Ida Mae Selenkow

Wrestling star of the '50s later worked as a nurse

after retiring, she was the 'yodeling Grandma from Baltimore'

January 24, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Ida Mae Selenkow, a well-known wrestling star of the 1950s who later became a registered nurse and in recent years was known as the "yodeling Grandma from Baltimore," died Tuesday of complications from a stroke at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

The longtime Pikesville resident was 78.

Ida Marilyn St. Laurent was born in New London, Conn., and raised in North Stonington, Conn., where she lived with relatives after her mother abandoned her. She never knew her father.

"Her mother hung out in bars, dating sailors, and abandoned her to her aunt's care after the first few months," wrote Wally Shugg, a retired University of Maryland, Baltimore County English professor, author and longtime friend.

"Yet being raised in her aunt's household brought emotional and physical hardships and - at age seven - sexual abuse," Mr. Shugg wrote in an unpublished profile.

"Instinctively, she fought back against the boys and girls on the streets and in her neighborhood. The strenuous life came naturally to her and continued into high school, where she went in for acrobatics."

She attended Norwich Free Academy until dropping out at 17, when she married. Mrs. Selenkow and her then-husband bought a $4.99 suitcase and two one-way bus tickets, which took them from New England to Houston.

With her troubled marriage dissolving, Mrs. Selenkow took a job as a waitress in a small cafe.

Her wrestling career began in 1948, when a customer, who was a wrestler, asked her if she wanted to wrestle. She said yes.

"I don't know why," Mrs. Selenkow wrote in an autobiographical sketch on the G.L.O.R.Y. Wrestling! Web site. "I didn't realize it, but I had always been wrestling with life, the guys at school or anybody who wanted to fight."

Mrs. Selenkow, who stood 5 feet 2 and weighed 117 pounds, auditioned for fight promoter Billy Wolfe.

When he asked what she could do, Mrs. Selenkow performed a few handsprings forward and backward, and then, lying flat on her back, sprang to a standing position in one deft movement.

She was hired for $50 a week and trained by Mr. Wolfe, who showed her how to roll with a forearm smash, escape a scissor hold, and let her shoulders - and not her head - absorb a fall or body slam.

Mrs. Selenkow, who wrestled under the name Ida Mae Martinez, was known not only for her devastating dropkicks, but also for her ring outfits - full bathing suits with reinforced rubber around the neck and thighs, and Spanish-style robes decorated with white ruffles and fringe.

Her red-white-and-blue wrestling boots, which are now permanently on display in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Schenectady, N.Y., were emblazoned with "IDA."

In 1951, she began a decade-long struggle "against unscrupulous promoters, agents and discrimination," Mr. Shugg wrote.

Mrs. Selenkow crisscrossed the United States in her Mercury automobile, often driving more than 80,000 miles a year between engagements, which included stops at the old Coliseum on Monroe Street.

In 1952, she was named Mexican champion, and five years later challenged Slave Girl Moolah for the world wrestling championship at the Coliseum.

Mrs. Selenkow proved to be a formidable opponent, The Baltimore Sun reported. "It took an all-out effort to defeat the stubborn challenger," the newspaper reported. "Slave Girl needed almost ten minutes to defeat Miss Martinez."

Mr. Shugg wrote that the sport took its toll before she retired from the ring in 1960 to marry a Baltimore businessman, Herbert Selenkow. They later divorced.

"Bruises, bloody noses, black eyes, sprains, fractured ribs, a lost tooth" were constant companions during her wrestling years, he wrote.

Still, Mrs. Selenkow told Mr. Shugg, she had few, if any, regrets.

"I loved the challenges and I liked to travel. I liked the bright lights and the roar of the crowd," she said.

Mrs. Selenkow was 40 when she returned to school and earned her General Education Development certificate in 1971. She then earned an associate's degree in 1975 in nursing as a dean's list student from Catonsville Community College.

She earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Maryland in 1980 and a master's degree in community health nursing, also from Maryland, in 1990.

Mrs. Selenkow worked at the old Lutheran Hospital, and in the early 1980s, she volunteered to care for AIDS patients who had been treated and released at Johns Hopkins Hospital at a time when little was known about the disease.

"She really didn't like hospital nursing and went to work for the Visiting Nurses Association in Baltimore," said a daughter, Ida Martinez Singer of Pikesville.

"She liked community nursing and working in tough neighborhoods," her daughter said. "She felt those people deserved the same level of care as anyone else. She wasn't afraid of those places."

Mrs. Selenkow also worked at the city jail and in the maximum-security wing at the state prison in Jessup.

"She simply had no fear," her daughter said.

After retiring in the 1990s, she became a singer and yodeler, performing at Artscape, benefit shows, and on radio and TV.

"She was an outgoing person and a natural entertainer with kind of a Vegas style," Mr. Shugg said. "Here was this pint-size woman who drove this huge Lincoln with license plates that read: 'I Yodel.' "

In 1999, she was a guest on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," and later composed and sang a song for the Ravens.

In 2004, Mrs. Selenkow, who was a country-and-western guitarist, recorded a CD, "The Yodeling Lady Ms. Ida."

She also appeared that year in "Lipstick & Dynamite," a documentary film about female wrestlers.

Mrs. Selenkow volunteered at the House of Ruth, was a member of Beth El Congregation and an active member of Hadassah.

Services were Wednesday.

Also surviving are another daughter, Traci L. Goldberg of Wellington, Fla.; and five grandchildren.

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