Once, she was known as Mad Maxine. Now she's taking readers inside the wrestling ring.
Jeannine Mjoseth's first journalism job was profiling residents for an in-house newspaper at a 16,000-person retirement home in Florida. She was surprised at how full and interesting their lives had been. But it bothered her that she didn't have the time or space to really do those lives justice, and it made her restless for an adventurous life of her own. So she did what anyone would do: shaved herself a mohawk, sewed herself a leather leotard with human-hair epaulets and started wrestling strangers for money under the tutelage of the Fabulous Moolah, the most famous female wrestler in the world. She'd get paid to work out, she reasoned, and have the kind of life you can write a book about.
She didn't write it right away — instead, she had a 30-year reporting and research career culminating in science writing for the federal government, never bringing up her flashy past. "She wrestled?" she imagined her National Institutes of Health colleagues saying. "How smart could she be?"
Plenty smart. The book's here now, two years after she left that job writing for the National Institute on Aging. "The Chronicles of Mad Maxine" is a novel Mjoseth says is about 70 percent true to her life in the 1980s, when she was in her mid-20s. It tells the story of a young journalist named Pippi who travels to South Carolina to learn the secrets of professional wrestling at a special school for women run by Moolah, one of the first big-time female wrestlers of the '40s and '50s.
Mjoseth, who in the ring went by the names Lady Maxine (as the "good guy") and Mad Maxine (as the heel), despised Moolah, who died in 2007. In the book, Moolah skims money from her students, ignores their injuries and pimps them out to her friends, which Mjoseth says was true. Moolah, whose real name was Mary Lillian Ellison, controlled a big enough piece of the female wrestling industry that she could devastate the career of any woman who complained. (In 2018, World Wrestling Entertainment took the Fabulous Moolah's name off a battle royal planned in her honor because of statements from Mjoseth and others that Moolah had abused her trainees physically, financially and sexually.) This is a system Pippi eventually breaks out of with three friends who have learned to use their wrestling powers for good, culminating in a carload of female wrestlers driving cross-country to beat up a rapist.
Along the way, Pippi learns how to get a mohawk to stand up even if your hair is naturally fine, how to perform a believable "keister bounce" and how to defeat the Ku Klux Klan. The book is self-published, but the story is told with skill and panache.
It took Mjoseth more than 30 years to finish the book, in part because she didn't want to sell out wrestling's secrets. When she wrestled, there was less widespread awareness that pro wrestling is faked — though, as she describes it, it's more choreographed and cooperative than fake. Yes, she says, the winner is predetermined and the wrestlers exaggerate how much pain they're in, but real punches are thrown, real slaps are slapped, and the thud of body against body is real. "It hurts," Mjoseth says.
"She came in to wrestling with her own look, her own gimmick, and it was very ahead of its time," says Dan Murphy, co-author of "Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women's Wrestling." The Moolah system usually involved years of training and dues-paying, but Mjoseth "immediately got a look from the WWF. They were looking to cast her in the Hulk Hogan wrestling cartoon, until the relationship (between Mjoseth and Ellison) went sour."
When she wrestled, Mjoseth had two rules for herself: Don't sleep with people in the business, and don't let your costume come off. "I did not want to be talked about in the locker room," Mjoseth says. She did make one exception for Rule No. 1, she says, "but he was a Polynesian prince."
After about two years of wrestling, Mjoseth had enough for a book and was looking for a sign to get out when her dressing room was burgled. Moolah had taught Mjoseth to keep her money in her boot, but her camera, journal and costume were stolen. She had a match the next day and had to fashion a costume fast, so she duct-taped on a majorette outfit. In the match, the outfit fell off, and she flashed the crowd, topless. Wrestlers can help each other out when this happens — block the crowd's view — but her opponent, Dark Journey, did not help Mad Maxine. In retaliation, Mad Maxine hit Dark Journey too enthusiastically. "I potatoed her," says Mjoseth. Then Dark Journey kicked her really hard in the crotch.
Dark Journey, Lynda Newton, remembers it the same way. "It might not have been a fair fight," she says, but as the smaller fighter, she was supposed to resort to a trick that would turn the tables: The script called for Newton to win by kicking Mjoseth but minimizing actual pain. That wasn't the kick she delivered.
By that point, Mjoseth had had enough. The wrestler ran away to become a science writer, thinking there would always be an interest in health news. She moved to the D.C. area near family in 1987 and lived her creative and professional lives side by side: working at NIH but also curating an erotic art auction at Chief Ike's Mambo Room (RIP) in Adams Morgan.
Still, her adventures in the ring will always be a part of her. "At 61, I am exactly who I am," she says over Zoom from her house near Melbourne Beach, Florida. Recently, Mjoseth has interviewed a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and wrote about an invention that would allow any smartphone to perform an ultrasound. She's also working on the audiobook of her novel with her husband, Steve Hilmy, a former professor at George Washington University.
In her spare time, Mjoseth is making prototype costumes for the one-woman show she hopes to produce for Edinburgh's Fringe Festival, when that resumes. Plus, she's still got the fauxhawk headdress and a spiked mask she made out of a bra ready to go.
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