The Phantom of the Ring
Phantom – The Enigma That Was Hans Mortier – Plus a Tribute to One of Wrestling’s Great Ladies
I remember sitting in a room with friends one night watching the WWF matches on television. Ken Patera had recently made his return and he displayed a new finisher whereby he grabbed the unfortunate victim in a full nelson and swung him around before stopping and putting on the pressure. McMahon labeled it “the swinging neck breaker” and everyone in the room was suitably impressed. I sat forward and blurted out, “Hey, that’s the hold Hans Mortier used years ago!”
In reply I received puzzled looks and cries of “Who’s that?” But I remember Hans Mortier, and rather fondly at that. He was an integral part of my birthday present, which was being taken against my father’s will to the wrestling matches at the Elizabeth (NJ) Armory, where the main event was Bruno Sammartino versus Hans Mortier. Bruno, of course, made the world safer by defeating the nasty German and letting us all go home happy. Figuring it was easier to get a heel’s autograph rather than fight the huge crowd waiting for Bruno, I hung out around the heels’ dressing room, where Mortier appeared and blew past everyone to the shouts of challenges from smart-mouthed teenagers, and jumped into a car driven by one of the other wrestlers on the card and drove away, forever for me, into the night.
Mortier was a slippery fish no matter how you put it. Here in the Northeast, we knew him as Hans Mortier, but you may have known him as Dutch Howlett, Tarzan Howlett, Tarzan Zorro, The Great Zorro, The Masked Zorro, Dr. X, The Green Hornet or Lord Charles Montague, depending on where you lived and at what time you went to see him.
His real name was Jacob (Jaap) Grobbe, but to the boys, no matter what alias he was using, he was known as “Dutch,” a reference to his place of birth. He was born in Leiden, Netherlands, a city in central Netherlands best known as the hometown of Rembrandt, on January 28, 1924. His rather idyllic childhood in Holland was broken up when the Nazis invaded. From then on, Grobbe was on the run, hiding out in one house after another to avoid capture. It is said that he was with the Dutch resistance, but there was another, more compelling reason for Grobbe to run: he was Jewish. Another reason he managed to avoid capture was his ability to speak Frisian, a dialect also spoken in North Germany, without a trace of accent. (Grobbe was reputedly fluent in seven languages, including Afrikaans, which is a dialect of Dutch.)
The story of how Grobbe made his way to America is one for the books, if true. At the end of the war he was supposedly stationed at a U.S. Military base before being moved to a camp for displaced persons. He stole the identification papers of a soldier named Howlett, and using those papers, sailed to America on a troop ship. Where he landed is anybody’s guess and only strengthens the story as fictional, but at any rate he slipped past security and hopped a fence to begin a new life.
Somewhere along the way he made his way to Tacoma, Washington, where he served as a police officer using the name Howlett. As police officers are usually given discount or free membership at a gym, Grobbe gravitated there and indulged a newfound passion for bodybuilding. While at the gym he was spotted by a few local wrestlers that were taken by his physique and his knowledge of Greco-Roman wrestling. Told that he could make a fine living on the mat, he took the promoter up on that, and in 1946 debuted in Tacoma, wrestling his first match against Abe Yourist.
Grobbe made his way to Ohio, where he worked from 1949 to 1952 under Al Haft and booker Jack Pfeffer. Pfeffer, who liked ethnics, booked him as Dutch Howlett, and later as “Jungle Boy” Dutch Howlett, and even as “Jungle Boy” Tarzan Howlett.
From here the story gets murky. He married and fathered two children, but after a domestic argument his wife supposedly dropped a dime to the Feds and told them of his immigration status. Arrested and held, he was given two options: Be deported under protest, with no chance of return, or go voluntarily, with the option of petitioning for readmission two years later. Grobbe chose the latter and departed for Australia and New Zealand, where worked in the mid-50s as The Great Zorro. He worked South Africa for Sam “Bull” Hefer and later became a star in France.
His petition to reenter the U.S. was accepted and he came to Florida where he worked as The Masked Zorro and teamed with Boris Malenko. It was there in 1962 that he came to the attention of Red Berry, who originally recruited him as a replacement for homesick Roy Heffernan of The Kangaroos. When Heffernan changed his mind, Berry decided to make him a singles star. It may have been Toots Mondt who gave him the handle of Hans Mortier. Grobbe also acquired a gold German aviator’s helmet, circa World War I to wear on his head and a “European” title belt to wear around his waist. With Berry backing him, Mortier fit quite well into the brawling style that dominated Vince McMahon’s promotion. His stature, 6’5” and around 275 pounds, combined with his well muscled build (he had the ability to roll his thickly muscled stomach), kept the fans in awe. His finishing move was the full nelson; he called it the guillotine or flying guillotine, with the gimmick being that no one could break it, especially after he swung his victim around a few times.
Once McMahon and Mondt split from the NWA to form the WWWF, Mortier became a natural to challenge the new WWWF champion, Bruno Sammartino. The feud was set up beautifully on television, where Mortier interfered in a Bruno match, rendered him semiconscious, and then hit him with the full nelson, completing Bruno’s trip into unconsciousness. Mortier, of course, shot up into number one contender status, plus he had to contend with an enraged Bruno. The heat was definitely there and their matches set the standard for future runs at the title: Bruno loses the first match on a technicality; Bruno wins the second match via DQ, or they go Broadway. In the blow off match, Bruno wins by breaking Mortier’s full nelson and reversing things with his backbreaker or bear hug.
Mortier’s run was also fueled by the publicity machine: the Kayfabe wrestling magazines. From reading them we learned that Mortier was once the personal bodyguard of Brigitte Bardot; that unlike frequent tag partner Killer Kowalski, who was a vegetarian, Mortier ate what could be called an Atkins diet, only proteins, with carbs held to a minimum; and that the aviator’s helmet was given to him by manager Red Berry to protect his manly beauty.
He was also given a tag partner in the form of “brother” Max Mortier. Two wrestlers played the role of Max during the Mortier Brothers run: French-Canadian Gil Voiney and Fred Berry. Whether or not Fred Berry was related to Mortier’s manager, Red Berry, I do not know.
There was also another story about Hans Mortier that made the rounds. According to this story, Hans Mortier really was a Nazi in his native Holland and was a guard at a concentration camp. Which camp that was, was never made clear. Adding fuel to this fire was supposedly the fact that Sam Muchnick would never book him. But this turned out to be just another story for the Kayfabe mill. His real name, Grobbe, was Jewish, which alone would disqualify him as a Nazi, especially as a guard in a concentration camp. Not only that, one of his best friends in the business, going back to his pre-WWWF days in Florida, was Boris Malenko, aka, Larry Simon. I don’t think a Larry Simon would be so close to a Hans Mortier if the Nazi story were true.
Mortier took a break from the WWWF in 1967, doing a short tour of Japan and Hawaii, where the highlight was teaming with good friend Johnny Barend to win the NWA Hawaiian Tag Title. In 1968 he finished with the WWWF and turned up in Florida and proceeded to play swapsies with The Masked Gladiator (Rick Hunter) for the Florida State belt in 1969. From there he went to Texas where he underwent a metamorphosis and became Lord Charles Montague, “the discoverer and manager of the great Malenko.” Whether as manager and charge or as tag partners (they held the Americas Tag Title), Mortier and Malenko tore up Texas rings, engaging in hot feuds with the local babyfaces and enraging the fans almost to the point of riot.
In 1971, in between runs in Texas and Florida, Mortier found time to appear in Montreal as Dr. X, where he defeated Jos LeDuc for the IWA Montreal version of the World’s Championship. When he lost it four months later to Abdullah the Butcher, he was unmasked as Tarzan Zorro, and it was that alias he worked under until his Montreal run was finished early the next year.
He retired sometime in the late 70s and returned to the family estate in Leiden with wife Yolaine. A bicycle accident in his 70s intensified the injuries he received while in the ring, reducing him to walking with the aid of a cane or walker. He also managed to fight off a bout of cancer of the mouth. But the cancer returned, more aggressive than ever, and for the last 18 months of his life, Grobbe was bedridden. A week before he died he was placed on a morphine drip, and his family was called in. The hell raiser known as Hans Mortier died peacefully in his sleep at 2 a.m. on December 15, 2010. He was one of the best at what he did – enraging the fans – and he will definitely be missed.
One of wrestling’s finest people passed away in December. She was not known to a lot of people, but those who did have the pleasure of knowing her realize that the world will not just be the same without her.
She is Stella Burke and is the mother of wrestling writer and historian Tom Burke.
My wife and I first met Stella, along with husband Francis, back in 1981 when we ventured to Springfield, Massachusetts, to spend a couple of days with Tom. It was a pleasure to meet both Stella and Francis. Besides being outwardly warm and welcoming, both exuded a quiet spirituality; one that need not make itself announced in order to be felt. I learned much about them in that short space of time and always felt myself most comfortable with them in the years that followed. Francis passed first, leaving Stella a widow. I could feel his loss every time we spoke, but Stella, trouper that she was, never dwelt on it. I could just tell from the tone of her voice that she had suffered a great loss. But she never let it get her down, for she had much to do with caring for son Tom and daughter Mary Ann, especially with Mary Ann’s wedding coming up after Francis passed.
Besides all this, Stella had to serve as a de facto ambassador of good will for wrestling. She was one of Killer Kowalski’s favorite people, and when he came for dinner she always made sure to cook his vegetarian favorites, especially the vegetarian stuffed cabbage of which he was so fond. Every time we spoke over the phone and the subject of the Killer came up, she would always laugh with that girlish giggle of hers and tell me what a pussycat Walter was and how he loved the fact that she made him vegetarian food. But knowing her as I did, how could she not go out of her way to please him? Because she never saw it as going out of her way, but rather just being hospitable. She did this with all the people in the wrestling business that she met, and believe me, there were quite a few. If she did complain to me it was always about Massachusetts winters, of which she made me quite aware that she could do without, especially when a large snowfall hit and she was unable to visit her daughter, son-in-law and the grandkids, on whom she doted.
She first became ill a couple of years ago, but Stella had the heart and fighting spirit of a champion and never let the illness get her down. In recent months she was having trouble coping, and daughter Mary Ann took her in for hospice care. When her condition continued to deteriorate she was moved to a hospice, from which she left our world at the tender age of 88. And when I say this I say it in all seriousness. If you knew her, then you know she died too young, if only because there are so few like her.
If Heaven is a destination based on your character and the way you lived your life, and the deeds you committed, then I am comfortable in the knowledge that God has a ringside seat reserved to Stella so that she can be the only person in Heaven’s arena to cheer for Killer Kowalski.
Do you have a question for the Phantom, or a Separated at Birth you wish to point out? Please, send your suggestion to the Phantom in care of this web site and see your name in print with the full credit.
– The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher