Few in show business have had as great an impact in their particular discipline as Gorgeous George Wagner (1915-1963).
In the case of George one can use the word “legend” without hyperbole. When I was a kid, a full decade after George had died, when my best friend and I enthused about our own contemporary wrestling heroes like Andre the Giant, Bruno Sammartino, or Chief Jay Strongbow, older people would inevitably bring up stories of Gorgeous George, painting vivid pictures of the character he portrayed in the ring. George had made such a huge impression that people spoke of him in awed (if amused) tones, as if he had been one of nature’s great wonders. Not because he was such a great athlete, but because he had been outrageous as few had before or since.
Before we get to specifics, we should first state that initially Wagner’s gimmick was that he HAD a gimmick. The Nebraska native started out wrestling in carnivals in the late 1930s, when wrestlers who played characters were rare. He began developing his persona by the early 1940s. Gorgeous George was influential in being one of wrestling’s first intentional cheating, boasting “heels” (villains). More than that though he made his mark on the culture at large by the form his “villainy” took, as communicated by the adjective in his professional name. Whether everyone chooses to acknowledge it or not, wrestling ranks with body building as being one of the most homoerotic of male sports (or pseudo-sports if you prefer). Sandow the Great was an early modern exemplar of this aspect, but honestly the origins of this truth stretch all the way back to the sport’s Greco-Roman origins. The male body is on display, and it is in contact with another oiled, half-naked male body. The responses to this reality assume an entire spectrum of forms, from total acknowledgement and endorsement of that angle…to a vague awareness of it with a certain amount of downplaying and denial…to a state of total innocence, such as is the portion of children.
At any rate George’s million dollar idea, driven entirely by instinct I would imagine, was to EMBODY (pun intended) this facet of the wrestling experience and to throw it in the face of the audience, large numbers of whom would react violently in their homophobia. He pressed THAT very dangerous button. He dyed his hair platinum blonde, and grew it long (evoking the Biblical Samson) in an era when crew cuts were more the norm. More than this, he preened. He went into the ring wearing a sequined velvet cape. Assistants held up mirrors so that he could look at himself, and combed and brushed his pretty locks. They also spritzed the ring with perfume before he entered, and prepared the way with a red carpet and rose petals. He was billed as “The Human Orchid”. It wasn’t only about vanity, but it was also about male effeminacy. It drove audiences berserk with hatred. How they booed him! And I have little doubt that they yelled nasty slurs. Here’s a question for a wiser philosopher than myself: did he fuel homophobia? Or was he lightning rod, a martyr of sorts, who absorbed that evil energy so others didn’t have to?
Perhaps to avoid being torn limb from limb by audiences, Gorgeous George publicly married his wife Betty in the wrestling ring, thus clarifying that, while his character was swish, he himself was sexually straight. The ceremony was repeated in rings all over the country, and televised of course. Other wrestlers have done this since, and one imagines that it was also the inspiration for Tiny Tim marrying Miss Vickie on The Tonight Show. His influence on pop culture in general is huge, I think, and not just among later platinum blonde wrestlers like The Valiant Brothers and Hulk Hogan. So many questions. Did his example empower the “transvestite” Ed Wood to say what he had to say in Glen or Glenda? And who came first: Gorgeous George or Liberace? Little Richard, James Brown, Elton John, Prince, they all seem influenced by them both. The Carl Reiner comedy The One and Only (1978) starring Henry Winkler, was clearly inspired by Gorgeous George, as were the antics of the lady-wrestling Andy Kaufman.
He was a star! He touched people’s lives! Some people loved to hate him, other people just loved him. Look, here he is with Jack Benny, who knew a good show biz act when he saw one!
Gorgeous George was only 48 and suffering from cirrhosis of the liver when he died from a heart attack in late 1963 (much like Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler). But he cast a large and beautiful, lilac colored shadow.
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For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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