Monday, February 08, 2010

The Unbearded Wonder

There are some figures from history whose image is so familiar that it is hard to imagine them looking any other way, even in their youth. Adolf Hitler surely always had a bad moustache and an even worse haircut (or did he just get them to look like Charlie Chaplin?); Winston Churchill must have emerged from the womb looking jowly and bad-tempered (as all babies do, in fact); and if you had to name Abraham Lincoln's three defining characteristics, you would say "tall, bow tie, beard".

Actually, the beard appeared very late in Lincoln's presidential campaign in 1860. As this photo by Mathew Brady reveals (found on the Iconic Photos site), the Lincoln who sought election was a gaunt, clean-shaven man with rather sad eyes who looks as if he could do with a decent meal. Or even a KFC.

Apparently, Lincoln only decided to say "To hell with the badger brush, I'm going furry" one month before the election. An 11-year-old girl from Westfield, New York, wrote to him advising that he grew a beard because "your face is so thin".

She added: "All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you." Abe was so impressed, although he wondered if it might be seen as an affectation, that he immediately stopped shaving.

A couple of months later, as he headed for the White House, Lincoln popped in on young Grace Bedell to thank her for her advice.

It is a little-known (and little-true) fact that 11-year-old Grace continued to advise Lincoln throughout his presidency. She told him that slavery was "just mean", suggested that Ulysses Grant would make a good commander of the Union Army (that beard obsession again) and persuaded him by yawning and picking her nose as he read a draft of the Gettysburg Address that perhaps a sprawling diatribe against the rebelling Southerners could be replaced by something more pithy.

Sadly, as she got older Grace's advice became more half-baked. Barely a month after his second inauguration, Abe found himself at home with nothing to do and asked Grace for ideas. "I've heard good things about the new play at Ford's Theatre..." she replied.

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