18 MARCH 2006, Page 32

Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast

The hair colour gene MCI-R has seven European variants, one of them blond. It is rare and becoming rarer. A WHO survey calculates that the last true blond will be born in Finland in 2202. Do you believe this? Nor do I. A different lot of scientists argue that this gene emerged over a comparatively short period about 10,000 years ago, with food shortages — and shortages of men — speeding up the natural selection process to the advantage of blonds. A touch of oldstyle Hollywood here? Certainly not the present dump — which Betty Grable would find unrecognisable, Marilyn Monroe chilly and Mae West distinctly hostile — making bad movies to advance its agenda: to them, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a racist insult.

Yet it is a historical fact that gentlemen, and cads for that matter, do prefer blondes, ceteris paribus. The business of ‘going blonde’ is very ancient (and by no means confined to women). In the Royal Book of 1484 there is an assertion: ‘They arrange theyr heer lyke wymmen and force it to be yellowe, and yf they be blacke, they by crafte make them blonde and abourne.’ According to the OED some philological historians believe that the original Teutonic word ‘blond’ actually meant ‘dyed’, ‘the ancient Germans being accustomed to dye the hair yellow’. My guess is that the Anglo–Saxons, who were predominantly blond, triumphed over the Norman–French ruling class in the 13th and 14th centuries partly because of hair colour, the rich and powerful selecting wives from the blonde gene pool. The replacement of French by English was due as much to blonds as to the vigorous superiority of the English language.

Charles II, who was brought up partly in France, noticed the English preference for blondes and deplored it. He was very tall and dark, being described in a parliamentary ‘wanted’ poster — while on the run in 1651 after the battle of Worcester — as ‘Charles Stuart, a black man two yards high’. His height he got from Queen Anne, his tall Danish grandmother, and possibly also from his great-grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was five foot ten, an alarming height for a mid-16th-century lady. (She was taller than all three of her husbands, as well as miscellaneous lovers.) Charles got his dark looks from his French mother, Henrietta Maria, who was ‘black as my hat’ as people used to say when I was a boy. Charles was swarthy, perhaps saturnine is the word. A great theatregoer, he complained that at Drury Lane and Covent Garden the ‘goodies’ were always played by blonds and the ‘baddies’ by dark-haired and dark-skinned actors. Once in the theatre, disgusted by a production of Macbeth in which the murderers were noticeably dark, he exploded, ‘Pray, what is the meaning that we never see a Rogue in a Play, but, Godsfish! they always clap him on a black Periwig? When it is well known one of the greatest Rogues in England always wears a fair one.’ He was alluding to his bitter enemy, the Earl of Shaftesbury, a Blond Beast.

And come to that, what about the Blond Beast? The term occurred in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887), as follows: ‘Das Raubthier, die prachtvoller nach Beute und Sieg lüstern schweifende blond Bestie.’ Shaw wrote in Major Barbara, ‘Nietzsche is the victim in England of a single, much-quoted phrase, “big blond beast”.’ That was true, but Shaw spoiled the effect by writing, later, of himself, ‘My auburn hair was never really Highland red like my sister Agnes’s. But I was a “blond beast” of the Danish type unmistakably.’ In fact, Shaw was not the blond beast type at all, and nor of course was Nietzsche himself, either — a moustachioed mongrel mess, rather. To get the blond beast type, you have to ‘bottle up’, as poor Laurence Olivier did so disastrously when he dyed his hair to film himself in Hamlet. ‘Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, Thaw and dissolve itself into a dew!’ That got a big laugh, I remember.

Dyeing is, to be sure, a funny business. Is it true that some Byzantine emperors dyed their hair blue? Or was it that they wore blue wigs? I recall the time when old Ted Heath, on the advice of Cecil Beaton, I believe, tried the experiment of a little dye in his old, grey noll. That produced a titter too, and was soon abandoned. Yet the amount of dyeing that now goes on is immeasurable. When I first went to Italy in 1948, travelling up and down the country, I don’t remember seeing a single blond. True, there were redheads in Venice — one or two, not many. They had been there for many centuries, possibly because of Venetian connections with the Dalmatian coast, Ragusa (what is now called Dubrovnik) being a place where red-haired women were to be found. The term ‘Titian red’ was used, though in my view it is closer to auburn than genuine red. Auburn, I think, was the colour of the hair of Byron’s ‘last attachment’, Countess Guiccioli. He met her in Venice at an evening party given by Countess Benzoni, early in April 1819. Byron’s best biographer, Leslie Marchand, writes: ‘There appeared in the door to the grand salon a petite girl with rich auburn curls falling down to beautifully moulded shoulders. Her bust and arms were plump and full but well shaped, and her complexion was fair and radiantly fresh. She had a voluptuous and yet naïve face, a handsome nose, mouth and chin, and melting softness in her large eyes.’ Curiously enough, Byron never refers to Teresa’s hair as auburn or Titian red. He calls her ‘fair’ and ‘a redhead’. The various prints and portraits of her suggest a blonde, rather. Who is to say? Italian girls of 18 were capable of fiddling with the colour of their hair even then. Now I calculate that Italian women are the most notorious dyers on earth. The last time I was in Florence, I did some counting, later augmented by figures I got in Rome. Of 50 Italian women, 49 were blonde. That is dye for sure. Not one in a thousand Italians is a natural blonde, and virtually all of them, of all ages, resort to the bottle.

What I want to know, and prurient readers may now turn the page if they wish, is: did Byron’s Teresa dye her pubic hair, as well as her head hair? He often demanded of his girlfriends a snip of pubic hair for his archives, and it was willingly provided. Indeed it was volunteered in some cases, notably by Lady Caroline Lamb, a curly blonde to judge by her portrait ‘in page’s costume’. A coureur des dames once told me: ‘A bottle-blonde who does not dye her pubics is a careless creature, to be avoided.’ That is a harsh saying. But the most successful artificial blondes certainly do so. Jean Harlow did. So did Marilyn Monroe.

I note that the first bottle-blonde Chinese, from Hong Kong, are now appearing on the English scene. There will soon be hundreds of millions in Asia, as the unslakable male appetite for blondes marches across the continents. And once we contrive to manipulate genetics to the point where blond babies at will are possible, globalisation will follow. Far from that Finnish girl of 2202 being the last, she will be lost in a blond mist of beauties and beasties.