Wrestlers And Their Hidden Talents

Why the hell was Andy Warhol at Wrestlemania I? 

As a fan and student of both wrestling and pop art for years, this little collision of worlds has always fascinated me (and few else I’m sure).  Certainly, the WWF was grabbing on to any celebrity or icon it could during the Rock ’n Wrestling Connection of the mid-1980’s, but why was Andy Warhol in turn interested in the WWF? 

His appearance did little to clarify, as he said, rather lamely, to Mean Gene that Wrestlemania was one of the most exciting things he’d ever seen in his life.  And that was it.  Coming from one of the greatest art icons of the twentieth century, a world-famous celebrity host and partier, the man who launched the Velvet Underground, this must have been a lie.

Maybe Warhol was never good on the stick, but here he simply and unenthusiastically, even meekly, delivers a cliched response when asked about the Wrestlemania experience.  His response does nothing to satiate my curiosity.

I could have let it go at the notion that Warhol, a keen observer and depicter of pop culture, simply wanted to see the spectacle.  But as I dug into Warhol and wrestling over the years, his appearance there touches on something much more interesting than this one-off meeting between the wrestling and pop art worlds, and centers on a former women’s pro wrestler from the 1950s, then known as Carla Rosa, the Mexican Spitfire, the now 93-year-old acclaimed artist and fiction writer, Rosalyn Drexler.  Drexler it turns out, in many ways is more fascinating than Warhol himself.

This thread, as I began to pull at it, revealed several more pro wrestlers with talents in arts and letters.  While Rosalyn Drexler is by far the most accomplished and interesting in the art world, she is far from the only talented artist and writer amid the annals of pro wrestling history.

John Foti was the NWA Canadian Heavyweight Champion and an accomplished landscape painter before he killed himself in 1969.  Fellow Stampede alum Bret Hart has devoted several pages of his written works to his drawing, and, at times, has been known to gift artwork to fellow wrestlers and promoters as a show of gratitude.  Hart rival Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler once won an art scholarship to college. 

Legendary mad man Bruiser Brody, real name Frank Goodish, was a sportswriter before he became a full-time pro wrestler.  Mick Foley broke down the door for true memoir-style wrestling autobiographies, shunning the conventional (to that point) ghostwriter and landing on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Brody didn’t last long at the San Antonio and Dallas papers as a sports writer before he turned to wrestling.  Really, it seems that Frank Goodish, a sportswriter, was simply a way for Brody to use his college degree in between playing college and pro football and beginning his wrestling career.  You have to dig long and deep and pay newspaper subscription fees if you want to find a Frank Goodish penned article.  His brief stint as a writer was quickly cannibalized for his wrestling legacy.  Now it is told, he was so hulking at 6’8” and 300 pounds that he simply couldn’t type well without striking two or three keys at a time and was forced to give up the job, painting quite the brutish picture.  In reality, Goodish/Brody had been a journalism major in college, so he was well primed for the job and had the writing chops to make a career of it.  By many accounts, he was also a voracious reader.  No doubt his reading and meta-critical sports eye honed as a sports writer fed his creative abilities with his character and storylines in the wrestling ring.

In Brody: The Triumph and Tragedy of Wrestling’s Rebel, by Larry Matysik, Jim Ross says it plain:  “Frank was well-read and with his sports writing background was intellectually light years ahead of many of the older, uneducated wrestlers with whom he shared a locker room.”  No doubt, it was this intelligence that led Brody to butt heads when he didn’t find matches or stories booked compelling.  By most witness accounts, it is for exactly that reason, arguing with bookers, that Brody was seemingly murdered in a shower in Puerto Rico by wrestler and booker Jose Gonzalez in 1988.

Art created by Adam Van Winkle

Mick Foley’s writing story is of course much more lauded, and Foley has (amazingly) survived to enjoy success as a multi-time best selling author.  While I don’t find the Hardcore Diaries or other titles after Have a Nice Day quite so compelling, Have a Nice Day broke the mold for traditional book publishing on wrestling.  To that point, no wrestler had really taken a stab at telling their autobiography in a personal, authentic voice.  Turns out Foley, like fellow hardcore icon Bruiser Brody, is very well-read, and college-educated. 

He also liked to write and eschewed the publisher’s ghostwriter when the time to publish his biography came.  The result was a genuinely entertaining book about pro wrestling rather than the rote sports biography and the goofy cliched innuendos about the line between kayfabe and shoot delivered by a writer turning a wrestler’s stories into a narrative.  Thank god Foley’s literary flair was well-received.  While his other literary endeavors may fall short of Have a Nice Day, they are falling short of one of, if not the, greatest books of its genre.  To boot, Foley has enjoyed some mild success as a stand-up comedian, writing his own material, something he shares with the recently departed King Kong Bundy.

If you’ve seen the Jerry Lawler documentary on the Network, you know all about his artistic abilities as an accomplished drawer and painter.  Before he broke into Memphis wrestling part-way through college, Lawler attended as a student on an art scholarship.  He broke into wrestling by coloring posters and drawing wrestlers for local Memphis wrestling, before soon jumping in the ring himself.  In this sense, his ability as a skilled artist led directly to his career in wrestling, something no one else in this article could claim.  If you watch the documentary I mention, you will see that WWE did a cool job of having Lawler illustrate important people from his career, and revealing those illustrations throughout the doc as they become relevant figures.  Good stuff.

Bret Hart too likes to draw.  He also likes to give his drawings to others to show appreciation.  Apparently this was part of what really soured him to Hogan once Hogan decided he didn’t want to drop the belt back to Bret after beating Yoko who beat Bret at Wrestlemania IX.  Bret had given Hogan a personally autographed cartoon, but Hogan still did him dirty.  Funny that Bret slings that as ammunition of Hogan’s bad character, but also illustrative of how seriously he takes his art.  Hart goes on to say in his autobiography that he retaliated by drawing a cartoon of Hogan with Brutus the Barber Beefcake’s nose up his ass in the locker room and left it for all to see.

These days, you can grab an “autographed” Bret Hart wrestling cartoon from his website, only twenty bucks.

And there Bret Hart and Andy Warhol and Jerry Lawler and Rosalyn Drexler, and even me have something in common: all depicted wrestling in their art, in turn, making wrestling something worthy of pop art.

Bret Hart Pop Art by Adam Van Winkle

Turns out, back in the 1960s, Andy Warhol was indeed a fan of the carnival characters of wrestling and took a particular liking to Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire.  So much so, he made Carlo the wrestler the subject of one of his famous prints.

Rosa Carlo was not Mexican, but instead a Jewish woman from New York City, named Rosalyn Drexler, married to an artist.  Thus, she had a friendly connection to Warhol, and, as with many of his celebrity friends, Warhol made a print. While by all accounts Drexler was amazing in the ring as Carlo, even headlining with the legendary Mae Young, she walked away from pro wrestling in her prime.

She had gotten into it by chance because a gym near her and her husband’s apartment in New York City was training women to wrestle in the early 1950s.  In need of the money and conveniently located near the gym, Drexler gave it a try and was the jewel of the class (and that my friends is clearly where GLOW on Netflix got its pilot plot device, though it is about the 80s and not the 50s).  While Drexler did gain international fame as Rosa Carlo, she simply could not stay in the business past the early 1960s.  She found the racism, sexism, and backdoor politics too infuriating to work with (as any well-read and intelligent person might).  Thus, Drexler did what so many have been unwilling to do: she left fame on the table for her own moral compass.

Rosa Carlo, Pop Art by Adam Van Winkle

Her story does not end there, however.  At 93 years old today, few people remember Rosalyn Drexler as Rosa Carlo.  Instead, they know her as one of the most accomplished pop artists in America and a hell of a writer.  While her topics and styles in fiction and art over the last fifty years range, she has often returned to her wrestling days for her art.

Drexler’s 1972 novel, To Smithereens, is a fictional account of her wrestling days on the road and performing.  It won national praise from critics and is the basis for the 1980 film, Below the Belt.

Take a look at Drexler’s own pop art (somewhat in the Warhol style), and you’ll see her past as a wrestler plays an influence.  Take Down, Lost Match, The Winner, and Masked Reader all take wrestling as their subjects, and are stellar, stellar works of pop art.  These were part of a larger series examining the roles of women in pulp cinema and pop culture as well as the role of pop culture in our lives.

In all, Drexler’s artwork has enjoyed over 100 special exhibitions in the last fifty years and her work is on constant display in over a dozen major museums around America.  Add that to the nine novels, four seperate film novelizations (including 1976’s Rocky), and eleven produced plays and Rosalyn Drexler is, as I said above, undoubtedly the most talented and accomplished on this list of pro wrestling writers and artists.

But that, of course, has not been the point.  Drexler’s amazing career simply drives home the surprising and interesting proliferation of wrestlers in arts and letters over the years.  Perhaps though more remarkable, given the creativity it takes and performative elements involved is that more pro wrestlers have not emerged in this light.

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