In the fatburger of our nostalgia, it's always 3 a.m. on a day in the '50s, the trolleys have stopped running, the lights glare white off the stainless steel, and the hamburgers cost a quarter. Fatburger stands belong to the urban streetscapes of mid-century America: the world of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, the lonely nights in the art of Edward Hopper and the haunted days of Raphael Soyer.
"I spent half my adolescence behind grills flipping Fatburgers," says Gwen Adair, whose mother, Lovie Yancey, launched the restaurant chain in Los Angeles 50 years ago. "And sometimes I think I've spent half my adult life behind prizefighters in the ring." Pro boxing's only active female ref has officiated hundreds of bouts over the last 18 years. "I'm not a bit queasy about blood," says the 50-ish former actress, "unless it's my own.
At 137 pounds, the 5'6" Adair is a lightweight. She shadows boxers invisibly, gliding and pivoting and never getting in the way. "Gwen has good movement for a ref," says veteran trainer Joe Goossen. "She's from the old school—she lets fighters work on the inside. Her philosophy is, Punch or get out."
"Gwen doesn't take nonsense from fighters," says Don Chargon, an L.A. matchmaker. "She's very capable and keeps everything under control."
Control is what Adair finds appealing about the job. "I'm totally in charge," she says. "That ring is mine."
Adair's mother once dated a pug named Suitcase Simpson. They would take young Gwen to fights at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A. Gwen would try to orchestrate the action from her seat: "In and out!" "Stick and move!" "Duck, you sucker!" One time she even talked a hopeless journeyman into winning a bout. "I saw the guy getting clobbered, so I shouted out tactics for him," she says. "And guess what? He listened."
Years later she bought ringside seats to the Thursday-night fights. She became such a fixture that local writers named her the Olympic's Female Fight Fan of 1976. "That was all the encouragement I needed," she says. "I decided to become a fight manager."
She met welterweight Howard Jackson, a kick boxer who wanted to try boxing. "Being a boxing manager was like adopting a child," says Adair, who was known then as Gwen Farrell. "I had to buy Howard trunks, shoes and gloves. I had to train him in the gym, bring him water in the ring, work his corners, dress his wounds, find him opponents and give him advice."
During their 18 months together, in 1977-78, Jackson won 14 of 15 bouts. "All with his fists," Adair says. Then he decided he wanted to return to kick boxing. Adair scrounged around for another fighter. "All I could find were jailbirds," she says. Their letters would begin: "Dear Gwen, I'll be getting out of the pen real soon...." Unable to find a fighter with the right kind of record, she turned to officiating.
In 1979 she was introduced to Frank Adair, a Los Angeles police detective who ran a boxing program for kids. Frank, who eventually became Gwen's third husband and third ex-husband, showed her how to watch for fouls and spot fighters who had been knocked silly. With more than 100 amateur bouts under her belt, she got her pro license in '80. Only one woman—Belle Martel in 1940—had ever officiated professionally before.