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Novel about 1950s women’s wrestling a sweetheart debut

Old-time professional wrestling was all about illusion.

Ed Farhat wore a burnoose, threw flames and used a pencil to carve up opponents as the Sheik. Larry Shreve was born in Canada but became infamous as Abdullah the Butcher, the Madman from the Sudan. And Mildred Bliss, who began her working career as a stenographer, later ruled women’s wrestling as Mildred Burke.

“You want to be someone else,” Angelina Mirabella writes in the opening line of her debut novel, a telling phrase that will lead the reader through the grimy, seedy, sometimes lurid and always cutthroat world of women’s professional wrestling of the 1950s.

Those wrestlers created a second person outside their real personalities. And writing mostly in the second person is what gives Mirabella’s “The Sweetheart” (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $25; 344 pages) an outside-the-box, effective narrative. At times Mirabella switches between first and second person and that can be a little disorienting, but the reader mostly hears the thoughts of the book’s main character, Gorgeous Gwen Davies — the Sweetheart.

Mirabella has ties to Florida. She attended high school in Apalachicola and lived in Tallahassee for 12 years. She received her Master of Arts in English (for creative writing) at Florida State in 2003 and has spent the last decade writing fiction while studying to be an occupational therapist.

She currently lives in Ithaca, New York, about 150 miles west of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Amsterdam. In reading “The Sweetheart,” it’s apparent that Mirabella has done her research and her facts are on the money. She sprinkles in the big names from the 1950s, like Burke, June Byers and Slave Girl (later Fabulous) Moolah. And she seems to have a grasp of wrestling holds, giving a fair description without going overboard.

It’s 1953, and Leonie Putzkammer is an awkward teenager from working-class Philadelphia, living with her widowed father. She’s tall and well-built, but painfully shy. One night, her father unexpectedly takes her to a wrestling match and she becomes enamored with the high-flying Antonino Rocca. Soon afterward, her own acrobatic skills are showcased in a television dance show and catch the interest of a wrestling promoter, Joe Pospisil.

Recruited by Popisil and assuming the stage name of Gwen Davies, she takes the leap into the squared circle and learns about wrestling and kayfabe (the omertà of pro wrestlers). She learns the ropes from Pospisil and Screaming Mimi Hollander, a gruff, sarcastic veteran who doesn’t suffer fools and newcomers easily.

“You don’t have to learn anything. You could just stay stupid,” Hollander tells Davies early in her training.

Davies begins her career as a heel, but she doesn’t like the villainous role that Hollander embraces with relish.

“I want them to love me, not assault me,” Gwen tells Mimi.

“Love you? You’re a heel, damn it,” Mimi sputters. “Love should be the last thing on your mind. That’s okay. You’ll see. The heel is the show.”

Gwen nevertheless decides to turn babyface and reinvents herself again, cuts her hair and dyes it blonde. Like legendary 1950s wrestler Gorgeous George, she becomes a strutting, preening, glamorous performer. She wears a scandalous two-piece outfit and plays to her fans, signing publicity photos and punctuating them with a red lipstick kiss. She attracts a fan base of young girls (“the Gorgeous Girls”) and occasional moonstruck older men who try to take their infatuations beyond a spectator’s role.

As Gwen will find out, though, Hollander’s premise about the Greek tragedy that is pro wrestling will ring true. It will force her to make some difficult decisions that will impact her career.

Mirabella inserts a few subplots into this story, including Gwen’s romance with Spider McGee, who is Pospisil’s nephew. McGee is a protective sort, who wants to get out of wrestling tights someday and become a booking agent like his uncle. He also wants to settle down and believes Gwen would be a suitable partner. Gwen wrestles with those emotions throughout the book.

The second subplot is a little more lurid. Gwen, needing money to send to her ailing father, decides to pose in some risqué photographs for a “personal” collection. That guilt follows Gwen throughout the book, too. Will it destroy her career? Mirabella supplies the answer as the book nears its conclusion.

Women of the 1950s were expected to be domestics and mothers. Working outside of the house was not the norm, and plying one’s trade in professional wrestling certainly was not considered respectable.

In one interview, Mirabella claims she is “still working on her professional identity.” So there is some irony behind her first line in “The Sweetheart,” as she notes it came to her while washing dishes — a task, perhaps, more suitable for June Cleaver than June Byers.

But like Gwen Davies’ signature dropkicks, Mirabella gives the reader a few jolts and some well-scripted writing. If you’re an old school wrestling fan, this book will resonate. And newer fans will get a taste of what wrestling was like before it became simply glitter and cartoonish.

And that’s no illusion.

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