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A new book tells the true story of how an ordinary woman broke barriers by becoming one of the first female wrestlers in the country.


IF YOU WERE TO JUDGE JEFF LEEN’S NEW
book, The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25), by its cover -- or perhaps more accurately, by its title -- it would be easy to assume that this biography of real-life female wrestler Mildred Burke would appeal only to fans of the sport. But it turns out that Burke (née Mildred Bliss) is the epitome of mid-twentieth-century Americana, and readers of all interests and backgrounds will be engrossed in her life story.

Born in 1915 in Coffeyville, Kansas, Burke struggled through hard times on her way to adulthood. Her family suffered financially, so she dropped out of school, married at 17, had a child while she was still a teenager, and worked alongside her mother in a spare Kansas City diner. Burke and her husband soon divorced, but one outing they made together to a wrestling match in town ignited a desire within her. She was one of only a few women in the crowd of more than 1,000 people, and she was spellbound.

“When she looked around, she was met with hard and hostile stares. But when she looked into the ring, she saw a beckoning vision,” Leen writes. “For Millie Bliss, a tiny woman who had been treated all of her life as prey, the sight of the muscular men in the ring hit with a liberating force.”

At the time, though, the idea of a woman wrestler was laughable. In fact, laws in most states banned women from competing in any public arena. But a customer at Burke’s diner by the name of Billy Wolfe would change her life by introducing her to the ring and eventually becoming her husband. He was 37 when they met, almost double Burke’s age, and he was using Kansas City as his home base while trying to make a living as a wrestler and wrestling promoter. Against all reason, he was sure that certain audiences would pay to watch women fight. What a happy accident it was, then, for him to meet Burke, who, despite her five-foot-two-inch frame, seemed like a perfect first client.

Wolfe trained his protégé and rechristened her Mildred Burke, as he felt that Bliss was an inappropriate name for a wrestler. While Burke was in the gym perfecting her craft, Wolfe was working business deals to get her in the ring. The two went on to marry, but their union wasn’t always a happy one; Wolfe was a notorious womanizer. But though Burke was unsuccessful in love, she was victorious in the ring, and she went on to hold the title of World Women’s Champion for nearly 20 years. She died in 1989 and was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame posthumously three years later.

Leen, a Washington Post editor by trade, has written only one previous book, which chronicled the saga of South American drug wars. But he ably handles the subject matter here, weaving a compelling tale of prejudice, heartbreak, and perseverance.