Barbara Flanagan: A lady wrestler, a wedding planner and Sid

  • Article by: BARBARA FLANAGAN
  • Updated: September 6, 2009 - 10:31 PM

Re: People to know -- Mildred Burke (WHO?), Robert Isabell (WHO?) and Sid Hartman (Oh, you know Sidney, the sports columnist)

•••

She was "queen of the ring," and that's the name of the new book about Burke: "The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend.'' It's by Jeff Leen of the New York Times and is about the world's best known female wrestler -- yes, a female wrestler who took on both women (about 5,000 matches) and men (150 matches) and reigned as women's champ for almost 20 years.

Why do I bring this up? Well, as a very young reporter in the late 1940s, I interviewed Burke, who came to Minneapolis accompanied by her husband and manager, Billy Wolfe. Mildred or Millie or Miss Burke -- that is what I called her -- was not a particularly attractive woman. She was built like a small truck with a neck that was huge -- or so it seemed. Wolfe did most of the talking.

I remember that he was quite dapper and wore a homburg hat and an overcoat and he left both on during our indoor interview. He seemed somewhat proud of his wife's wrestling abilities, but Leen tells us in the book that he was "one of the most repulsive people you are likely to meet outside of prison.'' Apparently, he beat Burke and her son by her first marriage. After their divorce, she retired from the ring and became a trainer and a promoter. She died in 1989 at age 73.

Because she was in Minneapolis to wrestle, she talked about how she did it -- with constant interruptions from Wolfe -- and she flashed a few diamonds, a ring and a watch, I remember. I had never seen a wrestling match when I met Burke, so I suspect that my questions were basically dull. She didn't seem to mind. I wrote a fair-to-middling story for the sports page and its editor, the great columnist Dick Cullum, used it. I was overwhelmed as it was one of my first efforts for these Minneapolis newspapers.

Incidentally, our papers used to cover wrestling matches for sports. I finally went to a match one night and had a male wrestler or "rassler" land at my feet -- that was enough. You see, wrestling matches were phony. "Occasionally, very occasionally," writes Leen, "these so-called 'shooting matches' took place away from the paying customers for the benefit of those in the business and in the know.''

The truth was that wrestling needed flimflam. "Conducted honestly," wrote A.J. Liebling of the New Yorker magazine, "wrestling is the dullest of sports to watch." So be it, but I will always remember Millie.

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Tom Hoch of the Hennepin Avenue Theaters has installed three stars in the sidewalk at the State Theater. "On the river side of the State, near 8th Street," he said.

Well, hooray! It is a beginning and I am pleased.

The stars designate three Minnesota-born stars: Marian Ross, Tippi Hedren and Loni Anderson. They were in town last year, but may return when the stars are officially dedicated this month or next.

Last week, Hoch and Robert Roessel, the Minnesota "boy" who is very involved with Hollywood, talked about the next stars to be added. Judy Garland is No. 1 and should be. Bob Dylan is also high on the list.

Because I have been writing for years about a Hennepin Avenue lined with stars in the sidewalks, I am happy the campaign has started. Onward and upward!

•••

You will read about Robert Isabell in the September issue of W. magazine. The article, which reports his recent death at age 57, also includes a handsome photo of him.

Isabell, a native of Duluth who once worked in a Minneapolis flower shop, took off for New York about 35 years ago and took on the big city. Eventually, he almost took over the business of party planning, wedding planning -- he did Caroline Kennedy's for Jackie -- and he moved with the power and money of the era.

He did not like the press and he did not talk to us. I found that out when I attempted to interview him early on when he was handling flowers for New York parties. He turned me down and off in a manner that was almost nasty. Perhaps he meant well. Who knows?

He did very well, however, living in a place he redid in Greenwich Village, working with the impossible Anna Wintour of Vogue magazine and escorting the VIP women here and abroad, including his closest friend, Bunny Mellon, 99, widow of Paul Mellon, a banking heir.

•••

Have I mentioned the nettle soup at Barbette or the superb pasta at Tosca? And what is happening to Figlio?

I bring up Figlio because after 25 years it remains one of the better restaurants in town. Now, they are closing temporarily on Sept. 19 for a redo and perhaps a new name. Why? Figlio is a dandy name and it now has some historic glamour attached, so why not keep it?

As for the Tosca pasta, try any of them. They are all great. As for the nettle soup, what is it? It is a coarse herb that tasted to me a bit like spinach. I have never had nettle soup before so I don't know, but I would go for a bit more seasoning. You will eat well there, too.

•••

Finally, there is "my old personal friend," Sidney Hartman, known as Sid. Save June 27-28 next year to celebrate his 90th birthday. A golf tourney and dinner are set for Oak Ridge Golf and Country Club to benefit Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

Sid might even play golf. Bravo, old friend.

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