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Weeping Walrus and Gingerbread, or A Comb Through the Mustache

March, 2005
By Anthony Marshall

The most famous, the most distinctive mustaches of the twentieth century, I suggest, belong to Adolf Hitler, Salvador Dali, Joseph Stalin and Groucho Marx. So distinctive are they that, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, these mustaches remain hovering in the mind’s eye long after the faces to which they are attached have disappeared. A scrubbing-brush, wacky waxed spikes, two conjoined dead rodents and a paint job. You could add any one of them to a portrait of the Mona Lisa and everyone would immediately know whose mustache she had on – though in Groucho’s case you would give her his round glasses too for absolute certainty. It is interesting to note that these mustaches divide neatly into two distinct camps: monster-tyrants on the one hand and creative-subversives on the other.

It is interesting to note too that all of these mustaches flourished after the boom period for mustaches. If you had to pick a Year of the Mustache – the year in which the mustache reached its zenith of power and popularity and its fullest flowering in the Western world – you would unerringly home in on 1910, the twilight year of the Edwardian Age. The international stage is thronged with numerous mustached leaders: in the United States, Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft, for instance; in England, David Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener; in France, Clemenceau, Petain and Foch; and in Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Paul von Hindenburg.. Even here, in the fledgling Commonwealth of Australia, our Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, sports an elegant dandyfied confection which spreads as wide as a cats’ whiskers. While in Mexico a mustache of international renown is peering over the revolutionary parapet on the face of Emiliano Zapata. And so on. I think you will agree that – without my reciting a whole litany of mustached luminaries – I may rest my case. If the Victorian age was the Age of the Beard and Whiskers, the Edwardian Age was the Age of the Mustache. Since 1910, it has been all downhill. Name one American President since Taft who has had a mustache. Exactly.

Why do men wear mustaches? What is their significance? Why are they sometimes fashionable and sometimes not? And why do people feel the need to embellish pictures of Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe and Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth with hair to the upper lip? All these are weighty questions to which I have no intention of supplying any answers. My focus is on the mustache in literature, and as is my wont I will trip daintily over the relevant terrain, pointing out where further research needs to be done and side-stepping the really important questions.

But first I need to declare an interest. For more than thirty years I wore a mustache. It started life when I was a student at university. It came with me when I went off to teach, and though gingery and a different color from my hair it was a valuable ally in the classroom, giving me (I fancy) an air of authority and gravitas which I might otherwise have lacked. It also helped the Headmaster distinguish me from the older pupils. For a few weeks I went mustache-less, when in the cause of Art and the annual Staff Revue, three of us from the Staff Room blacked up, wigged up and frocked up in order to impersonate Diana Ross and The Supremes. We performed – before an audience of 500 teenage boys – a vivid and vigorous rendering of “Baby Love” with full dance routine, which, I venture to say, was a success. (It is mere coincidence that I abandoned teaching only a few months later).

Later on, as a bookseller, I graduated to a “full set” – mustache and beard – which flourished wildly throughout the eighties. In the nineties I reverted (as one did) to a mustache and was pleased that by this time it had mellowed to a distinguished silvery color and was, I thought, not unlike Howard Keele’s, who had a mustache (and a voice) to die for. Then a couple of years ago, to please Susan on the occasion of a significant birthday, I shaved it off. It has stayed off. I intend to re-grow it, but she is cordially opposed to the plan. “You look so much neater,” she says. “And younger!” “Whose face is it?” I demand to know. “Yours,” she concedes. “But you don’t have to look at it”. Touche! And there the matter rests. So I come at this subject with some prejudice perhaps, and with an agenda of sorts, but with insider knowledge too.

The year 1910 was notable for the deaths of two literary giants: Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain. The one had a beard which reached almost to his belly, the other had a mustache which reached almost to his chin. I doubt if American literature has seen the equal of Mark Twain’s mustache before or since. It was the sort of mustache for which mustache-cups were designed. And through which soup and other comestibles must have been imperfectly filtered. But, as far as I can tell, Mark Twain’s mustache was not a subject for merriment on his part. I have searched my copy of The Quotable Mark Twain (Chicago 1997) for some relevant witticism, but the best I can come up with is what he says about the beard: “It performs no useful function; it is a nuisance and a discomfort; all nations hate it; all nations persecute it with the razor.” Except that some men in some nations don’t. Still, the point remains: the mustache is no laughing matter, not to its owner anyway.

Similarly Ambrose Bierce, another mustached wit of the epoch, is silent on mustaches in The Devil’s Dictionary. Disappointing, when so much else is neatly speared. Bierce fell silent forever when, in 1913, travelling as an observer with Pancho Villa’s rebel army in Mexico, he disappeared, possibly at the siege of Ojinaga. I was amazed to discover that he embarked on this adventure at the age of 71. I had always thought that the brilliant author of In The Midst of Life died in the midst of middle age. Bierce’s mustache – not surprisingly – was in the romantic uptwirled style. Did Bierce ever come ’tache to ’tache with Zapata? Other American contemporaries whose mustaches flourished in 1910 include William Dean Howells (neat military), O. Henry (flamboyant twirled), Eugene O’Neill (neat military); Ford Madox Ford/Hueffer (straggly mess) and Ezra Pound (romantic + goatee).

The two last named were living in Europe where in 1910 the literary mustache had a surer grip than in the United States. English/Irish literature at this moment – the heyday of the British Empire – was dominated by a whole crop of Edwardian mustaches: Rudyard Kipling, G.K.Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, H.G.Wells, John Masefield, Arnold Bennett, George Moore, Edmund Gosse, James Joyce, J.M.Barrie, J.M.Synge, A.E.Housman, Arthur Conan Doyle, W. Somerset Maugham. Plenty of creative-subversives in this list. Add to these D.H.Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, though Huxley later shed his mustache and Lawrence moved on to a beard. Sir Winston Churchill too wore a mustache in his earlier days, (though he was many other things as well, I think we may claim Churchill as a literary man). The story goes that a young woman once confronted Churchill, saying that she disliked both his politics and his mustache. “My dear Madam,” said Winston, “pray do not disturb yourself. You are not likely to come into contact with either.”

It is not likely that across the Channel, in the land of galanterie, a Frenchman would have been so rude. In 1910 the French literary mustache was busting out all over, having had a good run in the nineteenth century under the noses of notables such as Flaubert, Balzac and Maupassant. Paul Valery (French truffle-hunter) and Guillaume Appollinaire (military toothbrush) were prominent poets in an age when poets generally did not affect mustaches. And Marcel Proust (French truffle-hunter) was limbering up in the wings, preparing to launch his remarkable novel and his remarkable mustache on the world in 1913. A word here about what I call “the French truffle-hunter style” of mustache. This is the lush and extensive growth which adorns the upper lips of serious French bon vivants, men who use their noses to savor fine wines, fine Camemberts, Perigord truffles, ladies’ perfumes and other good things. I trace its origins to the Celts of Gaul, to mustached Vercingetorix and his barbarian warriors who took such a beating from shaven-lipped Julius Caesar and the smooth-faced Roman legions at Gergovia and elsewhere. Among these Gaulish barbrians are numbered Asterix and Obelix, both of whom sport fine French truffle-hunters. (Asterix and Obelix are, of course, fictional characters and I will deal with the mustache in fiction in due course.) The French truffle-hunter peaked in World War One when every French staff officer had one. It is commonly supposed that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was picked on by his army colleagues because he was Jewish. Wrong. He was picked on because he had the wrong sort of mustache.

In other parts of pre-First World War Europe literary men were mustached-up: in Russia few could rival the bushy mustache of Maxim Gorky; in the German-speaking countries Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and Carl Gustav Jung, not to mention Albert Einstein, were all mustached gentlemen who were by 1910 making their mark. And so on. It would be tedious to extend this list. But it would be remiss of me not to mention a notable Australian literary mustache, which belonged to Henry Lawson, poet and writer of short stories. By 1910 Lawson was in full spate. Like many people, I have tended to dismiss Lawson as a mere bush balladeer. But in recent years his reputation as a serious poet has, deservedly, grown. He was the first Australian literary man to be given a state funeral and his fine mustached face used to grace one side of the Australian ten-dollar note. (The current ten-dollar note bears the face of A.B. “Banjo” Paterson, Lawson’s contemporary and author of “Waltzing Matilda”. But “Banjo” has no mustache).

At this point you are, I hope, impressed by my research. You should be. It is not easy to extract picture portraits of writers from the standard literary reference books. All my Oxford Companions to Literature (English, American, French and Australian) are stuffed with literary biographies, but not one of them contains a single portrait or photograph. Only my Cambridge Guide to English Literature has a few photos sprinkled through it. My most useful source by far has been The Literary Life (Chatto,1969) by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane. Its sub-title is “A scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American literary scene from 1900 to 1950” and every page has at least one portrait photo (and often several). But its usefulness is clearly limited to the half-century – and to the nationalities – with which it deals. Other handy publications are the “A Book of Postcards” series put out by Pomegranate Artbooks of San Francisco. These include Great Authors and Gay Portraits and they are of excellent quality. I keep meaning to frame the photos up and hang them in my shop. Perhaps one day I will. For the rest, I have resorted to scanning blurbs and dust-jackets to see which authors were mustached or not; or else I have gone a-Googling, which has given excellent results but it’s fiddly and time-consuming. I am sure there is a niche in the market for a really good photographic book of writers. If one such already exists, I have never seen it. But I am heartened to learn that the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, recently published in England, is chock full of photographs.

The beard in literature, as in life, is clearly patriarchal. God and Moses and Sigmund Freud were/are bearded. Try to imagine them clean-shaven or mustached. Ridiculous isn’t it? (Have you ever met a mustached bishop, or priest?) And the giants of 19th century literature are patriarchal in aspect, cast in the very image of God. Melville and Whitman, Dickens and Trollope, Tolstoy and Dostoievsky, Hugo and Zola, Chekhov and Turgenev and Ibsen, all were bearded to the eyeballs. Why, I am practically on my knees as I write their names. And who are their mustached contemporaries? Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nikolai Gogol, Guy de Maupassant and Honore de Balzac. – to name a few. I am not on my knees as I write their names. But I like their style. The Fall of the House of Usher, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , The Diary of a Madman, Fear and Droll Stories. The authors of these are the elves and goblins of literature, the stirrers and iconoclasts, who walk on the wild side, attracted by the dark, the deviant and the demonic. Perhaps they are literary devils incarnate. Is not the devil traditionally given a twirling mustache, (plus a little goatee perhaps) and a fork for prodding and stirring and tormenting?

A favorite uncle of mine, an ex-RAF man with a neat bristly mustache, used to quote in its defense an old Spanish proverb: “A kiss without a mustache is like an egg without salt.” It is fair to say that my Auntie Phyllis never categorically endorsed this received wisdom. Like many women of her generation, (and maybe like many Spanish ladies before her) she probably thought privately that her husband’s mustache was a prickly abhorrence but she said nothing. In any case, Spanish mustaches, traditionally, were quite unlike bristly toothbrush mustaches, being (generally) thin and waxed, and shaped into amazing curlicues and arabesques. (Do you know how to wax a mustache? Have you ever seen it done? There is so much to learn!) For Englishmen in Elizabethan England mustached Spaniards were objects of ridicule. Shakespeare pokes fun at Don Adriano de Armado and his mustache in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Don Armado, “a Fantastical Spaniard” with an imperfect grasp of English, confides to his friends: “For I must tell thee, it will please his grace (the King) sometime to lean upon my shoulder, and with his royal finger, thus, dally with my excrement, with my mustache.” How the groundlings love a scatalogical malapropism or mispronunciation! (So do teen-age schoolboys. In another Staff play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, I was cast as the irascible French physician Dr.Caius who delivers a memorable exit line: “If there be one or two, I shall make-a the turd.”)

Spaniards were fair game in 1592 or thereabouts when Shakespeare was writing Love’s Labour’s Lost. Only a few years earlier the Spanish Armada had set sail in order to invade, I’m sorry I mean to liberate, England. On board the San Juan, one of the few Spanish galleons to get back home safely, was Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. Lope de Vega was the sort of fellow who gives mustaches a bad name. While his mustache was not particularly fantastical, it participated in a punishing, picaresque and life-long schedule of seductions, marriages, affairs and one-night stands. It is a wonder that Lope found the time and energy, between girls, to write his 1500 plays. A potted version of his life (from Chambers Biographical Dictionary) says that he “…had many amours, was twice married, and begot at least six children, three of them illegitimate; was banished from Madrid because of a quarrel, and lived two years at Valencia; took orders, became an officer of the Inquisition; and died August 27, 1635, a victim to hypochondria. He died poor, for his large income from his dramas and other sources was all but wholly devoted to charity and church purposes.” Hombre! What a man! This, clearly, is a life (and a death) worth investigating further. (How far did Lope go when he was inquisiting? And exactly how does one “fall victim to hypochondria”?) And who is Lope’s contemporary on the Spanish literary scene? The bearded wonder, the God-like Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Who needs 1500 playlets when you can have Don Quixote? What chance does a mere mustache have against a full set?

Switch now to Elizabethan England. Who was the “good boy” bearded dramatist who made his pile in London and retired to a life of ease and comfort in Stratford-upon-Avon? And who is his contemporary, the “bad boy” dramatist with a mustache who “led an irregular life, mingled with the canaille, and was on the point of being arrested for disseminating atheistic opinions when, in May 1593, at the age of twenty-nine, he was fatally stabbed at Deptford, in a tavern brawl”? Christopher Marlowe, that’s who. Alumnus of my old school and a pretty darned good playwright who wrote the devilish drama Dr.Faustus. But who was totally eclipsed by the bard with the beard.

My theme is not simply an Orwellian chant of “Beard good, mustache bad.” (Talking of George Orwell, now there was a mustache, pencil-thin, perched precariously on his upper lip. And please note that “Mark Twain” and “George Orwell”, not to mention “O.Henry”, were pseudonyms. The mustache as disguise? As defense-mechanism? As mask?). I repeat that I have no theme. But I am churning out possible lines of inquiry here like a muck-spreader. I leave others to do the detailed research. To formulate a typology of the mustache and a taxonomy of mustached writers. And to investigate the psychological paradigm – Freud/God-patriarch/ beard; Jung/devil-seducer/ mustache. There must surely be a three-year research bursary in all this. It is a wonder that, as far as I can tell, no history of the mustache exists, far less a literary history. And it is high time that someone sat down and wrote a literary work entitled Mr.Twain’s Mustache. Or Mr.Orwell’s Mustache. Or for that matter, The Mustache of Alice B. Toklas. This is the current vogue in book titles. Yoke a famous name to any homely object (or animal) and presto! you have a winner: Pushkin’s Button, Poe’s Cat, Flaubert’s Parrot, Balzac’s Horse etc. Why, I have in front of me a double-whammy by Michael Olmert: Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella. (Touchstone, 1996). Full marks, Touchstone, for playing the game!

It is ungallant of me to mention Ms. Toklas. But I was struck by this description of her by Otto Friedrich: “Miss Toklas was incredibly ugly, uglier than almost anyone I had ever met. A thin, withered creature, she sat hunched in her chair, in her heavy tweed suit and her thick lisle stockings, impregnable and indifferent. She had a huge nose, a dark moustache, and her dark-dyed hair was combed into absurd bangs over her forehead.” And I thought to myself, despite all this, this woman was loved – no, adored – by Gertrude Stein. So there is hope for everyone, after all.

The mustache in fiction is a whole new area, ripe for investigation. A number of classic mustached chararacters spring immediately to mind (several of them brandishing rapiers): Hercule Poirot, Dr.Watson, The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan, Captain Hook, Fu Manchu, Don Juan, Robin Hood… There must be countless others. Did Robin Hood really have a mustache? As played on screen by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Errol Flynn he certainly did. And it is the image in the movies that counts. So when we think of Rhett Butler, Max de Winter, Phileas Fogg and Dr. Zhivago, say, we see the mustached faces of Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, David Niven and Omar Sharif. Who cares what the original character in the book was meant to look like?

One of my favorite fictional mustaches belongs to Mr.Pugh in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood: “Mr. Pugh cringes awake. He puts on a soft-soaping smile: it is sad and grey under his nicotine-yellow weeping walrus Victorian moustache worn thick and long in memory of Doctor Crippen.” Mr. Pugh, you will recall, nurses a longing to eliminate his shrewish wife. To get ideas, he reads Lives of the Great Poisoners at table, fooling his wife by wrapping a Lives of the Great Saints dust-jacket round the cover. He would have read about Dr. Crippen, who successfully poisoned his wife, Cora Turner, the music-hall star “who led her husband an impossible domestic life”. (She also had an impossible name, Kunigonde Mackamotski, which she traded in for something snappier). Naturally, Dr. Crippen had a weeping walrus mustache, and he carried out his murder in 1910.

Since 1910, the literary mustache has been in gentle decline. In American literature, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway (before his beard), John Berryman, Bernard Malamud, William Goldman John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut – to name a few – have kept alive the mustached tradition. I select Dashiell Hammett for special mention as a creative-subversive for refusing to testify to the House Committee for Unamerican Activities in 1951, for which outrage he was sent to jail. In Latin America, where perhaps mustache traditionally has equated with machismo, I can verify that Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes wear neat (rather than fantastical) mustaches. It may be that in certain parts of the U.S. the mustache has been appropriated as a badge of gayness, so if you’re not gay you don’t wear one. In England, E.M.Forster was, and did, and Somerset Maugham was, and did. Later on, Maugham, a vain man (and another alumnus of my old school) shaved his moustache off. He felt he looked younger without it. So concerned was Maugham to keep his youthful looks that he always went to bed early. One evening, in New York, having dined with Lady Emerald Cunard, he made his excuses early and prepared to leave. “But you can’t go now,” she said, “the evening has only just begun.” “I dare say, Emerald, but I have to keep my youth.” “Then why didn’t you bring him with you?” said Emerald. “I should be delighted to meet him.”

The “modern” generation of writers, perhaps in a reaction to its Edwardian predecessors, seems largely to have eschewed the mustache, perhaps too aware of its powerful symbolism. James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Malcolm Lowry and George Orwell are notable exceptions, with Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh as temporary associates. Barbara Skelton writes of Evelyn Waugh: “Waugh dressed in a black and white check suit. He has a check waistcoat and cap to match, and a ginger tweed overcoat, a flabby bulging stomach and a small aggressive gingerbread moustache.” Understandably, Waugh did not persist with his mustache for long. In post-war Europe, fine walrus mustaches decorate the faces of Gunther Grass and Giovanni Guareschi, creator of the delightful Don Camillo books. (Notice that both have the initials G.G. Significant? It would be, if Graham Greene could be corralled in, to make up the trifecta. Sadly, he can’t). In our own times, in the post-modern literary generation and beyond, where are the walruses, the pencils, the truffle-hunters and the gingerbreads of yesteryear? It is high time to deconstruct the mustache!

Among modern Australian authors, the most notable mustache is David Malouf’s. His Lebanese ancestry may have influenced him. I will not begin to delve into the role of the mustache in the Orient. Clearly it is alive and well, and flourishing from Istanbul to Islamabad, from Beirut to Bangkok, and beyond. Indeed, it is rumored that a forgotten republic, Moustaschistan, “tucked between the breakaway Soviet state of Kalashnikov and the former Persian province of Carpetstan” will soon be opening its frontiers to tourists. To find out more, read the Jetlag Travel Guide Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. (Sydney 2003), a hilarious travel guide spoof, written by three very funny Australians. Before we leave Asia, reflect awhile on the face Mahatma Gandhi. It is possible for a good man and a “great soul” to have a rather ordinary bristly mustache.

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the English spelling of “mustache” is “moustache”. (The pronunciation approximates to “meugh -starsh” with a slight emphasis on the second syllable.) It comes directly from the French moustache which (with typical French wit – or contrariness) is assigned the feminine gender. The American spelling derives from the Spanish mustacho which, sensibly, is a masculine noun. Both come, via the Italian mustaccio, from the ancient Greek word moustax which means “upper lip”. It is strange that English has had to borrow from Europe a word to describe the hair on the upper lip. Was there nothing suitable in Celtic or Anglo-Saxon or Old English? Or did moustaches simply not feature in Ancient Britain except as part and parcel of the beard?

In Australia, we favor the English spelling and pronunciation of “moustache”, though increasingly Australians pronounce it as “mo-stache” in the same way as we pronounce “boutique, bouquet and bougainvillea” as “bo-tique, bo-quet and bo-gainvillea.” And the standard Australian abbreviation here for mo-stache is “mo”. Whence “Movember”, which is when a select group of Melbourne’s literary men compete to grow the best mo during the thirty days of November. After adjudication has taken place, the mos go. Perhaps this year I will participate in Movember, and re-join the ranks of the mustached just temporarily. Or even permanently.

Or perhaps I won’t. It occurs to me now, having investigated the matter, that there is a lot more to mustaches than meets the eye (or, indeed, the nose). What I once fondly thought was just a mo is actually a freighter laden with a cargo of multiple meanings. It’s a badge you stick on your face, with a message you yourself can’t quite read, but which others can, perfectly. As if life were not already confusing enough! Besides, I’ve grown quite accustomed to my face the way it is. It looks sufficiently lived in. Some people believe that old booksellers should cultivate long beards and the patriarchal look. I don’t see why. In the matter of facial hair, as in so many things, less is more. “Designer stubble” is so elegant! And if your face is clean-shaven you can (like Groucho Marx) just paint on a mustache when the fancy takes you, in any style you please. Then just get rid of it. I have no doubt that the mustache will, in time, make a come-back, in literature and elsewhere. People will tire of the tiny goatees and the polished gunmetal skulls which are so fashionable to-day. I am rather intrigued – as a man with a fast diminishing credit balance of hair – by this fad for designer baldness. Is baldness so becoming? What is it with baldness? It would be interesting to investigate…I mean, I’m just thinking out loud here, but I wonder who are the most famous, the most distinctive bald men of the twentieth century?

Anthony Marshall is owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Fossicking for Old Books” (Melbourne 2004).