, stronger, fitter. She was a full five inches taller, and at least twenty pounds heavier, a bundle of rippling muscle. One of the women wrestlers who saw Byers in training later recalled that she “looked like a racehorse,” with “a thick back, very tight and high thigh muscles, big muscular arms and neck.” Byers was known as one of the meanest and most brutal women in wrestling. She didn’t just beat her opponents, she terrorized them, with punches and open-handed slaps against their breastbones that resounded from the ring. Still, Byers was a bit cowed by Burke, who held the mental edge and the advantage in wrestling skill. Years later, Byers would recall her wariness at the sight of the champion: ‘she had a bouncy, elastic quality about her and her skin looked as if it were bursting with vitality.”

The bell sounded. The crowd drew a breath and gaped at the brightness before it. In the cone of drenching vertical light two women rushed forward, bouncing on the balls of their feet.

Author Q&A

Interview by SLAM! Wrestling

When Millie Bliss was toiling as a teenage waitress on an Indian reservation in New Mexico, the possibility that her life would become the centerpiece of a book eighty years later was unimaginable. But Bliss, better known to sports fans as Mildred Burke, dared to imagine. From her Depression-era roots, she rose to become a pioneer of women’s wrestling, and one of the most recognizable female athletes of the twentieth century.

Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations at The Washington Post, tells her story in The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend. Leen, who has had a hand in six Pulitzer Prizes, answered questions about his work in a conversation with SLAM! Wrestling.

SLAM! Wrestling: Your last book was on a Colombian drug cartel. How and when did you decide to write about an old-time female pro wrestler?

Leen: After my last book, which was an investigation of the world’s most dangerous criminals and required doing research in fifty federal court cases, I wanted to do something very different. I wanted to write a narrative with lots of dramatic twists and a single strong main character. I was also looking for a story that was very visual. I thought pro wrestling was a great subject because it resonates on so many levels and it has such a great, subterranean history. Most baby boomers, if they are honest, will admit to being captivated by pro wrestling on TV when they were kids, in the age of Howdy Doody, Wagon Train, and Gunsmoke. People today tend to dismiss pro wrestling as vulgar, garish, brutal, and fake, but between 1900 and 1910 it was probably the most popular sport in America. More people saw the Gotch-Hackenschmidt match in 1911 than had attended any of the thirty-odd World Series games up to that point.

I had known about Mildred Burke’s story dating back to when I was a kid in St. Louis, reading the wrestling magazines in the 1960s. I thought she was a phenomenal character. So much about her seemed incongruous and otherworldly. The first female athlete to earn $1 million was a lady wrestler in the 1930s and 1940s? Who knew? She seemed like some kind of superhero, only 5-2 and 120 pounds, but a wrestling champion for nearly two decades. She was incredibly tough and gutsy. She was a pregnant, eighteen-year-old waitress when she started out in the Depression in 1934, but she ended up as successful as any man in a “man’s sport” during an age when women were supposed to stay in the background and not break a sweat. She delighted in flexing her biceps and talking tough but she also liked to doll herself up in silks dresses, minks and diamonds. When Seabiscuit came out in 2001, I saw immediate parallels with Mildred. Both were Depression-era underdogs. Both were small and underestimated. Both triumphed when put to their severest tests, Seabiscuit against War Admiral in 1938, Mildred against June Byers in 1954. When I came across the fact that Burke and Byers had met in a climactic bout that was probably the last shooting match of the twentieth century, that sealed it for me.

SLAM! Wrestling: Did you follow pro wrestling when you were growing up or in recent years?

Leen: As a kid, I was a fan of almost every sport: baseball, football, basketball, hockey, boxing and wrestling. Wrestling was huge in the Midwest, both in high school and the pros. Growing up in Minneapolis in the early 1960s I was a big fan of Verne Gagne and Crusher Lisowski. I got very involved in wrestling as an eight- or nine-year-old. Then we moved to St. Louis and I followed Harley Race, Cowboy Bob Ellis, Dick the Bruiser, etc. These big, tough, muscular men who seemed to fly through the ring were who me and my friends wanted to be when we grew up. Lou Thesz, I was aware of, but he seemed to be from a distant past. I didn’t understand how great he was until I read Stanley Elkin’s Boswell, and came across an ancient wrestler called the Grim Reaper who could cripple younger men with a single hold. This was a first novel by an acclaimed literary fiction writer and he had a character based on Lou Thesz! Wrestling permeates the culture in so many ways. I got into Mil Mascaras as a kid and was astounded when I met him at the Cauliflower Alley Club in Las Vegas, and at 6-1, I seemed to tower over him. He still had the muscles, though. I haven’t followed it so much in recent years because I liked the old-school style I watched as a kid. But I took notice of the great changes and success that young Vince McMahon brought in the 1980s and later: Wrestlemania, Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Triple H, Chyna. It was amazing to see how big the game became again.

SLAM! Wrestling: Though it’s loosened up somewhat, wrestling is still a pretty closed business. What problems did you encounter as an outsider trying to learn about the inside of the business?

Leen: I approached it as an investigative reporter. I learned as much as I could from the Internet, from books, from old magazines in the Library of Congress, from online newspaper archives, and finally from Jack Pfefer’s archive at the University of Notre Dame. Pro wrestling gets no respect, and neither does pro wrestling research, but I was driven by the idea of treating the subject very seriously and respectfully, of doing my best to try to get to the truth of it and capture its flavor. A lot of amazing stuff has accumulated over the years about this little corner of Americana, and I tried to absorb and make use of all of that. Marcus Griffin’s book, Lou Thesz’s book, the book that Strangler Lewis and Billy Sandow wrote in the 1920s, A. J. Liebling in The New Yorker, Roland Barthes’s essay, Steve Yohe on the Internet, etc. Then I got records virtually nobody had looked at: court, marriage, divorce, bankruptcy, property, incorporation, and the Department of Justice antitrust case against the National Wrestling Alliance. Who knew that Mildred Burke owed Gorgeous George $3,000 in 1958?

The fact that most of the material had been tracked over by few others, if any, made it that much more enjoyable to research. After I had steeped myself in facts, I went out in the field for interviews. I started by attending the reunion of the Cauliflower Alley Club in Las Vegas. People were remarkably welcoming; let’s face it, we’re a couple decades beyond kayfabe at this point. But I realized that my story might be too old, even for the CAC. She pre-dated Gorgeous George, after all. So the challenge was to track down the people who still had memories and to check those memories as best I could against the record I had accumulated. I went to Marengo, Illinois, to interview Billy Wolfe’s grandchildren and paged through his business ledgers. They were as interested in learning about their heritage as I was. I found Gloria Barattini running a bar in western Maryland. I spent two days with Gladys Gillem in Pensacola, Florida, buying lottery tickets and playing poker. I stood outside the one-room shack in Coffeyville, Kansas, where baby Mildred lived in 1915. In a gigantic state archive in Columbus, Ohio, after two days of searching, I found the pre-match build-up that Wolfe, Burke, and Nell Stewart staged for the Ohio State Journal before their big match in 1952. It was in many ways a gigantic puzzle where a shard from a newspaper might resonate against a fragmentary quote, a cryptic allusion, or a record in a court file.

SLAM! Wrestling: There are a lot of wrestling books on the market but Mildred Burke is a pretty obscure name, even to a lot of fans. How did you convince a publisher to take a chance on her story?

Leen: I sold it as more than just a wrestling story. It was a human-striving story, about one woman who was forty or fifty years ahead of her time, and about all the struggles, compromises, and hard knocks she had to overcome. The twists and turns of her story bear out the phrase that the truth is better than fiction. It was fresh and original. It was a tale about the realization of great fame, but it was also about the cost of great fame. The fact that she was now an obscure figure was a strength, rather than a deficit. That made it also about the fleeting nature of great fame. Who burns brighter than a victorious champion before ten thousand screaming fans? But what passes quicker than applause?

SLAM! Wrestling: How long did it take you from start to publication?

Leen: I nursed the idea for about a decade. (My last book came out in 1989.) The serious reporting and writing began about five years ago. I wrote it at night and on weekends in my spare time while I worked at The Post.

SLAM! Wrestling: You wrote in the book that you had some help from Burke’s family. What kind of assistance did they provide and did they have any qualms about the way you planned to portray Mildred?

Leen: [Son] Joe Wolfe granted me permission to use Mildred’s unpublished autobiography and her photographic archive. He was remarkably objective and professional. He was the best living witness for much of the story, and he refused to speculate when he couldn’t remember something or didn’t know. He refused to dump on Billy Wolfe, who he said treated him fairly. He read the first draft and had only one big complaint: he said the chapter on the history of history going back to the Greeks was boring. He was right about that. I cut the chapter and recast the material after others voiced the same complaint. But Joe didn’t challenge a word I wrote about his mother, including a lot that was extremely unflattering.

SLAM! Wrestling: Are there any similarities between the work you did on the Burke book and the kinds of investigations you oversee as an editor at The Washington Post?

Leen: Research is research, and investigating is investigating, regardless of the subject. At The Post, we build our investigations out of interviews and documents, and I tried to do the same for my book. I was thrilled to find out that Mildred Burke’s story intersected with a massive antitrust investigation of pro wrestling, because such cases are the kinds of things I have made a career out of looking at. Reading about Burke’s bankruptcy as a fleeting one-line sentence in The Ring in 1958, and then finding the actual file in San Diego fifty years later was also a thrill. Checking the facts in her autobiography against the record was also very close to my day job at The Post, where we spend a lot of time sorting through competing claims about the truth.

SLAM! Wrestling: What qualities made Burke such a star, not just in wrestling, but as part of pop culture?

Leen: I think I said it best in the book: “What she had envisioned and then created was something no one had seen before: a female champion who was both feminine and strong, beautiful and powerful, combining the physique of an athlete with the sex appeal of a bathing beauty and the glamour of a movie star.” To me it sums up everything that made Mildred unique: beauty, athleticism, sex appeal, and glamour. There were women wrestlers before Mildred, but they were not sexy and they were certainly not glamorous, even Clara Mortensen, who was a beautiful woman but did not project beauty and glamour the same way Mildred Burke did. And none of the others were nearly as famous. There were famous female athletes before Mildred, but with the exception of that other Mildred, Babe Didrikson, they did not display muscles and power the way that she did, or challenge men the way she did. She was such a striking figure, in her white suits with her bulging biceps and six-pack abs. And she had style, those diamonds and minks and silk dresses were a huge part of her appeal. Babe Didrikson did not have that. To find the combination that was Mildred Burke you have to think about women like Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams or Dara Torres, who came decades later. As is the case with those three female superstars, behind Mildred’s incredible physical presence was her incredible will. Hers is a story of resilience, persistent, guts, and smarts.

Also, I agree with John Capouya’s book that Gorgeous George might be said to have set the course of American pop culture by his influence on Elvis, Dylan, and Ali. And I think there is no question that Burke influenced George, although he was also influenced by people like Lord Lansdowne and others. But Burke appeared on cards with George in the early 1940s when he was drab George Wagner and she was the main event and the most glamorous thing wrestling had seen up to that point. There had to be some good reason that he loaned her $3,000 in the 1950s, which was a good working wage for an entire year.

SLAM! Wrestling: What surprised you most about Burke’s story as you put it together?

Leen: Two things that are really one thing.

We are defined by the obstacles we overcome, and to that extent, Mildred Burke has few peers. I was surprised by the dimensions and nature of Burke’s opponents. Not just her opponents in the ring, and not just the public opinion and mores that were against women wrestling. Billy Wolfe was a formidable opponent, tough, smart, devious and ruthless. And she didn’t just go up against Billy Wolfe. She went up against the entire NWA, which was so tough and devious that it brought on a massive justice department antitrust investigation. Finally, she went up against June Byers, perhaps the most formidable specimen among the women wrestlers, in a shooting match. Add all that up and its many different kinds of courage and toughness in one little woman who stood five feet, two inches tall.

So the first thing that surprised me was that the obstacles she faced were even greater than I had imagined. And she turned out to be tougher than I had imagined, so tough that it almost requires a new word to describe it. One of the earlier reviewers called her “a mulish cipher,” but I think she was much more than that. That phrase is just too belittling and scornful, too withholding of respect. She kept going even when her entire life collapsed on her: love walked out, she lost the championship, she lost all her money, the fame was gone, she had nothing, she had to rebuild. She started over, and trained other women to wrestle, worked for Hollywood, made her films. She did not quit. She had this incredible will. I made the point in the book that two of the greatest male wrestlers of all-time, George Hackenschimdt and Joe Stecher, had quit in the ring during their greatest matches. Well, Mildred Burke did not quit, ever.

SLAM! Wrestling: As part of their job, editors routinely ask, “Why should people read this story?” Why should people read this story of Mildred Burke?

Leen: Because it’s a good story. And it’s never been told before. It’s a story of sex, intrigue, abuse, corruption, and one woman who triumphs over it all. And it’s also a story about pro wrestling and why people care so much about it.