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JOAN WESTON (1935 – 1997) Roller Derby Queen

In 1960s, Biography, Female Athletes, People, Roller Derby, Roller Skating, Sports, women on June 1, 2010 at 10:39 AM

Joan Weston

In 1935 Joan Weston and Roller Derby were both born.  When they finally met, it was a match made in heaven.

Weston’s parents divorced when she was a baby, and she was raised by her maternal grandparents.  They worked six days a week at the restaurant and gas station they owned in Southern California.  Despite their preoccupation with earning a living, they created a strict but loving environment. 

Weston idolized her father who had movie star good looks, and she fondly remembers a summer spent with him before he was killed in a car accident.  Not knowing how to channel her grief, she blamed her mother for her parents’ divorce.  This compounded the emotional distance between them. 

Even though they weren’t Catholics, her grandfather insisted on a Mount St. Mary’s College education. Her grandmother was amenable to that until Weston decided she wanted to become a nun.  Weston then appeased her by directing all her energy into sports.  A natural athlete, Weston excelled in every sport she tried, but that didn’t mean her grandmother would let her try anything.  She balked when Weston wanted to take up trick horseback riding as being too dangerous.  Softball seemed like a good compromise, and Weston played school and league ball.  This proved to be a good match, and in one college game Weston hit eight home runs. 

Upon graduation, there weren’t many options for female athletes.  When Weston watched the Roller Derby she saw her future, and she couldn’t wait to take her skating from the sidewalk to the indoor banked track.  Her five feet ten inch, 150 pound frame and bleached blonde hair were the perfect body and image.  She moved to northern California to learn the sport and join a team. 

Weston’s sheltered upbringing hadn’t prepared her for the unrefined behavior and profanity of the skaters.  She felt so intimidated and out of place that she almost quit.  Knowing that her mother, a truck stop waitress, would understand that life a lot better, Weston called her for encouragement.  Her mother’s advice was that Roller Derby people were no different than anybody else. “People and sex are like franks and beans,” she said. “They go together.”1

It wasn’t the Roller Derby people or the lifestyle that attracted Weston.  She simply loved to skate, and skating at 30 miles an hour gave her a sense of freedom.  At the beginning she had to overcome some clumsiness, however.  In her first outing she tripped and fell in front of nine skaters, all of whom fell over her. 

After playing on various teams for several years, Weston gained her Roller Derby Queen reputation on the San Francisco Bay Bombers.  She started wearing the orange and black in 1963 when she was 28 years old.  Her fans called her the Blonde Bomber, Blonde Amazon and Golden Girl.  

Skating was so much her life that she skated full time (over 250 games each year) for 18 years and part time for another 24 years.  She played the Pivot position which gave her an opportunity to play defense and offense as necessary. Even though the Roller Derby was not a mainstream sport, Weston was the highest paid female athlete in the 1960s.  She earned less than her male counterparts, however, by nearly $20,000.

Derby teams toured the country to compete at local arenas, traveling by Greyhound bus or car.  One year Weston put 60,000 miles on her car.  The players stayed in Holiday Inns that dotted the trail.  Each night her best friend was waiting in the room for Weston to return.  Malia, a spotted mutt who was born in a box on a Greyhound bus, knew when Weston should be arriving and was peering out the window when her car pulled into the parking lot. 

It wasn’t easy to maintain romantic relationships while on the road.  When she was 20 she got engaged to another skater who was drop dead handsome.  The Roller Derby publicity department milked the relationship for all it was worth, but after 18 months it ended.  There were two other engagements that ended badly.  One suitor insisted Weston stop skating, but she sacrificed the relationship instead of her career.  With so much heart break, when she was 37 years old, Weston declared she would never marry.   

In 1965 the Roller Derby management promoted her to captain of the acclaimed Bay Bombers supplanting Annis (Big Red) Jensen.  On tour, Weston wore the white shirt of the home team. 

About that time a rivalry blossomed between Weston and Ann Calvello, another super star skater who wrote the red shirt of the rival teams. Weston vs. Calvello became the biggest rivalry in the history of the sport, and it was personal.  Games turned into good vs. evil slug fests, and Calvello never missed an opportunity to provoke and punish Weston’s teammates with illegal kicks and punches.  This fueled Weston to seek revenge.  Calvello’s cheap shots incensed audiences who would throw things at her and occasionally even damage her car.  Each skater played her part to perfection, but in the end, the audience demanded that good triumph over evil.  Even though Weston was the predictable victor, audiences packed the arenas the next night to see what would happen.

Injuries are a fact of life in Roller Derby, and Weston, like all players, suffered her share of debilitating ones.  In an interview she recounted knee cartilage surgery and a dislocated collar bone. Trips to the dentist were frequent as dentures replaced missing teeth.  In one game she got into such a heated argument with the referee that two of her teeth flew out of her mouth right past the ref’s ear.

Because of the violence, Weston’s mom could never accept her daughter’s career choice, or even watch a Roller Derby game.  Her grandmother had the courage to watch only one.  The star athlete found her support within the ranks of the sport.  Eventually she married skater Nick Scopas, and their relationship lasted until death parted them. 

If they weren’t proud of her job, Weston’s family could be proud of what she accomplished.  The Blond Bomber was voted Roller Derby Queen four times, received the Most Valuable Player award in 1968 and was inducted into the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame.   

In the 1970s a skaters’ strike, the gas crisis and increasing costs made managing the Roller Derby too expensive for Jerry Seltzer, son of founder Leo Seltzer. The original Roller Derby league skated their last game on December 3, 1973.  Seltzer sold everything Roller Derby to other promoters. 

Weston and Roller Derby started life and ended together.  She was 38 years old and her body didn’t bounce back from injuries as quickly, so this was the perfect time to retire.  It was not the end of skating for Weston, however.  She channeled her experience and expertise into training young skaters and staging exhibition games. 

Weston’s life wasn’t all skating all the time.  She loved Hawaii and won the 1962 outrigger championship on a canoe called Malia, the name sake for her dog.  Her love of softball exceeded her tenure skating and she played in leagues in northern California.

Weston contracted Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder.  She died at age 62 in Hayward, California, survived by her husband.  Twenty-five years earlier she was asked if she had any regrets.  She said she did, but that there was one thing that compensated: stardom.  “Stardom is recognition, approval, power. Do you know what it’s like to be able to bring 20,000 people to their feet–to make them hate or love you? That’s where it’s at. Power!”2

QUESTION:  Who are your sports idols?  What is it about what they do that you respect?

 ©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

 Video:

Weston’s last interview:   http://rollergames.ning.com/video/joan-westons-last-sit-down

Interviews with Ann Calvello & Joan Weston: http://myspace.vtap.com/video/Ann+Calvello%252C+Joan+Weston%253A+Is+Roller+Derby+Real/CL0125573612_477e96dc8_V0lLSTQ4NDI1OTZ-aW46MX5xOmJyfmJ3OldJS0k0ODQyNTk2

 Sources:

1, 2http://astroworf.tripod.com/fw1.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/18/us/joanie-weston-62-a-big-star-in-the-world-of-roller-derbies.html

http://derbymemoirs.bankedtrack.info/mem_Weston_Joan.html

http://rollergames.ning.com/video/joan-westons-last-sit-down

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Weston

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/frank_deford/05/19/roller.derby.revival/index.html

http://articles.sfgate.com/2006-03-16/bay-area/17285386_1_roller-skated-san-francisco-bay-bombers/2

http://baycitybombers.com/Stories/calvello.html

http://www.ktvu.com/station/1854287/detail.html

http://www.rollerderbyhalloffame.com/id5.html

http://www.rollerderbyhalloffame.com/id3.html

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VIOLET GIBSON (1876 – 1956) Shot Mussolini

In Assassinations, Biography, Dictators, History, Italian History, Mental health, Mussolini, People, People from England, Trivia, Uncategorized, Victorian Women, women on May 17, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Violet Gibson

When Violet Gibson shot Benito Mussolini, everyone except her thought it was a crazy thing to do.  The ensuing debate was to determine whether she was certifiably crazy or not.  Death and illness were themes of her life and perhaps fertilized the psychological soil where a religious seed had been planted.   

Born the seventh of eight children as the Victorian era was starting to wind down, Gibson had an enviable life.  Her father was Lord Ashbourne, the lord chancellor of Ireland, a protestant. Her father’s title bestowed on her the title of Honorable. The Gibsons split their time between London and Dublin, participating fully in the parties, concerts and galas of the elite.  At age 18 the Honorable Violet Gibson was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.   

Being sick consumed a lot of her youth and as a result she was quite frail.  She had scarlet fever when she was five, peritonitis at 14, pleurisy at 16 and rubella at 20.  She displayed a violent temper early on.    

Lady Ashbourne, Gibson’s mother, became a Christian Scientist with the expectation that Mary Baker Eddy’s religion would bring her into stronger health.  Gibson tried it out, but in her early 20s, switched to Theosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky.  She was attracted to its mission to build a universal brotherhood without discrimination of any kind. Then at 26 years old, Gibson followed her brother Willie’s lead and converted to Catholicism.  Their father expressed great disappointment at this decision, and it became a wedge in their relationship.    

Gibson started receiving a private income from her father at age 21, which allowed her to be independent.  In 1905 there were several deaths in the family, and her father’s term as the lord chancellor was up.  Gibson dealt with so much loss by moving to Chelsea, an artsy section of London.  She explored a bawdier side of life and became engaged to an artist at age 32.  One year later he died suddenly and Gibson had another death to grieve.   

Six times within the next year Gibson became ill with the “fever.”  The only diagnosis the doctors could offer was influenza or a nervous disorder called “hysteria.”    

In 1913, Gibson’s father died, and she tried to cope by fleeing to Paris where she worked for pacifist organizations.  Later that year she contracted Paget’s disease, a type of cancer, and had a left mastectomy which left a nine-inch scar across her chest.  She worked hard as a peace activist until she fell sick again and went back to England.  At age 40 she had surgery for appendicitis and peritonitis.  Unfortunately, the surgery was not successful and she suffered from chronic abdominal pain for the rest of her life.   

While she was recovering, Gibson became a disciple of Jesuit scholar John O’Fallon Pope. This is when she started grappling with the notion of killing and martyrdom, perhaps inspired by experiencing so much death.  In her notebook she had a quote from Pope:  “The degree of holiness depends on the degree of mortification.  Mortification means putting to death.”   

In 1922, Gibson had to deal yet again with a death in the family: her brother Victor who was her favorite sibling.  This was more than she could bear.  One month later, at age 46, Gibson had a nervous breakdown.  She was pronounced insane and committed to a mental institution.   

Two years later, Gibson was released and went to Rome accompanied by a nurse, Mary McGrath.  They took up residence in a convent in a working class neighborhood with a high crime rate.  Her crisis of conscience was growing as she became more and more convinced that killing was the sacrifice that God was asking of her.  Somehow she got possession of a gun.   

On February 27, 1925 Gibson went to her room, read the Bible and then shot herself in the chest.  The bullet missed her heart, went through her ribcage and lodged in her shoulder. She told McGrath that she wanted to die for God.  Had she been successful, she wouldn’t have had to endure the grief of the death of her mother in March 1926, one month before the Mussolini assassination attempt.      

On Wednesday, April 7, 1926 Gibson left the convent after breakfast. In her right pocket she had a Lebel revolver wrapped in a black veil, and in her left pocket she carried a rock in case she had to break a windshield to get to Mussolini.  She also clutched the address of the Fascist Party headquarters written on a scrap of envelope.  She had read in the newspaper that Mussolini would be there in the afternoon.    

Mussolini appeared as if on cue, walking through the Palazzo del Littorio, soaking in the praise of the crowd as they shouted, “Viva Il Duce!”  He stopped about a foot from where Gibson was standing.  Just before the gun went off, Mussolini leaned his head back to acknowledge the crowd’s adoration, and the bullet grazed his nose.  Gibson shot again, but the gun misfired.  There was blood pouring down Mussolini’s face, and he staggered backwards but managed to stay standing.    

Mussolini maintained his composure and consoled the crowd saying, “Don’t be afraid. This is a mere trifle.”   Gibson was immediately captured and beaten by the crowd, and the police got control of the situation and took her off just before she succumbed to vigilante justice.    

In prison, when Gibson was undergoing interrogation, she admitted that she shot Mussolini to glorify God.  She said God’s message to her was clear, and that he had sent an angel to keep her arm steady as she took aim.    

Gibson’s family, wary of the impact that her actions could have on their reputation and afraid for her future, sent letters of apology to the Italian government and congratulated Mussolini on his escape from death.    

The fate of Violet Gibson was not clear.  Her punishment hinged on whether she would stand trial as a political criminal or be declared insane.  A violent reaction to a note given to her by another inmate that read “Viva Mussolini” did not help convince the authorities of her stability. In contrast, her conversations were rational and her correspondence was lucid and thoughtful.   

Gibson had to endure a grueling regime of tests.  In addition to a full medical exam, she was subjected to 20 days of psychiatric exams. She hoped to gain her release by convincing the doctors that she was mad.  Four months after the assassination attempt, a 61 page report declared Gibson as a “chronic paranoia” and recommended she be committed to a lunatic asylum.   

To complete Gibson’s profile, the investigating magistrate wanted to create a psychosexual portrait.  She was considered abnormal because she never expressed an inclination to start a family. It was a common belief that a woman’s mental state could be affected by repressed sexuality. A complete gynecological examination was ordered.  No abnormalities were found, but her independence, violent anger and self mutilation were enough evidence to declare her insane and not to try Gibson as a political criminal.   

Gibson was released to the custody of her sister to return to England.  She was committed to St. Andrews Hospital, a renowned mental institution.  Her behavior was generally manageable, but each year when April rolled around she exhibited her violent tendencies.  On April 2, 1930, she was found with a noose around her neck made of scrapes of cloth she had been collecting.  A nurse found her and loosened the rope.  Gibson was unconscious but still alive.   

In January 1951, Gibson suffered from a high fever.  She was down to 84 pounds.  She managed to hang on for a few more years, and finally, on May 2, 1956, Violet Gibson died.  No one attended her burial.   

QUESTION:  Do you know anyone who has been killed by another person?  How did that affect your life?   

                                  ©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved   

 Sources:   

 Saunders, Frances Stonor, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.

LI XIAQING (1912-1998) Aviatrix & Actress

In adventure, Biography, Chinese history, Feminists, Movies, People, People from China, Pilots, Trivia, Uncategorized, women on May 3, 2010 at 9:02 PM

Li XiaQing

 

Li was born in the Canton province of China to a wealthy, patriotic family. She was given the nickname “Dandan,” a homophone for the Chinese word for “bomb,” because her family used her baby carriage to stealthily transport explosives.  

At age 14, she wandered onto a movie set, and the director was smitten with her stunning looks.  He offered her the opportunity to act in a silent film, and she thought it would be fun.  Despite her lack of experience, Li, using the stage name Li Dandan, quickly won the admiration of audiences, which she capitalized on for six more films.   

Her most famous role was the title character in Hua Mulan Joins the Army in 1928.  Hua Mulan was the young girl who dressed as a boy to go to war, the basis for the Disney animated movie Mulan.  In order to play the role convincingly, Li learned martial arts, archery, boxing, fencing and horseback riding.  

Li XiaQing as Mulan

 

These new skills gave her an edge off the set as well and made her a hero to the production company.   One night while they were on location, robbers snuck into the camp and stole the production money.  Li jumped on a horse, prevented the thieves from crossing a bridge, and after fighting with them for a while, tossed them over the bridge into the river.  

Li’s father wanted her to continue her education, so he sent her to Europe.  He was also ready to pass off responsibility for her to a husband.  He changed her name back to Li Xiaqing and hired a matchmaker.  She picked Zheng Baifeng who was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and worked for China’s Foreign Service. This seemed like a match made in heaven, and the couple was married in 1929 and made their first home in Geneva.  Li was 17 years old and Zheng was almost 30.  

By 1932, Li had become a mother to a son and a daughter.  This new responsibility did not, however, interfere with her love of travel.  In 1933, Li attended the Paris Air Show and was enamored by flying.  Immediately upon returning to Geneva, she enrolled in flying lessons. One year later, Li made her first solo flight and was the first woman to receive a private pilot’s license in Geneva.  

Li’s reason for learning to fly was patriotic: to help her country advance through aviation.  In order to accomplish that, she needed to become a more proficient pilot and mechanic.  She enrolled at the Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, California for advanced training.  By the time she graduated she could dismantle and reassemble an airplane engine and was versed in aerodynamics, meteorology, aircraft design and radiotelephony.  

The biggest thrill in flight for Li was aerobatics.  On May 15, 1935 she went up with instructor LeRoy B. Gregg over San Francisco Bay.  At about 2,200 feet Gregg started a barrel roll and turned the plane upside down.  When he looked back, he saw Li falling out of her seat trying to hang on.  Then, in shock, he watched her fall.  After a free fall of about 900 feet, Li remembered to pull the rip cord and activate the parachute she was wearing.  This eased her splash down into the icy cold bay.   

Li was an experienced swimmer, but her water-logged leather suit and the freezing water made it difficult for her to move.  Gregg dropped life preservers, but Li couldn’t get to them.  Luckily, airmen at the U.S. Naval Reserve Base in Alameda saw her fall and were on their way to rescue her in a Loening amphibious plane.  Unfortunately, the pontoons were stuck on this aircraft, and Li had to continue to tread water until a second one could arrive.  Li was in the water for 20 minutes until she climbed aboard the rescue aircraft.  A credit to her gender, Li only had two complaints: she was cold, and she lost a shoe.  In order to “get back on the horse,” Li went up over the Bay in the same stunt plane the following day.  Apparently, the cause of Li’s involuntary ejection was a broken seat belt, although she admitted to a reporter many years later that it was possible she had forgotten to fasten it.  

This harrowing experience earned Li membership in the Caterpillar Club, an exclusive organization of about 100,000 people with only one requirement to join.  You must have saved your own life through an emergency parachute exit from an airplane.   

On November 5, 1935, Li was the first woman to graduate from the prestigious Boeing School of aeronautics.  With a diploma, private pilot’s license and impressive experience, she returned to China.  

In 1934, General Chaing Kai-shek authorized private flying in China for the first time. After passing a demanding test, Li was the first woman to be issued a government pilot’s license, handed to her by General Chaing himself.  With this honor came responsibility.  She was given the use of a government plane and charged with inspecting all the airfields throughout China.   

Li didn’t really have time for family, and didn’t live with her husband and children. This independence had consequences.  In 1935 she divorced Zheng under the new constitutional laws which made Zheng lose face.  As a result, Li had to forfeit seeing her children until they were adults.   

Li wasn’t at a loss for romance, however.  She had met Peter Doo when she was in Europe and they corresponded while she was lived Oakland.  With Li finally a free woman, Doo went to work for her father to encourage a commitment from her.  The most she was willing to commit to was a long distance romance for eight years.  

In Shanghai, Li primarily taught flying and continued to be an example for women. For Chaing Kai-shek’s fiftieth birthday celebration she performed the first aerobatic flight by a woman.  For the finale, she dove straight at the podium full of dignitaries and pulled up at last minute, just a few feet above their heads.  Her popularity skyrocketed.  

In 1937 Japan invaded China.  Li saw this as the ultimate opportunity to use her skills to serve her country.  She was crushed when she was told she would no longer be allowed to fly because she was a woman, not even on courier missions. But she found another way to serve, by founding the First Citizens’ Emergency Auxiliary and using her own money to convert a hotel into the Red Cross Emergency Hospital.  She was driven, doing everything from administration work to assisting with surgery to organizing a refugee camp and orphanage to running the radio station that broadcast propaganda.   

The Japanese were not so appreciative of Li’s contributions and they put her on their black list, forcing her to leave Shanghai. She ended up back in San Francisco where she started working on her idea to fly around the United States raising money to support China.  She sold $7,000 worth of jewelry to buy an airplane and finance her excursions.   

Everywhere she went, Li was given a grand reception.  Audiences were surprised and captivated by her beauty and style.  The Idaho Statesman in Boise described her outfit of sharkskin slacks, no hose, leather sandals, finger and toenails polished to match the lipstick and a carnation behind her ear.  This flower became her trademark.   

Hollywood noticed her, too.  She revived her acting career as a Chinese aviatrix in the movie Disputed Passage starring Dorothy Lamour.  She took time out of her flight schedule for the three-day job, and she did her own stunts, donating her earnings to the war refugee fund.  

By 1939 Li had flown 10,000 miles and raised $10,000 for Chinese refugees.  She extended her efforts to two fundraising tours of South America, returning to Shanghai in May 1946.   

Back in Asia Li only flew for pleasure.  She met international businessman Li GeorgeYixiang (no relation).  Together they shared a love of travel, golf and horseback riding.  They settled in Oakland near where Li had studied at Boeing.  By this time, Li’s American pilot’s license had expired, and the Federal Aviation Administration would not recognize her license from Hong Kong.  So, in 1966, at 54 years old, Li began flight instruction to become recertified.   

Li never lost the thrill of flying.  One day while she was out driving, she saw a crop duster in a field.  She stopped and asked the farmer if she could take it for a spin.  She did tricks and aerobatic maneuvers, pushing the plane to its limits.  When she landed, she thanked the flabbergasted owner and walked away.  

Li was 86 years old when she died in Oakland. For her final resting place she wanted to feel the same expanse she felt while flying.  She had bought four adjacent plots in the Mountain View Cemetery and insisted that she be buried right in the center with lots of space around her.  

QUESTION: What nickname do people call you?  What significance does it have?  How has it influenced your relationship with them?  

                         ©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved  

Sources:  

Gully, Patti.  Sisters of Heaven.  San Francisco: Long River Press, 2008.  

http://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/Chinas_First_Lady_of_Flight.html  

http://160.111.252.58/research/arch/findaids/pdf/Lee_Ya-Ching_Papers_Finding_Aid.pdf  

http://www.chinesemirror.com/index/2009/10/in-search-of-li-dandan-aviatrix.html  

http://softfilm.blogspot.com/2009/01/lee-ya-ching-flying-for-victory.html  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caterpillar_Club  

http://www.caterpillarclub.org/irvin/irvin.htm