Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture
by John Capouya
(HarperEntertainment, $25.95)

Madonna, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and Muhammad Ali all owe a debt to the wrestler Gorgeous George, says author John Capouya. The Nebraska-born high school dropout was little more than a decent athlete in the late 1940s, when he decided to bleach his hair, style it in Betty Grable curls, and strut into every arena he entered with a new persona and a new hauteur. Crowds loved the act. In the early days of television, wrestling was a broadcast staple and “the Human Orchid” soon stood alongside baseball’s Joe DiMaggio as one of the nation’s highest paid sports heroes. Dylan, Brown, and Ali would all later pay tribute to Gorgeous George’s influence on their careers. For the teenage Dylan, a single wink that the great showman directed his way was virtually “all the encouragement I would need for years to come.”

Gorgeous George’s once-galvanizing act comes back to life in Capouya’s “slim, genial new pop biography,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Wrestling’s gender-bending bad boy would dispatch a valet to spray the ring with perfume before he deigned to make an entrance. “Night after night in arenas all over the country,” George would elicit jeers, cheers, and laughs by pulling “Georgie” pins from his peroxided locks and fussing over the folding of his ornate silk robe. Capouya bounds through the story of the performer’s career “with enthusiasm and good cheer.” But the author’s “franks-and-beans prose style” will “make some readers squirm,” and he never quite proves his “wacky” contention that Gorgeous George “created” American pop culture.

Capouya’s argument shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly, said Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in The Wall Street Journal. “Until Gorgeous George came along, the American public rooted for heroes—preferably those who were handsome, fit, and modest.” Not only was Gorgeous George probably the first mass entertainer to appeal to both sexes by blurring gender lines, said Eric Compton in the New York Post, he directly advised the future Ali to assume the loudmouthed persona that would shake the culture. “Gorgeous” George Wagner died only two years after the two men met, just 48 years old but ruined by drinking and gambling. He had made his mark, though, as “a symbol of a changing country.”