I MARRIED A WRESTLER
“It happened to me”
This is another of the series of per* sonal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean’s . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event In their lives.
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Now he’s a Hero and everything’s cozy. But when he was a Villain—Wham! The kids gang-fought our son, the butcher cut me off, even neighbors turned nasty. Life with “Lord” Athol Layton is wacky—and wonderful
My husband came to Canada from Sydney, Australia, in the fall of 1950. He soon landed a job, found an apartment and sent for me and our eight-year-old son John to join him in Toronto. Then, once we were all together again, he set to work with an immigrant’s typical determination to Make Good. In practically no time at all—with considerable benefit to the family exchequer, if not to family morale—he succeeded in making a name for himself as one of the best-hated men in town.
This unlikely situation derived partly from the fact that my spouse was, and still is, a professional wrestler — in this corner, at two hundred and sixty-five pounds. Lord Athol Layton — and partly from the peculiar nature of wrestling fanciers.
As everyone knows, all wrestlers fall into one of two categories. There are those the fans admire, sterling chaps whose deportment in the ring is as virtuous as it is violent, and they are popularly known as Heroes. Then there are the men who oppose them, usually brutal fellows whose shameful disregard for fair play is enough to make any retired librarian cry “Murder the bum!” These are generally referred to as bad guys, or Villains.
Now I'm no leading authority on the ungentle art of wrestling—the Flying Mare could he a horse with wings, to me. and a tag-team sounds like child's play—but after sixteen years of marriage 1 believe I know one particular wrestler fairly well. And if 1 may defend a man six feet five inches tall who can care for himself quite capably. I've never found Athol very villainous. He has always seemed a kind, considerate husband and father. Until he gave up managing a small hotel in Australia and took to wrestling, in 1949, he had shown no special fondness for commercialized mayhem. He became a wrestler for the same high purpose that propelled one of our friends into hanking and another into law—to make money.
At first Athol was professionally popular in Toronto— i.e., as a Hero—and a fan club was formed in his honor. Socially we got along fine, once our new neighbors got over the old notion that wrestlers are all Neanderthal throwbacks with frightful manners, large biceps and exceedingly small IQs. We installed John in public school and enrolled ourselves with an Anglican Church congregation. Athol found some excellent trout streams and several fishing cronies. On off-nights he often took me to concerts or plays we wanted to see. I rarely went to watch
Athol work—though women easily outnumber men at most wrestling matches, the awful truth is that 1 don't particularly like them—and this suited him just fine. "Whatever happens in the ring is my business,” he once told me. "At home it won't prevent us from having a good, quiet, private family life together."
Just plain folks, us. That jolly little dream fell apart the first time Athol was matched against Whipper Billy Watson, one of Toronto's favorite sons, for the British Empire championship. In the unlikely event that Dr. Norman Vincent Peale should ever come to Mr. Watson's home town to challenge him. I dare say that reverend gentleman would find himself cast in the unfamiliar role of a bad guy. At any rate, almost overnight my soulmate became a Villain.
It's a cheering thought for any wife, as her husband sets out for the office, to know that fourteen thousand people will spend money that evening in hopes of seeing him dropped on his head. The prospect bothered Athol not at all. Before each of his three matches with Watson in 1951—none of which he won—he annoyed the patrons by having a butler serve tea in his corner, rankled them with condescending speech-
es about his fondness for "the colonies.” then infuriated them by being exceptionally nasty toward the local favorite. The fans responded with righteous indignation. Men jeered and threw cigarette butts at his large lordship. Greyhaired grandmothers belabored him with their umbrellas.
Now' this may he all in a night's work for a Villain—and he can reflect on it next morning en route to the bank—but it can also affect his next-of-kin in a great many ways, as we found out.
While Athol was feuding with Bill Watson, for example, our son John was frequently being taunted into schoolyard fights. Those torn shirts and black eyes had me puzzled, for John was a quiet boy who'd always gotten along well at school in Australia. The explanation turned out to be simple enough—all his classmates were militant members of the Whipper Watson Safety Club. My heart ached for John and 1 wanted to go out each day and walk him home from school. Athol, of course, wouldn't hear of it. "It’s hard.” he said, "but the boy must learn to fend for himself.” We later heard from other parents that he'd learned
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I married a wrestler
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“When a woman scurried over and splashed a cup of orangeade all over my dress, I'd had enough"
quite nicely. But for a long time we used to sit at the window of our apartment, once school was out, anxiously waiting to see how John had fared that day with the safety club. With safety like that, who needed danger?
Then there was one of the few times I went to one of my husband’s matches, in Belleville, Ont. When we entered the arena, Athol asked an usher to find me a good seat on the aisle and not to tell anyone who I was. Of course, the usher spread the good word. Midway through Athol’s bout, while he was exciting the crowd with an exhibition of skilful and scientific villainy, some of the angrier fans started throwing peanuts — at me! I sat there and tried to ignore the barrage. But when a woman who looked like Whistler’s Mother scurried over to my seat and splashed a cup of orangeade all over my brand-new white nylon dress, I'd had enough. With all the dignity left to me I got up and flounced out.
That first year in Toronto was really my sudden induction into life as a wrestler’s wife, for almost all of Athol’s previous work in the ring had been done a safe distance away in such places as Malaya and Indonesia. Since then it has been a wonderful life in many respects, downright wacky in others.
On one hand, Athol’s income has enabled us to acquire that coveted symbol of the successful capitalist, a sleek black Cadillac. On the other, because his calling has kept us Hitting about like a family of gypsies, we’ve never yet had a house to call our own. We’ve crossed the American continent six times, lived twice in California and once, for ten idyllic months, c.i the beach at Waikiki. At the age of fifteen young John has gone to more schools than the average PhD but his interests have been widened by travel, by witnessing such disparate tribal rites as a Japanese tea ceremony, a Hawaiian wedding feast and New York’s Easter Parade. He’s now a cham-
pion swimmer, a painter of some promise and a good student who hopes for a career in science. As for his fouryear-old brother Christopher—who wants to be Mickey Mouse — our peregrinations have left him with an accent blending neighborhood Canadian, parental Australian and pidgin English as she is spoke by the beach-boys of Honolulu.
In other ways, too, our lives have been shaped by Athol’s occupation. Since he normally rises at noon and has supper at one or two a.m., our small son Chris and I follow the same ungodly schedule. Since father’s weight has a direct bearing on his livelihood — a wrestler’s frame needs some padding, but not too much—we go from feast to famine. If he’s in fighting trim, we eat well and our meat bill alone runs to thirty dollars a week. If not, we’re all off on another health kick of yogurt, sunflower seeds, millet and other uninspiring victuals.
Finally, though Athol’s job has prevented us from sinking roots in any one community for very long—possibly with the compensating result that we're closer than most families—it has also given us the chance to meet a great many fascinating people. Most intriguing of all are those who’ve made it all possible— the devotees of wrestling.
The great maestro Toscanini used to claim that attending wrestling matches released his pent-up tensions and left him refreshed. This may help to explain “Hatpin Mary,” an elderly addict in Niagara Falls, Ont., who delights in puncturing the principals when and where they’re not looking.
I'm not qualified to say why wrestling fans get that way, merely that they do. When we were living in California a few years ago Athol and a colleague, a Lord Blears, provoked such international illwill thereabouts that a British consular official actually asked them to ease up As usual, the rest of us became wel'
aware of the prevailing sentiments. On one occasion a butcher in Santa Monica refused to serve me. "I don't want your money,” he said. "I saw your husband fight real dirty last night.” Another time, after we’d appeared on a TV show in Hollywood, a woman wrote me: "Your family seems nice. Why don't you leave chat s.o.b.?” Still others mailed pennies and nickels to us at home, suggesting we Heave America on the next cattle boat.
Most of these incidents merely amused us but one really hurt. It occurred the first time we went to watch John compete in a swimming meet, l ike all che other parents we cheered each winner lustily. But when John won a race, Athol and I found we were the only ones applauding. The rest stared darkly at us. John crawled out of the pool and came over to us. "Well, Dad," he said, trying hard to grin, "it looks like I'm a heel too.”
It wasn't long after this that Athol decided, for the peace of mind of the whole family, to abandon a heavy's role for that of a good guy.
This remarkable reformation came about the hard way. In a match in California in the summer of 1954, a wrestler we'll call Aristotle Jones popped his thumb in Athol's eye and detached the retina. After two delicate operations to save his sight, he had to lie stock-still in hospital for one month, with bandages on his eyes and sandbags about his head to keep it rigid. One evening when l came to visit him I found two wrestling enthusiasts already there, buoying him up with Biblical quotations. “ As ye sow', so shall ye reap,’” one of them said. "It's the old law of retribution." I've never been so furious in all my life.
I reaped them the devil out of there.
Sympathy for a “villain”
* Happily, they were exceptions. For in the six months Athol spent recuperating, he received more than three thousand get-well cards, letters and telegrams from people in California and Ontario— the very places where he'd been least likely to win any popularity polls. We gratefully answered each one of them.
And that was largely why, when we returned to Toronto early in 1955, Athol mended his professional manners and life became more pleasant for all of us.
Serious as it w-as. Athol’s injury had a rather amusing sequel. He'd always suspected that the man who caused it, Aristotle Jones, had done so deliberately, and he promised, next time they met, "to give that fellow a bit of bother." When the two of them were finally booked into Minneapolis at the same time, in 1956, 1 was afraid that something dreadful would result from it. As it turned out, Athol came face to face with Mr. Jones again in the Minneapolis promoter’s office. Before he could say a word, Jones rushed over, pumped his hand and said, “Great to see you, Ford. How's tricks? Say! I just got married a while back. Wait here. Wantcha to meet the little woman." He ducked out the door and came back with a great blowzy amazon whom Athol recognized as a lady wrestler. "1 couldn't even say a nasty word to him,” he told me that night by telephone. "That poor man's got all the punishment he deserves.”
Besides the people who take wrestling so very, very seriously, w'e also encounter the other extremes — those utterly clever sophisticates who consider it a total sham, like Santa Claus, and want the world to know they know' it. They can be awful pests. At a recent cocktail party in Toronto, while Athol was off in another part of the room, I was ex-
changing s,.Kiil-talk with a group of people 1 hadn't met before. One of them, an oil-company executive, kept gazing into his martini glass until he could contain himself no longer. "Tell me. Mrs. Layton.” he said, winking knowingly at another man. ”—what's the real lowdown on this wrestling racket?"
At moments like this, when the most appropriate riposte might be a left hook, long experience has taught me to play it straight. "If you don't mind.” I said in all honesty. "I'd much rather discuss something a little more cultural. Did
you see Fonteyn last week in Swan Lake?”
The gentleman blinked several times at this patent absurdity, mumbled vaguely about a refill and quickly vanished in the crowd. When 1 told my husband about it later, a bit angrily, he just laughed. “Good,” he said. “That's another one for The Gallery."
The Gallery is our private collection of people who've reacted to Athol's occupation in particularly memorable ways. For example, there's a woman in Toronto. now one of our favorite friends.
who almost sold her home when she heard that a wrestler's family—ours— was moving in next door. Then there's that doctor in Oshawa. Ont., who once asked Athol how much one wrestler got paid for letting another draw blood from him. It was a good, brave question. considering the fact that he happened to be hemstitching a three-inch gash in Athol's head at the time.
But my favorite member of The Gallery was recruited in Honolulu, where we lived last winter, when Athol and 1 went to a formal party at the Japanese
consulate in honor of the emperor’s birthday. We’d no sooner bowed to the receiving line than a prominent socialite came fluttering over and grasped Athol’s hand.
“I just know we’ve met before,” she cried. “Now don’t tell me dear man. You're a doctor? A lawyer? Oh, where have we met?”
“Perhaps at the Civic Auditorium,” Athol suggested.
“Of course!” she replied, still clutching his hand. “The symphony!” Athol could have let the matter drop there, for we were regular subscribers, but there was an impish gleam in his eyes. “Possibly, madam,” he said, “but I was rather thinking of the wrestling matches.” At this the poor woman’s hand went limp. A second later she recovered her poise and tightened her grip. “Well, never mind,” she said with a kind little smile, “—you certainly don’t look the type.”
“The type” seems to be a muscular lunkhead of doubtful origin who would presumably have spent most of his days in jail for compulsive assault and battery if some wily promoter hadn’t provided a legal outlet for his sole talent.
Young love in the bushland
On my husband’s behalf, I beg to differ. Athol was born thirty-seven years ago in Surrey, England, and moved to Australia with his parents when he was thirteen. After graduating from high school he was apprenticed to the chief buyer of a large department store in Sydney. We met, as teen-agers, at a meeting of one of Sydney’s countless hiking clubs.
Our courtship might have been prescribed by Bernarr Macfadden. No movies, dances or dissipating parties for us. Each Sunday we used to take a bus or train out to the Australian bushlands. Then, knapsacks on backs, we’d strike off on a brisk, invigorating hike—sometimes fifteen miles in a day. Athol paid our fares to and from the hiking grounds and my job was to supply the food. Feeding Athol then, as now, was like provisioning a horse. It took all my money, every week. But, my, we were healthy.
We were married in 1942, while Athol was in the Australian Imperial Forces, and John was born a year later. In the army Athol started boxing and by 1944 he was the amateur heavyweight champion of Australia.
After the war Athol quickly tired of his old job in the department store and when an uncle of mine offered us the chance to manage an inn he owned in the small town of Orange, we jumped at it. I handled the domestic side of the business and Athol, among other things, presided over the bar.
In 1949 a carnival came to Orange. One of its big attractions was a tent in which any local yokel might pick up ten pounds simply by surviving three rounds of boxing or ten minutes of wrestling with a professional fighter. Being an amateur boxing champion, Athol was something of a local figure and the patrons of his bar urged him to have a go at it.
It would be nice to report that the young publican stepped into the ring, knocked his opponent kicking and was then paraded through town on the shoulders of his jubilant supporters. The truth of the matter is that when the promoter took one look at Athol, he promptly paid him the ten pounds in advance, plus another five not to disgrace his fighter. And two weeks later the promoter wired Athol offering him the chance to join his troupe on a tour
through the resort areas of northeastern Australia. He’d start as a boxer, then learn to wrestle.
I wasn’t crazy about the idea but Athol promised he’d only be away a few weeks and it did seem like a good chance to get this foolishness out of his system. When he left to join the troupe —the same one that used to employ a boxer named Errol Flynn—my dear mother flatly predicted, “You’ll never see that one again. He’ll run off and become another one of those playboys.”
But he did come back — for one month. Then he was off to Singapore, where he’d heard North American wrestlers were in great demand. The promoter there was a trifle mystified by Athol’s obviously British accent. “That’s easy,” he explained. “I was born in British Columbia.”
He was hired for twelve weeks, then held over for a full year. He wrote to us twice a week and sent home increasingly large sums of money, but they hardly made up for his absence. When another boy asked John what his father did for a living he replied, “He goes away.”
When Athol finally came back, in 1950, he was filled with wonderful tales of life in Malaya and Indonesia, of visiting rebel camps in the jungle, of a Greek wrestler awesomely if inappropriately called King Kong of the Orient who’d taught him a great deal about his business and told him of the fortunes to be made in it.
In another three weeks Athol was gone again, this time to England. All the way there he sent back graphic accounts of his travels. From London he wrote that the wrestling industry wasn’t thriving too well there and he was thinking of skipping across to America. The next thing we knew he was in Toronto and—much to our delight and mother’s amazement—we were en route to join him.
Hammer locks are out
Now, seven eventful years later, Athol has become a Canadian citizen and we’re living in Toronto again. In spite of the vagaries of his occupation and the fact that he’s often called upon to travel as far away as Newfoundland and Nagasaki, we’ve grown accustomed to it and I think we’ve been able to create a fairly solid home life for our children.
Neither of the boys shows any disposition to follow in Athol’s footsteps. John is much more interested in his new microscope than he is in hammer locks or half-nelsons. As for Christopher, whenever fighting or gunplay breaks out on TV, which is often, he jumps up and turns it off. The fact is—and this may possibly be regarded as a switch for a wrestler’s son—he just can’t abide violence.
The only time Chris relents is on Saturday nights, when Athol appears on television to do a running commentary on wrestling matches from Buffalo. Naturally we’ve always enjoyed the show, especially on a recent night when he interviewed another wrestler who shall be nameless. Athol has a fairly extensive vocabulary and unquestionably a gift for gab, but his questions elicited only inarticulate grunts and monosyllables. At length the other wrestler opened up. “Lookit here,” he said, “I don’t go for none of this ’lord’ business”—he’d obviously been consulting Burke’s Peerage— “so to me you're just plain ‘mister.’ ”
Athol didn't bat an eye. “My good fellow.” he said, “the longer you keep talking, the more / sound like a lord.”