WRESTLING WITH THE PASTBy Michael Idov. Illustration by Miles Donovan.
Separated by vocation and a few generations, author Michael Idov discovers he nonetheless shares much in common with lucha libre baddy, genial restaurateur, and all-around vintage heartthrob Wolf Ruvinskis.
Here’s how I, for one, would want to fade out: in a restaurant of my own, strolling among the tables, flirting with the ladies and comping friends’ meals like Bogart in Casablanca – and, when the spirit catches me, inflicting on my captive audience some sort of musical performance.
Wolf Ruvinskis did all this, plus magic tricks. What’s more, he did it as a postscript to a long multimedia career as Neutrón, a Mexican wrestling character. Neutrón was a second-tier luchador. He was no Santo, though he had fought Santo. He was no Black Shadow, even, though he had fought him, too. Still, to die referred to, in your newspaper obituary, as “wrestler, actor, tango singer, illusionist and magician, referee, restaurateur and businessman,” – now that, gentlemen, is a fucking CV. Especially for a Jewish boy from Latvia. And I’m saying this as a Jewish boy from Latvia.
It is also a sign, I think, of a successful life to have left behind a string of discarded a.k.a.’s and noms de whatever. Wolf left more than a few. He was born Wolf Ruvinskis Manevics, Wolf being a completely normal Latvian first name. As for the two last names, both are exquisitely Ashkenazi – the first one giving off a hint of Baltic naturalization in that final “s,” and the second betraying a detour to Poland. 1921, his birth year, fell on the brief period of Latvia’s independence – its second-ever year as a free republic, in fact. By 1941, it would be German once again, and by 1945 the Russians would have moved in. Including my grandparents, who had descended on postwar Riga from Gomel and Kiev, respectively, to teach in its suddenly plentiful Russian schools. They missed the Ruvinskis family by a war.
Teen Wolf and his parents wisely left Latvia for the Americas in 1936 or 1937. (My own clan would follow suit in 1992, as soon as it turned out that, as a grandson of occupants, I had no claim to citizenship in Free Latvia 2.0.) The Ruvinskises tried for the U.S., couldn’t get in, and settled on, and in, Argentina. Here is where the story takes off and the names begin to really multiply. At sixteen years of age, Wolf had something I didn’t, something monetizable: brawn. By 1938, he was wrestling all over Latin America. In Colombia, where he started out, he used his own last name and variations thereof (Ruvinski, Rubinski). In Peru, he was Boris Boy, a cartoonish Russian sidekick to no particular superhero. In the U.S., he wrestled as Guillermo Lopez, complete with a Mexican hat. He didn’t get to Mexico until 1946.
In lucha libre, one can be a técnico (good guy) or a rudo (bad guy). Despite his blue-eyed good looks, Ruvinskis instinctively went for the villain role. It was a way to take control of his inescapable otherness. It was also more lucrative. Lomeli, a wrestling promoter, had told him: “You’re handsome, and the audience will empathize with you. But if you’re a rudo, people will get mad at you – and fill up the arena.” Ruvinskis debuted as a rudo on June 28, 1946, against Bobby Bonales, to the screams of “Go home, Russian! Go home, Jew!” He won, or, at any rate, “won.” Historians are not sure exactly how rigged Mexican wrestling was in the 1940’s, and the surviving wrestlers won’t tell. And good for them.
For those with even a modicum of talent, the ring was a trampoline. On the next level lay the world of starring in comics (which were mostly photographed with live actors back then, not drawn), and the comics catapulted you to the telenovelas, and the telenovelas to movies. By the 1960s, with the help of his character Neutrón, Ruvinskis had vaulted all the way to the top of this odd food chain. He got some respectable gigs, too. He even played Stanley Kowalski in a Mexican theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire — an absurd bit of casting that, once you see Ruvinskis in a few out-of-character shots, begins to seem like genius. The next and ultimate step would have been to conquer Hollywood. But Wolf’s Stateside career never took off; his biggest American credit came when he played a Russian in an episode of I Spy.
Somehow, however, I don’t feel like it bothered him. Mexican ladies of a certain age still go weak in the knees remembering their weekend group outings, sans husbands, to Wolf’s restaurant and music hall, El Rincon Gaucho. (Yes, Gaucho: the Russian-Latvian-Mexican decided to dedicate his life’s final act to nostalgia for his first immigrant port of call. This would be like me opening a Cleveland-themed restaurant). Wolf did the raconteur thing at his own pace and with total ease, until the age of 78. Then, heart failure. The no-nonsense, plain-wooden-box, Jewish funeral took all of 15 minutes, the length of your average rigged wrestling match. The perfect life.
I am sitting on a high floor of a damp midcentury apartment building in Mexico City, drinking tea and staring across a sectional at Lilia Michel. A former movie star herself, the octogenarian Michel is the only connection I have to the living Wolf: she was his third and last wife. I am in town, and have invited myself over for no clear purpose. This isn’t really journalism and isn’t really personal. In my halting Spanish, I try to ask her about the man. What was he like? What was he actually like? He was beautiful, she says. Generous. Kind. Women loved him. He loved her. Etc. She repeats herself often enough for me to understand her: an unexpected upside of dementia. When it becomes clear that she won’t disclose much more – and that I don’t even know the right question to ask – I get up and look around for clues. There’s no wall-mounted mask of Neutrón or anything. Michel got rid of all mementos in 1999, after her husband’s death. I spy a tiny Russian nestling doll atop a tchotchke-filled display case. Was that Wolf’s? She doesn’t remember. I decide to decide it was. Good enough. I excuse myself, catch a deadly-looking VW Beetle of a cab, and go back to the hotel. Screw Serge Gainsbourg – Russian-Jewish boys from the Baltics have a new role model.