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
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
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

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game