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Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture

Overview

This is the first-ever biography of the legendary wrestler Gorgeous George, filled with incredible never-before-told stories. George directly influenced the likes of Muhammad Ali, who took his bragging and boasting from George; James Brown, who began to wear sequined capes onstage after seeing George on TV; John Waters, whose films featured the outrageous drag queen Divine as an homage to George; and too many wrestlers to count. Amid these pop culture discoveries are firsthand ...

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Gorgeous George

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Overview

This is the first-ever biography of the legendary wrestler Gorgeous George, filled with incredible never-before-told stories. George directly influenced the likes of Muhammad Ali, who took his bragging and boasting from George; James Brown, who began to wear sequined capes onstage after seeing George on TV; John Waters, whose films featured the outrageous drag queen Divine as an homage to George; and too many wrestlers to count. Amid these pop culture discoveries are firsthand accounts of the pro wrestling game from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The ideal American male used to be stoic, quiet, and dignified. But for a young couple struggling to make ends meet, in the desperation born of the lingering Depression and wartime rationing, an idea was hatched that changed the face of American popular culture, an idea so bold, so over-the-top and absurd, that it was perfect. That idea transformed journeyman wrestler George Wagner from a dark-haired, clean-cut good guy to a peroxide-blond braggart who blatantly cheated every chance he got. Crowds were stunned—they had never seen anything like this before—and they came from miles around to witness it for themselves.

Suddenly George—guided by Betty, his pistol of a wife—was a draw. With his golden tresses grown long and styled in a marcel, George went from handsome to . . . well . . . gorgeous overnight, the small, dank wrestling venues giving way to major arenas. As if the hair wasn't enough, his robes—unmanly things of silk, lace, and chiffon in pale pinks, sunny yellows, and rich mauves—were but a prelude to the act: the regal entrance, the tailcoat-clad valet spraying the mat with perfume, the haughty looks and sneers for the "peasants" who paid to watch this outrageously prissy hulk prance around the ring. How they loved to see his glorious mane mussed up by his manly opponents. And how they loved that alluringly alliterative name . . . Gorgeous George . . . the self-proclaimed Toast of the Coast, the Sensation of the Nation!

All this was timed to the arrival of that new invention everyone was talking about—television. In its early days, professional wrestling and its larger-than-life characters dominated prime-time broadcasts—none more so than Gorgeous George, who sold as many sets as Uncle Miltie.

Fans came in droves—to boo him, to stick him with hatpins, to ogle his gowns, and to rejoice in his comeuppance. He was the man they loved to hate, and his provocative, gender-bending act took him to the top of the entertainment world. America would never be the same again.

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Editorial Reviews

John Waters
“Finally, the tawdry but glamorous details behind the legend of one of my first childhood heroes. Gorgeous George is such a good read I felt like bleaching my hair afterwards.”
Ishmael Reed)
"Gorgeous George invented a style of showmanship that was imitated by entertainers and athletes. With this biography, John Capouya has done an excellent job in introducing the most inventive of sport’s anti-heroes to a new generation of readers."
Gorgeous George
“Liberace stole my entire act, including the candelabra!”
Mark Kriegel
“One can explain the American condition as an eternal, televised battle between the Babyface and the Heel. That said, there’s never been a heel like Gorgeous George. John Capouya has done a fine job here, excavating a forgotten life and explaining why it mattered.”
Ishmael Reed (novelist
“Gorgeous George invented a style of showmanship that was imitated by entertainers and athletes. With this biography, John Capouya has done an excellent job in introducing the most inventive of sport’s anti-heroes to a new generation of readers.”
Pro Wrestling Illustrated
“Like the man himself, this inside look at a legendary performer challenges the reader to think beyond the wrestling ring. We give it four suplexes out of five.”
Los Angeles Magazine
“Former Newsweek editor John Capouya reveals the gory underworld of pre-WWE wrestling and shows how the Gorgeous One inspired James Brown, who loved George’s robes, and Muhammad Ali, whose “I am the prettiest” echoed the wrestler’s own vainglorious boasts.”
Sports Illustrated
“Capouya’s biography vividly re-creates Gorgeous George’s antics and the world in which he had more shock value than a numerically named wideout could hope for today.”
New York Post
“You see the title of John Capouya’s biography of Gorgeous George - which claims the flamboyant wrestler “created pop culture” - and you are struck by its audacity. A wrestler responsible for something that important? Impossible. But as you go through the pages, you can’t help but agree.”
Booklist
“As a show-biz bio and, for those who subscribe to a loose definition of sport, a sports bio, too, this is great stuff, entertaining and well referenced.”
Washington Post
NO DOUBT OF IT: GEE GEE’S THE BIGGEST THING IN TV
Newsweek
“Compelling. . . . The tension between George’s excess and his era’s reserve is one of many in his story, and those are what make Capouya’s cultural anthropology so interesting.”
New York Times
“Terrifically, tantalizingly weird. . . . GORGEOUS GEORGE does leave the words of one long-ago sports reporter ringing in your ears: ‘Oh, my, what a strut. If only this man had been born in the barnyard. What a rooster he would have made.’”
Entertainment Weekly
“...[Capouya] delivers a solid, entertaining book about a long-forgotten character and a peculiar slice of American history.”
Tampa Tribune
“In GORGEOUS GEORGE, Capouya combines extensive research and interviews with a colorful writing style and presents Gorgeous George as a cultural pioneer...Capouya’s words are as fast-paced as the action in the ring and connect with the reader as solidly as a dropkick to George’s kisser.”
Penthouse
“Compulsively entertaining...”
Gorgeous George
“Liberace stole my entire act, including the candelabra!”
Sports Illustrated
“Capouya’s biography vividly re-creates Gorgeous George’s antics and the world in which he had more shock value than a numerically named wideout could hope for today.”
Pro Wrestling Illustrated
“Like the man himself, this inside look at a legendary performer challenges the reader to think beyond the wrestling ring. We give it four suplexes out of five.”
New York Post
“You see the title of John Capouya’s biography of Gorgeous George - which claims the flamboyant wrestler “created pop culture” - and you are struck by its audacity. A wrestler responsible for something that important? Impossible. But as you go through the pages, you can’t help but agree.”
Entertainment Weekly
“...[Capouya] delivers a solid, entertaining book about a long-forgotten character and a peculiar slice of American history.”
Tampa Tribune
“In GORGEOUS GEORGE, Capouya combines extensive research and interviews with a colorful writing style and presents Gorgeous George as a cultural pioneer...Capouya’s words are as fast-paced as the action in the ring and connect with the reader as solidly as a dropkick to George’s kisser.”
Penthouse
“Compulsively entertaining...”
Newsweek
“Compelling. . . . The tension between George’s excess and his era’s reserve is one of many in his story, and those are what make Capouya’s cultural anthropology so interesting.”
Los Angeles Magazine
“Former Newsweek editor John Capouya reveals the gory underworld of pre-WWE wrestling and shows how the Gorgeous One inspired James Brown, who loved George’s robes, and Muhammad Ali, whose “I am the prettiest” echoed the wrestler’s own vainglorious boasts.”
New York Times
“Terrifically, tantalizingly weird. . . . GORGEOUS GEORGE does leave the words of one long-ago sports reporter ringing in your ears: ‘Oh, my, what a strut. If only this man had been born in the barnyard. What a rooster he would have made.’”
Booklist
“As a show-biz bio and, for those who subscribe to a loose definition of sport, a sports bio, too, this is great stuff, entertaining and well referenced.”
Publishers Weekly

Capouya (Real Men Do Yoga) affectionately chronicles the life of the infamous "Gorgeous George" Wagoner. Born in 1915, Wagoner learns the ropes as a grappling carny at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park near Houston. During a stint on the "grunt-and-groan" circuit in Oregon, the wrestler meets his future wife Betty Hanson, whose handiness with textiles and hair dye transforms the likable "babyface" into a gender-bending aristocrat of the ring, a "heel" whom crowds love to hate. His antics off the mat (Wagoner holds all his press conferences in local beauty shops where he has his tresses "marcelled" before matches) and on (George takes 10 minutes to fold and refold his robe between perfumings) whips jeering crowds into frenzies. The histrionic, inexpensively staged sport proved, between 1948 and 1955, to be a perfect fit for the new medium of television. Although some of his psychoanalysis feels gratuitous, Capouya vividly portrays the ins and outs of wrestling and his own struggle to maintain the "Gorgeousness" of a public life in his private life as well. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Life and times of the dyed blonde wrestler who inspired everyone from James Brown and Muhammad Ali to Bob Dylan. Lifestyle journalist Capouya (Real Men Do Yoga: 21 Star Athletes Reveal Their Secrets for Strength, Flexibility and Peak Performance, 2003) can't quite put over his claim that pro wrestler "Gorgeous" George Wagner (1915-63) invented American pop culture, but he convincingly portrays Wagner blazing a trail from the reticent early 20th century to its more flamboyant later decades. Born into hardworking poverty near Houston, he started wrestling in high school and went pro on the traveling carnival circuit in the '30s. Wrestling was just as outrageously fake then as it is today, and even more popular; Wagner, an innate showman, took it one step further. During World War II, he dyed his hair blonde and began appearing in frilly outfits made by his scrappy, prankish wife Betty. He assumed the sobriquet "Gorgeous George" and camped up the role of pompous heel. Hoping to see him receive a thrashing, audiences thronged to watch Wagner stride imperiously into arenas after his valet had made a show of disinfecting the wrestling ring with perfume. His career peaked just after WWII, when the new medium of television was looking for cheap programming; almost single-handedly, he made wrestling as ubiquitous on late-'40s TV as reality programming is today. While Capouya's appreciation for Wagner occasionally seems excessive, he is quite rightly impressed by his subject's audacity. At a time when popular heroes like the Lone Ranger were models of humility, Gorgeous George made a spectacle of his dandified arrogance. He slid into alcoholism during his final years, but the author paints anaffecting portrait of Wagner as someone who fostered a tectonic shift in American culture. Today, Capouya notes approvingly, "George's grand silliness is a fond recollection."A zesty appreciation, touching as well as entertaining, of one of the nation's great showmen. Agent: Paul Bresnick/Paul Bresnick Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review
James Brown learned about fashion from him, Muhammad Ali studied self-promotion under him, a young Bob Dylan rode a confidence-building moment he shared with him for years, and millions of American in the earliest days of television either loved him or hated him. He is the renowned wrestler Gorgeous George, one of television's first stars. There weren't tons of shows to put on the air in the early days, and wrestling entertainment, which happened in every city across America nearly every night, was cheap and plentiful -- and viewers loved it. And Gorgeous George was made for TV (or, as he says, "television was made for me"). George Wagner had been just another wrestler on the circuit until he and his wife slowly developed the persona of Gorgeous George, a preening, self-absorbed, bleach-blond prissy boy complete with a valet to carry his ridiculous props (such as a feather duster for his chair and tea cups for between-round refreshments) and outrageously beautiful capes. Known as the Human Orchid, George was the king of early wrestling on TV and the prototype of nearly every bad-boy wrestler who has come after him. Gorgeous George author John Capouya doesn't just capture the ups and downs of this incredible man, but he casually opens cultural doors to readers and exposes us to the backrooms and highways, carnival bigtops and fashion choices of the times. The book isn't just about a man but about postwar America and why we'd even want such a character as Gorgeous George to throw ourselves at: "After World War II, America was readjusting, reforming and reassembling itself into what exactly no one knew. But it was clearly going to be different," Capouya writes. "Then television came and took hold, and Gorgeous George did as much as any single person to ensure that new device became a fixture." --Mark J. Miller
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061173035
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/2/2008
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Capouya is a professor of journalism and writing at the University of Tampa. He was formerly an editor at Newsweek, the New York Times, SmartMoney magazine, and New York Newsday, among other places. He is the author of Real Men Do Yoga and has contributed to numerous publications, including Sports Illustrated, Travel & Leisure, and Life. He and his wife, the artist and photo editor Suzanne Williamson, live in Tampa and New York City.

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