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Originally published Sunday, August 30, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Book review

'The Queen of the Ring': The powerful saga of a mighty female wrestler

"The Queen of the Ring" is Washington Post editor Jeff Leen's biography of Mildred Burke, a tiny powerhouse of a woman who broke the gender barrier to become the longest reigning champion of female wrestling.

Special to The Seattle Times

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

by Jeff Leen

Atlantic Monthly Press, 356 pp., $25

Is professional wrestling truly an athletic endeavor, or a sideshow filled with freaks faking the outcome? Both, as it turns out.

For decades, I have wondered about that question, but I never knew whom to trust while seeking answers. Now Jeff Leen, an editor who manages investigative projects for The Washington Post, has satisfied my curiosity, with a book I could not have imagined enjoying, but did indeed enjoy.

A biography of a female wrestler who reached the zenith of her renown during the 1950s and has been dead 20 years now sounds like an unappealing book for anybody but wrestling fans. Yet author Leen succeeds in making the book interesting to a broader audience, an audience fascinated with Americana.

It turns out that wrestler Mildred Bliss, aka Mildred Burke, represents midcentury Americana about as well as anybody could. Born during 1915 in Coffeyville, Kan., Burke struggled to adulthood through hard times, including an economic depression that fractured her family. She dropped out of school, married at age 17, became a teenage mother, divorced and worked alongside her own mother in a Kansas City diner with too few paying customers.

Burke could dream, though, amid her hardscrabble existence. Not even she, however, could have guessed her dreams would focus on becoming a professional wrestler during an era when most states banned women from competing in a public arena.

Leen, whose only previous book chronicled South American drug wars (quite a leap from there to a wrestling biography), relates how Burke took an interest in entering the ring. While still married to that early-life husband, Burke attended a wrestling match in Kansas City with him.

"She later recalled that there were only a handful of women in a crowd of more than a thousand," Leen writes, "and when she looked around she was met with hard and hostile stares. But when she looked into the ring, she saw a beckoning vision. For ... Millie Bliss, a tiny woman who had been treated all of her life as prey [by men], the sight of the muscular men in the ring hit with a liberating force."

It is one thing to dream about becoming a female professional wrestler. It is quite another thing to achieve that goal. Burke (a name bestowed upon her later by a manager who thought "Bliss" sounded inappropriate for a wrestler) had no idea how to proceed. But, to suggest for the billionth time that truth is stranger than fiction, Burke learned how to proceed not long after attending the wrestling match through an unplanned intersection with Billy Wolfe, a customer at the diner.

Wolfe, then age 37 (more than double Burke's age), was using Kansas City as his home base while trying to make a living as both a wrestler and a wrestling promoter. Against reason, he felt certain audiences would pay to watch women wrestle. What a coincidence that he had found an avid prospect, no matter how tiny she seemed.

As the biography unfolds, readers learn about Burke perfecting her craft under Wolfe's tutelage, the business deals that allowed Burke to enter the ring, her stormy marriage to the relentlessly womanizing Wolfe, the culture of their nation that found women wrestling both outrageous and captivating. Burke was an effective entertainer and a talented athlete. In short, Burke was a wrestler.

Steve Weinberg reviews books from his home in Columbia, Mo.

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