Gorgeous George wrote the job description for the American antihero. He got into the professional wrestling game in the late 1930s and barnstormed America in too-tight togs, alternately winning or losing as the promoter required.
But he had a better idea. He and his first wife, Betty — a full partner in creating his persona — decided that America loved to hate and that he would become wildly successful as the object of scorn and derision.
George Wagner, a journeyman wrestler, was soon transformed into the impudent snob of the ring, a peroxided, preening and somewhat androgynous villain whom crowds lined up to jeer.
Gorgeous George, a new biography by University of Tampa professor John Capouya, deftly chronicles the rise of this pure product of America and listens to the reverberation of his influence throughout popular culture.
Gorgeous George blurred the line between good guy and bad guy and also confused the issue between macho and effeminate.
By the beginning of the 1950s, when grainy black-and-white televisions popped up in American living rooms, wrestling matches filled four nights of prime-time programming each week. Viewers loved to tune in to see that loathsome varmint in the capes and the arrogant sneer — and watch him lose.
George's style — those curls, those capes, the ritual perfuming of the wrestling ring, the trash talking before the match — was all new to the world, but soon his antics were being adopted by other artists and athletes.
As a young Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali was impressed by George's boasting and noticed the electrifying effect it had on the crowd. He thought the loudmouth act might work for him, and he was right. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, admired George's flamboyant use of capes, and soon his stage act featured him sobbing through Please Please Please, all the while being comforted and draped in a cape by a valet. Even Bob Dylan drew strength from the Gorgeous George stance as an antihero.
George Wagner died young, in 1963, and was left in America's grainy television past. By resurrecting him, Capouya introduces this shrewd media manipulator to a new audience and helps us appreciate the part he played in creating the new world order of American popular culture in the last half of the 20th century. Gorgeous George was an original. They broke the mold, then they made him.
William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.