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Which Country Has the Best-Looking People? Let's Ask a 19th-Century Doctor

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We’ve all heard of Emily Post, but how about Robert Tomes? Tomes was a 19th century American physician, diplomat and etiquette writer, who was known for his articles on manners appearing in Harper’s Bazar (before the spelling was Harper’s Bazaar).

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In 1870, he published a book called The Bazar Book of Decorum. The Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette, and Ceremonials. In it, he gauges the best-looking people of different groups—including the working class and the elderly—in various countries.

The results aren’t pretty. In fact, they’re xenophobic in most instances and condescending all around. Sweeping generalizations about other races seems the opposite of good etiquette.

Here’s what he declares.

1. Americans are better looking than nearly everyone else.

If you’re American, you have been blessed with the ultimate in looks. Everyone thinks so, even non-Americans.

It is common for foreigners to praise our people for their good looks, and the American face is certainly remarkable for its regularity. It seldom presents those extraordinary deviations from the classical ideal so frequently observed in foreigners.

2. If you are German or Irish, you are likely deformed. What a pity.

While Americans’ looks are “remarkable for their regularity,” Germans and the Irish aren’t so lucky.

Those monstrous developments of the features, which are not seldom found in the German or Irish countenance, and approximate it to the various types of the lower animals, are rare among native-born Americans.

Did I mention his wife was from Germany? And that they and their three children lived in Germany for a time? 

3. Even Americans are ugly sometimes!

Americans are a diverse bunch. So, naturally, some of us will be ugly.

As people of all nations come hither, we have, of course, every kind of face. There are, accordingly, all varieties of disproportion and degrees of ugliness to be occasionally seen.

He goes on to talk about ears like “gigantic oysters” and noses like elephant trunks and really stops making sense altogether.

I’d like to reiterate: This guy is a doctor. When a patient came in with a growth, did he simply say: “I’m afraid you have a case of the uglies!”

4. Americans can be ugly in less overt ways as well.

Let’s set aside the outliers and address the more common ways Americans are ugly.

The chief faults of the American person are excessive paleness or yellowness of complexion and thinness of structure.

That’s it? That’s not so bad.

5. Every group thinks they have the best nose.

This may be the one characteristic he doesn’t have a strong opinion on.

There seems to be no absolute standard of nasal beauty.

He mentions Grecians, Ethiopians, Romans, Israelites, and the wife of Genghis Khan (really), and says they all believe they have the best nose, and this is how it should be. It is a rare moment of sanity in the book.

6. English children are more attractive than American children.

Thanks to the unfortunate American climate—and those God-given rosy English complexions!

The American complexion is surpassed in freshness and clearness by the English in youth. Our dry atmosphere is unfavorable both to the color and transparency of the skin.

What’s all this doing in an etiquette book again?

7. Americans become way hotter than the English in old age.

The English become acne-ridden when they’re elderly. (Um, OK.) On the other hand, Americans’ skin changes to perfectly complement our gray hair. Naturally.

In advanced age, however, we have decidedly the advantage. While the English complexion is apt to become pimpled and blowsy, and seems to indicate grossness and overfeeding, the American, with the progress of time ripens to a mellow ruddiness, which harmonizes well with gray hairs, and the veneration which is due to them.

It’s so sad when skin becomes blowsy.

8. The American working class is better looking than the European working class.

This seems to have something to do with the fact that we’re thinner? (Can you imagine this guy’s reaction if he saw us now?)

Compare the peasant face of Europe with that of the working people of this country. The former appears like a mass of dough rolled into a uniform surface; the latter is full of lines, distinct and expressive as those of a steel engraving.

Elsewhere he says thinness and wrinkles are unattractive, so I’m not sure how all this adds up.

9. English women are prettier than American women.

Thinness isn’t as attractive on women in general as it is on the working class at large. (But what about working class women?)

Our dames, although we do not advise them to go to bed nightly on a supper of Stilton cheese and London stout like their English sisters, would, we believe, improve their looks if they lived better. By living better we mean feeding at regular intervals upon well-cooked, nutritious food, instead of wasting their appetites upon cakes, sweets, and other indigestible articles, which fill the stomach, but starve the body.

So American women should eat more, but they should avoid cheese, beer, and sweets? All right, so the latter may be true to some extent, but it sounds like no fun at all.

10. Ancient Greek women dressed the best.

He thinks very highly of ancient Greek women in general.

The Greek woman, with a genuine contour of swelling bosom and rounded limb, was content to cover herself with a simple cloth, which, confident in her graceful proportions, she left to assume the natural lines of her figure.

He praises ancient Greeks later as well for not participating in “ear-boring”—that’s ear-piercing to us—and he can’t stop talking about how beautiful the Venus de Milo is, which makes me wonder: Does he like simple clothing or next-to-no clothing?

11. The women of the Carpathian valleys—or thereabouts—having amazing skin. But don’t be fooled—this has nothing to do with consuming arsenic!

There was a rumor in the 19th century that women of the Carpathian valley, which is an area in Eastern and Central Europe, were exceptionally good-looking. This was credited to the consumption of arsenic.

Ever since a traveler imprudently revealed the fact that some women, of the Carpathian valleys, we believe, secured for themselves beautiful complexions by feeding on arsenic, this practice, it is said, has been more or less generally adopted, not only in Europe, but in this country.

The good doctor suddenly feels compelled to do some extreme hedging, it appears more or less.

Physicians have, moreover, for a long time been in the habit of prescribing, in diseases of the skin, a preparation called “Fowler’s Solution,” the principal constituent of which is arsenic.This remedy is considered an effective one, but its danger is so great that it is given only in the smallest doses.

Fowler’s Solution, which contains one percent arsenic, was once used on everything from eczema to cancer. Dr. Tomes goes on to say, roughly: Don’t use arsenic (even though it will make your skin look great)!

By the by, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula resides in the Carpathian Mountains, so maybe the youthful looks of the ladies in those valleys had less to do with arsenic and more to do with immortality?

And that gets us to Chapter 3 in this book. If we were to continue, you would encounter such information as:

● Why the ear becomes unattractive. It’s mostly “owing to its neglect in childhood and youth,” which Tomes details in the subsection “The ear—How to make it beautiful.”
● The “cure for fatness!” It involves the sensible suggestion to exercise and avoid “fat-producing” foods, and the not-so-sensible advice of “frequent rubbing of the body with a rough towel or brush, an occasional laxative, alkaline, sea, and vapor baths, with shampooing or kneading of the flesh” to to help you lose weight.
● And sprawling gets its own subsection! Tomes’ take: “It is not customary to sit upon more than one chair at a time.”

So congrats to ancient Greek women and the ladies of the Carpathian valley—you’re the only ones who came out of this unscathed, assuming the latter survived dosing themselves with arsenic.

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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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Pop Culture
Evel Knievel, Insurance Salesman
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To his coworkers at the Combined Insurance Company of America in Chicago, he was just Bob. A few months shy of his 24th birthday and newly married, Bob was ambitious, charming, and sincere—all qualities company president W. Clement Stone valued in his salesmen. To push high-volume, short-term disability insurance, customers needed to trust their words. Bob Knievel could look a man in the eyes and tell him that $3 worth of insurance was money well spent, and they'd believe him.

Years later, when Bob adopted the Evel Knievel persona and made breaking his bones a spectator sport, his former colleagues would stare at their televisions in amazement. There went Bob, clearing 10 or 14 or 20 cars on a motorcycle. There lies Bob, a heap of fractured limbs that needed to be scraped off the pavement like chewing gum.

In the span of just a few short years, the best insurance salesman in his assigned district had become the most famous daredevil in the world.

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Born in Butte, Montana, in 1938, Robert Knievel stole his first motorcycle at the age of 13. Prone to delinquency and petty crime, he failed to get a high school diploma and instead entered the U.S. Army Reserves. By the time he was 19 years old, he was out of uniform and starting up a semi-pro hockey team, drawing crowds at local arenas and even playing Olympic hopefuls from the Czech Republic. (Knievel’s team lost 22-3.)

By 1960, any discernible skills beyond mediocre athleticism and amoral behavior weren’t quite ready to reveal themselves. Knievel struck upon the idea of becoming a merchant policeman in Butte, which was a fancy term for being a private security specialist. Knievel would approach businesses and promise he’d act as a kind of sentry, checking their locations for suspicious activity and thwarting any robbery or vandalism attempts.

What Knievel wouldn’t admit until much later was that he was frequently the perpetrator of that activity, breaking windows and robbing the registers of businesses that didn’t sign up for his services. It was his version of property insurance.

A few things conspired to redirect Knievel’s ambitions. He married Linda Bork in 1959, and the couple started a family. He also grew concerned that Butte authorities were close to catching up with his security monitoring scam. In the summer of 1962, Knievel decided to go straight and become a salesman for Combined Insurance.

The company’s district manager in Montana dispatched Knievel to Chicago, where he underwent a two-week training course in sales tactics endorsed by president W. Clement Stone. Stone had co-authored a book, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, and considered it his business gospel. The lessons were at the level of fortune cookies and free of cynicism (“Big doors swing on little hinges,” “Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will”) but Knievel never once rolled his eyes. He absorbed the strategies and hit the road back in his home state, prepared to sell the $3 policies and collect his 60 cents per signature.

Earning an honest living at that rate would require volume. So Knievel traveled to working-class towns and paid bars to allow him to set up an “office” in a booth, where he could catch the steady stream of farmers coming in for a drink. He stopped workers at a train repair station during lunch breaks, and preached the virtues of the payments Combined would offer in the event the insured had an accident. Sometimes he’d pass up the $3 and do barter trades, like when a rancher once offered to give him a lame horse.

If Knievel had a crowning moment in his gone-straight, suit-and-tie life, it was when he set a district record for the most policies sold in a single week. He had talked his way into a state mental hospital in Warm Springs, Montana, and sold coverage to the staff—and if company legend is to be believed, to many of the hospital's patients as well. Knievel logged 271 sign-ups that week.

For this, Knievel got an award and recognition; he was feted by company executives as an example of the can-do spirit their president endorsed. While he enjoyed the attention, what Bob really wanted was to occupy the office of the vice president. When Combined refused to promote him, he quit. Without advancement in sight, making a living out of a suitcase ceased to be appealing. Knievel wanted to do something else.

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After leaving Combined, Knievel returned to his rudderless lifestyle. He found work at a motorcycle shop in Wyoming and thought a good way to drum up business would be to hop on a bike and try to jump over a pit infested with rattlesnakes.

It was.

That then gave him the idea to jump greater distances, which eventually led to him convincing the operators of Caesars Palace that he could make the 150-foot jump over the fountains near the front entrance of their Las Vegas resort and casino. He didn’t make it, but footage of the 1967 wipeout was absolutely mesmerizing: Airborne one minute and tumbling on the ground the next, Knievel looked like a crash test dummy. Convalescing in the hospital with multiple broken bones, Knievel’s popularity soared. He became one of the most famous men in America in the 1970s, rivaled only by Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.

Matt Tonning, one of Knievel’s former coworkers at Combined, was one of the millions of people who saw the footage. He was alarmed, but not because of the gruesome outcome. Over the years, Knievel had phoned Tonning to catch up and buy policies—10 in all, which was nine more than a salesperson was technically allowed to sell to any one person. Tonning liked Knievel so much that he usually just entered another salesman’s name to complete the transaction. The policies could not be canceled and covered any accident.

At no point did Knievel ever list his current occupation: daredevil.

Tonning was fired. When Knievel heard of his friend’s dismissal, he agreed to drop claims on nine of the policies.

If there were any hard feelings, Knievel never voiced them. He would later credit the unflinching optimism of Stone and his book as one of the key reasons he became a professional cheater of death. Staring up at the ramps that would launch him into the air, those sales lessons led him to believe he could make it—even when past experience proved otherwise.

Additional Sources: Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel.

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