When Ivy Tendler, 6, entered the Whippoorwill School in Hauppage, L.I., her first-grade teacher asked what her daddy did. “He’s a wrestler,” Ivy replied. And her mother? “She’s a wrestler too.” The bemused teacher later called Ivy’s mom. “Mrs. Tendler,” she said, “your daughter’s got a wild imagination.”
At Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, N.Y. it’s the third bout of the evening. Mark Tendler, 6’3″ and 260 pounds, swaggers into the ring. He wears red tights, black boots, a sequined jacket and a saturnine scowl. Tonight he’s the villain. He flexes his muscles, veins jumping like fire hoses, while the crowd hisses. Once the action begins, Tendler yanks the hair of his overmatched foe and, when the ref turns away, rakes a concealed piece of adhesive tape painfully across his rival’s face. The opponent belts him in the stomach, but an outraged Tendler bounces the doomed wrestler into the turnbuckle, crumples him with a vicious chop to the body and pins him. The crowd roars, “Tendler, you’re a bum!”
An hour later Tendler’s wife, Kitty Adams, climbs through the ropes shrieking like a banshee. She is 5’8″, 153 pounds, red-haired and wearing a green sequined jacket and bathing suit. The crowd jeers. “Shaddyap, ya friggin’ bums!” she bellows. She blocks her female opponent from the ring, shouting “Get the hell outta here!” During the match fans yell, “Hey, Kitty, give yer husband some lessons.” Kitty obliges, heaving her opponent into the ropes, kneeing her to the floor and then turning a somersault into a pin, her favorite maneuver. The ref whacks the floor, signaling victory. Mark carries a triumphant Kitty from the ring while the crowd cheers in delight.
The rituals of professional wrestling may seem like a slightly comic version of Japanese Kabuki drama. But for Mark and Kitty, both 36, the sport gives them an annual income approaching $100,000, a handsome four-bedroom house on Long Island, a $25,000 fully equipped camper and a $15,000 swimming pool. “We’re no different from anybody else,” says Kitty, soft-spoken and almost shy out of the ring. “We have a house, a baby, and we have to shop.” Mark agrees, “We worry about our lawn and furniture too. We don’t talk wrestling that much around the house,” he adds. “To us, it’s just a business.”
Mark is a journeyman wrestler, popular on the Eastern seaboard, where he travels to bouts in his Chevy Malibu. “But he’s never away from home more than two days,” Kitty notes. She, in fact, is the family’s superstar, consistently ranked among the top four American female wrestlers. Her itinerary, though less regular than Mark’s, is more grueling. Leaving Ivy with Mark’s mother, who lives in nearby Freeport, N.Y., Kitty takes off for four to five weeks of one-nighters, often as far as Alabama or Oklahoma, where lady wrestling is the sport of kings.
Anyone who suggests to the Tendlers that the only thing on the level in wrestling is the mat is liable to catch a flying dropkick. “Sure, we do showmanship,” Mark reckons. “So does Muhammad Ali.” Injuries, they argue, are only too real. “I’ve had 100 facial stitches, my nose broken six times, and both knees and elbows operated on,” Mark notes indignantly. Kitty has suffered a broken jaw and “minor things like broken fingers and torn ligaments.”
Mark is unfazed by the punishment his wife takes. “If Kitty wants to wrestle, it’s okay with me,” he shrugs. “If she gets hurt, she takes care of it. Injuries are the badge of our profession. I hate to say it, but I’m kinda proud of them.” (Little Ivy is not. She breaks into tears watching her mom get slammed on TV and disavows any desire to wrestle herself.)
Mark and Kitty wouldn’t be happy living any other way. She grew up in Greenville, S.C., the oldest of seven children of two Irish-Cherokee cotton-mill workers. “Wrestling has always been my bag,” she says. Egged on by friends, she turned pro at 20, “though my parents, being good Baptists, thought it wasn’t ladylike to be wearin’ tights in public.”
Mark was born in the Bronx, N.Y., the only child of a Jewish salesman “who was opposed to both boxing [Mark’s first dream] and wrestling. He didn’t want to see me get hurt.” His mother, Mark says, has since relented. “I was getting kicked around one night,” he remembers, “and this lady came down the aisle and hit the guy with a pocketbook. It was Mom.”
Before he was drafted into the Army in 1960 Mark went to Hawaii, where he met Gorgeous George and later became his valet. (“He was my greatest inspiration. Kitty used to do his hair.”) But Mark’s first pro bout against Lenny “The Godfather” Montana in 1962 was almost his last. “They put ya in with a tough guy to see what ya got. He walked in and broke my nose.”
One night in 1963 Mark found himself assigned to the same dressing room as Kitty Adams. “He demanded I move out,” she recalls of their first meeting. Who won? “Kitty,” Mark admits sheepishly. They were married within a year.
Since then Mark and Kitty have been wrestling’s most romantic tag team, though both temporarily dropped out of the sport in the late 1960s because of rising expenses. With a degree in phys ed from New York University (and a minor in drama), Mark tried acting in commercials (Fruit of the Loom with Howard Cosell) and movies (Badge 373 with Robert Duvall). For seven years he moonlighted as a “greeter” (“Don’t call me a bouncer”) at P.J. Clarke’s, a Manhattan celebrity bar. Tendler still puts in nights at the Riverboat Club. There he wears custom-made suits for his 56″ chest—so big that he claims “I get stuck in phone booths.” Kitty, meanwhile, raced stock cars, “all against men,” she says proudly.
Mark and Kitty keep in wrestling trim these days with daily gym workouts and jogging. They also try out holds on each other in a garage they’ve converted into a practice ring. “Most of the time he’s throwin’ me,” Kitty says. “But if I can work out with him, I don’t have too much trouble in the ring. With his help, I’ve made myself a much better wrestler.”
Though Kitty could easily paralyze most males with a Killer Kowalski claw-hold, she insists that her profession does not compromise her femininity. “I like to be catered to by men,” she says. “I see myself first as a woman, then as a wife, as a mother and as a wrestler.” Mark joshes her: “If she has a hangnail, she can’t do any housework. But she can always go into that ring.”
Neither plans to retire, though Kitty worries, “People get tired of lookin’ at women at a younger age than they do at men.” “We don’t want to be average,” Mark concludes. “On the beach you see a million grains of sand. As a wrestler, you’re like a pebble. You’re different.”