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Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Truth Will Out–The Perils Of A Nose Job

Ellen Roberts was nine months pregnant, due, and worried.  She knew that although the chances were only 50-50 that her baby would inherit the great hook nose which she had chiseled down and refinished when she was fifteen, it could happen.  This was the chance she took when she married Wilson Chatterley IV of Boston, St. Croix, and Gay Head, he of the patrician features that graced his family for 250 years – Wentworth Chatterley of the Court of King George and Special Emissary to the new Republic of the United States; Wentworth Chatterley II, nephew of the Duke of Kent and remotely in line for the throne; and Wentworth Chatterley III, gentleman, intellectual, and the founder of The Sycamore Society, a salon of England’s best and finest scholars and artists.

Ellen’s family came from the Old Country with Jewish Hungarian, Romanian merchant, Gypsy, and a drop of Romanoff blood in their veins – an unusual combination the certainty of which could never be established, for genealogical records had all been lost in one Balkan war or another.  All she had by way of ancestral history were faded sepia photographs of the family, looking face-forward and stern like all immigrant images – nothing like the floor-to-ceiling Gainsborough done of Wentworth I just after the artist painted Joshua Grigby.

Thomas_Gainsborough_-_Portrait_of_Joshua_Grigby

What was most noticeable about the Roberts family photographs (the family name had been changed at the turn of the century at Ellis Island from an unpronounceable Eastern European one) was the long, hooked Semitic nose on all the men. It was bigger and more prominent than any Saudi prince or Medieval rabbi. It was so prominent that if the camera was turned at any angle other than full frontal, a long crooked shadow was cast over the subject’s lips and chin.  From the photographs Ellen’s old relatives carried the nose proudly, and they were all portrayed with heads up, tilted somewhat defiantly, and a stern, uncompromising gaze straight into the camera lens.

Little was known of her family other than bits and pieces that could be gleaned from great aunts and uncles. Some had apparently been successful merchants in Philadelphia, others had migrated west to Chicago and De Moines but had left no trace.  All Ellen had were the faded and cracked photographs and certainly invented stories of diamonds, Indian squaws, and enormous silos.

Ellen’s nose was as prominent as any of her male relatives. It was no gentle, feminine version of Great Grandfather Gregor, but if anything it was larger, more hooked and pronounced.  Like all her ancestors, the nose could by no means be called ‘aquiline’ or Roman.  It was unmistakably Semitic and the closest image to her own was that of Abdul Aziz al-Rahman, a Bedouin prince whose famous portrait of him on a white Arabian stallion with a regal falcon on his arm, hung in the Great Hall of the Saudi Palace in Riyadh.  The nose was heroic, noble, and fearsome.

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By the time she was fifteen, she could no longer stand the taunts, jeers, and insults from her classmates; and she begged her father for a nose job.  Her father was quite sympathetic, for his side of the family had ordinary, American pug noses; and he could only imagine what it would be like to carry around such an impediment.  He agreed that when she finished the school year, she could have the operation and take the entire summer to recuperate on a long trip to Europe.  In September she could rejoin the family in Los Angeles where he was to be relocated by his firm and given a big promotion.  She could finish high-school there where no one knew her, go to college on the Coast, and have a new life.

As Providence would have it, Ellen turned out to be a remarkably beautiful girl. With the hook nose gone, replaced by a replica of Elizabeth Taylor’s in National Velvet, her face was as as stunning as the young actress. Ellen, in one short summer, went from being an object of ridicule to the most desirable girl at San Sebastian High.

Image result for images elizabeth taylor national velvet

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Her four years at Stanford were among the happiest of her life.  She earned academic honors, was squired by the smartest, most attractive, and most eligible men in California; and rarely looked back.  It was as though her past life had been crumpled and burn just like the old family album which she tossed in the trash before leaving Philadelphia.

Her marriage to Wentworth Chatterley was the event of the year in the Bay Area, and the wedding party was a Who’s Who of West Coast notables.  She was the talk of the town, a celebrity, and quickly the most sought-after hostess in San Francisco.

The niggling worries about ‘the nose’ did not start immediately after she found out she was pregnant but only after a few months when reality set in.  She was going to be a mother, and if the roll of the genetic dice came up snake eyes, her child would be born with the Roberts family nose. 

While this possibility worried her for the sake of her child, it was not so troublesome as being found out as a fraud.  After all, that’s what she was. Her rhinoplasty was a deliberate attempt to change the way she was born. In one summer she airbrushed her ugly past, burned not only the ancestral album but every photograph ever taken of her before she was sixteen, and then sailed on through life as a celebrated Hollywood beauty.  Had she not been so altered, her life would have been completely different. She would have never have been wooed let alone married to the scion of one of America’s finest families; and at best would have married some tax accountant or, God forbid, a clothing merchant like her great-grandfather.  She had lived a lie, and she would now have to pay. 

Well into her fifth month, she woke up with a start in the middle of the night with the horrible thought that her husband, seeing the great nose on their child, would suspect her of infidelity.  No such nose had ever appeared in his family, and she, with her gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor looks could certainly never have produced such a deformity.

This was double-trouble at its worst; and rather than look forward to the birth, she became more and more nervous.  At first she decided to make a clean breast of everything with her husband, and prepare him for the worst.  He would understand and forgive the deception.  A nose job for their daughter would be far simpler than in her day, all suspicions of infidelity would be nipped in the bud, and they both go on with their lives.

“But why should I tell him?”, she asked herself on reflection, since there was only a chance that the hook-nose genes on her mother’s side would reappear in their daughter. She went to the Berkeley library and did extensive research on Mendelian Law and consulted with faculty members at Stanford who were working on biogenetics and with whom she had become friends during her college days.  She was soon lost in a tangle of numbers, equations, and complex theories of genetic probability.  It was unlikely, she was told, that a strong trait from her mother’s side of the family would get passed on to her child directly and without some mediation by the gentler genes of her husband. The chances increased, of course, if she displayed the characteristics she hoped her child would avoid. Therein lay the dilemma.

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‘Nihilistic existentialism’ was a term used by Allen Flood, her philosophy professor at Stanford.  He had been a junior colleague of Paul Weiss at Yale, and influenced by the great metaphysician, went on to publish papers on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and the idea of ‘seminal rejection of meaning’ in Nietzsche.

Image result for images sartre being and nothingness

Flood had been fascinated by the nature of identity. That is, how can we ever know who we are, so subject are we to subjective perspective, the fallacy of memory, and the personality add-ons of maturing adulthood?  Ellen Roberts thought of Flood and hoped that his rigorous defense of ‘fictitious identity’ could offer her some refuge from her doubts. Was she or wasn’t she the same person she was twenty years ago before her plastic surgery? Of course in a very practical sense she was. Her DNA had been fixed at conception; but after her ‘alteration’ she became another person.  “Physiognomy trumps phylogeny”, said Flood in one of his typically academic plays on words; but he meant it.  You are what you look like, because what you look like determines how other people see you and therefore how eventually you see yourself.

Yet she knew that the minute she told her husband, the perfection of her Hollywood looks would be gone forever; and whenever he looked at her, he would only see what she was – a face distorted by an outsized witch’s nose uglier than any of Hamlet’s Weird Sisters.

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In the end, Ellen Roberts decided to take a chance on fate. If the universe was as meaningless as Sartre, Nietzsche, Paul Weiss and Allen Flood said, then luck – even more than will – was the only validation of the individual.  It would be foolish under such circumstances to deny or worse to manipulate factors which had been arrayed at random since the day she was born. God does indeed play dice with the universe, she concluded; and waited calmly and happily for the birth of her child.

It wasn’t until her third child – a very late caboose – that the nose reappeared; but by that time Ellen had lost her Elizabeth Taylor looks, her very selfish pretensions about personal fraud, truth, and identity.  “Oh, look”, said her mother. “He looks just like Grandfather Gregor”.  The family cat was out of the bag, and a generational hiatus could conveniently explain little Blaine’s nose.  Why hadn’t she thought of that? Everything gets tangled up in the genetic strands of family history, so everything can legitimately be attributed backwards.  Since Ellen had destroyed every last picture of herself as a young teenager, and since her mother had kept her secret well, only the two of them knew that Baby Blaine was the spitting image of the young Ellen.

Blaine grew up to be a handsome boy. Men always get a by on their looks, especially if their features are ‘strong’, so Blaine never had the troubles his mother had had. In fact some older women thought he looked like Rudolph Valentino. “Whose nose do you think I have?”, he asked her once very innocently.  “Your Great Great Grandfather Gregor, I think”, she replied.

Image result for images cecil beaton male hollywood stars silent era

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