Marine, wrestler, ichthyologist Donn Lewin dead at 84
GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
|Donn Lewin's first publicity photo.
Donn Lewin, the oldest of the three wrestling Lewin brothers from upstate New York, died Saturday in Hawaii, at 84 years old.
Lewin, who spent 33 years as a pro wrestler, also served his country in the Marine Corps., including participating in the famous Battle of Iwo Jima. He joined the Marines at 15 years of age, having gotten his parents' permission, after forging his application.
Back in 2006, Lewin recalled how he ended up in the Marines.
"I'm the only one left because I went in when I was 15 years old. Everyone else was in their late teens or early 20s," he recalled. "I lied. My old man said, 'If you get your birth certificate forged, I'll sign. I went down to City Hall, got my birth certificate. It was 50 cents. I took it home, and I kept folding it over the date. I went back down and I got a different girl at the City Hall, and I told her, 'My kid brother got a hold of my birth certificate, he's got it all crumpled up, and I've got to have it for working papers.' So she said, 'Fine, I'll go look...' I said, 'No, I'll tell you the date.' She said, 'Oh, okay.' I took it home. My old man just shook his head and said, 'Where's those enlistment papers? I'll sign.'"
Lewin would earn three Purple Hearts in combat, and fought at both Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. But it was at Guam that war struck home. "I got pretty banged up at Iwo, but I was in the third or fourth wave [of the invasion] there," he said in a 2004 interview with SLAM! Wrestling. "I was in the first wave at Guam. We had approximately 250 men in my combat unit when we landed. By noon, we had 147 left."
He was born in Buffalo, New York, to Sid and Berenece "Dutch" Lewin, and attended Lafayette High School until joining the Marines. The family were wrestling fans, and they'd go to the matches at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, and, naturally, the boys, Donn, Mark, and Ted, would practice the moves at home, in the backyard and in the house. (Their sister, Sallee, would later marry wrestler "Dangerous" Danny McShain.)
After leaving the service, Lewin got into bodybuilding, bulking up to 230 pounds, primarily working out on sun porch at the family's house.
He decided to bring his brothers along too.
"Like a good marine, Donn put us on a boot-camp regimen," wrote his brother, Ted, in his memoir, I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler. "We hated it. He had us running around Delaware Park on Sundays and weight lifting the rest of the week. Mark would conveniently disappear at workout time, but I'd show up conscientiously because I didn't have the guys or brains not to."
Donn's physique won him second place in a Mr. Niagara Frontier Contest, and the attention of Buffalo promoter Ed Don George. The promoter introduced him to some of the wrestlers, and Jim "Goon" Henry expressed interest in training Donn.
"I want to start one guy -- just one -- in the business who'll amount to something before I quit," Ted Lewin reported Henry saying.
A quick study, the young, handsome Lewin made a quick impact, and learned a little bit more about the wrestling game from McShain. He hit the road, working early around Buffalo, but getting regular work in Columbus, Ohio, for promoter Al Haft shortly thereafter.
"Handsome" Johnny Barend as a good friend. "God, we go back 60 years. We were both kids when we were wrestling," Lewin recalled. "He only lived 60 miles from me. When we were wrestling up in Toronto, he always used to drive to my house, and we’d go up in my car together, and come back together. He'd stay over at my house. Almost like brothers. We ended up tag team partners for a while."
"A professional wrestler's life had not affected Donn's fondness for collecting wild pets," Ted Lewin wrote about a visit to Columbus, where Haft was going to give him a chance to wrestle. "Traveling with Donn and (his wife) Hattie at this time was a four-month-old chimpanzee named Jago. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. I thought about Little Sheba, a six-week-old African lioness he'd sent home from Texas."
Donn would begin teaming with Ted, and later with Mark. He had famous matches with "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, among others.
"Buddy was a little hard to stomach at times. It's really hard to explain," Lewin tried. "He just thought he was a little bit better than everybody else, and he thought he was real tough. But he wasn't real tough, because there were several guys who could slap the shit out of him without any problem. ... Without question, he was a great showman."
Donn Lewin as the Executioner. Photo by Steven Johnson.
In 1969, when the National Wrestling Federation formed in New York and Ohio, promoter Pedro Martinez asked Lewin to don a mask for the first time in his career. At first, Lewin balked at becoming The Executioner. But he had wrestled under his real identity in Buffalo in the 1950s and 1960s, and was ready for a change of pace. "It was the best thing that could have happened to me," he said in 2004. "I could go anywhere and do anything and nobody would recognize me. So when my kids were older and I needed to be around town a little bit, that was a great thing."
Eventually, he had enough of the travel. He quit the business to stay home with Hattie and his ocelot, boa constrictor, and his iguana.
Then he became an ichthyologist, breeding rare and tropical fish, establishing himself as an expert in the field. "It was really a lark," he said. "We had one of those dining room tables that pulls out and we put the tank on the table so the kids and I could see it. One day, we're watching a pair of angels and I saw the female had laid some eggs on a leaf. I figured, 'Well, what the heck. Let's try it.' I hatched them artificially, and from when I did that, I ended up with 200 fish tanks in the basement."
Flying Bobby Marshall (Marshall Caplan) remembered Donn well. "He was always spitting tobacco juice into a pickle jar while driving from town to town," said Marshall. "I stayed overnight at his place in the basement surrounded by an enormous quantity of fish tanks."
All his wrestling did come at a price, however.
"It's something that I did for 33 years, probably longer than anybody. It's in the past, and I'm paying dearly for it," he said in 2006. At the time, Lewin was facing another round of surgery to replace his hips; his previous ones from 15 years earlier needed to be replaced. All told, he had more than 30 operations during his lifetime.
Having just turned 80, he was reflective. "No complaints. I live in paradise. I don't have to work anymore, I got lucky," he said from his home in Honolulu. "I do yard work, fool around. I enjoy my property and that's where I stayed."
Lewin remained connected to the Marine Corps.
"I'm kind of a recluse. ... I go to the Marine base over on the other side of the island every Thursday, and spend the day with the boys over there. They said, 'How come you left the Marine Corps?' I said it was because I got old."
October 29, 2004: Nothing fishy about this Executioner - Donn Lewin settles in Hawaii
Previous SLAM! Wrestling obituaries
Greg Oliver has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. His fifth book, SLAM! Wrestling: Shocking Stories from the Squared Circle came out in the fall of 2009. The four previous books are Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport (with Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy and Irv Muchnick); The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels (with Steven Johnson); The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams (also with Johnson) and The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. Order them all from the SLAM! Wrestling Store. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.