Editor’s note: In 1990, legendary sportswriter Frank Deford contributed a Mildred Burke feature for an edition of the Wrestling Observer Yearbook, reprinted here. This story originally was published in The National.
Wrestling with the Devil
Mildred Burke created a sport and became its greatest champion all in spite of the man, her husband, who was trying to destroy her
By Frank Deford
Wrestling is in one of its cyclical boom periods now, but there are almost no women's bouts in America. The women in wrestling here are "managers," hand maidens and showpieces with cleavage. They themselves don't -- wrestle. But when professional wrestling was first in its heyday, a "ladies" match was common on most bills. There was, however, only one champion, Mildred Burke, and there was only one women's wrestling promoter, Billy Wolfe. Together, they created a sport. Mildred was sweet and naive. Billy was an ugly satyr. Mildred and Billy were also married to each other, they despised each other, and they needed each other desperately...
She first saw Billy Wolfe one hellish hot summer's day in 1932 on Troost Street, in Kansas City, Mo. The Depression lay upon the dusty land, and even good Americans were finding it harder and harder to believe in tomorrow. Mildred Bliss (for that was her name to start with) was growing desperate. She had left school at 15, but when her boss attacked her, she quit, even scarce as jobs were. Somewhat later, she landed a job as a waitress on an Indian reservation in New Mexico, but when an old boyfriend came through on his way to California, she left with him. "I would have married anyone to get off that reservation," Millie said.
But they couldn't cut it, not even in California, and Millie and her husband ended up back in K.C. That was where she saw her first wrestling match, at the old Midway Arena. There were something like 1,500 fans on hand, and maybe three or four of them were women. It was one dandy show. Wrestling was already changing from pure contest to a mix of athletics and theater. The trouble with real wrestling was that it was too easy for the best wrestlers to counter each other, to wrestle defensively. As a consequence, the best technical matches were, as often as not, the most boring. The sport was dying at the gate with these authentic contests that were known in the trade as "shooting" matches, so they were being replaced by "working" matches, where style counted more than substance.
Mildred Bliss had never seen any kind of wrestling before, but she was almost mystically captivated by it. She would even come to think that she was so instinctive a wrestler that it must have been innate, that she reincarnated from some ancient male wrestler. Or something. It was eerie. But then, at that time, 1932, she couldn't dwell on any of it. The husband she didn't love had left her, which wouldn't have been so bad except that he had left her pregnant. Luckily, Millie's mother came back to K.C. and opened Mom's Cafe on Troost Street, serving full, home cooked meals for a clientele that scraped up two-bits for the dinner. And Millie got a job slinging hash at Mom's.
That was when she saw Billy Wolfe, the erstwhile middleweight wrestling champion of Missouri. Even seven months pregnant, Millie was cute. Petite, she stood only 5-2, and in her prime weighed no more than 138. Wolfe, who leered at most anything in a skirt, leered at her legs. He was 20 years older than Millie, twice her age, and she found him nearly repulsive: gnarled, blocky, with cauliflower ears, sinister eyes behind his horn-rimmed glasses, with a cigar stuck in a stubby, gap-toothed mouth that brought to mind a jack-o'-lantern. But, right away, Millie saw the old wrestler as a way out of Mom's Cafe.
Shortly after she gave birth to a son, Joe, Millie began to beg Billy for a chance to try wrestling. In his usual charm-laden way, he would snort and reply: "You? You ain't no bigger than a pint of piss." But Millie persisted, so one day he took her over to his gym, which was a few blocks away, up over a garage. She put Joe in his bassinet down by the ring and changed into a Gertrude Ederle bathing suit and boy's high-top sneakers. She came out to find her opponent, a gypsy boy, a head taller and twenty pounds heavier. Wolfe had promised the gypsy two bucks, with a little extra if he whipped Millie decisively, so as soon as the gong rang, he tore across the ring, lifted the startled young mother up over his head, whirled her around in an airplane spin, and started to fling her to the canvas. But here came the instinct, the reincarnation business, Somehow, Millie twisted in his grasp, dropped to the ring on her feet, tripped the surprised opponent and pinned him in a flash.
When Wolfe demanded a replay, Millie sprang at the gypsy, and, aping his moves, picked him up, spun him and flung him and pinned him. Billy Wolfe was beside himself. He came up with a plan, pronto. He would take the girl off to join the Landis Shows, put her on the midway, and have her take on all male corners. Millie was thrilled at this prospect for excitement and employment.
She told her mother to sell Mom's Cafe and head back to California. Then she and Joe piled into Billy's old Ford and took off with him to Abilene, where they would get hitched and go into show biz. It was along the road when he asked her to hand over her share of the $200 they had got for Mom's Cafe. Millie told him that since she was going to work now, with a husband to support her to boot, she had let her mother keep it all.
Billy Wolfe screamed at her and drew back his hand to wallop her. His eyes glinted savagely, and spittle foamed at his snarled lips. Millie cowered by the car door, protecting her baby. Billy shrieked that she was so stupid he wouldn't marry her after all. In fact, he said, he might just turn her into the police and take her baby. That was because, he explained, she was a married woman who had just crossed the state line with a man other than her husband, so she was liable to jail and the forfeiture of her child. This was, of course, nonsense, and, indeed, Wolfe himself might have been liable to prosecution under the Mann Act. Millie was still only 19 but she believed him and began to live in his thrall.
"I didn't have one dollar to my name. I was completely in this man's power. The whole character of our relationship was set at that moment," she said many years later. She huddled way over in the seat, holding baby Joe to her breast, until at last they got to Abilene, where Millie Bliss could wrestle grown men for a living.
Talkies were coming in, and the richer folks in town had radio sets, but there were still scores of carnivals amusing America then: Tempting midways of naked light bulbs, Ferris wheels, hurdy-gurdy music, candy apples and lemonade, games of skill for unskilled rubes. And freak shows: the fat woman, dwarfs and giants, the tattooed man and the dog-faced boy. The top acts were what the carneys called "concerts," which meant you could charge the hicks extra. Hermaphrodites, for best example, were classic concerts. Bears that danced were another big one in the line. And the two-headed child was always good for another nickel even if it turned out to be a barely formed fetus in a murky bottle. But: caveat emptor. Carneys were the bottom of the barrel, free-white-and-twenty-one division. Most towns wouldn't even let the carnival's employees off the premises. Drifters and scoundrels, tramps, runaways. It was a raw life on the move in a pinched time, and everybody was fair game.
Carneys called their rookies "the first of May" dating back to a pre-Sunbelt age when most road shows didn't get going till spring. A newcomer, you see, was so green, he was the first of May. By that standard, Millie Bliss was about March the 24th, a novice of novices.
Wolfe gave her only a handful of brief workouts before he threw her to the crowds. "Hurry, hurry, hurry! Twenty-five, I say 25 dollars, to anyone who can beat the little lady in 10 minutes time! Pin or submission!"
Twenty-five dollars was uptown cash then. Wolfe restricted the opposition to those no more than a head or so larger than Millie "we accept your challenge!" he would scream, in the first-person plural not because he cared about her well-being, but because he didn't want to take too many chances with the 25 bucks. In her spare time, Wolfe had her train other female wrestlers. Ostensibly, this was going to provide Millie with intragender competition, which she dreamed of, but in fact it was because Wolfe saw a good thing, and he wanted to replace Millie with another, more pliant wrestler. Also, he seduced Millie's pretenders, as he would her competitors all their marriage,
"The first time I talked to Billy," says Bette Carter, a wrestler who was a teenager, one-third his age when she first met the promoter, "he said to me: 'I got two questions for you: Are you a lesbian, and if you're not, will you sleep with me?' That was all, just like that.
"I'm not lesbian, but I said: 'It's none of your business, and second: no, I won't.' It didn't bother Billy. He just shrugged and said 'OK, then you'll never get to be champion.' Billy Wolfe was the daddy of us all, but he was a terrible bully. He loved to pit girls against each other outside the ring. He loved to see girls fighting."
One day on the carnival, when Mildred was working the belly board, hustling tickets for the evening show, Billy was back in their trailer, carrying on with one of his women. Baby Joey woke up and started crying, ruining the mood for the lovers, so Wolfe pummeled the poor child, leaving his little body a mass of bruises and welts. When Millie came home and found Joey, she immediately packed her valise and took off down the road, hitchhiking with Joey. The first man who picked her up pulled over and tried to rape her, and even though she escaped, she had no place left to go.
She begged Wolfe to come get her. But at least she laid it on the line to him about the child. "Billy," she said, straight out, "if you ever touch Joey again, I'll wait till you're asleep, and then I'll cut your head off your body."
Whatever may have existed of an intimate relationship, even of convenience, had long vanished. Not even Joe Wolfe can ever recall a single affectionate moment between Mildred and Billy. But she thought she needed him, and she kept proving that he did need her. "Billy was a powerful personality," Joe Wolfe says, "but in wrestling, without Mildred Burke, Bill was nothing."
Night after night, the grimy young men of the Midwest would step forward to take her on. She was Mildred Burke now a name that had come to Wolfe one night out of the blue as he worked the Bally. Bliss was no name for a wrestler. Burke. Mildred Burke. And the toughs would step forward "we accept your challenge?" and they would stride into the ring, and Mildred Burke would turn them upside down and show them up, pin them, or hold them at bay. Two years, she never lost a carney match, the men in the audience screaming at the action, gasping at the titillation, the cute little woman in tights, squirming against the men, one after another. Billy Wolfe's athletic show was a hit, night after night, the dazzle of the midway.
Then Millie hurt a knee, and Billy told her to hit the road. Just like that. She pleaded with him. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. She begged. At last, he agreed. "All right, temporarily," he said. Get this: he would allow Millie to stay until she trained another woman to replace herself in the act.
She was reprieved. She could still work on her dream of being an athlete, not a carney. And one day, when, miraculously, her knee popped back into its socket while she was training her replacement, she began to look seriously beyond the midway. Somewhere out there, there had to be other ladies who wanted to wrestle.
First, though, Mildred wrote letters to newspapers in the smaller towns all over the Midwest, offering the standard $25 to any man her size who could beat her in his hometown. One fellow, a dishwasher in Bethany, Mo., who was earning five bucks a week, answered the challenge. The match filled the hall in Bethany. Millie whipped him and was on her way.
Soon, she was wrestling men all over. Billy couldn't believe it; it was the same scam as the carnivals, but the stakes were much higher. He was, in fact, so pleased with these expanding prospects that he finally made an honest woman out of Millie. They were joined in holy matrimony, Mr. and Mrs. Billy Wolfe.
Her renown was spreading, and, at last, other women, penniless in the Depression, unable to find traditional work, began to imitate Millie. "You've got to understand," says Mae Young, a longtime rival who first wrestled Millie in 1940 in Tulsa, "if it hadn't been for Mildred Burke, there wouldn't have been any girl wrestling. Ever."
Down South, one Cora Jurgens began making a name for herself in the ring against men. She was well represented by several large, sharp men in wing-tip shoes, and they possessed the foresight Mildred had and Billy didn't; they proposed a match between Cora and Mildred for the ladies wrestling world championship. There was real money promised, so: "We accept your challenge!" Only when Millie and Billy got to Birmingham they found out there was a fly in the ointment. The fix was in for the hometown queen. When Millie protested, four goons worked Billy over. So Millie lost.
But the show was a critical and financial success, and Billy convinced Millie to replay it all over Dixie. She would almost pin Cora, and then she would let Cora escape and Cora would win. The fans went wild. Finally, though, Millie got Cora to agree to a shooting match. It was set for Chattanooga. Only wouldn't you know it, Cora's men in the wing-tip shoes bought the ref, and when Millie put Cora away, the ref jumped in and said Millie had used an illegal hold and raised Cora's hand in victory.
But the people could smell a rat. They weren't born yesterday in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The arena went up for grabs. The fans poured into the ring and hoisted Millie onto their shoulders and forced the judges to give her the brand spanking new championship belt. But that wasn't satisfaction enough for Millie. She spotted Cora sneaking back into the dressing room and chased after her. Millie remembered it like this: "Cora cowered over near the shower, so I went over to her, and right there, with no spectators and no payment, I beat the living daylights out of her."
Then Millie shook her finger at the sniveling would-be. "That'll teach you to pull a double-cross on me," she said. Cora just sobbed some more. "So, who's the champion?"
"You are, Millie," Cora gasped. "You are the champion."
And so she was. The money began to roll in. Mildred Burke estimated that she made in excess of $4,000,000 in her career $50,000 in 1938 when the average major league ballplayer was pulling down approximately $6,000. Millie was making six-figures two decades before the world celebrated Billie Jean King as the first $100,000-a-year female athlete. Billy had to set up a fancy booking office in Columbus, Ohio, where he could sleep with his women and spend Millie's money.
She was on the road, wrestling, night after night, six nights most weeks, in cities that were sometimes hundreds of miles apart. Mostly, she would leave right after the night's match, sleeping in the car by the side of the road when she wasn't at the wheel. She put 100,000 miles and more onto a new Buick every year. And there were no interstates then. There was no automobile air conditioning then either, and automobile heaters were not reliable.
Her knees ached a lot of the time. Her nose was broken and an opponent stomped on her mouth once, causing $2,000 worth of dental work. Both of her thumbs were ripped out of their joints and pushed back to her wrists. It was not glamorous, and it was even worse during the war when the rubber and the engines went off to fight the enemy, and a lot of the time she had to ride buses, standing up for the soldiers.
But oh, when Mildred Burke, wrestling queen, World Champion Lady Wrestler, got to the arena, There she was transformed. She wore the most gorgeous attire. Remember, this was the Depression. This was when most everybody had nothing, and the movies were all escapist, drawing-room comedies and lavish musicals, where men in top hat and tails waltzed with women slinky in silk and sequins. And Mildred too. Her gowns. Furs. Sixty-dollar sneakers, matching wrestling suits and robes, ermine-trimmed. Why, one robe weighed 20 pounds with all the rhinestones. Billy bought her diamonds, to boot, hairpins and tiaras, watches and necklaces.
She was always in the newspapers. Mildred Burke is in town. Newsreels. A lot of men took a shine to her. A United States senator, John Bricker, was very sweet on her. She was not unattractive. Not in the least. Sometimes, the satin suits she wrestled in had cut-out sides, with lots of skin. For her own publicity photos, Millie posed in even more daring cheesecake, naked in high heels with only furs or towels hiding her charms. Millie was what was called a pin-up then.
"And now, ladies and gentleman, the undefeated ladies wrestling champion... the one... the only... Mildred Burke!!!"
The spotlight. Rhinestones and ermine. The crowd cheering. The music was an instrumental known as Sabre Dance. It was her anthem. Sabre Dance went bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop, aaajaa, aaaaajaaaa, as best as you can phoneticize it. It was terribly distinct, Sabre Dance.
Then Millie would come into the ring, strip down to her suit and parade about. She was tremendously strong. At the height of her powers, the Los Angeles Police Department displayed her poster in the precincts, trying to shame the male cops into getting into better shape. Invariably, her opponent was larger; Millie won with leverage, dexterity and cunning. Most of her matches she concluded with her world-famous "alligator clutch," which involved twisting her opponent this way and that and then sitting on her to best effect.
The way Billy Wolfe figured it, lady wrestling was here to stay, and if he could just dethrone Mildred (one way or another) and control her conqueror, he would be better for it. With this mind set, he tried everything, for shame to trickery to murder.
He killed her dog once. He spread a story that she was dying of cancer, so no one should book her any more. Regularly, when Millie was injured or under the weather, he would suddenly order one of his inamoratas to try and beat her, "shooting," when they were only supposed to be "working." In restaurants and public places, Billy loved to cry out, "Mildred Burke is so dumb, she'd work if I threw her a fish." Once, he sicked a lesbian wrestler on her in their motel room and laughed diabolically as Millie tried to escape. He blatantly slept with her opponents, and he took a special delight in deriding her small breasts, comparing them to other wrestlers' especially to Nell Stewart, his favorite.
Millie was convinced that Billy tried to have her drowned once and killed on three occasions in car accidents when automobile parts suspiciously failed. And, of course, he would beat her. One time, outside a liquor store in Los Angeles, Billy and another large, 200-pound man pummeled her up against her car. As Millie remembered it: "Only my devotion to training and my washboard abdominal muscles saved me from permanent injury. Punched slammed into my ribs and kidneys, my solar plexus and breasts, Bang, bang, bang went my head on the car roof, as the two men kept cursing me, trying to knock me senseless. But they could not make me promise to lose to Nell Stewart. They could not make me give up my title."
Billy could not understand that he was her only real opponent; he was her shooting match, every day. Millie didn't wear a wedding band. On her third finger, left hand, she wore a large ring with a royal crown. Like a nun who wears a ring to signify that she is married to the Church. Mildred was married to lady wrestling. She had created it, and she would not let it go especially she would not let her husband take it from her.
Finally, after two decades, she did summon up the courage to divorce him, but even then she let Billy get the best of the settlement. What she took was a lot of the jewelry he had given her and then she found out most of it wasn't worth anywhere near what he had told her. "Oh, how much I envied the relationship other wives had with a regular, straight-ahead and decent man," she said.
Through all those miserable years together, though, she only once seems to have fallen in love with another man. And the other man was -- this is like Shakespeare or like soap opera -- the other man was Billy Wolfe's only son.
He was known as G. Bill Wolfe to distinguish him from his father. He was six years younger than Millie, and his father sent him on the road with his stepmother when she finally asked for a chauffeur. Eventually, the awe G. Bill had for Millie grew into something else, and at last G. Bill got up the nerve to go to Billy and, in effect, ask him to give over his wife to his son.
Billy was prepared. He already knew what was going on, and after watching Bill squirm, he fiendishly laughed in his son's face, mocking him, before he loosed a cascade of vile accusations against Millie. G. Bill began to weep. "Bill, you sonuvabitch," Billy said, "you ain't never gonna get Mildred. Now me, I don't want her myself just what I can get out of her. But no one else is getting her. Now get the hell outta here."
To rub it in, Billy took G. Bill away from Millie and made him become the driver for Nell Stewart, his mistress. Millie went back on the road by herself. "Destiny and my own relentless ambition had shackled me to a dog in the manger," she wrote years later. "A dog that grew progressively more vicious even as I filled his coffers with money."
But she so loved wrestling that she could abide what her husband did to her. Only rarely did she "let the whole thing get to me." One such night was in Atlanta, before a match with Nell Stewart. As Millie recalled: "Nell was pretty. No doubt of that. And all the promoters -- not just Billy -- were fond of her because of her big gates. She was sitting in the dressing room, primping, and she took a long, special look at herself. Then she patted her ample bosom. 'These are the real thing, Millie,' she said. 'Yeah, Nell, I know they're the real thing,' I said. And my husband knows they're the real thing. But what's important is under them, so when your heart gets to be the real thing, you'll have something to brag about. Until then, if I were you, I'd keep my mouth shut.'
"Nell sat there with her mouth open, her eyes wide and her brassiere off. And 15 minutes later, in the ring, I manicured the mat with Ms. Stewart, throwing her around like a bean bag. 'Nell,' I said, 'that's the real thing.'
"Billy had her thinking that I was a complete idiot, instead of a protector of the sport and the business that I loved."
Once Mildred Burke got things straightened out with Cora Jurgens in Chattanooga, she never lost another match, shooting or working. All told, in the ring, she won 150 matches against men and something like 5,000 against women, in most states of the union, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Cuba. The band played "Hail to the Chief" for her when she landed in Havana. She retired undefeated, beating Ruth Boatcallie in Reno in January of 1955 in her finale, when she was just short of her 40th birthday. Ruth had once blinded Millie in one eye with a fingernail but even with that, she couldn't put her away. "No one could physically beat Millie in the ring," Mae Young says, leaving it at that.
The last time Millie saw Billy and G. Bill, the two men in her wrestling life, was in Atlanta in 1954, when she had a shooting match with June Byers. Millie's knee went out of its socket, but she shoved it back and wrestled 47 minutes for real to keep the title. Thus, she foiled Billy to the end.
By that time, though, G. Bill, drinking heavily, had turned against her no less than his father. That time Billy and another man beat up Millie outside the liquor store -- the other man was G. Bill.
After Billy and Millie divorced, he married Nell Stewart. G. Bill married June Byers, but both couples were divorced by the time the two men died, Billy Wolfe in 1961, his son one year later.
After she retired from the ring, Mildred Burke trained many female wrestlers, but there was never another one like her. Ladies wrestling peaked with her, and it has never been the same since Millie and Billy ran it in their fashion, working the crowd, shooting each other. Mildred Burke died two summers ago, at the age of 73, bigger in her sport than anybody ever was in theirs.