Rob Tannenbaum | Longreads | August 2016 | 63 minutes (15,868 words)
On the night she was murdered, Stella Walsh was in a great mood. The Cleveland resident spent much of December 4, 1980, thinking about her two passions: sports and Poland, the country she ran for when she won two Olympic medals. There was a women’s basketball match the next week between Kent State and the Polish national team, which Walsh helped arrange. Mayor George Voinovich asked her to be his proxy, and his office gave her a key to the city, which she planned to present at the game.
Walsh had planned to leave for Atlanta that day, on a trip with her co-workers at the recreation department, but two days earlier, she’d canceled her ticket, which she said was too expensive for her. She skipped work, slept late, went to the nearby Lansing Tavern in the early afternoon, then returned to the tiny home she shared with her bedridden 84-year-old mother Veronica. After dinner, without saying goodbye, she drove off to buy ribbons for the visiting Poles. She had a lot of money in her pocket, which rarely happened.
In Walsh’s brilliant career as a track and field star, she’d won 41 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles and set 20 world records in a range of events, from sprints to the discus throw. She was the first superstar of women’s track and field, a dominant performer who intimidated her competitors, and the only woman of her era whose box-office appeal matched a man’s. Walsh “is to women’s track what Babe Ruth is to baseball,” one journalist wrote.
In 1980, long after her last world record, Walsh was working for Cleveland’s recreation department at an annual salary of $10,400, which was the most she’d ever earned. She bought a bag of ribbons at the Broadway Avenue location of Uncle Bill’s, a chain of Ohio discount department stores, on the city’s southeast side. In the parking lot, men approached her, one of them holding a .38. Walsh, 69, was still remarkably strong. As she tried to grab the gun, a bullet scratched through her stomach and intestines, and severed an artery in her pelvis. The thieves ran off without checking the pants pocket where she had her money.
Walsh was unconscious when a policeman working security inside Uncle Bill’s found her face down in the parking lot. As the officer turned her over, a wig fell off, and he recognized it was Stella Walsh. He asked for an ambulance to be called, but the nearest one had a flat tire, which created a delay in her care. Instead, a police station wagon came for Walsh, and officers took her to St. Alexis Hospital, less than a mile away, where she died on the operating table. A hospital inventory of her personal property included $248.17 in cash, a 1932 Olympic ring, and a pair of falsies, as they were called, for padding her bra.
In the 25 years prior to her murder, little had been written about Walsh. Born as Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna—that’s the story she told reporters, though, like many aspects of her life, it turned out to not be true—in the rural Polish town of Wierzchownia, she’d had a groundbreaking athletic career. But she also had little charisma, made bad copy, and kept to herself. Although she’d lived in the U.S. since she was 15 months old and spoke almost without an accent, she’d won her Olympic medals for Poland. Even her nickname, “The Polish Flyer,” identified her as an alien. She didn’t experience any of the twilight glory that often comforts athletes late in life; there was no documentary about her, no Congressional Medal of Honor. While she was working for the city, handing out softball permits, her fellow pioneer and ’36 Olympic contestant Jesse Owens was making speeches and earning more than $100,000 a year.
“One of the great women of sport was murdered last night,” Walter Cronkite intoned on the CBS Evening News. “Stella Walsh, who was 69, was shot and killed in a Cleveland parking lot. No suspects have been arrested.” In Slavic Village, the Polish-American neighborhood where she spent most of her life, everyone knew and loved Walsh. She tended bar at a local tavern, coached young athletes, and was viewed as an example of Polonia’s greatest virtues. “Children were her life,” one friend said. “She loved to train them, and she always trained them to be winners.” She’d been “a Cleveland institution,” Mayor Voinovich told a reporter.
Because Walsh had been murdered, an autopsy was required. On the eve of her funeral, a Cleveland TV station went on the air with a news bulletin that rattled the city, then the country, then the world: Stella Walsh was a man.
The station’s claim about Walsh was incorrect. It was neither the first nor the last mistruth told about her. Because women athletes were carelessly documented in her era, and because she cultivated mystery, there are lots of conflicting statistics and incompatible stories about Walsh, ranging from when she arrived in the U.S. to how she died. As best as these tales can be sorted out or disproven, here’s the first full account of her incredible life.
* * *
In April 1932, Stella Walsh celebrated her 21st birthday by appearing before a Federal naturalization clerk in Cleveland to begin becoming a U.S. citizen in time for the upcoming summer Olympics. She was already renowned as the fastest woman in the world.
At 17, Walsh was good enough to win her first heat at the 1928 Olympic trials. That same year, she won her first championships, at a meet in Europe, in the 60, 100, and 200 meter sprints, plus the running broad jump. On her return, she was given a job with the New York Central Railroad in Cleveland, ostensibly as a clerk in the auditor of freight accounts office, but primarily to promote New York Central’s fleet of fast, modern trains.
Her speed was so unprecedented that she set three new world records in a week. During the 1930 Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in January, she set a new mark at 50 yards, despite a remarkable and diabolical ten false starts from the three other finalists, and won a five-minute ovation from the 16,000 fans. She became the first woman ever awarded the Rodman Wanamaker International Trophy as the meet’s outstanding performer. (Forty-seven years passed before another woman won it—largely because the Millrose had few events for women, and even, for many years after Walsh, had none at all.)
Four days later, in Philadelphia, she broke records at 45 and 220 yards. She might’ve run an even faster 220 if she hadn’t been gloating: “It wasn’t so bad she beat us,” one runner moaned, “but did you see her turn around halfway down the track to see where we were?” The New York Times called it “one of the most startling performances that a woman athlete ever has fashioned,” and touted her as “this country’s finest hope for the women’s section of the Olympic Games.”
She had a physical and mental advantage over her peers, she told the New York Central Lines monthly magazine. With guidance from Dan Griffin, her coach and trainer, “I was able to build myself into a state of almost physical perfection,” she said. She regularly went to sleep at 10 pm, and never felt nervous. “I am not beset by the temperamental tempests which women are supposed to have. I don’t think much of the meet to come until just before it.”
She broke a record almost every time she ran. In April, she lowered the world record for 220 yards by a stunning 2.6 seconds. A few months later, at the Outdoor Nationals in Dallas, she set world records at 100 and 200 yards, as well as in the broad jump.
That September, at the World Games in Prague, she swept the 60, 100, and 200 meters before a crowd of 20,000. There were several banquets, where she was given a placquette for each win, a painting, and a medallion, plus three cut-crystal cups. Then she began a glamorous European voyage. She went to Warsaw, won four races, and was taken by Count Maurice Zamoyski, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as one of Poland’s richest men, to the family’s fortified castle and estate in the country. The Polish government implored her to stay in the country, and compete as a Pole; they offered her a job with a good salary, but she declined because she wanted to represent the US.
She spent two days in Berlin, a day in Paris, and two days sightseeing in London and giving interviews to the press. By then, she’d accumulated so many gifts and prizes that British newspapermen had to help her aboard the RMS Majestic, the world’s largest ocean liner, where she had a first-class cabin en route to the US.
When she returned to New York, she was feted like a hero, with a welcoming committee of race officials, a luncheon, more gifts, and a meeting with the city’s high-living mayor, Jimmy Walker. “I think that a woman, making due allowance for certain physical differences, can do anything a man can do on the athletic field,” she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Arriving at Cleveland Union Terminal, she was met by a crowd in the hundreds, then given a police escort to City Hall. In one remarkable year, she’d equaled or beat 17 U.S., Canadian and world records.
“All the women who competed back then were pioneers,” Grace Butcher told me. Butcher—an Ohioan who was coached by Walsh and won the 800 meter national championship in 1959—was, like most girls, discouraged from competing, even scolded when she did. Women athletes were routinely heckled with witticisms like, “Hey tomgirl, where’s your beard?” The notion that womanhood and athletics were incompatible had historical roots: in ancient Greece, women were barred from attending the Olympics (with exceptions for virgins and prostitutes) or participating in them, because their presence might wilt the strength of Olympia’s hero-warriors. The fear of female participants was so great, men were required to compete naked, so their sex would be readily apparent. A woman who violated these rules risked severe punishment: death, by being thrown from Mount Typaion.
Things had improved, slightly, by the time French nobleman Pierre de Coubertin conceived the modern Olympics, which began in 1896. The Baron believed competition should be for the “solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism,” with “female applause as its reward.” Women’s sports were “uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect,” he said, because sweat sullies the graceful essence of femininity. The Olympics added women’s events in 1928, against de Coubertin’s wish and over the objections of the Vatican. But immediately after those games, the 800 meter race was deemed too stressful for women, and events longer than 200 meters were banished until 1960. Even then, women ran against a headwind of unscientific hoodoo; Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 violated the Boston Marathon’s prohibition of women, was cautioned that distance training would cause her to grow a mustache or displace her uterus.
In the 1930s, reporters unapologetically described the physical appearance of female athletes: “pretty Eleanor Holm Jarrett” or “big Helene Madison.” This put Walsh at a disadvantage: Time described her as “grim-faced, Slav-eyed, broad-shouldered, thick-thewed.” An editor from L’Equipe, the daily French paper, snorted, “it is said [of Walsh] that she shaves every day.” And soon after she was certified as the fastest woman in the world, she was upstaged by a track athlete with far more charisma: Babe Didrikson, a “lanky, sun-burned Norwegian girl from Dallas,” as the UP called her. Didrikson wasn’t glamorous (“I know I’m not pretty,” she said, heartbreakingly), and biographer Susan Cayleff writes that Babe “was neither flirtatious, soft-spoken, nor willing to compromise,” qualities considered synonymous with femininity. “The press speculated that she was not a normal female,” Cayleff writes. One reporter could barely disguise the innuendo: “She has a few close girl friends and isn’t much interested in boys.”
The vile Paul Gallico, America’s highest-paid sports columnist, didn’t waste time with innuendo. Writing about Didrikson in Vanity Fair, Gallico surveyed the 21-year-old’s body and spotted hairy legs, “two little buttons she wore for breasts,” and an “enormous Adam’s apple.” In case that was too subtle, he cited her lack of interest in clothes or makeup as proof she was “more like a boy than a girl,” and called her “hatchet-faced.” Soon after, Didrikson resorted to what sociologist Jan Felshin terms “apologetic behavior” among female athletes: Babe grew her hair long, wore dresses and lipstick, and thus was more often accepted as feminine.
“I like her,” Gallico wrote, so imagine what he’d have said if he’d disliked her. Didrikson excelled at sports, he theorized, because “she cannot compete with other girls in the very ancient and honored sport of man-trapping.” With no husband, she was “not a very happy girl.” It’s fortunate for Stella Walsh that Gallico didn’t focus on her, or he might’ve insisted on a gynecological exam.
Even as female athletes were transgressing social norms, they too enforced ideals of proper “femininity” within their own coterie: Mary Carew, an Olympic gold-medal sprinter, later disclosed that Didrikson “wasn’t liked by the other girls” because she bragged so much, and Walsh was disliked because she “seemed so big and aggressive and didn’t know her place, according to us girls.” Bragging and being aggressive weren’t (and often still aren’t) considered appropriate behavior for women. Maybe this was a normal expression of competitiveness or envy between athletes, or maybe Carew and others internalized the gender policing they often saw in the press.
Her peers may not have appreciated Didrikson’s folksy wit, but sportswriters loved it. At one AAU meet in 1931, she won the running broad jump, the baseball throw, and the 80 meter hurdles, but didn’t compete in the javelin because she was limited to three events. “I think the AAU ruling is powerful silly,” Didrikson drawled. “I just feel like throwing that old javelin out of the lot.” To Didrikson, Walsh was a mystery: “sort of grim” and perpetually focused on competition. “To see her expression, you would not think she gets much pleasure out of winning,” Babe said.
Walsh was waiting for her final citizenship papers when, two and a half weeks before the Olympic trials in Chicago, the new president of New York Central Railroad eliminated her department, in the midst of cutting expenses that year by 26 percent. Walsh had no income and no sponsor. Her father Julius, supporting a family of five, worked part-time as a roller in a steel mill. Cleveland Mayor Ray T. Miller offered her a position in the recreation department, but she was warned, in a telegram from the AAU, that accepting a job related to sports would forfeit her amateur status and disqualify her from the Olympics. As she was leaving her house to attend a naturalization hearing, where she’d planned to take the oath of allegiance and accept citizenship, she received a telegram, which she brought to Federal court. Walsh shocked everyone by refusing to take the oath; the telegram, she announced, contained “information that may affect my whole future life.” The AP reported that her trainer “pleaded with her to take her final citizenship papers, but she was adamant.”
Her indecision made national headlines. Walsh still had “the chance at the feminine prerogative of changing her mind,” W.O. McGeehan wrote in the New York Herald Tribune . But four days before the trials, the contents of the cablegram became clear: she accepted a job in the New York office of the Polish consulate. She’d be racing for Poland, not the U.S.
Walsh was abiding by the rules of amateur athletics in the days before those rules were recognized as ridiculous, hypocritical, and untenable. Athletes could accept expense money, to cover hotel, food, and transportation, and “if you had ten bucks left, you were lucky,” Olympic champion Harrison Dillard (a Cleveland native) told me. In a way that anticipated the modern era of sports, Walsh viewed herself as a free agent, willing to represent whichever country offered her a subsistence job.
But the press did not view her plight with sympathy. “Stella winning any event in the games will be a clear example of a young lady running for herself and not for any patriotic inspiration,” sniffed a Washington Post columnist. “STELLA WALSH SHOULD BE BARRED FROM GAMES” yelled a Los Angeles Times headline. If officials didn’t “take some drastic action against Miss Walsh or her advisers for this act of brazen professionalism, it means the death of the Olympic Games in years to come,” read the Times editorial, which predicted that athletes could soon comprise “a gigantic trading circle where athletic ability is bought and paid for”—in other words, modern sports. The AAU threatened to protest her eligibility and disqualify her from the games.
Didrikson might have quipped her way out of a similar bind, but Walsh wasn’t only unsociable, she was alien, at a time when foreigners were viewed with increasing suspicion. Though the U.S. had been on the periphery of it, the Great War left the country wary of foreign ideologies and entanglements. For the first time, the Immigration Act of 1924 set permanent quotas on immigration. The U.S. population was big enough, declared Senator Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina, “for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship.” Unchecked immigration, he warned, would dilute the country’s “Anglo-Saxon stock.” The bill passed the Senate with only six dissenting votes.
Not all immigrants were viewed with equal suspicion. As were many politicians, Smith was influenced by the racist theories of Madison Grant, a eugenicist who helped frame the Immigration Act. Grant admired northern Europeans and believed immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were unfit and unable to assimilate. By trickily setting quotas based on 1890 population, the 1924 Act allowed large quotas of German and British immigrants, but small ones for Poles, Italians, Czechs, and Russians.
After the stock market crash of 1929, nationalism continued to advance—as did the Polish-born population of Cleveland, peaking in 1930 at more than 36,000. Sports were one thing the U.S. was still good at, and Walsh’s absence from the team was a wound to the country’s pride. Westbrook Pegler, a syndicated columnist (and John Birch employee) expressed shock that the U.S. had been “outbid, and by a new or newly reorganized and struggling nation.”
Walsh could have represented her choice as the result of an anguishing dilemma, wringing sympathy from the decision by depicting herself as another victim of the Depression. Instead, she took a proud but ill-considered position: “I am running for Poland because I am a Pole,” she told reporters, never mentioning that running for the U.S. had been her first choice. At a crucial moment in her career, Walsh—solitary, remarkable, proud, fearful—chose to embrace her position as Other, which cemented the public’s view of her oddness.
While Walsh was bypassing the U.S. trials, Babe Didrikson won five events, tied for another, and during a victory lap around the track, played the harmonica. It was a successful audition to be the lead actress in the Olympic drama.
Walsh was no starlet—she slept with her track spikes under her pillow, and if she wasn’t on the track, she wasn’t comfortable. At the 1932 Olympics in L.A., one reporter described her as “a big, scared, harassed, bewildered jackrabbit, scurrying for cover. She was afraid to open her mouth, mistrustful of everyone.” Her careful regiment of privacy and solitude, which is understandable in retrospect, kept her from being popular; she wanted to be both known and unknown.
The Olympic stadium had a track made of crushed peat, which was conducive to fast times. Track records fell easily, which added to the games’ allure, as did the attendance of Hollywood royalty.
Walsh’s competition in the 100 meters was weak. Eleanor Egg, the daughter of professional acrobats, had bested Walsh in a 100-yard dash the previous year, though Egg admitted Stella had a handicap; during warm-ups at the meet, Walsh mishandled a discus and hit a fan standing on the field, who collapsed with a fractured skull. (Walsh was arrested, charged with atrocious assault and battery, and within a few weeks, acquitted.) But Egg was now injured and out of competition. Betty Robinson had won the event in the previous Olympics at the age of 16, in only her fourth track meet; a high school teacher discovered the Illinois girl when he spotted her running to make a train. But Robinson was badly injured in a plane crash, and was even assumed to be dead until a mortician noticed she was still breathing. By the end of her recuperation, her left leg was a half-inch shorter than her right. Doctors said she would never race again.
On the third day of the games, a warm summer afternoon with 55,000 people in the stadium, Walsh won the 100 meters, narrowly outracing Hilda Strike, a diminutive Canadian, and tying the world record of 11.9 seconds. It’s possible she’d have run even faster, if she hadn’t been wearing a white beret. For good measure, she finished sixth in the discus competition.
American women won five gold medals in the six track and field events, and Walsh was the lone villain in this championship story. In his L.A. Times coverage of Walsh’s win, Braven Dyer cited “the man-like strides of this powerful maiden.” The manager of the Canadian team, writing a newspaper column, described her as “the big, husky Polish girl with the mannish frame.” After the greatest moment of her career, Walsh quickly left the stadium, without her teammates. She avoided her peers as much as she avoided reporters—she came to the track dressed to run, and after a race, skirted the communal showers. “Some [female Olympians] considered her a rather tragic figure, always on the fringes,” Doris Hinson Pieroth wrote in Their Day in the Sun, a book about women at the 1932 Olympics. All female athletes of the day were weirdoes—pacesetters who defied social norms—but even in this tribe, Walsh was an outsider.
Reporters celebrated victories by Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe, “ebony flashes of lightning [who] restored world sprint supremacy to the U.S.,” the AP said. Among the women, Babe Didrikson was “by far the most spectacular,” Time declared. Restricted to three events, she set world records in the hurdles and the javelin, and again charmed reporters: she told them she’d have thrown the javelin even farther if it hadn’t slipped out of her hand.
For Walsh, the important thing about racing was the result, and her L.A. triumph instilled a love of the Olympics which later proved vexing. After the games, she visited Poland, where she was presented with a Gold Cross of Merit, the country’s highest honor. It seemed minor when, just weeks before the Olympics, an athletic official said that having competed for Poland, Walsh would “be barred always after from competing for any other” country. That was fine with her, for the moment.
* * *
Dr. Samuel Gerber may have been the most politically powerful coroner who ever lived. Starting in 1936, he was elected to 13 consecutive terms in Cuyahoga County, sometimes running unopposed. Only 5’ 2”, he held medical and legal degrees, as well as an oversized opinion of himself, and a temper that earned him the nickname “Torchy.”
“He liked the limelight,” says Dick Feagler, a Cleveland TV host and newspaper columnist. And Bill Tanner, a longtime editor at the Cleveland Press, says Gerber “loved publicity and loved newspapers.” One reporter told me he’d had a bargain with Gerber—if a deadline loomed and the coroner wasn’t available for comment, the reporter could make up a quote and attribute it to the doctor. Gerber knew everyone in Cleveland, especially the powerful.
He was also a force in forensic circles, holding top positions for 50 years. Soon after his first election, he presided over most of the Torso Murders, one of the first widely publicized U.S. serial killings, which drew national attention: the murderer beheaded, dismembered, and often castrated 12 victims, all found in Kingsbury Run, a Depression Era shantytown. Gerber posed for photos at crimes scenes and at the morgue. (Eliot Ness, then the city’s safety director, ordered Kingsbury Run burned to the ground, which ended the killing spree, but also displaced many homeless people.) He was consistently the most popular Democratic candidate in the county, which led to jokes that Ohio Democrats were so moribund, they were led by a coroner.
The Torso Murders were small beer compared to the national frenzy over the 1954 murder trial of Samuel Sheppard, a Cleveland doctor accused of bludgeoning his wife. In front-page editorials, Louis Seltzer, editor of the Cleveland Press, probably the most influential man in Ohio, called for an indictment of Sheppard: “Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber.” Gerber obliged. He assured the press that Sheppard was the murderer, and served as the star witness in court, clinching the conviction of Sheppard, who was sentenced to life in prison. Twelve years later, in Sheppard v. Maxwell, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction and chided the judge, prosecutor, and Gerber for contributing to the “massive, pervasive, and prejudicial publicity” that prevented Sheppard from having a fair trial.
Three days after Stella Walsh was murdered, WKYC reporter Tom Beres was at home, happily watching the Cleveland Browns beat the New York Jets, when he got a phone call from a homicide detective who moonlighted in security at a store managed by Beres’ dad. The detective said Walsh had male genitalia. (Beres: “I don’t recall the exact verbiage. I’m sure it was kind of blunt.”) The reporter, who’d been at WKYC TV-3 less than a year, phoned Lee Bailey, the station’s assistant news director, who thought to himself, “Oh, crap. Do I need this?”
Next, Beres contacted Dr. Sam Gerber, who refused to comment. “Gerber—and this is only my opinion—believed Stella Walsh deserved death with dignity,” says Cliff Abromats, a New Yorker who’d recently been promoted to news director at WKYC. “People said to me, ‘We can’t talk about this on the air. You don’t know what Cleveland’s like!’ Clevelanders were very sensitive about the people they loved. And outside Krakow, the city had the largest Polish population in the world.”
Lee Bailey, an Ohio native, knew “this unsettling, disquieting news would besmirch the reputation of a fine woman who worked hard all her life. Until the coroner’s report, nobody had anything bad to say about her. Should we report it? We don’t want to report it.”
It seems quaint now for a news station to debate whether or not to run a sensationalistic story. “Cleveland had a small-town mentality. This was Stella’s secret. And back then, you kept secrets,” says Dom Camera, a station manager who’d recently arrived from New York. Walsh’s autopsy was a dot along the line of journalism’s evolution from a profession that kept secrets to one that uncovered them.
There was another argument against airing the story: “Why would we want to make Cleveland look bad again?” Camera asks rhetorically. The city had earned the nickname the Mistake On the Lake thanks to a series of memorable bloopers: the Cuyahoga River caught on fire because it was so polluted and oily; the mayor set his hair on fire at a ribbon-cutting ceremony; the next mayor had a brother who robbed a local bank by handing a teller a noted that said, “All your $ or die”; and in 1978, it became the first big city since the Depression to default on its debts.
Deindustrialization devastated the Midwest and Northeast, and ravaged Cleveland, which had been a thriving working-class hub; with plants closing and industries (as well as the middle-class) fleeing, the city was in the highest quintile of U.S. cities for violent crime, poverty, unemployment, and poor housing. In 1980, it had the highest per-capita murder rate of the twenty biggest cities. Henry Miller had called it “a deadly, dull, dead place.” Now, Johnny Carson was making Cleveland jokes almost every night. The city was a laughingstock, which was funny everywhere except in northeast Ohio. “Cleveland had a beaten-down mentality,” Abromats explains.
The locals were overruled by the carpetbaggers. Station general manager Neal Van Ells was tired of seeing WKYC place third in a market of three networks. (According to a local joke, ‘KYC had finished last more times than the Cleveland Indians.) After consulting NBC, which owned and operated the station, he told Beres to report the story, which was deemed relevant partly because bulky East German and Russian women had been suspected of cheating, via steroids, in the 1980 Olympics. “It was news,” Beres says. “There was no way it wasn’t news.”
So on the eve of her funeral, Beres told WKYC viewers that Stella Walsh had a penis. Station rival WEWS, having been scooped, had to catch up. “It was the wild west era of TV news,” says one WEWS veteran. “We put bodies on the news, and blood. It was just short of anything goes.” WEWS created a catchy teaser for their report, and broadcast it all the next day: “Stella was a fella.” Beres calls it “almost a legendary moment of tasteless broadcasting in Cleveland.”
By 1980, thanks to decades of immigration restrictions, the Polish-born population of Cleveland had dwindled from 36,000 to about 8,300. But those few thousand, incensed by decades of Polack jokes, could raise hell. When 400 mourners crowded into Sacred Heart of Jesus church, they saw TV crews waiting. “Get out of here!” one Walsh pal shouted. “You’ve got a lot of nerve after that garbage last night,” yelled another. Other mourners tried to bar media from the funeral. The Polish women’s basketball team attended, in red warm-up jackets that said POLSKA on the back. The Sacred Heart priest, who didn’t know Walsh well, nonetheless happened upon an epitaph that has held true for her: “There is a saying that no one remembers who came in second. Sometimes, no one remembers who came in first, either.”
Walsh was buried with a simple flat headstone: her name, Polish surname, two crosses, the Olympic rings, and the words OLYMPIC CHAMPION.
If the Walsh story was a ratings ploy, it didn’t work. “It made us the least popular TV station in Cleveland,” Abromats says. Clara Battiato, the younger of Walsh’s two sisters, spoke only long enough to vow, “I’ll do anything to sue that channel.” Tom Beres, who was married to a Polish-American, fielded “many outraged phone calls, berating us for doing the story.”
“In Cleveland, especially the Polish community, people showed equanimity about what was in the autopsy,” observes former mayor Dennis Kucinich, who grew up in Slavic Village, and later served eight terms as a liberal US Congressman. “It was extraordinary. There’s a phrase in Polish that roughly translates as ‘God judges.’ It’s not up to us to judge. There was a very powerful, loving acceptance of Stella, both prior to and after her unfortunate passing. The arrangement of her physical parts was of minor interest. It didn’t matter: This was our Stella. She was loved. The deeper story here, if I may be so bold, is how Cleveland dealt with sensitive social issues long before other cities, and accepted people for who they were. The power of this town is in its live-and-let-live approach.”
Polish-Americans staged protests outside the Channel 3 studio, urged a boycott, and threatened to sue. WKYC needed proof of their report, or lawsuits would follow.
The only man who supposedly knew for sure, Sam Gerber, was being cagey, because even he didn’t know for sure. In a statement to the press, he invoked John Lennon, who was murdered four days after Walsh: “John Lennon was known as a male and apparently was killed as a male and autopsied as a male. Stella Walsh’s birth certificate said she was a female, she was known as a female and her death certificate says she was a female.” Gerber ordered chromosome testing, even though it wasn’t relevant to a murder investigation, and refused to release any additional information until his autopsy was final.
WKYC was anxious to prove their report was correct. The station’s lawyer sent a letter to Gerber on December 18, demanding he “either confirm or deny to me in writing that Stella Walsh was in fact a male.” As Abromats said in a court document, the WKYC report, “which we consider to have been very tastefully and sensitively done, has raised a furor in many segments of our community,” and Gerber’s records would “quell the furor by (I believe) confirming the truth and accuracy” of the report. It was a gamble—if the report was wrong, Polish-American groups might chase Abromats and Beres all the way to Akron.
After Gerber ignored the letter, as well as repeated phone calls from the station, Abromats arranged a meeting with the station lawyer and the doctor. The lawyer told Gerber he was not legally entitled to withhold public documents. According to Abromats, Gerber shrugged. “I am not only a physician, I am an attorney. If you want those records, sue me,” he said. “Dr. Gerber, it would be my pleasure,” parried the WKYC lawyer.
By now, the news had spread across the country. In a front-page story, the Washington Post told of Walsh’s death and the “seamy and controversial story on Cleveland television.” By using the headline “Heroine or Hero?,” the Post was complicit in any seaminess, while pretending to stand above it.
A month after Walsh’s death, WKYC appealed to District Court for a writ of mandamus, a court order instructing a government officer to obey the law. The court issued the writ. There was a guideline hearing a few days later, during which Judge Thomas Parrino—who’d run for a judgeship shortly after his key role in prosecuting the first Sam Sheppard trial—gave Gerber two weeks to release his autopsy report, or face contempt of court. The doctor’s plan had worked; he’d stalled until he was ready. The truth was about to become public.
In his autopsy, Gerber reported that Walsh had a small, underdeveloped penis, with no opening for urine or semen to emerge. “It probably looked like a large clitoris,” says Dr. Jonathan Hayes, a New York forensic pathologist, who believes Walsh might have been capable of having an erection. She had a scrotum with small testes, and breasts Gerber described as “masculine,” but no vagina or any female sex organs; she did not menstruate. Gerber described an unusual “small opening” in her perineum, through which she urinated.
At the time she was shot, Walsh had a blood alcohol concentration of .16, twice the legal limit for driving, and roughly equivalent to drinking eight beers in one hour. Being drunk likely contributed to her decision to fight the men who robbed her, though curiously, articles about Walsh’s autopsy never mentioned her intoxication. Her liver was swollen with fat and scarred by cirrhosis; alcohol and high blood pressure had enlarged and weakened her heart; and she was in the early stages of testicular cancer. “With her heart disease, alcoholism, and cancer, she’d probably have been dead within two or three years,” says Dr. Hayes.
In the report, Gerber left blank the area where he would have identified the sex of the deceased. Rather than use the pronoun “he” or “she” in the report, he referred to Walsh as the “individual.” With this unusual euphemism, “Gerber chose to be discreet,” says Dr. Hayes.
Walsh’s chromosome report, which Gerber presented two months after the murder, showed a mix of male XY, which dominated, and XO, which are considered abnormal female genes. She had a condition broadly known as mosaicism, which is caused by an error in cell division early in fetal development. In his report, Gerber added an editorial aside, which he hoped would end the “Stella was a fella” wisecracks: “Socially, culturally, and legally, Stella Walsh was accepted as a female for 69 years. She lived and died a female.” Most headlines reported that Walsh “had male sex organs” (or, more primly, “male organs”). “Stella Walsh Wasn’t a ‘She,’ Autopsy Finds,” a Washington Post headline announced.
Gerber, ever the politician, hadn’t addressed the misperception (which prevails to this day) that sex is a binary: male or female, nothing else. He left that task to his deputy, Dr. Lester Adelson, who had a reputation as a brilliant thinker, fluent in aphorisms. Adelson explained that the question of Walsh’s sex was “not black or white.” She wasn’t either a man or a woman, but bits of both. “Nature is infinite in her manifestations,” he said eloquently.
This distinction was lost on WKYC, which obtained the autopsy and consulted Dr. Cyril Wecht, a noted forensic pathologist who hated Gerber; Wecht called him a “little bastard,” and testified that Gerber’s domineering role in the Sheppard case was “quite inappropriate.” (“You bet your ass I stand by that comment,” Wecht told me recently. “Gerber was a tyrant—an arrogant bastard—and the little fucker’s dead, so he can’t sue me for defamation.”) On the subject of Walsh, the two again disagreed. “Wecht said, ‘There’s no doubt about it. Stella Walsh was a male,’” Cliff Abromats recounts.
WKYC felt vindicated by Wecht’s opinion, which is evident in station manager Neal Van Ells’ reply to a viewer who criticized the station’s coverage. Van Ells, who early in his career had been a wrestling announcer and was known by his staff to be blunt, even abrasive, replied with a snarl: “If Stella Walsh had not been an Olympic medal winner as a ‘female’ athlete, this story would have had no relevance. Since Stella Walsh was not a female, what we have is a world wide [sic] fraud.”
There was similar confusion at WEWS, the “Stella Was a Fella” station. The autopsy is “confusing,” anchor Jeff Maynor said one night, before introducing a medical segment. “To a lot of people, that sounds like a man. Medically, how do we determine sex?”
“Jeff, this is not really a simple matter,” Dr. Ted Castele, the station’s medical reporter, replied. “Usually it’s very obvious whether a person is male or female, but sometimes it’s very complex.”
When Tom Beres received the tip about Stella Walsh, he was a TV novice. He’s still at WKYC Channel 3, as senior political correspondent and dean of the station. Reporting on Walsh was the wrong kind of scoop for a young career. “I wasn’t proud. It wasn’t a story I boasted about doing.” Sometimes he wishes the detective who tipped him off had instead phoned Carl Monday, the investigative reporter at channel 8.
* * *
Great athletes need worthy adversaries, and at her peak, when she seemed unbeatable, Stella Walsh found her nemesis in St. Louis.
Helen Stephens’s discovery was a fluke. At her high school in Fulton, Missouri, track coach Burton Moore asked a few female students to line up for a 50-yard dash. Stephens, a sophomore, had never raced, but when Moore looked at his stopwatch, it showed a time of 5.8 seconds—the world record. Knowing the value of a secret, he told no one except his wife.
Stephens’ parents were devout Christians and tenant farmers who, unlike most neighbors, couldn’t afford a tractor. Helen’s school was a mile away and she ran there, alongside a cousin who rode a horse. “Act like a lady,” her mother chided her when Stephens did anything tomboy-ish. She was tall and boisterous, with gigantic feet. Classmates crowned her with the virile nickname “Popeye.”
Because of a childhood accident in which a sharp piece of wood punctured and lodged in her larynx, Stephens had a low voice, often described as manly. She also had a sizable raspberry birthmark on her forehead. She felt awkward, but nonetheless was witty and gregarious, with a “dynamic personality,” according to Sharon Kinney Hanson, author of an authorized memoir.
The 1935 Indoor Nationals meet was in St. Louis, a three-hour drive from Fulton, and Stephens’ coach wanted her to enter. A school administrator scoffed, saying the school would be shamed by having a girl representative, but no boys. The administrator relented, though he refused to cover the $2 entry fee. With no gear of her own, Stephens borrowed a male classmate’s grey sweatpants and size-ten track shoes. Other parts of her training, too, weren’t state of the art: Coach Moore endorsed taking a laxative pill every day.
When Walsh lined up for the 50-meter race in March, 1935, she knew nothing about the six-foot tall blonde on the startling line. But in her first track meet, Stephens easily outran the fastest woman in the world. For much of her life, Walsh had an adversarial relationship with the truth; the previous year, after she’d set a new indoor mark at 60 yards, an official detected that she’d run in spikes, which was against the rules. In St. Louis, she protested the result, claiming Stephens had jumped the starter’s gun. “I was robbed,” she wailed. After other losses, she also made excuses: the weather, bad food. She was great at sports, but not at sportsmanship.
When reporters stormed the track and asked Stephens how it felt to beat Walsh, the hometown hero memorably replied, “Stella who?” Stephens was playing possum—she had a picture of the champ on her bedroom wall, and later said she stuck pins in it every day.
Stephens’ dismissive taunt started a rivalry that existed more in newspapers than it did on the track. In their battle of wits, Walsh was outmatched. She dismissed Stephens as “a greenie from the sticks,” and asserted that she could beat the youngster any time. “She can eat dirt,” Stephens said. Another time, Stephens said, “I could beat her barefoot.” Newspapers photographed her on the family farm, holding a rabbit rifle, and dubbed her “The Fulton Flash,” a glossier nickname than Walsh’s workmanlike “Polish Flyer.”
“Helen will never beat me again,” Walsh vowed. She soon set a world record at 70 yards, which stood for 26 years, and one at 200 meters that wasn’t topped for 17 years. Despite her avowed confidence, Walsh avoided a rematch with Stephens, who was also breaking records, and being transformed, via newspaper reports of her rural bona fides, into a folk hero, a Paul Bunyan in spikes. When Walsh bypassed a St. Louis match three months after their first faceoff, Stephens said, “I’ll race her any place, any time. I’ll go to her home town if she likes.” Walsh made excuses: she couldn’t get permission to leave school (she was studying physical education), or she was focusing on the upcoming Olympics. The explanations were flimsy—Walsh was in shock. Though only 23, she’d now seen the heels of a younger sprinter. As she sailed for Poland to compete abroad, disproving the maxim “you can run, but you can’t hide,” the St. Louis Athletic Club called for Walsh to be suspended, as a consequence of skirting Stephens. The appeal was denied, but the gesture intensified the rivalry, which soon peaked in an ugly accusation.
* * *
Prior to his ascension as Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler denounced the Olympics as “an invention of Jews and Freemasons,” and vowed his Nazi party would never play host. In 1931, as a gesture of confidence in the Weimar Republic, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had awarded the 1936 Olympic games to Germany, where the 1916 Olympics had been scheduled, before they were cancelled due to war. Once Hitler came to power and snuffed the Republic, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels persuaded him to change his mind; the world would come to Berlin and witness the superiority of Aryan athletes and ideas.
When newspapers began to report of Germany’s pledge to exterminate Jews, Communists, and other Untermenschen, there was a movement, especially in America, to boycott the Olympics. The debate was front-page news: advocates of the boycott, including U.S. embassy officials in Berlin, warned that the games would stabilize Germany’s relationships with the world and yield a substantial amount of foreign currency, which Hitler needed.
Avery Brundage, the most powerful sports official in the U.S., privately dismissed the news reports as propaganda created by “the great Jewish merchant advertisers.” He’d grown up poor, without a father, finished a respectable sixth in the 1912 Olympic pentathlon, and earned a fortune in Chicago’s construction industry. His next ambition was a seat on the IOC.
Brundage was a bull-headed simpleton who reduced every complex issue to a platitude, and he admired the Nazi credo of discipline, which he saw as a mirror of his own athletic values. After visiting Germany, he said the Third Reich was “efficient and hard-working,” and concluded, “America could learn much from Germany.”
On almost every social issue of the 20th century, Brundage stood proudly and resolutely on the wrong side, abusing athletes so often, he earned the nickname “Slavery Avery.” A few years earlier, as president of the AAU, he’d harried Babe Didrikson about her amateur status, and when she fought back, he’d replied with disdain. “You know, the ancient Greeks kept women out of their athletic games,” he joked. “I’m not so sure but they were right.”
There was ample support of the boycott in the U.S.: it ranged from Westbrook Pegler to the NAACP. Brundage quickly put himself in service of two fellow anti-Semites: IOC president Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, a Belgian aristocrat (“I am not personally fond of Jews and of the Jewish influence”), and vice president Sigfrid Edstrom, a Swedish industrialist (“[Jews] are intelligent and unscrupulous”). Neither could influence the U.S. debate, but after the Belgian enlisted Brundage, writing “Jews usually start screaming before they have a serious reason to do so,” he prepared a pamphlet, arguing that the American athlete should not be “made a martyr to a cause not his [sic] own,” and advising neutrality in the “Jew-Nazi altercation.”
More than two hundred AAU delegates convened in New York, in December 1935 to vote on a proposal committing the U.S. to participate in Germany, where less than three months earlier, Hitler had announced the Nuremberg Laws, formalizing and escalating persecution of Jews. As so often with sports committees, the AAU discussions were bitter, prolonged, and internecine. Jeremiah Mahoney, a former New York Supreme Court justice and president of the AAU, led the pro-boycott movement by accusing Germany of “monstrous incidents of racism, brutality, and genocide.” Brundage, according to a New York Times account, vowed that reports of German anti-Semitism “were untrue in sport, no matter what they might be in other fields,” and insinuated that Jewish merchants were financing Mahoney’s movement. On their third day of rancor, the delegates rejected a boycott, which quelled similar discussions in other countries. Judge Mahoney declined to run for re-election as AAU president, saying he could not “in good conscience” carry out his duties, and Brundage replaced him. German newspapers hailed the defeat of “boycott agitators and Olympic saboteurs.” Within days, Brundage received a cable from Sigfrid Edstrom, congratulating him for defeating “the dirty Jews and politicians.”
In his discussions with the Germans, Brundage had set the bar low; he asked if they would let Jewish athletes compete in national trials. “I was given positive assurance in writing,” he’d said guilelessly. “You can’t ask more than that.”
Stella Walsh was not so naive. After returning to the U.S. from Germany, Walsh described how the crowd yelled the name of a Jewish girl who ran for Poland, “and when she would look up, they would shout ‘Jew’ and spit.” Walsh joined a committee on fair play in sports, which accused the German government of discriminating against Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic athletes, and opposed American participation in the Berlin Olympics. She could’ve joined a few other athletes in a personal boycott, but didn’t. As it would be for most of her life, sports comprised the entirety of her identity.
While the U.S. team was en route to Germany on the SS Manhattan, Brundage again asserted his autocratic might. Eleanor Holm Jarrett, a gay-hearted swimmer who declared herself “particularly fond of champagne,” was seen shooting craps and drinking with sportswriters late at night. When a chaperone suggested she retire to her cabin, Mrs. Jarrett retorted, “Did you make the Olympic team or did I?” Brundage—who fathered two sons out of wedlock during his first marriage, among many affairs—had a rigid ideal of athletic modesty, which she had violated. He threw her off the U.S. team, creating a front-page scandal on two continents.
As the games opened, Count Baillet-Latour stood beside Hitler, gave a Nazi salute, declared it “a very special privilege” to be received by the Chancellor, and expressed “gratitude for the interest that your Excellency has shown for the Olympic ideals.” (After the count died in 1942, Hitler sent a wreath, embellished with a swastika, which was placed on Baillet-Latour’s coffin. Goebbels also sent a wreath; several Nazi leaders attended; and German soldiers guarded the coffin. In a 2012 exposé of the count’s alliances with Hitler, the Belgian magazine Joods Actueel called the funeral “an unprecedented Nazi show.”)
The games were televised for the first time, which was ideal timing for Jesse Owens, a sharecropper’s son who won four gold medals, mocked Hitler’s fantasy of Aryan supremacy, and returned home as one of the first Olympic superstars. The multiple delays and back-and-forth taunts had frothed the anticipation for a Stella Walsh-Helen Stephens rematch. When they crossed paths in Berlin before the race, “Stella glared at me,” Stephens claimed.
In the women’s 100 meters, on a slow and mud-caked track, in front of 100,000 spectators, Stella Walsh matched her world record, but placed well behind Helen Stephens, who finished in 11.5. While reporters surrounded Stephens, “everyone ignored Stella Walsh,” said Burton Moore. “She walked back to get her sweat clothes by herself.” (As photos show, she did congratulate Stephens.) The American press gloated at Walsh’s failure. A United Press correspondent described her as “a has-been” whose face is “grimly set,” in contrast to the “sure and smiling” Stephens, who “laughs as she readies herself for the run down the straightaway.”
Soon after she broke the tape, Stephens was hustled off to a meeting with Hitler. “He gave me a Nazi salute. I didn’t return it. I just gave him a good old Missouri handshake,” she said. Hitler, appraising her blonde hair, blue eyes, and towering frame, suggested she run for Germany. He also, Stephens said, squeezed her ass, and with deputy führer Rudolf Hess as translator, invited her to spend a weekend with him at his mountain retreat, the Berghof. She declined, but did get his autograph.
Walsh had told reporters she’d retire from competition at the end of 1936; it was the start of a long-running farce, in which she’d declare the end of her career, then continue to race and win. But she was miserable at losing again to Stephens. Almost immediately, the Polish newspaper Kurier Poranny claimed that Stephens was a man, adding indignantly that Walsh would have won “if she had competed only against women.” A New York newspaper accused Walsh of planting the rumor, and a U.S. coach blamed Walsh’s coach and Polish sports officials; there’s no evidence Stella did it, but it wouldn’t be out of character, and it may have been a confused way for her to make sense of her own ambiguous anatomy. (Years later, Walsh also claimed she’d run with a badly pulled muscle, and had been advised by doctors to drop out.) Though German officials had given Stephens a close exam prior to the race, skepticism lingered: Look magazine profiled her, with a photo caption that read, “Is This a Man or a Woman?” (She sued, and accepted a substantial settlement from Look.) Witnessing the mistreatment of Stephens, Walsh saw the fate she’d meet if she were ever examined.
Female jocks were not exempt from the impulse to mock other women. The German runner Marie Dollinger, who finished fourth, had suspicions about teammate and bronze medalist Käthe Krauss, and later quipped, “I was the only woman in that race!” Yet another teammate has often, but incorrectly, been cited as proof that gender impostors can invade sports: Heinrich Ratjen was born with anomalous but primarily male sex organs, raised as a girl named Dora, excelled at the high jump, and lived as a woman until 1938, when, upon being detained by a policeman, he declared himself a man and subsequently lived that way. For years, sports historians believed that Ratjen was a man whom the Nazis had forced to compete as a woman, in order to pad their medal tally. The belief arose from a Time magazine article in which Ratjen “tearfully confessed”—the interview and quote both seem to have been fabricated.
Helen Stephens also anchored the 100-meter relay for the U.S. team, which included Betty Robinson, making a dramatic comeback from her plane-crash injuries. The relay squad won gold, which made Stephens the star of an American team that posted mediocre results (two medals in six events, compared to Germany’s seven). While far from her ascetic Missouri upbringing, she celebrated with several weeks of drinking and dancing. She went to a bash at Josef Goebbels’ medieval castle, where, after midnight, Gestapo chief Hermann Goring asked to see her privately. He kissed her hand, she told her biographer, and “sat dressed, or should I say undressed, in a black bathrobe, which fell open, exposing his thighs.” She excused herself, ruining Goring’s dream of speedy Aryan spawn.
Having lost twice to Stephens, Walsh now couldn’t avoid her—both were obliged to participate in exhibitions throughout Germany. At 50, 100, and 200 meters, Stephens won their third, fourth, and fifth races, which were also their last. After a two-and-a-half-year, undefeated career, Stephens relinquished her amateur status. Eager to help her parents, who’d lost their farm, she began a career as a professional basketball player. Stephens hoped to race Walsh in exhibitions (“There was money to be made”), but Walsh never agreed. Instead, Stephens ran five handicap races against Jesse Owens.
After leaving the continent, Avery Brundage admired Germany more than ever, and rhapsodized about the sight of “sixty million people believing in themselves and in their country.” He’d recently ascended to the IOC, replacing a U.S. delegate who’d urged Baillet-Latour to cancel the Olympics in protest and then been expelled. (Brundage served as IOC president from 1952 to 1972; he was, Sports Illustrated wrote, “almost invariably—and accurately—described as ‘the most powerful man in sport.’”) There were other rewards, too, for having helped Hitler; the German government hired Brundage’s construction company to build an embassy in Washington, D.C., although the contract was effectively terminated by the U.S. declaration of war against Germany. Olympic officials, who valorized poverty among athletes, had a culture of bribery: Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who’d founded the IOC, accepted a substantial payoff from the Nazis.
Brundage didn’t like the taint of controversy about Helen Stephens’ alleged maleness. That year, he recommended that every female athlete at the Olympics be subjected to a medical examination, to certify her womanhood.
* * *
No one was more surprised by the results of Stella Walsh’s autopsy than her ex-husband, Harry Olson. When a Knight-Ridder reporter contacted him, Olson explained that they’d had sex only “a couple of times, and she wouldn’t let me have any lights on.” He worked as an aviation draftsman, and his colleagues teased him about his ex-wife’s male genitalia. “I feel stupid as hell for marrying her,” he told another reporter. “I wish I could say I had a hot, passionate affair with her, but we never really did. Maybe I was too naïve to realize anything was wrong.”
By describing specifics of his married sex life, Olson was being ungentlemanly, but it’s easy to imagine he was as angry as he was confused. He even wondered aloud if, by marrying Walsh, he’d broken the law. When reporters continued to call, asking increasingly detailed questions, he refused to talk.
Walsh’s two younger sisters, Sophia DiRosa and Clara Battiato, who were both married, said little. Her loudest defender was Casimir Bielen, a close friend and a leader in the Polish community. Bielen had grown up near Walsh, and when they were children, her “physical deformities” were common knowledge among family, friends, and a small community, he said. “She was ridiculed. We knew this. She was a hermaphrodite. It was common knowledge that she had this accident of nature.” He described her as “a self-conscious woman” who never had financial security and “lived a tragic life.”
In southern Ohio, Beverly Perret Conyers decided to reveal a secret she’d kept since the mid-‘40s. At the age of 10, she’d seen Walsh undressing in the locker room of a Cleveland bathhouse, and saw that Walsh had a penis. Later, Walsh coached Conyers for years. “She asked me if God did this to her,” Conyers said. “I said, ‘No, it was a mistake.’”
Conyers asked the first gender-related question that wasn’t solely about Walsh’s penis, but was instead about double standards: “If this were a male amateur athlete who ran, and the same situation occurred, how would the coroner, police and media have handled it? Why couldn’t they have waited until the results of her test before saying anything?”
When the IOC was contacted, one member said if Walsh were judged to have been a man, the committee might rescind her medals and records.
* * *
In a 1950 poll of sportswriters, Walsh was named the third greatest female athlete of the 20th century; Helen Stephens was 10th. Finally, Walsh had beaten Stephens!
Because Stephens was a perfect five for five in races against Walsh, the ranking might seem dubious. But even after their 1936 showdowns, when Walsh was 25, the age at which female sprinters usually decline, she continued to win track and field events for an incredibly long period of time. The following year, she set three world records in one match, at 80 meters, 100 yards, and in the broad jump. She won titles in the discus and the basketball throw, in golf and tennis. When track wasn’t in season, she was a star basketball and softball player. At 35, her time at 100 yards was faster than it was at 19. At 37, she won the 100, 200, and long jump national championships for a fourth time; no one else had ever done it, and it 50 years passed before someone else did. She won eight consecutive long jump titles at the national championships, and eleven total, the last one when she was 40. When pentathlons were introduced for women at the national championships in 1950, she won the first five titles, including when she was 43, prompting sportswriter Jeane Hoffman to call Walsh an “ageless wonder of the spike-and-girdle set.”
“Everybody was in awe of her,” said Nell Jackson, an Olympian and Hall of Fame sprinter who couldn’t outrace Walsh until 1949, when she was 20 and Walsh was 38.
Twice during these years, she was arrested in small towns: in Logansport, Indiana, she was charged with grand larceny over the theft of six fur coats, which were found in her car. “I came to Logansport to do some hunting, and I’m getting all I want,” she said from her cell. “I have killed 66 cockroaches in this jail.” (A prosecutor dropped the charges after the county refused to pay for a witness’s travel expenses.) A few years later, in California, she was accused of stealing $1.44 worth of groceries. Those charges, too, were dismissed, but the arrests fit a pattern of dishonesty throughout her life.
In late 1947, shortly after setting new American marks at 50, 60, and 80 meters, she was granted American citizenship, which she called “the finest Christmas present I ever received,” one that “gives me more satisfaction than all of the 64 world and national women’s track titles I’ve won.” The next track season “absolutely will be my last,” she declared. But she had one goal left: an Olympic medal for the U.S. IOC rules prohibited athletes from representing two countries in their lifetimes. Walsh, an avid anti-Communist, argued that Poland was no longer a state, because it was under Soviet control. As usual, she wanted to stretch the rules.
Walsh moved from Cleveland to L.A., where she worked as an inspector at a plastic manufacturing plant and organized athletic events for girls “She was not what I’d call gregarious or affable,” says Jean Gaertner, a two-sport Olympian who, as a teenager, often saw Walsh at track meets. “She looked ravaged—you could see her scalp through her thinning hair, which was dyed black—but she was also real muscular. She was 45? She looked like she was 65. A lot of kids made fun of her—little giggles, things like that. I’m sure she felt it.”
In 1948, the AAU ruled that Walsh could not compete in the trials. Despite her age, she likely would have made the team: At the outdoor nationals, she won at 200 meters, beating the women who a week later finished 1-2-3 at the American trials. “I’m now retired,” she announced. But she wasn’t, and four years later she tried again, and was again barred by the AAU, which prompted the chairman of the trials to write appeal letters to the secretary of the United Nations General Assembly, and to Secretary of State Dean Acheson. And in 1956, Walsh tried again, vowing to retire if she wasn’t allowed to run. Russian women had dominated the ’52 games, and she cannily presented herself as an American defense against Communist success. But AAU officials still denied her.
Walsh had only three interests: competing, winning, and escaping detection. In 1956, the IOC added an odd loophole to the charter: a woman could represent a second country “if she has changed her nationality through marriage.” Walsh could now run for the U.S. “if she corners an American husband,” Ned Cronin wrote in the L.A. Times, adding it didn’t seem likely.
To get back to the Olympics, she’d have to come out of the closet a bit, by sharing the truth with one more person. In mid-August, less than two weeks before the Olympic trials, Walsh, 45, and Harry Olson, 33, flew to Las Vegas, where a Justice of the Peace married them. There was no honeymoon, and Olson said their cursory three-month union was like “being married to a movie actress. She would pop in for dinner on Thursday, and then I wouldn’t see her again until Sunday.” When Walsh told the press about her marriage, she said it assured her eligibility for the Olympic trials, which seems to have been her primary motivation—she admitted it “surprised even her closest friends,” a reporter said. She called the trials “the most important race of my life.”
She finished third in a preliminary heat at 200 meters, a sad twelfth of fifteen runners, and didn’t qualify for the final. “This is the end,” she said tearfully, calling a close to her career.
A few months later, she won three events at an AAU meet.
Undeterred—or, depending on your perspective, deluded—she went to the 1960 Olympic trials in Abilene, Texas, and competed in the 100 yard dash and javelin throw, at 49. In a brief report of her failure, the UPI mentioned her 1933 record in the 60 meter dash, adding “The record still stands.”
She won her final race in 1977, 60 meters in the masters division at the World Polish Olympics in Krakow, Poland, where she was greeted and celebrated with a reverence that must have reminded her of the 1930s.
* * *
Dan Coughlin was at his desk in the sports department of the Cleveland Plain Dealer when he looked up and saw Stella Walsh. She’d left L.A. in 1964 and moved back to Cleveland, living with her parents in a two-bedroom, one-bath house at 6630 Clement Avenue, and working at the Sunrise Cafe, where “it was said she sometimes walked off with other people’s change left on the bar,” Coughlin recalls. “She never had any money, the poor thing.”
Walsh challenged Coughlin, who was half her 56 years, to a race. Coughlin was not fit, but he knew it would make good copy, and he agreed.
She showed up for the race in a track uniform, he in plaid shorts, smoking Pall Mells. “She was muscular, with a running back’s calf muscles. Stella was stronger and more manly than any other female athlete I ever covered, and I saw them all.”
Coughlin was doing it for a laugh and a few inches in the newspaper, but Walsh was serious. “She did not have a glib, modern sense of humor. The way she treated it, this race was the most important thing in her life.” Walsh gave him a 10-yard start, and huffing hard, he beat her. She wasn’t a good sport about losing. “That’s the preliminary,” she said. “You qualified for the final.” This time, Walsh didn’t give him a head start, and she won. “Then we went to a bar and she drank me under the table,” Coughlin adds.
Clevelanders had been speculating about Walsh for years. Harrison Dillard, a sprinter who won Olympic gold four times, saw Walsh in her prime, training at a school track. “She could run damn fast, we knew that!” He also recalls that she wore a veil over her face when leaving the track. “There were rumors. At that time, we weren’t into gay and lesbian and all that stuff, but the kids said she was as much man as she was woman. We didn’t really know.”
After Walsh’s father died in 1972, she “stayed close to home, because her mother depended on her so much,” says Ida Jean “Hoppy” Hopkins, a softball star who played with Walsh. Stella had nearly disappeared from view; symbolically, an antiques dealer in L.A. bought a collection of Walsh’s memorabilia, including an Olympic award and two scrapbooks, at an estate sale in 1978 for $2. “She didn’t seem to be a reflective woman, didn’t like to look back,” the dealer’s wife said after returning the memorabilia.
Walsh organized sports events for kids—and even drove them around in her rundown Oldsmobile Omega with torn upholstery—without getting paid for it. Her only income was Social Security, until Mayor Dennis Kucinich intervened and gave her a job heading physical fitness programs and the city’s Junior Olympics. “She was funny, friendly, and kind—a genuinely nice person,” Kucinich told me. “I remember her as someone who was smiling, who had a sense of joy.”
Close friends thought she was drinking too much: at least three times a week, Walsh went to the liquor store near Uncle Bill’s and bought a pint of apricot or blackberry brandy. “The kids are forgetting about me,” she said to friends, one of whom later described her as “despondent.”
And Walsh looked increasingly strange. She wore a platinum wig, because alopecia had caused much of her hair to fall out, and she drew a pair of fake eyebrows. Coughlin recalls that she was mugged one night in the mid-‘70s, during Cleveland’s dismal decade, “and her face took a beating with a steel pipe. Her nose was splattered across her face, which did not help her appearance. She looked like a veteran of the Polish infantry.”
After the mugging, Walsh began to carry a silver handgun, in case she was robbed again.
* * *
Because there was a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Walsh’s murderer, every rat in the city came out for a nibble, and the Cleveland homicide department was inundated with false tips. For several months, detectives focused on Nancy Jo Dale, a close friend who aroused suspicion by not attending the funeral. Walsh’s mother, sister Clara Battiato, and Clara’s husband Joseph Battiato said they didn’t know anything about Dale, despite evidence to the contrary—“victim’s family have been very uncooperative throughout this investigation,” detectives wrote in one police report. Stella’s family was determined to maintain her privacy, even if it meant not helping police find out who killed her.
Dale, who was 38, was one of several sisters born to a West Virginia coal miner with a third-grade education, and a mom who married when she was 16. Nancy Jo lived in Cleveland, but had recently left for Virginia, where, she told investigators, she was taking care of an ill family member, placing her far away on the night Walsh was murdered. But a few family members refused to take polygraph tests and seemed to be hiding something. Her sister Helen Conley, Detective Sandra Ramsey wrote, admitted to having taken Dale to Virginia because of “her drinking and blackouts.”
Sandra Ramsey traveled to Virginia to interview Dale, whose polygraph showed evidence of deception. “She was a basket case, and incoherent half the time,” recalls Ramsey, who was the first female detective in the Cleveland homicide department. “She just cried and cried—that’s what I remember most.” The police polygraph expert was sure Dale was involved in the murder. Cleveland detectives even consulted a prosecutor, who told them they didn’t have enough evidence to file charges. Dale told Ramsey that Walsh “had been her lover for about six years,” according to the detective’s report; that’s what Nancy Jo, her family, and Walsh’s family were concealing. And Dale had been in Virginia on the night of the murder, so police stopped investigating her. Pretty soon, two sisters took Dale to a psychiatric clinic in Richmond, because she was so distraught. When I called Dale recently to ask for her memories of Walsh, she said, “I don’t know you,” and hung up. It was as if she knew what the call was about, and had been bracing for it.
After they murdered Stella Walsh, Donald Cassidy and Rickie Clark went to a birthday party for Clark’s cousin, Robert Bryant, not far from the parking lot where they’d left her body. Bryant heard them talking about a robbery that had gone bad. “I didn’t want to shoot her, but she grabbed the gun and it went off,” Cassidy said, according to Bryant. In May 1983, after he’d been sent to prison for forgery, Bryant realized this information could be helpful to him.
Homicide detective Dave Hicks had been at the morgue the day after the murder, when Walsh’s body was undressed. Hicks imagined the difficulty Walsh faced throughout her life. “It was just a horrendous situation, and I felt so sorry about it,” he says.
Hicks drove to Marion Correctional Institution, to hear what Robert Bryant had to say. The inmate was willing to talk, but only if he could get a reduced sentence. After he gave up Clark’s name, the prosecutor knocked six months off Bryant’s term, Hicks recalls.
Police arrested Clark, 24, who quickly gave them the name of Cassidy, 21, his wife’s brother, who was on parole and had warrants for domestic abuse against the woman he lived with and attempted murder of her two year-old son. Both men were charged with aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.
Robert Bryant told police that a third man was involved in the murder, but no one else was ever arrested or even investigated. “I never found out if there was a third person,” says Hicks, who believes that if Clark and Cassidy had been part of a trio, both would have ratted on the accomplice to lessen their own sentences. Clark or Cassidy could solve the lingering mystery, but neither responded to a request for an interview. It’s left for the Cleveland Police Department to solve the mystery, if they decide to re-interview the two.
While Cassidy was in the Justice Center county jail, he and two other prisoners escaped by breaking a window, squeezing through an eight-inch by four-foot opening, then lowering themselves with bed sheets from the seventh floor window to a fourth floor courtyard. It set off an all points bulletin to recapture them. City officials were mortified at another episode of ineptitude: a few years prior, when the $34 million center was completed, sheriff Gerald McFaul bragged that it was “escape-proof.” During the escape, Cassidy injured his hip, and he called an ambulance for help, claiming he’d been hit by a car. When the police arrived at the address he gave, he was talking on the phone, still wearing his orange jail pants.
Because Cassidy committed murder in the course of a robbery, prosecutors could have pursued the death penalty, which Ohio reinstated in October 1981. Ironically, Cassidy may have been spared that strictest punishment because of whom he murdered.
Dr. Lester Adelson from the coroner’s office told the prosecutor he preferred to avoid a trial, so Walsh’s life would be spared further examination. The prosecutor’s office offered a deal: in November 1983, Cassidy pled guilty to murder, with a sentence of 15 years to life, plus 1 to 5 years on the escape charge, and Clark pled to voluntary manslaughter, with a 6 to 25 year sentence. “These two guys, they got a hell of a deal,” says Hicks, who retired in 1990.
Rickie Clark was paroled in March, 1990, and since then, has been back to prison five times. While still on probation in the Walsh case, he was arrested for breaking and entering, and served more than three years, then did three years for drug possession and receiving stolen property, and shorter stints for violating parole and attempted escape. He pled guilty in 2006 to aggravated assault and to being a convicted felon in possession of a gun (formally known as having weapons while under disability), and was sentenced to a year. In 2011, he pled guilty to drug trafficking, and was sentenced to eight months. And in February 2016, he pled to another charge of having a weapon (a loaded .22) while under disability, and was given a suspended three-year sentence with 18 months of probation.
Donald Cassidy went in the other direction. While in prison, he legally adopted a Muslim name and got a Bachelor of Arts degree in social studies, with a psychology emphasis, from the University of Findlay. He served more than 20 years, and following his parole in July, 2004, has taught art to seniors, illustrated a book, and worked for social-service agencies.
While in prison, he was also the primary researcher and a co-author of a sociology journal article about the effect of social support on prisoner recidivism. (He co-wrote it with two college academics, one a Findlay instructor whom he’d married.) An ex-prisoner must overcome many obstacles, the co-authors write, including the stigma of incarceration, in order to “enter the routine of living stage,” in which he finds “a lifestyle that minimizes his chances of reincarceration.” Researching and thinking about recidivism while in prison seems to have helped the former Donald Cassidy find a routine of living, and create a new life to match his new identity.
* * *
International sports is a corrupt, bureaucratic hinterland dominated by inconsistency and hypocrisy. There’s a reason athletic committees, like sausage makers, work behind locked doors.
After Walsh’s autopsy was released, the International Olympic Committee said it would consider revoking her medals. Then, nothing happened; for years, she was neither censured nor exonerated. She was mostly forgotten, and when she was remembered, it was as a cheater, or as a man, and thus as proof sports needed to be protected from men disguised as women.
Avery Brundage’s lousy idea of sex tests sat in mothballs from 1936 until 1948, when the Olympics resumed. Women were required to provide a certificate, signed by a doctor, attesting to their sex. Twenty years later, when the bulk accomplishments of Eastern Bloc women prompted new suspicions, the IOC switched to a more invasive method of what it called “femininity controls”: a physical test (which Walsh would have failed), nicknamed the “nude parade,” though it sometimes turned into a gynecological exam. When the nude parade was denounced as demeaning, the IOC pivoted to the Barr body test, a chromosome diagnosis using cells from the inside of the cheek. If the test showed the presence of the Barr body, a dormant X chromosome, the athlete was certified as female.
By regularly changing the method of sex testing, athletic officials inadvertently acknowledged that the definition of “female” was arbitrary and problematic. Ewa Klobukowska, a Polish sprinter who’d won Olympic gold and bronze, failed a chromosome test in 1967 (she reportedly had XXY as well as the usual female XX), even though she’d passed a visual test a year earlier. How could the same person be female one year, but not female the next year? Klobukowska was stripped of her medals and barred from international competition. “It is a dirty and stupid thing to do to me. I know what I am and how I feel,” she said.
In 1985, Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez Patino failed a test and was found to have a Y chromosome, like Walsh. Further examination showed that Patino had internal testes, in addition to breasts and a vagina. “Women must fight,” she said after she was banned. “What happened to me was like being raped.” Patino challenged the ruling and three years later, was reinstated: she had a condition, complete androgen insensitivity, which made her unresponsive to testosterone. If testosterone defines masculinity, as the IOC says, then despite her testes, Patino was actually more female than her competitors, because her body could not make use of testosterone.
“Patino was a fighter,” says Dr. Albert de la Chapelle, a Finnish geneticist who argued on her behalf and spent years trying to shame the IOC into eliminating Barr tests. “So much damage was done to so many people. It was a very bad idea, and then it became universally adapted.” The IOC, de la Chapelle says, “hated the guts of some of us who were audacious enough to criticize them.” His criticisms had not been gentle—when he learned about the chromosome test, he later told a reporter, “I said, ‘It can’t be true. Nobody can be so stupid.’”
In the absence of an official posthumous ruling about Walsh, her case continued to cause confusion and conflict. In 1988, an Ottawa newspaper profiled Hilda Strike, “the Canadian woman who lost her gold medal to a man.” Strike recounted how she’d finished second to Walsh at the ’32 Games: “She was very mannish looking and had a very mannish body, but I don’t know exactly what to make of it. I guess she was a man.” Until Walsh died, she’d regularly sent a Christmas card to Strike (and also to Helen Stephens). “We weren’t so chummy,” the Canadian shrugged. “I don’t really know why she sent them to me. Maybe she liked me, maybe she felt guilty.” Walsh had ignored other girls while competing against them, but later wanted to stay in touch, and express what she couldn’t when she’d feared public exposure. Reaching out to Strike and Stephens was a way to battle loneliness and to remember her track and field glory.
Strike’s grandchildren lobbied the IOC and the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) to retroactively award her the 1932 gold medal. Her friend Roxanne Atkins Andersen, who’d coached a runner Walsh always outran, endorsed their efforts. Andersen brought the case to The Athletics Congress (TAC), a spinoff of the AAU. “Let’s face it, she was an idol,” Andersen said to a reporter, then snidely added, “I’m not sure about the ‘she’ part.” Andersen, voted “most beautiful competitor” at the 1936 Olympics by the German press, cited Gerber’s autopsy—which, like many, she didn’t understand—and concluded that “a man won all of these women’s championships.”
Walsh had no advocates, no one to speak about the complexity and mystery of human sexuality. She’d never been beloved outside of Cleveland, and had no friendships with other runners or sportswriters. Her father, mother, and sister Sophia had all died.
While the TAC was in deliberations, Walsh was defended by, of all people, Helen Stephens. Rescinding Walsh’s medals “would be a dastardly thing to do,” said Stephens, then 73. “I don’t think she was a man; that’s just my opinion. I don’t think she had any advantage.” She also said, “Maybe Stella Walsh had a birth defect. I didn’t see it, and it wasn’t her fault in any case.”
You can view Stephens’ support as great sportsmanship, motivated by a sense of fairness rather than revenge at a rival who was likely complicit in accusing Stephens of being a man back in 1936. And it may have been easier for her to be magnanimous because, unlike Strike or Andersen’s runners, Stephens never lost to Walsh.
But there were other factors, which weren’t evident until 2004, after Stephens died and her memoir was published. Maybe Stephens sympathized with Walsh because she knew how exhausting it was to live in hiding. As her biography revealed, Stephens was a closeted lesbian who, during the Berlin Olympics, had an affair with a German waitress. There was more: at age nine, she had been raped in a barn by a 16-year-old relative, and a few years later, she was molested by a female teacher who “let me feel her pussy,” as she said to her biographer.
And Stephens’ memoir was not entirely sympathetic to Walsh. She recounted a story from 1975, when both women were inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Once Walsh arrived at the ceremony in West Virginia, accompanied by two women, the former competitors were assigned hotel rooms next to one another, and Stephens (bunking with her girlfriend) said she could hear Walsh having sex through the hotel walls. (Based on the chronology, Walsh’s bedmate may have been Nancy Jo Dale.) In a letter she sent to a track and field official, Stephens recounted a story told to her by Walsh’s driver: “Stella was having sex with the other girl day & night, and Stella had male sex organs.” When the driver threatened to go to the police, Stella “knocked her down” and threatened to “‘get her’ when they returned to Cleveland.” Late in life, Walsh was coming unhinged.
“It was a nasty situation,” says a track official who was at the Hall of Fame ceremony, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This lady [Walsh] obviously was lesbian, and a friend of hers came to visit with her, and they proceeded to get drunk and obnoxious. They created quite a scene. She was threatening to go to the press with something—I don’t know what, I really don’t—so we gave her money to go home, and took her to the Greyhound bus station.”
Although Stephens abstained from opportunities to reveal this information to reporters after Walsh’s autopsy, she made sure athletic officials knew. “I never did think ‘all was kosher’ with Stella,” she wrote in one letter. In another, she said, “ Stella must have been packing ‘a little something extra’ that gave her a bit of an edge in athletic competition.” Stephens had successfully remained closeted; when she died, the Missouri flag flew at half-mast at the capitol, and the governor hailed her accomplishments. In contrast, Walsh was buried amidst scandal, and her final hour, as she bled out from a gunshot wound, was likely full of distress that after 69 years, her truth would be discovered.
Finally, in 1991, the TAC ruled that Walsh should keep her medals and records. A resolution written by their women’s track and field committee expressed regret for “any damage” that had been caused to Walsh’s memory, based on “unsubstantiated allegations.” The TAC would “continue to recognize Stella Walsh’s record as a competitor and her role in the history of women’s athletics.”
Andersen, seemingly chagrined, withdrew her complaint. The matter ended. But Walsh’s exoneration was so attenuated from the scandal that it had little effect. Denunciations, misinformation, sensationalism, and pettiness prevailed; when the history of women’s athletics is discussed, Walsh is rarely recognized, except as a curiosity, a fraud, a cheat, a man. She had six nieces and nephews, but family members pull down the shades when anyone asks them about her. (They did not respond to a request for an interview or information.) They’re content to have her ignored, if it means they’re left alone, too. The only attention Walsh gets these days is from academics, who see her as a martyr for the cause of gender studies.
Helen Stephens’s two gold medals are on display in a sports complex, named for her, at her college alma mater in Fulton, Missouri. In contrast, the whereabouts of Walsh’s gold medal is unclear: she donated it to the Helms Athletic Foundation, which folded; its archives were absorbed by another foundation, now known as LA84. But LA84 say they don’t have the gold medal, only her Olympic beret, some other clothing, and more than fifty medals. The gold medal is like her career, both a matter of fact, and missing.
* * *
Women’s sports have expanded by multiples since the day when athletic officials worried about causing harm to fragile female bodies. There were 136 events for women at the 2016 Summer Olympics, and 23 in track and field, compared to fourteen and six in 1932.
But after all this time, the IOC has yet to establish a coherent policy for deciding who can compete as a woman. The only constant is their inconsistency: the nude parade, followed by the Barr test, then the polymerase chain reaction test, which examined chromosomes via DNA and disappeared before the 2000 Games, when gender verification tests were eliminated “for scientific and ethical reasons,” an IOC medical commissioner said.
It seemed like a big change, but it wasn’t. The new policy specified that competitors could still be verified, via a hormone test and a gynecological exam, if there were suspicions about her sex. The IOC still barred any woman who had high levels of natural testosterone, a condition known as hyperandrogenism, unless her body proved unresponsive to androgens, as Maria Patino’s was. To allow female athletes to compete when they have high levels of testosterone “can be unfair,” the IOC commissioner said, because testosterone confers a competitive advantage. Who could oppose a policy that assures fairness?
That was the posthumous argument against Stella Walsh: she had an advantage, as did Ewa Klobukowska, Maria Patino, and Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose victory at the 2009 World Championships provoked a public inquiry, then a sex test, and public humiliation until she was cleared almost a year later.
Women with high levels of testosterone often have increased body hair, deep voices, and well-defined muscles—despite all the putative changes, IOC inquires still focused on the usual suspects, women who are masculine-presenting and not gender-conforming. In particular, the women who’ve lately been examined for anomalies, including Semenya and the Indian runners Santhi Soundarajan and Dutee Chand, have all been women of color. “There has been a long current in modern sport that there must be something wrong with strong women,” Bruce Kidd, a Canadian who ran in the 1964 Olympics and then became an academic, told the BBC. “In the last 20 years, it has become a kind of biological racism.” So much for fairness.
In addition, a chromosome test can yield a kind of false positive. Like Maria Patino, Dutee Chand fought back after she was barred from competition in 2014. The Court of Arbitration for Sport heard testimony from both sides, and ruled that it was unclear whether a surfeit of testosterone gives some women a significant advantage. “As it was put during the hearing: ‘Nature is not neat,’” the ruling read. The Court gave the IAAF two years to either prove the advantages of testosterone or stop testing women for it. Seven months later, the IOC, moving at its usual speed, said it would stop testing for testosterone “until the issues of the case are resolved.”
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that hyperandrogenism improves performance. Doesn’t every human have a genetic advantage or disadvantage, whether it’s height, speed, or strength? We want to ban cheaters, but a natural abundance of testosterone isn’t cheating, by any definition. If a woman and a man are both born with unusually high levels of powerful testosterone, why should he be allowed to compete against his peers while she is not? In the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice, Emily J. Cooper points out that Michael Phelps, winner of 23 Olympic gold medals, has an unusual height, arm span, and flexibility, which are often cited as the reasons he can swim faster than anyone. They are also symptoms of Marfan Syndrome, a genetic abnormality, but no one has said Phelps should be examined to see if he has an unfair advantage. Phelps and Stella Walsh were both born as physical anomalies. But a man who excels at sports is a hero, while a woman who excels at sports is a suspect.
In sports, as in most of society, we allow only two gender categories, male or female. But many people, like Walsh, are born with attributes of both. Male and female “is a perfectly good way of parsing 98 percent of the people in the world,” says Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling a biology professor at Brown University, and author of Sexing the Body. But it doesn’t account for people who are born with attributes of both sexes, sometimes referred to as disorders of sex development (DSD), which can’t really be called “uncommon,” because it’s common. Data is hard to come by; as Fausto-Sterling says, “it is not the sort of information one volunteers on a job application.” But she estimates that one to two percent of babies born in the U.S. have ambiguous sexuality, ranging from additional chromosomes to mixed genitalia, and one in 1,000 to 2,000 births result in surgery to clarify a baby’s sex. The Intersex Society of North America recognizes at least 15 distinct intersex conditions, and sex researcher Alice Dreger identifies “at least three dozen well-documented variations” of standard anatomy, which indicates that sex is less like a duality and more like the limitless uniqueness of fingerprints or snowflakes. To return to Dr. Lester Adelson’s lyrical phrase, “Nature is infinite in her manifestations.”
In Walsh’s day, she would have been called a hermaphrodite, but that word, like Oriental or Negro, is now considered to be disparaging, and has been replaced by intersex, a broad term to describe the many congenital conditions in which a person develops neither standard male or standard female anatomy. Many intersex people are assigned a gender at birth and raised accordingly. In the 1950s, surgeons began to routinely perform “corrective” surgeries on newborns with intersex traits, often without telling parents. More recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council classified these so-called “genital normalizing” procedures as torture (and recommended that countries make the surgery illegal), and the World Health Organization, among others, called them a human rights violation. Intersex advocates recommend that any treatment be postponed until patients can participate in deciding whether they want to accept the considerable physical and psychological risks of surgically reshaping their genitals.
It was easy for me to see why intersex issues aren’t a mainstream topic—the idea of it makes many of us uneasy. That was evident when I interviewed people who knew Walsh: they talked in euphemisms, referred to Walsh as “he” or even “it,” or said Walsh “was a man” or “was a man trying to be a woman,” not out of cruelty, but out of ignorance. There has long been a fear of intersex people (in ancient Rome, they were believed to portend trouble and were often murdered), and although violence against them hasn’t been constant across all cultures or centuries, the Bible’s creation myth of Adam and Eve formalized a resistance to anti-binary science. In the mid-‘90s, the Catholic League placed an ad in the New York Times, claiming “every sane person knows there are but two sexes.” The permutations that exist, naturally, in between the dual sexes frighten people, because acknowledging them disrupts our sense of certainty: if there aren’t but two sexes, if there are 17 or at least 38, what else do we know that isn’t true? No wonder Stella Walsh hid.
To protect her ability to compete, Walsh did some awful things, and she may have felt justified in the lying and stealing, given the difficulties she faced. In 1911, when she was born in rural Poland (more accurately, in what was then the Prussian partition of Poland, which regained statehood in 1918, and born as Stefania, not Stanislawa, according to her birth certificate and other records), no doctor could have understood or treated her condition. Her parents emigrated the next year, maybe in search of medical treatment for her. They weren’t educated people; according to the 1930 census, neither spoke English and her mother couldn’t read or write. If her extraordinary physique gave her an advantage in competition, it’s the only advantage she ever had.
In July 1965, Walsh went to the AAU championships in Columbus, Ohio, and competed in the discus competition. She was on her way to Poland, for the dedication of an athletic center named in her honor.
At this meet, for the first time, the AAU allowed women to run a 1,500 meter race. So many things were changing, in sports and in the culture; so many bad ideas were being uprooted and challenged. For once, Walsh was in a reflective mood.
“When I see all these wonderful facilities available to girls, and the understanding, I wish they had it in our day,” she said. “I guess I was just born 30 years too soon.”
One wants to believe that the arc of history bends towards acceptance and enlightenment, but sometimes that arc appears to be flat. In her own era, she endured three kinds of disadvantage: as a woman, as an athlete, and as a Pole. These kinds of discrimination have all diminished, though none has vanished. If she’d been born 30 years later, she could have entered more events, more frequently, including ones not permitted for women. And she wouldn’t have lived in penury.
But if she had been born later, doctors might have performed irreversible genital surgery on her at birth or soon after. And she would have been at the mercy of sports federations and their fleeting, ridiculous policies. She likely couldn’t have run in any Olympics after 1936—except for the 2016 games, though the IOC would probably love to institute a revised test that would keep intersex athletes out of the games. If she had been born 30 years later, Walsh would not have been an Olympian, or an acclaimed athlete, and would have had less privacy and agency over her body.
Sadly for her, Stella Walsh was born at the right time.
* * *
Rob Tannenbaum is the co-author of the book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, which was optioned by A24. He’s been a contributing editor at Details, GQ, and Rolling Stone.