The Life and Times of a Real Tiger Queen
On Mabel Stark, a Big Cat Trainer Ahead of Her Time
While watching Tiger King, a Netflix documentary series that examines the predatory behavior of private zoo owners in America, it occurred to me that Mabel Stark—perhaps the greatest tiger trainer of all time—might find herself on the wrong side of history. Though she was a Picasso, she worked in a medium that has now been discredited for good: with the death of the traditional three-ring circus, big cat training has gone the way of minstrel shows and midget wrestling.
Yet as the author of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, a novel that recreates Mabel’s astounding life in and out of the circus, I feel an almost parental instinct to defend her. Yes, she made tigers do what she wanted. But she did so by pioneering a training technique called “gentling,” in which she primarily used rewards instead of punishments, making her an arch-progressive for her time. Yes, she thrived in a world run by quasi-criminal hucksters. But she did so as a strong woman and proto-feminist: in the 1920s, female troupers often had to sleep with local police chiefs, a means of ensuring that the constabulary ignored the gambling and striptease taking place in the sideshow tent. This practice was known as “squaring the grift” and, when asked to do so by a low-life carnival boss, Mabel punched the man sufficiently hard that the cigar flew from his mouth. (She was fired on the spot.) Yes, she could be prickly and difficult, particularly as she grew old, but, as the accompanying excerpt will illustrate, she was one of the bravest persons to ever step foot inside a circus ring.
Finally, I would insist that there’s a world of difference between Mabel Stark and Joe Exotic, the philistine protagonist of Tiger King. Exotic, a Halloween-ish figure if ever there was one, exploited his animals in the pursuance of fame and personal enrichment. Mabel Stark—and I do hope that historians will recognize this distinction—had a genuine spiritual connection with all her animals, and didn’t care about recognition or wealth. “I know I’m not a tiger,” she once said, “but for some reason I can think like one. In fact, there are times I think that maybe I was one in a former life. God knows, stranger things have happened.”
The following is from The Final Confession of Mabel Stark
So what did I, twenty-four-year-old Mary Haynie of West Kentucky slash Mary Aganosticus of Louisville slash Mary Williams from East Texas slash Mabel Stark of the St. Mark’s Hotel do? Followed him, best as I was able, for Louis practically bolted through the backyard, across the midway and into the training barn. Without benefit of a cage boy, he started shifting cages so his two best lions, Humpy and Bill, connected to the tunnel leading into the steel arena. This exertion made him sweat, and this caused him to give off the scent of alcohol gone sweet with exertion: was like camphor lozenges, though stronger. He yanked the tunnel door rope and the lions filed into the tunnel. He opened the second tunnel door and they entered the ring. Then he brushed by me—not so much as an excuse me—and stepped inside. Humpy roared and Bill flopped on his side and Louis barked, “Children! Seats!”
Humpy took the pedestal to the left and Bill the pedestal to the right. Louis stood between them, dropping his whip on the floor. Then he reached out and pressed a hand against each lion’s throat, both arms disappearing to their elbows in tawny mane. With this, the lions lifted their heads and placed their chins on Louis’s shoulders. Louis turned to his right and pressed his lips up against Bill’s mouth and he kissed the lion for five or ten seconds. Then he turned to Humpy and kissed him even harder than he’d kissed Bill, his hand furrowing through Humpy’s mane to the back of Humpy’s head before grabbing up a handful of cat hair and pulling, so that Humpy’s gums and lips and tongue were forced over the lower half of Louis Roth’s face, smearing it with saliva and hay bits and fragments of horse. Then, as man and animal kissed, Louis slipped his hands into the sides of the animal’s mouth and, with a steady pressure, craned it wide open. Head then followed hands, Louis now inside a lion from the neck up, the tips of Humpy’s incisors making pointy-shaped impressions in the skin of Louis’s neck.
In a second Louis was out, not a hair mussed though his face was dampened and speckled with mouth debris. He walked out of the ring and stood beside me, smelling of cat and whisky. We were both silent. His jaw muscles worked and he folded his arms tight over his stomach. The things that man could say without speaking.
I opened the cage door and stepped inside and walked to the point between the pedestals. I was shaking inside, half from fear and half from wanting to do this so bad. Humpy grinned and Bill growled, a deep distant-thunder rumble that got inside and roped up and down my spine and got turned into my own voice once it reached the inside of my head. Go back, was what it said.
Instead I craned my neck and kissed the lion as he was still growling and maybe thinking of having himself a kill, though he calmed with my lips against his and my hand tickling his neck. When his growling stopped I turned and put my lips to Humpy and kissed him too, the big cat lolling his tongue out of his mouth so it lathered my tongue and teeth and gums before parting his jaws a little to signal he expected hands to slip inside. Taking this cue I pulled his jaws apart and put my head in the animal’s mouth, and it was while inside Humpy’s head I felt myself go dead calm, for at that moment there was no question what was going to get me—was going to be the jaws of a lion, reeking of tartar and animal flesh going to rot between molars, and in this certainty there was a warmth difficult to describe. Fact was, I didn’t even want to pull my head back out.
After a bit Humpy widened his jaws. When I felt the point of his teeth leave my neck I pulled out. I left the cage and stood beside Louis, and for the next thirty or forty seconds we had ourselves a conversation without one word being passed. Humpy and Bill had both flopped and were flicking at flies with their tails. When Louis finally spoke, was for the record only.
“All right,” he said. “Tomorrow vee start.”
That night I went back to my room and did a curious thing. I’d kept some mementoes from my pre-Stark life, cards and letters and even a menu from the Continental in San Francisco. I was sitting on my cot, looking at them, when a hopeful feeling came over me and the next thing you know I had out scissors and was cutting and cutting and cutting.
Next morning, I met Louis bright and early. He had huge grey wells under his eyes and wrinkles in his face that weren’t ordinarily there, but otherwise he looked impeccable: hair combed and boots polished and training suit pressed. The cage boy, Red, met us too, the three of us shifting tiger cages until they connected with the steel arena. Red went inside and shifted three pedestals so they were in a row, calling “Props ready!” when finished.
Louis darted off, back bobbing ramrod stiff. I looked to Red for an explanation, and he shrugged. A minute later, Louis returned with a pair of overalls on his arm. “Here,” he said, “put ziss on. If zey catch a nail in your skirt zey will keep on tearing. Zey luff the sound of things tearing.”
I ducked behind a tool shed to change, and while I was doing so Red and Louis released the tunnel doors. The tigers slunk into the ring, looking shaggy and consternated. Toby roared, and I trembled, for it wasn’t the roar of a lion showing off but of a tiger indicating displeasure, and there’s a world of seriousness separating the two. This roar bothered King, who took a swipe at Toby, and in a second the two tigers were at each other, on their hind legs and exchanging a flurry of quick clawless blows before crankily taking steps backward. Queen peered at Louis and me, her gaze slowly taking it all in.
I slipped into the ring with a buggy whip and stayed close to the bars. The tigers had seen me outside the ring for the past six months, and I had to give them a chance to get used to the idea of bars no longer separating us. Queen stayed still, watching me, while the other two paced around the far side of the ring. After a minute, King flopped on his belly and Queen rolled on him and it was only Toby who was still fixed on figuring out what I was doing in there. So he came close. Came within four feet and then stopped and peered at me through green slits. He was panting loudly enough the liquid gurgling in the back of his throat sounded like its own deep voice. He could’ve been thinking about killing me or he could’ve been thinking about that day’s weather, for all he showed.
It was then I focused my gaze on his eyes and time froze and I knew. I knew exactly what that animal was thinking, would’ve mistaken it for my own thoughts had I not seen it written across his kelp-green pupils.
I’ll test her, that tiger was thinking. I’ll just see.
So he came forward another foot. The crowd gathered outside the steel arena hushed. I cracked my whip and my voice rang clear in the silence of the menage—“Seat!”
Toby stood his ground and I cracked the whip again and issued the command again, until finally he slunk back toward the pedestal but to show he couldn’t be cowed he lay beside the pedestal instead of taking his seat, all of which is tiger for Fuck you. Still, I was encouraged he hadn’t taken a swipe and that he was even halfway near where he should be. I called Queen’s name, followed by the seat command, and was surprised when she actually did it, looking happy with the activity. I did the same with King, only he got serious-looking and he came toward me. Again, I looked into a tiger’s mind like it was a shelf in a grocery store, and again I knew exactly what it was he was planning. Which was, Think I’ll act as if nothings concerning me and then rip her stomach clear out, just to see the look of surprise on her face.
In other words, I jumped before that forepaw shot out, sprang clear out of its path and watched it sail by. I could see muscles reticulating beneath the surface, like a fit man’s, only it was covered in orange-and-black fur and ended in a fluffy white dangerousness. Then it was my turn for surprises, so I brought the whip down hard on his nose. This froze him—not the pain of the whip but the shock caused by my being able to read his thoughts, which is the only real way to get the word vulnerable rumbling through the head of a tiger. I hit him again, this time harder because he was still and I had more opportunity to wind up. He hissed and swiped the air one more time and with a rumble of disgust slunk to his pedestal and took his seat.
By this point, I had two cats seated and one sprawled on the arena floor, which is more than anyone expected I’d get done, seeing as how the cats had gone half rogue since killing their trainer a year and a half previous. As for me, I was bathed in sweat and trembling from having tensed my muscles too hard, so I nodded to Red and he roped open the tunnel door. Each cat rushed toward the exit, and after some nasty pawing at the gummed-up opening they left in the following order: King, Toby, Queen.
On the outside I towelled off. Truth was, I felt like I’d taken a Chinaman bottle, meaning numb and euphoric and seeing stars. Louis could do nothing but shake his head, not believing. Around us people were chattering, workingmen mostly, and though their words bed-spreaded all over one another I knew they were talking about what they’d just seen.
That night, Louis Roth invited me to dinner.
I’d never seen a man eat so precisely. He cut each piece of roast with a sawing rhythm that lasted exactly eight saws, even if it took only six to get through, the last two squeaking against china. He’d then lay his knife at a forty-five-degree angle across the top of his plate—carefully, so as not to make a clatter—before returning his fork to his right hand and then putting the morsel of food into his mouth. Then he’d chew exactly eighteen times. Count, I did, for he wasn’t a man who needed to hear the sound of his own voice, or the voice of anybody else for that matter, meaning there were pauses in the conversation. Every third bite he’d take a swallow of red wine, which he drank too much of, more than a bottle and a half, though you’d never know he was drunk except his accent thickened and his movements got a little less darting.
Otherwise, the meal was businesslike as businesslike gets, Louis willing to discuss only tigers and what my plans with them were. So I informed him I wanted to go straight to the top, and he told me the top was a good place to be if you could wrap your head around the fact there was only one place to go afterwards. I had soup, salad, fish and potatoes, and a slice of chocolate cake. Later that evening he dropped me off at the St. Mark’s before heading back to his own car on the lot. He didn’t try to kiss me, there being nothing during dinner to predict it, our first touch being a handshake on the street outside the lobby, my fingers disappearing in a big sinewy hand that looked out of place on such a wiry little frame.
“Good evening” were his last words before heading down the darkened street. I was left puzzling, though over the next few days I figured out that dinner had been his way of saying he was going to take me on without actually out-and-out saying he was going to take me on. Once it sank in that Louis Roth was going to mentor me, and maybe I was finding myself out of the mess my life had been for ten years . . . well. The sheer relief of it. Was a feeling infected everything I did over the next couple of days. Sometimes I’d look at myself in the mirror and see how happy I was and I’d actually say, “Can’t you wipe that grin off your face, Mabel? Can’t you? Go ahead, try,” and there I’d be, wrestling with my mouth muscles, the lunacy of which would make me break out laughing, and I’d be giggling at nothing but my own reflection and it’d occur to me, Jesus Mabel, you really are crackers and it’d be this thought that’d sober me up quick. (The worst part of being sent to a nuthouse? For the rest of your days, every time you have a purity of emotion, you worry, Uh-oh here I go again.)
My education started the very next day, around eleven. And what an education it was. Remember, back then Pavlov hadn’t yet been invented, so no one was really sure what it was made an animal do anything. Most trainers got their way by battering the animal until it did what it was supposed to, the reward being if the cat stepped on the pedestal he’d stop getting his hind end flogged with a cane whip. Problem was, the animal didn’t learn much more than how to get out of the way, the tricks full of miscues and inaccuracies and those errors in movement trainers call splash. Plus over time the animal usually developed a keen interest in killing his trainer, which is a foolhardy relationship to have with any animal that kills by seizing your shoulders and pulling you on top, at which point anything not protected by rib cage gets torn out by a single swipe of hind-leg claws. You die watching the tiger feed on your mess. It isn’t even particularly quick.
It was Louis who figured instead you should give the cat something good when he did something right. He called his method “gentling” and it was “gentling” he taught me throughout January and February. Whenever King or Toby or Queen did what I wanted, or anything close to it, I’d hum, “Good little kittie,” or scratch their throats or drop a piece of horseflesh at their feet or purr in their ears until they started purring right along, a sound like a motor idling. I worked this way with the tigers for five weeks, rewarding every time they came close (and then closer) to doing what I wanted, giving them a wake-up smack if they got ornery, jumping out of the way whenever my sixth sense flared. If I made a mistake Louis let me know about it pretty quick. He was good at that, though after a while it also got so if I did something good his jaws would flex and he’d say, “Yess yess, that iss it.”
By the end of that time Toby could do a sit-up and a rollover, and the three cats could lie side by side without slashing at each other. For a finale, they’d move into a pyramid in the middle of the ring, Toby on the high pedestal, wearing an expression that looked like pride but was actually a cat waiting for a hunk of meat and knowing he was going to get it. Seeing this, Louis not only said “Yess yess, that iss it,” but grinned while he said it, for putting three tigers in a pyramid was what passed for something in 1913.
One night about two weeks prior to the start of the season, Toby started convulsing. For the next half-hour, I held his head in my lap while I spoke softly and stroked the spot low on a tiger’s belly where they feel a keenness of pleasure. He was so sick he didn’t even try to bite or claw, normally the first thing an ailing tiger will do. Finally he arfed weakly and his body shook and a film of white spread over his eyes. I bawled like a little girl, Louis and Al G. and Dan standing off to one side with their hands in their pockets, feeling bad and wondering what they were going to do vis-a-vis the photo of newcomer Mabel Stark and her “Pyramid of Fearsome Feline Ferocity!!!,” which was now on Barnes circus paper all up and down the West Coast. This’d been Al G.’s idea, his opinion being nothing but nothing styled a tiger act like a blonde, especially considering how everyone knew the last woman trainer on the Barnes show had been pulled down forward and fed on. Only problem was, all the styling in the world wouldn’t make a pyramid out of just two cats.
Was it my bawling? Was it the gravity of the situation? Or was it that Louis Roth took this moment to notice his protégée was young and lithe and looked at him with crossed eyes through curly blond bangs? All I know is when Louis Roth, a man not know for kindnesses or human considerations, offered up his two best lions for a mixed act, I could only blink a few times and think to myself, Hmmmmmmmmmm.
We started by putting King and Queen in a cage next to Humpy and Bill so they could get used to the sight and the smell of each other. This phase lasted a week, though longer would’ve been better. Then we put them all together in the cage, the lion pedestals and the tiger pedestals as far away as the cage diameter allowed. Over the next week, we kept moving their seats closer and closer, rewarding every time they took them, until the day came when we flanked the lions with King and Queen. No one liked this but Louis and me; the lions roared and pawed and growled and put on all the fake bluster lions are famous for putting on. The tigers went silent, which was worse, for if you looked carefully you could see their muscles were tensed and their ears were shifted backward ever so slightly.
I needed the twisted willow that day, along with a lot of imitation purring and “Good kitties” and lower-belly scratching. I threw down a lot of horsemeat, too. This went on for several more days before I tried kissing the lions with the two tigers looking on, a move truly nervous-making for I had to drop my whip to do it and I wondered if the tigers would interpret this as a signal feeding time had commenced. Louis advised if a tiger stalked I kick it hard in the whiskers with a boot heel and then pull back quick so a claw didn’t take hold.
We opened March 8 in Santa Monica. Three rings, with thirteen displays, all of them animal acts. I rode high school in the fourth display, and put on my mixed act in the tenth, a center-ring attraction flanked by dog acts in rings one and three and a performing bear doing a hind leg around the hippodrome. Was a good little act for its time: after marching the cats around the cage perimeter I got them on their seats and had King, my performing tiger, run through his sit-up and rollover. Then I kissed Humpy and Bill and for a finale moved the two tigers down and close, forming a four-cat pyramid.
The applause? Was like music. Was like the crescendo of an orchestra. You hear applause like that and for as long as it lasts everything you ever thought about yourself thins and gets blanketed with Hey, you’re a person people clap at. Only problem is, it can and will turn you foolish: the moment the applause started to dim I was dizzied with a need to stretch it out, so right off I lost my head and turned my back on those cats and took a bow, something no one had ever done before in the circus and a piece of foolhardiness that got written up next day in the papers. Louis was furious, Al G. delighted. A week later, Al G. issued new paper, his posters announcing “Mabel Stark Subjugates to Her Will the Most Dangerous Killers Ever Recruited from Mountain Fastness and Jungle Lair.” Was a claim followed by five exclamation points.
Following Santa Monica, we played six days at a Shriners’ convention in Los Angeles, a rarity for we mostly jumped every night. From there we moved into the Mojave and then crossed the Tehachapi Mountains to get to Bakersfield, Porterville, Reedly, Selma, Tulare and Coalinga before drifting Oregon way. Houses were good, it being the tail end of what they call the Golden Age of the Circus, before roads and cars offered people in small towns choices. When we came to town, banks closed, as did all schools and businesses. Attendance was routinely more than 80 percent of the people in any given town. There were two shows daily, plus a Tom Mix-style Wild West in place of a concert after the show. In addition to my horse and cat acts, I rode in the lion cage during parade, behind bars with four of Louis’s gentlest. Al G. got a new goat trainer and Slide for Lifer, his feeling being that either act would’ve destroyed my mystique. Soon I got used to signing autographs and dealing with reporters, most of the questions having to do with, Is it true women are more able to soothe the savage beast? or Do you really hypnotize your animals? or How’s it feel filling the shoes of Marguerite Haupt, seeing as how she got killed wearing them herself? Imagine what this was like for a little orphan from the homely end of Kentucky: encircled by men in trench coats, press cards tucked in Fedora bands, scribbling every word you care to utter, then fighting to get the next question in.
Was lovely and exciting and nerve-wracking all rolled into one, my being a woman who’s always found pure happiness a commodity difficult to deal with. Course, I suppose that’s why I was drawn to the tigers in the first place. No matter how well things’re going, you always know it’s only a matter of time before a claw catches, or a tooth snags, or a forepaw lashes, and your contentment feels bearable again.
From The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, by Robert Hough, courtesy Grove Atlantic.