In the fatburger of our nostalgia, it's always 3 a.m. on a day
in the '50s, the trolleys have stopped running, the lights glare
white off the stainless steel, and the hamburgers cost a
quarter. Fatburger stands belong to the urban streetscapes of
mid-century America: the world of James M. Cain and Raymond
Chandler, Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, the lonely nights
in the art of Edward Hopper and the haunted days of Raphael Soyer.
This is an article from the Oct. 19, 1998 issue
"I spent half my adolescence behind grills flipping Fatburgers,"
says Gwen Adair, whose mother, Lovie Yancey, launched the
restaurant chain in Los Angeles 50 years ago. "And sometimes I
think I've spent half my adult life behind prizefighters in the
ring." Pro boxing's only active female ref has officiated
hundreds of bouts over the last 18 years. "I'm not a bit queasy
about blood," says the 50-ish former actress, "unless it's my own.
At 137 pounds, the 5'6" Adair is a lightweight. She shadows
boxers invisibly, gliding and pivoting and never getting in the
way. "Gwen has good movement for a ref," says veteran trainer
Joe Goossen. "She's from the old school--she lets fighters work
on the inside. Her philosophy is, Punch or get out."
"Gwen doesn't take nonsense from fighters," says Don Chargon, an
L.A. matchmaker. "She's very capable and keeps everything under
Control is what Adair finds appealing about the job. "I'm totally
in charge," she says. "That ring is mine."
Adair's mother once dated a pug named Suitcase Simpson. They
would take young Gwen to fights at the Olympic Auditorium in
downtown L.A. Gwen would try to orchestrate the action from her
seat: "In and out!" "Stick and move!" "Duck, you sucker!" One
time she even talked a hopeless journeyman into winning a bout.
"I saw the guy getting clobbered, so I shouted out tactics for
him," she says. "And guess what? He listened."
Years later she bought ringside seats to the Thursday-night
fights. She became such a fixture that local writers named her
the Olympic's Female Fight Fan of 1976. "That was all the
encouragement I needed," she says. "I decided to become a fight
She met welterweight Howard Jackson, a kick boxer who wanted to
try boxing. "Being a boxing manager was like adopting a child,"
says Adair, who was known then as Gwen Farrell. "I had to buy
Howard trunks, shoes and gloves. I had to train him in the gym,
bring him water in the ring, work his corners, dress his wounds,
find him opponents and give him advice."
During their 18 months together, in 1977-78, Jackson won 14 of
15 bouts. "All with his fists," Adair says. Then he decided he
wanted to return to kick boxing. Adair scrounged around for
another fighter. "All I could find were jailbirds," she says.
Their letters would begin: "Dear Gwen, I'll be getting out of
the pen real soon...." Unable to find a fighter with the right
kind of record, she turned to officiating.
In 1979 she was introduced to Frank Adair, a Los Angeles police
detective who ran a boxing program for kids. Frank, who
eventually became Gwen's third husband and third ex-husband,
showed her how to watch for fouls and spot fighters who had been
knocked silly. With more than 100 amateur bouts under her belt,
she got her pro license in '80. Only one woman--Belle Martel in
1940--had ever officiated professionally before.
Critics--usually male--contend that Adair lacks the strength to
disentangle a pair of heavyweights. Adair contends she doesn't
need it. In a 1991 heavyweight bout, she cowed 6'4", 236-pound
Kimmuel Odum with a single word. When Odum got Bonecrusher Smith
in a clinch in Round 1, Adair screamed, "Break!" The obedient
Odum broke, mumbling, "Yes, ma'am."
That was one of a handful of high-profile fights Adair has
reffed. She would like to work more world title bouts. "More for
the honor than the money," she says, obliquely referring to the
modest fees, which range from $350 for a regular fight up to
about $1,700 for a title bout. "If I had to ref for a living,
I'd starve to death."
Adair draws most of her economic sustenance from Fatburger. For
nine years she owned the lucrative franchise in Beverly Hills,
which permitted her to build up her savings. Residuals still
trickle in from her roles on old television shows. She had
speaking parts in 18 episodes of M*A*S*H and achieved
small-screen immortality in the show's opening credits as one of
the nurses running to meet an incoming chopper. "The royalties
don't come to much," she says. "By the time deductions are taken
out, there's barely enough left over to buy lunch."
Say, a burger?
"I hardly eat that stuff anymore," Adair confides. "After 50
years of Fatburgers, I've kind of OD'd on them."
For Adair, beefy heavyweights are easier to handle than
actress, "unless it's my own."