The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend

By Jeff Leen, Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pp., $25

On the Nelson scale, which ranges from nothing to full, The Queen of the Ring gets a rating of 3/4. Jeff Leen’s breezy re-creation of the early days  of ladies wrestling in the mid-1930s shows a clear, tacky path from carny sideshows to small arenas, mostly in the Midwest and the South. Mildred Burke was recognized as an early champion mainly because her husband/manager/ cuckold Billy Wolfe marketed her relentlessly as such. Standing 5-foot-2 and weighing about 130 pounds, Burke was an athletic woman with considerable grappling skill, although she really didn’t much need physical ability to win— her matches, all against women in her husband’s stable, were rigged.

That undercuts many of the books’ claims, often taken from Burke’s unpublished autobiography, about her success and what it meant. The same goes for Leen’s attempt to make his champion into an avatar of protofeminism. Although admired by female fans as an icon of strength—male fans saw the figure in the form-fitting tights in a different light—Burke was in many ways a puppet of her husband. Leen gives the reader an enjoyable, Runyonesque tour of this part-athletic, part-theatrical world as it flames briefly into acceptance in the early 1950s with the onset of television, but he never quite makes us understand the woman behind the jewel-encrusted belt.


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here