IN WRESTLING all the Indians are chiefs
Mordecai Richler meets Eddie Quinn — the ringmaster of roughhouse in Montreal and half the east—and his hired hands, who work their way up in the organization until it’s their turn to be champion
On July 28, 1939, the following item appeared in the Montreal Gazette:
FORUM WRESTLING TO RESUME AUG. 8
At a meeting of the Montreal Athletic Commission, yesterday morning, Eddie Quinn, of Boston, was granted a matchmaker's license as representative of the Forum in succession to Jack Ganson. . . . (Quinn) was given
permission to go ahead with the arrangements for his first big show on August 8. . . . Yvon Robert, formerly recognized locally as heavyweight champion, will appear in the inaugural program. . . .
Apparently Quinn intends to have no traffic with the “noble experiment” which was Ganson s swan song locally: that of a return to straight, scientific wrestling. Quinn stands solidly behind rip-roaring rassling with all the frills. He is not even daunted by the plethora of “champions” that infests the mat landscape. . . . Referring to Ganson's attempt to take the fun out of wrestling, Quinn said, "The public will not fall for that pink-tea stuff.”
Quinn, who used to drive a taxi in Brookline, Mass., has not looked back since. Today he not only promotes all the wrestling matches at the Montreal Forum but, as he says, “I got most of Canada, Boston, thirty percent of St. Louis, and fifty percent of Chicago. Things have gone pretty fast in the last twenty years.”
So fast, in fact, that Quinn has recently netted as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year from his activities. He has made wrestling the No. 2 spectator sport in French Canada, bucking hockey (the leading attraction), baseball, TV, and, this year, a provincial election.
Quinn necessarily travels a good deal, and he's a difficult man to catch up with. His offices, Canadian Athletic Promotions, are in the Forum. The first time I called there were two men seated in the outer office. Larry Moquin and somebody named Benny. Moquin. who books the wrestlers for Quinn, used to be a famous performer himself. He was a semi-pro football player when Quinn discovered him. Benny, a greying, curly-haired man-of-all-jobs, reminded me of the horseplayers I knew as a child round the Main.
Moquin and Benny were playing gin rummy. Tendollar bills changed hands often. The phone rang a couple of times and Moquin, his tone belligerent,
said, “He’s gone fishing. Yeah.” Once Benny answered the phone, held it, and looked quizzically at Moquin. “For God's sake,” Moquin said, “he’s gone fishing.”
Actually, I was waiting for Norman Olson to show up. Olson, one of Quinn’s publicity men, had arranged to meet me at Quinn’s office. The first thing he said after he came in was, “Are you here to knock us?” I told him no. Olson's a fat, swarthy man with a little black mustache. He's in his early thirties. “Eddie isn’t here,” he said.
“He’s gone fishing,” I said.
Olson laughed. “Aw, Eddie’s in the pool. He’s in the pool all day. On the phone. His phone bills come to two thousand dollars a month.”
Quinn lives in the Town of Mount Royal, one of Montreal’s more affluent suburbs. His swimming pool holds 38,500 gallons and cost him more than twelve thousand dollars. Olson got him on the line and all at once the office jumped to life. Everybody wanted to talk to Eddie, who had just come in from Chicago. “How’s the Irishman?” Olson asked with a little laugh. There was a pause. “Sure,” Olson said, intimidated. “I’ll fix it.”
Moquin, a copy of the New York Daily Mirror in his hands, grabbed the phone. “This is the office of champions,” he said. “Yeah. 1 read Parker. Trouble is we’re all chiefs here, no Indians.”
Dan Parker, the Mirror's sports editor, had made a sarcastic remark in his column about Quinn’s having one World’s Champion wrestler in Montreal, another in St. Louis, and a third in Chicago.
"Parker doesn’t like Eddie.” Olson said to me. “There’s more to wrestling than meets the eye. We've got all kinds of people coming here. I know one psychiatrist who never misses a match. It helps him work off tensions, he says. All day people tell him nutty things. At night he comes here. It relaxes him.”
Olson was of the opinion that wrestling, like golf, had a great therapeutic value. “The immigrants come here,” he said, “because it makes them feel good inside to see the Anglo-Saxon, the blond guy, get it. The French like it too, you know. It’s a release for
them.” He told me that television had given the sport a big boost. One-hour television shows in Detroit and Chicago, he said, outdraw all other sports. Before television. Killer Kowalski and Yukon Eric drew only fifteen hundred dollars at the gate in Chicago, but after three months of appearing on studio shows with a small invited audience, the same two performers drew fifty-six thousand dollars.
Quinn, Olson predicted, would begin to run studio shows out of Montreal as soon as his contract with the CBC ended. “These days,” he said, giving the television set an affectionate slap, “you’ve just got to come to terms with the one-eyed monster. But it’s killed the nightclubs, you know. Today only the walkers will bring them in.” Walkers, he explained, are girls who take some clothes off on stage, put them on again, and then drink with the customers on commission. “1 could tell you a lot about this town,” Olson said.
Olson gave me some wrestling magazines, tickets for the next show, and promised to arrange meetings for me with Killer Kowalski and Eddie Quinn. “Eddie’s a wonderful guy,” he said. “He's got a wonderful sense of humor.”
In the outer office Benny and Moquin were still playing gin rummy. Moquin was losing.
“You'll like Kowalski,” Olson said. “A lovable guy.”
Before going to the match the next night I read up on the sport in Wrestling Revue and Wrestling News. The former, a most spirited quarterly, features biographies of top performers, action pictures, and an especially informative department called Rumors vs Fact, wherein I learned that 640-pound Haystacks Calhoun does not suffer from a glandular disorder (he’s a big boy, that’s all), that Skull Murphy does not rub a special kind of animal grease over his hairless head so that opponents cannot hold him in a headlock (in Skull’s own words, “I use ordinary Johnson’s baby oil on my head. I find it helps to prevent irritation from rubbing on the dirty canvas”), but that Princess Zelina, slave girl of the hated Sheik, does come from a royal family in Lebanon (her old man, living in penurious exile in London, hopes to regain his throne before long). In Wrestling News, which is actually a part of Boxing Illustrated, I was taken with a defense of girl midget wrestlers by one Buddy Lee. Mr. Lee, in a truculent piece entitled Don't Sell These Girls Short, assured his readers that those “pint-sized pachyderms, Baby Cheryl, a real toughie for one so tiny, and Little Darling Dagmar, the Marilyn Monroe of the Maulin’ Midgets” were a couple of sweet kids, happy with their work.
Both magazines rated Killer Kowalski as No. 3 among the world's wrestlers. This was especially
pleasing to me as the following night I was to see the Killer battle Nature Boy Buddy Rogers for the World’s Championship and an eighteen-thousand-dollar winner-take-all purse.
There were. I'd say, only about four thousand people at the Forum for the occasion. They were poor people. Many of the older ones still w'ore their working clothes. The teenagers, however, favored black leather jackets or blue jeans. Some had their names embossed with steel studs on their jackets.
The most engaging of the preliminary performers was one Tiger Tomasso, a terrible villain who not only eye-gouged and kicked below the belt but also bit into his opponent’s shoulder when aroused.
Before the main bout a precautionary net was tied around the ring. This, 1 discovered, w'as necessary. Kowalski, a strapping six foot seven, is, all the same, a most bashful performer, given to fleeing the ring w'hen the going gets rough. Not only that. Struck the slightest blow', he tends to whine, grimace, and even plead for mercy from his opponent. But. even so, the wily Pole made short work of the golden-haired Nature Boy and won the coveted championship belt. It was a popular win with all us non-Anglo-Saxons.
The next afternoon, back in the modest offices of Canadian Athletic Promotions, Kowalski told me, “I indulge in lots of histrionics in the ring. 1 shout, 1
snarl. I jump up and down like a madman. Am I mad? I earn more than fifty thousand dollars a year.”
Soft-spoken and articulate, Kowalski told me that he used to work on the Ford assembly line in Windsor tor fifty dollars a week. He was paid more than that for his first wrestling match in Detroit and, as he says, “I quickly realized I was in the wrong business.” A top performer today, Kowalski wrestles three times a week, usually for a percentage of the gate, and lives with his brother and sister-in-law in a house he bought recently in Montreal. He’s thirtythree, and expects to be able to go on w restling until he reaches his mid-forties. Meanwhile, against that retirement day, Kowalski has been investing his money in securities.
“I've built up a personality,” Kowxdski said, “a product, and that’s what I sell. Ted Williams is no different. Why do you think he spit at the crowd that day? It's showmanship. Everything is showmanship today.” Kowalski bent over and showed me a scar on his head. “Last week in Chicago.” he said, “after I'd won a match, my opponent hit me over the head with a chair. You think he wanted to hurt me? He wanted to make an impression, that's all.”
Olson began to stir anxiously. “You're forgetting that wrestling takes a lot of natural ability,” he said.
“Sure,” Kowalski said.
“You've got to keep in shape.”
“The most dangerous thing.” Kowalski said, “are those crazy kids. They come to the matches with clothespin guns and sometimes they shoot rusty nails at us. Once one got embedded in my side.” Kowalski also pointed out that young performers, taking part in their first big match, are also a threat. “They're so nervous,” he said, “they might do something wrong.”
1 asked Kowalski if there was any animosity among wrestlers.
“No,” he said.
“Tell him about the night here when you ripped off Yukon Eric's car,” Olson said gleefully.
“Well,” Kowalski said, “one of my specialties is to climb up on the ropes and jump down on my opponent. One night Eric slipped aside, trying to avoid me, and I landed on his ear, ripping it off. He was very upset and he fled to his dressing room. Before long the dressing room was full of reporters and relatives and fans. Finally, Eric looked up and asked for his ear. He'd forgotten it in the ring. The referee had picked it up, put it in his pocket, and by this time was showing it to all his friends at the other end of the Forum. When they got it back from him it was too late to sew it on again.”
A few days later Olson arranged for me to have lunch with Eddie Quinn in
CONTINUED ON EAGE 38
Continued from page 33
“Around here,” said Eddie Quinn, “it used to be the Pope, Yvon Robert and Richard, in that order”
the Kon-Tiki Room in the Mount Royal Hotel. Quinn was already there when I arrived, with one of his referees and Olson. Quinn wore rings on both hands — one an enormous signet, the other diamond-encrusted. Chunky, with an expansive if hardbitten face, he spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “There’s nothing left,” he told me. “but death and taxes. They belt you here, they belt you there. I just go on to keep people working. The government takes all the money, yon know.” He turned to the referee. "I dropped ten thousand this morning,” he said.
"You’re used to it.”
“That doesn’t mean I like it.”
"Eddie’s got a wonderful sense of humor,” Olson said.
“You’re too fat. Hey, where’s your broad?” Quinn said to the referee. Then, turning to me, he added, “We’re waiting for a French chantoosie.”
“She’s at the hairdresser’s upstairs.” "Well, go get her. We want to eat.”
The referee hurried off. “Hey, what’s with your name?” Quinn asked me. "Norman here says to call you Moe for short but not for long.”
"Norman’s too fat,” I said.
Quinn laughed and slapped my knee. The referee returned with the girl, a blonde. “Meet the Freedom Fighter,” Quinn said. “She was Miss Europe. She worked with Chevalier. She can't sing, either.”
The referee laughed very loud.
“Say hello to Mr. Riehler,” Quinn said to the girl. "Hey, waiter. Another round of the same.” The waiter handed Quinn a menu. "How do you order this stuff?” Quinn asked, and he made some loud unintelligible sounds that were supposed to sound like Chinese. The Chinese waiter smiled thinly. "Just bring us lots of everything,” Quinn said, and then he turned to me. “You like this food? Looks like it’s been through a sawmill. Ffcy, waiter, if you don't know what to get us just call the health board and ask them to recommend something.”
"Eddie's a natural-born kibitzer,” Olson said.
I asked Quinn about Yvon Robert, the most popular performer ever to wrestle in Quebec. “Around here,” Quinn said, “it used to be the Pope, Robert, and Maurice Richard. In that order.”
"There was only one Dempsey,” the referee said, “and one Robert.”
"Robert was great great,” Olson said. We talked about wrestling some more. Quinn, who has a phenomenal memory for facts, told me the exact time, take, and place of his biggest bouts. In 1959 he drew ten thousand people to the Forum with a novel attraction, boxer vs wrestler. Former World's Heavyweight Champion Jersey Joe Walcott took on Buddy Rogers, the Nature Boy. Rogers dived for the canvas immediately and seldom rose higher than a low crouch. In the first round Walcott shook the wrestler with a hard right and seemed to have him nearly out, but in the third Rogers got at Walcott’s legs and Walcott quit.
Quinn’s biggest gates came from the
able Gorgeous George. George’s gimmicks included long curly hair that he had dyed blond and a female valet who used to spray the ring with perfume before the wrestler himself deigned to appear. Religious leaders objected to the gorgeous one’s effeminate antics and brought pressure to bear on Montreal cops, and George never wrestled in the Forum again.
I asked Quinn about midget wrestlers. “The crowd loves 'em,” he said.
T he girl who had sung with Chevalier took out some photos of herself and handed them around. She explained she had to take the photos to a theatrical agency round the corner and asked Quinn if he would accompany her.
"Delivering pictures is Benny’s department.” Quinn said. He seized a linen napkin. wrote a phone number on it with a ballpoint pen, and handed it to the girl. “Call Benny,” he said. “Hey, waiter.” Quinn made some more Chinese-like sounds, “the bill.” He didn’t look at the amount. Turning to me, he said, “Shall I sign it Eddie Quinn, the Men’s Room?"
“We must meet again and talk,” he said. "Come to the pool one day. Norman will fix it.”
“Sure thing,” Norman said.
On the way out we ran into the girl. She told Quinn she owed the bellboy a dime for the phone call. "Here, kid,” Quinn said, and he handed the boy a dollar.
“Couldn't we all walk there?” the girl asked Quinn once more.
“Walking is Benny’s department. I only walk as far as elevators.”
A couple of nights later I went to another wrestling match, this time at the small Mont St. Louis Gym. There wasn’t much of a crowd, but those who did turn
up were fierce. There were several fist fights. One fan attempted to break a chair over Killer Kowalski’s back. On the whole, though, this was an evening of pitiful performances. Wrestlers, like actors, need a big, responsive audience. Only Tiger Tomasso, by this time my favorite, put on a good exhibition. He is a dedicated performer.
I was lucky enough to meet the Tiger a week later. 1 met him accidentally.
I had asked Olson if, once the wrestlers started to travel on the summer circuit, I could drive with one of them to Three Rivers. Olson arranged for Ovile Asselin, a former Mr. Canada, to take me out. Asselin picked me up at four in the afternoon and we drove to a road junction, outside town, where we were to meet another wrestler, Don Lewin. While we were waiting two other cars, both Cadillacs, pulled up and out stepped Tiger Tomasso, Eddie Auger, Maurice Lapointe, and three other wrestlers who were on the card that night. I immediately went up to chat with the Tiger.
A thin crowd, a poor show
Tomasso told me that he used to work in a hotel in Hamilton. All the wrestlers used to stay there, and he began to work out with them. Finally, he went into the game. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
I explained that 1 was writing an article for Maclean’s. Two pretty girls in shorts walked past.
“That’s the only kind of article I’m interested in,” Tomasso said.
Finally Lewin, a surly ex-marine, arrived, and he, Asselin, and I drove off together. Lewin was suspicious of me and wouldn’t talk much. He was also extremely tired. He had worked in Buffalo the previous night and had been driving all day to make the date in Three Rivers. It was a difficult drive, and I was glad to arrive. Lewin had made it clear, too, that I would have to find other transportation back to Montreal.
There was only a thin crowd at the seedy little arena in Three Rivers and Lewin, excusably, pulled his opponent out of the ring after five minutes of indifferent wrestling, and held him there long enough to be disqualified. Moquin, the booker, arranged for me to be driven home by a young French-Canadian boy who had taken part in a tag-team match earlier in the evening. His side, the villainous one, had lost.
The wrestler had taken a bad fall and
on the drive back to Montreal he kept rubbing his back. He seemed tired too. "Tomorrow,” he said, “I have to go Hull. I’m working there.”
“Don’t you guys ever take a month off?”
He explained that you had to be available when a promoter wanted you; otherwise you were considered unreliable. “It’s a dangerous profession,” he said. “My insides are all shaken up. You take your life in your hands each time you step the ring." He had wrestled for a long time in Florida and a Puerto Rican fan had once knifed him. “But that’s a good territory,” he added. “They liked me there. The worst was the west.” Once, he told me, he had driven four hundred and fifty miles each way to make matches two western cities. Four wrestlers, taking turns at the wheel, had made the trip there and back within a day. “The worst things,” he said, “are canvas burns. They’re extremely painful and we all get them. Sometimes they last a week, other times a month.”
“I used to sell cars,” he said. “I could always go back to that. I like meeting the public.”
Like all the other wrestlers I met, he talked a good deal about cars. On the road so much, working in different towns three, four times a week, wrestlers burn up their cars quickly. Indeed, back home again with a quiet drink and no need drive to Hull, of all places, the next morning, I was struck by the idea of these men constantly on the road; a network wrestlers criss-crossing North America, taking turns at the wheel on the turnpike and the throughways, stopping here for coffee, there for a tag match, somewhere else for a swim, avoiding territories where they are not liked, trying a villainous act in Calgary and playing the clean-cut boy in Tampa, and always searching for the promoter who can build them into stars.
It’s far too easy, I think, to ridicule wrestling and wrestlers. In many ways wrestlers provide a cleaner, better show than boxers. Because there is no bookmaking involved, there is little underworld interest in wrestling. Another virtue, it seems to me, is that few performers ever get seriously hurt. They can retire with unaddled brains and maybe little money.
Nobody will ever describe my traveling companion as (to quote Olson) great great. But he works harder than most for his ten or fifteen thousand dollars a year, his job is risky, and, in my opinion, he comes by his money honestly,