From Hairless Heroes to Comic Combovers

By Kevin Baldwin

Bloomsbury. 229 pp. $19.95

Unless you are Yul Brynner or Telly Savalas, shaving your head for dramatic effect on the stage or on television, baldness isn't a matter of choice. Blame Mother Nature, blame God or your preferred Higher Power, blame your own all-too-mortal flesh -- whomever or whatever you blame, in truth, it's completely beyond your control. As a little kid you had a nice head of hair (unless you are Sluggo in the "Nancy" comic strip), and as a teenager you had one, too, but somewhere along the way, much or all of it just began to disappear -- and now here you are, as bald as a billiard ball, as a grapefruit, as an egg, as an ape, as a baby's bottom.

All those examples are drawn from "Bald!," by Kevin (yes) Baldwin, an amusing and fairly encyclopedic inquiry into the universe of bald. The author, a British sportswriter, knows whereof he writes, as his photograph makes plain, and if this newspaper ran photos of its reviewers, you'd know that this one knows whereof he reviews. Baldness runs in my family the way thoroughbreds run at the track. In my living room hangs a portrait of one William Walton Woolsey, a direct forebear whose baldness must be seen to be appreciated, if not outright venerated. My father was bald well before his 40th birthday, my younger son well before his 30th. As for me, photographs of my crew-cut teenage self reveal a person whom I scarcely know since the only real me has been bald, bald, bald since the dawn of civilization.

This has never seemed to me a particularly big deal. Because my skin is fair, I wear hats at my dermatologist's urging, but since I like hats, that's fine. Otherwise, baldness is just another fact of life, the essential truth of which is that you get older and you die. Yet this is a reality that millions upon millions of people simply refuse to acknowledge, now as always, which explains Botox and Retin-A and Viagra and any number of scientific or pseudoscientific attempts to stave off the Grim Reaper, not the least of which are Rogaine, the brand name of minoxidil, and Propecia, the brand name of finasteride.

These last two are the nostrums that untold millions of men have applied to their scalps in the fond hope of cajoling back into existence the hair that long ago went south, or north, or somewhere. There is precious little reason to believe that these cures really work -- a study published in 1989 in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology found, Baldwin writes, that Rogaine "might prove to be useful to only one person in 200" and would be ineffective "in the long term" -- but the desire to cure baldness has nothing to do with reason and everything to do with our innermost selves. As Baldwin writes:

"A study of baldness is a study of human nature. Shallowness and vanity -- and the foolishness they induce -- are in evidence everywhere. The self-delusion of those who believe that their wig or combover is undetectable is simultaneously hilarious and depressing. To these traits we may add desperation; people will put up with any amount of pain, embarrassment and expense in an effort to deal with baldness. Where there is desperation, deceit is usually close at hand. There have long been people offering so-called cures for hair loss with the sole aim of relieving the gullible of their money. Intolerance and prejudice also raise their ugly heads -- not just in the way that the bald are treated, but in the various theories put forward to explain why some people go bald and others do not.

"However, more admirable human characteristics do shine through, not least the ability to turn an apparent disadvantage into a source of strength, and an all-conquering sense of humour. A lack of hair may even become a symbol of comradeship and solidarity, of pride and self-definition."

Well, this last may be just a wee bit over the top -- baldness as self-definition? Get off it! -- but the rest is right on the mark. The history of human responses to baldness is indeed a story of vanity and self-deceit, one that teeters along a fine line between the outrageous and the ridiculous. Doubters are advised to cast their eyes around the city in which these words are published, for surely Washington, D.C., is the world capital of baldness denial. Most notably on Capitol Hill and along K Street NW, the parade of rugs, comb-overs and transplants is endless, notable as much for its transparent obviousness as for its ludicrousness.

It should scarcely come as a surprise, though, that the center of world politics is also the center of fake hair. "A combover is particularly inadvisable for anyone involved in politics," Baldwin writes. "As well as looking ridiculous, the wearer can appear misguided and even dishonest. To quote Philip II of Macedon: 'I could not think that one who was faithless in his hair could be trustworthy in his deeds.' " However ridiculous fake hair may be, politicians and other bigfeet just can't resist it. As Baldwin notes in his "Hairless History of the World" chapter, in an entry for 1942, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur took command of Allied forces in the Pacific:

"Regrettably, MacArthur attempted to cover up with a combover, prompting Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt) to remark: 'Never trust a man who combs his hair straight from his left armpit.' It just goes to show that the greatest achievements can be obscured by a few foolishly positioned strands of hair."

Connoisseurs of such inanity in the political world doubtless will recall the case of William Proxmire, a senator from Wisconsin and self-appointed national scold who attempted hair transplants and then went around with his wounded dome wrapped in a turban -- which, as Baldwin correctly observes, made him look far more ridiculous than his baldness ever had. Baldwin does not mention, but should have, the parallel case of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the perennially ambitious Democratic senator from Delaware, who doctored his hair in the 1980s; he was thought to have been grounded in the 1988 presidential race as punishment for swiping a political speech from Neil Kinnock, the (bald) leader of Britain's Labor Party, but the most telling evidence of a penchant for deceit was the mess of hair plugs in his skull.

It was another famously bald politician, Adlai Stevenson, who, as Baldwin reminds us, "was just the sort of intellectual disliked . . . by the American public." He "used long and abstruse words in speeches and made erudite references to French writers; the term 'egghead' was invented to describe him." But Stevenson, a man of great wit if little muscle, got the last laugh. "Eggheads of the world unite," he said. "You have nothing to lose but your yolks."

As that suggests, humor is the best defense against those who would make fun of baldness, and Baldwin has assembled a useful collection of ripostes for the insulted: "Better to be thin on top than fat on the bottom." "Better a bald head than an empty one." "Grass doesn't grow on a busy street." "They don't put marble tops on cheap furniture." Et cetera. He also writes an ingenious bald man's variation on Cyrano de Bergerac's incomparably witty speech ridiculing those whose mockery of his immense nose is crude rather than clever. It's too long to quote here, but you'll find it on Page 132. Like just about everything else in this book, it's amusing, and it's dead on target.

American diplomat and failed presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1962: An egghead in more ways than one.