Wrestling legend Gorgeous George had as many self-congratulatory nicknames—the Toast of the Coast, Sensation of the Nation, the Human Orchid—as he had lavish, ermine-trimmed robes, and he had a lot of those. Now, after 45 years of post-mortem obscurity, George adds his most aggrandizing title yet to the list: creator of American pop culture.
That's the thesis of John Capouya in his compelling biography of His Gorgeousness: "Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture" (HarperCollins. $25.95). Capouya argues that Gorgeous George was so pivotal in shaping American celebrity culture that without him, we'd never have seen the likes of Madonna, James Brown, Muhammad Ali, John Waters, Donald Trump or Liberace.
That's not an insignificant claim, especially regarding a man whose legacy has been overshadowed by the people he inspired. How did a roughneck dropout from Houston single-handedly cast the mould for the prima donna male athlete (think Dennis Rodman) and the famous-for-nothing media fixture (think Paris Hilton)?
Born in 1915, George Wagner was raised dirt-poor during the Depression and came of age in the spare, rationed thrift of the wartime '40s. He hitched onto wrestling as a kid for pocket money and a change of scenery. The act developed over the years. He started out as a clean-cut young buck, then transitioned to a prissified, lace-wearing villain. From there, it snowballed: at his height, George sported a platinum blond 'do, set with hot rollers to craft undulating waves, and swathed himself in fur, sequins and yards of satin before entering each match. His personal valet, an old Texas friend dressed as a snooty English butler, carefully removed and folded his robes in the ring corner before the fight could start, spritzing down the area with perfume. The audience roared in contempt while George held his leonine head high, sneering. At his peak, he was a hotter ticket than some better-remembered athletes, earning more in 1949 than Joe DiMaggio or Hank Williams.
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. Showmanship is the key to a wrestler's success; his physical strength, though important, takes a backseat when the outcome of the fight is predetermined. And George became a star because his character had so many high-low facets: he was a Texas rube styled as a highbrow swell, living lush (for a while) in southern California—but with a down-home turkey ranch on the side. There was a perverse dimension to his gender-play: a hard-drinking man accused of spousal abuse, he was known the world over as a sissified swish. People turned out in droves to see him but not to chuckle at his campy antics. They wanted to see his effeminate coif destroyed, his perfumed body beaten and violently slammed to the ground.
Capouya's claims about George as cultural icon can occasionally overreach. A marquee example of a George disciple: a 19-year-old nobody named Bobby Zimmerman, who crossed paths with George in Minnesota and received a passing compliment on his musical talent. Zimmerman later called it "all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years to come." But implying that their brief interaction was the driving force behind Zimmerman's own remarkable transformation—from skinny suburban Jewish kid to the masterful, poetic troubadour Bob Dylan—seems shaky. George's story, as Capouya points out, allowed for great entertainers to succeed based on their showmanship alone. Dylan owes his iconic status to his lyricism and songwriting, not to theatrics.
Ultimately, George's descent became as much a Hollywood plot staple as his Technicolor swagger. His alcoholism contributed to a slew of health problems, finally killing him the day after Christmas in 1963. He was just 48 years old, but his high camp was already old news in a world that had moved on. So you can't help but think George would be thrilled at Capouya's refocusing of the spotlight on him—this is the man who, when asked what made him take the name Gorgeous, simply replied, "Honesty."