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Mabel Stark - Cat Woman Extraordinaire

In the 1920s, with her trademark white bodysuit and a dangerous, sexualised act, Mabel Stark became famous as the world's greatest female tiger trainer. Robert Hough explains why her troubled life caught his imagination.

About five years ago, a friend gave me a book called something along the lines of Famous Big Cat Trainers Throughout History. Flipping through it, I happened to land upon a short section devoted to a female tiger trainer named Mabel Stark, a star with the Ringling circus in the 1920s.
On another day, I might have skipped over her altogether, distracted by the longer sections devoted to the likes of Las Vegas's own Gunter-Gebel Williams, or the pistol-brandishing Clyde Beatty. But it was a picture of Stark, standing dauntless in a white bodysuit, her expression a mixture of contempt and allure, that caught my imagination. Sprawled behind her was a tiger. Her leather boots reached to the knee. And, although the details of her life were sketchily presented, the very idea of a female tiger trainer had an almost primordial resonance: I somehow knew that Stark's life, if investigated sufficiently, would provide the sort of material that a novelist revels in.

Over the next year, I visited every city in the US that had a circus archive - places such as Baraboo, Wisconsin, and Sarasota, Florida - as well as Peru; and for a week I joined one of the last big top circuses still roaming the American countryside. I sought out those who knew Stark, and I read every book I could get my hands on. Slowly, the contours of her life came into focus.
Born Mary Haynie, she was the lone daughter of tobacco farmers living in western Kentucky. Her childhood was isolated and difficult - although her father apparently indulged her, her mother was a severe, unforgiving woman, and often disciplined her with a cedar paddle ordinarily used to mould butter. At the age of 13, within a span of three months, Mabel's parents died. Though I never found out how these tragedies occurred - farming accidents? influenza? the TB epidemic of 1903? - I imagined that Mabel, the only surviving member of the family, unfairly assigned herself a measure of blame for her parents' deaths, and that this guilt contributed to the self-destructiveness that characterised her life.

She was shipped off to an aunt in Louisville, the capital of Kentucky, where she was not welcome, and often ran away. At 18, she left home to become a nurse-in-residence at a downtown hospital. Less than a year later, she was inexplicably performing in a carnival girl show, bearing the last name "Aganosticus". This was a remarkable turn of events. Back then, nursing was one of the few honourable ways for a woman to make a living, while stripping - or "cooching" - was emphatically not.

The circus historian Joanna Joys has suggested that Stark suffered a nervous breakdown while working as a nurse, which seems entirely possible given the difficulty of her childhood. Looking into the treatment of mental health problems at the time, I uncovered two disturbing facts. First, virtually all women with mental health problems were treated in hospitals, where the patient was subjected to round-the-clock baths and, more often than not, tubal ligations (the tying up of the Fallopian tubes, as a means of sterilisation). Second, husbands at that time could commit their wives, and often did so when marriages weren't working. Had my heroine been committed by her first husband, a man named Aganosticus? Was this the reason she never had children, despite going on to marry five times more?

Within a year, Mabel had left the Great Parker Carnival to marry a man described by the circus publication BandWagon as "a rich Texan". The marriage failed, and within a few months she was back with the carnival, alone, only this time using the name she would continue to use for the rest of her life. She was lonely and depressed, which might explain, if only on a subconscious level, why she chose "Stark" as her show name. At the Great Parker Carnival, she began spending time in the menagerie, communing with the animals. The man who looked after them was an ambitious former dog and pony show operator named Al G Barnes. When he left a year later to start his own circus, Barnes asked Stark if she would like to quit cooching and join his show. She agreed immediately.
A tiger kills by seizing its prey by the shoulders and then pulling it down so that it is lying on top of the tiger. Then, with a single sweep of hindleg claws, the tiger removes its victim's stomach, the animal dying as it watches the tiger feed on its viscera. It was in this manner that Al G Barnes' first tiger trainer, a woman named Marguerite Haupt, died.

When Stark first arrived at the all-new Al G Barnes circus, she was given a job training a team of performing goats, a job she neither liked nor excelled at. To get Haupt's old job she had to convince the head cat trainer, a grumpy Hungarian named Louis Roth, to hire her. This she accomplished by marrying him - years later, she would unashamedly confess that all her marriages, bar one, were a means of either aiding her career or extricating herself from a crisis. Roth, meanwhile, was the premier big cat trainer of his day, largely due to a technique he had developed. In 1912, Pavlov had not yet conducted his landmark studies in animal behaviour, and the truth was that trainers really didn't understand what made an animal do anything. Every other cat man prior to Roth had trained by hitting the animals until they did what they were told. Roth figured out that animals became much more tractable if you gave them a chunk of horse meat whenever they did what they were asked. It was this method - Roth called it "gentling" - he taught to Stark, who then employed it to train the three tigers that mauled Haupt.

Roth also trained Stark to work with a big old lion named Humpy. She disliked this, and informed Barnes that she wanted to work solely with tigers. Barnes was shocked. Lions broadcast their intentions much more obviously than tigers and, for this reason, it was widely held that lions were easier, and safer, to train. And yet Stark preferred tigers. Despite her many marriages, she was essentially a loner, and perhaps she identified with one of the only animals that does not live in a social group.

Certainly, Stark thought tigers the most handsome animals alive; the opening words of Hold That Tiger, an autobiography she published in 1938, are as follows: "They call the lion king of the jungle, but the tiger is the royal lord of all animal creation. You can cow a lion, but a tiger is fearless. To me he is the most magnificent expression of animal life."

Tiger training was one of the most dangerous jobs in the circus and so satisfied Stark's ambition to be a star, and perhaps a subconscious desire to be punished for surviving her parents' death.
By 1913, Roth's reputation was beginning to suffer, largely due to his alcoholism. The couple divorced and Roth lost his job with the Barnes show. Stark, on the other hand, was on her way up, debuting a 10-tiger act, the biggest at the time in America. Soon after, she upped the numbers to 12.

It was also around this time that Barnes gave her a Bengal cub, which she named Rajah. She spent all her time with her new tiger, taking him for walks in every town in which the circus stopped. During the winter months, when the circus hunkered down in Venice, California, she would take him for long strolls along the beach. She noted how well Rajah responded to physical touch, and decided to train him to perform a wrestling act with her, a feat that had never been performed before.

The act she debuted in summer 1918 was conceived in such a way that the audience thought she was being killed by her tiger - it is said that bravehearts would leave their seats and come rushing towards the steel cage to try to save her. Women screamed, children cried, and reporters came running to see the new act. Mainstream magazines, such as Collier's and Harper's, ran articles about her, as did a legion of newspapers. Yet what the audiences didn't understand - what they, in fact, weren't meant to understand - was that Rajah was doing anything but trying to kill her.
Years later, Stark would decide she wanted to write a real autobiography - her first, Hold That Tiger, had been written with the sole view of promoting the circus, and was filled with glaring, perfumed inaccuracies. She began trading letters with a New York-based ghostwriter named Earl Chapin May. Though the book never materialised, some of the letters survived and are now held in the archives of Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

It is there, in a letter describing her relationship with Rajah, that the real nature of her famous act is described: "When I turned and called him, he would come up on his hind feet and put both feet round my neck. Pull me to the ground, grab me by the head, you know a male tiger grabs the female by the neck and holds her and growls till the critical moment is over. So, in this fashion, Rajah grabbed me and held me. We kept rolling over till he was through, and while the audience could not see what Rajah was doing, his growling made a hit."

It was at this time that Stark discarded her trademark black-leather bodysuits for white, in a bid to hide the tiger's semen.

By 1920, Stark had been poached from the Al G Barnes show and was reigning supreme as centre-ring star of the Ringling brothers' Barnum & Bailey circus. She ate in the best restaurants, wore fur, and on the vast Ringling train her private car was situated near the front, with the likes of John and Charles Ringling, and the famous aerialist Lillian Leitzel.

In 1924, Stark married the circus accountant, a man named Albert Ewing - again, it seems that she married the man not out of love, but as a way of cementing her position within the Ringling organisation. Shortly after the marriage, however, she learned that he was embezzling the circus and owed the Ringling brothers in excess of $10,000, a fortune in those days. Stark had been one of the last to work this out.

They divorced, though not, it seems, soon enough. In 1925, the Ringling brothers terminated cat acts in their circus. As reasons, they cited cost, danger to the trainer and the awkwardness of taking down the steel arena, which protected the audience from the tigers, in the middle of the show. Adding insult to injury, the Ringlings announced that they would still stage a cat act during their two stadium shows of the year, held late in the season in Boston and New York. However, these would not be presented by Stark, now the world's most famous cat trainer, but by an up-and-comer on loan from the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus named Clyde Beatty.

This left Stark in a state of excommunicated misery, made worse by the fact that she never really knew whether this decision was a form of punishment for her alliance with Ewing or whether it was just a capricious whim of the Ringlings. She wasn't even able to look for work elsewhere, as she was still under a contract that demanded she make herself "generally useful".

The Ringlings' manager put her in a horse-riding act, which she hated. Her frustration must have been enormous - but it was shortly after becoming persona non grata that Stark, for the first time in her life, fell in love.
Art Rooney was the Ringli

ngs' recently hired menagerie boss, and it was a surprise to the entire circus when he and Stark began spending time together; as Stark would later write in the Chapin May letters, "I was told he never went with any girl, that he was supposed to be a woman." Stark also wrote that Rooney respected and admired her work, and that he was the only man she ever met who did not feel threatened by her devotion to tigers - a devotion that clearly extended beyond the aesthetic.

Given Rooney's questionable sexuality and Stark's status as a newly-fallen star, both were outsiders, and they clung to each other. They were married in a ceremony attended primarily by the "working men", those faceless, problem-racked labourers who perform the menial tasks in a circus.

Rooney died shortly thereafter - how, is a mystery, though I have found myself wondering if Stark's fear of happiness might have had something to do with his demise, a notion I found so compelling that I made it the central theme of my novel, The Final Confession Of Mabel Stark. "After his death," Stark wrote to Chapin May, "I could find no pleasure or happiness anywhere except with the tigers." In 1926, Stark was traded from Ringlings' to a mid-sized outfit called the John Robinson circus where, on a wet night in Bangor, Maine, she received the mauling of her life.
The circus had been delayed by the rains, and by the time it pulled into the lot, Stark's animals had spent the day on wet bedding. More significantly, she did not have time to feed the tigers before their performance. Under such circumstances, a cat act would normally be cancelled, but Stark went on, a decision that may very well have been her first attempt at suicide; later in life, Stark often crankily told others that she wanted to die being torn apart by tigers.

Her mauling was well-documented, and its description in my novel is not in any way a fiction: "The cats filed in looking slinky and tough, heads low, panting and barking because mud was getting between their claws. Sensing a melee was about to break out, I didn't cue the orchestra; instead I called 'seat' and when this didn't work I called it again, though louder. One of the dumber cats, a female named Belle, settled on the wrong seat and, of course, that seat belonged to my mean cat Sheik. Seeing this, Sheik blamed me, and he came up and gave me a swipe on the left leg that wasn't in any way a warning: his claws tore through bone and pretty near took the leg off above the knee. I dropped like a sack. When I got up the left side of me felt wobbly, like it couldn't be trusted.

" Old Dad [Stark's cage boy] started rattling the door and Sheik went for the tunnel. Problem was we were using the old swing-type door and in his panic Old Dad swung the door into another tiger, and that tiger was none other than my oversized Bengal, Zoo, who'd nursed a grudge against me since the time I hit him for refusing to ball walk. He jumped straight into the air, and came down resentful. He lit on me as I was struggling to get up, taking a big gnaw of muscle from my right leg. I hollered and he let me go and I somehow got to my feet, though as I did I could hear blood swishing in my boots. I took my whip and hit Zoo hard, sending him to the far side of the arena. At this point I was so light-headed I started to think I could finish my act so long as I got that demon Sheik on his pedestal. So I called 'seat' while looking Sheik straight in the eyes and when he didn't move I buggy-whipped him on the nose. He approached his pedestal, stopped, thought about his pride, and charged. On my broken leg I sidestepped him, though the sudden move sunk my left boot in mud and mired my foot. Suddenly I was as stuck as sin.

" Throughout, Old Dad had been hollering and waving and rattling the cage door like mad and for some reason Sheik chose that moment to respond. Problem was, he responded at the same time as a tiger named Mary, who was one of my quieter cats and had probably figured she'd seen enough. The two collided at the tunnel entrance. Mary howled and Sheik went insane. Came straight for me, not making a sound, mouth wide open, murderous. I jammed my training stick hard down his throat, though Sheik was so mad he howled and swiped at the stick while I pounded the tip again and again into the back of his throat, all of which might've saved me had Zoo not decided to attack. I didn't see him until his jaws seized my right leg and slammed me into the mud, a motion that snapped the ankle that'd been mired. On my way down, Sheik hit me with a roundhouse to the head and though it was a glancing blow he'd used full claws so it took off a big piece of scalp and a thicket of my precious blonde hair. This angered Zoo and he tore apart Sheik's right shoulder, Sheik backing off for fear of having the same done to the other side. With Sheik banished, and me driven halfway into the mud, and the other cats either backed up or on their pedestals, Zoo relaxed. Took his time even. Looked down at me, licked his chops, and with forepaw nails peeled back my belly, from navel to rib cage, like he was opening a can of herring. "Then he bent over and dined."

It was a miracle that Stark survived: at one point Zoo picked her up and, like a cat showing off a mouse, triumphantly shook her. This freed her right hand, allowing her to withdraw her pistol from its holster and fire point-blank into the tiger's face; the noise, and the heat of the discharging powder, drove him off.

Stark was in hospital, on and off, for the next two years. When she finally recovered, she was traded back to the Al G Barnes circus, which closed for good the following year. She then bounced around a few smaller circuses, before landing a training job at a theme park in Thousand Oaks, California, called JungleLand. She had one more brief marriage - this time to another menagerie boss named Eddie Trees -and she worked into her 80s.
Those who knew her from that period told me that she drank Hamm's beer, that her favourite show was Gilligan's Island, that she had a hamburger every day for lunch, and that she was covered from head to toe in scars. In 1968, JungleLand was sold, the new owners less than enchanted with Stark's irritable personality. She was fired, and three months later she killed herself.

My novel was published in Canada nearly two years ago, and in the film version Mabel will be played by Kate Winslet. Do I feel any guilt about fictionalising Stark - a depiction that may have as much to do with me as it does with her? A little, I admit, though oddly I feel less sheepish about the parts I had to invent in the pursuit of seamless narrative (the manner of Art's death, for instance) than the parts I didn't (Stark's highly sexualised act with Rajah). Mostly, what I feel towards her is a mixture of admiration, sympathy and, of course, gratitude. I'm also glad that, with any luck, she might become famous all over again. (This, I know, she would like.)
According to the Thousand Oaks News Chronicle, which ran a front-page story on the day of her death, Stark killed herself through a combination of barbiturate overdose and self-asphyxiation. This is a vague, awkward way to describe a suicide, and for a year after the novel's completion I pondered what it might have meant. Then, one day, it hit me. One of Stark's favourite possessions was her huge Buick convertible. (She was afraid of highway driving, and drove the biggest automobile she could find.)

Having lost her job at JungleLand, she suddenly found herself confronted by memories of her career, her husbands, her beloved Art. Unable to face those memories, she awoke one morning and emptied a bottle of barbiturates prescribed to ease her mounting insomnia. Just as the pills began to take effect, she walked out to the garage - by this point, I imagine she was stumbling, though as bound and determined as ever - and got behind the wheel of her car.
She fumblingly turned the ignition. Then, if there was ever such a thing as mercy, she went to sleep.

From "The Final Confession Of Mabel Stark", by Robert Hough. Bpublished by Atlantic Books




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