Professional wrestling was very popular across the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and one of the most prominent performers in wrestling rings around the country in those days was a man who went by many names – he was born Frank Simmons Leavitt, but at times he was called “Soldier Leavitt”, “Hell’s Kitchen Hillbilly”, “Stone Mountain”, and most well-known of all, “Man Mountain Dean”. He and his wife Dorris, a Gwinnett County native, lived near Norcross for many years, and between the fame brought by his wrestling and later movie acting career, and his ability to attract publicity, he became a well-known figure locally and nationally. Upon his death sportswriter Edwin Pope called him “the most fabulous wrestler of his time.” In this article we will look back on his life.
Note: Leavitt achieved popularity in part because he was effective at self-promotion, and newspaper writers were attracted to him because they found that he told engaging stories about the adventures in his life. But it appears that the details of these stories sometimes changed from one telling of the story to another. You might notice a few differing accounts in this article - the truth is in there somewhere, and hopefully you will enjoy reading about him, even if the definitive version of what happened (or perhaps didn’t happen) is not crystal clear!
Note: the name of Leavitt’s wife is spelled “Doris” or “Dorris” in different sources. Her tombstone uses the spelling “Dorris” so we will use that spelling here, unless quoting another author, in which case we will repeat the spelling that person used.
Frank Leavitt was born in the Hell’s Kitchen area on the west side of Manhattan in New York City, most likely in 1891, and joined the US Army at perhaps 14 or 15 years of age. (There is a story that he got a skid row bum to claim to be his father, and to sign paperwork allowing his entry in the army at such an early age.) Leavitt served at Fort McPherson in Atlanta and along the southern border of the United States under General Pershing circa 1916-1917, when there were problems with raiders from Mexico attacking settlements in the state of New Mexico. He then went to Europe as part of the First Division of the army, the first troops dispatched to France from the USA when our country entered World War I in 1917. Famed army officer George S. Patton Jr., then a Lt. Colonel, was his commanding officer in the Tank Corps of what was called the American Expeditionary Force. (He also was Leavitt’s commander when the New Yorker enlisted for service during World War II - Patton had achieved the rank of General at that point.)
Patton is shown in the summer of 1918 in front of a French Renault tank in the photo below. The photo was found on Wikipedia.
Leavitt participated in wrestling competitions while in the army and his interest in the sport continued for the rest of his life. A story in the York Dispatch (York, PA) on June 12 1919, written before an upcoming match in that town that featured Leavitt as a participant, noted that:
Sergeant First Class Frank S. Leavitt, who has seen overseas service with the American Tank Corps, and who is the champion heavy weight wrestler of the U S Army, returned to America and issues a challenge to the world for the heavy weight title. Leavitt recently competed in and won the semi-final in the Cique de Paree A E F tournament, and was the favorite for the title when ordered home with his unit.
(In other newspaper articles it was said that Leavitt was prevented from wrestling in the finals due to illness.) There were claims by Leavitt of other triumphs as well – a newspaper columnist recalled that Leavitt told him:
In 1919 I beat 19 men in one day to with the King’s Tournament in London. After the Armistice I joined a carnival and went around England meeting everybody who wasn’t scared of me. Lotsa times I fought 14 bums in one day.
Another claim of this era was that he won the Lonsdale Belt (a decorated belt awarded to boxing champions in England) while he was overseas serving with allied forces.
In the early 1920s he traveled around the eastern and midwestern USA and up into Canada for wrestling matches in cities large and small – stories about local appearances by “Soldier Leavitt”, as he was known in those days, appeared in the newspapers in big cities like Brooklyn, Baltimore and Boston, as well as those located in smaller markets, like Brattleboro, VT; Des Moines, IA, and Wilkes-Barre, PA. He also evidently performed in wrestling events in Cuba and South America during those years.
The photo below, found on Wikipedia, shows Leavitt early in his professional wrestling career.
Leavitt also played football for the New York Giants pro football team in 1919-20. He recalled years later that in one of the games he played against the legendary Jim Thorpe. Sportswriter Edwin Pope recounted Leavitt’s description of the game, where the wrestler said he was successful in stopping Thorpe’s runs for a while, but:
“Then Thorpe comes bustling through my tackle position” he recalled. “And I’m the only one with a shot at him.”
“I charge in and spread my arms. He just turns his back and comes into me in reverse gear. My chin smacks against his rear end and I’m out cold, and I skid about 30 yards on the ice to our bench.
“Then Mr. Charlie Brickley, our coach who is the great old kicker from Harvard, looks down at me and says ‘Well, sir, long’s you’re here, you may as well stay.’ And I sit on the bench the rest of that day.”
Professional wrestling was called the “Grunt and Groan circuit” in this era, and the wrestlers were many times experts at “working” the crowds who came to see them. Leavitt was one of the best in this department – a Montreal newspaper in 1924 reported:
It is surprising how seriously the house took Frank Leavitt’s performance. “Fancy putting up that nice youngster (meaning [his wrestling opponent] Lutze) against that brute,” “He ought to be put in prison,” and “Look at that rascal,” were some of the remarks hurled at Leavitt. Truth is, of course, that he is one of Lutze’s pals, and was merely suffering all kinds of tumbles and knocks to make people shout and scream. Even Lutze, try as he did to look hurt and annoyed, had to laugh. Leavitt can not only wrestle, but he is a master at causing an uproar, which is the very best kind of advertisement for such a tournament. That he has to work hard may be judged from the fact that he was mostly bandages and adhesive tape last night.
In May of 1924 Leavitt’s wrestling career came to a halt for a time following an injury suffered in a match in Montreal. At that point he moved to South Florida and got a job as a bouncer at a nightclub. Within a few months the Miami Beach City Council decided to add 10 men to the local police force and he got one of the jobs, serving as a traffic cop. In the days before automatic traffic signal devices (“red lights”) became commonplace many cities posted police officers at busy intersections, where they manually directed traffic Newspaper articles of the day mention that Leavitt was often stationed at intersections on Collins Avenue, a main North – South thoroughfare through Miami Beach, one block west of the Atlantic shore.
And he started generating publicity. A Miami News story from April 1925 reported:
Frank Leavitt, of the Beach police, who is stationed at Fifth st. and Collins av. regularly, called attention of the fact that motorists will keep well within the speed limit as long as a policeman is visible on the corner, but if a man in uniform cannot be seen traffic laws are disregarded.
Over the next five years Leavitt showed up in the Miami newspapers of the day – the News, Tribune and Herald – on a regular basis, with stories highlighting his activities such as fundraising at Shriner and American Legion events, participating in diving exhibitions at Smith’s Casino (a well-known Miami Beach restaurant and nightclub of the era), coaching high school football teams and helping stage the annual Fireman’s and Policeman’s Ball benefit.
The photo below appeared in newspapers across the country in early 1930. (This copy was found in a newspaper from Muncie IN.)
In the summer of 1928 Leavitt took leave from the police department to travel north. The trip was a combination of vacation and promotion of the city of Miami and its beaches, apparently sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce or a similar organization. He traveled in his Miami Beach police uniform and drove a brightly painted roadster decorated with large posters advertising the advantages of Miami as a place to visit and live. During the trip he attended national meetings of Masonic groups (including meetings of The Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm, in Richmond, VA, and the Knights Templar, in Detroit MI) and participated in parades there, representing the city of Miami. He visited 40 or more of the major cities in the northeast and midwest, often generating local newspaper stories when he would call upon the mayor to promote the joys of life in South Florida, or would volunteer to direct traffic in the cities he visited. In all the trip took 45 days, and it was reported that he traveled over 12,400 miles.
His job as a traffic cop in Miami Beach could be dangerous – the newspapers report that a traffic accident at his post on Collins Avenue in April 1925 landed him in Victoria Hospital in Miami for several days. But his traffic duties also led to a positive change in his life – he met Dorris Dean while on the job in 1928, and they married in the fall of that year.
Dorris Dean was born in Gwinnett County in 1905, the daughter of Dave and Willie Mae Britt Dean. Her father worked as a railroad conductor and was likely a veteran of the US armed forces around the time of the Spanish American War. He and his wife, along with several of their children, are buried in the cemetery at Mount Carmel United Methodist Church in the Pinckneyville community (today’s Peachtree Corners).
In an interview in 1936 the reporter noted:
He has come along nicely, thank you, since that day in 1928 when Doris Dean, who was an office manager with 12 employees under her, almost ran over him as he directed traffic at an uptown street intersection.
“I give her hell,” he said, with reminiscent relish, “and then I married her.”
Their wedding was in October 1928, and they were together until his death 25 years later. Dean left the local police force in the spring of 1930, when his visits to the home of a friend in town came to the attention of the management of the police department. That friend was Miami’s most famous winter visitor in those years, Chicago crime kingpin Alphonse (“Al”) “Scarface” Capone. Capone had a home on the Palm Island residential development in Miami – it still stands, and is shown in the photo below (found on the EMW Realty website).
The photo below, found on the FBI website, shows Al Capone.
The Capone home was evidently under surveillance by local authorities, who traced the license plate numbers of cars visiting the property. That spring they found that Leavitt’s car had been there several times, and the trips could not be connected to any official business.
When Leavitt was called in to police headquarters to explain he admitted that he had been there, claiming to have been visiting someone other than Capone at the residence. But as great as his acting skills might have been in the wrestling ring, the story did not convince his superiors, and he was fired on the spot. The newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, FL printed this report on May 6, 1930:
Miami Policeman’s Visits to Capone Home Costs Job
Miami, May 6 (AP) – Three visits of Frank (Soldier) Leavitt, Miami policemen, to the Palm Islandresidence of “Scarface” Al Capone have cost him his job.
Leavitt was summarily dismissed when he admitted the visits to the home, asserting that he was not visiting the Chicago gangster but a friend from Chicago, who was staying there. S D McCreary, director of public safety, ordered the dismissal. He said that Leavitt’s last visit was one of three hours duration.
Leavitt and his wife then left Miami, and he got back into wrestling, traveling around the country for matches in cities from New York to California. Over the next few years Dorris took on the role of her husband’s business manager, and he honed his craft as a showman as well, and his career was revitalized.
A big part of his success in the 1930s seems to have been associated with the change of his performing name to “Man Mountain Dean” It appears that “Man Mountain” moniker might have come first, as it was used to advertise a match in Fresno, California in August, 1930, along with “Sgt. Frank Leavitt”, without the “Dean”, as is shown in the ad below.
The “Dean” part of the performing name came about within the next year or two. The basic story of its origin seems to be as follows: Leavitt had an opportunity to participate in a wrestling tour visiting various locations in Europe. There was a stop in England, and while there Leavitt was involved in the making of a feature film. In 1937 Associated Press sportswriter Paul Mickelson told this part of the story:
Matches were scarce. Then Count Pojello, a wrestler in the dough, took the 320-pound Man Mountain over to England, hoping to do him over and get him a few matches.
One day Man Mountain got a chance to double for Charles Laughton [a well-known actor of that era] in a wrestling scene in King Henry VIII [the motion picture The Private Life of King Henry VIII, released in 1933]. He wore false whiskers but perspired so much that they fell off. He acted so well the film company gave him a few weeks to grow a real beard. Man Mountain did and it was a beauty. Noticing that even the hard boiled movie hands clutched their sides with laughter, Man Mountain decided to let his whiskers grow. He became a hit overnight. Today he’s one of the big money earners of burlesque wrestling.
“Fun is everything” mused the Man Mountain. “When I was a fine wrestler I almost starved to death. Then I lost my holds, grew whiskers and look at me today.”
Charles Laughton, playing the title role of the movie referenced above, is shown in the movie poster below, found on Wikipedia.
While the England stop on the tour went well, the stop in Germany did not go as expected, at least for Leavitt. When Leavitt arrived in Germany the immigration officials refused him entry into the country – Germany was highly anti-Semitic at the time, and they thought the name Leavitt indicated that he was of Jewish heritage. As a result of this he then changed his performing name to Man Mountain Dean, borrowing the “Dean” from his wife’s family, and in the following years he achieved great popularity, both as a wrestler and as a film performer – he went on to take supporting roles in movies with such well-known actors of that era as Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, and Joe E. Brown.
But was Leavitt able to participate in the wrestling matches in Germany? There is a version of the European journey story, printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1944, that indicates not, at least not on this first trip, and gives more details.
Braven Dyer, who wrote a column for the newspaper called “The Sports Parade”, interviewed Leavitt and penned a lengthy piece about the wrester’s life, published July 31, 1944. Part of the article focused on the trip to Germany. Dyer recounted the story that Leavitt told - that Karl Pojello, a well-known Lithuanian professional wrestler and promoter of the era, had organized a tour of Europe for six wrestlers from America, Leavitt among them. After the stop in England that resulted in Leavitt’s movie appearance they headed to Germany, but upon their arrival Leavitt was indeed refused entry, as noted above. So Leavitt was left behind at the port while the others proceeded. With no source of income, Leavitt took a job as a crewman on a freighter headed across the Atlantic, and several weeks later was back in the USA, able to get off the boat when it made landfall at Wilmington Delaware. There, looking for a way to make enough money to get back to his wife and home, he contacted a local wrestling promoter, hoping to arrange some matches. The promoter saw potential in marketing a new version of the now-bearded wrestler, and together they came up with a story – the promoter saying:
I got a whale of an idea, boy – just think - Stone Mountain Dean - just back from a triumphant tour of Europe where he doubled for Charles Laughton in “King Henry the VIII” and makes his first appearance in America in Wilmington, Delaware.
According to Dyer the promoter’s idea had worked well beyond their aspirations, leading to the great success of the new “Dean” in the 1930s – Leavitt was transformed into the new star (quickly called “Man Mountain Dean”) and within six weeks was wrestling against one of the most popular matmen of the day, Joe Savoldi, at Madison Square Garden in New York, where the gate receipts that night were $27,000.
The photo below shows Leavitt / Dean after his beard because part of his wrestling persona.
Paul Mickelson in 1936 quoted Leavitt as saying “In a few years Old Man Mountain will be set. I’ll have my annuities all paid up and get $279 a month for the rest of my life.” (A substantial sum in the Depression era!) And Mickelson wrote about Leavitt’s wife also:
As interesting as the Man Mountain is his wife, formerly Doris Dean of Georgia. Mrs. Dean – Man Mountain took her name when he started wrestling – is a smart business woman who’s afraid of no one, not even of Man Mountain and his wrestling foes. It’s nothing for her to bust into one of her husband’s matches and clout one of Man Mountain’s foes on the snozzle, she’s husky and strong, even good enough to lick Man Mountain, say some.
Mrs. Dean takes her husband from coast to coast in her own airplane.
Another AP story, this one by J. P. McKnight, quoted Mrs. Leavitt as saying she had no trouble handling her husband, because “fat men are just like babies”. But Leavitt freely admitted that life was going well with her managing his matches and the family finances.
One reporter noted that by the mid 1930s Dorris was licensed to manage her husband’s wrestling activities by 17 states.
Leavitt had made a return trip to Miami in 1936, and while he was there the well-known writer Damon Runyon met him and then devoted one of his newspaper columns to Leavitt. The two met in the city’s Hibiscus Island neighborhood, which was adjacent to the Palm Island area that had been the home of Al Capone. (Capone was gone from Miami at that point – he was spending his days in the federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay by then, having been convicted of income tax fraud.) According to Runyon, Dean claimed that it had not been he that went to see Capone in 1930, leading to his departure from the police force, but rather that his wife Dorris had stopped by. Regardless of the details, Runyon pointed out that Leavitt had prospered during the time since his departure from the force – he had toured Europe, his wife was successful in managing his appearances, and the couple had accumulated modest wealth. All after being fired for associating with a crime boss.
Damon Runyon above
Headline in one of the newspapers running Runyon’s column below
Headline from Damon Runyon column when printed in the Waterloo Iowa newspaper
In 1936 the Leavitts established a permanent home in Gwinnett County. Dorris Dean’s mother Willie transferred ownership of a 20 acre tract of land on the Atlanta-Buford Highway (US 23) to Leavitt, and the couple lived there for the next 17 years, until his death. This was located between Norcross and Duluth.
Leavitt announced his retirement from the ring several times over the years (usually after he suffered a major injury, such as a broken leg, as in the announcement below from 1937.)
Dean Announces Ring Retirement
Los Angeles, July 17 (AP) Man Mountain Dean, his fractured left leg in a cast, announced today he is through with wrestling.
The 317-pound giant, who has performed in the “grunt and grimace” busines for several years, was tossed into the second row seats at the Olympic auditorium Wednesday
But it seems that he always had the urge to get back into the sport. He was wrestling again in 1938, as he approached his 50 th birthday, as is shown by the ad below, found in the Grand Rapids, MI newspaper that year.
Newspaper stories of his wrestling matches persist up into the mid 1940s, including a match in British Columbia in 1946.
One of Leavitt’s favorite stories from this era was repeated on several occasions to the members of the press. In it he recounted “the darndest thing ever happened to me” – saying that he only once lost a match without even touching his opponent. The setting was Madison Square Garden in New York City. He was scheduled to wrestle against Roland Kirchmeyer as part of an event that featured a number of matches. He and Kirchmeyer were approaching the ring as one of previous wresters, the well-known Joe Savoldi, was exiting, and Savoldi said something like “Go on up there and take your beating, you ######” to Man Mountain, who became enraged. He described what happened next:
Well, I let him have one with everything I had behind it. Savoldi shot over backwards and under him went a feller named Dayton, who was sports editor of the Sun. Dayton’s face was gashed pretty badly and for a long time I was afraid it was going to cost me some money.
Anyway, Kirchmeyer and I went to our corners and were waiting to be announced when the referee came out, raised Kirchmeyer’s hand and disqualified me. I howled to the rafters, shook, but it didn’t do any good. I had lost a match and I hadn’t even rassled!
In April 1938 Leavitt announced that he would run in the Democratic Party primary for one of two seats in the state legislature from Gwinnett County, telling county party officials that “I’m going to show the folks a brand-new style of politics and I’m going to be elected”. In May he left for Hollywood, where he was to act in a movie then in production, saying “I’ll be back and start campaigning by July 4.” The Democratic party primary that year was held in September, and there were two incumbents as well as Leavitt and another challenger in the race.
The ensuing political campaign proved to be more of a challenge than perhaps Leavitt had anticipated. The incumbents were intent on keeping their positions, and they doubtless touted their own records and criticized their opponents. Leavitt even attracted the attention of New York-based conservative commentator Westbrook Pegler that June - Pegler suggested that Leavitt’s campaign slogan should be “l may look nuts and act nuts, but I don’t think nuts.”
It probably did not help his chances that while he was in California that spring, working on a role in the movie The Gladiator , he decided to announce to the press that he had received news from Georgia that he was the father of a newborn baby boy, resulting in an AP story under the headline “Son is Born to Wife of ‘Man Mountain’ “ that stated
Los Angeles. June 30. (AP) Man Mountain Dean, 317 pound bearded wrestler, and an avowed candidate for the Georgia legislature, today received a telegram from his wife in Norcross, Ga advising that he was a father. He said the telegram told him that the newcomer was ‘a boy, weight eleven three-quarter pounds.’
This attracted the attention of reporters in Atlanta, who had not heard this news until they saw the story come in from the AP. A reporter followed up with Leavitt’s wife, who was in Norcross, and she told them that the news was a “distinct shock” and surprise to her, as the only newborns around the Leavitt household in recent days had been some pigletts born to one of their sows. This information quickly got back to West Coast, and resulted in a story the following day, again on the AP wire, under the headline
‘I’m Just a Liar,’ Man Mountain Says of New Baby
It reported that the “huge bearded grappler” admitted that he had made it all up.
By early August Leavitt was frustrated with the political campaign and decided that it was time to get out of politics – he told a newspaper reporter that he was concerned he might slug someone if he stayed in the race – so he withdrew his name from consideration in the election.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 stirred Leavitt’s patriotic fervor, and he reenlisted in the Army the following month. Even though he was 50 years of age at that point he was able to join due to special consideration given to veterans who had served in the first World War and wanted to serve again. After a few months in the tank corps (a newspaper columnist noted that the army likely did not have any tanks large enough to hold him) he was given an honorable discharge due to health issues. He said in an interview later
I did fine in the army until I tried for a commission and when they examined me they discovered that I had diabetes. It is not bad enough to cause me to take insulin treatment, but the Government figured that I might become an added burden so they gave me an honorable discharge.
After departing the army he joined the Georgia State Guard, a volunteer organization that guarded war plants, critical communications facilities and the like.
After the war ended Leavitt decided he wanted to go back to school. He noted that he had received only a fifth grade education from his youth, and said he needed more education in order to work for the Veteran’s Administration in training veterans returning from service overseas. Another motivation that he stated was his desire to write an autobiography, tentatively titled “The Hell’s Kitchen Hillbilly”. Neither of these goals seem to have been accomplished, but he did sign up for journalism classes at the UGA branch in downtown Atlanta (Georgia State University today) and took classes for a time. And, as might be expected, stories about his school activities showed up in the newspapers.
Even though his wrestling days were behind him in the post-war years, he continued to take on movie roles from time to time, and was active in the Shriners and American Legion. He would attend the national conventions of the latter organization each year, and served a number of times as the sergeant- at-arms at the event. (He claimed to have been the sergeant-at-arms at the meeting in Paris in 1919 that established the American Legion.) He also became a vice commander in the Retreads organization – these were members of the American Legion who had served during both the first and second world wars.
In those days you might see a story in the newspaper about his activities at any time - that he was the first in the Atlanta region to file his income taxes for the year, or that he had visited a fresh air summer camp for disadvantaged children in North Carolina, or that he had been elected to serve as the commander for the year of his local American Legion post in Buford. Such stories were often accompanied by photos of the wrestler in some type of interesting situation.
Leavitt died at his home on May 29, 1953, a month before his 62 nd birthday. He had been working on the family’s mower one afternoon when he became ill - he made it from the yard back to the sofa in their home, complaining that his “pumper” was hurting, and he passed away from a heart attack a short time later. He was buried at the National Cemetery in Marietta – in a specially-enlarged casket - and some 19 years later his wife Dorris joined him there.
At his passing a number of sports writers from Atlanta, Miami and around the country penned their remembrances of the giant, sad at his departure – and doubtless sad that their pages would no longer be filled with his engaging tales that were somewhere between truth and fiction.