Monday, June 30, 2014


None of the major local papers were on-hand to cover last weekend's eighth annual New England Wrestling Hall of Fame  Fanfest. Maybe the local sports desks were too absorbed by World Cup fever to send a few stringers to mingle with the mat stars of yesterday. This is a shame, since 10 years ago nobody in America even knew  soccer existed, but now it's all the rage, somewhere between Amanda Bynes and Duck Dynasty.

Then again, not only was the press not there, but wrestling fans were also conspicuous in their absence. Joel Gertner, who had once provided comic relief for the mighty ECW organization back in the late 1990s, sat in a corner by himself, looking slightly perplexed, but keeping a smile on his face. A fan asked what he was doing these days. "Stuff like this," Gertner said, pointing at his display table. There were a handful of 8 X 10 photos from his heyday. Pete Doherty,  a preliminary jobber who gave me no end of entertainment back in his days as  "The Duke of Dorchester," sat in another side of the room, much more animated than those around him. I asked him about an old rumor that used to float around the Boston Garden, something about the promoter letting him wrestle only because he owned the ring and stored it nearby. He said the rumor wasn't true, but he didn't mind if we spread it.

"They're gonna build a statue of me at the Garden," the Duke said. "They'll put it right next to the one of Bobby Orr. Don't you think I deserve it?" 

The event takes place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick, RI in a series of rooms sparsely populated by large, oddly shaped people. Some of the bigger names included Tony Atlas,  Dory Funk, Jr., Scott Hall, Superfly Jimmy Snuka, Scott Steiner,  Nicole Bass, Ox Baker, Harley Race, Demolition, Virgil,  XPac, The Nasty Boys, and even Tugboat, still wearing his sailor's cap. Tony Garea was there, too, his hair still suspiciously perfect. Garea still works as part of the WWE show, as a sort of backstage agent. Vince McMahon Jr must not be paying him much, for Garea still charges 25 bucks for a handshake and an autograph. The price to get in the joint and rub elbows with the greats and ingrates was rumored to be 250 bucks, which might explain why the place wasn't exactly buzzing with activity.

"Baron Mikel Scicluna was the nicest guy in the business," recalls one senior fan, an autograph hound who nuzzles up to the old stars hoping for a freebie. "Did you know he was really from the Isle of Malta?"  The news sounds vaguely familiar, although I'd be happier to learn that Scicluna was an actual baron. And the worst guy?

"Maybe Bob Backlund," says the collector, who once was forced to recite all the presidents of our country before Backlund would give him an autograph.

A Q&A session takes place in another room. There are eight people on the panel. There are three people in the audience. One of the panelists takes over the session and starts asking random questions. Who are your favorite wrestlers? The usual names are dropped: Flair, Sammartino, Kowalski, etc. The panelists are soon looking at their watches. They can only reminisce about Killer Kowalski for  so long, although it's obvious they all revered him. Those who want to sound in the know call him by his real name, "Walter," although "Killer" sounds more authentic.

Surveying the main room, looking at Hall, Steiner, and company, one could be looking at a gathering of long distance truckers, or celebrity lumberjacks. Some of them still have the bulky muscles of their heyday, and the tattoos are still there, although age has given them the effect of art works melting in a museum fire. Old wrestlers have always reminded me less of ex-athletes and more of retired strippers. There's a similarity in that they make a living with their bodies, and in order to survive, they develop a sense of humor about their businesses, to the point of being slightly goofy.  Wrestlers age the same way as strippers, too, usually retiring to a warm climate, with an over reliance on tanning beds and hair coloring. They don't age the same as, say, old city workers or politicians.

Larry Zbyszko, looking thinner in retirement, seems to be in good spirits. A middle-aged man approaches him shyly, trying not to be too much of a fan-boy.  "You were my favorite," the man says, shaking his head as if he doesn't know why. Larry  breaks the ice.

"Because I was the biggest asshole?"

Larry was last seen in a major arena more than 15 years ago, but he still wears his hair the way he did in the 1980s.  Most of the wrestlers still wear their hair the way they did in the old days. Larry says something about still working for the WWE, providing voice over introductions for the company's new internet channel. "It's fun," Larry says, "and I don't have to go too far from my home to do it." Of all the people in the room, Larry seems the least like an ex-wrestler. He could be used car salesman,  or a rock star's agent.

Bobby Heenen sits quietly with his wife at a table. Four copies of his autobiography are stacked neatly in front of him. He was once a comedic Fallstaff, a bumbling heel you couldn't help but love. Nowadays his face has been ravaged by cancer, his body damaged by falls. A well-wisher approaches and praises Heenen as the greatest bump taker of them all. The fan asks if Heenen is making any money at the event. Heenen shrugs. Heenen's wife scowls and shakes her head no.

The merchandise isn't moving for Heenen, or anyone else. "I'm glad I didn't bring my books," says Zbyszco, who wrote a memoir a few years ago. "The publisher sells them to me at a discount, but only in bundles of 150. I knew I wasn't selling 150 books today."

Most of the memorabilia available across the room is old fluff from the Hulkamania days: rubber dolls, plastic replicas of title belts; action figures of old wrestlers, magazines and programs with Andre the Giant and Lou Albano on the cover, even VHS tapes (VHS!). The vendors grow so bored that by noon they've wandered away from their tables, leaving the merch unattended. They know nobody wants the stuff. There are very few kids in the place, and today's kids only want games they can play on a computer screen. A Randy Savage figure means nothing to them. Autographs are still hot, though, and some of the die-hards still stand in line to get Dory Funk's signature. Funk looks stately, like Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda, standing tall in his cowboy hat. Fans have a way of acting familiar with their favorite wrestlers. One geezer acts as if he and Funk are old pals. Funk stares at him blankly: "And who are you?"

Some of the wrestlers are in rough shape. Their hands waver as they sign items. Some need help moving around. There are a surprising number of wheelchairs, crutches, and canes.  One female wrestler looks like a science lab experiment gone awry, her gut hanging over her leather belt like one of those grotesque milk-fed pumpkins that take first prize at a county fair. The sheer size of her makes one feel odd, like staring up at a massive waterfall. I feel bad for her, though, because she's seated next to a giant Peavey speaker blasting out some brain-deadening heavy metal.  She sits there, one thick finger in her ear, grimacing through the noise. Now and then a male fan stops to have a picture taken with her. One tries for a kiss.

Greg "The Hammer" Valentine has the look of a man who has just come out of a long, cozy nap. Valentine still wears his hair long, too, but it's no longer platinum. A fellow sitting with him asks, "How long can you stay here before you're totally wiped out?" Valentine shrugs his beefy shoulders, as if he's taken a lot of muscle relaxers to get through the day. He's happy to sign stuff, though, and is amazingly patient with a fan who can't get his camera to work. Later I learn that Valentine's daughter had passed away just weeks earlier, and wonder if this 'meet and greet' was a way to get away from his sorrows for a day.

There's Jimmy Snuka, sitting with a female companion. He once entered the nearby Providence Civic Center to a roar that I still recall as the most electrifying sound I'd ever heard - one could actually walk across the electricity that night as Snuka came out to face Ray Stevens. I've been to many sports events and concerts, including heavyweight championship fights, and a Madison Square Garden crowd of Puerto Rican fans cheering their idol Felix Trinidad, but no crowd matched the sheer emotional spasm of the customers who had paid to see Snuka fight Stevens. Snuka looks good here, surprisingly happy and sober, his face weathered like an old mountain side. He and Zbyszko greet each other in the hotel lobby with a big hug.

There are younger wrestlers around, too. They're from local independent promotions, trying to sell their own photos. The difference between the indy guys and the old pros is obvious. The guys like Valentine,  Atlas, and Garea still look as sturdy as oak trees, their faces hardened by years of travel. The young guys, God bless 'em, look like kids playing dress up.   The older guys look like they're on holiday, cruising through the day, not working too hard. "It's easy money," one of them whispers to me, which would be amusing if he was actually selling anything.

One fellow, a local promoter named Sheldon Goldberg, was telling how the younger men may not achieve major stardom, but are no less dedicated to the business. "They'll drive 100 miles, do their match, make enough money to cover their gas and maybe buy a hamburger, and then drive back home, another 100 miles." He's visibly touched by the yearning these young guys have to simply perform in a ring for 10 minutes. A few feet away from us is a wrestler wearing a cape. He'd actually made it to the big time a decade ago, all the way to Vince's Monday night TV show, but for one reason or another he's back on the independent circuit, his reputation clouded by rumors of steroid use and a drinking problem. He seems fine now. He's networking, telling people to follow him Twitter. 

It doesn't take long for a sense of sheer exhaustion to set in. The place has the feel of a wedding party that has gone on too long, but the guests are too polite to leave. In another room is a table of even older memorabilia than was in the main room, including a wrestling board game that looks sort of fun. A yellow post-it note is stuck to the cover: Pieces missing.  There's an old, autographed photo of Freddie Blassie wearing a sombrero. I think about buying it.

There's another table covered in old wrestler dolls. They're made of a stretchy material, and are heavy enough that you could knock a man out if you struck him in the head with one. I see an old Hulk Hogan doll, his fist raised. I see a Bruno doll, with hair on its chest. I see a John Studd doll. I hear there's a fan in the main room who carries a picture of Big John Studd in his wallet. No big deal, I guess. Bob Costas supposedly carries an old Micky Mantle card around. 

"I have a great story about John Studd," Goldberg tells me. "He was at one of these fan fests many years ago. He had his son with with him. He brought his son to a table like this one. He said, 'See the Hulk Hogan doll? Remember when I fought him? That allowed us to make money, and helped us buy our house. We should always be grateful for what Hulk did for us.' " 

I'm remembering the Hogan-Studd matches, back at the dawn of it all, when the vendor comes along and with one arm sweeps all of the old rubber dolls off the table and into a cardboard box. They lay in there, Hogan and Bruno and Savage and Flair, and a Snuka doll and an Andre doll, too. They looked for all the world like a pile of dead bodies, gladiators perhaps, shipped off after fighting to the death for a bloated and heartless emperor, sent down river where they won't be seen again. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger...

Like many New Englanders, I was once fascinated by Whitey Bulger. Unlike many New Englanders, I grew tired of him. Mostly, I was tired of the cottage industry that sprang up around his case. It seemed any two-bit Irish hoodlum who knew him could get a book deal, and any reporter from the Globe or Herald could, too. Ditto for the various cops and lawyers who spent time on the Bulger trail. Sure, I read a couple of those books. There was a time in Boston, especially around Saint Patrick's Day, when you couldn't walk into a bookstore without seeing a floor-to-ceiling Whitey book display.   The locals lapped up the Whitey books because they recognized the street names, and they liked saying, 'My sistuh knew a guy who lived near the garage where Whitey strangled that woman." 

There will soon be a deluge of movie projects about Bulger. Everyone from Barry Levinson to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are interested in the guy and his exploits.  I was glad Joe Berlinger's documentary, Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger, currently in theaters and VOD, would get here first. Berlinger's done fine work in the past, including My Brother's Keeper (1992), the excellent Paradise Lost trilogy for HBO, and an amusing 2004 doc on Metallica that made those heavy metal heroes look like a bunch of spoiled schmucks. Before Matt Damon puts on the bald wig and plays Bulger as a good-hearted twink, I hoped Berlinger could wade into the quagmire and throw some light on Whitey's world.

Berlinger came through for me, more or less.  Berlinger puts his focus on Bulger's 2013 trial, an anti-climactic mess that wasn't exactly spellbinding stuff but resulted in the mysterious death of one witness and the long-awaited sentencing of Whitey. Berlinger's neatest trick is the way he makes us feel we know Whitey's past just by mentioning tidbits here and there. Such skillful laying out of exposition is to be relished.

Whitey, now 83, doesn't appear often in the movie. We only see him a few times, slightly hunchbacked, shuffling around in his orange prison suit. We hear his voice on tape recordings. When he feigns shock at some of the revelations made during the trial, he still sounds like a teenage shoplifter saying he doesn't know how the stuff got in his pocket. Whitey says early in the movie that he's been humanized in recent years by the love of a good woman. Berlinger doesn't bother following that particular story thread, as if he knows it's just another one of Whitey's lies.

I don't think anyone can watch Berlinger's movie and come away thinking that Bulger is anything other than a lowlife killer. Still, Berlinger makes us doubt a lot of what we'd previously thought about the case  - was Whitey really an FBI informant, as we've been told for many years, or did he simply use his money to buy favors from the feds?   There's also doubt cast on Whitey's FBI file, which is a meager 700 pages, much of it being info turned in by other informants ( parts of it actually reproduced to pad out the file). According to one investigator, an actual informant file could be as long as 60,000 pages. Makes ya think, don't it?

The prosecutors, of course, insist Bulger and the FBI's John Connolly were in cahoots; others claim both were fall guys, and that the Justice Department should also be on trial for letting Bulger run rampant in Boston for so many years. To me, everyone looked shady, even the prosecutors, one of whom couldn't stop fidgeting while being interviewed by Berlinger.  As one of the victim's relatives says, "It's a big circle of shit."

The families of Bulger's victims look weary. The people in Bulger's circle look like mental defectives; they seem more upset that Bulger may have been a rat than a killer. One of them, an obese jerk who speaks with an Elmer Fudd accent, actually blames one of the victims for getting shot. "If you want to hang around gangsters," says the ersatz Fudd, "that's what you get."  Oh yeah, this beauty had a book deal, too. 

The movie is a CNN production and at times it feels like a work made for TV. But it's a solid effort. Berlinger doesn't come close to any absolute truths, but it's unfair to ask that of him. The Bulger story is buried underneath so much deceit that not even an experienced craftsman like Berlinger can hit the bottom of it. Still, in an era where we're suffering through a glut of mediocre documentaries, we're always happy to watch a good one. And this is a good one.


Architect Clarence Blackall designed the Olympia Theater, later known as the Pilgrim,  in 1912.  It was a grand place, built within an existing 1891 office building, featuring a   vaulted, frescoed ceiling, and stucco finish. Overthe shell-like theater entrance were four floors of offices. Its auditorium was in the very rear of its block, behind a group of vestibules containing stairways, restrooms, and one of the first theater escalators. (The escalator ran through what had once been a former carpet store, which fronted on Washington Street.)

The theater held 2500 people in an orchestra, two balconies, and fourteen brass-railed boxes. The Olympia offered vaudeville and films. By the 1960s it was showing sex films. In the 1970s it was reborn as a "burlesque" house. Later that decade, the balcony was closed to the public after a priest was found dead by the cleaning crew. In 1996, the theatre, considered the oldest in continual use in Boston, was demolished. The end of The Pilgrim was a bit of a local event, with many rushing into the building at the last moment to rescue old posters, programs, bits of carpet, anything that might serve as a keepsake.

Here are a few tales from the Pilgrim's burlesque years...

Tempest Storm had been working college campuses around the country, and had shown a willingness to swing with the times by using the hard-rocking James Gang as her backing musicians. Storm flashing her 42-Ds to the accompaniment of Joe Walsh's screeching guitar licks must've been surreal, but Storm was a forward thinking woman. If bumping and grinding to a sleepy 2/4 beat was a thing of the past, she was ready for the future. By the time Joe Savino contacted her for a booking at the Pilgrim, she wasn't thrilled about the rebirth of the burlesque show.

"I prefer supper clubs," she said. The burlesque circuit was draining: 12-hour days, seven day weeks. Supper clubs were more elegant, less demanding, and the clientele was less grimy. Still, it was Joe Savino's dream to bring burlesque to the zone.

Along with Storm, Savino hired corny comedians, chorus girls, and a lighting crew worthy of a Broadway musical. Even though the Pilgrim was smack in the middle of porno shops and x-rated grindhouses, Savino kept harping on the concept of "family entertainment." The Pilgrim's manager, Tony Martin, spouted Savino's sentiments during the initial wave of publicity.

"We want the best in burlesque," Martin told the AP. "We've got the full chorus line. It's a place where a fellow can take his wife or his mother."

Watching smut with your mother was a strange notion, and Martin's statement may have been all the proof needed that Savino, for all of his business savvy, was out of step with the times. Blue nose Boston was dead. There was no place for old-school titillation in the new morality. The wrinkly old men who came during the opening week of Savino's extravaganza were not only minus their mothers, but had to muscle their way past pimps and hookers, drugged-up college boys, and beggers. The early reviews were not good.

"It was just terrible," said one patron as he left after the first matinee. "It'll never make it." Another told the AP, "It was okay, I guess, but you can see better stuff next door at the Two O'Clock. And you can get a beer."

The jokes that seemed racy 30 years earlier seemed flat and quaint in 1973. The skits and sketches that amused GI's on leave during World War 2 were nothing to an audience raised on National Lampoon, Cheech and Chong, and Playboy magazine. The strippers, including Storm, were tame compared to the wilder women next door at the Two O'Clock.  Still, Savino kept the faith, chomped his cigars, and waited. He knew the competition was tough, but if burlesque had worked once, it would work again. What he didn't quite realize was that burlesque had already gone into a full metamorphosis; the difference between Tempest Storm and Princess Cheyenne was the difference between Chuck Berry and Jimmy Hendrix. Both were great, both were of their time, but it was difficult to feed one to the fans of the other. Savino's Pilgrim girls looked like a nostalgia show. Women just aren't sexy wearing stuff from your grandmother's closet. 

Even Tempest Storm, who would continue stripping into her 80s, had boundaries. "Topless is fine, but bottomless is tasteless." She kept her G-string on while the other girls took off everything.

"What two people do in their own privacy is their business," Storm said, "but I don't think it should be exploited up on the screen." Sex movies and total nudity on the stage go beyond the bounds of good taste, she said. 

Savino brought in more notorious, and younger attractions, including the cartoonish Chesty Morgan. Morgan, with her lush blonde hair and reportedly 70-plus-inch bust-line, had arrived in the adult entertainment field just two years ears earlier, much like like Godzilla crushing Tokyo. Everything about Chesty was oversized and gaudy. She wore $100-dollar brassieres which were custom-made with size double P cups.  They were manufactured by a Texas company, where, naturally, everything is bigger. The straps were reinforced with wires. She was partial to ostrich-feather gowns, and some of her costumes cost nearly

Like Savino, Chesty Morgan seemed from a different time. In a very loose way, she was continuing the tradition of women like Mae West and Jayne Mansfield, other endowed women who played their physicality for humor. If anyone could carry the banner of burlesque successfully through the seedy seventies, it would be a woman whose bust matched the circumference of a child's swimming pool.

Her real name was Lillian Stello. She had moved to America from Poland in the late 1950s, seeking the American dream with her young husband and their children. They settled in New York where he worked in a meat packing plant. But when robbers invaded the plant one night, Lillian's husband was killed, leaving Lillian a widowed mother in need of money.  A male friend suggested she use her natural assets and consider stripping. Maybe it was inevitable: overly tall males are usually tempted to try basketball, and women with Lillian's attributes was considered a natural for the skin trade.

But despite her alleged measurements of 76-26-36, Lillian  wasn't a natural at stripping. She was quite shy by nature, and couldn't even walk without the help of a choreographer. She barely made it through her first year in the business. During one early performance she forgot to remove her bra. The club owner scolded her, saying she hadn't been hired to keep the damned thing on. But Lillian was tough. Needing money to put her two daughters through school kept her motivated. By the time she got to Boston, Lillian had become Chesty Morgan, a kind of boob industry superstar.

The same year she appeared at The Pilgrim, she acted in two strange, campy films by nudie director Doris Wishman: Deadly Weapons, and Double Agent 73, where Chesty played a super spy with a camera planted in her enormous boobs. Perhaps borrowing from Chesty's real life story, the plot-line of Deadly Weapons had her portraying a widow whose husband had been murdered by the mob. She avenged her husband's murder by tracking the killers down one by one and smothering them with her boobs. One can imagine the sort of reception her film work received.  One snotty mug from Mass Media, a Boston humor mag, panned her performance in Deadly Weapons:

"All she wore was frilly scoop neck shirts and frilly v-neck shirts that did not enhance the lure of her chest. She looked equally bad when she was naked. The skin on her chest was translucent and she had a bulging vein on the inside of her left breast. Her derriere looked flabby and saggy. She never showed her crotch during the "movie," a fact that  led to some nasty rumors that, perhaps, Chesty is really a man. . . I mean, you gotta have a strong back to carry around all that excess weight!"

True, Chesty was not a natural actress anymore than she'd been a natural stripper - she had an accent and often appeared lethargic on screen. Still, no one bought tickets to a Chesty Morgan flick to see her acting chops. She was beyond being a simple roadside attraction; she was nature run amok.

Perhap it was her Polish upbringing, or the responsibility of being a single mother, but Chesty was different than the average Combat Zone worker; she didn't use drugs, she had a good head for business, she invested in the stock market, eventually had her own real estate business in St. Petersburg, Florida, and while she posed for Playboy and Penthouse, she stayed away from the more prurient aspects of the stripper business.

"I don't do a complete nude show," she once told the Richmond Times Dispatch. "I don't do that kind of show. I'm not a porno star. Even men don't want a complete nude woman. Topless, maybe, but at least a g-string. They want something left to the imagination, something discreet."

Chesty used a lot of comedy in her stage act - she'd invite a man from the audience to the front of the stage so they could inspect her giant breasts (which later got her in trouble because touching the performers was illegal in some districts) and she relied on a few tried and true jokes that were probably handed down by strippers before her. "You know why my feet are so small? Because things don't grow in the shade, that's why." Another of her jokes was about her being opposed to Women's Liberation because, "they want to go bra-less and I can't do it." During her walk to the stage, two little men would march in front of her, each supporting one of her pendulous breasts.

Posters for Chesty's Pilgrim Theater appearances promised something beyond the norm, though. Savino's ad campaign was part peek-a-boo smut show and part carnival midway flyer. There was a great shot of a smiling Chesty, her pretty face framed by her puffy shag hairstyle, while her excessive torso was concealed by loud phrases: She's Here! Every Inch of Her! You've got to see it to believe it! The biggest event of the year! Impossible! Chesty Morgan, heading her all new burlesk revue. Her measurements on the poster were listed at 73-24-36. Like pro-wrestling's Andre the Giant, Chesty's exact measurements wavered, depending on who was doing the advertising. Regardles, she was a smash.

"She was like a god out of the heavens for us," Savino said in August of 1974. "She saved the theater and I hope she can do it again."

Feeling flush after the success of Chesty Morgan, Joe Savino upped the ante, booking the most scandalous stripper of the day: Fannie Foxe.

Foxe, (real name: Annabella Battistella) was a 38-year-old veteran of the biz, and until recently she'd been one of but she'd recently been involved in a situation that guaranteed her more press than her raunchy stage moves. The "Argentine Firecracker," as she was known, had been a regular attraction at Washington DCs Silver Slipper club. She was also friends with Democratic Congressman Wilbur D. Mills, of Arkansas.  

Mills The New York Times once described Mills as having "the look of a favorite, vaguely reprobate uncle, the smile of Lyndon Johnson,. the nose of W.C. Fields, and a fine, gravelly whisky voice compounded of mahogany, two quarts of good bourbon a day, and long dark times unsalvaged by the slightest memory." As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a post he'd held longer than any other person in U.S. history, Mills was also one of the most influential men in the nation's capitol. He was briefly considered for a presidential nomination in 1972. 

At approximately 2:00 AM October 9, 1974, a  Washington DC Parks Police officer stopped a Lincoln Continental near the Jefferson Memorial for speeding and not using lights. The driver was  Albert Gapacini of Arlington VA., but also in the car was Congressman Mills and three women, strippers from the Silver Slipper. One of the women,  who turned out to be Foxe, ran from the car screaming and jumped into the nearby Tidal Basin of the Potomac River. Mills followed her and tried to drag her back to the car, but she dove in; the police had to fish her out. It was quite a scene. Mills and Foxe were obviously drunk out of their minds. The police also noticed Mills' face was gashed and bloody.

Foxe was taken to St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital for treatment, but by then the scandal was wide open. Mills claimed he and Foxe were friends because they lived in the same Arlington, Virginia apartment building, Crystal Towers.

Mills said he and his wife Polly moved to Crystal Towers the previous year. "Our new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Eduardo Battistella, offered us every assistance during the moving ordeal, and since that time our families have grown to become close friends," Mills said.  He added that Foxe/Battistella's cousin, Mrs. Gloria Sanchez,  had been the house guest of the Battistellas for "several weeks" and that "Polly and I had planned to host a small bon voyage party for her" before her return to Argentina.

An injury to Polly's foot, Mills said, "prevented our entertaining at home, and she insisted I take our friends to a public place we had frequented before. This I did. We then visited another place and after a few refreshments Mrs. Battistella became ill and I enlisted the help of others in our group to assist me in seeing her safely home."

After their night of bar-hopping, Mills was too drunk to drive himself home; he'd asked Mr Gapacini to take the wheel. Gapacini was unfamiliar with Mills' car and couldn't work the lights. Foxe had been reluctant to go home; a tussle ensued when Mills tried to get her into his Lincoln. Younger and stronger than the old Democrat, Foxe elbowed him in the face, breaking his glasses and cutting him, hence the blood.

"I didn't hit Mr Mills," she would say later. "Well, maybe I did. But it was an accident. He got in my way."

Why she ran into the river was unclear; police believed she was trying to commit suicide.


The story expanded during the following days. First, there was what looked like an attempted cover-up when Mills' aids issued a statement that he'd denied the entire incident, which Mills quickly addressed as a"misunderstanding." But back in Little Rock, Mills tried to joke his way out of it. "Don't go out with foreign women who drink champagne," he said. In reality, he didn't even remember the Tidal Basin incident. It had happened during one of his many black-out periods.

Meanwhile, other Silver Slipper employees reported that Mills had been accompanying Foxe regularly for months, and described one particular night when Mills spent $1,700 on magnum bottles of champagne. Sources said Mills had even inquired about buying a share of The Silver Slipper, and that he and Foxe were often seen arguing loudly in public. The Sliver Slipper management denied ever seeing Mills, and also denied knowing Foxe.The confusion stemmed from news reports using her real name - Annabella Battistella - when the world of Washington strip joints knew her only as Fanne Foxe. Realizing there was no way to wriggle free of the story, Mills  tried a different tact, being contrite for the embarrassment he had caused to his family and his peers. There was a re-election coming up, after all, and he had to cover his ass.

While Mills apologized profusely for his public gaff, Foxe gleaned all the publicity she could get. She dubbed herself  "The Washington Tidal Basin Bombshell," and booked a tour, charging theaters $3,000-dollars per week for her services. She was suddenly the highest paid stripper in the country, but Joe Savino was willing to pay. Little did Savino know that Foxe and Mills were not quite done with their headline making.

Two weeks into Foxe's stint at The Pilgrim, Mills arrived in Boston and visited her in her dressing room. That night she brought him onstage and introduced him to the rowdy audience. The 65-year-old politician was drunk again, and after giving Foxe a playful smooch on the face, he walked off stage with her, arm in arm.

Members of the press arrived at the theater the next day, but The Pilgrim management assured them that Mills had boarded a flight back to Washington. But on Sunday night Mills was again found in Foxe's spangled dressing room.  Realizing that the press had found him, Mills held an impromptu news conference, talking about his plans to bring Foxe to  Hollywood and make her a star.

"She's better than Gypsy Rose Lee," Mills said, adding that he'd written a script for her. There followed a bizzarre monologue where Mills claimed Foxe would be "about the 14th or 15th girl I've launched, and they've all been successful." On and on he went, praising Foxe as a national treasure. "She's my little Argentine hillbilly," he said. Foxe and Eduardo tried to hush Mills, telling him to be more guarded around the press, but he barreled ahead.  He claimed Eduardo was his best friend, and that after he made Foxe a movie star, there was another script he'd written about Richard Nixon that was being sent to Lew Wasserman of Universal Pictures. At times Mills seemed to waver on his feet; he claimed to be on medication that made him feel drunk.

The hammering of Mills in the press began the next morning and continued for weeks. Republican party members and Democrats alike hurled verbal daggers at him and called for his removal. Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers said Mills involvement with Foxe "troubles me, the way it does all the people here, I dont condone it, of course." House Speaker Carl Albert refused to discuss the Boston episode, saying only,  "I feel sorry for Mr. Mills."

A UPI story depicted Mills as cocky, lingering in Foxe's dressing room saying, "This won't ruin me. Nothing can ruin me." But few politicians had ever fallen so quickly. Within 48 hours of his appearance at The Pilgrim Theater,  friends and colleagues were suggesting Mills resign. Arkansas TV stations aired clips of Mills wearing dark glasses, watching from behind a black curtain as Foxe did her bump and grind routine. Feeling ill, Mills checked himself into the Bethesda Naval Hospital for medical tests.

Days later, an editorial in the Lowell Sun read:

"Whether Mr. Mills has lost his marbles or not remains to be seen but "launching" Fanne the Argentine Bomb from the stage of Boston's distinguished Pilgrim theater is not an optimistic sign that additional rational decisions will now be forthcoming from the chairman of the Ways and Means committee.

Shirley MacLaine of cinema renown, another performer whom Mr. Mills claims to have "launched", put it about as well as anybody could when she remarked that Wilbur is now going to have to "explain his ways and tell us what he means".

Not the most disinterested listener when Wilbur gets around to doing that will be Mrs. Mills, we presume.

Still in all, hospitalized for fatigue, the end of his career in sight, we would say that poor Wilbur deserves as much sympathy today from people as he does criticism."

Psychiatrists and neurosurgeons offered their opinions, suggesting a mild stroke and had caused Mills to go cuckoo, or that a recent back operation had left him goofy from pain pills.  Foxe, showing some loyalty, suggested Mills was suffering from the stress of his career.

"You'll never understand Mr. Mills," Foxe said. "There's no person in the world that knows Mr. Mills. I never know when he's joking or when he's serious." She added, "Sometimes I think he's 12 different people."

After leaving Boston, Foxe held a major press conference in New York, partly to hype her next series of appearances, and partly to address the situation with Mills.  The news conference followed a porno movie shown at the 42nd Street Playhouse. She valiantly tried to support Mills, saying he was "a young man in and old man's body." At one point she said that she felt Mills was being "destroyed," but insisted that, "I don't think I have destroyed him."

"I love Mr. Mills and he loves me," she said. "But we are not lovers. We're just friends — very close friends ... No, I am not. his lover."

As more questions were fired at her, she responded, "No, no, we love each other, but not like that."

"He always used to say I was just two years older than his youngest daughter." She described her friendship with Mills as a father-daughter relationship. "It's sort of like, what do you call it, a father fixation. My father was always the only one who could tell me what to do."

Of Mills' affection towards her, Foxe said, "It's time for a person in his position to be truthful. A lot of people do these things you know, but don't have the nerve to say it."

She also admitted that the situation had given her a major career boost.

"I guess I'm cheating a little. I'm not really such a good dancer. I'm in business strictly for the money."

Her performance fee had already gone down, from $3,000 per week to $1,800. That night, only 100 customers turned out to see her perform. At one point some men shouted, "Where's Wilbur?"

"He's in Washington," Foxe said. "But that's none of my business."

Meanwhile, journalists on Capitol Hill depicted Wilbur Mills as a politician whose power had been slowly eroding, and was only now reacting to his aborted presidential bid in '72. He was portrayed as a man whose personality had undergone a major change in recent months. He'd once been a steely,  old-school politician who demanded to be called "Mr. Chairman," but in recent months he'd become a joke teller, often interrupting his own meetings to tell one he'd just heard.  One deadpan comment was his line about drafting " a new depletion allowance for mistresses."  Mills got some laughs, but he was hurting his  reputation.  Young Committee members were no longer in awe of Mills. They treated him with no more deference than if he'd been the doddering old head master at an all-boys school.

Mills was accused of enjoying the publicity he'd received during the presidential bid, and now he wanted to be on all the time. The man who used to blow past camera men and reporters as if they were pests not worthy of his attention,  now gave rambling, unfocused answers to questions, anything to stay on camera or get his name in the news. He'd also developed the odd practice of bringing his wife Polly to work with him; she sat silently at his side during committee meetings, press interviews, and private conferences. In the parlance of the time, Mills had become a strange duck.

Some thought Fannie Foxe was merely the final nail in a coffin lid that had been slowing closing for months. 1974 was the year of Watergate and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. As Democrats were readying to perform a sweep and clear of Congress, they considered Mills wrong for the new image they wanted to convey. Mills had to go to make room for the current breed of young liberals. He could see this coming, and perhaps that, as much as anything, caused his behavior to change so drastically. What better way to show you're still young at heart than by swilling booze and running with strippers?

Through it all, Mills maintained he had appeared on stage with Foxe as a gag, "to dispel all these innuendos." He said he would not have made the appearance were he trying to hide a clandestine relationship. He added, "I suppose at my age, I should be flattered that anyone thinks that."

What no one knew at the time was that Mills was downing two or three quarts of vodka or sour-mash whiskey per day, and was experiencing blackouts, shaking spells, and mad hallucinations. At one point he believed a giant flock of buzzards had blocked out the sun.

Mills got word from the House leadership that he was finished as Ways and Means Chairman. He resigned soon after, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and checked himself into Palm Beach Institute at West Palm Beach. 

Foxe, too, was considering retirement. After an incident in Florida where she was busted for dancing bottomless, she claimed she wanted to quit stripping so as not to bring anymore embarrassment to Mills. She talked of moving back to Argentina to get away from the spotlight, and she occasionally broke down and wept while doing her act. Mills may have been recovering, but now it was Foxe's turn to act strange.

During the next year she did less stripping and recreated herself as more of a song and dance act. She also divorced her husband of 20 years, moved to Connecticut, and began writing her autobiography, The Stripper and The Congressman. The book was co-written with Yvonne Dunleavy, who had also co-authored The Happy Hooker. Upon the book's release  in November of 1975, Foxe dropped a major bombshell when she claimed she had once been pregnant with Mills' child and had gotten an abortion.  Perhaps she was simply creating more scandal to sell what she hoped would be a blockbuster autobiography, but she pressed forward as if it were the absolute truth. She claimed Polly Mills had advised her to get the abortion because of her age.

"At the time I became pregnant I was happy," Foxe said. "I thought I  was getting  married to Mr.Mills. I still love him. I don't think Mr. Mills wants to do anything about it. As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Mills doesn't want to see me."

Then, in another bold move, Foxe booked a week-long engagement for herself in Mill's home state of Arkansas. On the eve of what he hoped to be a re-election, Mills learned that Foxe would be appearing at the Gaslight Club in Little Rock. It was rumored that Mills' associates pressured the club's owner to cancel Foxe's appearance, but advance ticket sales were too good.  But those hoping for a glimpse of what Mills had seen were disappointed. Robert Carey of the United Press described Foxe, who would turn 40 that weekend, being "as girlish as an old Doris Day movie."

"Her act consisted of some light comedy, some dancing with a couple of male dancers who travel with her, the singing of a few Broadway show tunes and no bump and grind at all. The audience - less than the predicted capacity — was polite and the few plainclothes detectives on hand just in case didn't have anything to do."

Just as it once appeared Mills was in pursuit of Foxe, now it seemed Foxe wouldn't get out of Mills' life. She mentioned him constantly in interviews, and happily appeared on talk shows to discuss life with Wilbur. In a candid 1976 interview she confessed that she loved Mills and hoped to marry him.

"We are still in touch, but it is not the same as it was," Foxe said. "I know the man is in conflict with himself. And he has to think about his wife. She's 71, and what would she do, where would she go, if he left her?"

"I never asked him to come on stage with me in Boston. He did all that out of love for me. At that time, I didn't know how important he was. But I think that the more important someone is, the more power they should have to control their own life. I think people should have more privacy — naturally."

"Maybe, too, he was lucky to have found me. The way he was headed, he could have ended up in anybody's hands and it could have been much worse."

One reporter described Foxe as "a surprisingly attractive, intelligent, and genuinely sympathetic person," but even as she bared what seemed to be her true feelings, there was always the sense that Foxe was still a hustler using the Wilbur Mills fiasco to further her career. Whenever she appeared in a new city, or debuted a new act, she would meet the press with a sob story about her old friend, portraying herself as a forgotten woman.

"I have been through hell," she said, describing her life after the scandal. "It's hard finding myself a single woman, making all the decisions, trying to provide for (my daughters). We're no longer a family, just four people who live under the same roof who bump into each other now and then." One interview ended on a wistful note: " I've been waiting for a year and a half now. Maybe I'm chasing a dream. I don't know. But I am a little bit tired of being alone."

In the same breath, Foxe cannily described her audience's love for titillation and gossip: "People always have a reason to go to a show," she said. "There are a lot of movies that weren't that great but that had a lot of publicity. Like Cleopatra: that wasn't a good movie but everybody went to see it because she (Liz Taylor) was in love with him (Richard Burton), and there was a scandal."

"I won't deny that I love Mr. Mills and Mrs. Mills very much," she said. "I will love them the rest of my life. They don't come too many like the Millses . . . Both Mr. and Mrs. Mills."

She also revealed that her stripping days were numbered, and that her new tour would delay plans she had made to study pre-medicine at the University of Maryland. All of the publicity, she imagined, would probably end her academic future.

 "I don't know if I have the nerve to face them now," she said. "When I applied I said I was a housewife, not a performer. And when people check on moral character, they seem to check on what you do, not on what kind of person you are."

"Anyway, I'm not a young woman any more."

At the height of the Foxe-Mills mania, Foxe worked in a few movies, including a cheap-o 1975 western called Posse From Heaven, and a 1977 Argentine release called Hay Que Parar la Delantera ( rough translation: It is necessary To stop the Advantage)  She appeared as herself in a sleazy documentary called This Is America, which also featured male porno star Ron Jeremy. There was talk that her Washington escapades would be turned into a wacky TV sitcom;  she posed and did publicity work for CHERI magazine; it was rumored Foxe would be paid a million dollars to play herself in a movie of her life; it was even suggested that Mills would co-star in the movie. But Foxe's personal life was unraveling. In late 1977 she  overdosed on sleeping pills and spent several weeks in a psychiatric ward. 

Foxe had hit bottom, but she rebounded. Dan Montgomery, a friend who had been helping her cabaret career, married her in 1980 and they had a child. Ironically, Montgomery had been in the Pilgrim Theater the night of Mills' drunken appearance, and had been introduced to Foxe that same night by a mutual friend.  By 1982 Foxe was looking back at her life with a world weary shrug.

"What happened happened, so that cannot be repaired completely," she said. "But sometimes things can be mended enough to allow you to live comfortably and not be completely ashamed of yourself."

At the time, she was working on an epic historical novel about an Argentine girl who fell in love with a Catholic priest. Perhaps reflecting Foxe's state of mind,  the story saw both characters executed.

Foxe eventually returned to Argentina. Her name came up occasionally in the American press, particularly when Bill Clinton or Gary Hart were involved in their own Washington sex scandals.  While some referred to Foxe as a she-devil, others looked back at her with a fond nostalgia. During dull weeks in Washington, it wasn't uncommon for a columnist to open a story by saying, "Fanne Foxe, where are you when we need you?" Syndicated columnist Charley Reese wrote in a 1987 column, "I heard a doctor remark once that the medical profession ought to erect a public monument to Fanne Foxe, a dancer whose adventures helped send Rep. Wilbur Mills home to Arkansas. He reasoned that the powerful Mills would surely have gotten socialized medicine through the Congress, and therefore Fanne had saved the doctors by romancing Mills."

In 1977 and '78, Mills was being resurrected in the press as a kind of survivor. He was making himself available as an AA spokesman. He gave several interviews at this time, and spoke openly about his crazy years, his struggle with drinking, and Foxe.

"I'd get drunk on weekends and, good God Almighty, everything in the world would happen to me," he recalled. "Going to the Silver Slipper with [Foxe]... if I had known what I was doing it would have jolted me into reality. But I didn't know. I was having blackouts. I have absolutely no recollection of the Tidal Basin incident. All I know is what I read in the paper."

"I don't even know where she is today. I didn't read her book. She did call me before it came out and told me they made her put a lot of things in there that weren't true.

'If I passed her on the street, I'd say hello. I have no bitterness, none. I guess the key to living with this (alcoholism) is to remember the past — don't forget it — but don't dwell on it. That and forgiving yourself are the most important things."

Mills didn't seek re-election in 1976, choosing to quit public life and instead  work with other recovering alcoholics. He remained active at a law practice in Washington, but his primary work was staying sober. "Wilbur Mills was a sick man who earned the compassion of the House, but he took his lumps and disappeared," wrote political columnist James Reston. 

Mills spent his final years in Arkansas, where he was still somewhat revered, even if his political career had officially ended one winter night in Boston's Combat Zone, on the stage of The Pilgrim Theater.  

"I don't know whether I had a good time or not," Mills said. "I saw some television replays that looked like I was having a good time."

* * *

The above is from a book I was planning to write about Boston. I don't know if I'll ever get back to it, but for now, the chapter is yours to read.

Douglas, Frank (February 1, 1987). "The Stares Hurt But Also Pay". Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia: Media General (Associated Press)): p. 8-A.

"Honky Tonk Theater Fights for Life". Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Ottaway Community Newspapers): p. 23. August 26, 1974. 

Mills Admits Being Present During Tidal Basin Scuffle" By Stephen Green and Margot Hornblower
Washington Post Staff Writers Oct. 11, 1974

LeBreton, Edmund, Associated Press,  "Mills Embarrassed, Humiliated, October 11, 1974

"Downfall of Wilbur Mills Top Subject in Washington," UPI, October 13, 1974

"We are not lovers," (Associated Press) December 3, 1974

"Mills Downfall Viewed" (United Press International) December-4-1974

Carey, Robert, "Fanne Foxe's New Act is Pure Snow," (United Press) February 11, 1976

Anderson, Jack, Lowell Sun, "Wilbur Mills' Comeback," Feb, 29, 1976

Bohlen, Celestine, Lowell Sun, "Fanne Foxe: Unscathed, a bit ahead" March 10, 1976

Reston, James, "U.S. Pays High Price For Reform," New York Times Service, June 4, 1976

Former Rep Reflects on Checkered Career,         Times Herald Record, January 2, 1977

Satchell, Michael, "Ex-Congressman and Mrs Mills, From Alcoholism to a New Life," Parade Magazine, Syracuse Herald American, August 21, 1977

 Wilbur Mills Offers Sober Testimony to an Alcoholic Past December 4, 1978 -