The First Gay Superstar
Accepted: How the First Gay Superstar Changed WWE, by Pat Patterson with Bertrand Hebert. ECW Press, 2016.
Pat Patterson grew up as Pierre Clermont in an impoverished section of Montreal, his Catholic family so poor they dared not waste the last sliver of soap and could not afford a dessert fancier than molasses. Untalented in the sports his brother excelled in, he started hanging out around the traveling circuses and talent shows, clearly smitten by the show-biz bug. A ticket to a wrestling show, a gift from his mother, introduced him to the world that would be his own. Pro wrestling was all new to young Pierre because his family had no television set. Buddy Rogers, who appeared in that show, made an indelible impression, spurring the youngster to earn extra pocket money so he could attend more shows.
Good guys versus bad guys: I was hooked.His toe in the door was a job selling hot dogs, from which he was fired when he agreed to let one of the wrestlers dump the dogs on his head as part of the act.
When he later entered the wrestling ring as a rookie, he patterned himself after his idol, Killer Kowalski. The photos in this breezily written autobiography depict a surprisingly handsome young man, square jaw, full lips, 5'10", 190 pounds, and it appears he's not exaggerating when he says,
Everything came easily to me.The way Patterson tells it, in a light conversational style, having learned English from The Price Is Right and other American TV shows, his young days in wrestling were joyous and full of pranks. He introduces the subject of his homosexuality without a lot of fuss or fanfare:
As long as I took five- and ten-dollar payoffs without complaining, the promoters couldn't have cared less. There were even a few other wrestlers who were gay.Still his private life was, given the times, a secret from the outside world. His first (and lasting) love was a handsome Italian-American worker in a slaughterhouse outside Boston. As this romance warmed up, so did Pat's ring career, thanks to the helping hand of Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon, who booked him across the country in Portland. This was 1962. His new boyfriend helped pay for his flight. Patterson says,
In a sense I was relieved that my relationship with Louie was being put on hold. We were getting really close, but I was afraid of my feelings for him. [...] What I didn't know yet is that true love can conquer anything, even distance.After Pat had spent a month and a half in Oregon, Louie left his job and home, so the two could live together. (They remained together for 36 years, until Louis died in 1998.) Mad Dog didn't like it at first, fearing the possible consequences at a time when discrimination was a widely accepted part of American life, but soon Vachon befriended Louis, too, eventually insisting that he come to all Pat's shows (Louie later became part of the act, playing the pretty boy's "manservant").
It is surprising that in the world of wrestling, where you might expect all those macho guys to be homophobic, that it was never an issue -- at least not in my case.The book is full of wrestling stories featuring Golden Era stars familiar to lovers of early TV wrestling history, and it paints a vivid portrait of a committed gay relationship in North America before and after Stonewall. His story, however, is not all sweetness and light. There is loss, and there is real-life violent opposition from fans (mostly for Pat the heel, not the gay man) and from other wrestlers who knew he was gay and hated him for it.
[Y]ou develop a thick skin in this business. But you never get used to being belittled for who you are.The business of wrestling was changing, too, turbulent shifts in promotions, and Pat is a frontline witness to these changes. Some of them parallel the upheavals in American culture in the late sixties, early seventies. Pat's keen eye (even if, for understandable reasons, a little biased in favor of the McMahon family's impact on professional wrestling) saw it all, and he relates it with the equanimity of a man of experience now in his mid-seventies.
Patterson's career spans the last half of Golden Era wrestling, the regional rivalries and their eventual conglomeration, and the emergence of a new style of sports entertainment and wrestling superstars, culminating in The Rock, whom Pat once bounced on his knee and later mentored. His hijinks with Andre the Giant, Ray Stevens, and others are recorded with fondness and humor. On a more serious note, he gives his side of the sexual harassment charges (involving Roddy Piper and others).
The book is a quick read. I read through the 258 pages on a Sunday afternoon. It's generous in spirit, upbeat for the most part; there's nothing sensationalistic, gossipy, or bitter about it. I was drawn to read it because I have a signed 8x10 of Patterson framed and hung in my hallway, between two other autographed photos of bi and gay wrestlers Orlando Jordan and Darren Young. With a foreword by Vince McMahon and blurbs from Triple H, Chris Jericho, and Bret Hart, as well as Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD, the book is pitched to both wrestling fans and the LGBTQ community--and should be of particular interest to readers, like me, who proudly share both identities.
|Pat Patterson vs Antonio Pugliesi (1968)|
|Pat Patterson vs Ted DiBiasi (1979)|
|Pat Patterson vs Ivan Koloff (1983)|