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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas