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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.