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.