“Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias,” Don Van Natta Jr.’s new biography, is the extraordinary story of a nearly forgotten American superstar athlete.
Despite attempts to keep women from competing, Babe Didrikson achieved All-American status in basketball and won gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. Next, she attempted to conquer golf. One of the founders of the LPGA, Babe won more consecutive tournaments than any golfer in history.
At the height of her fame, Babe was diagnosed with cancer. She then took her most daring step of all: She went public about her condition and tried to win again with the hope of inspiring the world.
Here is an excerpt from “Wonder Girl”:
Prologue: Matinee at the Palace
They began lining up for the early matinee at the Palace Theater not long after dawn. Blazing in block letters on the theater’s marquee were the names Fifi D’Orsay, a B-movie actress usually cast as a saucy French girl, and a musical group called Bob Murphy and the California Collegians. But no one had scrambled out of bed on a frosty Chicago winter morning for them. No, the people had come to witness the unlikeliest of vaudeville debuts, the invitation glowing high atop the theater’s marquee: “babe” Didrikson — in person — world’s greatest woman athlete. High above the Palace roof, a single gigantic word — babe — shimmered in golden lights, an electric carnival barker shouting the name into the sky.
It was January 27, 1933, and the people had come to find out the answer to a peculiar question: Is there anything Babe Didrikson cannot do? Practically every sports fan in America could recite the highlights of Babe’s all-sport résumé: how she could run fast and far and jump high and long. They knew she could throw a nasty curveball and smash a baseball into the next county. They knew she was an all-American basketball player, outfoxing defenders with quickness and guile, head fakes, and stutter steps. She could swim with speed and endurance, scamper across a gridiron wearing pads and a helmet, and outhit and outwit the sharpest billiards hustlers. They knew Babe had stormed her way into the worldwide sports pantheon at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, winning two gold medals and a silver medal while etching her name in the record books.
But ... this?
At the age of 21, just five months after her Olympic triumph, Babe suddenly had the audacity to spin the roulette wheel of her athletic career, letting it ride on a vaudeville stage, of all places. In those pre-television years and earliest days of films with sound, the vaudeville stage was still one of America’s leading entertainment tickets. Wedded to its tradition of quick-witted improvisation, vaudeville was renowned for its ruthless and often lethal unpredictability. It had a way of chewing up the ill-prepared or fainthearted, and the audience relished whatever disastrous moment awaited a jittery performer. Nothing was more intoxicating for a vaudeville crowd than the chance to deliver a harsh comeuppance to some ham-and-egger and then watch him or her slink offstage, leaving behind the footlights for some two-bit career unloading trucks or sweeping floors. Some in the audience no doubt hoped that kind of embarrassment would befall Babe Didrikson. Everyone knew she had earned a place among the biggest names in sports, right up there with Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Bill Tilden, and Babe Ruth.
But this seemed beyond her reach. Here, in the final somber weeks of the Herbert Hoover presidency, many Americans took comfort in the thought that Hoover was busy packing and would move out of the White House soon. President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assembling his cabinet and preparing for his inauguration just five weeks away. Many Americans doubted that FDR — or anyone else, for that matter — possessed the know-how to lift the country out of a deep ditch. The Depression was going to last forever, and, like a natural disaster, it discriminated against no one, handing out calamities in equal portions to street sweepers and bank executives, stockbrokers and stock buyers, dress designers and seamstresses, theater owners and theatergoers.
The owners of the Palace were especially worried. Built just six years earlier to take advantage of all the shrillness of America’s giddiest and gaudiest decade, with embellishments designed to evoke the royal palaces at Versailles and Fontainebleau, this monument to Roaring Twenties excess was now struggling for survival. Formerly the tough-ticket showplace for headliners such as Mae West, Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, and Bob Hope, the Palace had been relegated to featuring also-rans performing before a valley of vacant maroon seats. It seemed that everyone in Chicago was hoarding their nickels and dimes for the city’s new movie houses or staying home to listen to Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby on the radio.
George P. Emerson, a Chicago advertising man with an eye for a good stunt, decided there was one woman who just might pump life into the Palace: Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson, a genuine American sports heroine and a vaudeville novice, onstage — for one week only!
Sure enough, around the Palace that wintry day, there was reason for hope. By late morning, hundreds of people had formed a raucous three-block line stretching down Randolph Street. Rainy-day nickels and dimes stashed in coffee cans and beneath mattresses were pushed through the ticket windows. Every ticket was sold for the early matinee.
At noon, the Palace’s wide doors swung open, and the boisterous crowd surged into the theater’s sumptuous lobby. Ticket holders paused to gape at the glittering designs leaping up the walls in gold leaf and oak. A few women stopped to touch up their hair and makeup in the oversized mirrors framed by sweeps of violet and ivory marble.
After settling into their seats, audience members buzzed with anticipation: Why would Babe agree to do such a preposterous thing? Is she dead broke? Will she bomb? The prognostications were divided almost evenly along gender lines. The men guessed at the number of minutes that would elapse before Babe fell flat on her face. The women just smiled, hoping and half-certain that the men would be counting until kingdom come.
With her eyes squinted into slits, Babe peeled back the maroon velvet curtain just enough to spy on the buzzing crowd filling the two thousand seats. She had always suffered pre-performance jitters, and manic stomach pains often kept her awake the night before a big athletic competition. As she peeked, she felt the usual riot of butterflies. Losing a competition was one thing, but nothing could be worse than facing an orchestra of ridicule from a sold-out vaudeville crowd. Babe inhaled deeply and, not for the first time that day, whispered, “My Lord, I can’t go through with this ...”
“Two minutes to curtain,” the stage manager said. “Quiet, everyone ... Babe, go to the lobby.” No time for second thoughts. Babe stepped out a side door and sprinted down a long corridor toward the front of the Palace.
The theater lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, and the curtain raced skyward. The audience cheered until they noticed that Babe was not on the stage. A swirling white spotlight landed on a trim, middle-aged man dressed in a sensible gray business suit and sitting behind an ebony baby grand piano. The man introduced himself as George Libbey, a vaudeville veteran from New York City. A restless murmur rippled over the filled seats, and he responded with a be-patient half smile.
The piano player asked the audience if they were ready to meet Babe Didrikson. The crowd roared yes. Without another word, Libbey started to play a fast-paced tune. The audience began to clap along with the music, and then a woman’s voice shot out from the back of the house.
The music stopped, and everyone turned around in their seats to see the purposeful young woman striding down the left-hand aisle toward the stage. It was Babe, chattering in her unmistakable Texas twang about having just arrived in icy Chicago after a glorious Florida vacation.
She wore a long green swagger coat, high-heeled spectator shoes, and a Panama hat. As she approached the footlights of the stage and the crowd got a good look at her, Babe’s chatter was drowned out by a lusty cheer. She beamed, waved, and grabbed an oversized microphone.
“As I was saying ...,” Babe said, and the crowd laughed.
Babe was not glamorous, but her face was striking and intelligent, with impish hazel eyes, a hawk nose, and a slightly crooked, thin-lipped grin — all framed by closely cropped chestnut hair. She stood 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall, weighed 132 pounds, and walked with a champion athlete’s loping gait. Unlike most of the great, blocky male athletes of her era, Babe was lean and smoothly muscled, and she glided with leonine grace. With her head held high, she moved with a striking economy of motion. Something about her steely confidence and her audacious attitude made it impossible to take your eyes off her. Slumped in a third-row seat, George Emerson watched Babe beam at the audience and thought, She’s the real thing.
The piano player asked Babe a few questions about her trip north before playing the introduction to a popular tune, “Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love).” Babe raised the microphone to her lips and began to sing, toying with the lyrics:
I’m fit as a fiddle and ready to go.
I could jump over the moon up above.
I’m fit as a fiddle and ready to go.
I haven’t a worry and haven’t a care.
I feel like a feather just floating on air.
I’m fit as a fiddle and ready to go.
Her voice was smooth, on-key, and remarkably buoyant. She even dropped an improvised “boop-boop-a-dee-dee,” in an exaggerated baritone, bringing the crowd to its feet. Babe then kicked off her high heels and quickly slipped on a pair of rubber-soled track shoes. She peeled off her coat, revealing a red, white, and blue Olympic team warm-up jacket emblazoned with the initials U.S.A. and satin shorts. Babe bounded onstage and began running on a treadmill. Behind her was a large, white-faced clock attached to a black velvet backdrop. As she ran, the clock’s long arm kept time.
Another woman ran onstage, jumped on a second treadmill, and simulated a race against Babe. The treadmills had been rigged, making it look as if Babe rushed through a white-tape finish as the winner. The crowd cheered as Babe smiled and ran a victory lap onstage, her fists thrust above her head. She then teed up a few plastic golf balls and used a nine-iron to smack them into the crowd, her grin widening as audience members lunged for the souvenirs.
As the crowd pleaded for another trick, Babe craned her neck to look at a large sign on an easel at the foot of the stage. The sign usually carried the name of the current act. Today it featured her name. As she studied it with a puzzled expression on her face, George Libbey asked, “What are you looking at, Babe?”
“Oh, I’m just looking to see who the hell’s on,” she said, and the audience laughed.
Someone offstage tossed Babe a harmonica for the show’s grand finale. She played “Jackass Blues,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and “Begin the Beguine,” her harmonica swinging and singing.
She was onstage for just eighteen minutes, but it was long enough to establish her as vaudeville’s brightest new star. The next day, in the Chicago Daily Tribune, a stage critic named Clark Rodenbach wrote, “Friday afternoon was the ‘Babe’s’ first time behind footlights, and the girl from the Lone Star state took the hurdle as gallantly as she ever did on the track.”
Babe was paid $1,000 for a single week of shows — four or five performances each day. It was a preposterous sum of money at a time when some women were making 6 cents an hour for muscle-wearying work.
Just a few months earlier, Babe was earning $75 a month from the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, where she worked as a clerk.
Within several days, Babe’s show had become the most sought-after ticket in Chicago and the talk of the vaudeville circuit across the nation.
Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champion, sat in the VIP section for a performance. Babe was so popular that George Emerson scheduled vaudeville appearances for her in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Performing onstage was “beginning to get in my blood,” Babe recalled.
In New York, Babe’s pay would increase to $1,200 a week. (She later claimed that her salary was going to be $2,500 a week.) But the money could not make up for the fact that the vaudeville stage was not the place for an athlete to make a living. Despite the show’s glowing reviews, the fit wasn’t quite right.
Before long, Babe’s routine had become routine. Chicago audiences came to her show knowing the outcome, applause was all but guaranteed, and there was no longer even the threat of embarrassment. Babe began to complain about being forced to apply “that grease paint” before each show. Worst of all, she had to spend all her time indoors, either at the theater or in her hotel room.
She missed the joy of competition, a longing that was underscored each time she ran a fixed race on a rigged treadmill against a stagehand.
Babe wanted to win again for real.
Copyright © 2011 by Don Van Natta Jr. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.