Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

January 6, 2009

The Ultimate Showman

Gorgeous George's flamboyance influenced the greatest of all time and today's NFL showboats, as well as Bob Dylan and James Brown.

Nick Matros

When most young people hear the name Gorgeous George, they tend to stare off into space for a second, reflect, and say something to the effect of, "He was some kind of wrestler, right?" In his time, though, Gorgeous George was the self-proclaimed "Toast of the Coast," the "Sensation of the Nation." Donning effeminate robes and curling his long locks to mimic the style of the starlets of the '40s and '50s, George Wagner transformed himself into the Human Orchid and, if you dared defy this claim, or mess with his hair, you'd get a gouge to the eyes.

In his book Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, John Capouya takes us from George's humble depression-era beginnings as a carnie sideshow attraction where he first learns wrestlers' secret double-talk, to the pinnacle of his stardom as a television wrestling superstar, and finally through the Human Orchid's losing battle with alcoholism.

John Capouya. Photo by Suzanne Williamson.
"Nobody knew that this crazy wrestler with his effeminate robes and the women's hairdo had inspired these people."

John Capouya. Photo by Suzanne Williamson.

Through a bizarre triumvirate of pop-culture legends—Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Bob Dylan—Capouya finds Gorgeous George to be the missing link inspiring them all, and, in turn, defining and redefining American entertainment from the early days of television through today.

Gelf got Capouya to break the code of "Kayfabe" and discuss this enigmatic, lost antihero of wrestling's golden age, and the ever-widening influence he continues to have on American celebrities as diverse as Terrell Owens and John Waters. The following interview was conducted via telephone and has been edited for clarity. You can hear Capouya and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Friday, January 9, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: I must confess that before I read this book, the Bugs Bunny cartoon character Ravishing Ronald was much more familiar to me than Gorgeous George, and for all I knew it could have referred to Ravishing Rick Rude. In your chapter discussing George's legacy, you point out that the 21st century has pretty much forgotten him, and the youth at best has only a vague notion of who he is. Why did you feel it necessary to rescue this man from obscurity?

John Capouya: Well, I don't know that that was my primary vision. I mean, I'm hoping that happens. I just thought it was a great American story that hadn't been told: George's stardom and his arc from rags to riches and then into ruin. It's a great American story that had never been told in book form. I think people weren't aware of what a huge celebrity he was in his day, in the early days of television. Secondly, what really made me feel like he was worthy of book treatment were the influences that I came across—him inspiring people like Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Bob Dylan, three of the greatest American performers of my lifetime. Nobody knew that this crazy wrestler with his effeminate robes and the women's hairdo had inspired these people, and of course, along the way, I also found out that he'd inspired the filmmaker John Waters. To me, if you inspire three of the greatest entertainers of our century, then you matter, in whatever strange way; even if you're someone who competes in a fake sport and who really was known for an act as opposed to any real sporting accomplishments, you are a pop-culture figure who matters. That's really why I feel he should be restored to some level of prominence and recognition. Gelf Magazine: Your book is not merely a biography of Gorgeous George, the outrageous Bad-Boy wrestler, but also a well-organized defense of the title's claim of "The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture." Was this thesis something you established over the course of your research or something you had in mind from the outset?

John Capouya: I didn't know anything about Gorgeous George. I never saw him. I had barely heard of him. I didn't care anything about professional wrestling. I've never been to see it in my life, didn't watch it on television. So, the reason I got interested in him was that I came across a reference to him by Muhammad Ali saying that George essentially taught him to say, "I'm the prettiest, and I'm the greatest," and the fact that George said those things first. Muhammad Ali had always been a hero of mine. At that same time, I happened to read James Brown's memoir, I Feel Good, in which he says that one of the greatest influences on his showmanship, while he was a legendary stage performer, was Gorgeous George, along with Louis Jordan, and comic books. He references those as his three major influences.
They say it makes three things to make a trend, so then I happened to be reading Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, and he tells very vividly of this incident where he was a struggling musician. I believe he was still a teenager, in Hibbing, Minnesota, still named Robert Zimmerman, and nobody wanted to listen to his horrible nasal voice (that's my interpretation, not his). And then he met Gorgeous George and he was so struck by the guy's charisma and the connection that he had thought they had made that he decided not to give up on being a performer, which he had been contemplating. This encounter inspired him for years to come: George had so much charisma that you just hoped that some of it rubbed off on you.
Well, having just come across these other two things in the last few months, I thought, "wait a minute, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Muhammad Ali, who is this guy?" So that was the genesis of the project. I came to it through his influences.
I must say I now have a newfound respect for wrestling, and particularly the wrestlers and what they do, and I learned that there's a real craft to this, which probably shouldn't have surprised me. Even though the competition is fixed, the skill level and the athleticism and the danger of injuries are real. Plus, they have their own sort of subculture which mostly you can see now in the Mickey Rourke movie, The Wrestler. It's its own little world, and it even has its own secret language which I found out about, some of which is still used today. Anytime you can tell people about a subculture that they may not be aware of, it makes for an interesting story, and that part of the story grew on me.

Gelf Magazine: How is that word pronounced, "Kayfabe" [wrestling double-speak meaning, shut your mouth in front of outsiders]?

John Capouya: Kay-FABE, yeah.

Gelf Magazine: In terms of time frame, you published an article in Sports Illustrated in 2005 called "King Strut," about end-zone celebrations and the influence Gorgeous George had on them. How long before that had you started working on the story?

John Capouya: I think I already had the book contract at that point, so probably six months to a year. Some of the guys at Sports Illustrated knew I was doing it, so when they saw some of these antics—and almost more importantly the reactions to some of these antics, the whole point being not so much that they were doing it, but that they were being provocative, they were calling attention to themselves, and they were using props—someone there said, "Hey, this guy's writing a book about Gorgeous George. This would be a good article." You know in sports—and I was a sportswriter for many years—people think Muhammad Ali is the prototype and the patient zero of the bragging, attention-seeking, athlete. But Ali says that in many ways he learned this from Gorgeous George, so that was the genesis of that article.

Gorgeous George vs. Masked Marvel.

Gelf Magazine: Did T.O. end up making it into the book? I'm not sure I remember seeing him in there.

John Capouya: I have a chapter that sums up George's legacy, and I think I might mention him. I guess it would help if I did an index. Basically, what I say, though, is that all sports have become like wrestling, in that they have embraced the trash-talking, and the highlights are about the most extreme things that happen and about when the rules are broken. Actually, as I'm looking at it now, I mention Rickey Henderson stealing Muhammad Ali's acronym, calling himself the "Greatest of all time" or "G.O.A.T," but I don't think I mention Terrell Owens by name. For whatever reason, I guess the specifics of the end-zone celebrations didn't make it into the book.

Gelf Magazine: Well, you had done it already.

John Capouya: My argument there was that all of professional sports has become less about the physical competition and more about the show, more about the talking, more about the accoutrement, and more about these personalities. People used to prefer that their athletes be the strong, silent types, like Lou Gehrig, and I argue that George, through Muhammad Ali mostly, helped change that.

Gelf Magazine: You give a great deal of importance to the time period in which George Wagner became Gorgeous George: His obsession with fine material clothes at a time when the US underwent war rationing, and the willingness that Americans had to, at least subconsciously, embrace that selfishness once that rationing came to an end. Was his gender-bending pageantry truly ahead of his time, or simply a sign of his times?

John Capouya: Well, I feel like he helped to really pioneer that, particularly for a guy who wasn't gay, and wasn't operating in Greenwich Village or in other gay enclaves. You know, I didn't find many other people who did this, were successful, and were not ridden out of town on a rail. In wrestling, people used props before him, everyone had a persona that was fake, and some of them put on airs and were arrogant in the same way George was. But I think this gender-bending wrinkle that he brought to wrestling, and via television that he brought to the mainstream culture, I think that's the big thing that he did. There may have been other performers before, but George was on television practically every night because wrestling was on all of the three or four networks that existed, so he brought this gender-bending into the American living room. You know, I look at Liberace's career, and he didn't start "acting out" until well after George had. I look at Little Richard, same thing. When they both started being flamboyant, George had already been doing it for 10 years.
I think he was very skillful in the way that he played with these gender roles, a macho wrestler at the same time as he acted effeminate. He would say, though, "It's not effeminate. George Washington had long hair and curlers." But he also wouldn't tell people that he was married and he had children, so I think he was deliberately disguising whatever his sexual identity was. As far as I can tell, he was the first person to pull that off. I don't know that somebody else didn't attempt to pioneer it…and get shot.
The funny thing about him, though, is he also helped to pioneer this, what we take to be a very macho, Terrell Owens, Muhammad Ali, trash-talking, saying essentially, "I am a bad, bad man. I'm the greatest, and it's all about me." To some extent James Brown did the same thing: He called himself "The Godfather of Soul" and he said, "I'm super bad." So there's a super-bad component of George's act, and then there's the opposite component of, "I'm super-gender-bending and I'm super-ambiguous." That was a strange combination that was unique to him, and you see both of those strains continue in pop culture.

Gorgeous George

Gorgeous George holds robe open while ref inspects. Courtesy of the George family.

Gelf Magazine: You reference a recent Canadian documentary on Gorgeous George. Did you at any time feel you were being beaten to the punch in the telling of this story, or was there always room for a different take on the life of the Human Orchid?

John Capouya: That came out a couple of years ago, and it was on Canadian television. I don't consider that being beaten to the punch on writing a book for HarperCollins in the United States.

Gelf Magazine: Did you collaborate with them at all?

John Capouya: Yeah, they were great. They had done this way before I had started my project, and I got in touch with them because I wanted to get the film, and it's not widely available. It's one documentary in a series they made for Canadian television. When I actually talked to them, they were very nice, and I actually got some footage from them of interviews with George's second wife, Cherie, which didn't air.
They were really helpful, but I didn't get the sense of anyone beating anyone to the punch. Also, given that it was only a 45 minute film, and not a 350-page book, it's not really the same thing. Plus, they weren't really interested in, and they didn't even mention, his influences. It was a story about his life and his career. They don't get into Ali, Brown, and Dylan, and that's an important component of my book.

Gelf Magazine: It's essential to your book. I have another question about your choices as a writer. There are a number of dramatic, sometimes cliffhanger, end lines to your chapters: "Instead, they nearly murdered him," before his hazing into Atlanta's professional circuit; "Don't call me Dad…call me Gorgeous" before the chapter on his divorce. But there is one line in particular which has a mysterious poetry about it, and when read in its proper context, seems to strike at an essential theme of what Gorgeous George represents. I'm referring to the final line of the chapter "A Gorgeous Legacy": "Wrestling is not what it used to be. There's no respect for the midgets anymore." Why is this line so fitting to close a chapter on George's legacy, and were you not at all tempted to close the book with this line?

John Capouya: You know I wasn't. I really didn't think of it in quite the same way as the others that you mentioned. The cliffhanger lines are a narrative technique that a lot of people use. In fact, I was just rereading Seabiscuit the other day because I'm actually teaching a course—I'm a professor at the University of Tampa and I was teaching a course on "biography and historical narrative"—so I was rereading that and I see that she does that a lot. The other thing is, it's a screenplay technique. You want to have emotional ups and downs follow each other: The hero starts to make progress, but then there's a calamity, and he has to overcome that, but then there's a breakthrough, but then another calamity! So that's just an old storytelling technique with, "he almost got murdered," and the "don't call me Dad, call me Gorgeous" was clearly foreshadowing him going off the deep end with his gorgeousness. I actually didn't think the other line was quite of the same genre. I just thought it was a hoot.

"He was very skillful in the way that he played with these gender roles, a macho wrestler at the same time as he acted effeminate."
Gelf Magazine: I read it as being a hoot in itself, being very entertaining, but the fact that you chose to close the chapter on his legacy with it gave me a sense that it meant more than that, that in some sense respecting midgets is what respecting George was all about.

John Capouya: Well, I guess I meant this to represent the golden age of wrestling, as wrestling fans and I call it, and I think there really was something that was lost in the current WWE version of wrestling, so I think it was more nostalgia for those days and George's era, and I guess in some ways the grand ridiculousness of George. So, I guess I'm coming around to your interpretation. The idea that the little people were an integral part of this and should be respected sort of goes hand in hand with the idea that George's early ridiculousness also should be respected.

Gelf Magazine: Your mentioning of screenwriting technique and John Waters being interested in the project begs the question, "Do you think this would make a good John Waters film?"

John Capouya: You know, he seems to have passed on it. I talked to him about it. He loves George, and he did ask me when I first ran into him, "Do you have the movie rights?" and I said, "Yeah," and he said, "Well somebody's going to make a great movie out of this someday." I asked, "Well, why don't you do it?" but he gave one of those, "Oh, I don't know" answers. So, certainly those rights are available. So we'll see.
To begin with though, it's an inherently visual story, so I think that would make it good for the screen. I also think for some actor to play this over-the-top role, it would be a lot of fun.

Gelf Magazine: Done right, it could be Oscar-worthy.

John Capouya: You get to dress up like a woman, fight, drink, have sex with a lot of women, act ridiculous, totally act out, and drink yourself to death. But I guess John Waters, at least thus far, is not going to be the guy.

Gelf Magazine: After reading the book, the movie geek in me was getting very excited about the prospect of a John Waters take on it, but oh well.

John Capouya: Well, I'm all for it. Obviously that's every writer's hope, but this is certainly more of a movie than anything else I ever wrote.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of your other writings, your first book was Real Men Do Yoga. Would Gorgeous George have done yoga?

John Capouya: I don't think so, no.

Gelf Magazine: Well that's interesting, because you have this theme in your writing now about what really makes a real man. Gorgeous George ends up being the giant question mark of what it means to be a real man, and yet he would not have done yoga.

John Capouya: Well, I don't see it, but then again, you know, George drank himself to death, so he wasn't on what you would call a health kick. He worked out earlier in his career, and he was very fit, a very good athlete, but after a while—after he became famous and his actual performance in the ring started to matter less—he stopped keeping in shape, and I think he also began drinking more, so he wasn't all that fit, and probably could have used some additional flexibility. But as far as I know there is no record of that.

John Capouya at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part I.

John Capouya at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part II.

Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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Article by Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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