George Raymond Wagner (March 24, 1915–December 26, 1963) was an American professional wrestler best known by his ring name Gorgeous George. In the United States, during the First Golden Age of Professional Wrestling in the 1940s-1950s, Gorgeous George gained mainstream popularity and became one of the biggest stars of this period, gaining media attention for his outrageous character, which was described as flamboyant and charismatic.
George Raymond Wagner was born March 24, 1915 in Butte, Nebraska. For a time, he and his parents lived on a farm near the village of Phoenix in Holt County and probably in Seward County before they moved to Waterloo, Iowa and later Sioux City. When George was age seven, his family moved to Houston, Texas, where he associated with kids from a tough neighborhood. As a child, he trained at the local YMCA and often staged matches against his friends. In 1929, Wagner dropped out of Milby High School at age 14, and worked odd jobs to help support his family. At this time, he competed at carnivals, where he could earn 35 cents for a win. By age 17, he was getting booked by the region’s top promoter, Morris Siegel, and in 1938, he won his first title by defeating Buck Lipscomb for Northwest Middleweight crown. Moreover, on May 19, 1939, he captured the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight Championship.
At 5’9” and 215 pounds, Wagner was not particularly physically imposing by professional wrestling standards, nor was he an exceptionally gifted athlete. Nevertheless, he soon developed a reputation as a solid in-ring worker. In the late 1930s, he met Betty Hanson, whom he would eventually marry in an in-ring ceremony. When the wedding proved a good drawing card, the couple re-enacted it in arenas across the country (which thus enlightened Wagner to the potential entertainment value that was left untapped within the industry). Around this same time, Vanity magazine published a feature article about a pro wrestler named Lord Patrick Lansdowne, who entered the ring accompanied by two valets while wearing a velvet robe and doublet. Wagner was impressed with the bravado of such a character, but he believed that he could take it to a much greater extreme. As a result, he debuted his new “glamour boy” persona on a 1941 card in Eugene, Oregon; and he quickly antagonized the fans with his exaggerated effeminate behavior, which prompted the ring announcer to introduce him as “Gorgeous George.” Such showmanship was unheard of for the time; and consequently, arena crowds grew in size as fans turned out to ridicule George (who relished the sudden attention).
Gorgeous George was soon recruited to Los Angeles by promoter Johnny Doyle. Known as the "Human Orchid," his persona was created in part by growing his hair long, dyeing it platinum blonde, and putting gold-plated bobby pins in it (which he deemed “Georgie Pins” while distributing them to the audience). Furthermore, he transformed his ring entrance into a bona-fide spectacle that would often take up more time than his actual matches. He was the first wrestler to really use entrance music, as he strolled nobly to the ring to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance", followed by his valet and a purple spotlight. Wearing an elegant robe sporting an array of sequins, Gorgeous George was always escorted down a personal red carpet by his ring valet “Jeffries,” who would carry a silver mirror while spreading rose petals at his feet. While George removed his robe, Jeffries would spray the ring with disinfectant (which reportedly consisted of Chanel No. 5 perfume), which George referred to as "Chanel #10" ("Why be half-safe?" he was famous for saying) before he would start wrestling. Moreover, George required that his valets spray the referee’s hands before the official was allowed to check him for any illegal objects, which thus prompted his now-famous outcry “Get your filthy hands off me!” Once the match finally began, he would cheat in every way he could. Gorgeous George was the industry’s first true cowardly villain, and he would cheat at every opportunity, which infuriated the crowd. His credo was "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!" This flamboyant image and his showman's ability to work a crowd were so successful in the early days of television that he became the most famous wrestler of his time, drawing furious heel heat wherever he appeared.
It was with the advent of television, however, that George’s character exploded into the biggest drawing card the industry had ever known. With the networks looking for cheap but effective programming to fill its time slots, pro wrestling’s glorified action became a genuine “hit” with the viewing public, as it was the first program of any kind to draw a real profit. Consequently, it was Gorgeous George who brought the sport into the nation’s living rooms, as his histrionics and melodramatic behavior made him a larger-than-life figure in American pop-culture. His first television appearance took place on November 11, 1947 (an event that was recently named among the top 100 televised acts of the 20th century by Entertainment Weekly) and he immediately became a national celebrity at the same level of Lucille Ball and Bob Hope (who personally donated hundreds of chic robes for George’s collection) while changing the course of the industry forever. No longer was pro wrestling simply about the in-ring action, but George had created a new sense of theatrics and character performance that had not previously existed. Moreover, in a very real sense, it was Gorgeous George who single-handedly established television as a viable entertainment medium that could potentially reach millions of homes across the country (in fact, it is said that George was probably responsible for selling as many TV sets as Milton Berle).
In addition to his grandiose theatrics, Gorgeous George was an accomplished wrestler as well. While many may have considered him a mere gimmick wrestler, he was actually a very competent freestyle wrestler, having started learning the sport in amateur wrestling as a teenager, and he could handle himself quite well if it came to a legitimate contest. The great Lou Thesz, who would take this AWA title away from Wagner, and who was one of the best "legit" wrestlers ever in professional wrestling, displayed some disdain for the gimmick wrestlers. Nevertheless, he admitted that Wagner "could wrestle pretty well," but added that, "he [Wagner] could never draw a fan until he became Gorgeous George."
On March 26, 1947, he defeated Enrique Torres to capture the Los Angeles Heavyweight Championship. Then on February 22, 1949, George was booked as the feature attraction at New York’s Madison Square Garden in what would be pro wrestling’s first return to the building in 12 years. By the 1950’s, Gorgeous George’s starpower was so huge that he was able to command 50% of the gate for his performances, which allowed him to earn over $100,000 a year, thus making him the highest paid athlete in the world. Moreover, on May 26, 1950, Gorgeous George defeated Don Eagle to claim the AWA (Boston) World Heavyweight Championship, which he held for several months. During this reign he was beaten by the National Wrestling Alliance World Champion Lou Thesz in a highly-publicized bout in Chicago. However, perhaps Gorgeous George’s most famous match was against his longtime rival Whipper Billy Watson on March 12, 1959, in which a beaten George had his treasured golden locks shaved bald before 20,000 delighted fans at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens and millions more on national television.
In one of his final matches, Gorgeous George later faced off against (and lost to) an up-and-coming Bruno Sammartino, though he would lose his precious hair again when he was defeated by the Destroyer in a hair vs. mask match at the Olympic Auditorium on November 7, 1962. This would ultimately be his last match, as advanced age and extended alcohol abuse had taken their toll on his body; and his doctors ordered him to quit wrestling.