With the unexpected rise of David Paterson to the post of New York governor, much has been written of his historic claims as the state’s first black chief executive and first legally blind leader (the sizable legal blind spot of his immediate predecessor notwithstanding). By comparison, little attention has been paid to his single-handed rescue of a vaunted New York political tradition from the shadows of disrepute: gubernatorial whiskers.
History of facial hair
Twenty-four of the 55 men who have become governor of New York cultivated the lower latitudes of their faces with sideburns, beards, mustaches or combinations of the three. Of these, the oldest and most consistently recurring fashion is the sideburn — or side-whisker — dating back to Gov. Morgan Lewis in 1804 and later lionized by the mutton chops sported by Martin Van Buren in his two-month-long pass through the office (1829), and Levi P. Morton (1895).
Beards didn’t so much grow in the state’s highest office as they metamorphosed. In 1829, the small furry patch beneath Gov. Enos Throop’s chin bore a striking resemblance to a napping caterpillar. By the administrations of Hamilton Fish and Horatio Seymour in the 1850s and ’60s, the caterpillar had expanded laterally, slung under the chin, suspended from both ears. With the inauguration of Charles Evans Hughes in 1907, the beard achieved its full glory, spanning the gubernatorial face in symmetrical furling wings, crowned with mustache.
Until Gov. Paterson’s arrival, future Supreme Court Chief Justice Hughes stood alone among New York’s leaders with the only completely festooned countenance.
In its heyday, the solitary mustache was the most popular option for our governors. It first appeared in the wake of the Civil War and reached near-epidemic levels between the administrations of Grover Cleveland (1883), and the three-month tenure of Gov. Horace White in 1910 — peaking with Gov. Theodore Roosevelt in 1899. In 1943, after a nearly uninterrupted 30-year whiskerless stretch, Gov. Thomas Dewey brought the mustache back to Albany, only to wreck the political fortunes of all facial hair along with his own presidential ambitions. In Dewey’s 1948 presidential race against a clean-shaven Harry S. Truman, a young gambler who would become Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder won a reputation and a bundle of cash betting against the heavily favored New Yorker based on women’s negative reaction to his mustache.
Dewey’s retirement from Albany in 1955 ushered in five decades of naked jowls, cheeks, lips, dewlaps, necks and chins, an exile reinforced by the unchallenged perception that fur-bearing politicians have something to hide. The scandal that brought down the smooth-cheeked governor of New Jersey three-and-a-half years ago made way for this country’s only other full-bearded governor, Jon Corzine. Perhaps this week’s succession in New York will convince a doubting electorate that some deceptions are just plain bald-faced.
Mark Wilson, an illustrator and editorial cartoonist, lives in Saranac Lake.