Gladys Gillem: Wrestling 'heel'

Gladys "Killem" Gillem, who has died aged 89, spent her professional wrestling career as a heel, but not just any heel. Gillem was, more often than not, the designated loser for the popular "girls" champion Mildred Burke, arguably the only drawing card in the 1940s for women's wrestling, which was otherwise presented as a novelty, like midget wrestling. Gillem spent nearly a decade as Burke's top opponent partly because, lacking Burke's glamour, she played the bigger and stronger heel well, and was athletic enough to put Burke's wrestling over; but also because, for most of that time, she was the main, but not only, mistress of Billy Wolfe, who controlled women's wrestling and was also married to Burke. This odd triangle belied Burke's image as an all-American wife as well as wrestler.

Gillem's colourful eviscerations of Wolfe stole the 2004 documentary Lipstick and Dynamite from better-known wrestlers like The Fabulous Moolah. She spoke frankly of sleeping with Wolfe to get better bookings, despite his sexual shortcomings. "He couldn't get a hard-on," she told Burke's biographer, Jeff Leen. "He was a lousy lay but he was a promoter. People take advantage of you."

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1920, Gillem was an athletic tomboy who played on a state championship softball team but was thrown out of Catholic school for putting fish in the holy water and from high school for making home-brewed wine. When her father died, Gillem was left to care for her invalid mother, which sharpened her home-making skills to the point where she won prizes at the Alabama State Fair. But thinking "there has to be more to life than this", she was captivated by watching Burke wrestle in Fairfield, Alabama, and approached Wolfe for a job. Wolfe thought she was too fat, but relented when Gillem threw another wrestler down.

Trained by Wilma "Babe" Gordon, she soon became Burke's regular partner, making her look good and never being allowed to win. Gillem claimed she took so many bumps that the back of her head became one huge cauliflower spot. "I spent 10 years traveling with [them], put diamonds on his fingers... had my nose broken twice by Mildred, but didn't dare hit her back or I would lose my job."

Burke would take half the money his wrestlers were paid and deduct expenses, often leaving them with next to nothing. He pimped them out to keen fans and punished those who didn't play along with unfavourable, or no, bookings. Yet sleeping with him was no guarantee of success. Gillem, as the top heel, had no problems losing matches to Johnnie Mae Young, but when Wolfe wanted her to put over his new favourite, the prettier Nellie Stewart, who was only 15. Gillem said "Bill you can have this. I'm going home."

She would later say she "was looking for something easier, so I tried lion-taming", but she worked at a race track and began training as a trapeze artist before discovering Captain Ernest Enger, who taught her lion-taming. She eventually took over his business, working freelance for circuses, among them Ringling Bros' Barnum & Bailey, where she met and married John Aloysius Wall. They continued touring until they caught malaria and were stiffed by a promoter in Central America. They settled in Jacksonville, Florida, where Gillem began wrestling alligators at Casper's Alligator Farm; their three young children, would pose for tourists sitting on the alligators' backs.

Wall, who also worked as a stagehand on Broadway, was killed when a property box fell on his head. Gillem returned to the road, wrestling people and alligators, until a back injury forced her to retire. She returned to Birmingham, where she ran her mother's boarding house. In 1973 she bought a motel in Pensacola, Florida, renamed it the Birmingham Motel, put up a sign saying "lovers welcome" and rented rooms at a two-hourly rate.

After having bypass surgery in 2003 she was looked after by her children, but was strong enough to appear for publicity events for Lipstick and Dynamite, and gave numerous interviews to wrestling historians in the wake of the film. In 2006 she said, "there are a lot of people who made a lot of money [from me], but they are dead now. I learned the hard way about life."

Michael Carlson

Gladys Gillem, wrestler, trapeze artist and lion-tamer: born Birmingham, Alabama 6 January 1920; married John Aloysius Wall (three children); died Pensacola, Florida 12 August 2009.

Suggested Topics
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Sport
Moeen Ali wearing the 'Save Gaza' and 'Free Palestine' wristbands on his left arm
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Battle of the Five Armies trailer released
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Extras
indybest
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Chemical Engineer/Project Coordinator

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Chemical Eng...

Project Manager,Conduct Risk,London,£5-600pd

£500 - £600 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

PMO Manager (Portfolio Management, ExCel, Cost Benefit Analysis)

£450 - £500 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: PMO Manager - 6 month co...

Senior Fund Administrator - Edinburgh - £22 p/hr

£20 - £22 per hour + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Fund Administrator, Top Four ...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on