George Was Villainous, Gutsy and Gorgeous

And those were the qualities it took to make a wrestling hero in the early days of television, when the fans wanted their partisanship well seasoned with glamour and histrionics
March 17, 1969

A good many years before the Beatles bought their first set of bobby pins, another lush and luxuriant head of male hair was attracting a good deal of public attention. It belonged to a professional wrestler known to the world as Gorgeous George.

"I do not think I am gorgeous," George protested once, "but what is my opinion against millions of others?"

George's hair, which was long, curly and yellow, was kept in place by gold-plated bobby pins which he called "Georgie pins" and passed out by the handful to adoring fans.

The first batch cost him $85 for half a pound. When he found out how fast he was handing them out, he had to switch to cheaper ones—gold only in color. But the need to economize didn't faze George. He once appeared on a radio show being taped for the armed forces overseas, and the beribboned, high-ranking officers present decided they had better get some souvenir Georgie pins or their wives would never forgive them. George ordered them to line up like so many recruits, then ordered his valet to spray their hands with scent. After that he made them repeat after him the customary oath: "I solemnly swear and promise I will never confuse this gold Georgie pin with a common, ordinary bobby pin, so help me Gorgeous George."

Alternatively known as the Human Orchid, Gorgeous was born plain George Raymond Wagner in Seward, Neb. Soon after his birth in 1915 he was taken by his family to Houston. There was nothing very gorgeous about the Wagner household. George's father was a house painter who didn't earn much money. His mother was an invalid, and their home was in a rough section of town called Harrisburg, near the ship channel. Even at that time, however, there were some indications that George felt an urgent need to stand out from the crowd. At 9 he insisted upon having a black shirt with white buttons, "just to look different, so people would notice me."

Tough kids from the neighborhood were called Harrisburg Rats, and out of George's own rat pack came a number of pro wrestlers of renown in the 1930s and '40s: Chester Hayes, Sterling (Dizzy) Davis, Jesse James and Johnny James. The James brothers" father owned a fruit stand, and behind it, next to Buffalo Bayou, the boys would stage wrestling matches on sawdust left over from the days when a sawmill stood on the spot. If somebody wanted to watch, the boys charged admission.

Later Jesse and George wrestled at community picnics in the Houston area. Once Jesse body-slammed George and knocked him out. A well-meaning lady in the audience poured smelling salts into his nose. She revived him all right, but she also permanently damaged his nose. From picnics the boys went on to challenge carnival wrestlers and to work tiny arenas around Houston.

"We were amateurs, but not really," recalls one of the kids. "We were paid, though the amount was small. If you were real good in those days you could take out a state professional wrestling license for $5. I remember that George was so poor that when we were booked in small towns, like Conroe and Brenham, he'd be booked as the Barefoot Bohemian, because he didn't have enough money to buy wrestling shoes."

The financial situation began to improve when the biggest matchmaker in that part of Texas, Morris Siegal, signed up George and some of his friends.

For a long time George was just another good guy, or "baby face," in the ring. His hair was short and brown and his wallet was just short. Then he met Betty Hanson, a cashier in a Eugene, Ore. movie theater. Not long afterward the two were married in the ring, and it proved to be such a good draw that they reenacted the wedding in several arenas around the country. But even before that, Betty had started working her accidental miracle.

"It was one night in Eugene," said Don Owen, the czar of wrestling in Oregon. "Betty had made George a robe, and when he went into the ring that night he took special care in folding it.

"The fans got on him pretty good and Betty was there and got into it with the fans. She slapped one of them, and George went out of the ring and belted the fan. Even when he was a clean wrestler, George had a hot temper, and he would fight a buzz saw.

"Anyway, the booing was tremendous, and the next week there was a real big crowd and everyone booed George. So he just took more time to fold his robe. He did everything to antagonize the fans. And from that point on he became the best drawing card we ever had around here. In wrestling they either come to like you or to hate you. And they hated George."

Slowly through the 1940s the character of Gorgeous George evolved. At first the brown hair became auburn. Then he read about an old friend, Dizzy Davis, throwing gardenias to the crowds in Mexico and getting a new nickname, Gardenia Davis. So George decided to become a glamour boy, too. He let his hair grow longer and wavier. The next step was to a beauty salon in Hollywood to inquire about a wig. After some thought, it was decided a wig would be too easy to yank off in the ring, so the beautician turned George over to two Hungarian hair stylists, Frank and Joseph, who recommended that he grow his hair long and bleach it blond—"if he had the guts." "If guts is all it takes, I've got plenty," said George.

Guts, gall, nerve—whatever you want to call it, George had it. During World War II he worked at a shipyard during the day and wrestled at night. He broke his leg in a match one evening, but instead of seeing a doctor right away, he gritted his teeth overnight and went to work at the shipyard the next morning. There he feigned a fall from a ladder and enjoyed a leisurely vacation while his employer paid the medical bills.

In the early 1940s George boarded a luxury liner to Honolulu with only his ticket—no money. He threw his wallet on the floor in one of the men's rooms and reported that it had been stolen during the bon voyage festivities. It was found that day—empty, of course. The captain and the other passengers took pity on him and he got free meals all the way to Hawaii, and—always important to G.G.—free drinks.

TV Announcer Dick Lane remembers strolling through Beverly Hills with George during the height of his TV fame. The wrestler wore a white gabardine suit, a black tie and a big white Panama hat with a black band. They stopped in front of a fashionable men's store, and a crowd gathered immediately. G.G. beat on the store window with his ivory-handled black cane until a clerk came scurrying out, then demanded to see the entire selection of handkerchiefs. The clerk obediently brought out an armload, and George went through them one by one, tossing them over the man's shoulder. At last he picked a black one identical to the one he was wearing in his coat pocket, discarded his old one over the clerk's shoulder, carefully installed the new one, gave him a $20 bill and sauntered off. He took Lane around the corner to his bank and got out his safety deposit box. It was stuffed with cash. Lane asked him why he did not keep his money in a savings account.

"I want it right where I can take my shoes off and walk around in it if I want to," said Gorgeous. "Right now I feel like flying to Buenos Aires." So he took out a handful of bills, hopped in a cab and headed for the airport.

Outrageous characters, preferably villainous, were the big thing in that heyday honeymoon of television and the wrestling ring—and Gorgeous George was the most outrageous of all. A natural showman, he had an extravagant routine that put him way ahead of all the monocled lords, Indian chiefs and masked terrors of the day as the biggest draw in the history of pro wrestling. Before each match his valet, a personification of dignity in striped pants, vest and tails, would walk stiffly down the aisle and enter the ring carrying a silver-plated tray. On the tray was a mirror, a little carpet and a fancified Flit gun full of perfume-scented disinfectant. ("It's Chanel No. 10," said Gorgeous. "Why be half-safe?") The valet, always somber, would set the tray down in one corner and carefully spray the mat. Then the lights would dim, a magnificent rendition of Pomp and Circumstance would thunder out of the loudspeaker and a spotlight would pinpoint the star as he strode majestically down an aisle.

When G.G. reached the ring, the valet would hold the ropes apart so he would not have to bend too far to enter. George would wipe his white shoes on the carpet. The valet would remove a spun-gold hairnet so everyone could admire G.G.'s long blond hair, done up in the latest style. Then the great man would make a haughty inspection and order the servant to give the spray gun a few more squirts here and there.

At the traditional meeting in the center of the ring, when the referee is supposed to run his hands down each wrestler's body, feeling for grease (artificial slipperiness is illegal), George always refused to be touched until his valet had sprayed the referee's hands.

After his lace-and-fur-trimmed robe was doffed, George became pretty much a routine heel, although perhaps able to anger the fans quicker than most. He maneuvered his opponents around so the referee could not see him deliver kidney punches with his fist. He gouged eyes and bit ears. He pulled his opponents' hair and screamed foul if foes messed up his own elaborate marcel. Between falls he gazed at himself in the mirror and primped.

For the record, it should be noted that Gorgeous George was not even remotely homosexual. He was a tough man in a barroom brawl, was generally liked and respected by other wrestlers, was very fond of women and was twice married.

"He was a tremendous performer on the mat when he wanted to be," says Promoter John J. Doyle, who remembers one notable night at the Olympic when Gorgeous George threw Jim Mitchell out of the ring, then kicked him in the face to keep him out and won the bout. A huge man in the audience took off his coat, got through the ropes and charged Gorgeous, who sidestepped him and flipped him heels over head. The crowd went berserk, and one fan was stabbed in the shoulder, but the Human Orchid escaped through a tunnel under the ring without so much as a bruised petal.

That match and others like it at the Olympic were kinescoped and shown later all over the nation, making Gorgeous George a full-blown TV celebrity. (Unshrinking Muhammad Ali has admitted that his own style of conceited ballyhoo was copied from George's.) In 1951 G.G. made $160,000, and he probably earned close to $2 million in his career. At least seven songs were written about him, and a former valet, Jack Hunter, now a cab company employee in Houston, still remembers the words to one:

He has an armful of muscle and a head full of curls.
He wrestles with the fellows and thrills all the girls;
A two ton truck with a velvet sheen,
Gorgeous George is the man I mean.
He has a chest like a mountain and a face like a dream,
He starts women swoonin' and makes men scream.

In 1949 George was the star of a movie which deserves honorable mention on any selection of the worst ever: Alias the Champ, made by Republic. George's best line was, "Come, little one, it's time for my marcel." He was not nominated for an Academy Award.

In time, George came to believe he was the character he had played for so long. A friend in Oregon remembers G.G.'s return to the Northwest.

"I saw him the last time about 1960," he said. "You'd be alone in a hotel room with him and he'd be acting just like he was in the ring. I had to tell him off a couple of times and remind him to knock off that stuff with an old friend."

George may have been convinced that he was really gorgeous at last, but he never lost his sense of humor—his sometimes weird sense of humor. He loved to play jokes.

"He called them swerves," said ex-valet Jack Hunter. "He'd do anything for a swerve, and even enjoyed one on himself. Occasionally I'd put beer instead of perfume in his atomizer. He didn't mind. He used to say, 'A swerve a day keeps the blues away.' "

Hunter was with G.G. once when he stopped somewhere in Pennsylvania to have his hair done. The gorgeous one settled back in the chair, and in the ceiling mirror saw a pair of female legs, skirts raised above the knee—a height calculated to attract attention in those days. While the beauty operator was gone he got up and peeked into the next booth. In a moment he came running out to Hunter yelling, "My heart, my heart!" This time the joke was on Gorgeous. The woman in the other booth was a corpse whose hair was being done for the local mortuary.

For years George had been a heavy drinker, and in 1962 it caught up with him. Doctors told him he could not wrestle any more because of a serious liver ailment, but he kept on drinking and finally was hospitalized. Visitors and other patients lined up outside his room to get a glimpse of the man in the lavender robe on which were painted four orchids. He stayed away from booze for a few months after he got out of the hospital, then went back to it as recklessly as ever. He sold his San Fernando Valley tavern, Gorgeous George Ringside, and the proceeds barely paid off his debts.

In time, his second wife—and former lady valet—Cherie divorced him and took custody of their son. George took up with a kindhearted stripper and went on drinking.

"Sober, there wasn't a sweeter, kinder, more considerate man in the world," said Cherie. "He didn't really have the nerve to do all those things, that's why he drank. When he was sober, he was shy.

"I don't ever regret meeting him and marrying him. When he wasn't drinking it was a good life."

By Christmas 1963, G.G. was so broke that he could not even afford to buy his youngest son a skateboard. Rather than disappoint the boy, he made one himself. But he never got to see it used. On Christmas Eve Gorgeous George was stricken with a heart attack. He died two days later in County Hospital. He was only 48.

Today his grave in Valhalla Memorial Park, North Hollywood, Calif. is marked by a plaque embedded in the grass. On it is carved:

LOVE TO OUR DADDY
GORGEOUS GEORGE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)