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Table of Contents
About The Book
In a “powerful tale of a person’s capacity for reinvention” (Kirkus Reviews), a teenage girl from Philadelphia leaves her old life behind to become The Sweetheart, one of America’s most infamous female wrestlers.
It’s 1953 and seventeen-year-old Leonie Putzkammer feels destined to spend the rest of her life waiting tables and living with her widowed father, Franz, in their Philadelphia row house. Until the day legendary wrestling promoter Salvatore Costantini walks into the local diner and offers her the chance to make a name for herself in the ring.
Leonie sets off for Florida to train at Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling. There, she transforms into Gorgeous Gwen Davies, tag-team partner of legendary Screaming Mimi Hollander, and begins a romance with the soon-to-be Junior Heavyweight Champion Spider McGee. But when life as Gorgeous Gwen leaves her wanting more, she orchestrates a move that will catapult her from heel to hero: she becomes The Sweetheart, a choice that attracts the fans she desires but complicates all of her relationships—with Franz, Joe, Spider, Mimi (who becomes her fiercest competitor), and even with herself.
Asking the big questions about what it means to grow up, and stay true to yourself, The Sweetheart is daring, innovative, and powerful storytelling. “With a debut both endearing and enjoyable, this is a hands-down winner” (Star-Telegram, Dallas).
You want to be somebody else. You don’t know who this person might be; all you know is that she should be confident, beautiful, beloved. This isn’t what makes your story special—every lonely, awkward teenage girl in the history of American adolescence has wanted to be someone else. But unlike those girls, you, Leonie Putzkammer, will have the marvelous opportunity to wholly reinvent yourself: a new name, a new persona, a new life. Right now, you don’t aspire to anything better than the likes of ultrapopular Cynthia Riley, your next-door neighbor and once-upon-a-time best friend, but your life is about to take an amazing turn, one that will transform you (albeit fleetingly) into Gorgeous Gwen Davies—aka The Sweetheart. None of the peaks and valleys that follow this extraordinary year in your life (and believe me, there will be plenty) will come close to the height and depth you are about to reach. And it all starts now, one Saturday afternoon in April 1953, as you are quietly living your unassuming life in the sooty, evenly plotted city of Philadelphia, when you open the front door to the row house you share with your father and find high school teen queen Cynthia standing there, a lock of hair twisted around a finger.
Your response—startled brow, parted mouth—betrays your amazement. It’s been a long time. During your early girlhoods, you were the best of friends: brushing and braiding each other’s hair, wearing matching jumpers, sharing a crush on Frankie Laine. When your father, Franz, had to work a late shift rubbing powdered color into hats at the Stetson factory, you trucked over to Cynthia’s in your pajamas for an evening of Truth or Dare?, séances (your long-dead mother was frequently summoned, but, to your heartbreak, never appeared), and all-night giggling. One afternoon a week, at the insistence of your father, a former Turner himself, you went to tumbling classes at Turner Hall to build a sound mind in a sound body, and when you returned home, Cynthia would run from her own row house, take you into her arms, and cry, “Darling, I thought you’d never come home!” as if you were a homecoming soldier and she your long-suffering war bride. Once, the two of you even conspired to unite Franz with Cynthia’s divorced mother. You cared little for the facts: your father strongly disapproved of Ms. Riley’s many admirers, and Ms. Riley considered herself much too full of life to entertain the thought of a sad old widower like Franz Putzkammer. You could only see the rightness of this vision, so you felt assured your Lisa and Lottie–inspired adventure would bring you all together into nuclear perfection and officially solidify your sisterhood.
Anyone looking at the two of you standing on the stoop would have a hard time imagining you as sisters. Now in her senior year, Cynthia is petite, with approachable girl-next-door beauty: dark, snappy curls and a tiny, squeezable wazoo. Beneath her fuzzy sweaters bounce pert apple-sized breasts. It’s an enviable body, easy to drive and poised for privilege. With it, she manages a flock of friends and two boyfriends—dreamy Freddy, who is high school royalty in his own right, the kind of boy you might cast as the romantic lead in the perfect version of your life, and the older, more enigmatic Wally, whom you sometimes see parked down the block, his dog tags hanging from the rearview mirror, his tattooed forearms resting on the steering wheel as he rolls cigarettes, biding his time until Cynthia can make her escape.
Compared to Cynthia, you are a Viking. Your Nordic blond hair swings behind you in a waist-length ponytail. You are obnoxiously tall: five foot eleven, to be exact, and nearly all of it leg. Your breasts are frightfully ample. When they arrived four years ago, your father insisted you take the only bedroom of your row house and stopped making eye contact with you, which made the distance between you that much more difficult to bridge. You are alarmed by what you see in the mirror, an image as lurid as the Peter Driben illustration taped up in the locker next to yours at school, your body parts best described by sound effects: va-va-voom! gams, a-woo-gah! breasts, and a total effect of homina homina! This body is incongruent. You are a pensive girl who listens to Georgia Gibbs, reads dime-store detective stories, and likes Ike. Your speed is slow; you shouldn’t look fast. You don’t know how to handle the catty gossip and taunts your body provokes other than to shrink away. In the hallways at school, you walk hunched over, eyes downcast, a large stack of books ever present in your arms. You are a mouse inside of a tiger.
You don’t know if there’s a connection between the changes in your bodies and your relationship to Cynthia; you only know that after your mutual dream of sisterhood faded, so did your actual sisterly union. In these last four years, the two of you have gradually disentangled from each other’s lives. You were too old to need supervision while your father worked late and not young enough to avoid more household duties, while Cynthia’s hormonally driven extracurricular activities frequently led her away from the neighborhood—and from you. In other relationships, you will do the leaving, but this time, you are the one who has been left behind. You are now at a stage of being only acquaintances, your communications reduced to passing waves and quick hellos. She usually grants you this much, but you always wait to be acknowledged by Cynthia first; you do not want to take the chance that your salutation will hang in the air, unrequited.
But now, here is Cynthia on your doorstep for what might be the first time in years. You hope that your initial expression (here it is again: brow up, mouth open) is still there, revealing only your curiosity and surprise. You pray the torrent of excitement that courses through you remains invisible.
“Say, Leonie,” says Cynthia, “I was wondering. You still know how to do a back handspring?”
Do you know how to do a back handspring? True, you haven’t been to Turner Hall in years—tumbling was a lot easier when you were shorter and less curvy—but every once in a while in your physical education class, you horse around on the mats enough to knock the rust off. Tumbling is the one activity that allows you to harness your body’s potential and power, the one physical arena where you are confident and in command. Without tumbling, you might not have the coordination, let alone the courage, for all that is to come.
“You know it.” You barely recognize your own voice; you sound uncharacteristically self-assured.
“Great!” Cynthia barrels into the house, as if she held as much dominion over it—and you—as she did four years ago. “You have to teach me.”
You should be taken aback by her audacity, but instead you feel bloated with joy. Might this be a reigniting of your friendship? You know better than to be optimistic, but it’s too late: you’re already imagining a rekindling or, better yet, a fresh start.
You close the door, point to the coffee table, and say, “Help me move this out of the way.”
• • •
After two hours in the cramped space of your living room going through the same motions—Cynthia holding her arms over her head, you by her side with one hand on her navel, the other on her spine, coaxing the anxious girl back, back, back—Cynthia is no better than she was when she first knocked on your door. Even after hundreds of attempts, several near injuries and lots of giggling, she still can’t land it. For her last effort, she jumps but then panics, her arms backstroking through the air as she tries to right herself. You lunge forward, but you are a beat late: she falls through your arms and lands with a thud on her back. Cynthia may lead most of your high school around by the nose, but she is no match for gravity. You’re secretly glad you still have this one advantage over her. Besides, anything that brings her back down to earth puts her that much closer to you.
“Forget it. It’s no use,” she says, remaining flat on the ground.
“Come on.” You reach down so Cynthia can take your hand, but she is right. Still, you’re enjoying yourself; you’re not ready for this to be over. “Don’t give up yet,” you beg, hoping you sound encouraging but not desperate.
“I can’t do it. Not unless you loan me your body.”
“Are you kidding?” you say, taking a seat on the floor and stretching your atrociously long legs out in front of you. “I would trade bodies with you in a heartbeat.”
“Really?” Cynthia lifts herself up onto her elbows, incredulous, and pushes a finger right into your breast. “You’d take my bird chest in exchange for those gazongas?”
“You can have them,” you say, although you shy away from the interrogating finger. You are terribly unpracticed in sorority. “Don’t forget, you’d be stuck with these stork legs, too.” You fold over at the torso, running your arms down the length of the offending body parts to emphasize their monstrosity. “You’d hover over Freddy on the dance floor.”
This, Leonie, you know all too well. At the sock hops you dared attend, you sat alone and swayed, the boys too frightened of having to rest their heads on your shoulder (or worse, your chest) to ask you to dance. Cynthia never sits at a sock hop. On top of her likable, got-the-world-on-a-string vibe, the girl can cut a mean rug, which has earned her a card-carrying membership on Bob Horn’s Bandstand and a minor degree of celebrity. She and Freddy’s last period of the day is study hall, so they can leave early and catch the subway to WFIL’s studio B on Market Street. Freddy is not only her dance partner but also, and more importantly, the other half of Cynthia and Freddy. It is a favorite romance of Bandstand viewers, a bug-in-a-rug courtship born of the show and played out on the airwaves. This, you learned shortly after Cynthia usurped your afternoon, is what this handspring lesson is all about: Freddy wants her to learn the move so they can make a splash during the next Bandstand dance competition.
“Puh-lease,” Cynthia says. “Freddy can bite it. I can’t believe I even went for this birdbrained idea of his. Besides, I’m getting sick of Bandstand. It’s soooooooo square. Those old geezers should take their heads out of the sand and pay attention to what the kids in this city are really listening to. I’ll tell you one thing, Leonie. It ain’t Eddie Fisher and Georgia Gibbs.”
“What’s wrong with Georgia Gibbs?”
“What’s wrong with . . . see? We should switch. You and Freddy can dance your hearts out to that razzmatazz.” She cocks her head; it seems a thought has come to her. She sits up, tenting her knees and wrapping her arms around them. “You really like Georgia Gibbs?”
You shrug, self-conscious. You think Georgia Gibbs is the cat’s pajamas, but you are loath to admit it now. “I think she’s all right.”
“She’s going to be on the show Wednesday. If you want to see her, you can be my guest. My way of making up for wasting your afternoon.”
Your first impulse: disappointment. You certainly don’t think of the afternoon as wasted, and you don’t want Cynthia to, either. But slowly you begin to recognize the potential of what’s been laid out in front of you—Bandstand, Freddy, an up-close encounter with Georgia Gibbs, and, best of all, another afternoon with Cynthia—and you swell with delight. Maybe your initial optimism wasn’t misplaced; maybe this is a new beginning. You are young and still believe in such things. Just in case, you cover your bets and play it cool. “I don’t know. I may have plans.”
“Oh, who are you kidding? The only time you ever leave this house is to go to school or buy groceries.”
“That’s not true,” you say.
“Geez, Leonie, lighten up.” Cynthia stands up, smooths out her skirt. “If you can’t go, you can’t go. I just thought—”
“I can go,” you sputter, jumping to your feet. “I just remembered. My plans are for Thursday, not Wednesday.”
“Then, it’s settled.” She has one hand on the doorknob already. “I’ll come get you from your last class. Dress like a good girl, no tight skirt or nothing. And thanks for trying to help me today, even though it was a lost cause.”
You try to think of a way to entice her to stick around for a while, but you come up empty. You have nothing to bait a trap with, nothing to offer but your wide-yawning loneliness.
“It was fun,” you venture.
Cynthia laughs. “You got some weird idea of fun, Leonie, but okay,” she says, and is gone.
• • •
On Tuesday afternoon, the day before your visit to Bandstand, you rush home, climb out of your school clothes, and hide your embarrassing legs away in dungarees before you flip the dial to WFIL. The television—a Philco with a seventeen-inch picture tube and mahogany console—was an uncharacteristically imprudent purchase by your father last Christmas. It took nearly an hour of futzing with the rabbit ears to get a reasonably clear picture, which made you question the whole endeavor, but then your father patted your shoulder and said, “What do you say, Leonie? Maybe now you’ll come out of your room once in a while.” You stared at the screen, seeing nothing, only marveling that your father had not only wanted you closer but had done something about it.
There is Cynthia, on the dance floor, under the lights. She is a peach: soft dark curls springing from her head, legs kicking out from her full skirt as she jitterbugs to Ray Anthony and His Orchestra. Together, she and Freddy, in his flat-front pants and preppy vest, are Cute with a capital C. The day will come when you will understand what Cynthia was talking about, how she could have all that she has and still feel unsatisfied, but at your tender stage, it is hard to believe. You would salivate with envy except that tomorrow, you’ll be out there, too. You prepare by grabbing the handle of the refrigerator and pretending you’re in front of the cameras, stepping up and sugar pushing with your own perfect complement. In this daydream version of yourself, you have an easy smile and a pair of manageable, just-right legs. Your whole life is made in the shade.
Seventy-five minutes later, this daydream ends, and you realize you’ve let your Bandstand fantasy take too much of your time. You have to rush to get dinner in the oven so you can finish your geometry homework and have a meal on the table before your father gets home. Shortly after you inherited the bedroom, you assumed this job without ceremony or complaint. It is, to your mind, a tedious chore, but also a fair exchange. The person who wins the bread deserves the small reward of a hot meal. Tonight, you’re making beer-braised beef brisket with potatoes, a real stomach-padding meal and Franz’s unequivocal favorite. This particular meal has purposes beyond nourishment: you haven’t told your father about Bandstand yet. Franz has strong and sometimes idiosyncratic notions about what people should and shouldn’t do, and you can’t begin to guess what side of the line Bandstand might be on, so you do everything you can to make sure he’s primed for leniency. Besides, you know tomorrow you won’t have enough time to get home from the studio and get dinner together, and though your father balks at leftovers, he never turns his nose up at a second helping of his favorite meal.
You put the brisket in the oven and check the clock again. As you feared, you haven’t left yourself much time. You worry that you may have preempted all the goodwill you hoped to build by mistiming the meal. Sure enough, when your father gets home, washes his dye-stained hands, and kisses your forehead—a gesture that requires him to raise himself up on his toes—the table is empty.
“Sorry,” you say. “Dinner’s going to be a little while longer.”
Your father nods, but you feel guilty. This is the worst possible night for dinner to be late, and not just because of Bandstand. On Tuesday nights, the two of you like to eat early and get the dishes cleared away in time to watch Franz’s newsmagazine show See It Now, and then your favorite, I’ve Got a Secret, where panelists like Kitty Carlisle and troublemaker Henry Morgan (who works close to blue at a time when blue can get you blacklisted) try to guess the secrets of the celebrity contestants.
“Why don’t we eat in front of the television tonight,” you offer. You smile brightly—maybe too brightly. He squints at you, suspicious. “Just this once,” you say. To slather it on even thicker, you take a can of beer from the fridge and twice plunge the church key into its flat top before holding it out to him. Franz angles his head to look at you sideways. It takes some effort to meet his gaze, keep your grip on the cold beer, and maintain your neutral expression, but somehow you manage to pull it off. You’re not going to blow it—not yet, anyway. Finally, he takes the beer from your hand.
“Okay,” he says. “Just this once.” He heads to the living room, plops in his chair, and takes a long, steady pull from his beer before he turns on the television. In the privacy of the kitchen, you breathe a sigh of relief.
• • •
Half an hour later, dinner is ready. You hand your father his plate and take a seat on the couch, the television glowing in front of the both of you, a modern hearth.
“This looks terrific,” Franz says.
“I’m glad you think so,” you say. You have heard these words countless times, and yet they still send a ripple of sadness through you. You do not think of your mother often, but when you do, it is usually in a moment like this, when you are accepting a compliment that should be hers. You don’t have many memories of her; you were so young when she died. The most persistent one is from an afternoon some months before her death, when your father came home from the factory and surprised her with a hatbox. She sat up in bed to open it and pulled from its depths a brown felt hat trimmed with black grosgrain: a Musette, from Stetson’s Freedom Fashions line. She placed the hat on her head at a jaunty angle and admired herself in the vanity mirror. “Look at that,” she said. “I look like Betty Hutton.” Even at your young age, you understood that she was being ironic, and yet her words seemed true and always will.
Perhaps it is this sadness that makes the possibility of another, much more trivial loss occur to you: what if your father says no? This had not crossed your mind before now; you had not imagined him denying you one afternoon of ordinary adolescence. What if, after this terrific meal, after all the terrific meals, he forbids you from going? You have never withheld anything from your father, but this is a risk you cannot take. It is in this moment that you decide you won’t tell him about your plans for tomorrow afternoon after all. Even on the off chance that he makes it home before you tomorrow evening and has to put his own foil-wrapped plate in the oven to warm, he wouldn’t begin to guess that it was the trivial pleasures of music and dance that took you away from home. From your favorite quiz show, you have developed this understanding of secrets: they are most easily kept when they run completely counter to expectations (Boris Karloff is afraid of mice) or are so obvious as to be invisible, as plain as the nose on your face (Desi Arnaz? He loves Lucy). Your secret, Leonie, will be both: a self-conscious girl seeking a spotlight; a teenager acting like a teenager.
Before Edward R. Murrow can usher in the show in his distinctive way (“This . . . is See It Now.”) and before the two of you dig into your terrific-looking plates, you bow your heads, as you do every night, so that Franz can thank Almighty God for his job, this food, your health, and each other. You tack on a silent addendum: for tomorrow to give you a taste of the life you’ve been missing, a life that reunites you with Cynthia Riley, a life that more closely resembles hers.
• • •
The next afternoon, Cynthia, true to her word, rescues you from your last class of the day so that you can accompany her and Freddy to studio B, where there is already a line of kids at the door, all of them white: twelve-year-olds in too much makeup and their mother’s padded girdles, Catholic schoolgirls with sweaters over their uniforms so that only their Peter Pan collars are exposed. At the door, a short, stocky doorman sends a boy away for not wearing a tie. “How can I expect you to behave right when you don’t dress right?” he asks.
When the three of you reach the door, bypassing the line, you hover in the background while Cynthia and Freddy flash their membership cards.
“This is our friend Leonie,” says Cynthia.
You are a steadfast rule follower. You’ve heeded Cynthia’s warning and worn a full skirt, and you ditched your chewing gum a block ago, per Freddy’s instructions. The doorman, a bulldog in uniform, still frowns with disapproval. “Your skirt seems a little short.”
“It’s not,” you say, perhaps too quickly. “I’m a little tall.”
“C’mon,” says Cynthia, hinting at a smile. Her smile is a weapon and she knows it. “Give her a break.”
“I still say it’s too short, but for you, I can bend the rules.”
Cynthia shifts her smile into full throttle. You can hardly believe it is this easy. If you’d been forced to rely on your own charm, you’d be headed home along with no-tie boy.
The studio is surprisingly small, much smaller than it looks on television and not much bigger than your own row house. The live broadcast is shot by three cameras that have been strategically placed to make the dance floor look bigger, but from your behind-the-scenes vantage point, it seems they take up a good deal of space themselves. The seats for the audience are only pine bleachers, the record store merely a painted canvas. Bob Horn stands by his podium, a paper bib tucked into his collar, while a bored-looking woman applies powder to his already heavily made-up face. A few of the star couples mill about in pairs, holding hands.
“Disappointing, isn’t it?” says Cynthia.
Not exactly, you think. True, you can already sense there’s no way the day will live up to your hopes, but, you have to admit, your hopes were high. If nothing else, you suspect there’s something to be gained from the experience, some lesson that can be learned only from fly-on-the-wall observation. And you don’t want to appear ungrateful, so you say, “It’s terrific.”
Freddy puts his hands in his pockets. “Want me to introduce you to Bob?”
Before you can say yes, Cynthia rolls her eyes. “Why would she want to meet that old creep?”
“He’s not a creep.”
“Trust me, Leonie. You don’t want to meet him. One look at your jugs and he’ll be inviting you back to his dressing room for a sip of schnapps and one of his ‘dance lessons.’ ”
You cross your arms reflexively. In the little time you’ve spent with Cynthia recently, there’s been an unusual number of unabashed references to your breasts. “Maybe I should just try to get a good seat.”
“Sure thing, Leonie. You don’t want to get stuck in a corner for the big thrill of Miss Nibs in the flesh.” Cynthia uses her index fingers to draw a square in the air.
Freddy lets out an exasperated huff. “Why do you have to be such a wet blanket?” He talks through gritted teeth and makes none of the wild hand gestures someone else in his position might; it seems he doesn’t want the audience to guess there might be trouble in Cynthia and Freddy town. “Bob’s a creep, the music’s square. What about me? I guess I’m a jerk, too, right?”
“I don’t think you’re a jerk, Freddy,” says Cynthia. “I just think you take all of this a little too seriously.”
You take a step backward, out of the crossfire. Maybe if you inch your way to the bleachers, they won’t notice your departure.
“I’m just trying to be professional,” says Freddy.
“Good.” Cynthia’s all-charm smile comes back, fully powered. “You heard him, Leonie. If no one else asks you to dance, Freddy will, because he’s a professional.”
Freddy is obviously horrified by the idea, but he has boxed himself in. “Sure I will,” he says obligingly. “I bet I won’t have to, though. Someone will ask you to dance. I’m sure of it.”
The two take their places with the other dancers by Bob’s podium, leaving you to take a seat. A man wearing headphones quiets the audience. The lights on the bleachers dim while the dance floor brightens under the spotlights, and “Leap Frog,” the show’s theme song, signals the start of the program.
Seventy-five minutes is a long time to sit and watch other people dance, even when you’re well rehearsed in that particular activity. By the time they get to “Bunny Hop,” a novelty song that cues the teenage heartthrobs to take one another by the hips and wind around the confined dance floor in a series of bounces, your restlessness has grown to a full squirm. When Georgia Gibbs appears from backstage—the petite, big-voiced singer looking like her own little party in a strapless dress, her hair pulled back tight and secured with a flower—and launches into her mournful, vibrato-filled version of “Autumn Leaves,” all the dancers pair up, lean into one another, and sway their little hearts out. You try to content yourself with swaying alone, in the dark, but even that, it seems, is too much. Someone behind you whispers, “Give it a rest, Stretch. Some of us are trying to watch.” You freeze and try to make yourself as small as possible—and then, it gets worse.
The show breaks for commercial, and the room, spectators and dancers alike, quickly separates into cliques, all thoroughly engrossed in conversations. You have no one. You stare out at the dance floor, first at Freddy, who stands, hands in pockets, at the podium, chatting up a storm with Bob Horn and another boy, and then at Cynthia. She is at the center of an animated girl-gaggle, laughing and rolling her eyes. At one point, she looks up into the stands, and so you wave—Here I am—because who else could she be looking for? She sees you, you are certain of it, but she doesn’t come over. She doesn’t even bother to return your wave. Instead, she gives you an embarrassed little smile, wiggles her eyebrows, and then says something to the other girls that results in hearty laughter, perhaps not at your expense but it might as well be. You’ve done the one thing you’ve managed to avoid for years—made the opening gesture—and, just as you feared, it’s fallen flat.
And you thought this experience would have something to teach you. What have you learned that you didn’t already know? Some people are stars, and some people are spectators, and the general consensus is that you, dear girl, are the latter. You wish the show were over so you could just go home, where everyone seems to think you belong.
• • •
Toward the end, when it comes time for the popular Rate-a-Record spot, Bob Horn summons three people from the bleachers to his podium to offer their opinion on a new Essex 45: Bill Haley’s “Crazy Man, Crazy.” It’s an adventurous choice for the show, as close to the burgeoning genre of rock ’n’ roll (too loud, too fast, too black) as they’ve dared to go. Before the record begins to spin, Cynthia drops Freddy’s hands, leaving him open-mouthed on the dance floor as she trots over to the bleachers to fetch a new dance partner, settling quickly on the rangy, easily accessible boy sitting in front of you.
“Now this is more like it,” she says to you. “Freddy’s coming for you, so get loose, Mother Goose.”
You have no interest in dancing anymore—you don’t want anyone’s pity—but you don’t see how you have any choice. Sure enough, Freddy represses his scowl, takes your hand, and leads you onto the dance floor.
“Let’s keep it simple,” he says. “Just follow me.”
When the song begins to play, you try to oblige, but it’s an effort. You’re not an experienced dancer, but you can hold your own. The problem is that Freddy’s lead isn’t clear, a side effect of having one consistent dance partner, and the turns are awkward and sloppy because of your height. As a result, you step on his feet twice in the first minute. When you do it a third time, he doesn’t bother to stifle his groan. Instead, he dances the two of you over to Cynthia and her partner and stage-whispers to the considerably taller guy, “Hey, fella. I think you’re more this girl’s height. Why don’t we switch?”
The boy glances over, looks you up and down. Your heart’s in your throat; you can taste it. “Get bent,” he says to Freddy.
Your cheeks flush with mortification. “Freddy, we can just stop if you want. Let’s just stop.”
Freddy, clearly exasperated, pretends he doesn’t hear you—obviously, that wouldn’t be very professional—and makes a new plea, this time directly to Cynthia. “C’mon, C. Be reasonable. Let’s switch.”
Cynthia meets Freddy’s eyes, her glare sharp enough to puncture. She seems to be weighing her options, an action that takes a torturous amount of time. Finally, she says, “Good idea.” Before you know what is happening, Cynthia has disengaged from her partner, embraced not Freddy but you, and led you into the middle of the dance floor, leaving the two guys standing next to each other in a daze.
“Get a load of their faces,” Cynthia says, dancing you around so you can see. The tall boy appears stunned, but Freddy is clearly humiliated. Not only have you come out of this unscathed, but for once, you are positioned to look down on someone else’s embarrassment. Oh, Leonie, isn’t it simply delicious? You can’t help yourself; you have to laugh.
“I know!” says Cynthia. “Isn’t it a hoot?”
Cynthia’s lead is more intuitive, more confident than Freddy’s, remarkably, and the two of you fall into a surprisingly natural (although exaggerated) groove. The other dancers fall away until you are the only couple dancing amid the bewildered stares of your former partners, the wide eyes of the other dancers, and the dreamy grin of Bob Horn. Your blood is electric with alarm, but Cynthia radiates cool. Toward the end of the song, Cynthia guides you into the sweetheart position, and when you look down at your friend (and it does seem that she is your friend again), the two of you lock eyes, and she whispers, “Do it, Leonie!”
Ordinarily, you wouldn’t do a thing except get out of the spotlight as quickly as possible, but you’ve somehow managed to absorb enough of Cynthia’s confidence to do the unimaginable. After Cynthia spins you out, you break away and show off the one talent that you have and she does not by launching into a series of back handsprings. You go over one, two, three times, ending directly in front of one of the cameras, your arms in the air. A sound bursts out of the spectators and echoes riotously throughout the studio. It is a sound with a life of its own, its own heartbeat; a sound you find yourself craving the instant it begins to subside.
Here it is, Leonie: your defining moment. It will not last long (not in real time, at least), and soon you will be disciplined for it. The bulldog doorman will make it clear you are not to come back—you’ve gone and shown all of Philadelphia your bloomers, for goodness’ sake—and your father, who will make it home ahead of you after all, will interrogate you until you confess, and then punish you with a week of disappointed silence. Even Cynthia the snake charmer won’t walk away unscathed. Her membership card will be taken away, which will effectively end her relationship with Freddy. Of course, as the two of you walk home that evening, she will declare triumphantly, “I’m free!” but in the next month, she’ll realize she’s pregnant with Wally’s baby. But your whole life pivots on this event. Perhaps you cannot yet articulate just who it is you want to be, but you know that when that person makes herself known, she will be accompanied by that sound, the music of thunderous applause.
Reading Group Guide
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“An engrossing portrait of the little-known world of women’s wrestling, with questions about the nature of stardom and showing love. . . . There’s much here for book clubs to discuss.”
It’s 1953, and seventeen-year-old Leonie Putzkammer’s life is at a standstill, until one day legendary wrestling promoter Salvatore Costantini walks into the local diner where Leonie works and offers her the chance of a lifetime: with her talent, she can make a name for herself in the wrestling ring.
Leonie sets off for Florida to train at Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling. There she transforms into Gorgeous Gwen Davies, tag-team partner of legendary Screaming Mimi Hollander, and she begins a romance with soon-to-be Junior Heavyweight Champion Spider McGee. When life as Gorgeous Gwen leaves her wanting, she orchestrates a move that will catapult her from heel to hero: she becomes The Sweetheart, a choice that attracts the fans she desires but complicates all of her relationships—with Franz, Joe, Spider, Mimi (who becomes her fiercest competitor), and even herself.
The Sweetheart is daring debut that describes how a single decision can ripple through the lives of everyone around us.
Questions and Topics For Discussion
1. Discuss the structure of The Sweetheart. Why do you think Mirabella chose to tell the bulk of the story in second personal singular? What is the effect of learning Gwen’s history in this way?
2. When Leonie arrives at training camp, she learns that her first fight will be with Screaming Mimi Hollander—“and she always wins.” What were your initial impressions of Mimi? Did your feelings about her change? If so, how and why? Discuss Mimi’s relationship with Leonie. What does Leonie mean when she describes Mimi as “the meanest bitch that ever walked the face of the earth”? Is Leonie referring to Mimi’s character in the wrestling ring or something more nuanced?
3. Upon seeing Leonie’s full name, Salvatore Costantini says, “If you do become a wrestler, first thing we’re doing is changing your name.” Why does he want to change Leonie’s name? Discuss Leonie’s different monikers. What does each of these names indicate about Leonie and how she is seen, by both herself and others?
4. Discuss the character of The Sweetheart. How does Leonie create her? Why does Leonie place so much importance in becoming a “face”? What does she regard as the drawbacks to being a “heel”? Do you agree? Discuss the reactions that Leonie receives from Joe, Mimi, and Sam when she announces herself as The Sweetheart. Are those reactions warranted?
5. When Leonie’s father asked her why she wanted to be a wrestler, she replied, “This is my best chance.” Do you think she is right? What doors open up for Leonie as a wrestler? What sacrifices must she make in order to succeed?
6. As Leonie trains, one of the hardest lessons she must learn is how to fall; before very long she will learn that “falling is more difficult than one might imagine.” Why, do you think? In what ways does her training tax her both emotionally and physically?
7. The narrator asks, “Amazing, isn’t it, how much clothes actually can make the person?” Do you agree? How is costume important in the world of wrestling? Why are the green wrestling boots so important to Gwen? Are there other instances when clothing plays a significant role in Gwen’s life?
8. When Leonie tells Sam she wants to be a champion, “same as everybody else,” he quietly says, “Not everybody. . . . I guess that’s one more way we’re different.” How else are Leonie and Sam different? Do you think they are well suited for each other?
9. From watching the quiz show I’ve Got a Secret, Leonie has gained “this understanding of secrets: they are most easily kept when they run completely counter to expectations . . . or are so obvious as to be invisible.” What secrets does Leonie hide throughout the story? Are other characters hiding anything? What revelations were most surprising to you?
10. When Leonie returns home for the first time, she doesn’t “know what to expect, . . . if anything, but at least [she] can spend a few days out of character.” Describe this visit. Do you think Leonie is still performing? Performance is an important term in The Sweetheart. Outside the wrestling ring, are there other times she’s also performing? Why do you think Leonie feels she must act a role?
11. The narrator says, “This is all anyone can ask of family: that they try their damndest to act like one.” Many of the families in The Sweetheart are unconventional. Which, for instance? What do you think constitutes a family?
12. After Gwen’s photo shoot with David Henderson, she tells him “I’m not the same girl I was half an hour ago.” What are the effects of Gwen’s photo sessions with him? What do you think of him?
13. When Gwen becomes The Sweetheart, Mimi is critical of her: “I really thought you were going to be different. . . . You were hungry. I could tell you really wanted it.” Do you think Gwen still “really wants it,” that nothing has changed? Why do you think Mimi is so dismissive of Gwen’s desire for fans? Do you, like Mimi, think Gwen misunderstands the real reward of the wrestling life? What do you think the real reward is?
14. At the beginning of The Sweetheart, the narrator describes Leonie as “a mouse inside of a tiger.” How would you describe her at the end of the novel? How has being The Sweetheart changed Leonie? Is it for the better? Were you surprised by anything you learned about The Sweetheart’s history?
15. What is Mimi’s unexpectedly generous act toward Gwen? What, if anything, has Gwen learned from her friendship with Mimi?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Eleanor Henderson has praised Angelina Mirabella for reviving “the entertainment of ‘lady wrestling’ from its black-and-white age and rais[ing] it to the level or art.” To learn more about lady wrestling, watch Lipstick & Dynamite (1940), or the more recent film Glow (2012); both films are available for streaming.
2. Despite the time that Gwen spends in the South, she believes that it will “never feel like home. . . . The only exception is the food.” One of those exceptions is her beloved MoonPie, which Spider first proffers to her as a peace offering. Are there foods you, too, associate with a particular time and place in your life? Share your memories of the events these foods conjure for you.
3. Watch some clips from the quiz show I’ve Got a Secret with your book club. Was the show as you imagined it from reading Mirabella’s descriptions of it? Describe Gwen’s appearance on the show, and the crowd’s reaction when she reveals who she is.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 5, 2016)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781476733906
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Raves and Reviews
“You would be forgiven for thinking Angelina Mirabella had herself been a star lady wrestler in the 1950s, given how authentically detailed her debut novel is. Fortunately for us, she’s a fiction writer—and a superb one—who has penned The Sweetheart, bringing all her glorious gifts of empathy and language to bear on its unforgettable heroine.”
– Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine
“Smart, funny, and poignant, Angelina Mirabella’s THE SWEETHEART puts a hammerlock on one of literature’s most important themes, the search for an identity, and makes it cry ‘Auntie!’ This is a delightfully original novel by a champ of a new writer.”
– Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“Like Gwen Davies, its deeply loveable heroine, THE SWEETHEART is a delightful combination of beauty, brawn, and heart. Angelina Mirabella revives the entertainment of ‘lady wrestling’ from its black-and-white age and raises it to the level of art. This is a bold, agile, and breathlessly exuberant debut.”
– Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints
“Why haven’t there been more novels written about the lady wrestling circuit of the 1950s? Thank God the talented Angelina Mirabella has opened up this fascinating world for us in her mesmerizing debut novel, The Sweetheart. Its heroine—Gorgeous Gwen Davies—is the most feisty and vulnerable character you’ll ever meet. Once she leaps from the turnbuckle and takes the competition to the mat, you’ll find yourself out of your seat and cheering. THE SWEETHEART made me downright giddy.”
– Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady and Mermaids on the Moon
"An engrossing portrait of the little-known world of women's wrestling with questions about the nature of stardom and showing love. Leonie will fascinate teens, especially girls, as she makes her own way in a male-dominated sport. There's much here for book clubs to discuss."
– Library Journal
"Debut novelist Mirabella delivers a powerful blow with her coming-of-age story set in the world of women's professional wrestling in 1953. Leonie Putzkammer is a 17-year-old who's primed to reinvent herself...The novel is bursting with colorful characters who are far more complex than the heels and faces they portray in the theater of professional wrestling. A powerful tale of a person's capacity for reinvention."
– Kirkus Reviews
“An unusual coming-of-age novel with a focus on being true to oneself.”
“Spunky and colorful…The Sweetheart is a smart and touching romp through the history of women’s wrestling, and it just may give you more respect and understanding for those spangly WWE Divas.”
– Bustle, "January 2015’s Best Books"
“The Sweetheart is well-balanced in its humor and pathos…full of seamless sentences and surprising swerves of action.”
– Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A wonderfully straightforward coming-of-age story that’s set against a backdrop that’s anything but.”—
“[An] impressive coming-of-age novel.”
– The New York Times
“A heartwarming novel about love, relationships and lady wrestling debuts. Yep, Angelina Mirabella's The Sweetheart is about the unforgettable lady wrestling circuit in the 1950s, and it's a hands-down winner.”
– Fort Worth Telegram
“The setting is based in historical fact—actual “lady grapplers” performed in matches that were staged much like professional wrestling is today. But this isn’t just a book about subverting stereotypes (although that’d be enough to make it a worthy read); it also examines the impact Leonie’s pursuit of fame has on those close to her.”
– The Huffington Post
“Told from an unusual retrospective second-person perspective and perfectly evoking 1950s culture, The Sweetheart is often hilarious but also filled with the wholly realistic yearnings and heartbreak of young-adult reinvention, and is peopled by familiar, sympathetic characters. Mirabella’s impressive debut offers laughter, tears, failure, redemption, striving, success and a sweetheart we can’t help but love.”
– Shelf Awareness
"Like Gwen Davies’ signature dropkicks, Mirabella gives the reader a few jolts and some well-scripted writing. If you’re an old school wrestling fan, this book will resonate. And newer fans will get a taste of what wrestling was like before it became simply glitter and cartoonish. And that’s no illusion.”
– Tampa Tribune
“Readers will find this backdrop refreshing, unique and an interesting look into the world of wrestling…Life is complicated and messy, and as Leonie learned it is impossible to play a part forever.”
– Emporia Gazette
“Leonie’s journey, including the depictions of her wrestling training and matches are written so realistically. It is almost inconceivable that Mirabella is neither a huge wrestling fan nor a fellow wrestler. Wrestling fans, both males and females, looking to read about wrestling and this incredible time in its history will be impressed and entertained.”
– SLAM! Wrestling
“The Sweetheart pulls off that rare task of being an engaging novel in its own right that will appeal to a general audience, but being credible for pro wrestling fans, with the wrestling scenes an integral part of the storyline and themes rather than merely being a backdrop… anyone who has a keen interest in wrestling and also enjoys reading fiction will certainly find it a worthwhile purchase.”
“Endearing and enjoyable . . . a hands-down winner."
– Dallas Star Telegram
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