WHATTA GAL! by William Oscar & Nancy P. Williamson Johnson
Kirkus Star


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She loved jelly beans, ferris wheels, and tootling on her two-dollar harmonica. In an age when women's athletics barely existed, Babe took the 1932 Olympics by storm, becoming an instant heroine to a country deep in the Depression and hungry for stars. Johnson and Williamson, two Sports Illustrated writers, have achieved a biography that shucks off the phoney glitter that surrounded her and taps some of the raw, harsh realities of her life--the dirt-poor childhood in Beaumont, Texas, the post-Olympic period when she became a one-woman sideshow for tacky touring sports exhibitions. Many of those who competed against her--now mainly in their sixties and seventies--couldn't stand her: her big-mouthed arrogant bravado was jarring in an era when athletes were supposed to embody modesty. Babe, the authors note, broke the rules and didn't even have the sense to know she was doing it: she was hungry for money--syphoning it back to her scuffling Norwegian-immigrant family--and naive enough to brag about it. To sportswriters like Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon, she was a marvel; but the line between wonder woman and freak was a thin one. Without lapsing into the maudlin (forget about the awful opener: ""She was kissed by greatness. . ."") Johnson and Williamson reveal a hard life propelled by courage which approached recklessness--it kept her going and steeled her toward a slow, anguishing death from cancer. Her sister, now 66 and living in a rosy past, and George Zaharias, the 400-lb. wrestler whom she married, contribute their faded scrapbooks and pathetic memories. Babe soars above them all: crude, boisterous, fearless.

Pub Date: May 24th, 1977
Publisher: Little, Brown