This biography of Mildred Burke goes straight into the top tier of must-read historical wrestling books.
Many such titles fall into one of two traps. Some are cobbled together with little research or overly reliant on a single source, meaning it’s hard to determine the accuracy of either small details or the overall narrative. Others are the result of meticulous research but the author falls prey to the desire to leave nothing else, even at the expense of readability.
Leen has found the perfect blend between the two, pulling off the approach of John Capouya’s Gorgeous George, but arguably improving upon it. In the body of the book itself, Leen always cites a source for material where there’s reason to doubt it, or where it’s significant to know any bias or perspective which could affect its interpretation.
However, this is only done where necessary and the text itself is allowed to breathe without excessive ifs and buts. Instead of footnotes, the book has an exhaustive section at the back where you can look up the source of virtually every claim or piece of information if you so choose.
That list of sources includes contemporary documents from newspaper articles to personal letters and court papers. It also includes author interviews with Burke’s son and many of her former female wrestling colleagues. And it includes an unpublished autobiography by Burke that Leen uses extensively to gleam her perspective and insight, while never losing sight of the fact that nobody, not least a professional wrestler, gives a completely trustworthy and accurate recollection of their own experiences.
None of this would matter if there wasn’t a good tale to be told, but Burke’s is an amazing one. Without giving too much away, she was arguably the first major female wrestling star and the only woman to ever be a consistent drawing card at the same level as the men. Her personal and professional relationship with womens wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe and his son is fascinating, and this is as much the story of female grappling in the pre-Moolah era as it is Burke’s life.
And the truly shocking behind-the-scenes dealings leads to a moment that was surely a literary gift to Leen: the 1954 bout between Burke and June Byers that was likely the last genuine pro wrestling shoot (as in a match with no planned finish) until the days of Pancrase four decades later. Leen gives the match its appropriate historic perspective without romanticising it and makes clear that it was a dreadfully dull experience for the unsuspecting spectators.
Sadly this isn’t available in the UK, but is certainly worth tracking down for a transatlantic order.