"Could they be right about redheads? Are we really moonstruck mutants whose weaknesses are betrayed by the sun?" --from "Still Life With Woodpecker" by Tom Robbins
Ancient Egyptians sacrificed them to a sun god. South Pacific Islanders worshiped them. Medieval Europeans feared them, and Irish peasants believed they were the result of pigs hiding under a bed.
"In virtually every culture throughout history," says Al Sacharov, author of a new manifesto for the scarlet-tressed, "redheads have been recognized as special people.
"Red hair was associated with adventuresomeness and aggressiveness as far back as 100 B.C. Current studies have linked red hair with everything from hyperactivity and creative genius to alcoholism and depression. As long as there has been human wonder, there has been the suspicion that red hair might be part of the bridge to the supernatural and divine."
Although America has looked down on its redheads over the past few decades -- "usually relegating them to roles as clowns" -- notes the 29-year-old Takoma Park writer, vendor and part-time horse farmer, "we are currently witnessing a reawakening of Red Pride by those blessed with the vibrant, glorious gift of red hair."
Inspired by the current trend toward "non-conforming, natural beauty," this Redheaded Renaissance, he says, has resulted in formation of "redheaded rights" clubs, beauty pageants and a "general recognition among the red-of-hair that redheadedness can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your attitude."
Sacharov, a Pittsburgh native, recently completed an 18-month quest for "what it truly means to be a redhead," inspired by the success of Alex Haley. "I figured if he could make a fortune from his roots, I should look to mine."
First he checked the Library of Congress computers and was stunned to find no books on red hair. "All that turned up was The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle."
Next he contacted professional associations to locate illustrious redheads for a "Who's Who of Hair Color" and hit a second dead end.
"Everyone told me that by the time someone gets famous they're either bald or gray. Finally someone at the American Anthropologists Association turned me onto a German book detailing the distribution of redheads in the population, and things started rolling. One source led to another, and I uncovered lots of references to obscure studies that provided links between hair color and personality traits."
The result is The Redhead Book, which cost him $2,500 to self-publish. In four weeks of street vending he has sold nearly half his initial 1,000 books at $6.50 each ("half to redheads and half to people who buy it for a redhead they love") and is planning a second printing of 5,000.
"The soul of redheadedness," says Sacharov, "is energy. Consider the adjectives commonly linked with hair colors -- benevolent gray, tawny brown, sexy blonde. The one word always associated with red is flaming. Nine times out of 10 there's going to be an electricity and dynamism associated with a mane of blazing red hair."
Among redheaded "world leaders and adventurers," he ticks off: John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Columbus, Vladimir Lenin and Queen Isabella. Others in his "Rouge Gallery": John Glenn, Sonny Jurgensen, Maureen O'Hara, Cleopatra, Judas Iscariot, Emily Dickinson, Vincent Van Gogh, Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Twain.
Other Sacharov redlines:
"The connection between red hair and a fiery temperament may be more than just an old wives' tale. An Israeli psychiatrist reported that redheaded children are three to four times more likely than others to develop hyperactivity. He theorized that the assumed national characteristics of certain ethnic groups, like the adventurous Vikings or temperamental Irish, are connected to the high frequency of redheads among them.
"A Portland, Ore., pediatrician, Lendon Smith, is advancing the theory that one cause for hyperactive, high-strung behavior relates to tyrosine--a genetically regulated amino acid that controls pigmentation. In 20 years of practice, Dr. Smith has noticed that nearly 75 percent of the nearly 8,000 children referred to him for hyperactive behavior were fair-complected, with either blond or red hair.
"Tyrosine is also an important building block for brain chemical neuro-transmitters . . . and when there is little pigmentation, more tyrosine is thought to be directed to the production of neuro-transmitters, thereby 'hyping up' fair-haired children."
The greatest concentration is in the Highland regions of Scotland, where nearly 11 percent of the population has red hair. Closely following is Ireland, with about 10 percent. Redheads make up nearly 5 percent of the population of Russia, Denmark, England and Sweden, and 2 percent of Americans. Blacks in certain Nigerian tribes have red hair, and 4 percent of Jews are redheads. "In Israel they have redheaded children lead parades, to honor the fact that King David had red hair."
The great proportion of "illustrious copperheads," he claims, "is partly due to environment. Red hair is like a personal calling card. You stand out in a crowd and people remember you. And increasingly, there is evidence that the wired, high-octane redhead is a result of heredity."
Redheadedness, he says, "is a matter of chance, genetics and -- from the redhead's point of view -- pure good fortune."
Sacharov wasn't always so red hot. Like many redheads growing up in an age that associated red hair with humor -- Red Buttons, Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett -- "I went through a cycle from embarrassment to pride.
"As a child I hated my red hair, mostly from the label 'carrot-top' and a stupid little phrase that kids used to say which goes, 'I'd rather be dead than have red on the head.' Kids place a high premium on conformity. For most of my ninth year I attempted to be less obvious by wearing a hat, but that didn't solve the problem of freckles--which I said were spots trying to organize themselves into a terrific tan."
In adolescence, however, he began to realize that "People remembered me, pointed to me, singled me out. I decided it looked distinguished and gave me a certain amount of class."
But by the time the Red Pride Movement becomes well-established, "I'll probably," he shrugs, "be bald." Pictures 1 through 6, Sonny Jurgensen, Sarah Bernhardt, Maureen O'Hara, Queen Isabella, Christopher Columbus, Al Sacharov