Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gorgeous George Book Review

“Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture”

What a title and what a premise to live up to. The first thought that ran through my mind was that author John Capouya was going to have a difficult time drawing a line from Gorgeous George to the likes of Ryan Seacrest and Paris Hilton, but, draw a line he does. Though it may be dotted and circuitous at times, he certainly makes a compelling case for American pop culture starting with the “Human Orchid.”

I was born in 1968 and became enamored with wrestling in the early 1970s. Both of my parents remembered and spoke regularly of Gorgeous George and, from listening to their conversations, I knew that George was different than the rest of the grapplers I saw on television. EVERYBODY from my parents’ generation knew George and he was probably the last wrestler you could say that about until the days of Hulk Hogan. I never realized just how much he contributed to later staples of pro wrestling or how good he was in his role until seeing some video clips and, of course, learning more with the later advent of the internet.

George’s early life isn’t covered in great detail as, honestly, there just aren’t that many (if any) people left who would be able to provide solid direction and facts. Though George was a teenager during The Great Depression, his family came through the period relatively unscathed. This information – the lack of true hardship caused by the Depression – leads one to a better understanding of how George would go on to be a spendthrift, living only for today, while so many others of his era became hoarders of money and were always concerned about the future.

Betty, the first Mrs. Gorgeous George, appears in the sixth chapter of the book, titled, “His Gorgeous Muse,” and as you read you come to understand that she was not only his muse. She was his protector-from-self who eventually tired of that role and wanted simply to be his wife.

The list of those influenced by George is long and certainly impossible to cover completely. James Brown, Bob Dylan, John Waters and Muhammad Ali are all covered in the book. At varying times, Ali has credited both George and Freddy Blassie with his histrionics; however, most believe, based on timelines and research that Blassie probably had more influence on Ali than George. Brown, Dylan and Waters? Point directly to George. If George would not have taken the “gimmick” as far as he did, somebody else, undoubtedly, would have; however, there is no telling when or how much impact they would have had.

George’s near-perfect delivery of his schtick was enough to attract the attention of a nation in the nascency of television and, it is explained in the book, many who bought televisions in the early days did not buy television sets, rather, they bought, “wrestling sets.” In those days of “wrestling sets,” George could be seen most every night of the week in one’s living room, making him one of the most recognizable figures of the era.

It’s not uncommon in wrestling or other celebrity businesses for spouses to eventually want the person they married back only to discover that person no longer exists. Sadly, as the story progressed, Betty found that George Wagner no longer existed; having been replaced with “His Gorgeousness.” Betty and George divorced and George lost his muse and his protector.

The remainder of the book details George’s not-so-gradual decline leading to his Christmastime-death at the young age of 48. The story of one of the most famous people in the country dying penniless – unable to buy a skateboard for his son and living in a flophouse on Hollywood Boulevard – is sad, though not uncommon.

While Gorgeous George didn’t exactly fit the bill of “being famous for being famous,” he certainly did more than his part to bring the era of over-the-top personality combined with startling visuals into our living rooms.

This book takes you on the roller coaster ride that was Gorgeous George as you learn about his highs, lows and swirls in the middle. If there’s one complaint about the book – and it’s a minor one – I would replace alliterative references such as “the grunt-and-groan game” with simpler, more reader-friendly words like, "wrestling." It’s just a pet peeve of mine, and it certainly won’t distract from the book for most. The book is thorough, well-researched and, as noted wrestling historian J. Michael Kenyon described it, “superlative.”

Hopefully this book will bring Gorgeous George alive to a new generation of fans and will spark their interest in the history of pro wrestling.

To visit the book's website, click here.

To order the book on Amazon, click here.