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.
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.