Life and times of the dyed blonde wrestler who inspired everyone from James Brown and Muhammad Ali to Bob Dylan.
Lifestyle journalist Capouya (Real Men Do Yoga: 21 Star Athletes Reveal Their Secrets for Strength, Flexibility and Peak Performance, 2003) can’t quite put over his claim that pro wrestler “Gorgeous” George Wagner (1915–63) invented American pop culture, but he convincingly portrays Wagner blazing a trail from the reticent early 20th century to its more flamboyant later decades. Born into hardworking poverty near Houston, he started wrestling in high school and went pro on the traveling carnival circuit in the ’30s. Wrestling was just as outrageously fake then as it is today, and even more popular; Wagner, an innate showman, took it one step further. During World War II, he dyed his hair blonde and began appearing in frilly outfits made by his scrappy, prankish wife Betty. He assumed the sobriquet “Gorgeous George” and camped up the role of pompous heel. Hoping to see him receive a thrashing, audiences thronged to watch Wagner stride imperiously into arenas after his valet had made a show of disinfecting the wrestling ring with perfume. His career peaked just after WWII, when the new medium of television was looking for cheap programming; almost single-handedly, he made wrestling as ubiquitous on late-’40s TV as reality programming is today. While Capouya’s appreciation for Wagner occasionally seems excessive, he is quite rightly impressed by his subject’s audacity. At a time when popular heroes like the Lone Ranger were models of humility, Gorgeous George made a spectacle of his dandified arrogance. He slid into alcoholism during his final years, but the author paints an affecting portrait of Wagner as someone who fostered a tectonic shift in American culture. Today, Capouya notes approvingly, “George’s grand silliness is a fond recollection.”
A zesty appreciation, touching as well as entertaining, of one of the nation’s great showmen.