Just how big was Linda McMahon's bankruptcy debt?

Her rise from bankruptcy to riches, along with husband Vince McMahon, as they built their wrestling company into a billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut, is an established part of the officially sanctioned Linda McMahon story.

She mentions the bankruptcy a lot, and it appears frequently in campaign biographies and commentaries.

And, of course, little that this much-rehearsed Senate candidate mentions is ever casual or inadvertent.

Indeed, a glossy McMahon campaign brochure touting the bankruptcy - something most of us might prefer to forget - arrived in my mailbox recently.

"Rock Bottom," begins this piece, which gives a folksy account of Linda and Vince McMahon's visit to bankruptcy court "30 years ago," when the couple lost "our home, our cars . . . everything."

The piece, signed by Linda, goes on to say how her car broke down that day on the way to court and that a tow truck driver finally gave her a lift.

As contrived as this story may seem, it is supported with an old photograph that shows a 1970s-era tow truck parked in front of the courthouse, suggesting it was a picture Linda snapped before running inside to finish escaping from her creditors.

Presumably, the truck driver never got paid either.

"After signing the bankruptcy papers, Vince and I buckled down. We cut expenses where we could and stretched our dollars to get by," McMahon recounts in the brochure.

Fair enough. Bankruptcy, easier then than Republicans have made it now, was created to give people a fresh start.

I got a call earlier this year, though, from a reader wondering just how big the McMahons' debts were and exactly how much of that was eliminated all those years ago. In other words, exactly what did they walk away from?

This seemed like a fair and reasonable question to me, so I posed it to McMahon during an interview here at the newspaper this spring. She gave me what I now recognize as a typical, wide-eyed, innocent-looking blank gaze, and said she didn't remember how much was involved.

Fair enough.

I decided to check the actual record, after receiving the latest McMahon brochure touting the bankruptcy, only to discover that it is gone.

A clerk for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Hartford told me there is a record of the McMahons' filing in 1976, and a discharge was issued Feb. 16, 1977.

But the paper file, which would have shown how much was owed, and to whom, is long gone. This is not unusual, she assured me, given the length of time involved.

She also allowed that I was not the first person to call asking to see the McMahon bankruptcy file.

I'll bet.

I asked a McMahon campaign spokesman last week for a better accounting of the bankruptcy.

I got a call back Friday afternoon with a report that they couldn't find any records. The spokesman allowed, when questioned further, that it may have been in the vicinity of a $1 million, based on people's recollections.

I'm not entirely sure whether $1 million was a lot to have run up in debt in 1976 or not. But it was sure a lot of money then.

The campaign spokesman did clarify one other thing: the picture of the tow truck in front of the bankruptcy court, included prominently in the brochure, is a fake.

I guess it was naïve of me to even ask.

Clearly the grainy old photograph, made to look like it slipped from the McMahon family album, is just part of the stagecraft.

It's part of embellishing and manipulating the story line, something we know the McMahons have gotten rich doing so well.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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