Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Good Ol' Gal From Beaumont, Texas

There are other centenaries coming up this year, and I find it more interesting to contemplate the hundredth birthday of Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, coming up on June 26, than Ronald Reagan's today. (What a coincidence that it's also the day of the Heterosexual Oscars. Did they do that on purpose?)

I just finished reading Susan E. Cayleff's 1995 biography Babe (University of Illinois Press), which is sloppily written but well-researched, drawing on interviews with surviving members of Zaharias's family, her friends, her competitors, and especially Betty Dodd, the younger golfer who was Zaharias's intimate during her battle with cancer. It's been widely speculated that Zaharias and Dodd were lovers, but Dodd didn't come out to Cayleff, and we'll probably never know unless Don Van Natta Jr.'s forthcoming biography Wonder Girl, scheduled for publication by Little, Brown this June, has more dish. Not that it matters, because Cayleff did establish that the two women loved each other, and Zaharias relied on Dodd so much that her husband George, jealous as he was, didn't dare to try to get rid of her (see especially page 213).

Even to someone like me who doesn't care about sports, Zaharias was amazing. A versatile athlete, she came blazing out of Texas to spectacular victories in numerous track-and-field events at the 1932 Olympics, finally settling on golf as a sport where she could hope to earn a living. She and the pro wrestler George Zaharias met and fell in love, and he became her manager as well as her husband. Cayleff prints a studio portrait of George "in his wrestling prime," when he was a great beauty; but before long he ballooned to 400 pounds, and kept Babe on the road while he drove off to tend to other "business", some of which may actually have been business. Before long Babe was wisecracking, "When I married George Zaharias he weighed 250 pounds and looked like a Greek god. Now he weighs 400 and looks like a gawddamned Greek" (Cayleff, 198). He was gross enough to embarrass even the uncouth Babe, which took some doing. (In fairness to George, though, Babe in the same period metamorphosed from a young k.d. lang to Mammy Yokum.)

Cayleff does a good job on the pressures female athletes faced (and still face) to feminize and heterosexualize themselves, and shows how Zaharias resisted even as she conformed. Born to immigrant Norwegian parents in Texas, she was always a tomboy, loud, competitive, money-hungry, gregarious, and eager for the spotlight. (Typically for her background and era, she was also racist and anti-Semitic, according to Cayleff.) Cayleff is good on the subject of class, too. Zaharias didn't have any, which not unreasonably irked more ladylike and image-conscious female athletes. Like Muhammad Ali decades later, she enjoyed bragging about how good she was, and like him, she made good on her boasts. And although her tombstone quotes her saying the old saw that what matters isn't whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game, in reality (like Tiger Woods decades later) her motto was "I don't see any point in playing the game if you don't win, do you?" (Cayleff, 266). When she got a part in the 1952 Hepburn-Tracy vehicle Pat and Mike, Zaharias insisted that the script be rewritten so that her character beat Hepburn's.

She loved the press and quickly learned how to use it to keep herself in the public eye, and the public loved her. Like many high-achieving women of her generation, she was no feminist -- was anti-feminist in fact -- and was ambivalent about being a role model for younger women athletes even as her own celebrity and achievement opened doors for them.

When she came down with colon cancer in 1953, though, she used her visibility against the stigma cancer had in those days, not only raising money for research and treatment but encouraging other patients face-to-face every chance she got. To me that is the real deal, the kind of courage and determination that really matters.