Vince McMahon’s “Rosebud” moment: Was a family secret behind his career of abuse?


For many years the quintessentially Trumpian phenomenon of pro wrestling has been either not worth the time of respectable commentators or too big to fail — I forget which. Today it’s a lurid series of revelations about Vince McMahon, erstwhile boss of WWE, in the Wall Street Journal, newspaper of record of the financial class.

On the heels of the Journal’s 2022 report that McMahon and his publicly traded company had paid out nearly $15 million in hush money to former employees who alleged a longtime pattern of sexual harassment and abuse, he momentarily stepped down. Then, because he still retained majority control through ownership in the class of preferred voting stock, McMahon staged a comeback. Last year he sold WWE to Endeavor Group Holdings, the Hollywood powerhouse run by former superagent Ari Emanuel. Endeavor combined WWE and mixed martial arts troupe UFC into a new entity, TKO Group.

Either Emanuel and his Tinseltown money men did no due diligence or they ignored it. Now one of McMahon’s numerous abuse accusers, Janel Grant — who says she was stiffed out of two-thirds of her promised $3 million payout — has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court that ups the ante in grotesque detail. TKO Group bounced McMahon, this time surely for good. (A major WWE sponsor, Slim Jims, had pulled out and was lured back. There’s also the need to protect a new $5 billion streaming deal with Netflix for WWE’s flagship show, “Raw.”)

To top it off, the Journal reports that the federal government has been investigating McMahon for sex trafficking since last summer, and that agents have receipts from a raid that locked down text messages and other data from his phone. McMahon now seems poised to join the annals of all-time corporate sex fiends. Indeed, by objective comparison of scope and scale, movie casting couch mogul Harvey Weinstein might be just a handsy gawker at a nudist colony.

For the few who have actually been paying attention, the evidence about McMahon was out there for decades. It was even sublimated in lowbrow skits during the so-called WWE Attitude Era — from the scripts in which heel deluxe “Mr. McMahon” bragged about his “genetic jackhammer” to the time he forced blonde bombshell wrestling star Trish Status to strip, get down on all fours and bark like a dog.

In real life, as I wrote in Salon two years ago, there was McMahon’s limousine rape of his first female referee, Rita Chatterton, in the 1980s, not long after he consolidated wrestling’s regional territories into a global brand. Most significantly, there was the missed opportunity of his failed federal prosecution in the ’90s. Sean O’Shea, then the prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York, made the disastrous decision to bust McMahon for steroid trafficking, when the real heinous crime was his harboring of two underlings, Mel Phillips and Terry Garvin, who sexually abused “ring boy” gophers, many of them underage. Meanwhile, McMahon’s right-hand man, former wrestler Pat Patterson, sexually harassed the male talent, in what office culture tossed off as either a randy running joke or a routine excess necessary to keep secret in order to protect the business.

With the fall of McMahon, Endeavor and TKO are expected to try to write out the most important promoter in wrestling history who, like his crony Donald Trump, was a genuine game-changer in American entertainment and culture. This could prove a heavy lift. McMahon himself had had to erase one of his top stars, Chris Benoit, from the marketing shelves and fans’ memory banks after Benoit murdered his wife and their 7-year-old son before taking his own life on a summer weekend in 2007.

On the theory that murder scenarios have explanatory backstories, I researched and wrote a book about this one, “Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.” The cocktail in question was a combination of drugs — not just steroids but, crucially, painkillers and antidepressants — and traumatic brain injuries from in-ring stunts. Benoit’s murder-suicide was only the most melodramatic episode among the scores of deaths of young wrestling performers during this sports entertainment’s so-called renaissance.

If murder can be deconstructed, so too might the scourge of sexual abuse, which infects all walks of life. The “fake” world of wrestling is just like everything else, only more so.

In the classic film “Citizen Kane,” star and director Orson Welles plumbed the psychological mysteries of his character, Charles Foster Kane, closely modeled on the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In the end, it seemed, Kane’s yearning for power or comfort — or was it the comfort of power? — was rooted in “Rosebud,” the brand of his childhood sled, which represented Kane’s lifelong love fpr his mother.

Did the chaotic, violent, hugely American life of Vincent Kennedy McMahon have its own “Rosebud” moment? It may have been revealed in his 2000 interview with Playboy magazine.

Did the chaotic, violent, hugely American life of Vincent Kennedy McMahon have its own Rosebud moment? If so, it may have been revealed in his 2000 interview with Playboy magazine. At the time, McMahon was just coming off the success of the initial public stock offering of what was then called WWF (later renamed WWE). He was hyping his new winter-spring pro football league, XFL, which would become an epic all-time TV flop.

The original XFL ran for only one season on Saturday nights, hitting near-zero TV ratings by the end. It was the brainchild of McMahon and NBC executive Dick Ebersol, after the latter’s network lost out in a reshuffling of the NFL’s broadcast rights. McMahon relaunched the XFL 20 years later, but it ran right into the COVID pandemic and also lasted just one season before going into bankruptcy. It will now have a third life after being purchased by movie star and former WWE champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and merged with the USFL, another NFL also-ran.

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In that 2000 interview, McMahon talked about his early life. He had little or no contact with his biological father, second-generation wrestling promoter Vincent James McMahon, until later in life and largely lived in a trailer in North Carolina with his mother and her second husband, Leo Lupton. Vince remembered Lupton beating his mom — and also beating Vince himself, when he intervened to protect her.

McMahon also told the Playboy interviewer that he had experienced sexual abuse in that gothic backwater — but not by Lupton, his stepfather. The abuser was “not the male” parent, he claimed. Whether this story was true is impossible to determine from this distance. The underlying facts are deep in the past, toward the beginning of a life full of corruption and fabrication, and to put it mildly, Vince McMahon is not a reliable narrator of his own story or anything else. But he appears to have offered this story up, in public, as a kind of explanation for who and what he later became.

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