By Mike Mooneyham
Nov. 18, 2007
For as long as I can remember, Mary Lillian Ellison has been “one of us.” Born in the small Kershaw County town of Tookiedoo, and living most of her life in Columbia, she was as much a part of the state as the palmetto trees that line its landscape and the history that surrounds its every corner.
She was, in fact, a piece of history herself, becoming one of the greatest female performers to ever step into a professional wrestling ring and the most powerful woman outside the squared circle.
With her recent passing at the age of 84, Lillian Ellison, better known to millions of fans around the world as The Fabulous Moolah, takes that next step into immortality, leaving behind a half-century of monumental accomplishments and lasting memories.
She was alternately known as Lil, Lillian, Nana and other names of endearment, but to me, she was and always will be simply “Moolah.” It was the perfect name she picked out for herself shortly after becoming a wrestler nearly six decades ago, and the one that really fit her the most. It was back then that promoter Jack Pfeffer told her that her real name wasn’t memorable or flashy enough and asked her why she even wanted to wrestle. Annoyed, she blurted out, “For the money. I want to wrestle for the moolah.”
It was one of those rare seminal moments that help define a career. A star was born, and a legend had begun.
It can be debated whether The Fabulous Moolah was the greatest professional women’s wrestler of all time. She stands alone, though, being the most influential female figure in the history of the industry, having maintained an ironclad control over women’s wrestling in this country for decades.
“In the world of women’s wrestling, there will always be one irrefutable legend that stands head and shoulders above the rest: The Fabulous Moolah,” WWE said in a statement. Moolah, who had been connected with the McMahon family for a half century, was considered a part of that storied dynasty.
The rough, rowdy and raucous women’s wrestling of Moolah’s era was, of course, a far cry from today’s version of silicon-inflated divas and over-the-top theatrics. But there’s little argument that Moolah paved the way for the girls. She was the face of women’s wrestling for many years, and her credentials were lofty.
Moolah was the longest reigning champion (1956-1984) in the history of the business, and was the first woman allowed to wrestle at Madison Square Garden. Along with Vince McMahon Sr., she reinstated women’s pro wrestling back into New York after it had been banned. And, 35 years after breaking into the business, it was her feud with Wendi Richter, which involved pop superstar Cyndi Lauper, that was the catalyst behind the first Wrestlemania.
At the age of 61, Moolah found herself smack dab in the middle of the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection,” a boom period of unprecedented success and newfound mainstream popularity for the World Wrestling Federation.
Moolah continued to wrestle on special occasions, including her 80th birthday, when she worked a short match with WWE diva Victoria (Lisa Varon), fulfilling a personal goal by taking part in a WWE match as an octogenarian in 2002.
“I’d like to thank Moolah for paving the way to make the divas what we are today,” Victoria told the WWE Web site. “We’re wrestlers, not just beautiful bodies. She sacrificed herself and her well being to make it possible for us to go out there and be respected. I miss her and I loved her.”
Moolah, the first female inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame, also was a central figure in the 2005 documentary “Lipstick and Dynamite” which chronicled the rise of women’s professional wrestling throughout the last century. Admittedly she had her share of detractors in the business. Having trained the majority of women wrestlers who came up through the ’60s and ’70s, Moolah was widely criticized by many of her charges for taking what they claimed were inordinate booking fees, along with taking the best bookings for herself as the perennial world champion.
But Moolah, with her wonderfully fearless personality, was a strong woman in a man’s business, and always maintained that she was protecting her girls and putting them in a position to succeed in a male-oriented arena.
“Lillian was strong. She was a shining role model and example for women everywhere,” Stephanie McMahon-Levesque, daughter of WWE chief Vince McMahon, said at Moolah’s funeral. “Lillian was all about fighting for what she believed in. She was full of life and full of passion, and she wanted that life, love and passion to go on.”
Perhaps her most endearing quality was her love for the wrestling business. It was a passion rarely seen in this profession. Many performers love the business for what it brings them – fame, fortune, glory. Moolah loved the business for no other reason than it was the biggest part of her. “Wrestling has meant everything to me. It’s got me what I dreamed of,” she once said. “I know if I had a regular job as a secretary, I would never had gotten what I have now. Wrestling has been my love and my life.”
She loved the business so much that she remained a part of it until her death. She won a world title in 1999 at the age of 76 and, along with best friend Johnnie Mae Young, took part in a number of WWE shows over the past decade, mostly in comedy skits, with her last appearance being at the Summer Slam pay-per-view.
“Lil loved wrestling fans and she loved wrestling,” said Young. “There wasn’t a day or night that went by that she didn’t think of wrestling. She was already looking forward to going to the Hall of Fame (ceremony) next year. She was a wrestling fan and a wrestler for all her life.”
A well-worn life
Moolah’s career has been well documented in this space and elsewhere over the years. She even penned her own autobiography, “Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle,” several years ago. To be fair, however, Moolah’s real life story could never fit into the confines of a 250-page book, nor could her best tales ever see the light of day, for a variety of reasons. She led far too complex a life and traveled far too many miles.
But that was the thing about Moolah. For as intriguing and colorful a life as she led, she could also be the most genteel, down-to-earth creature, oozing sultry, Southern charm, with a humble unpretentiousness that belied her gaudy image. Whether she knew your name or not, you were either “Honey,” “Baby” or “Darlin,” and the words dripped from her mouth like sweet maple syrup.
Her early life, though, had been far from easy. She was the youngest of 13 children and the only girl. Her mother died of cancer when she was 8, and the youngster nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. Her dad, in an attempt to break her out of the depression, took her to the weekly wrestling shows at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, and she became hooked after watching then-women’s champion Mildred Burke, the top female wrestler of that era.
Ellison, who labored as a dollar-a-day cotton picker at the age of 10, knew she could do the things she saw in the ring. In 1956, she cashed in, winning a world championship she would hold 28 years.
She began her career in 1949 under the banner of infamous women’s wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe, Burke’s husband, in Columbus, Ohio. Wolfe, though, considered Ellison too small and discouraged her from seeking a ring career, so she moved on to work with Pfeffer, an eccentric promoter who loved freakish wrestlers and outlandish gimmicks.
“Billy Wolfe, the guy who all the girls at that time were wrestling for, told me that I was too small to wrestle and told me to go sit on some lawyer’s knee and be a secretary. “I said, `No, I’m going to be a wrestler, and I’m going to be the best,'” she once said.
Pfeffer had “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in his stable at the time, and the future world champion needed a valet. Ellison took the gig as the leopard skin-clad “Slave Girl” Moolah and later formed a partnership with The Elephant Boy (Tony Olivas) and worked with him for nearly two years.
Moolah won a 13-woman battle royal to win the vacant women’s world title in 1956, although June Byers still held claim to the NWA women’s championship after having beaten Burke three years earlier. After Byers retired in 1964, Moolah was subsequently recognized as the NWA champion, making her the undisputed women’s world champion.
With pouty red lips and smoldering eyes and sporting flashy, decadent jewelry, the brash and brassy Moolah quickly climbed to stardom as the most recognized female athlete in the business. A performer the fans loved to hate, she was a heel of the first order and liked to stomp, choke and gouge her opponents with a foreign object she kept secreted in her ample bra.
She wore sequined robes, and her trademark wrestling boots were inscribed with a dollar mark. She was a tigress in the ring and a shrewd businesswoman outside it.
It was lifelong friend Young who first hooked Moolah up with the McMahon family.
“Vince (Jr.) is a great man. He loved Lil,” said Young. “I was one of the first girls to work for Vince Sr. when he opened up Joe Turner Arena in Washington, D.C. At that time Lil had never worked for Vince Sr. She had been calling me and writing me to use some of her girls. Mildred (Burke) and Billy (Wolfe) had split up at that time, and Vince asked me what I thought about getting Lil and his girls. I told Vince that would be the greatest thing that ever happened. And Lil has been with the family ever since.”
Moolah, in fact, sold the rights to her championship to Vince McMahon in 1983.
Lillian Ellison, whose birth name was Ellisor, was married, at best count, five times, and numbered among her close friends music icons Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams Sr., who she once claimed proposed marriage to her. The late wrestler Buddy Lee (Joseph Pino), with whom she shared a common-law relationship and a pro wrestling promotion, would later become one of the most successful music promoters in Nashville. Their marriage ended when Moolah caught him in a compromising position with 18-year-old Rita Cortez, whom the two were training, in a wrestling ring at their facility. Her relationship with Lee had lasted nine years, and together they had started Girl Wrestling Enterprises, which filled the void left by Wolfe’s death in 1962, booking most of the girls in the business.
With Lee no longer in the picture, Moolah never wavered, becoming a hard-nosed, iron-fisted woman in a profession that had been dominated by men. She was, in fact, so tough that she gained the respect of wrestling promoters throughout the country. They knew that Moolah trained her girls well, and they never had any second thoughts about using any of the women she had booked.
To newer fans of the wrestling business, a trip to Wrestlemania might be their version of the sport’s Holy Grail. To an old-school follower, however, being a guest at 101 Moolah Drive was the best ticket in town.
Moolah lived on a 42-acre estate in north Columbia – appropriately dubbed “Camp Moolah” – that included a 13-room home, eight- and 12-acre lakes, a row of lake houses and a gym equipped with a wrestling ring where she had taught hundreds of men and women to wrestle. She had bought the land nearly 40 years ago, with only a lake house occupying the area at the time, and later decided to build her home there, with her estate located in the back of a tranquil neighborhood in the suburbs of Columbia. Her land had once extended even further until Interstate 77 was built, and she sold several acres to the state to accommodate the highway.
“The Amazing” Mae Young, who started wrestling in the late ’30s and helped break Moolah into the sport, had shared the home with Moolah for years. “She was in California and had lost all of her family, and I told her this big place was just sitting here and she could have the whole upstairs,” Moolah once explained. The two, both members of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, were delightful hosts and reservoirs of grappling history. A couple of ordinary senior citizens they weren’t.
In many ways a visit inside the gates at the end of Moolah Drive was akin to a trip to a very cool grandmother’s house. In this case, though, a pair of grannies who could whip you and your posse if it ever came down to it. And if you needed proof, you only had to venture a few hundred feet away to watch the old girls in action, training (and stretching) aspiring young women (and men) grapplers with ease at their official training facility, a cramped building that resembled a little red barn.
Back at headquarters, though, was a treasure trove of wrestling history and a pair of hostesses who were true pioneers of women’s wrestling and blazed paths through a business that wasn’t always welcoming to the fairer sex. There were tales of 500-mile nightly trips from town to town, with five girls to a car, along with $10 payoffs. Mae, three months Moolah’s senior, was wrestling professionally when World War II broke out. More than 60 years later, she was still taking bumps in WWE rings, going through tables and and proving that age is only in one’s mind. Her longevity promoted WWE announcer Jerry Lawler to once quip: “When God said let there be light, Mae Young threw the switch.”
Moolah and Mae truly were wrestling’s version of The Golden Girls. They could, as an observer once noted, “still take a punch, spit out a tooth and mop the mat with your sorry backside.”
To the uninitiated, a visit to the compound might be like a trip to The Twilight Zone, or something out of The Wizard of Oz. Part of the fun would be watching a new visitor’s reaction when a third occupant of the house would make an appearance. “Oh, don’t worry about her, that’s just my damn midget,” Moolah would laugh with her endearing Southern drawl.
Moolah, of course, would be referring to Katie Glass, whom she adopted years ago when the 17-year-old knocked on her door looking for work in the wrestling business. Since Moolah loved diamonds, and her nickname was Lil, she gave the pint-sized performer the name “Diamond Lil,” and she became one of the top midget performers of that era. Glass lived with Moolah for more than 40 years and called her “Ma,” while Moolah affectionately dubbed her “my damn midget.”
“She came to me when she was just 17. She calls me mom,” Ellison once explained. “The first day I picked her up at the bus station, I felt so sorry for her. She asked if she could call me mom. I said, `When you throw that damn cigarette away, you can call me mom if you want to, but my daughter doesn’t smoke cigarettes.’ She threw it out of the window, and that was it. She’s called me mom ever since. She’s a sweetheart.”
The final bell
The finish for this grand lady of wrestling came on the evening of Nov. 2. Moolah had undergone shoulder replacement surgery several days earlier. It was a procedure she had put off for years, because doctors had told her it would mean she could never wrestle again. It also would have jeopardized the fulfillment of a dream match Vince McMahon had promised her on her 100th birthday.
But there were post-surgery complications. She died three days later from either a heart attack or a blood clot stemming from the surgery.
“We thought she was going to be able to go through the operation fine. And she did go through it,” said Young. “I was up at the hospital for two days and nights with her. When I left up there, I told her, ‘I love you, Lil, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ And she said, ‘I love you too.’ Those were the last words that were spoken. They called us about an hour after we got home, and they said she’d gone. She was my dear friend. And you don’t have many friends in this life. Your friend is gone forever, and it’s hard.”
The two were bookends, Mae and Moolah, and it’s hard to imagine a wrestling world without them. But, just like in wrestling, all good storylines must come to an end.
“I’ve known Lil since 1949, and I taught her to wrestle. It breaks my heart, but what can you say? We have all to go,” reconciled Young. “We’re not guaranteed the next day. The old saying is that you were born to die. And that’s the truth. When your number is called, you’re going to have to go. It’s not going to make any difference who you are, how big you are or how small you are. So many people think that you’re going to live forever, but you never know when your last day will be.” Along with the health issues, said Young, the past few months had been particularly difficult ones for her friend. The last of her 12 remaining brothers, Chip, had died two months earlier.
“Chip was a real sweetheart,” said Young. “Lil was real close to him. I thought an awful lot of him. I loved Chip. I used to take him grocery shopping. His wife had passed away about 15 years ago. He was a sweet guy, and Lil loved Chip.”
“She was famous, but I never looked at her that way,” Mary “Flossy” Austin, Moolah’s only natural daughter who wrestled briefly in the ’60s as Darlin’ Pat Sherry, told The State newspaper in Columbia. “She was just Mom, someone that was always there for me. Someone I could turn to.”
The loss also will be difficult for the 63-year-old Glass. Both Glass and Young have burial plots reserved on either side of Moolah’s tomb at a mausoleum in Columbia’s Greenlawn Memorial Park.
“Lil took her (Glass) in when she was 17 years old,” recalled Young. “She called her ‘Ma,’ and Lil called her ‘her damn midget.’ She loved Lil. She waited on her hand and foot.”
Young said she always thought she’d go before her friend because she was three months older.
“Vince McMahon promised us a wrestling match on her 100th birthday. I really thought we were going to make it. I know Vince thought we were going to make it. It looks like it’s up to me now. I’ll carry the ball … I’ll tell you that. I sure will.”
Although her physical condition had worsened over the past several years, including a near-death heart scare and a pair of stents put in, Moolah was considered invincible among her family, friends and fans. She had knee surgery and had lost 30 pounds in late 2005. The loss shook not only the community, where she had become a local celebrity and a beloved fixture over many years, but also to a wrestling industry where her name had become synonymous with the glory days.
Moolah’s final earthly appearance was at a chapel in Columbia.
“The Old Rugged Cross” accompanied a white casket with gold accents down the aisle, while a crowd of a couple hundred friends and family paid tribute.
Stephanie McMahon described the love her father and grandfather had for Moolah during a eulogy.
“She felt like she was a part of the McMahon family. And I’d like to say that she is very much a part of the McMahon family. She always will be.”
“She loved life and she loved wrestling,” said Young. “And she was surrounded by people who loved her. When she left this world, she knew she was loved.”
The daughter of Vincent Kennedy McMahon later sat reverently at graveside as the last mourners filed by to pay their final respects. I hugged her and thanked her and her family for taking care of and loving Moolah all these years.
“That wasn’t hard,” she replied. “It was so easy loving Lillian.”
The Fabulous Moolah belonged to everybody. She belonged to the wrestling business. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.