I like to imagine that I emerged into the world to the tune of a new hit, the silky chords behind Nat King Cole crooning “When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by if you smile,” putting words to the theme of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” back in 1936. But buck-toothed as I faced the future, my reluctant smile became something that altered the course of my career.
Among my many imperfections, the one most prominent in my psyche was my awkward teeth, resulting in a close-mouthed semi-smile. In the year I graduated university, the cinema world was shocked by the specter of a Nazi war criminal, played by Laurence Olivier, torturing Dustin Hoffman’s teeth in “Marathon Man.” Any chance I had forgotten my childhood of blissful nitrous oxide dentistry was obliterated by the sedation-free grilling and drilling visited by the immaculately evil Olivier upon the squirming Hoffman.
I had dreamed of following in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite as he reported on the intractable disaster of Vietnam. My uncle installed the news anchor’s air conditioners in his East Side brownstone in New York, and I had accompanied one such formative service call. But one look at my teeth in the mirror and I knew my days on-camera would be numbered zero, so I retreated behind a typewriter and then off-camera in a career in TV. The wizard of odd teeth.
It wasn’t until Jim Carrey took the cap off a chipped tooth and revealed his snaggle-toothed smile as Lloyd in “Dumb & Dumber” that an American on-camera star matched the Brits for bad teeth.
Music, literature, culture, history and politics have all been shaped by toothsome smiles. Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula sported a mouth “fixed out rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth,” good for a different sort of necking in the park. When not celebrating “Auld Lang Syne,” Scottish poet Robert Burns penned an “Address to the Toothache,” in which he laments his “tortur’d gums.” And in his Southern Gothic “As I Lay Dying,” mouth-of-the-South novelist William Faulkner populates his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, with poor husband Anse Bundren’s obsession with purchasing new fake teeth.
On this Presidents Day weekend, we recall an American mythology illuminating George Washington’s supposedly wooden teeth, drilled into grade-school heads along with the apocryphal chopping down of a cherry tree.
The roots of Washington’s dental woes are cloudy as over-sedation by laughing gas. Some say cracking walnuts in his teeth was his undoing, while a more scientific hypothesis points to the mercury chloride treatment he undertook for smallpox. A dentist first pulled a tooth for our founding president back in 1756 when Washington was but 24 for the lordly sum of five shillings. Washington’s diary is rife with the miseries of lost and aching teeth. By the time of his inauguration in 1789, Washington possessed only one natural tooth, a lonely premolar. Over the course of his lifetime, he was fitted with not one but four sets of dentures.
Fitting much of American history, the wood myth covers up a darker past. From the time of the Middle Ages, the poor had sold teeth to the rich. In 1784, household accounts show that Washington paid 122 shillings for nine teeth extracted from several slaves. Records do not reveal whether these were the ones implanted in his gums by a French dentist, but the one-and-a-half surviving dentures of the president sport a hodgepodge of gold, brass and hippopotamus ivory. The latter probably gave birth to the myth of wooden dentures, as red wine would discolor the ivory, rendering the stained hippo teeth wooden in appearance.
Check any one-dollar bill, and if you look closely at Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington, you can see that it features bulging lips due to dentures — hardly an intentional look, such as the lip-plumped smackers of Kim Kardashian. For the slaves, no hippo ivory filled their gaps. They had to make do with what shillings could buy in a world that had taken everything else from them for free.
My experiences of dentistry have run the gamut. There was the Parisian dentist — perhaps descended from Washington’s — who gave my own New York dentist a laugh once I returned by having filled my baby teeth. It turns out they had ached not from cavities, but from their natural falling out. Thankfully, my dentist now is Dr. Winter, seasonally misnamed. A summery champion of chomping, she leaves the hippos be, fixing my buck teeth in PETA-approved style.
It’s too late now for an on-camera career, but at least I don’t have a face for radio. No more London calling. If you see me coming, it’s just my sunny smile. Hello, world!