The Whacky World of Alfred Chester
Wigs make us look different. . . . Wigs also make us feel different. No wig can bring back the past, but a wig can give you a chance to spruce up your appearance and look even more special. You might even look better than you ever did before your hair fell out. Wendy Thompson and Jerry Shapiro, Alopecia Areata, pp. 86-87
He was known, above all, for the flaming red wig which for the bulk of his life sat uncomfortably atop his bald pate, almost as though it had a life separate from, yet attached to its bearer. Alfred Chester and his strange wig ultimately came to coalesce in a singular image, forming one life marked by the continual turmoil and strife that exists between host and parasite. The title of Cynthia Ozick's famous New Yorker essay, "Alfred Chester's Wig," has served, by joining the two terms in language, to make all the more firm a connection that patterns of life had already yielded. While at times the wig may have been a visible sign of shame, abjection and horror, it also came to be that distinguishing feature, making its proud host wholly different from others, making him an American original. Alfred and his wig: they were bound together, their fates more tightly and permanently linked than any bond between lovers. Lovers would come and go; the wig remained, frighteningly faithful. That is, until, perhaps in some fit of rebellion, tired of covering his bald head, it went up in flames. From then on Chester went wigless.
Virtually everyone I have spoken with about Alfred has mentioned his wig. It was part of him. There was no getting around it. It was the first thing people noticed when they met him, yet everyone knew better than to say anything about it. The obvious--as is so often the case when it involves fear, insecurity and shame--was a taboo subject of conversation, as if not speaking of the thing makes it less real.
Typical are the comments of Diana Athill, Chester's friend and editor at Andre Deutsch, in her introduction to the 1986 reissue of The Exquisite Corpse:
First impressions? How open he was, and how funny. . . although the very first impression of all may have been that he was ugly. His wig, his hairless brows and eyelids, his pale eyes, his dumpiness: it's strange how soon I became fond of Alfred's apppearance. (v)
Alfred was, Athill notes, one of those persons with whom "you can talk about anything, even your or his shaming secrets." Yet, she quicky adds, "I would never have spoken to him about the wig" (v). Edward Field echoes Athill's views: "Since his wig was never to be mentioned, no matter how startlingly obvious it was, and it was often in the terminal stages of wigdom, and no matter how close a friend you were, it was the first thing everyone described about him" (303-304, HSA).
When he was but a boy of six or seven, Alfred Chester lost all his body hair. He, thus, suffered from a condition known as alopetia universalis, "loss of all hair on the head and the body, including eyelashes and eyebrows, underarm hair, and public hair" (Thompson and Shapiro 44-45). Field (HSA, 303; DLB) has submitted that Alfred's loss of hair was a result of scarlet fever. Alfred's cousin Shirley shared with me her theory that it was a result of a case of ringworm Alfred contracted from his dog. Whatever the cause, the result--premature baldness--was clearly traumatic, creating a chasm between him and other children, indeed, between him and the world, a space he filled with fantasy and, eventually, an all-consuming madness. The effects of hair loss, particularly on a young child, can be devastating. As Wendy Thompson and Jerry Shapiro write:
Most men and women with alopetia areata say they are consumed by their baldness from the moment they wake up in the morning. . . . Men, women and children with alopetia areata, totalis, or universalis say that they feel extremely vulnerable and uncertain, and they're afraid that they will never be loved. . . . When people are robbed of their hair, their self-image is destroyed. (6-7)
Alfred's parents, undoubtedly concerned about their son's condition, grasped at whatever remedies they could find. "For a year," Field reports, "his family took him to a 'hair restorer' from Manchuria, brought to New York at great expense, but with no success" (HSA, 303). They sought to do whatever they could to protect their son from the taunting and teasing which surely would be launched at him by other children, whose means of torment are far more raw and unveiled than those employed by adults. Field suggests, in fact, that "he was sent to a yeshiva instead of a public grammar school, since in a religious school he could wear a hat indoors, hiding his baldness." Herman Chester recalls how stressful this was for the family. "It was very difficult, of course," he told me. "You didn't know how to react. One doctor said keep him apart. Another said push him to people, make him enjoy people. And it was a child! The child himself didn't know what to do!"
"I was fourteen when I put on my first wig," Chester writes in The Foot.
It was, I believe, my sister's idea. So she and my mother and I went--I forgot where . . . Simmons & Co.?--some elegantish salon with gold lame drapes where they did not do such splendid work.
I sat and accepted the wig. It was like having an ax driven straight down the middle of my body. Beginning at the head. Whack! Hacked in two with one blow like a dry little tree. Like a sad little New York tree.
I wore it to school only. Every morning my mother put it on for me in front of the mirror in the kitchen and carefully combed it and puffed it and fluffed it and pasted it down. Then, before going out of the house, I would jam a hat on top of it, a brown fedora, and flatten the wig into a kind of matting. I hated it and was ashamed of it, and it made me feel guilty. (293)
Sometime later (there's no way of telling exactly when) Chester got his second wig. "My second wig was a much fancier job than the first," he writes. "An old Alsatian couple made it: I think they were anti-Semitic, she out of tradition, he out of fidelity to her" (295). Alfred went with his mother and father to pick up the wig when it was ready. While he did not recall his parents' reactions to him and his new wig, he does note that the three of them went out to eat at a restaurant afterwards, something they very rarely did.
A white-tiled Jewish restaurant. Vegetarian, unless I remember wrong. With fluorescent lights. (Could they have been fluorescent back in those dim dark ages?) . . .
I wonder what we ate that night or why the evening took place at all. It is such a strange thing for Papa to have done. Gone to the wigmakers at all. Me and Mama in the city. Taken us out to supper.
Perhaps there were a lot of mirrors in that restaurant. Catching a glimpse of myself, wig or no, is dreadful for me. I have to approach a mirror fully prepared, with all my armor on.
But I have a turn-off mechanism for mirrors as well. The glimpse-mirrors, I mean. I simply go blind.
I don't remember what I went through that evening in the restaurant. Maybe all the switches had been thrown and everything was off. (296)
Jeff Chester and I spoke with Herman about the wig.
AH: At some point he got a wig.
HC: Yes. It was very stressful.
JC: For whom?
HC: For him. We wanted to have a wig. Everybody in the family, you know. We wanted him to feel more comfortable. To him it was a sign.
JC: What did it look like? Do you remember what the wig looked like?
HC: What did it look like? It was an ordinary wig, not like today, you know. It had bangs that you move over and they came down.
AH: Was it brown or reddish?
HC: No, it was tannish, going toward light, blondish. Kind of like your hair. [Mine is red, and curly.] My hair . . . Well, my hair! [He realizes he has none.] I don't know that the change made a great change in Alfred at the time. I can't recollect. But he didn't seem to react violently to the change.
AH: When he got the wig?
JC: Did he wear it?
HC: He didn't wear it much. He only wore it to go out.
AH: Did he wear a cap or something? He sometimes mentioned that he wore a . . .
HC: He wore a hat. He always wore a hat. A little porky. That's what it was.
"He hated it," Herman went on to say at another point in our conversation. But he wore it nonetheless. It wasn't that anybody forced him to. "He wanted to wear it."
Alfred recalls the stigma of revealing the shame of his wig openly as a student at Abraham Lincoln H.S. When he was at Yeshiva, he could always wear a cap, not the yarmulka which other students commonly wore. "I wore a variety of caps. I'd wear a cap to shreds before getting a new one, since I felt any change at all focused more attention on my head." At Abe Lincoln, a public school, "everybody wore just hair on their heads except for one boy who was bald and wore a captain's cap." To wear a cap, one had to have permission, which Alfred lacked. "I, as you know, wore my hat-flattened brown wig. A rich brown made of real hair, not like those last few plastic jobs I had. Those frightful wigs! Goodness!" (293)
In those formative days of his youth, Chester adapted by creating two distinct worlds in which he had distinct identities: "Hat people and wig people. Wig people at school. Hat people at home. The wig people could see me with both wig and hat (hat-on-top-of-wig, that is). But the hat people must never see me with wig, or even with wig and hat." Only those in his immediate family, at home, could see him bald, or with both wig and hat. For decades he lived in terror of being exposed, shamed.
The terror of encountering one side in the camp of the other. Of the wig people catching me without the wig. Of the hat people catching me with it. Terror. The terror felt when a man leaps at you from some midnight hedge with a knife in his hand. Day after day, and year after year of it. Always midnight. And always the blade raised. (294)
Thus, transitions such as stepping off the trolley into the vision of his mother and neighbor ladies, were utterly shocking.
Horrible, unbearable, the thought of walking past those ladies to get into the house.
Later on, I learned to turn myself off as I walked past them. I snapped myself into invisibility. I snapped the moment of my passing out of the ladies' minds. The hat me and the wig me never collided. Transitions were accomplished by snapping a switch.
But in those early days, I hadn't yet learned the snap technique. This isn't to say that when I did snap, I didn't feel anything as I passed the ladies. I felt the strangulation of all my feelings. My mind grabbed them up like stacks of harvested wheat, grabbed them by their throats to prevent them from screaming.
I would get off the trolley car and not know what to do. Oh God who sent rain and cold and early nightfalls to protect me from such moments! It was the devil who sent fine days. (294)
Chester recalls all kinds of ruses by which he would avoid being seen by others--slipping around corners, climbing over fences, going round to the back door of his house. Such horror, privately concealed in the mind of an adolescent boy, is hard to imagine.
My aunt Lil said to me one day: "Wouldn't it be better to wear your wig all the time? Wouldn't that be better than climbing over back fences?"
I was so stunned by this speech that I probably didn't even answer. I could bear no references to the wig. If I had to wear one, all right. But I wasn't going to talk about it. It was like some obscenity, some desperate crime on my head. It was hot coals in my mouth, steel claws gripping my heart, etc. I didn't want to recognize the wig, the wig people, the hat, the hat people, or even my baldness. It just wasn't there. Nothing was there. It was just something that didn't exist, like a third arm, so how could you talk about it? But it hurt, it hurt. (295)
This he was able to write in 1966, at St. Mark's Place in New York, only after he and his wig had parted company. "Now I think I look quite glamorous," he says, celebrating his wiglessness.
* * *
While Ted Solotaroff and I were talking about a constellation of issues including Alfred's family, Judaism, his wig and homosexuality, he posited that "one of the ironies about it all was that in the orthodox circle that Alfred grew up in and hated, he had to wear a wig and in that circle women wore wigs and that's a given--that women wear wigs. And then Alfred's sexuality. . . There just seems to be a kind of metaphysical irony that Alfred should grow up wearing a wig as well, being psychically, characterologically, as remote from orthodox Judaism as someone could get." (personal interview)
* * *
In 1966 Charles Wright's novel called The Wig: A Mirror Image was published. Lester Jefferson, the novel's narrator, gets the notion that while none of Johnson's Great Society programs has done him any good, a new head of hair would somehow radically transform his life. So he buys a jar of "long-lasting Silky Smooth Hair Relaxer, with the Built-in Sweat-proof Base" (6).
Alfred met the African American writer in Morocco just around the time his first novel The Messenger was published in 1963. Wright's Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About, published in 1973 just two years after Alfred's death, is dedicated to the memory of Langston Hughes, Conrad Knickerbocker, and Alfred Chester.
* * *
Nadia Gould, who had first met Chester at NYU and then became closer friends with him when they were both in Paris, told me of a sad, humiliating incident concerning the wig. "Alfred talked to me about everything. I learned. Not that I paid that much attention, but it was like an eye-opener for me--all the stories he would tell me about how people would pick up, how men get picked up in the toilet and all these things." The one thing they never discussed, however, was the wig. "And it was there facing you! I was dying to . . . You know, he slept in our house, Alfred did. I wanted to see what he looked like without the wig, but I was never able to."
Just once, Alfred himself broke the taboo when he told Nadia about a traumatic experience he had with Parisian police. Alfred and Arthur had returned to Paris after their sojourn in Greece, early in 1959. The Algerian war was going on. For some reason Skoura, one of the dogs Alfred had rescued from Greece, had to be "sent by the Greek lady by plane because for some reason they couldn't take her. And so she came by herself and they had go and get her. You can't imagine the kind of trouble it was because they were looking for her and they were so concerned that the dog . . . because it was supposed to land in Paris and the plane was sent somewhere else and they called to make sure that the dog . . . they thought she would die . . . and they were right, in a way--that they wouldn't think of the dog, giving it water and you know. They were worried about this. They went in the middle of the night. They got picked up by the police . . . so that's when the police tore his wig."
That was the first and only time I had heard this story.
"The police tore his wig off?"
"They were picked up and taken to the jail?"
"He said they tore it. He wanted to get another one. They tore it like that. They made fun of him."
"That's really horrible."
"And, you know something? It was a shock to Arthur, too. Arthur never saw him . . . So, we talked about that with Arthur and I felt that I was a little closer to Arthur when he was willing to talk about it. It was a shock to him. He said it was a terrible thing."
"What was the shock? Seeing Alfred . . .?"
"Or, the humiliation."
"The humiliation and the fun that the police had. They tore it up and then he couldn't put it together . . ."
"Did it make Arthur feel sorry for him, or like him more, or less?"
"I don't know about that."
* * *
The abject quality of Chester's response to his bewiggedness is sometimes felt in his fiction. Take the first short chapter of The Exquisite Corpse, written in Morocco during his last days of wiggedness. John Anthony passes by a bassinet and "in a bit of looking glass" sees "a stranger's face." He looks behind him "but of course no one is there. His eyes felt bruised." He begins to whimper upon seeing his "unhappy face" in the whole mirror. "You will make me crazy," he says. "Why? Why must I suffer my destiny?" (EC 7-8).
Elsewhere in the novel, Baby Poorpoor (a.k.a. John Anthony) registers anxieties about his looks: "He had finally come to believe it was against the law to be, to look like Baby Poorpoor" (EC 27). Anxieties concerning his looks modulate into anxieties that he will never be loved.
* * *
"I went up in flames yesterday afternoon like a human torch alone in the kitchen," Chester wrote to Edward Field on May 18, 1964, nearly a year after he had arrived in Morocco.
My wig is now a charred heap lying in the fireplace; so destiny took the decision out of my hands, thank God. Now I have to face the world as I am which is a little frightening and embarrassing. But I wouldn't have it any other way for a million dollars. Now I keep thinking I better go change my passport picture, and I imagine they'll arrest me at the consulate. Aside from the wig and a little melting of my plastic shirt, the fire caused no damage except slight blistering on one finger. I had the presence of mind to put my arms under cold water as soon as the fire went out. The whole kitchen was ablaze for a few seconds.
A trauma reversing the ax-blow of his childhood. Loss: mourning and fear, yet with the potential for liberation and the unification of a bifurcated self. Suddenly, he saw before himself but one person, wholly hairless. The mask was gone, destroyed, and he would have to walk before the world naked and vulnerable, displaying a truth everyone had already known yet never been allowed to speak to his face. If he himself was shocked by this dramatic change, how would others who had known him respond? Would they even recognize him? Like a criminal on the loose, fearful of being apprehended, he had always carefully hidden his baldness at all costs. What he had refused openly to discuss before--his wig--would now in its absence become an undeniable material reality. About ten days after his wig went up in flames, Alfred wrote again to Field referring to his "post-wig" self and his discomfort.
I'm not exactly peaceful. I've been feeling unhappy. The thing is, before there was always something to look forward to. (I did it in Greece but that was not really public.) Oh now, what am I saying. After I wrote you, I lost some of my bravado and didn't go out of the house for practically a week. As a matter of fact I haven't really seen anyone since writing to you. I feel embarassed about going to people this way. I feel they have to come to me. Paul was over the other day but I missed him, and I'll call back soon. To tell the truth I feel sort of sore and dead inside. And when I get kifed I start going crazy again. I mean, I become panicky and think, are you mad, how can you go into the world like this? (Comment ose-t-il sortir un tel garcon dans le monde?) You know, my family's shame and stuff. I really have to get used to it. (Adjust.) . . . Dris keeps calling me Marlon Brando now, meaning so butch. Actually he's right. You can't be a faggot with a great big bald head, it's too ridiculous. It really and truly is. I'll buy a camera and take a picture and send it to you. Oh, Edward, but it isn't so simple not changing the passport. I know you're thinking I won't be able to bear it too long. But I mean what if a cop stops me and asks for my passport? Edward, I really want to make this irrevocable. . . . Anyway, I don't run around the streets bare headed, I wear a tageeya [a Muslim skullcap]. . . . In Greece I tried going around with nothing on and all I heard was Yul Brynner for miles around until I couldn't stand it.
Alfred avoided the Bowleses and other old friends for several weeks. "My impulse is really to run and hide," he writes to Norman Glass on June 2. "New people don't bother me too much but facing old people seems horrible." Continuing the letter a few days later, he reports that he had just run into Paul off the Boulevard Louis Pasteur in the center of Tangier. "I was of course embarrassed about my head, but Paul was very cool. I just stood there being hysterical for ten seconds and fled. I figured the news must have been all over town already, which is a relief."
Alfred finally mustered his courage and invited Paul and Jane to lunch. "When we arrived," Paul told Michelle Green, "Alfred was lying on the floor, and he was completely bald. Later he was furious and said we were snobbish for not bringing it up. I suppose he'd invited us to show us his bald head" (Green 292). Speaking with me, Bowles claimed not to have known about the wig, until it was gone. "Later it made sense because he used to go upstairs to the bathroom and stay in there an awfully long time and when he came out there was a smell of disinfectant or something--a strange odor which turned out, obviously, to be whatever he stuck it on with . . . . But he never mentioned it." (personal interview with me)
From that point on, Alfred never again wore a wig. Gradually the shock wore off and he became accustomed to his new identity, even, perhaps, beginning to come to terms with the deepest, most disturbing facts of his existence. Had he been living in the West, he would likely have quickly sought a replacement for the wig. Logistically, it would have been difficult for Chester to find another appropriate wig in Morocco. What is more, however, Morocco was the perfect place for him to shed his artificial hairpiece, for in that culture he would not face the kind of stigma he would have faced at home. Ira Cohen, who was there in Morocco with Chester at the time, notes that "actually it was a great sign when he tossed this wig and it was a great act of freedom and moving into the Moroccan thing and somehow in Morocco that seemed much more real and a lot of people had shaved heads there so there was nothing unusual there where he had spent a lifetime feeling like a freak" (interview).
While in some ways Alfred could view his new condition as liberating, it also produced new anxieties. There was the matter of his passport, which he constantly fretted about. Were he to be stopped, would the authorities recognize him as the same person whose picture (with wig, of course) was on the passport? And, what problems would he have crossing the border?! There was no question about it. He would have to get a new passport. Then, there was the matter of seeing friends who knew him only as Alfred Chester with a wig. More anxiety, more trauma. Thus it is easy for us to understand how occasionally Chester's courage sags and he contemplates a return to bewiggedness, as when he writes to Edward Field, Oct. 1964: "If you think I should wear a wig, you'll have to order it for me because it takes a month or so."
* * *
When Susan Sontag came to Morocco late in the summer of 1965, she accompanied Alfred to the American consulate to get a new passport, with a picture of him wigless. That dissolved one anxiety. He could now cross borders without worrying that he would be stopped or held up. Still there was the matter of seeing old friends, an issue which was intensified when he returned to New York late in 1965. No one there had seen him without his wig. As much as he tried to prepare himself and his friends for the shock, he still was haunted by fears of how they would respond to his new look. Consequently, much as he had in Morocco, he avoided seeing his old friends in New York. These anxieties no doubt fed the paranoid-schizophrenic condition Chester displays in The Foot, written during this time.
One old friend, Dennis Selby, recounts his first meeting of Alfred sans wig.
After some years in Tangier, he found the courage to get rid of his wig. When he came back to New York for a visit, he wrote to his friends, preparing them for the first sight of his bald head. He called me soon after arriving, but kept delaying his visit. I suspected he was scared. Finally, he came. I had pondered long on how to react to his wiglessness (it threatened to carry the shock value of seeing a friend without his pants on), but still hadn't decided how to handle it when he arrived. So I said nothing. I simply ignored it. After about half an hour of strained chit-chat, he suddenly bellowed, "Well, aren't you going to say something about my head!" I was struck dumb. But the moment was saved by my lover, Steve Snyder, who had never met Alfred before, and who ran over and kissed his bronzed scalp. Alfred beamed, I laughed, and the rest of the visit was splendid. (318-19)
* * *
So much of Alfred's character--the core of his insecurities, his desire for fame, his fierce drive to create, and, ultimately, his madness--is connected to his premature baldness and its subsequent covering through wigdom. Invariably when I brought up with his friends the matter of Alfred's demise in the last years of his life, when he spun out of control, circling in an orbit beyond the reach of anyone, I was directed to his massive childhood trauma as the source of those problems, a pain so great it became too much for him to control. The best he could do was try to deaden its effect by stepping up his consumption of alcohol and popping of pills.
To the very end, Chester was dogged by his hairless fate, blaming on it his problems and failures in love and life. This was the central fact which prevented him from being what he dreamed so fervently of being. It was what determined his fate, made him suffer his destiny. Casting aside the wig did little to ameliorate the suffering associated with this condition. In fact, like picking a scab, it seemed to open up old wounds, deepening them and making them more difficult to heal. Robert Friend, one of the last people to have any contact with Chester, recounts how Alfred's story chased him like a horrid monster til his dying days. He couldn't let it go.
Alfred told me this story (which, like the Ancient Mariner, he must have told many times before) with a bitterness and agitation hardly lessened by the passage of more than thirty years. His parents had not known how to cope, how to reconcile the child to a situation that exposed him to the unthinking, cruel ridicule of his contemporaries. But it was not only from children his own age that he sought to flee and hide. Whenever a visitor came to his home, he would disappear into his room and not emerge until the visitor was gone. Wearing a wig (a child of five with a wig!) did not help matters much, but Alfred clung to the wig for most of the years of his life. It was only in recent years that he had at last found the courage (as I heard with sympathetic relief) to give it up and to accept his baldness as something less than catastrophe. Actually, he was quite comely in his baldness. (370-71)