‘Get Your Filthy Hands Off Me!’ Gorgeous George’s Glamorous Legacy

Rather than watch the Olympics, and all that noble, serious sporting uplift, I’ve been reading a book about a carny, corny, shameless 1940s-50s American wrestler: Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, by John Capouya.

My American chum Chris Supermarky recommended it to me, thinking it would be of interest. He wasn’t wrong. It was nothing less than a revelation. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone of metrosexuality. Or at least, post-war male glamorousness.

George Wagner was a baby-faced brunette, pint-sized, somewhat unremarkable 1940s US wrestler who decided he needed a gimmick to get noticed. And boy, did he find one. By turning himself into Gorgeous George, a vain, primping, preening peacock who peroxided his hair, had it meticulously tonsured, fussily held in place by gold-painted ‘Georgie’ pins, and wearing flamboyant robes that were outrageous creations of lace and silk and chiffon in mauves and pale pinks, he succeeded in inventing perhaps the most persistent and successful gimmick of the post-war world: The glamorous, decadent, ‘effeminate’ male star.

Before Beckham. Before Boy George. Before Bowie. Before Jagger. Before Elvis. Before Liberace. Before Little Richard. Before James Brown there was Gorgeous George.

Under the shrewd guidance of his Svengali wife Betty (there’s no evidence, aside from his gorgeousness, that George was anything other than heterosexual), who made many of his most daring robes herself, The ‘Human Orchid’ as he liked to be known, had deduced that the best way to get ‘heat’ from a wrestling audience – and thus bookings – was to transgress 1940s gender norms. Wildly. And cheat. Equally wildly. Not for nothing was his favourite slogan: ‘Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat.’

The Sensation of the Nation’s pantomime performance of sissyness was a kind of cheating in itself: in 1940s and early 50s America men, particularly the blue-collar kind that Wagner wrestled for, were not allowed to enjoy chiffon and affectation. George was bending the rules and gender.

To help milk his act, and multiply his crimes, Wagner would hold his pre-match press conferences in local beauty parlours while having his hair marcelled and employed a tail-coated valet (a device later appropriated by GG fan James Brown) who would snobbishly spray the ring with cologne before George would deign to grace it with his aristocratic presence. When the referee tried to search George before the match as required by wrestling rules he would recoil offended, shouting ‘GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME!!’

Such were the passions aroused by George’s gorgeousness that his incendiary appearance often led to fights and sometimes mini-riots when incensed members of the public would storm the ring in an indignant fury and try to take him on themselves. The director John Waters recalls watching GG on TV as a kid, spellbound by this apparition of queeniness – while his offended parents yelled insults at the lacey freak. GG was someone that America loved to hate but ended up just loving.

Although largely forgotten today, GG was about as famous as you could get back then: a by-word for fame itself – even making an appearance in a Bugs Bunny Warner Bros cartoon (as ‘Ravishing Ronald’), and one of the first proper stars of the new medium of television. Wrestling had been taken up by the early networks as a cheaply-staged way of interesting the masses in this new-fangled gadget. The small screen turned out to have been made for GG’s big glam head.

Many claimed to have been influenced by GG (including Bob Dylan of all people) but perhaps his most famous disciple was a young, relatively downbeat Mohammed Ali, who decided to adopt GG’s vainglorious, provocative persona – to devastating effect:

‘I made up my mind after [meeting] Gorgeous George to make people angry at me…. I saw fifteen thousand people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said this is a gooood idea!’

And so Ali became the mouthy black boxer who bragged about being the ‘prettiest thing you’ve ever seen’ – ‘The Greatest’. Ali really was gorgeous. Facially and bodily. Wagner on the other hand… slightly less so. I’m not suggesting of course for one moment that GG was ugly – but at 5′ 9″, with a Roman nose and a bit of a pot belly his gorgeousness was perhaps more aspirational than Ali’s. Particularly in the latter part of his career George’s appearance puts me in mind of Freud’s famous phrase: ‘His majesty the baby.’

There was a dark side to all this glamorousness. Wagner reportedly began to believe his own publicity and insisted his own children refer to him as ‘Gorgeous George’, or ‘GG’. He was also, even by the standards of the time and his profession, a hardened drinker. After both his marriages failed he took to drinking even more. And as TV fell out of love with wrestling, and the years – and the boozing – took their toll, he of course drank even more.

By the late 50s early 60s Gorgeous George was reduced to novelty fights in which he was billed as forfeiting his lovely locks if he lost. And of course, he did – submitting to the indignity of being clippered seated on a stool in the centre of the ring, like a latter day Samson. A great box-office success the first time, this ritual humiliation became less and less so the more he repeated it. Even seeing Gorgeous George finally getting what had been coming to him all these years wasn’t enough of a draw second or third time around.

When the final bell rang in 1963 and George Wagner died of liver disease and heart failure, aged 48, all the large wedges of cash that had passed through his hands during his stunningly successful career had vanished without trace: he was penniless. But family and friends made sure he was given a glamorous send off.

The Human Orchid was dressed in his favourite purple satin robe (the ‘George Washington’), his hair was tonsured and pinned one last time and he was exhibited in a highly polished purple casket – before being ‘planted’ in the ground.

While he may have been largely forgotten, George’s glamorous ‘gimmick’ of course took root in the culture, and lives on.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “‘Get Your Filthy Hands Off Me!’ Gorgeous George’s Glamorous Legacy

  1. It’s very true that metrosexuality is often a form of class mobility for working class lads – since their assigned gender role is the most restrictive and reductive. Wagner was from a blue-collar background himself. Which of course only made his airs and graces to his blue-collar audience all the more intolerable.

    And as we’ve seen, part of the problem that the puritanical middle classes can have with metrosexuality is down to the awful vulgarity of it – and the way it gives vulgar boys the chance to shine.

    But I wouldn’t feel too sad about GG. Wagner – rather like early Beckham – did very well indeed out of breaching society’s expectations of how someone like him should behave. It made him into a star.

    Thanks Scott for filling me in on George Gillette. I didn’t know about him, though Capouya’s book does mention that there were several ‘Gorgeous George’ copycats/spin-offs in the UK. (Because Wagner couldn’t or wouldn’t trademark his name there were several wrestlers in the US billing themselves as ‘Gorgeous George’ at the height of his fame.)

    I had heard of Adrian Street, the (straight) Welsh miner who became the 1970s(?) ‘wrestling poof’, but shockingly failed to remember him when writing this piece. You’re right of course that he was GG’s true heir, at least in the UK, though of course massively ramping up the sexual threat: ‘Imagine what I could do to you’:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bhLK6XPKCs

    From Wikipedia:
    ‘Street has explained that this gimmick was born by accident as a result of him playing up to homophobic taunting from an audience one evening, commenting “I was getting far more reaction than I’d ever got just playing this poof. My costumes started getting wilder”. His wrestling attire evolved to including pastels and glitter make up and clipping his bleached hair into mini-pigtails. As “The Exotic One” his signature move in the ring was to kiss opponents to escape being pinned down and to put make up on his opponents when they were disabled.’

  2. A thought-provoking piece. And one which makes me a bit sad, to be honest.

    It was a shock to listen to the boos and jeers. The fact that a man who groomed so fastidiously would excite such hatred, and the fact that he did so within living memory, disturbs me.

    Grooming oneself sends so many messages to the world at large.

    Grooming says that you take care of yourself. As we know, the rules of traditional masculinity dictate men should treat themselves and their bodies like shit. The male body should be pummelled, punched, shot at, and punished. That’s what so many combative sports do, right?

    Grooming says that you want to make yourself a thing of beauty. Traditional masculinity dictates that real men are not beautiful. A tough guy, in fact, is ugly.

    What if Gorgeous George had been Handsome Harry? Ever gallant, well-dressed and Brylcreemed? The message would have been one of social class, not contemptible vanity. It might have got the wrestler booed with equal force.

    You’ve written about the social-class implications of metrosexuality before, Mark. But watching old George brought it home to me. How much traditional femininity signals high social class (and in an indirect way, power)? And how much traditional masculinity is stigmatised as low-class? How much of the working-lad’s embrace of metrosexuality is a lunge at social mobility?

    Most of what I see in GG, though, is what we homosexual sorts like to celebrate as pride.

  3. There was, of course, a British Gorgeous George, the manager of the masked Kendo Nagasaki. George Gillett, as he was, really was gay, unlike his namesake and predecessor. His story was recently immortalised in song by this fella: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zl_5gq9JN2o.

    The real home-grown Gorgeous George, however, was Adrian Street. Like the original Gorgeous George, Street was a straight man (and former male physique model) who exploited his flamboyant dress sense to wind up fans and opponents alike. As the years wore on, Street played up his gay persona to a practically black and white minstrels extent. His musical numbers on YouTube need to be seen to be believed. But while his “gayness” was rather forced, there was nothing concocted or artificial about his metrosexuality, at least in the early years.

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