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.