GORGEOUS GEORGE The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture
By John Capouya
Gender-Bender: The Flamboyant
Cross-Dresser, Gorgeous George
He grew his dark hair long in the mid-1940s when men’s hair was uniformly short. Then he dyed his locks a shrieking platinum blond and put them up in women’s hairdos, including the “marcel.” This method used heated irons or tongs to create intricate flowing waves, a dramatic upswept look—fit for a queen.
Gorgeous George had already begun wearing his signature ring robes. On a given night he might sally forth in a shiny, floor-length, quilted pink satin beauty, the lining and lapels a contrasting bright yellow silk, with epaulets of glimmering silver sequins. The wrestler topped it off with a pink satin scarf. When he debuted his first elaborate—and more than a little effeminate—creation, the wrestling promoter refused to let him appear in it. “Wear that in my place of business?” he roared. “Certainly not! You’re a wrestling dame!” As George himself put it, he “flitted’’ down the aisles, parading provocatively to the wrestling rings.
He wasn’t gay; indeed the womanizing George Wagner seems to have been excessively hetero. Yet because he provoked them to, many wondered. Time Magazine called his act a “swishy role.’’ Fans, mostly men, in the arenas screamed out, “Sissy! Mamas’ boy!’’ “Queer!’’ and worse. George deliberately sowed confusion about his sexual identity by refusing to discuss his private life with reporters. When his first wife, Betty Hanson, traveled with him, they told the press she was his personal hairdresser, “Miss Betty, from Hollywood.’’
Of course, flamboyance and effeminacy do not equate to gayness. The Gorgeous act and the wrestler’s vain, sensitive persona—“I wish the other boys would stop mussing up my hair!’’ he’d complain—wasn’t gay per se. But Gorgeous George was certainly nothing like the prevailing macho male images of his day: Gary Cooper in his film roles, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Wayne, and even the fictional Superman. Gorgeous George, a battling athlete in the ring once the robes came off, as his second wife, Cherie Dupre acutely observed, was “something in between...’’
The Beautiful Bicep, as one scribe dubbed him, sent out deliberately mixed messages. He was a queenly brute, or as one writer dubbed him, “a killer fruitcake.’’ He may have flitted, says filmmaker John Waters, a gay man who was inspired by George, yet “he wasn’t a big mincing queen, a bad stereotype.’’ Since the male prima donna of the mat strutted so provocatively, many other performers have sent their own intentionally mixed signals. Liberace didn’t take his first steps toward effeminate flamboyance until well after George’s fabulosity went on national display; Little Richard would also have seen Gorgeous George succeed before he unleashed his own tuttti frutti persona. Decades later came glitter rock or glam rock, and the androgyny of David Bowie, Gary Glitter, and the New York Dolls. Other gay and straight entertainers, including Boy George, Grace Jones and Marilyn Manson, have mined similarly transgressive veins. It was in this realm of sexual ambiguity and contradictory possibilities that Gorgeous George—aka the Human Orchid—did perhaps his most daring and original work.
Gorgeous Soul Man:
An Unlikely African-American Cultural Figure
James Brown, the late Godfather of Soul, was a truly legendary live performer. And in his memoirs and interviews, Brown said he owed some of his showmanship techniques—including the flashy sequined capes he wore on stage—to “the rassler, Gorgeous George.’’ Most enduringly, Gorgeous George inspired and schooled Muhammad Ali, encouraging him when the boxer was just 19—and still named Cassius Clay—to draw attention to himself, and fans to his fights, by boasting and deriding his opponents.
The wrestler and the boxer met in 1961 when both had bouts in Las Vegas and were interviewed together at a local radio station. Young Clay heard George declaim: “I am the greatest! I cannot be defeated! All my so-called opponents are afraid of me, and they’re right to be afraid—because I am the king! Then George, the ultimate ring villain or heel, invited the kid to watch him wrestle at the Convention Center, and, as Ali would remember, “I saw fifteen thousand people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said this is a gooood idea!" In the years to come Ali always gave credit to Gorgeous George for schooling him in the liberating, self-aggrandizing swagger of the man you love to hate.
From this history, perhaps the most surprising aspect of George’s legacy emerges: That by virtue of inspiring and influencing James Brown and Muhammad Ali, two of the greatest black performers in this country’s history, Gorgeous George, the be-robed, bleached-blond and perfumed ring villain of the 1940s and ‘50s—a white man—suddenly looms as a significant figure in African-American culture.
Certainly, the man had soul: To paraphrase the late, great JB: George got up and did his thing, and he certainly didn’t take no mess. He said it loud, he was Gorgeous George, and he was inordinately proud.
Hip-Hop George: From Rings to Rap?
James Brown’s funk and the poetic boasts of Muhammad Ali are the twin pillars that rap was built on. And both men said they took aspects of their artistry from Gorgeous George.
Like the wrestler who was born George Wagner, Cassius Clay changed his birth name, and created a new identity for himself—the prophet, Muhammad Ali. Later generations of rappers would do the same, dropping their birth names and adopting theatrical, larger than life personae: Curtis Jackson becoming 50 Cent and Marshall Mathers creating the alter ego Eminem. (Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, is another Gorgeous disciple who morphed and renamed himself.) And just as the wrestler and the great boxer, his one-time student, raised boasting to its highest, most artful exponent, so hip-hop artists today shout out their greatness and extol their badness (sometimes even inventing criminal records to bolster these claims).
Decades before rap, MTV and BET, Gorgeous George was creating the Bad Boy persona that so many MCs would take as their own. He bragged loud and long about his wealth (G.G. earned $100,000 a year when only Joe DiMaggio and a very few others in sports could match that income) and drove long Cadillac and Packard limousines, which were painted purple or “orchid,’’ his favorite color. Outside of the arenas, his clothing was as gaudy and garish as his flamboyant ring robes. Newsweek magazine said “his sartorial effects...run to bright red jackets, yellow trousers and two-tone shoes.” Before these terms existed, George was ghetto fabulous—all about the bling.
Some of today’s rappers acknowledge their debts to James Brown and Muhammad Ali. One wonders, though: Do any of them know they are also following a certain perfumed white gentleman, born in Butte, Nebraska, who wrestled and threw orchids to the ladies?
From G.G. to T. O. —the Birth of the Man-Brat Athlete
Muhammad Ali is widely seen as the prototype for the loud-mouthedm ultra-cocky jock, the self-aggrandizing, attention-seeking male missile that’s come to dominate American sports. Think of the NFL’s Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson and before them, basketball’s Dennis Rodman, who adopted George’s totem, bleached blond hair, and also sowed sexual confusion with his androgynous appearance (remember him wearing a wedding dress?) and risque´public statements, just like The Human Orchid.
Since Ali, athletes have come to understand that the uncomplaining, team-first player often doesn’t get the biggest contract or the most lucrative endorsements. As a result, even the lowliest rookie ballplayer, the most-traveled journeyman or most obscure bantamweight is a fair bet to crow that he, don’t you know, is the greatest. And in many ways it’s apt to trace the image of the athlete as in-your-face, me-first narcissist back to Ali, The Champ, who played that part with humor, and also had the skill and the courage to back up his world-class bragging. But as we now know, Ali—when he was 19-year old Cassius Clay—heard his first boastful blast from that prima donna of the mat, Gorgeous George. When they talked in a Las Vegas locker room after a 1961 wrestling match, the 46-year old mat showman told his new protege´: “You got your good looks, and you’ve got a good mouth on you. A lot of people will pay to see somebody shut your big mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.”
Chapter 16: Packing Them In Like Marshmallows
When George arrived at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles on this night in 1949, he did so with a little extra determination. He was still smarting from one of the few fiascoes of his burgeoning Gorgeous career. Booked into a much-ballyhooed match with Ernie Dusek at New York’s Madison Square Garden, G.G had drawn poorly and been received worse.
Unnacountably, New York was not amused by the Beautiful Bicep, the Percheron of Pulchritude or The Aromatic Kid, as he was being called elsewhere. Arthur Daley, a New York Times columnist, called it “a most insufferable and obnoxious performance.” The press coverage was so surprisingly vituperative that Newsweek told its national audience about it in a piece entitled “Garden Gorgonzola.” Sure, George had walked away with $1,800 for 30 minutes work when, across the country, John and Jane Doe’s annual household income was something like $3,100. Still, it stung.
When he got back to the Olympic—a massive cinder-block rectangle at 8th Street and Grand Avenue—George told himself, he’d show everyone. Hadn’t he done that his entire career, his entire life? This was his “bop hall,’’ his home court: He and his wife Betty were living on a ranch they’d bought in Beaumont, roughly 80 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Gorgonio Mountains. And the Olympic was where Gorgeous George had first become a sensation two years before. These “marks,’’ as those in the wrestling game called the paying customers, were his marks. Tonight they would get every bit of what they came for: Gorgeous George, at the top of his outrageous game.
Promoter Cal Eaton is expecting a sellout crowd of close to 10,000, and the man by the VIP entrance on the west side of the building reports that Rita Moreno and Eddie Cantor are on the celebrity guest list. George’s opponent, Bobby Managoff, who will play the role of the “babyface’’ or good guy in tonight’s ring drama, is already in the ring, waiting. The fans, as one sportswriter describes them the next day, are now “as jam-packed as marshmallows in a box.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Gorgeous George is here,’’ a voice booms out over the P.A. system. But the first thing the crowd sees is not George but “Jeffery Jefferies,’’ George’s valet or manservant (played by George’s boyhood friend from Houston, Jake Brown). My Man Jefferies wears a dark butler’s morning coat over a Kelly green vest and matching bow-tie, pinstriped trousers and black patent leather shoes. Now the valet walks, stiffly erect, down the long center aisle toward the ring, a spotlight illuminating his progress. As he proceeds, carrying a big silver tray in both hands in front of his chest, his movements are deliberate and dignified—he’s as “aloof as a cake of Lifebuoy,” in the words of another witty grappling writer. Not so the crowd, which begins to laugh as the valet descends the aisle. Bending low, Jefferies steps through the ropes and enters the ring. Now he stoops and removes from his tray a large chrome-plated spray gun with a pump handle. He brandishes it in the air, and the paying customers hoot and laugh some more. His instrument looks like a bicycle pump; it’s commonly known as a Flit gun for the insecticide it often contains. But this gleaming version holds a strong sweet-smelling perfume. George tells the press, and TV wrestling announcer Dick Lane gleefully relays tonight, that it’s a special mixture, “Chanel Number 10.” Number Five’s good enough for other people, George says grandly, but “why be half safe?”
With great concentration, Jefferies sprays the entire 20 by 20 ring floor—the Gorgeous One’s white-shod footsies must not touch anything malodorous or unclean. Now the valet makes a move with the spray gun toward Managoff, as if to decontaminate him as well, but the black haired grappler raises a cocked fist, snarling, and Jefferies hastily retreats, and awaits his master. “By this time,’’ relates Hannibal Coons, the writer here to do a feature on George for Sport Magazine ( “Goldilocks of Grappling”), “the excitement is pretty much tense, with much confused babble and neck-craning.” Where is George?
The crowd is roughly 40 percent women, as George attracts many more “soprano fans’’ than the other wrestlers, and now one middle-aged lady leaps up from her seat. “Land’s sakes, look!” she shouts. “He’s in pink tonight!”
Heads swivel as The Gorgeous One appears at the top of the main aisle, standing stock still, hands on hips, head cocked back, a mighty lord surveying his realm from on high. He’s a vision in a shiny, floor-length, quilted pink satin robe with lining and lapels of a contrasting bright yellow silk; on the robe’s shoulders are epaulets of glimmering silver sequins. And of course his signature bleached-blond locks are coiffed in an intricately curled style, the marcel. As everyone in attendance knows, this hairdo is fashioned for him by Frank and Joseph of Hollywood.
The standing crowd gives out a collective gasp, a loud “aaah.” It’s not enough to call this an entrance; one writer deems it “his manifestation.” The impact that George creates by simply showing up overpowers anything most wrestlers can do in the ring. “There,’’ that same writer describes, “statued in the pose of a Greek god, and looking very much like the berries, stands the Hubba-Hubba He-man of the 20th century.’’
Pomp and Circumstance, the British coronation march, begins to blare, and George takes his first steps down the aisle, the dainty white wrestling boots rasping a bit on the corrugated metal covering that concrete path. He parades slowly, exuding imperial arrogance. Some boos and hisses issue in response, and as they do disdain transfigures George’s face. He starts to sway more side to side as he walks and his parading gait broadens into the Gorgeous strut.
More catcalls, more whistles. “Hey, Gruesome, Bobby’s gonna murder you!” jeers another fan, a middle-aged woman who shakes her fist at George. Another wit shouts, “Hey, Myrtle!” reacting to the extravagant display of finery, vanity and coiffure—to George’s feminine side.
Jefferies pulls two ropes apart so George can step through, gathering his skirts in both hands as he stoops and enters the ring. The wrestler strides to the center of the mat and bows in all four directions. Wait: The Gorgeous knees are bending—is his bow really a curtsy? Some in the crowd clearly think so. Now George, still standing, consents to Jefferies removing his gold mesh hairnet, called a snood. Under it George’s locks are held in place with the oversized gold-colored bobby fins—only George insists they be called Georgie pins. “Those pins are gold-plated and very expensive,” Lane informs the TV audience. “George has them made especially at $85 the half-pound.” Jefferies removes the pins and returns a handful to the master, who stalks around the ring, peering out into the crowd to see who might deserve a Gorgeous souvenir. Women wave wildly, trying to catch his eye. “Throw it here, George! Give one to me!”‘ When he flips them into the crowd, mild scuffles break out over the pins.
Jimmy Lennon, the ring announcer (uncle to the singing Lennon Sisters) moves to take the microphone suspended by its cord over the center of the ring and introduces Managoff, who wears non-descript black trunks and black calf-high wrestling boots. “And in this corner,” the ring announcer continues, turning to face the opposite corner, his voice rising: “The Toast of the Coast...The Sensation of the Nation...The Human Orchid...Gorgeous George!” Boos, catcalls and hoots rain down from all levels of the steeply tiered house, with a good many laughs and cheers mixed in.
The referee calls both wrestlers to the center of the ring, goes over a few rules, and then, as always, he checks each combatant for concealed weapons and any over-oiling of the body, which would give him an unfair slipperiness advantage. This requires that the wrestlers open their garments to allow the inspection. The ref runs his hands over Managoff’s body without incident, but when the official reaches toward George, the heel isn’t having it. “Take your filthy hands off me!” he roars, so loudly that the referee actually takes a step backward. The crowd roars again in response. This refusal to be glommed by grubby mortals is another signature moment, one the fans come to expect yet never fail to respond to. Jefferies rushes over and sprays the ref’s hands with Chanel Number 10. Only now will George submit to being touched.
To allow the examination, he raises both arms to the sides and holds the pink robe open wide, exposing the corpus delectable for all to see. He’s wearing tight white trunks and pink socks under his white boots. George still has his muscles but his body’s thicker now and there’s not as much definition. The Gorgeous flesh is pale, and by today’s standards, he’s even got a bit of a pot belly. Yet no one here doubt he’s gorgeous, least of all him.
Fully fifteen or twenty minutes have elapsed since George first struck his entrance pose, with nary a grunt, groan or grapple—there’s been no wrestling. When the match is finally on, Gorgeous George the heel will show himself to be impressively athletic, and startlingly fast. Though it’s not entirely called for in these rigged contests, he does know how to wrestle. George will win, in fact, but even more than usual in these fixed bouts, the outcome isn’t really the point.
The main event is Gorgeous George himself, just seeing the strutting star of TV, taking in his grand entrance and outrageous appearance, his over the top flamboyance—his Gorgeosity. When they return to work the next morning, tonight’s spectators won’t tell their envious co-workers that they went to the wrestling at the Olympic. They’ll say, “We saw Gorgeous George.”