Wrestling’s Hart Family: A Reading Guide

Danny Bednar, PhD
14 min readJan 20, 2024

It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the most important chapters in professional wrestling history come from the Hart family. Reflecting this, their legacy has been covered in no-less than ten books. This is a quick reading guide to anyone else diving into the Hart family literary canon.

The Hart Family literary canon (D. Bednar, 2024).

WHO ARE THE HARTS?

The Hart professional wrestling dynasty started in the late-1940s when Stu Hart began wrestling in New York City in early heydays of the “sport”. At the time, professional wrestling was just about to enter a golden age of popularity as the ease of lighting and filming wrestling made it a top choice for television networks looking to fill timeslots. In turn, post-war middle class audiences made it one of the most popular shows on TV throughout much of the 1950s.

Stu, who was born outside of Saskatoon, was never as famous an in-ring performer as some of his contemporaries, such as Gorgeous George or Buddy Rogers. This may be attributable to Stu leaving New York before wrestling truly exploded in popularity in the mid 1950s. By 1952 he had moved moved to back to Canada to start a wrestling company of his own.

Stu was already well known north of the border, especially in Western Canada. Growing up in Edmonton he was a legitimately skilled amateur wrestler and Canadian national champion who would have went to the Olympics if not for World War II.

Like any wrestling territory, Stu’s company (which would eventually be based in Calgary and known as Stampede Wrestling) experienced ebbs and flows throughout it’s existence. After losing a critical TV timeslot, Stampede Wrestling and Stu’s growing family came into hard times by the late 1960s. As a result, Stu and his wife Helen would raise their 12 kids in poverty.

By the late 1970s Stu’s sons (of which he had 8) were beginning to wrestle for Stampede. By the early 1980s, three of them: Bruce, Keith, and Bret were top performers in the promotion. Supporting Stu’s kids was a roster of emerging superstars; several of which married into the Hart family. These included The Dynamite Kid, Davey Boy Smith (who married Stu’s daughter Diana), and Jim Neidhart (who married Stu’s daughter Ellie).

In the early 1980s, wrestling had found new popularity, driven largely by the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and it’s presence on network television in the United States. With a strong roster, a new TV deal, and a rebirth of pro wrestling as a popular form of entertainment, Stampede Wrestling stars gained fame among a generation of fans in Canada and beyond.

Growth aside, Stampede Wrestling’s days were numbered. The same WWF that had bolstered wrestling’s popularity across North America was now buying out smaller wrestling companies and taking over their TV spots, touring locations, and top performers. In 1984 Stu Hart sold Stampede Wresting to the WWF. With the territory went four of its top performers: Jim Neidhart, The Dynamite Kid (Tom Billington), Davey Boy Smith, and Bret Hart.

While Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid, as the British Bulldogs, would gain international fame first, it was Bret Hart who would go on to have the most success at the international level. Between 1992 and 1997 Bret was a critical talent for the WWF, helping to carry the company though a disastrous financial period in the mid-1990s when the aging-out of 1980’s ‘Hulkamaniacs’ led to a lull in wrestling’s popularity.

After an acrimonious split with the WWF in which he was double crossed by management, Bret’s career ended in 2000 while working for second-rate World Championship Wrestling (WCW) (itself soon to be bought by the WWF). Throughout his career Bret leveraged his popularity to boost the careers of several of his family members, such as Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith. Undoubtedly, the most talented person to benefit from Bret’s popularity though was his own youngest brother Owen Hart. Through a storyline feud with his bigger brother, Owen rose to international fame in his own right by the mid-90s.

Sadly, in May of 1999, Owen died in a stunt gone-wrong in which he was to descend to the ring from the rafters of an arena. As a result of poor planning on the WWF’s side and inexperienced stunt coordinators, Owen fell to his death in front of a live audience of more than 16,000 people. Thankfully, the fall was not shown on television. It occurred as Owen was getting ready, and before cameras got the cue to turn to the rafters. The television audience were watching a pre-taped interview when the accident occurred.

The aftermath of Owen’s death led to a sort-of Hart civil war throughout the 2000s. At the core of the dispute was that some family members (namely Owen’s widow Martha and Bret) wanted the WWF to face legal consequences for their role in Owen’s death. On the other side were those who thought it was unfathomable to take the biggest wrestling company in world to court when multiple members of the extended family were still working in the business. It was during this period in which all the books detailed here were written.

BOOKS BY HARTS

Under the Mat: Inside Wrestling’s Greatest Family (2001). Diana Hart & Kirstie McLellan. H. B. Fenn & Company.

Under the Mat (Fenn Publishing, 2001).

Because I’m going chronologically, unfortunately this book has to be first. Intended as a history of the Hart family from the youngest daughter’s perspective, it’s fair to suggest that this book shouldn’t even be considered part of the family’s historical canon. Shortly after release, Under the Mat was recalled by the publisher because Martha Hart (Owen’s widow) threatened legal action in response to the book’s harmful and inaccurate descriptions of her family.

While Martha is indeed the target of some vile comments, others, namely Davey Boy Smith, Jim Neidhart, Smith Hart, and Ben Bassarab face far more damning descriptions and accusations (including Diana’s graphic descriptions of sexual assault by her then husband Davey Boy Smith). Because of this, Under the Mat takes on a complicated legacy in Hart, and wrestling, history.

The book can mostly be taken as fiction given that almost everyone in the family has suggested as much. Even Diana has distanced herself from it since it’s publication. Bret and others have also stated that Stu did not write the forward. They suspect it was written by Diana and passed off as Stu’s writing.

In the aftermath of the book’s retraction, Diana Hart suggested that co-author Kristie McLellan was responsible for the fabrications and exaggerations in the book. McLellan denied this and has gone on to have a successful writing career in the world of hockey autobiographies. Her partnerships with people such as Wayne Gretzky and hockey broadcaster Ron MacLean indicate that she likely has the credibility to avoid exaggeration for the sake of controversy.

With the book being over two decades old, out of print, and long since abandoned by both authors, it exists now as more of an artifact than a document. Reading it as any kind of reliable account of events is almost impossible. At the same time, given their nature, some of Diana’s accusations cannot not be brushed aside. However, because the accused parties are no longer with us, it doesn’t appear anyone is too interested in further examining the accusations.

Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart (2002). Martha Hart & Eric Francis. Key Porter Books.

Broken Harts (M. Evans & Co., 2002).

Before the the Vice documentary series Dark Side of the Ring featured Martha Hart in their “The Last Days of Owen Hart” episode, insights on the accident and subsequent lawsuit that followed Owen’s death were limited mostly to this book. The reasons Martha stayed out of the wrestling world are made clear in Broken Harts. Martha is not a wrestling fan, she did not grow up around wrestling and was not interested in getting any more involved than she needed to be.

Like the Dark Side of the Ring episode, Broken Harts makes it clear that for his family, Owen’s legacy is about more than wrestling. Martha Hart and Eric Francis’ writing emphasizes the heart ache and loss experienced by the family. Personal tragedy is the core of the book more-so than the loss of a great talent and performer. Though his accomplishments and exceptional in-ring skill are referenced throughout, the story focuses more on Owen the person than Owen the performer.

The book was written at a time when Martha was still grieving and working through the catastrophic changes that had happened in her life. While not coming off anywhere near as aggressive or angry as Diana Hart in Under the Mat, Broken Harts still contains a fair amount of raw emotion. About half the book is dedicated to Owen’s death and the legal battle between Martha and the WWF (including the disgusting story of the WWF suing her, the widow, as a legal counter tactic).

Upon completing the book, most reasonable readers will agree that Owen’s death was the result of mass negligence. Even if her arguments are painted with emotion and (understandable) personal bias, the facts presented (many of which are verifiable through additional research) make it clear that the approach taken to setting up the stunt that killed Owen was not a safe one.

This is the most definitive look at Owen Hart’s personal life we will ever get. While his siblings could, and have, added important insights into Owen’s childhood and wrestling career, no future book would be able to claim authority on Owen Hart the person over-and-beyond Broken Harts.

Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling (2007). Bret Hart. Vintage Canada.

Hitman (Grand Central Publishers, 2009).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Hart family’s most famous member happens to provide the most interesting and wide-spanning entry in the family’s literary lore with Hitman. Written as a straight-forward autobiography, Bret’s book is considered among the greatest wrestling books ever. While no co-author is listed, professional editors probably helped craft the story, which lacks the errors and amateur style evident in most of the other books in this reading guide.

Though widely respected in the wrestling community, if Bret is guilty of anything it’s an almost super-human level of self-confidence. It’s hard to blame him for maintaining such strong self-belief though. It was that confidence that helped him not only emerge as the dominant personality in a chaotic family of 11 siblings, but also rise to fame in the WWF at a time when steroid-induced muscle freaks took up most of the TV time.

In the preface, the Hitman hints that the reader is in store for a brutally honest, warts and all, history of his career. Implying that perhaps his memoirs could wobble his status of Canadian hero and clean-cut good guy. While indeed revealing, Bret overestimates the degree to which people bought into his squeaky clean mid-90s good guy image. For the most part, the details shared don’t harm the Hitman’s image. By all accounts Bret was pretty responsible when it came to sex and drugs (especially compared to many of his co-workers). Bret does admit that he was not faithful to his first wife. This is indeed his, self-admitted, biggest failure. But beyond that, nothing in the book is of moral question or beyond what most good-looking young people would do with a little bit of fame and money.

While revealing the Hitman as evidently human, Bret’s book also recounts the hard work and “I’ll show you” attitude that fostered one of the greatest careers in pro-wrestling history. Because Bret’s career spans the 1980s wrestling boom and late 1990s ‘Attitude’ era (led by Stone Cold Steve Austin), his autobiography is essential reading for all wrestling fans.

Straight from the Heart (2011). Bruce Hart. ECW Press.

Straight from the Hart (ECW Press, 2011).

Given their carny roots and a chaotic childhood household, the Hart family has a fair share of eccentrics in the brood. Though not the oddest of the group (that honor probably belongs to the eldest - Smith Hart) Bruce’s idiosyncrasies have long entertained wrestling fans. That being said, the awkwardness that is so apparent in his interviews isn’t really present in his writing. Surprisingly, Bruce writes confidently and effectively about his life.

Coming a few years after the swath of Hart books mentioned above, Bruce doesn’t add too much to the timeline that wasn’t already discussed in previous works. At times his accounts diverge greatly from others, but that is his prerogative and many of us have no way of truly disputing that Bruce isn’t indeed telling the truth.

Where the book might lose readers is Bruce’s not-so-subtle jealously towards Bret as well as his insults toward everyone in the family other than Owen and his parents. A key part of Bruce’s story is his apparent bitterness at not being sent to the WWF as part of the sale of Stampede Wrestling. In some ways, Bruce then takes on a sort of tragic figure in Hart history as sympathetic readers could see how the shadows cast by his brothers’ successes have unfairly dimmed his role in the family’s story.

At the end of the day, Straight From the Hart is less new revelations and more so, ‘what does the second-eldest Hart think about things we already know about’. It’s a helpful read to understand the dynamics of the family from a certain point of a view, but I am not sure it’s where anyone should start.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: ESSENTIAL BOOKS ABOUT HARTS & STAMPEDE WRESTLING (NOT WRITTEN BY HARTS)

Stu Hart: Lord of the Ring (2002). Marsha Erb. ECW Press.

Lord of the Ring (ECW Press, 2002).

Published after his wife Helen passed away and shortly before Stu himself would pass away in 2003, Marsha Erb’s book could be considered the definitive (so far) work on Stu Hart. Erb wrote the book with the support of the Hart family and evidently interviewed Stu, Helen, and Hart children Bruce, Ross, Elle, and Keith among others. About 30% of the book focuses on Stu’s youth, 30% on his days running Stampede Wrestling, 30% on his family, and a 10% on Bret’s departure from the WWF, Owen’s death, and Helen’s passing.

In the Hart civil war that emerged in the aftermath of Owen’s death, Erb seems firmly in the camp of Bruce, Elle, and Diana (i.e. don’t sue the WWF). Erb does cover the family’s reaction to Diana’s book (which was the only other Hart book out at the time), and, in no uncertain terms, confirms the suspicions that Stu himself did not write the forward and was not aware, or supportive, of the content of Under the Mat.

Though the book starts with an insightful view of the Hart House in the days immediately after Owen’s death, the book’s biggest contribution to Hart family history is its focus on Stu’s youth and his almost unbelievable journey from Saskatchewan to Edmonton to New York City and finally, to Calgary. While not a biography with the sort of academic rigor that someone like Stu Hart deserves (there aren’t even sources or references listed at the end), the fact that it was written in partnership with Stu and the family makes it an important read in any effort to learn about the Harts.

Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling, 2nd Ed. (2007), by Heath McCoy

Pain and Passion (ECW Press, 2007).

The most thoroughly researched book on this list, Pain and Passion is the sweeping third party account that the Stampede Wrestling territory deserves. McCoy, a Calgary sportswriter, is largely deferential to the Harts as it seems his connections (if mostly professional) limit any criticism. Nonetheless, a ‘puff piece’ this is not. It also, arguably, makes Lord of the Ring somewhat obsolete. McCoy summarizes the key points from Erb’s book effectively enough for readers to skip the previous entry all together.

Being the only book on this list that isn’t explicitly about a Hart, Pain and Passion fills in gaps left by others about the business of Stampede Wrestling and the presence of characters like Archie the Stomper, Andre the Giant, and Abdullah the Butcher in the lives of the Harts.

Its wider lens than other books in this guide adds key context to the core Hart story that unfolded from the 1940s through the 1990s. It’s a must read if you are interested in the history of pro-wrestling in Canada and a mostly fresh third-party view of the Harts.

BOOKS WORTH EXPLORING BUT NOT CRITICAL TO THE HART FAMILY STORY

Pure Dynamite: The Price You Pay For Wrestling Stardom, (1999) by Tom Billington and Alison Coleman.

Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & The Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry, (2008) by Matthew Randazzo V.

Crazy Like A Fox: The Definitive Chronicle of Brian Pillman 20 Years Later, (2017) by Liam O’Rourke.

Dynamite & Davey: The Explosive Lives of the British Bulldogs, (2022) by Steven Bell.

THE RANKINGS

  1. Hitman by Bret Hart — As I mentioned above, this is the best written and the most interesting read. If you’re starting a Hart family binge, you have to start with the family’s most famous wrestling son.
  2. Pain & Passion by Heat McCoy — What Bret’s book might lack in objectivity, Pain and Passion mostly fills in. Not a totally distanced view of the family, but well researched and expansive enough that the context for Bret, Stu, and Owen’s lives, among others, are better understood.
  3. Broken Harts by Martha Hart — The most important story in Hart family history. The only reason this isn’t higher is that it is largely focused (rightfully so) on Owen and his life with Martha rather than on Owen as a wrestler or the wider Hart family. Essential reading for wrestling fans, but not as expansive as the two books above it on this list.
  4. Lord of the Ring by Martha Erb — As an amateur writer myself, I can see a fellow dilatant a mile away. Erb’s book is helpful in understanding Stu, but it lacks the polish of McCoy, who’s subsequent Pain & Passion made Erb’s book mostly expendable. It’s also out of print and hard to find.
  5. Straight From the Hart by Bruce Hart — Bruce legitimately brought innovative ideas to wrestling and was an eye witness to a critical time of pro-wrestling history. For completists, its definitely worth a read. But like all the books by Hart siblings, it requires an understanding that every event has multiple interpretations. Here, readers must decide if the author is a reliable narrator.
  6. Under the Mat by Diana Hart — Speaking of unreliable narrators. This book can only be described as either a morbid curiosity, or a reflection of great pain and mental anguish. I don’t recommend it, but I also know that the Streisand Effect is in full play here and every fan of the Hart family rushed to read it the second it was removed from shelves.

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Danny Bednar, PhD

Part time professor and author with a 9-5 at my local space agency. Writing about space exploration, heavy metal, classical music, & hockey.