Iowa Woman Wrestles Across the the Country in the 1930’s

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UCLA, Los Angeles Daily News, Charles E. Young Research Library

Clara Mortensen tosses opponent in the ring in Los Angeles, 1937

“Let him stay there. Maybe he can catch his wife when she comes flying over the ropes,” Clara (Muscles) Mortensen issued that statement to the husband of her wrestling opponent Mildred Burke in a bout in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1937. Mortensen was defending her five-year reign as women’s world wrestling champion, when she encountered Burke’s husband, Billy Wolfe, at ring-side shortly after being tossed out of the ring by Mildred. When Wolfe tried to block Mortensen’s way back to the ring, Mortensen fought back. “I jabbed him in the stomach with my elbow. That put him out of the way,” she said later.

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Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1916, Mortensen learned her craft from her dad, Fred, who had been a professional wrestler in his native Denmark. Spending many long hours training at a gym, Mortensen often trained with boys who she said “tossed me about on the canvas with what appeared to be perfect ease.”

“I learned that one must be able to take it,” she added.

In an interview with the Portland Oregonian newspaper, Mortensen told a reporter that her dad started teaching her tumbling at the age of 3; and she entered local contests, where she honed her skills. As she grew older he taught her wrestling moves.

At the age of 16 Clara claimed the world championship when she wrestled Barbara Ware in Topeka, Kan. She perfected her famed flying scissors and airplane spin techniques to take down the champ.

“We women wrestlers go on a rigid diet during training periods.” Mortensen said. “On the day of my match with Barbara I hadn’t eaten a thing except milkshakes. So I was too hungry to celebrate much until I’d stowed away a meal.”

After her defeat of Ware, Mortensen began touring with her parents as chaperones. In 1934 she went to the Hawaiian Islands. In 1935, using a cross body-hold and headlock, Mortensen went on to pin challenger Betty Brown in a New Orleans fight. Later that year in Texas she took only six minutes to toss her opponent with moves that involved neck twisting and hair pulling in addition to a mauling of the referee. Traveling for 10 weeks on the West Coast, the Waterloo Courier reported she was “packing ‘em in” at her Pacific coast appearances. On the opposite side of the country in 1937, the Roanoke (Va.) Times reported that 3,000 fans packed an auditorium to watch Mortensen defeat Dot Lee in the first women’s wrestling bout ever staged in the city. She was known to make as much as $400 in a night.

When asked by a reporter about her love life, the 135-pound, 5’6” wrestler said she had plenty of time to think about marriage later. Meantime, she traveled with her pet dog, Pat, whose toenails were painted a bright red. And the fearless wrestler visited the beauty parlor three times a week to have her blonde hair styled into a bob. Outside the ring Mortensen wore a red rhinestone-studded comb. To hold her hair in place. She admitted clothes were a consuming passion. And, Mortensen admitted she did fear developing the unattractive cauliflower ear that plagued many wrestlers.

“There’s no reason why just because a girl is a wrestler she shouldn’t look pretty,” Mortensen told a reporter. She said she curled her eyelashes and applied lipstick before entering the ring. And although her eyelashes remained intact throughout the match, she knew her lipstick ended up “all over the mat.”

Mortensen retired from wrestling in 1951. She became a technical advisor in Hollywood, working on the movie Here Comes the Groom. She also starred in a couple of movies—Pin-Down Girl, which promised “70 minutes of uninterrupted action” and Racket Girls, predicting “bone-crushing action” by wrestlers who were “soft as steel.”

Mortensen died in 1988 in Los Angeles.

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Sources

  • “Clara Mortensen,” Online World of Wrestling http://www.onlineworldofwrestling.com/bios/c/clara-mortenson/
  • “Forget Glow: Portland Has a Long History of Wild Women Wrestling—and Even Stranger Grappling Showdowns,” Oregonia. , June 29, 2017. http://www.oregonlive.com/history/2017/06/forget_glow_portland_has_long.html
  • Gerhard, Inez. “Star Dust,” Boyden Reporter, March 1, 1951.
  • Hoyt McAfee,.“Battling Clara,” Des Moines Register, June 9, 1940.
  • Leen, Jeff. The Queen of the Ring, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009.
  • “Live Card Slated Tonight,” Herald and News (Klamath Falls, Oregon), Jan. 22, 1946.
  • “Looking Back,” Roanoke (VA) Times, March 12, 2012.
  • “Riotous Bouts at Mat Show,” Marshall (Texas) News Messenger, March 15, 1935.
  • “Sport Facts,” Courier (Waterloo, Iowa), Mar. 22, 1937.
  • Van Matre, Paz. “20-Year-Old Girl Wrestler Always ‘Makes Up’ Carefully Before Entering Ring,” Louis Star-Times, October 26, 1936.

 

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