The Final Confession of Mabel Stark: A Book Review
Mabel Stark an amazing tiger lady
Early one-of-a-kind wild animal trainer
Reviewer's impression of Mabel Stark' novel
I have read many colorful books about the circus and discovered Robert Hough's novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, a fresh unique experience. Motivated by his personal hard investigative research, Hough brought back to life the legendary female tiger trainer in fifteen captivating chapters. He included a few black and white photos to help create a sense of nostalgic fun. The book is labeled fiction because the dialogue scenes are imaginary but inspired from authentic historical events that took place in the life of Mabel Stark. The novel is written from her point-of-view and revealed in flashback scenes. We learn about the close relationships she developed with professional circus people, her husbands, and her close bond with Rajah, the Bengal tiger.
Mabel Stark's first experience with a tiger
Mabel’s first tiger encounter occured while surveying a wild animal exhibit, a Siberian tiger named Royal.
Career chronology of Mabel Stark
Mabel Stark was born in Princeton, Kentucky, 1889. She moved to Louisville, where she studied to become a nurse and worked at St. Mary’s hospital. Her favorite past time was visiting zoos and watching the behavior of big cats.
1911 was the year Mabel achieved a break-through year in circus performing. She visited California and was hired in a dress-act, High School Horses, by Al G. Barnes Circus’ manager, Al Sands.
Louis Roth, a professional wild animal trainer introduced her to the world of taming big cats in the center ring. She began wild animal training with a mixed act of two tigers and two lions. The two lions were provided to her from Roth. Roth and Stark’s relationship developed and they were married. Mabel’s first tiger act premiered 2016. Stark’s wrestling act with Rajah, the Bengal tiger, made her the most famous female animal trainer in America.
Stark joined Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, 1922-24, she performed for them in Europe from 1925-28. One of those years, she worked with their sister circus, The John Robinson Circus, because it had a wild animal act. Ringling had discontinued wild animal acts with lions and tigers, 1925. She worked with the Sells-Floto Circus, 1929. Ringling took over Al. G. Barnes Circus, 1930, and Mabel stayed with them until its end, 1935.
Stark moved to Thousand Oaks, California, 1957. She trained big cats and performed for Jungleland, a place where she was hired full-time,1938, a wild animal amusement attraction.
Mabel Stark's historical background
The characters in the novel are well crafted three-dimensional human beings, and since they're true-to-live models from history, Hough researched enormous material to help him recreate authenticity. He researched material at The Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin. Two circus world publication magazines, The Bandwagon and White Tops helped him with chronoligical events.
Hough discovered revealing insight about Mabel Stark from her personal letters. She was interested in publishing an autobiography of her life and hired a ghost writer, Earl Chapin May. He and Stark corresponded with one another. The letters are saved in the Circus World Museum.
Hough researched Stark’s autobiography, Hold That Tiger, published by a circus vanity press, 1938. Hough focused on the parts that detailed her wild beast mauling’s and the steps she took to take care of her animals.
Hough interviewed past employees of Jungleland, an old wild animal amusement park that featured wild animal shows and amusement rides located at Thousand Oaks, California. Under the Jungleland title, the park remained in business from 1956-69, but had originally conducted business since 1925, when it was known as Goebel's Lion Farm, and then changed its name to Goebel's Wild Animal Farm, 1929. Hough learned interesting facts about Mabel.
Hough was fascinated with Stark’s early career in the nursing profession. He tried to find the reason she abandoned it early to become a sensuous dancer, Little Egypt, in the Great Parker Carnival. Early in the novel, Stark is held prisoner in a mental health institution, but sent free by her psychiatrist. Joanne Joys, circus writer, remarked that Mabel Stark abandoned nursing because she suffered from a nervous break-down, her account appeared in the book, Wild Animal Trainers of America.
There were two tigers named Rajah. Hough concentrated on the first Rajah; he was more significant to her career as a wild animal trainer.
Mabel experimented with a black jaguar
Mabel worked with the Ringling show and was the first wild animal trainer to include a black jaguar into her animal act.
Stark performed at Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium
Owner of Al. G. Barnes' Circus
Mabel performed big cat acts for Al. G. Barnes
Mabel's greatest love were her tigers
Mabel's first marriage to a Greek tailor, Dimitri, was a struggle that led to failure, an indication that her following marriages were limited in duration for one reason or another. But through all the good and bad, one undeniable fact stands out to the reader, Mabel Stark loved her tigers, and she had a long standing romance with Rajah, the Bengal tiger until his unfortunate end.
Very few women would risk physical injuries inflicted to them from big cats that were trained to perform in big cages. Mabel took enormous risks constantly. She was bit often, hospitalized several times, diagnosis of her injuries varied from minor to severe flesh wounds and muscle tears, but after recuperation, she was eager to step into the big cage again. Hough did an outstanding job illustrating the colorful excitement of wild animal performances executed well and big cat acts that erupted in chaos. She never resented the physical pain her favorite pet, Rajah, caused her.
Mabel hated work unrelated to wild animal training
Mabel was never comfortable with any other work but training tigers and tussling with them in steel cages. But later in her circus career, May 23, 1927, circus wagons rolled into Laurenburg, North Carolina. Mabel's nursing skills were put in action once again. Circus performers and animals were victimized by contaminated water in the water tanks. Mabel had to help lead her circus members into boiling hot water. The famous colorful acrobat, Lilian Leitzel, helped her. A popular clown in his day, Poodles Hannaford turned severely ill. Members of the circus mistakenly drank water thinking they were suffering from a flu epidemic.
Hough included a humorous scene after Mabel was released from Jungleland. She was considered an aging performer and the insurance company thought her a liability. Her press agent, Parly Baer, found her a working gig at the Exhibition Center. Parly asked her to put on the old circus uniform and promote a food slicer product. The results were disastrous. Alan Hale, an actor known as the Skipper in the comedy sit-com,Gilligan's Island, appeared there, but she didn't get a chance to meet him.
Mabel Stark's opinion of Clyde Beatty
In the novel, Mabel attends one of Clyde Beatty’s wild animal act performances at the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. She witnesses his lion act that erupts into chaos. She thinks he takes more risks than the father of wild animal training, Van Amberg. She is shocked the crowd loves Beatty's performance. Considering the brutal mauling's Mabel survived I thought this was humorous. This scene foreshadows a later incident in which Mabel's own wild animal act erupts out of control.
John Ringling changed Mabel's contract
The men in Mabel Stark's life
Tigers, Hamms Beer, and Gilligan's Island, were Mabel's greatest loves, but her marriage relationships were an intriguing part of the novel. Mabel was courted by men that differed from one another in many aspects. The Athenian tailor, Dimitri and rich Texan, Mr. Williams, were large men, but two later husbands, wild animal trainer, Louis Roth, and menage manager, Art Rooney, were much shorter in stature. Hough did a brilliant job dramatizing conflict arising from Mabel's marriages to five unique men. Mabel discovered there is difficulty staying married to men that worship women on a pedestal, keep you trapped inside a house, gamble other people's money, and drink too much.
Another older menage manager married Mabel Stark near the end of her career before she died, his name was Eddie Trees, but Hough didn't mention or dramatize him in the novel.
Mabel's relationship with her boss, Al G. Barnes, never resulted in marriage, he had been married to another woman when they met, but the novel clearly showed they had a deep bonding relationship.
John Ringling helped change Mabel's circus performing contract, allowing her to perform wild animal training acts for their sister circus organization, The John Robinson Circus. Ringling Brothers had discontinued wild animal acts in 1925.
Robert Hough's novel about Mabel Stark
Rajah, the Bengal tiger
Mabel Starks' attachment to the Bengal tiger, Rajah is legendary. She formed an unforgetable relationship with the big cat, revealed brilliantly by Robert Hough. Mabel nursed Rajah when he was victimized by water contamination, she revived the brilliant fur on his body with egg washes when it faded, she kept him inside her train car, and took him for walks at the beach, including Venice Beach, Los Angeles, California.
Mabel Stark's favorite drink
I recommend reading The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, to circus lovers that want to learn more about golden age performers. I recommend this book to readers interested in studying the style of real life autobiographical fiction. I also recommend reading this book because it is a fun read. Mabel Stark was truly a one-of-a-kind wild animal trainer.
Once Mabel learned wild animal training it became her whole life. I think it's amazing to consider that in the golden age of the circus, there was a bleak time for wild animal trainers. Lion and tiger acts were frowned upon by Ringling Brothers because of the danger they posed to the community. Mabel Stark survived that rough time and continued her tiger acts after 1925. She also survived father time during a phase in her life circus professionals encouraged her to retire. Mabel discovered a good place for herself at Jungleland, Thousand Oaks, California. In her heart she never quit.
Jack's fun facts: jungleland
Mabel Stark's favorite television sit-coms
Mabel loved to watch Gilligan's Island re-runs and The Jack Benny Show.
Mabel performed under the same big top tent with Lilian Leitzel
Mabel Stark's marriage partners
The men listed were married to Mabel Stark, which one wasn't included in Hough's novel?
Stark trained big cats at Jungleland late in career
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, Author: Robert Hough, First published 2001 Random House Canada, First American Edition, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY, 10003
Robert Hough has written popular character motivated nonfiction that have been published in magazines, Saturday Night and Toronto Life.
Hough's fiction has been published by Canadian Fiction, Quarry, The Fiddlehead, and the Antigonish Review.
- The Stowaway (2004: It was listed on the Boston Globe's top 10 books of the year)
- The Culprits (2007)
- Dr. Brinkley's Tower (2012)
- The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan (2015)