The Angry Inch

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. Here is one, from Dec 31, 2016 slightly updated and rewritten.

Who is this man?

This is arguably the most recognizable face of the 20th century; you may recognize him without his most iconic feature. But probably not. Without it, he looks like any anonymous businessman or bourgeois politician of his time. Yet, give him back that one little caterpillar curling under the shade of his nostrils and you can recognize him instantly.

In fact, you don’t really need the rest of the face. Even an abstract diagram can be given its name without much puzzling. That mustache defines the face of the single most evil person of the previous century (nominations are now open for the current era). Before the middle of the last century, there were many who bore a similar fungus on their lip, but since then the so-called “toothbrush mustache” has gone understandably out of fashion, save for a few copycat dictators and a comedian or two attempting irony.

Yet, before its demonization, the lip tonsure was famous for defining the Little Tramp of Charlie Chaplin. It was also worn by Oliver Hardy (“Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) One would be hard pressed to understand the thing in any way but comical, until it occupied the philtrum of the Great Dictator. It’s hard now to realize that it could grace the passport photo of Eric Blair on his way to Burma to shoot an elephant, later to write about it as George Orwell.

Then, there is precedent for the little fuzz as popular with strongman rulers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, before he was still dead, bore the little bristle. So did pre-war Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. And, of course, Peter Parker’s boss in the Spider-Man comic books is J. Jonah Jameson. The scant inch-of-hair has a long pedigree.

Even now, there are those willing to sport the growth. Former Ecuadoran president, Abdala Bucaram, known to his voters as “El Loco,” sported it before he was impeached. Zimbabwe “president for life,” (now deposed and buried) Robert Mugabe wears one so tight and slender, it barely fills the space between his two nostrils.

Michael Jordan tried one on for a series of ads he made for Hanes underwear. It won him the title of “Herr Jordan.” His friend, Charles Barkley admitted, “I don’t know what the hell he was thinking and I don’t know what Hanes was thinking. I mean, it is just stupid. It is just bad, plain and simple.”

It has fallen on hard times, this innocent little bushlet. Irony is its constant companion. It is a meme on the internet; it is a joke in a Mel Brooks movie; it is even a phantom that bedevils Michael Grave’s teapot design for J.C. Penney (now off the market after too many people saw the evil one’s face in its handle and lid ball, with the spout as a Nazi salute).

But, where did this odd thing come from? And how did it make its way onto the facial undercarriage of der Führer?

The first surprise is that early commentators tell us the style was originally American. It was American tourists who brought it with them to Germany, where, in the early years of the past century, it spoke of Modernism and efficiency. Back then, the style, especially among military officers was the broad, spreading eagle of the “Kaiserbart,” or Kaiser mustache. All the most Erich von Stroheim cavalry men sported them. It was described in a New York Times article on Oct. 10, 1907 as something like a handlebar mustache, with its tips “elevated upward and the rest fashioned something after the form of the wings of the Prussian eagle which one sees on National standards and postage stamps. It is more or less popular all over Europe, particularly in military circles.”

The piece goes on to say, “The ‘toothbrush’ mustache, which is  considered an American importation, is a bristling appendage claimed by its possessors to have the advantage of being hygienic and convenient — virtues which should make a particular appeal to the Germans.

“That it did make such an appeal is revealed by the fact that many German swells have of late applied the scissors to their ‘Kaiserbart’ and discarded the use of the ‘frixe mustache.’ The substitution, however has met with widespread resentment on the part of the fair sex. One German lady writes to the Berliner Tageblatt that she will no longer recognize her male acquaintances who wear ‘a toothbrush on their upper lips.’

“ ‘Man is naturally very ugly,’ writes another. ‘The only natural adornment he ever had was his mustache, and that he is now ruthlessly mutilating. Instead of the peaceful hirsute ornament of the past he is marring his face with a lot of bristles.’ ”

The fashion was certainly helped along by celebrity. A year before the New York Times story about the “American mustache” that had become all the rage, the newspaper chronicled the heroics of a young German military officer who won the “New York to Paris” round-the-world automobile race (he was later disqualified for cheating). Hans Koeppen was described as “31-years-old and unmarried. Six feet in height, slim and athletic, with a toothbrush mustache characteristic of his class, he looks the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”

The ‘stache acquired nicknames. It was called the Rotzbremse, or “snot brake.” It was called the Fliege (fly),Zwiefinger (two-finger), and Chaplinbart, after its most famous wearer before it gained infamy on the lip of the Führer.

This was before the start of the War to End All Wars. When the war changed everything, it seemed to have changed the upper lip of a certain German corporal along with it.

It would be understatement to say that the nose-blot mustache has lost its appeal, except to would-be dictators, but the aversion can extend beyond the actual bush above the bouche. Amazon-dot-com had to change its phone app icon because some people read into the design a spectre from history. 

There is no certain documentation as to when Adolf Hitler first adopted the wooly-worm balanced above his lip. There are several stories, none of which is certain.  The most common is that his broad-winged Kaiserbart could not fit efficiently into the gas mask he was required to don in the trenches of the Western Front, and so he was forced to snip it down to something that could squeeze in. There are several photographs of the corporal with a wide snifflebuster across his face. Post-war, it is gone.

In her suspect autobiography, Hitler’s sister-in-law Bridget Hitler claimed that she couldn’t stand his spreading Kaiserbart whiskers and, in 1912, made him snip off its ends. But in doing so, she wrote, He went — as he did in most things — “too far.” The problem with this version is that photographs show him after 1912 with the handlebars on his cheeks.

In all likelihood, he just picked the mustache because it was fashionable. He, too, could look “the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”

Not that everyone liked it. In 1923 fellow Nazi party member Ernst Hanfstaengl claimed “the ridiculous little smudge … made him look as if he had not cleaned his nose.” He attempted to persuade Hitler to change it, telling him the style was by then unfashionable. Hitler’s answer: “If it is not the fashion now, it will be later,” he said, “because I wear it.” Boy, did he get that wrong.

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