Babe Didrikson—neither she nor anyone else used her given name of Mildred often—was a Texas tomboy born in 1911. She died of cancer in 1956, and in between those dates she was the dominant woman athlete of the first half of the twentieth century. Her most notable successes came in track and field in the 1932 Olympics and in golf. She was also an outstanding women’s basketball player, but the legends that had her competing successfully against men in such sports as baseball, football, and boxing were far from the truth and often helped along by Babe herself, who was often economical with the truth and prone to boasting.
Cayleff scrupulously examines all these myths and more and arrives at as true a version of Babe’s life as readers are likely to get. The “official” versions of Babe’s marriage to the wrestler and promoter George Zaharias in 1939 and her controversial relationship with young golfer Betty Dodd after 1950 are among the matters which Cayleff sets straight. While testifying to Babe’s athletic skill, strength, and competitiveness, the author makes clear that Babe was often “unladylike,” self- promoting, and possessed of a supreme bravado.
Cayleff is much concerned to place this biography in a context of biographical theory, with incursions into feminist and cultural theory and analysis. Thus readers see Babe, in her years after 1940, attempting to adopt a more feminine image that would enable her to enter successfully the society world of women’s golf. Cayleff is excellent on the tensions and ambiguities facing the female athlete; for Babe, adopting a more feminine image meant abandoning much of her tomboy past.