Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Do Redheads Have More Brains?

The following is an article that I read for the first time as an adolescent. I had just started high school and this article helped me find a sense of pride in an appearance otherwise ripe for ridicule. At a time when home computers were still very new and the internet as a public sphere was unheard of, I remember carefully typing the article word for word; I even tried very hard to match the fonts used in the magazine. I still have the original article, pages ripped from the magazine, stuffed in a case with other mementos of childhood.

I contacted the author, Dan Rottenberg, to see if the article is available online since I am fond of referring others to this article in hopes that it would provide a similar sense of pride in their red hair. Mr. Rottenberg responded that it is not available digitally elsewhere, and granted me permission to reproduce it here. I am honored and proud to do so.

Do Redheads Have More Brains?
By Dan Rottenberg
Town & Country, August 1991

On a recent trip to London, I engaged in a little mental game. Everywhere I went, I asked my English friends and acquaintances to pick out the five most important people in the past thousand years of British history. Without any prompting from me, they invariably produced a list that was comprised of William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill. Occasionally, in the hope of tripping me up, someone would toss in a more obscure fellow like James I (who united England and Scotland) or a nonpolitical figure like Shakespeare. No matter: when they were finished, I would ask, “Now, what do all these people have in common?” After allowing a minute or so for sufficient head-scratching and brow-furrowing, I would point dramatically to the answer: my own bright red hair.

It may not mean anything, but it is a mystery worth pondering. Redheads make up only about 2 percent of the world’s population, and some 4 percent of Americans. Yet, they’ve produced 15 percent of U.S. Presidents, not to mention some of the world’s greatest overachievers [see list below], attaining a significance far out of proportion to their numbers. Can anyone imagine American history without Christopher Columbus, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson? Literature without Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, George Bernard Shaw or Sinclair Lewis? Music without Vivaldi, Paderewski or Beverly Sills? Sports without Red Grange, Don Budge or Red Shoedinst? Crime without Jesse James or Lizzie Borden? In his 1943 book The Hero in History, Sidney Hook suggested that only a handful of people can be said to have altered the course of world history, and of the half-dozen examples he cited, three---Cromwell, Napoleon, and Lenin---were redheads.

We carrot-tops take great comfort in such recitations because, frankly, the world has given us pretty rough time. Throughout the Middle Ages, male redheads were considered “sons of the devil” and, as a result, experiences great difficulty finding wives. And at the height of Europe’s witch hunts, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many women were stripped, shaved, pricked and otherwise tortured, then put to death simply because they were redheads. Painters since the Renaissance have generally depicted prostitutes with red hair. In nineteenth century Germany, barbers did a thriving business in concoctions aimed at altering their red-headed customers’ hair color. An American newspaper once explained to its readers that twenty-one Cincinnati men who had married red-headed women were color-blind and had mistaken their sweethearts’ tresses for black. And who could be more revolting than Dickens’ Fagin, in Oliver Twist, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured my a quantity of matted red hair?

“Everyone stands in horror” of red hair, said the seventeenth-century French scholar Jean-Baptist Thiers, “because Judas, it is said, was red-haired.” But Christians hold no monopoly on such superstitions. At one time, the Brahmins of India were forbidden to marry red-haired women. And in ancient Egypt, redheads were worshipped---and occasionally sacrificed ---as fertility symbols.

Even in our own, more secular age, redheads are still widely regarded as passionate, hot-tempered and adventurous. Alice Crimmins, the Queens barmaid convicted in the mid Seventies of murdering her two children, suffered in the jury’s estimation at least partly because she had flaming red hair, opines Kenneth Gross, author of The Alice Crimmins Case. Conversely, red-headed men are perceive as goofy characters: take, for instance, Bozo, Howdy Doody and Ronald McDonald.

“In the movies, there are no red-headed leading men,” says Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, himself a redhead. Adds California beauty-pageant promoter Steve Douglas, the 36-year-old founder of Redheads International, “You can watch TV all night and never see and attractive male redhead. There are no top TV stars or other people to help a little red-headed kid who’s growing up form an attractive image of himself.” That isn’t entirely true: who on television is more influential than Ted Koppel? But perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule.

My own entry into the world in 1942, is also instructive. Upon seeing my bright red hair, my relatives quickly split into two philosophical camps. The pessimists said, “What a shame!” The optimists said, “It’ll probably change.” My parents were actually pleased with my hair color, but mystified at to whence it had come, since both of them were brunettes. But a few months later, while showing me off to her grandmother, my mother noticed that the aging woman’s gray hair had a pinkish tinge. When my mother asked about it, my 78-year-old great-grandmother reluctantly admitted that, as a girl in czarist Russia, she had indeed been a redhead. But in that time and place, red hair had been the mark of a “fallen woman”—so once her red tresses had faded, she had never mentioned it again.

To be sure, we redheads have had our moments of glory. Red hair was fashionable in Elizabethan England, for the simple reason that Elizabeth I herself was a redhead and proud of it. The reddish-gold-haired Venetian women portrayed in paintings of Titian—himself a redhead inspired women in sixteenth-century Italy and Greece to tint their hair in imitation. Hair dye, in fact, is said to have originated with the Gauls—the men , not the women—who colored their hair red. And many red-heads like to be conspicuous: the late comedienne Lucille Ball imported fifty pounds of henna from Egypt early in her career and later imported and additional 100 pounds—enough to maintain her distinctive brilliant red tint for a lifetime.

The real trouble with being a redhead, you see, lies not so much with whether red hair is in favor or out, but in the fact that redheads are the objects of extreme reactions: if we’re not being put on a pedestal, we’re being sacrificed on an altar. Either way, to be a redhead is to stand out in a crowd. As movie actress Myrna Loy once observed, “Red hair isolates you.”

To grapple with those feelings of isolation, redheads periodically band together in support groups. In 1977 a group of Brown University students launched an organization called Redheads Are Special People—at a party whose menu featured red punch, strawberry ice cream and red candy—and the organization subsequently expanded to thirty other college campuses (although he Brown chapter disbanded in 1986). In it’s heyday, the Brown chapter of RASP sponsored and annual thirty-hour dance marathon to raise funds for the American Cancer Society (since redheads are especially susceptible to skin cancer), but most of its energies were devoted to defending the honor of redheads whenever it was maligned in the mass media.

That was also what drove Steve Douglas, a former musician who in 1982 left his job in a band, to launch Redheads International, which produced a newsletter, cosmetics and T-shirts bearing slogans like, “Don’t mess with red’ and “Redheads do it in color.” The Redhead Book, self-published in 1982 by Al Sacharov of Takoma Park, Maryland, sold several thousand copies, prompting New America Library to come out in 1985 with the Redhead’s Handbook, a sort of “everything you’ve always wanted to know about redheads but were afraid to ask” treatise.

This is not to suggest that red-heads are about to emerge as a new political force. Even in Scotland and Ireland, redheads are believed to comprise only some 10 percent of the population. Sacharov says redheads make up nearly 5 percent of the populations of Russia, Denmark, England, and Sweden, but only 2 percent of Americans. RASP claims that there are 9 million red-headed Americans, which is more than 4 percent. (DO not ask how these statistics are compiled: red-headology is perhaps the least scientific of the sciences.) On the other hand, redheads do turn up just about everywhere: among Hungarians, Egyptians, Australians, Israelis, and even among certain Nigerian tribes.

Obviously, most of the myths about redheads can be traced to the fact that they are such a tiny and conspicuous minority. But do any of the superstitions have any basis in fact? In the words of Tom Robbins, red-headed author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, “Could they be right about redheads? Are we really moonstruck mutants whose weaknesses are betrayed by the sun?”

The study of redheads as a science has long been neglected, partly because geneticists and dermatologists have had more pressing matters on their minds, and partly because of the lack of animal models suitable for experimentation (the yellow mouse is the closest approximation). British dermatologist H.C. Sorby, who discovered the “pink constituent” of human hair in 1878, believed that the substance influenced nothing beyond one’s hair color. As recently as 1952, the existence of this “pink constituent’ was challenged; conventional dermatological wisdom held that red hair was caused solely by the absence of the factors that make hair dark.

But a smattering of studies conducted over the past twenty years suggests that while most of the ancient folklore is ridiculous, there may be a germ of truth to the notion that redheads are physiologically different from others in significant ways—and these differences can sometimes affect redheads’ behavior.

The color of hair depends on the amount and type of melanin (dark pigment) granules present in the cortex (central core) of the hairs, and this in turn is dictated by the hair-color genes we inherit from our parents. All mammals, including redheads, have melanin, but redheads have much less of it than others do. Just as dark colors tend to obscure light ones, so a very active gene will obscure a red gene—which explains why it usually takes two red-haired parents to produce a red-haired child. (Not always, though, as my case demonstrates: because it’s produced by a recessive gene, red hair often skips a generation or two.)

What wasn’t known until the mid Eighties was just what substance (if any), in the absence of melanin, made redheads’ hair red—rather than, say, green or blue. But in 1969, after conducting a series of experiments on humans and animals, Dr. Peter Flesch of the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the substance that causes red-headedness is iron-based. Thus a redhead’s pigmentary system operates somewhat differently from those of brunettes and blonds, whose pigment is predominantly melanistic: a redhead’s hair and skin are more vulnerable to the effects of sun, wind, cold heat or careless handling. Flesch concluded that red coloring has a great deal to do with redheads’ unique genetic and historical development. Unfortunately, Flesch died before his study was published, and he was unable to pursue its mind-boggling implications any further.

More recently, two dermatologists at the Harvard medical school, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Madhu Pathak, classified the people of the world according to the reaction of their skin to the sun. There are six categories. The first group—people whose skin burns most easily, always peels, never tans—consists entirely of blue-eyed, freckled redheads, mostly of Celtic lineage. A few redheads with splotchy pigmentation turned up in the second group—people who burn easily but minimally and can tan to some extent—but this group consists mostly of blonds. There are very few redheads in the remaining four groups, which consist of people who have darker more sun-resistant types of skin.

This study reinforced the view that redheads are set apart from the rest of humanity in important physical ways. As Pathak puts it, “Redheads are three-time losers.” For one thing, he says, red pigment is an inadequate filter of sunlight, so redheads’ skin is more likely to burn when it is exposed to the sun, and wrinkle as it ages. For another, redheads are more susceptible to skin cancer than anyone else. When ultraviolet rays damage DNA—the “genetic blueprints” of life—darker skin types can repair the damage, but redheads’ skin can’t.

Some scientists speculate that the physical gulf separating the reds from the non-reds traces back to the dawn of human evolution. In 1952, the dermatologist F.J.G. Ebling wrote a monograph for the World Health Organization, which noted, among other things, that redheads are generally more numerous in northern latitudes. Dr. Flesch seized on this point in 1969 and theorized that the first specimens of Homo sapiens lived in colder climates—usually in the north—a conclusion he deduced from his belief that they had a hairy coat covering their entire body. According to him, the eventual disappearance of this hair enabled mankind to thrive in warmer climates as well.

The disappearance of body hair also made human skin vulnerable to the sun, however. At that point, Flesch theorized, when exposed to warmer climates, red-headed humans with darker hair and skin thrived. But others, who were red-headed and fair-skinned, were so vulnerable to the sun that they only thrived in the colder northern latitudes, which is where most redheads are found this day.

This theory holds forth the intriguing possibility that the first humans may all have been redheads—that the development of darker hair and skin were later stages in human evolution. To be sure, Flesch’s thesis represents a minority opinion: most scientist think the first human-like creatures appeared not in the cold north, but in eastern and southern Africa and Java. But Flesch bolstered his thesis with this tantalizing evidence: red hair shafts are the thickest. A redhead needs only 90,000 hairs to give the appearance of a full head of hair; by contrast, a black-haired person requires 108,000, a brunette 110,000 and a blond 140,000. That being the case, argued Flesch, it’s not unreasonable to presume that redheads’ thicker hair is a survival from the dawn of human evolution, when thick hair provided necessary protection from the cold.

Do these physical differences influence redheads’ behavior? That question hasn’t been studied. But one researchers findings seem to suggest that, for whatever reasons, redheads do behave differently from other people. In 1977, Israeli psychiatrist Michael Bar reported that red-headed children are three or four times more likely to develop “hyperactive syndrome”—whose symptoms include overexciteability, a short attention span, easily sparked feelings of frustration and, usually, excessive aggressiveness.

Bar arrived at these conclusions after comparing the behavior of forty-five red-headed boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 12 with that of a control group of non-red-headed children. The evidence from such a sampling, of course, is far from conclusive. Still, Bar contends, the study points to a generic link between red hair and hyperactive behavior. “It is possible,” he adds, “that the characteristics attributed to certain ethnic groups, like the Vikings’ adventurousness or the Irish temperament, are connected to the high incidence of redheads among them.”

Since both my head and my daughter’s are as red as they come, and since neither of us has exhibited any of the symptoms described by Bar, I naturally give his claim short shrift. Besides, even if you could prove that the Irish are innately hot-tempered, that wouldn’t prove a link with their hair color: as stated before, redheads comprise only about 10 percent of the population of Ireland.

If many redheads seem aggressive, overexcitable or easily frustrated, the most likely reason is that they’re responding to the way people treat them. Being a redhead can be exhilarating or traumatic, but it’s rarely dull.

“I’ve been watched my whole life,” says Sandy Rubin of Philadelphia, who has flaming red tresses. “I walk into a room and I’m noticed instantly.” Another red-haired friend of mine notes that, in the presence of red-haired women, even older men become adolescent, frisky and familiar: “They feel they already know your name, which is ‘Red.’”

Movie star Arlene Dahl, who claims direct descent from the tenth-century Norwegian explorer Erik the Red, argues that, contrary to the stereotype, the typical red-headed personality is characterized by confidence, inner security and a sense of humor. “I think men are fond of red-headed women because generally we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” she says. “Since childhood, many of us have been teased about our red hair and freckles, and we’re used to it.”

Are redheads really different from everyone else, or do they just act differently because they’re perceived as different? It’s a chicken-and-egg question, so you can answer it however you wish. Personally, I subscribe to Flesch’s theory that redheads are endowed with more iron than other mortals. It doesn’t change anything, but it’s comforting to think about on a summer’s day, as I sit alone beneath an umbrella, swathed in towels, watching my blond or brunette friends frolic on a sunny beach.

A Red-Headed Hall of Fame

WOODY ALLEN (born 1935), film director
ANN-MARGRET (born 1941), actress
ARNOLD (“RED”) AUERBACH (born 1917), basketball coach
LUCILLE BALL (1911-1989) , actress
WALTER (“RED”) BARBER (born 1908), sports announcer
BORIS BECKER (born 1967), German tennis champion
SARAH BERNHARDT (1844-1923), actress
LIZZIE BORDEN (1860-1927), acquitted of murder
DON BUDGE (born 1915), tennis champion
JAMES CAGNEY (1899-1986), actor
MICHAEL CAINE (born 1933), actor
JIMMY CARTER (born 1924), U.S. President
WINSTON CHURCHILL (1874-1965), British Prime Minister
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1451-1506), Italian explorer
CALVIN COOLIDGE (1872-1933), U.S. President
ALICE CRIMMINS (born 1938), convicted murderer
OLIVER CROMWELL (1599-1658), British Lord Protector
GEORGE A. CUSTER (1839-1876), U.S. Cavalry officer
ARLENE DAHL (born 1924), actress
EMILY DICKINSON (1830-1886), poet
ELIZABETH I (1533-1603), Queen of England
ERIK THE RED (tenth century A.D.), Norwegian navigator
MIA FARROW (born 1945), actress
SARAH FERGUSON (born 1959), Duchess of York
LYNETTE (‘SQUEAKY”) FROMME (born 1948), Presidential assailant
GREER GARSON (born 1908), actress
JOHN GLENN (born 1921), astronaut and U.S. Senator
ARTHUR GODFREY (1903-1983), radio and TV personality
HAROLD (“RED”) GRANGE (1904-1989), football player
RED GROOMS (born 1937), artist
NELL GWYN (1650-1687), actress
RITA HAYWORTH (1918-1987), actress
HENRY VIII (1491-1547), King of England
KATHERINE HEPBURN (born 1909), actress
WILLIAM (“RED”) HOLTZMAN (born 1920), basketball coach
RON HOWARD (born 1954), actor/director
ISABELLA I (1451-1547), Queen of Spain
JAMES I (1566-1625), King of England
JESSE JAMES (1847-1882), outlaw
THOMAS JEFFERSON (1743-1826), U.S. President
VAN JOHNSON (born 1916), actor
JOHN PAUL JONES (1747-1792), U.S. Naval Commander
SONNY JURGENSEN (born 1934), football player
DANNY KAYE (1913-1987), actor
JOHN F. KENNEDY (1917-1963), U.S. President
TED KOPPEL (born 1940), television journalist
ROD LAVER (born 1938), tennis champion
VLADIMIR LENIN (1870-1924), Russian revolutionary
SINCLAIR LEWIS (1885-1951), novelist
MYRNA LOY (born 1905), actress
MAN O’ WAR (“BIG RED”), champion Thoroughbred
SHIRLEY MACLAINE (born 1934), actress
BETTE MIDLER (born 1945), actress/singer
NAPOLEON I (1769-1821), French emperor
NERO (37-68), Roman emperor
MAUREEN O’HARA (born 1921), actress
IGNACE JAN PADEREWSKI (1860-1941), Polish pianist and statesman
BONNIE RAITT (born 1949), singer
VANESSA REDGRAVE (born 1937), actress
WALTER REUTHER (1907-1970), labor leader
MOLLY RINGWALD (born 1968), actress
TIM ROBBINS (born 1936), novelist
CHARLES (“RED”) RUFFING (born 1904), baseball player
JILL ST. JOHN (born 1940), actress
SALOME (14-62 A.D.?), Biblical dancer
MARGARET SANGER (1883-1966), birth-control pioneer
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616), English playwright
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW (1856-1950), Irish playwright
MOIRA SHEARER (born 1926), actress/dancer
BEVERLY SILLS (born 1929), opera singer
RED SKELTON (born 1913), comedian
MAGGIE SMITH (born 1934), actress
WALTER (“RED”) SMITH (1905-1982), sportswriter
BLAZE STARR (born 1932), stripper
DANIEL (“RUSTY”) STAUB (born 1944), baseball player
TITIAN (1487-1576), Italian painter
SPENCER TRACY (1900-1967), actor
MARK TWAIN (1835-1910), author
MARTIN VAN BUREN (1782-1862), U.S. President
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890), artist
GWEN VERDON (born 1925), singer/dancer
ANTONIO VIVALDI (1675-1743), Italian composer
MANFRED VON RICHTHOFEN (1892-1918), German aviator
ROBERT PENN WARREN (1905-19889), U.S. Poet Laureate
GEORGE WASHINGTON (1732-1799), U.S. President
WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR (1028-1087), King of England
TOM WOLFE (born 1931), writer

This article originally appeared in Town & Country, August 1991. Copyright 1991 by Dan Rottenberg. Reprinted with the author's permission.
Readers may learn more about Dan Rottenberg and read more of his work at http://www.danrottenberg.com