Gorgeous George

Gorgeous George

by John Capouya

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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

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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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Gorgeous George

Chapter One

"The Biggest Thing On TV"

More than a half century later, Gorgeous George in all his vainglory remains a bizarre sight. The combination of those feminine robes and ornate hairdo with his masculine features...including a somewhat bulbous nose, broken several times in the ring...is confounding and, perhaps because of that, strangely compelling. Not to mention hilarious. Back in the 1940s, however, for any man, let alone an athlete, to willingly present himself as a loud, perfumed dandy crossbred with a dowager, and a sissified coward to boot, was stranger still; nearly unthinkable. To Americans of that era, George and his Gorgeous ways were truly outrageous...just the reaction the wrestler wanted.

In his heyday the strutting wrestler would be chauffeured around the country in long Cadillac and Packard limousines painted orchid, a shade of lavender, to match his namesake flower. In the early, struggling years before, however, he and his young wife, Betty Hanson, careened around the country in a secondhand sedan, as excited as they were flat broke. George Wagner the handsome babyface wasn't enough of a drawing card, so as they raced to make it to the next arena they improvised on the fly, Betty pushing for more provocative stunts and George putting them all inimitably across. A tiny woman, less than five feet tall, she was his orchid muse and impish co-conspirator. Betty made his first luxurious robes, dyed his hair that champagne-tinted blond, and she may even have coined that fateful nickname, Gorgeous George. Together they created George's outrageous identity out of thin air, instinct, and imagination.

To make himselfsublimely ridiculous took courage, and what's more, he and Betty did it all on their own. Unlike the Hollywood movie stars Gorgeous George would later rub egos with, he had no studios supplying him with scripts and directors, or choosing his parts. A feisty "usherette" at a Eugene, Oregon, movie theater, and a cocky roughneck who barely made it to high school in Houston, they became the writers, directors, publicity agents, wardrobe supervisors, and key grips of their own feature presentation, auteurs in orchid.

After World War II, America was adjusting, re-forming and reassembling itself into what exactly no one knew. But it clearly was going to be different, something new. Then television came and took hold, and Gorgeous George did as much as any single person to ensure that new device became a fixture. He, along with Milton Berle and the lovable Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, were the first true stars of the medium that would change American life, and in that transformation the transformed George became a national celebrity. Just as legions perched eagerly near their radios during the 1930s to follow Seabiscuit's epic races, millions of postwar Americans gathered...as families, everyone from grandparents to newborns...in front of their massive TV consoles and tiny screens, laughing, hooting, and shaking their heads in disbelief at the Gorgeous One, entranced by the new technology that brought him and their living rooms so vividly to life.

With television showcasing George's antics, his wacky confreres, and numerous imitators, professional wrestling became hugely popular, an improbably successful industry. In this, the grunt-and-groan game's golden age, matches aired every night of the week in what is now called prime time. After all the war's mortal damage, it seemed the country was ready for a cathartic release and a harmless good time. Television, that amazing new appliance, delivered them, with wrestling supplying many of the belly laughs. "The boys," as the wrestling promoters called their workers, became well-paid entertainers, and George became the Sensation of the Nation. In 1949 the Washington Post declared No Doubt Of It: Gee Gee's The Biggest Thing In TV.

In the dozen or so years that followed World War II, he was ubiquitous: Everyone knew Gorgeous George. The Los Angeles Times reported that many women there were having their hair done in a Gorgeous homage. Popular comedians of the day, including Red Skelton, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope, told Gorgeous jokes. Songs were written about him, including one (lyrics by Borget, music by Joseph Furio) with this chorus:

His wavy hair, his dainty air
Are every mama's pride and joy.
He's such a pet, you can't forget
Gorgeous George is just the darlin'est boy
His eau de fleur, his manicure
The way he struts so cute and coy
Will show you why you can't denyGorgeous George is just a bundle of joy.

He reinvented himself, in a unique iteration of our national idea. George Wagner, child of the Great Depression, used his wit and prodigious will, then bent his broad back to create a better destiny. In another classic American scenario, his showmanship, catchy moniker, and the outré persona he played to the hilt transformed this poor boy into one of the country's highest-paid entertainers. As a youngster, he'd wrestled with his friends in a sawdust pile on the banks of a Houston bayou, and they'd split the change thrown by passersby. By the time he was thirty-five he was taking in $100,000 a year, the same amount the legendary Joe DiMaggio made playing baseball for the Yankees. (One newspaper headline dubbed George "Gorgeous Moneybags.") An astonishing percentage of those boyhood buddies became professional wrestlers, too, and after he became a star George would loyally find them work, insisting to promoters who wanted the Gorgeous One that they book his friends as well.

His success was at once hard-earned and an amazing fluke, something that could only have happened when it did. Even more unlikely, and less understood, is Gorgeous George's remarkable influence. James Brown, the late, great soul singer and entertainer, saw George's shimmering robes as a young man and was moved to add more splendor and flourish to his shows. The sequined capes and lush robes he wore onstage? "That came from the rassler Gorgeous George," he said. For more than fifty years Brown used this glittering array in his legendary live performances, and each night the Godfather of Soul also had a faithful valet attend to him onstage.

Gorgeous George
. Copyright © by John Capouya. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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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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