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When Gorgeous George's name kept popping up, writer John Capouya saw his opportunity

TAMPA

John Capouya isn't a wrestling fan. His first book was Real Men Do Yoga. So how did he end up writing a biography of one of the most outrageous professional wrestlers ever to sashay into a ring?

Capouya, 52, has been an editor at Newsweek, the New York Times and other publications. He just joined the faculty of the University of Tampa as a professor of journalism and writing.

Chatting in his office in Plant Hall, he says, "I just fell in love with this campus, this crazy building, the palm trees. It's very different for my wife and me from our life in New York City, but we're really liking it."

Why write about Gorgeous George? Were you a fan?

I didn't really remember him. I do remember my mother, when I was a kid, saying about someone, ''That guy thinks he's Gorgeous George,'' and I got the vibe that wasn't really a good thing.

But a few years back I read a review of James Brown's memoir, and he said he had three big influences: Louis Jordan's big band, comic books — the wild color, the larger than life characters — and Gorgeous George.

Then I read the mention of Gorgeous George in Bob Dylan's memoir, and I thought, imagine that. And then I heard (poet) Ishmael Reed talking about the relationship between Gorgeous George and Muhammad Ali. And I thought, here's someone who influenced Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Bob Dylan? Who is this guy?

So I learned a little about his personal arc, which is basically rags to riches to ruins, this classic story. And on that basis I sold the book.

Were you a wrestling fan?

I had never been to a wrestling match, but pretty soon I was immersed in this wacky world of professional wrestling. I discovered it was really this secret society, with its own language, these brutal initiations, this great camaraderie. I learned about the training and the craft and the teamwork it required. The matches were fake, but the injuries and the athletics were real.

How much did George's first wife, Betty Wagner George, contribute to the book?

It wouldn't have been as good a book without her. She really did help create Gorgeous George; she's at least the co-creator of the image. She's 95 now, and she's spunky and sassy and has just a wealth of information.

What surprised you about Gorgeous George's story?

I was surprised at how big a celebrity he was. He was on television all the time. He became a household name, a part of the parlance. All the big comics did Gorgeous George jokes: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Milton Berle.

The co-surprise was how nobody knows who the hell he is now, how forgotten he became.

John Capouya will be featured at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 25.

When Gorgeous George's name kept popping up, writer John Capouya saw his opportunity 09/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 10:52am]

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