Textually Active: The Fabulous Moolah

Lillian Ellison with Larry Platt Regan Books

I’m not a wrestling fan. I don’t know who wrestlers are, as a rule, or read ghostwritten World Wrestling Federation autobiographies. But when I saw the leopard-print cover of The Fabulous Moolah in the library, I figured, what the hell.

The only other time I’d seen Moolah, aka Lillian Ellison, was in the pages of Bust Magazine, where she and her occasional rasslin’ partner Mae Young were tearin’ up the ring in a fury of sequins, fists, and wrinkly skin. She was old enough to be my grandma, tough enough to kick my ass, and made up like a drag queen. It stuck in my mind.

Born in rural South Carolina in 1926, Ellison was a scrappy kid who dreamed of being Amelia Earhart. At least, until she was ten, when her wrestling fanatic father brought her to see Mildred Burke dukin’ it out in the local ring. Dead set on becoming the next women’s champion, Ellison started wrestling as a teenager. This was long before professional wrestling became the deeply strange spectator sport-opera it is today. Ellison worked regional circuits across the US, making $50 a week while learning to wrestle in the ring. She made a name for herself as “Slave Girl Moolah,” a scantily-clad valet for various male wrestlers, before emerging as “The Fabulous Moolah.” A steadily rising wrestling star, she kept company with all sort of characters including Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams Sr. and a young Elvis Presley. She won the World Wrestling Entertainment Unidisputed Women’s Championship Belt in 1956, and kept it for 28 years before losing it in 1984. In 1999, when she was 77, she won the belt back again. Hey, I don’t care how fake people say professional wrestling is. I’m afraid that a small argument might fell my 80 year-old grandma, to say nothing of a fight with Ivory. These days, the Fab One lives on Moolah Drive in Columbia, South Carolina, with a couple of her best female wresting friends. I picture it like Golden Girls, but with more midgets.

Now that I’ve made The Fabulous Moolah sound all interesting, let me warn you: it’s not very good. It’s all bluster and surface and attitude, which is exactly what I’d expect from a skimpy, WWF-sanctioned autobiography. Moolah’s life story, and the history of women’s entertainment wrestling, are so interesting that I want a substantial, insightful account of them, but I feel completely unreasonable demanding it from this source. Hopefully the upcoming Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling, a documentary film directed by Ruth Leitman, will have a bit more flying dropkick to it.