Missing Noses and the Elephant Man
Here are some prominent people who have gone through life with damaged, twisted, or otherwise altered faces.
Astronomer TYCHO BRAHE was 20 when his nose was partially chopped off in a duel with another Dane, Manderup Parsbjerg. (Reportedly the two had been arguing over mathematics.) According to the newspaper column The Straight Dope, “Tycho concealed the damage as best he could with an artificial bridge made of precious metals. He carried some nose goop with him always, either to polish the nose or to glue it more firmly in place.”
Delaware hero CAESAR RODNEY suffered from a serious cancer which ravaged his face; this may be why no contemporary portrait of him exists. Late in his life Rodney began wearing a silk scarf or screen across his face to hide his cancerous features. Nonetheless Rodney managed to serve as a brigadier general in the Delaware militia during the Revolutionary War, as well as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. His 80-mile ride to Philadelphia to cast Delaware’s vote for independence was commemorated on a 1999 U.S. quarter-dollar coin.
Hollywood lore has it that actress LANA TURNER had no eyebrows. This particular rumor happens to be true — the result of her bit part as an exotic handmaiden in the 1938 filmThe Adventures of Marco Polo. According to the official website of Turner’s estate, “During the filming of Marco Polo, [producer Samuel] Goldwyn insisted that Lana’s eyebrows be shaved off and replaced with straight, fake black ones. They never grew back and from then on she had to either paste or draw her eyebrows.” The bald brows didn’t keep Turner from becoming the “Sweater Girl” and a popular pin-up for World War II GI’s, or from being married seven times.
RANDOLPH BOURNE is a forgotten star of the early American counterculture, a Greenwich Village essayist who condemned American involvement in World War I. He became a leading intellectual despite having a seriously disfigured face. According to a 1983 article in The New Republic, “His face was badly deformed by a bungled forceps delivery [and] the umbilical cord was coiled round his left ear, leaving it permanently damaged and misshapen.” That wasn’t all for Bourne: he contracted spinal tuberculosis at age 4, which left him a hunchback for the rest of his life.
President GROVER CLEVELAND managed to hide his facial troubles entirely. In 1893, the first year of his second term as president, Cleveland underwent a secret operation to cut away a cancerous tumor from his jaw and palate. William DeGregorio, in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, says that “a team of doctors led by Dr. Joseph Bryant removed the president’s left upper jaw and part of his palate and fitted him with a vulcanized rubber prosthesis that retained the natural contour of his jawline.” The operation was performed aboard a yacht in New York, and kept a secret until after Cleveland’s death.
JOSEPH MERRICK had perhaps the most famously disfigured face of all. The Englishman suffered from an undetermined disease — it may have been elephantiasis or Proteus Syndrome — which resulted in large fleshy growths which all but obscured his facial features. Merrick wore cloaks or hoods to cover his head, but suffered public humiliation nonetheless; his visage was considered so grotesque that at one point he took work as a sideshow freak. 90 years after his death he received more sympathetic treatment in the movie 1980 The Elephant Man; actor John Hurt portrayed Merrick, proclaiming “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!”
Did pop star MICHAEL JACKSON buy the Elephant Man’s bones in the 1980s? No, there’s no truth to that rumor. However, over the years Jackson did join Merrick among the ranks of the facially challenged, thanks to dozens of plastic surgeries: first a tweak to the nose in the 1980s, then work on his eyes, cheeks, jaw, chin and beyond. By the year 2000 rumor-mongers were saying that the tip of Jackson’s nose had fallen off due to a series of botched ‘adjustments.’ Those rumors were inflamed by a court appearance Jackson made in November of 2002, when news photos seemed to show scarring and flakes of some kind on the tip of his nose; the Associated Press called it “a wound or injury that makes it look as if the end of his nose has been clipped off.” Jackson took to wearing a mask over his nose and mouth in public in the years before his sudden death in 2009, and the true extent of his nasal injury (if one existed) has never been revealed.
English sea captain ROBERT JENKINS earns an honorable mention: his chopped off ear gave Britain an excuse to declare war on Spain in 1739. In the War of Jenkins’ Ear (no kidding!), several small fights broke out between Spanish and British vessels in the waters around the West Indies. The rivalry over American goods and slaves had been going on for years, and in the Caribbean Spanish coast guards tried to police English and Scottish smugglers. What happened to Jenkins’ ear was enough to finally push Britain into war. According to Jenkins, he was at sea in the Caribbean when his ship was boarded by Spanish guards. A Spanish captain named Fandino chopped Jenkins’ ear off and told him to give it to King George. Seven years later Jenkins brought his pickled ear before Parliament and told his story. The British public, indignant that an Englishman had been so mistreated by a Spaniard, forced the issue and war was declared in October of 1739. Whether a Spaniard in fact chopped off Jenkins’ ear — we don’t even know which one — will never be known. Rumors at the time suggested he had lost it in a different sort of fight, and there were even some who suggested he’d never lost an ear at all, that the “ear” he showed Parliament was a prop.