Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend
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The gripping history of a largely forgotten legend of wrestling.

Washington Post managing editor Leen (co-author: Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellin Cartel, 1989) illuminates the murky history of women’s professional wrestling with this sympathetic biography of Mildred Burke, the sport’s greatest champion. Burke (née Bliss) grew up in poverty and seemed resigned to a life in the margins, waitressing in a dingy café during the depths of the Depression—until her husband took her to a wrestling match. Something about the primal nature of the contest touched a chord in the unhappy young woman, and Burke wholly dedicated herself to a professional grappling. Her career began in earnest when she tried out for Billy Wolfe, a former wrestler who had begun to gather and train young women in the sport. Wolfe quickly realized her potential—she was lithe, strong, gifted with an innate sense of balance and fiercely determined—and she began to win matches, defeating some 200 men before establishing herself as the nation’s premier woman wrestler, holding the world championship for nearly 20 years. Wolfe is both the book’s villain and most compelling character, a cigar-chomping, diamond-flashing huckster whose genius for promotion and utter ruthlessness paid off in spectacular success. He was also an abusive womanizer, blithely cheating on Burke—whom he had married, presumably to better control her fortunes—with the young women in his charge, who understood that sex with him was the only route to success in their field. Burke remains a bit of a cipher, a mulish survivor abused by Wolfe for years before he effectively destroyed her career, abetted by the sexist mentality of the wrestling establishment. Equally tragic, and not a bit tawdry, was Burke’s long-term affair with Wolfe’s son, who would ultimately take part in her fall. Burke enjoyed a twilight resurgence when touring lady wrestlers proved popular in Japan, but the impression Leen provides is of a broken, badly used woman who ironically stands as a symbol of feminine strength and a groundbreaking figure in the history of women’s athletics.

Lean, harsh and lowdown, this bruising history leaves a mark.

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1882-0
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2009


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