ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth
by Steve Yohe
The First Retirement (1938 to 1940)
In late 1937, the book FALL GUYS: THE BARNUMS OF BOUNCE was written and published by sportswriter Marcus Griffin. It was the first book ever written with an inside view of pro wrestling, and it broke "Kayfabe" in front of the reading public. It was a crude inaccurate look at pro wrestling history and all the crazy happenings of the 1930's. For years it was the only believable book written on wrestling's history and it was remembered as the facts faded from public's consciousness. Today's researchers finds it to be bias in a hundred ways and inaccurate in many other, while promoting an cynical view of the art form.
Marcus Griffin was a newspaper man who was used by Toots Mondt in public relations during the 1932/1933 war with Jim Londos. So most of the views in the book comes from information supplied by Toots Mondt and Jack Pfefer (who talked to anyone who would listen). The over all view in the book is pro Mondt, Lewis, Dean Detton, and Sandow. Others like Londos, Curley, Stecher, Wladek Zbyszko, and Gotch have their reputation dragged threw the mud, mainly because they collided with the idea that Ed Lewis was the sport's greatest wrestler. But it has been wrestling history's most influential book and only after the researchers went to work in the 1990's have we had the information to contest it. That being said, Strangler Lewis came out of the book looking very well in 1937….in a perverse kind of way.
Jack Curley didn't seem to care or defend himself. The man who had reformed wrestling into big time entertainment died on July 12, 1937. He left behind a wife named Bessie and two children named Jack and Jean. He was buried at Nassau Knowles Cemetery, Port Washington, Long Island.
I can't tell you how long Lewis lived in his luxurious estate. But I can tell you that Ed was easy with money and before long he was looking for more. For some time, he continued to manager his old Glendale restaurant, which was, in later reports, called a restaurant and cocktail lounge. But Ed remained famous and his friends were movie stars and Hollywood types, which would make living on a restaurant manager's salary a tough road to follow. It should be said that everyone in wrestling had stories of The Strangler being an easy touch.
His problems with drinking and with his weight worsened as his time became freer. It wasn't long before he weighted more than 300 pounds and by own stories, told during his religious period, he was an alcoholic. It wasn't long before he started missing working out and the life on the road of a pro wrestler.
Lewis didn't just miss pro wrestling, it missed him. The events of 1936 (and after) had killed the sport in the eyes of the public and it no longer got the same treatment from the press. It was consider an off color joke by most people. The new stars never were able to replace the old ones and business was bad everywhere. The only A-list star left was old Jim Londos. The names of the old stars just got more respect, but they were few of them. If Ed "Strangler" Lewis had anything, it was a great name, that people remember from a better time….a more respected time.
Most old wrestlers aren't allowed to wrestle. If they want to stay around the sport without moving up to management, it was either as a referee or as a manager. Lewis decided he was going to do it all.
On May 18, 1938, Lewis refereed a match in Los Angeles between Jim Londos and Dean Detton. I think Jimmy could thank his Greek gods that Vince McMahon wasn't the booker, because no double-cross took place, and Lewis raised his hand in victory.
Lewis next entered back into the sport as a manager in Southern California in the beginning of 1939. Ed took a mid-card worker, and pro football player with the New York Giants, named Arthur White and developed him into a main-eventer. The first sign of something major taking place was a 60 minute draw in San Diego between Arthur "Tarzan" White and Lewis' old rival Jim Londos on March 21, 1939. Londos wrestling draws with major talent and friends like Ray Steele and Ed Don George was one thing, but a draw with a "nobody" must have shook the wrestling world like an earthquake. Why would Londos put an Arthur White over? Maybe he missed his old friend Strangler Lewis and saw some money in continuing the rivalry…. with Ed playing the part of a manager.
Lewis then brought White up to Los Angeles and changed the nickname from "Tarzan" to "Strangler". When fans read the name Art "Strangler" White, they knew the manager Lewis was part of the show. Jack Daro's (brother of Lou) business was dying, but the team of Art and Ed drew an Olympic Auditorium crowd of 10,000 to watch White challenge Londos again for the world title. White must have surprised the world by pinning Londos to win the first fall, and the beating continued in the second. Londos looked finished, but he stepped aside at the last second of a flying tackle attempt by White. Without touching the ropes, the pro footballer crashed into the ringside seats, which luckily had been vacated in the nick of time. White was counted out and carried to the local hospital, unable to come back for the third fall.
Sense it was only bad luck that stopped Londos from dropping the title to White, a rematch was booked by Jack Daro for May 10. Daro did this knowing Londos was booked back East and wouldn't show for the match. Without the star Jimmy, Nick Lutze replaced the Greek and lost to White. Strangler Lewis then claimed the world title for White due to the "default" win. The White/Lutze card drew 8,000, a lot more than they would have drawn with out the false billing.
I think the plan was for a big rematch with Londos, but it never happened. After White beat Sandor Szabo (May 17, 1939), the Masked Marvel (Jim Henry May 24) and The Black Panther (June 21), he and Lewis jump over to the Olympic's opposition, The Hollywood Legion Stadium. The story in the newspaper had Lewis joining up with his old foe, Joe Marsh (former manager of Marin Plestina, the old time "trust buster" himself) to bring heavyweight wrestling to Hollywood, which normally used the lighter weight wrestlers. I don't believe that story, at the least the part about Lewis, because the true power at the Olympic was Toots Mondt, and I can't believe Lewis would split with his old friend. I think Arthur White jumped from The Olympic because he was getting ripped off on payoffs by Toots and Jack Daro (Lou Daro was sick and in Europe.) So White jumped, and got beat the first week in Hollywood by Edward Payson (July 10). A few days later, White was suspended by the California Commission for leaving the Daro promotion. So the Arthur "Strangler" White push and Lewis' involvement was over and Art "Tarzan" White returned to being a mid-level wrestler in the rest of the country.
If the story of Lewis jumping to the Hollywood Legion Stadium is true, I see that, with him siding with the wrestlers over the corrupted promoters at the Olympic which included friend Toots Mondt…as one of the most idealistic moves I've seen Lewis take in my writings.
By the late 30's, the money making positions in pro wrestling was the "booking agents". Many of the old promoters had moved on to being agents, booking talent to all the big and small promoters. These men, including Toots Mondt (California, the Northwest, Texas and the Northeast) Jack Pfeffer (East Coast, and outlaw groups all over the country) and Tom Pack (Missouri, Texas, Kansas, and the South), got a cut of every card and didn't take chances like the owners and promoters.
By the end of 1939 and into 1940, the talent (wrestlers) were in revolt at the Olympic Auditorium. They argued that Toots Mondt, and the Daro brothers were dishonest and shorting talent on payoffs. The new State Commission investigated and agreed. Toots Mondt, Lou Daro and Jack Daro lost their license to work in California and were banned in the state. Promoting at the Olympic Auditorium was given to George Zaharias and Toots Mondt's booking agency in the state was taken over by Nick Lutze. (Later (September 2 1941) the commission would approved of Zaharias' selling of the Olympic promotion to Ray Fabiani of Philadelphia.)
On February 1, 1940, Ed's father Jacob Friedrich retired from the Nekoosa Police Department after 28 years of service. He was 81 years old.
On May 17, 1940, Lewis announced his plans to promote boxing in Los Angeles with Jimmy Murray who had just quit as matchmaker at The Olympic Auditorium. Lewis claimed he was backed by sponsors who had $100,000 available for investment. His plan was to stage three outdoor shows during the summer and then begin construction of a $400,000 indoor stadium in Glendale. Nothing seemed to come out of this. I know of no cards ever promoted by the two, and he never was able to come up with money. So the arena venture died.
On July 12, 1940, the 290 pound Lewis made the sports page by challenging Jack Dempsey to a mixed march at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the benefit of the Red Cross. Lewis claimed he would train down to 240 pounds for the match. Nothing came from the challenge, and the two retire 50 year olds fighting didn't seem like a workable idea.
Lewis was short on money, so he did go into training, which mainly consisted of long walks, but he did lose some weight. He later claimed that at one point, before he started to train, he weighted 365 pounds and had a systolic blood pressure over 200.[460a]
Thirteen years after his title win over Joe Stecher (February 20, 1941), Lewis returned to St Louis to celebrate the anniversary by refereeing a match between NWA world champion Ray Steele and ex-champion Lou Thesz. Steele defeated Thesz in two straight falls after Lou was injured in the first fall. Lewis got good reviews as a referee, moving his 300 pounds around fast enough to keep on top of every move. Between rounds, Lewis was the center of attention signing autographs.
Best part of the night for Lewis was hanging around with old friends like Lou Thesz and Steele. Since Ed's visit with Thesz's father, the young boy had turned into St Louis' favorite wrestle and a nation star after winning two versions of the world title. Thesz still idolized Lewis and the two remained close supporters of each other.
With the world lock into another World War, America was building up it's armed forces and the wrestling world was having a hard time finding talent to fill its arenas. Many of the old wrestlers were being recruited to come out of retirement. Lewis would be the most famous star to return.
Following St Louis, Lewis made some money being a special referee, mainly working in the South. Ed the referee was drawing fans, and he wasn't having any trouble finding work. Lewis continued to work out and he felt he had at least one more comeback left in his career.
The retirement ends: WWII
On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked American forces at Peal Harbor, bring the Americans into the war.
Ed Lewis was back wrestling the next week. On December 10, Lewis defeated Joe Marsh in Norfolk. In early January 1942, Lewis announced he was going to make a farewell tour. After taking off 90 pounds by walking, Lewis claimed he was back in good condition.
He worked his way up the East Coast and on January 27, 1942, he wrestled a draw with Lou Thesz in Montreal. In the same city, he got some type of a win over Montreal world champion Yvon Robert on February 10, 1942.
The war years weren't just good for old wrestlers. Freaks may have been rejected by the armed forces, but they were greeted with open arms by pro wrestling. The greatest of all the freaks was Maurice Tillet, billed as the French Angel, "the ugliest man in the world." With features deformed by the disease Acromegaly, and build at 5'8" and 280 pounds, Tillet became wrestling's greatest attraction in the years 1940 to 1942. During this period, The Angel, under the management of Paul Bowser, won three world titles and beat just about every major star in pro wrestling including Lewis. On February 11, Lewis wrestled and jobbed to Maurice Tillet at Boston. The match was probably was billed for Tillet's AWA world title.
On February 24 (26?) 1942, in a rematch for the Montreal world title, Lewis lost to Yvon Robert. Ed then worked around Philadelphia, beating Rudy Dusek on February 20 before losing to the major East Coast promoter, Ernie Dusek, on March 6. He did another job for Earl McCready in Rochester on March 18. This was followed by Lewis getting beaten again by Maurice Tillet in Toronto on March 19.
Many historians consider Wild Bill Longson to be the major performer of the 1940's. From 1942 to 1948, he dominated St Louis wrestling, winning the National Wrestling Association world title three times. He was the father of the skilled brawling style later used by Killer Kowalski, Gene Kiniski, Bruiser Brody and Stan Hanson. Some fans claim he was the first heel world title holder, but anyone who has read the history of Ed Lewis in the 1920's knows that isn't true. He was wrestling's biggest draw in the period following the French Angel.
Longson won his first NWA world title on February 19, 1942 beating Sandor Szabo in St Louis drawing 7,461. His next defense was on March 5, drawing 9,667 beating ex-champ Ray Steele. He won a rematch against Sandor Szabo on March 20 drawing 8,668.
With wrestling's "dark age" in full effect, these attendance marks were considered good, if not great, but on April 8, 1942, Longson tested his title claims verse old fat Strangler Lewis in St Louis. Longson pinned Lewis in 13:40, but both proved their ability to draw by attracting a crowd of 12,986. This number must have stunned the wrestling world. It probably was the largest American crowd seen sense 1937 and this crowd elongated Lewis' career by years.
April 17 saw Lewis wrestling Bill Longson in Houston. He lost by disqualification (attendance 3,000), but that just sent up a rematch on May 17. Ed lost that one clean.
Lewis' father, Jacob Friedrich, died at 7 PM on April 20, 1942, after a lingering illness. The place of death was his home in Nekoosa and Ed and the rest of the family was present bedside. Surviving Jacob was his wife, Molla Guildenzopf, three daughters, Mrs John Ambruster and Mrs George Gladdling both of whom lived in Everett, Washington (which explained why Lewis wrestled in the North West so much) and Mrs Jay Buckley, of Wisconsin Rapids and one son, Ed "Strangler" Lewis. Jacob had nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
On April 21, 1942, Ed Lewis was the first man to register, at the American Legion Hall of Nekoosa, in the general registration of all men 45 to 65 years of age. At age 52, nothing came from it.
On May 22 he returned to St Louis for another match with Ray Steele. Steele won the match but the two drew a healthy 8,405.
Lewis then was signed to appear in a bit part in a classic boxing movie called Gentleman Jim staring Errol Flynn. Lewis was part of the drinking party that always surrounded Flynn, including the Barrymores and director Raoul Walsh, so he probably got the part because of his old friends. Lewis played the part of a wash up bare knuckle pug boxer named Hoghead, who has a fight with Wee Willie Davis, ending up in jail with Flynn and Jack Carson. The placing of the old famous wrestler Strangler Lewis in the cast seemed to be an inside joke, but Ed is very funny in the part. Some reports claim that Ed also worked as a stand in for Ward Bond, but I don't believe it. In 1942, Bond was very fit and sun tanned. Lewis looked very fat and out of shape, resembling George "The Animal" Steele more that Bond. Lewis is very good, reading his lines well, and it's surprising he didn't get more character parts in films.
From May into July, when filming was taking place on Gentleman Jim, Lewis worked in Southern California and San Francisco. He had three draws with Sandor Szabo and got counted out of the ring in a match with Frank Sexton in San Francisco on July 7.
He also had two matches in San Francisco with Maurice Tillet, August 25 and September 1. Ed lost both matches, but both shows drew well.
At the end of September, he moved to the East Coast for a couple of weeks. He then moved on to the mid-west for a bigger push.
>> Continue to CHAPTER 28