Even the good folks at Guinness might have a hard time coming up with a sufficient number of superlatives to describe the life of Baby Ruth. To begin with, she was one of the fattest women ever to appear in the circus. She had a remarkable pedigree, a remarkably happy marriage, and a remarkable attitude about her size. She also had a remarkable ability to attract rumor and innuendo, and myths about her life continue to be spawned even to this day. Separating fact from fiction requires patience, persistence, and an ear trained to recognize circus ballyhoo. Even so, what's left is ... well, remarkable.
She was born Ruth Smith in Kempton, Indiana, on February 8, 1904, by most accounts already weighing a hefty 16 pounds. She weighed 50 pounds by the time she was a year old, and 300 by the age of ten. But in her family, such statistics were not unusual. Her mother, who stood nearly six feet tall, weighed about 600 pounds when Ruth was born, and later reached a peak weight of 720. She, too, was a circus fat lady, billed as the Human Blimp during the First World War (when that word was still a novelty). Some sources have said that Ruth's grandmother was also a professional fat lady, which would give her a remarkable lineage indeed. David Willoughby, who recorded her measurements and life history in the name of science, believed that Ruth inherited both an exceptionally big appetite and a body that was exceptionally efficient at storing calories. In short, she loved food, ate lots of it, and nearly everything she ate turned to fat.
Nevertheless, Ruth had no ambitions of following in her mother's footsteps. She was a thoroughly modern 20th-century girl, and wanted a career in business. As a teenager, she got a job at the Dolly Varden candy factory in Cincinnati, where she earned very little, but got all the candy she could possibly eat. She somehow managed not to bankrupt the factory, and put enough aside to pay her way through secretarial school, graduating to a job at the telegraph company. But as she topped 400 pounds, she literally got too big for the office. She was soon hired by a lawyer, who valued her stenographic skills so much that he had a chair custom-made to her dimensions. Unfortunately, by this time, word of Ruth's size had spread around town, and people kept finding excuses to interrupt her work just to get a look at her.
Finally bowing to fate, Ruth accepted a job at the circus, where she was billed under the ignominious name of Ima Waddler. But instead of the humiliation she expected, Ruth found immediate acceptance and friendship in the sideshow. Her fellow performers quickly taught her how to handle the hecklers. In fact, once the stares and comments had turned into a source of income, Ruth discovered that they didn't seem to bother her any more. She also discovered how many of those stares came from admiring - even lustful - eyes. Her sexual exploits soon became the stuff of legend, prompting one of the most outrageous double entendres ever to appear in Life magazine: Ruth, ran a deadpan caption, "likes to entertain giants and human octopi with three legs." As late as 1989, a tabloid story credited her with having had a torrid affair with a well-endowed midget. "A lot of fellows seem to think a fat girl is good for a lot more lovin'," Ruth observed. "I don't know about that. But I do know we give 'em a heck of a lot more to think about!"
As her self-image changed, so did her stage name. She went from Ima Waddler to Lady Beautiful, then settled on Baby Ruth, which had the advantage of calling to mind a popular candy bar. Her size and reputation quickly expanded, and it wasn't long before she was approached by Ringling Brothers, who signed her on for the 1931 season. It was while the Greatest Show on Earth was performing in New York City that she met the love of her life. Joe Pontico, who ran the balloon concession at Madison Square Garden, is said to have spotted the big, round redhead a hundred feet away, and instantly decided that this was the woman he was going to marry. He was soon proven right. Joe and Ruth had a lot in common right from the start, for Joe (contrary to legend) was almost fat enough to be a circus attraction himself. He ran an Italian restaurant in Florida during tourist season, and loved to cook as much as Ruth loved to eat. He must have satisfied Ruth's other appetites as well, for their marriage, by all accounts, was a blissful one. They had one daughter - some sources say she was adopted, and in any event she didn't inherit her mother's tendency to put on weight. But then, neither did Ruth's own sister, who grew up to be a fashion model instead of a fat lady.
Despite her happy marriage, something still bothered Baby Ruth. She was an honest woman, but all her professional life she'd been billed at exaggerated weights. The photos she autographed for fans had credited her with more than 700 pounds before she had even reached 500. Ruth confessed to her friend Dolly Dimples that she felt like a fraud, and said she wanted to give the public a real 750-pound fat lady to marvel at. So Ruth diligently worked at gaining weight, always eating as much as she could hold, then stuffing in a little more. Joe's encouragement and culinary skills went a long way toward helping her achieve her goal. She put on about 40 pounds a year. By 1939, when Willoughby took her measurements, he found that she carried exactly 772 pounds on her 5 foot 5 inch body, with vital statistics of 81 - 76 - 91. (Willoughby was nothing if not precise.) Each of her thighs measured more than 47 inches, and her upper arms were more than 30 inches around - bigger than her sister's waistline.
More remarkable still, the fatter Ruth got, the more she liked it. For one thing, as the fattest fat lady around, she earned as much as $300 a day, even in the middle of the Depression. It was enough to buy an estate in Florida, and to build a home specially tailored to her size. According to legend, Ruth once paid a visit to her sister's house, fell through the floor, got wedged in the hole, and had to be hoisted out with a crane. If the story is true, she learned her lesson well, because Ruth made sure her own house had heavy-duty reinforced floors. Oversized chairs, a king-size shower, and a custom-made bed built low and wide all added to her comfort and convenience. Some fat women avoid their own reflection. Not Baby Ruth. She had a super-wide, three-way mirror installed in her dressing room, where she could admire her growing body from every possible angle. Gaining weight seemed to give her a genuine thrill. She set her sights on becoming the first professional fat lady to weigh over 1,000 pounds. By the 1941 season she was advertised at 815 pounds, and by the time the circus folded its tents those banners were probably selling her short.
Ruth suffered only one setback in her steady climb to more than 800 pounds. In the cold spring of 1935, as she exhibited herself in her short, baby doll costume, she contracted a serious case of pneumonia. Before she recovered, more than 200 pounds of her were gone. Instead of firm, fat flesh, she now had loose, sagging masses of stretched-out skin and flab, and the displaced weight put such a strain on her spine that she couldn't walk. Her doctor, truly a remarkable man in his own right, advised her to take a year of bed rest and put the 200 pounds back on - surely the one and only time a 500-pound woman has been able to say that she was fattening up on doctor's orders. The year in bed left her weak, but with all her weight back in its proper place she was able to amble around her estate again, and even to climb the stairs in her two-story home once or twice a day. Willoughby found it remarkable that a woman her size should be able to walk at all. She couldn't go very far without stopping to rest, but what Ruth lacked in stamina she more than made up for in determination. During her recuperation, she must have worked as hard at building muscle as she worked at building fat.
Even so, one problem still interfered with Ruth's mobility. She had a benign fatty tumor on the inside of her left knee that was a source of constant irritation. Late in 1941, after the season was over, she checked into a hospital in Tampa to have it removed. The first time they brought her to the operating room, the table collapsed under her weight. "Ruth thought this hospital episode was a riot," wrote Dolly, "and she told the superintendent that she'd be glad to come back if they'd build her a special reinforced operating table. They did."
The second time around, the operation was a success, but something went fatally wrong in recovery. One popular account, which smacks of press-agentry, says that Ruth started to choke while coming out of anesthesia, and that the nurses were unable to turn her over and clear her windpipe. It's a dramatic story, but it seems unlikely that anyone would choke to death in a hospital, when any nurse, orderly, candy- striper, or boy scout could have performed an emergency tracheotomy. In fact, her official cause of death was listed as heart failure, which raises other questions. It would not be illogical to conclude that the surgical staff was as poorly prepared for an 800-pound woman as their equipment had been. Even today, calculating the right amount of anesthetic for a woman that size takes experience and skill. They might easily have administered an overdose.
Whatever the cause, Ruth's death was remarkable too, in its own sad way. It would be hard to find a woman of any size whose passing was so greatly mourned.
Copyright 1997 by Karl J. Niedershuh .