Noe Valley Voice May 2003

Florence's Family Album:
Romancing the Beard

By Florence Holub

In this essay reprinted from the May 1991 issue of the Voice, Florence remembers the time Leo experimented with a revolutionary new look.

Throughout history, attitudes toward facial hair have vacillated, and whiskers have come and gone with the fashions. At times, a beard has denoted wisdom, virility, or high social status; at other times, just the reverse. When the beard was adopted as a symbol of international radicalism in the 19th century, it fell out of fashion in established societies, and by the 20th century facial hair was regarded with suspicion. Consequently, in the 1940s no one wore a beard, not even the avant-garde students at the California School of Fine Arts, where I was studying.

So it caused quite a stir when a graduate student by the name of Leo Holub appeared in class one day, wearing a full black growth on his chin. The women students, who had previously called him "Lovely Leo" to his face, suddenly reacted with a barrage of criticism behind his back, as though he had deliberately committed an offense against them.
Although I knew Leo only casually, I admired his talent, his gentle manner, and his (former) clean-cut appearance. Deeming the critics unfair, I tried to defend his right to hirsuteness, arguing that he was the same person with or without the beard. However, my protest fell on deaf ears, and the discrimination persisted. It took a great deal of courage in those days to grow a beard, and as I soon found out, to date the man who grew it.

When our favorite art teacher was hospitalized, several concerned students made plans to visit him. But on the designated Sunday, the only ones to appear at the hospital were Leo and myself. We visited our recovering mentor, and Leo offered to see me home. That day, Leo and I somehow sensed we might share a life together, so in spite of his beard, and before we reached my house, we arranged a standing Saturday date.

Without the luxury of the automobile, Leo and I traveled by streetcar, sometimes going out to dinner and often to see exhibits at the museums. But no matter where we went among the clean-shaven, we attracted attention. During the long streetcar rides, the other passengers stared openly, as though they had never seen a beard before (perhaps they hadn't!). We got used to the ogling in time, but I remember one particular evening when the fur almost flew.

Leo had taken me to see the opera Carmen. At the intermission, we sauntered to the lobby to stretch our legs, and since this was my first opera, I asked for some clues as to the heroine's bizarre behavior. Leo was explaining the plot when I spotted a group of my Swede-Finn girlfriends peeking around the corner in our direction, giggling audibly.

To lose them, we strolled to the opposite end of the hall, only to discover that they had hurried around to meet us, still snickering. Wherever we went, there they were! Only when we returned to our seats did we escape the titterers.

Judgment came from other quarters as well. Each day when I returned home from school, a young man, Jerry, was sitting on my front stairs awaiting a friendly chat. Jerry was an adorable 5-year-old, who often told me about his plans for the future. He wanted to be a fireman, although he had not yet started kindergarten. One day, when Leo was with me, I introduced them.
After sizing up the competition, Jerry stated emphatically: "When I get big, I'm not going to have a beard like you." As we walked away, Leo covered his amusement with feigned anger, muttering, "The little brat..." But it was over between Jerry and me.

My brothers and my father liked my new beau, especially my father, because it gave him a chance to exercise his "Svedish" humor. "Florence," he'd say, "don't take Leo out in the garden. I vouldn't vant him to get his viskers caught in the branches of the apple tree." And whenever his lodge brothers boasted about the activities of their children, he was able to inform them that his daughter was seeing Jesus Christ. Top that.

Leo had been wearing his beard only three months when he decided to shave it off and fade back into the crowd of smooth faces. But alas, no one recognized him! One afternoon he passed the Shell station where my younger brother pumped gas, so he stopped to exchange a few words. My brother racked his brain, but couldn't for the life of him remember who this man was, although they apparently were well acquainted. What a difference a shave makes!

On another occasion a few years later, when as a married mother I visited old family friends to show off our little son, our hostess exclaimed in glowing terms, "You have a fine son, and a good husband." After a pause, she laughingly added, "Remember when you went with that fellow with the whiskers?"

Before she could go on, her husband nudged her, whispering, "That's him! That's him!"

Voice writer emeritus Florence Holub lives on 21st Street with her husband of 62 years, renowned photographer (and free spirit) Leo Holub.