Wonder GirlThe Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Van Natta, Don
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780316056991
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.
At the age of twenty-one, 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 pretelevision 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 6½ 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.
The girl would close her eyes and try to remember the hurricane—the black, rolling clouds, sideways rain, and a roar so loud you could feel it in your bones. She would try to remember the sudden way that the storm banged on the door and then took its time and lingered, assaulting her ears for hours until it was suddenly quiet, the calm like the wake of an uninvited guest who had worn out his welcome, but not before leaving behind a big mess. She was four years old when the killer storm barreled into her hometown, arriving just a few hours after her mother gave birth to her baby brother. Too young, she couldn’t remember anything about her brother’s arrival or the howling storm that followed. But she would never forget her father’s telling and retelling of the hurricane story and the way hearing it made tiny goose bumps stand up on her skinny arms and the back of her neck.
Perched atop her father’s knee, young Babe spent many hours listening to stories—some true, some imagined, some a blend of both. Her father, Ole, was a seafarer who left Norway with his family to become a furniture maker in East Texas, where he found fine pay and finer weather. She called him Poppa, and to Babe and her brothers and sisters, no one could cobble together a better tale, even if much of it seemed, at first, almost impossible to believe. “What a bang we used to get out of his stories about his experiences,” Babe recalled years later. “We’d huddle around him and listen like mad.”
Poppa’s fables were genially preposterous. Most of his stories featured himself as the swashbuckling star, a kind of Viking Huck Finn of the Seven Seas. In one, he was stranded for weeks on a deserted island, where he was forced to hunt wild monkeys to survive. In another, one of his seventeen trips around Cape Horn ended when a storm shattered his ship into a million pieces. He bobbed atop the ocean surface clinging with one hand to a mast rope tied to a jagged shard. With the other hand, he saved a man from drowning.
But it was the hurricane story that young Babe asked her father to repeat again and again, mostly because she was the littlest hero in a tale full of frightened grown-ups.
Poppa always started the same way. He said it was a rare thing for a family to lose a home but gain a baby boy on a single box on the calendar. The newest member of the family was born in the early-morning hours of August 16, 1915, in Poppa and Momma’s bedroom in the family’s two-story wood-and-cement-block house at 2230 Seventh Street in Port Arthur, a town nestled on Texas’s Gulf Coast. Not long after the baby woke up hungry after his first long nap, a hurricane suddenly swamped the coast. Poppa said that the wind sounded like a giant freight train had jumped off its tracks and soared upward, careening around the sky in crazy half circles like a cut-loose helium balloon.
“We was so scared,” Babe’s older sister Lillie, who was six at the time, recalled. But not everyone was flat with fear.
The way Poppa told it, as the gale-force storm approached, Babe danced in the tumult, running happily in circles as neighbors fled or hunkered down deep inside their shuttered homes. Her father liked to say that Babe was the only person on Seventh Street to laugh at the wind.
The hurricane hit so hard that floodwaters filled the first floor of their house, and the family was forced to retreat to a second-story bedroom. Poppa had no choice but to sweep Babe up in his arms and carry her to the bedroom closet, where everyone, even the baby, rode out the storm. Wind gusts exceeded 120 miles per hour, and the rain fell for nearly 24 hours, killing 275 people and causing an estimated $56 million worth of damage. Never once during the storm, not even for a moment, did Babe take on the worried expression creasing her momma’s face, Poppa said.
“Everything was gone in the flood—ducks, chickens, trees, beds, money, dishes, everything,” Lillie explained. “We didn’t save nothin’. We just got out of town.”
Poppa had a more poetic way of putting it. He liked to say that the storm blew the family seventeen miles inland, to the town of Beaumont, where they moved in late 1915. As a young girl, Babe imagined an invisible force powering the family into the air and carrying them that distance. Poppa and Momma christened the baby boy Arthur Storm, but the name didn’t stick; he would always be called Bubba.
As a teenager, Babe convinced herself—and tried to tell anyone who would listen—that she could remember everything about that day’s drama, even the sound of Bubba’s first breath as the storm was bearing down on them. In reality, one of the most important pieces of the story—the fact that Poppa was there, in the middle of the action—wasn’t even true. Poppa had been at sea, on a tanker that didn’t bring him home until nine days after the storm. The story’s real hero was Momma, who gave birth to Bubba, assisted only by the family doctor, with her six young children surrounding her. Momma then crawled out of bed and protected those children, and the baby, from the whipping winds and the rising floodwaters. There was nothing malicious about the way Poppa told the story. After all, he always talked about how brave Momma was, too. Perhaps Poppa told the story that way to impress and flatter Babe, Lillie later said, but also to ease his own conscience about not being there to comfort Momma in childbirth and protect his family.
Babe didn’t hold a grudge against her father for the fib. The truth merely increased her already immense respect for her mother, who doted on her youngest daughter in a way that Poppa never did. But Poppa’s fables taught Babe a lesson: no matter how improbable a story may sound, if you tell it right, people will savor every word. Tell it well enough, and no one will ever doubt even the tallest tale.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Beaumont, Texas, was a slow, quaint town without much ambition besides maintaining a sleepy status quo. Its main street, such as it was, had a not-quite-finished feel, as if the town’s forefathers had run out of supplies or had fled to avoid the moneymen. The dense, humid air was hardly the right motivator to get people to do much of anything. Residents took their time with the simplest tasks—strolling along the dusty streets, ambling off to school, sipping a hot cup of joe in front of the Black Cat Coffee Shop. They never felt the need to rush. Hurrying just encouraged the sweat to cascade down their backs or seep into their eyes. Besides, anyone who had lived in Beaumont for a spell knew there was no point hurrying anywhere. Even if you were inclined to hurry to one of the town’s few hospitable places—the Alamo Café, where men shuffled up the back stairs to buy a lady’s companionship, or the Hotel Beaumont’s Rose Room, which offered a variety of fine whiskeys—you were just going to lie down or sit down when you got to wherever you were going, in the shade, if you were lucky, or better yet on a porch. There was plenty to complain about, too, but few bothered. Even if someone listened, it wouldn’t change anything.
The town was built on cattle, lumber, and rice milling. After word got out that Sam Houston once took a long, restorative bath in the mineral waters of Sour Lake, just outside town, a few folks took the trouble to try to lure tourists to Beaumont, but that hope depended on Beaumont being something other than Beaumont. A more durable way to earn a living was making moonshine. Distilleries quickly multiplied along the hardscrabble outskirts of town. Meanwhile, horseback preachers christened those outskirts the Alligator Circuit because of the dangers lurking in the swamps along the west bank of the Neches River: water moccasins, alligators, and the occasional human hazards, mostly bootleggers with a low tolerance for a man on a horse reading Scripture and peddling salvation.
In 1900, fewer than ten thousand people lived in Beaumont, and less than half that number lived in Port Arthur, to the southeast. People preferred just keeping to themselves. Indeed, staying out of your neighbor’s business was a matter of civic pride in Jefferson County. This was still as fine a place as any in Texas to lay low, go on the lam, or sit in the shade with a tall glass of lemonade and watch the world slide by. To awaken an area from that kind of slumber, you’d need a big-bang kind of attention grabber. Sure enough, in January 1901 a gusher of oil erupted from the earth three miles south of Beaumont. Within a week, a black lake stretched over an area more than three hundred acres across. The Lucas Gusher, produced by the prick of a nearly worthless patch of land known as Spindletop, was soon churning out 100,000 barrels of oil a day.
Practically overnight, everything—and everyone—in East Texas changed. Old cattlemen became oil wildcatters, and refineries were built on top of lumberyards. Beaumont started hustling. It seemed as if everywhere you looked, new drill holes, followed by new pipelines, were being carved out of the ground. Men and women who used to shuffle lazily along the streets began rushing everywhere, perspiring furiously in the scorching heat. No more dawdling—there was a boom to catch.
Nothing moved faster than the price of land. A man who could not get $150 for a small chunk of scrubland back in 1898 sold it for $20,000 after the gusher. Fifteen minutes later, the buyer of the same piece of scrubland turned around and sold it for $50,000. It was crazy money, made crazier in just the time it took to change your overalls.
In 1905, when Ole Nickolene Didriksen stepped off a Norwegian tanker docked at Port Arthur, just west of the Texas-Louisiana border, he explored the cluster of new towns busily pursuing the big oil hustle. He listened eagerly to the locals chattering about fresh oil and fast money. He soaked up the humid air, imagining that the warmth would allow his three small children—Ole Jr., Dora, and Esther—to spend most of their time outdoors. (“Get plenty of exercise,” Ole would tell his children, “and keep your bowels clear.”) Like the rest of the people in this newly minted patch of East Texas, Ole rushed toward a new and better life. Everything he saw was irresistible. East Texas was about as far from Oslo as you could get, but it did not take long for Ole to see that this was the perfect place to start over.
The nation’s immigration rules required him to live and work in the United States for three years before his family could join him, so the Didriksen family stayed behind in Oslo. Ole began working as an odd-jobs carpenter based at the port. His father had taught him how to transform wood into objects that were as beautiful as they were useful—a mahogany chassis for the frame of an old Model T Ford or a miniature sailing ship moored inside a small-mouthed bottle. The oil money made it possible for the wealthy to have a lot of things built or rebuilt for them. Even the working class felt more secure knowing that there was oil in the ground nearby.
Within days of setting up shop at the port, Ole considered himself blessed. After work and on weekends, he built a sturdy wooden house for his family on a small patch of land on Seventh Street, in a development of homes owned by Gulf Oil. The house, with a long porch and tall windows, eight on each side, was meant to resemble the interior of a ship, with built-in walnut cabinets and hidden mahogany cupboards. He used the finest wood: the two-by-fours were marked with the letter B, indicating that they were made of the best material available. Beneath an eave, extending from the front porch, Ole put a metal flagpole, and each morning he unfurled the Stars and Stripes in the breeze. “I’m a Norwegian,” he liked to say, “but nobody’s a prouder American than I am.”
By the summer of 1908, Ole Didriksen was making enough money to support his family—barely. His wife, Hannah, and his three children arrived in Port Arthur on a muggy August afternoon. Hannah shielded her eyes from the hazy sun and looked suspiciously at the oil tankers belching fumes and the black oil rigs poking the big Texas sky. She smelled the stench of petroleum and listened to the gears grumbling inside the enormous refineries. Standing on the dock, surrounded by her children, her husband, and half a dozen travel cases, Hannah began to cry.
“My Momma, she told me that she couldn’t believe what she seen—nothin’ but oil, oil, oil, and she just couldn’t stand it,” Babe’s sister Lillie recalled years later. “My Momma, she cried and cried and cried to think she had left beautiful, beautiful ol’ Norway for this.”
Hannah Marie Olson was the daughter of a Bergen shoemaker. She stood about five feet four inches and moved with the effortless gait of an athlete. Later, Ole was convinced that he had given Babe her athletic gifts, but Babe always attributed them to her mother. “When I was grown up,” Babe recalled, “I once got her to try swinging a golf club. She had the prettiest swing you ever saw for someone who’d never done it before.”
During her first few months in Port Arthur, Hannah tried to make the best of it, but nothing came easily. For one thing, she struggled to speak and understand English. For another, she never seemed to have enough money to pay all the bills. Ole had good months and bad months, but when things turned bad, he struggled to make even $100 a month—the minimum the family needed to survive. The most important thing to Hannah was giving her children a happy home. When money was tight, she worked hard to keep up her spirits and to hide any sense of hardship from her children. But keeping a lid on those troubles, like everything else about their new life in America, was not easy.
Lillie and her twin brother, Louis, were born in 1909, the first Americans in the Didriksen family. At 5:30 a.m. on June 26, 1911, another girl, the Didriksens’ sixth child, arrived. They named her Mildred Ella. For the next four years—until Bubba and the storm arrived in Port Arthur—Mildred was the baby of the family, and Momma doted on her. “Min Bebe,” she would coo to her, or just “Bebe.”
When Mildred was just six weeks old, Momma noticed that she knew exactly what she wanted and never hesitated to tell you. When she was tired or hungry or just fussy, she let you know, ferociously. “How is it with this girl, Hannah, I’m afraid no crib I can build is going to hold her,” Ole said. Bebe was eventually shortened to Babe, the name Mildred would be called for the rest of her life. “When Babe was born we all called her the Baby, and later when Bubba was born, we kept it up,” her oldest brother, Ole Jr., explained. “Bubba couldn’t say Mildred, and in some way Bubba shortened the Baby to Babe, and the whole family took it up and it stuck.” No one—not the children or Poppa or even Momma, who had named her—believed that “Mildred” was the proper thing to call this little girl.