Before she was the multimillionaire CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, dressing in Chanel suits, mingling with media moguls and dreaming of becoming a U.S. senator, Linda McMahon was broke.
It was 1976. McMahon and her husband, Vincent K. McMahon, had just lost a lot of money in a series of bad investments, ranging from a construction company that went belly up, to a money-losing deal to simulcast motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel's jump across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The couple had a 7-year-old son, and Linda was pregnant with their second child.
They lost their home and their cars, she said, and they had to file for bankruptcy.
In the context of McMahon's campaign for the U.S. Senate, that tale of financial loss and redemption has been reduced to a few bullet points that she hopes will resonate with recession-weary voters.
"I think pain and embarrassment are two absolutely appropriate terms," McMahon said in a recent interview at her spacious campaign headquarters, with its bank of television monitors and war-room vibe in West Hartford Center. "It was very difficult just to not know how long it was going to take you to get back, to have people look at you as though you weren't a loser."
The McMahons did more than get back: Vince, 64, and Linda, 61, built a global entertainment empire and accumulated vast wealth. At one point, Forbes put Vince McMahon's net worth at $1.1 billion, though he hasn't had a spot on the magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans since 2002. Their main residence in Greenwich is assessed at more than $8 million; they also have a vacation home in Boca Raton and a condo in Las Vegas. They've given millions away to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, the YMCA in Greenwich and other causes.
The source of all this cash is professional wrestling, a low-brow diversion long known for its buffoonery, bawdiness and violence, both mock and real - but also for its deftly written story lines, colorful characters, impossibly beautiful women, feats of athleticism and the epic battles of good vs. evil that have won over millions of fans across the globe.
Since announcing her run, McMahon has been dogged by persistent questions about wrestling's darker side: allegations of steroid and painkiller abuse, reports of neurological damage suffered by wrestlers, and the number of performers who have died prematurely.
Videos of McMahon's occasional forays into the ring quickly made the rounds on YouTube. Yet her public persona contrasts sharply with the melodrama and raunch that has marked many WWE shows. An intensely devoted grandmother with smartly styled blonde hair and a voice that carries the trace of a candied Carolina drawl, she cuts an earnest profile in the ubiquitous campaign commercials she began airing more than a full year before the November 2010 election.
Those who know her speak of her intelligence and warmth, though she sometimes appears stiff, almost awkward, in public, unlike her husband, who is a natural performer.
McMahon defines herself as a fiscally conservative Republican who embraces the party's small-government ethos. She says she will bring fresh energy, a businesswoman's savvy and an outsider's common-sense approach to Washington.
Her detractors dismiss her as a neophyte with a slight grasp of public policy, a history of political disengagement and an ideology so murky that she gave thousands of dollars to Democrats through the years. They say she has hired the best campaign team money can buy and is willing to blow through $50 million to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, the ultimate prize in a long quest for respectability.
McMahon said she decided to run because she believes she has something to offer and is convinced Democrat Christopher Dodd has led the nation in the wrong direction."We have got runaway spending, mounting debt," she said. "We've got pressure on the credit markets so that small businesses can't get loans. I just could not sit on the sidelines anymore and watch this continuing to happen. ... We need some folks in Washington with real-life business experience, so I jumped in with both feet because I think I have some unique qualifications."
FRENCH AND FOOTBALL GAMES
She always though she'd be a French teacher. Growing up in New Bern, N.C., the overachieving only child of a two civil service employees, Linda Edwards was a Girl Scout, an athlete and a member of the National Honor Society. She also sang in the school glee club.
At age 13, she met Vince in church. He was 16, a handsome, 6-foot-2 bad boy fresh out of military school, and his chaotic family life contrasted sharply with the stability of the Edwards home. They married when she was 17 and, after graduating from high school, she followed him to East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
Though it was the late '60s, Linda and Vince were far removed from the social and political convulsions that were exploding on campuses throughout the nation. Linda recalled that armed National Guard troops patrolled the town after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, but other than that, the McMahons' college days revolved around their studies and the occasional football game, she told the college radio station in October.
"I was really on a fast track plan to graduate," she said, a goal she achieved in three years.
After college, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Vince did a variety of odd jobs while Linda worked at a law firm.
Soon, though, the family business came calling. Vince's father was a wrestling promoter at a time when the industry was controlled by a patchwork of regional operations. The younger McMahon spent the 1970s working for his dad and, in 1982, he bought the company.
Through a combination of smarts, serendipity and what some say is a ruthless business sense, he emerged as wrestling king. (The campaign declined to make Vince McMahon available for an interview. A spokesman suggested that a request to question the candidate's spouse smacked of sexism and asked whether The Courant was also interviewing Dodd's wife, Jackie Clegg Dodd, and Heidi Simmons, who is married to Rob Simmons, one of McMahon's Republican opponents.)
The WWE eventually would slay most of its rivals, including its biggest, Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling. Vince was obsessed with Turner, according to "Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment," an unauthorized account by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham. The billionaire yachtsman and founder of CNN had achieved a level of mainstream respectability that the McMahons had yet to attain.
But they were determined to change that. WWE became known for its charity work. The McMahons tapped former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. for the WWE board, and Linda became a trustee of Sacred Heart University. Earlier this year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, whom Linda describes as an acquaintance, appointed her to the State Board of Education.
"I have the utmost respect for her as a person," Sacred Heart's president, Anthony J. Cernera, said in a recent interview. "Her work as a trustee has been serious, focused and thorough ... she's got a very sharp mind and can read a business plan and analyze numbers very effectively."
Weicker is also a McMahon fan, though not enough of one to vote for her; he backs Dodd. "The intelligence factor is very much a part of Linda, she's a very decent lady," said Weicker, a political independent. "She's had tremendous input into the running of the WWE, which has been a big success."
MAKING PAYROLL, CLEANING UP MESSES
Linda McMahon's role at WWE is the foundation of her campaign for U.S. Senate - and the subject of fierce debate. In one of her first TV ads, she spoke of the business she and her husband took from a tiny tour promotion outfit into a publicly traded firm with 575 employees and a gleaming headquarters off I-95 in Stamford.
"I've made a payroll, I know what it's like to execute a business plan," McMahon said in an interview. "I know what it's like to expect the proper return on investment ... and I know you can't spend your way out of debt."
Linda was a key partner, said those familiar with the company; her calm and pleasant demeanor contrasting sharply with that of her more volatile husband.
"Think of Vince as the big showman, a guy who likes to work with the creative side ... and Linda did all the rest," said Nelson Sweglar, a former WWE executive who left the company in the mid-1990s. He described Linda as "detailed oriented and reflective."
She rarely ventured into the creative side of the business. "She may have smoothed things along and helped clean up some of Vince's messes, but the good and the bad, and there's a lot of both, should be attributed to Vince," said Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer.
Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network, which has had a long relationship with the WWE, described Linda McMahon as "the driving business partner behind WWE and [she] has been for a long time." Many of WWE's disparate business dealings - DVD marketing, international distribution rights, corporate responsibility efforts, human resources - fell under Linda's purview.
But if McMahon is allowed reap credit for the company's success, she must also answer for its excesses and failings, her opponents say.
McMahon shrugged off criticism of the company's content. "WWE is a company that produces fiction," she said. "It's a soap opera that runs 52 weeks a year without reruns. Instead of focusing on fictitious content of a company ... we need to focus on the issues."
Besides, the WWE says, it began toning down its edge more than a year ago, driven by a desire to draw in blue-chip sponsors, such as AT & T and Army National Guard, that were put off by skits about necrophilia and the sight of blood.
More troubling, in the view of some McMahon critics, is the string of professional wrestlers who have died prematurely, including Chris Benoit, who killed his wife and son and then himself in 2007. The tragedy prompted the WWE to tighten its existing drug-testing policies.
"Wrestling is seen as this goofy carnival netherworld, which it is," said Irvin Muchnick, author of "Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling's Cocktail of Death" and one of McMahon's most persistent detractors. "But I don't think it's responsible for anyone to say this company hasn't set a tone that involves incredible health and safety issues. Like a coal mine owner, she needs to be held accountable for the unbelievable, actuarially impossible toll of death."
Muchnick said more than 60 wrestlers have died prematurely, though he added that not all of them were under contract with the WWE at the time of their deaths. The WWE disputes that number and points to what it says is a tough policy regarding the abuse of prescription and performance-enhancing drugs.
"KICK THE TIRES"
The transition from the business world to politics has brought other bumps. For instance, her opponents pounced when she was unable to articulate a position on whether the alleged 9/11 mastermind ought to be tried in New York City. She told a New Haven Independent reporter she would have "more firm policy statements" after the first of the year.
Critics say that's evidence that she isn't ready for the rigors of the U.S. Senate. McMahon herself contributed to the perception during an appearance on WTIC radio in September. Asked by host Ray Dunaway what she planned to do on her first day in Washington, she gave a vague response about meeting with senators. Then, sounding like star-struck 10-year-old meeting wrestling champ John Cena, she said she would "enjoy taking a tour of the Capitol and seeing what the Senate chamber looks like."
Weicker warned that running for the Senate wouldn't be easy for McMahon.
"I told her this is going to be a rough haul, but she still wanted to go ahead and do it," he said. "Linda's a grown-up girl. She knows exactly what she got into. ... It ain't beanbags, it's a tough business."
Before facing Dodd, McMahon has to get by two other Republicans: Rob Simmons, a former congressman and current front-runner, and Fairfield County broker and pundit Peter Schiff.
McMahon says she's ready.
"I want people to kick the tires with me and decide if I'm the person that they want to send to Washington," she said. "I'm setting out to let them know who I am and what I stand for."
FACTS ON MCMAHON
Born: October 4, 1948
Raised: New Bern, N.C.
Graduated: East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.
1966: Married Vince McMahon.
1993: Named president of WWF.
1997: Named CEO of renamed WWE.
2004: Elected to board of trustees of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
January 2009: Appointed to Connecticut Board of Education.
September 2009: Announces run for U.S. Senate; steps down as CEO of WWE.
ON THE ISSUES
Linda McMahon on key issues, from a Courant interview and statements by her campaign.
ECONOMY:"If you look at the stimulus package, Washington just got that dead wrong. The money that flowed from stimulus went into government agencies, it did not get into the hands of small businesses who . . . are going to create 70 percent of the jobs. . . . The stimulus was supposed to hold unemployment to 8 percent. Well, it's 10.2 [percent]. When Chris Dodd talked about the stimulus last February, he indicated with the passage of stimulus we'd either create or save 41,000 jobs in the state, and since then we've lost over 24,000. So do I think we're on the right track? No."
HEALTH CARE:Through a spokesman, she said she believes any overhaul must address rising costs. She supports tort reform and favors letting small businesses to buy their health plans through associations and across state lines.
CLIMATE CHANGE:"I think there's evidence to the positive and to the contrary about global warming." Supports "green technology" and increased conservation initiatives along with "R&D efforts relative to other sources of energy, whether that's wind, solar [or] clean coal."
ABORTION:"I am pro choice, and I have to say that with a caveat because I've never had to make that decision for myself - I think it would be the hardest decision. . . . I'm not sure I could make that decision for myself." Does not support "partial birth" abortions and favors parental notification laws, "but in the end, in the bottom line, I believe it should be my choice to make."
AFGHANISTAN:"Like most Americans, I do not want to see another multiyear escalation of conflict. I'm gravely troubled about the human costs of war, and I'm apprehensive about the economic repercussions a protracted war will have on our country at a time of double-digit unemployment and record federal debt," she said in a statement released after President Barack Obama outlined his Afghan strategy. "However, in my judgment, we cannot ignore the risks inherent in allowing Afghanistan to become a safe haven for the Taliban and a launching pad for additional al-Qaeda attacks. . . . It is my hope that we bring our troops home safely as soon as possible, but we should bring them home responsibly and in victory, not defeat."