James Edward Barnett was one of the most successful promoters in professional
The story of how Barnett got involved with wrestling goes as follows: Barnett reportedly
earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard and then a masters from the University of
Chicago. Following his graduation, he worked under Robert M. Hutchins as an
administrative assistant for the University of Chicago President. Around 1949, as the tale
goes, he returned to the "Windy City" from Europe, and bought a television - where he
witnessed professional wrestling offered by Fred Kohler. A short time later, he bought
one of Kohler's wrestling publications. Not enthused by the words he saw in print, Barnett
sent a letter to the editor, and received a response telling him to come in and give it a go
if he could do it better. That's what Barnett did. He went to work for Kohler alongside
veteran publicity man and writer Dick Axman.
Tim Hornbaker contacted Harvard University in January 2005 trying to confirm whether or
not Barnett attended the school. A reference assistant checked both the University
Archives and the Directory of Officers and Students, and could find no record that he
actually attended or graduated from Harvard.
A representative from the University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center did
confirm that Barnett received a Ph.B. from the school in December 1947. Barnett also
worked as the Business Manager of the school's newspaper, the Maroon.
According to Sonny Myers' 1953 tax form, which was part of the public record for his case
against the National Wrestling Alliance and Pinkie George, he noted that $2,250 was paid
to Barnett for booking fees. That lucrative amount was for just one wrestler, and Barnett
had numerous "TV Stars" under contract to include Verne Gagne, Bill Melby, and Pat
O'Connor. Barnett did give a percentage of that $2,250 to Kohler.
Hy Goldberg of the Newark Evening News, in his column on January 17, 1954, credited
Barnett with being responsible for the wrestling boom. Barnett reportedly "brought in
Gagne, Schmidt, Pat O'Connor, Killer Kowalski, the Mighty Atlas," and through the
success of the DuMont Network's programs out of Chicago, generated a wealth of
attention. Goldberg said that Barnett was responsible for the rebirth of professional
wrestling, not Kohler, and that Barnett took his wrestlers on the road, drawing big in
Albany, Elmira, and even smaller cities, "where the attendance was triple the population."
Interestingly, Barnett was a college guy, Goldberg stated, and when Ed "Strangler" Lewis
entered a conference Jim was having with Kohler, Barnett didn't know who Lewis was.
Barnett was the manager for Kohler's outside-Chicago ventures, and perhaps on the
road, he did look like the man in charge. But Barnett was still second fiddle to Kohler,
although he was making tremendous contacts and learning many aspects of the business
that few were ever able to see. Not being a wrestler himself, Barnett was figuring out how
to deal with wrestlers, promoters, and other officials, and making the system run better.
After all, he was an intellectual. He wanted to improve Kohler's business, which would, in
turn, help his own moneymaking opportunities.
The April 2, 1980 edition of the Boston Globe reported that President Jimmy Carter
nominated James E. Barnett, "a 55-year-old Atlanta wrestling promoter who has
contributed $7,000 to Carter's presidential campaigns to the prestigious National Council
on the Arts." Barnett had reportedly been involved with the Georgia Opera Company, the
Atlanta Ballet, the Atlanta Symphony, and the Georgia Council of the Arts and Humanities.
Copyright 2012 Tim Hornbaker
|Jim Barnett Wrestling History