"The Institute for Facial Reform (A Fantastical Story)"
By Getsl Selikovich, translated by Jessica Kirzane
Getsl (George) Selikovitsh has one of the more unusual biographies of any Yiddish writer. Selikovitsh was a scholar of ancient languages, and he received a degree in Egyptology. In 1885, he served as an Arabic interpreter for the British military in Egypt, but he left the expedition early after he was accused of sympathizing with the Egyptians. He came to the United States as a professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania, but he was forced to leave his position on account of "intrigues." After that, he began a long career as a Yiddish and Hebrew journalist. He published erudite articles as well as a number of humoresques. The photo depicts Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, a location mentioned in the story, in 1913. The photo is part of the Library of Congress's George Grantham Bain Collection.
“Faces twisted, noses extended
Foreheads short, Lips distended
Go one and all to Dr. Skinner DeLintz,
He’ll make you handsome as a prince.”
This poetic phrase written in large letters alongside a nice picture hung in front of the door to the office of Dr. Skinner DeLintz, the director of “The Institute for Facial Reform,” as he titled himself and his medical institution.
Instead of just describing the outside of this medical institute, let’s take a look inside.
Dr. Skinner DeLintz sat with a cigar in his mouth and explained in a serious tone to his assistant that his Institute for Facial Reform had already achieved the highest artistry in changing any face, just like a good tailor can transform any item of clothing into whatever he likes. Now it was time for them to come up with a brand-new sensation in their profession. It was time to make a lot more money.
“I’ll tell you, Dr. Skinner,” Dr. Skimmer began, “as soon as you compared us to tailors, this question came to me: Who are the best tailors in the world? Certainly not those who make clothing according to what’s in fashion. Instead, it’s those who themselves come up with a new fashion whenever they want, and convince the public to go after whatever fashion they release. Now I ask you, Skinner my friend, why should we not do what the great tailors do? Why should we not be bothered when a client comes to us and says that his nose is too short or too long, or his chin too pointy, and we should fix it the way he likes? No, Doctor, we ourselves should decide between us that one season it should be the fashion to wear long noses, and another season we’ll come out with short noses, and yet another season pug noses, and so forth, like the tailors do. And this way we’ll be showered with millions. Right?”
"No, Doctor, we ourselves should decide between us that one season it should be the fashion to wear long noses, and another season we’ll come out with short noses, and yet another season pug noses, and so forth, like the tailors do. And this way we’ll be showered with millions. Right?”
“This is really a terrific plan!” cried out Dr. Skinner DeLintz. “But we must first create a mold for a face that will please everyone, and we will copyright this handsome face in Washington, D.C. First let’s search for a model of a manly face. When we have succeeded, we will start with the women, because we have to be more careful with women. So, first a handsome model of a face for men.”
Dr. Skimmer went out and walked along Broadway, down Forty-Second Street, and on Fifth Avenue. He went to every neighborhood in order to find an inspiration, a model for a perfectly handsome face that would please everyone, and that could serve as a prototype for the Institute for Facial Reform. After Dr. Skimmer strolled around for several hours he noticed in a photography gallery a picture with a remarkably attractive man’s face: a face that was not only handsome, but also noble, pleasant, friendly, and attractive. Dr. Skimmer did not have to take much time to consider before he bought the picture in order to bring it to a good sculptor. He was sure that with only a few improvements by the sculptor the head in plaster would be the beautiful model that would please everyone! Several days later, when the sculptor finished the stunning head, both doctors were highly pleased with their model, and they began enthusiastically to announce their new plan in all of the newspapers. The advertisement, which was in rhyme, was phrased eloquently:
“Do you want a face as fresh as spring
And to be as handsome as a king?
Do you want to be solemn as an academician,
Dreamy as a poet or a musician?
Do you want to look like an aristocrat,
A wise man, a wealthy man, or a diplomat,
A trust-fund magnate or a prince?
Then go to Dr. Skinner DeLintz.”
To the side of this “poetry” was the picture of the handsome, noble face, and under it was the address of the Institute for Facial Reform on Broadway. They waited for the result. The very next day, several people showed up who wanted their faces to be “reformed” according to the face that they saw on the advertisement. The first patient that the doctor took into the operating room had a terrible face. He looked like some kind of bandit. “He must be a thief from the forest,” the doctor thought. When the patient told to him that he was a financier who lent money and earned interest, the doctor said to himself with a smile that he had guessed perfectly. The lender explained that he had a bank counter and did good business. But he would do ten times better business without his hideous face that drove people away.
The two doctors did most of the work in less than an hour, while the lender was unconscious. They poured potent wax onto the skin of his forehead so that it should be smooth and without bumps, like on the noble face from their advertisement. With other means they took care of the lender’s nose, chin, and lips, until his whole face was entirely changed into a very sympathetic countenance. When the patient came to and they gave him a mirror, he was beside himself with joy and paid the $50 fee with pleasure.
The next patient was a bartender, also with a grotesque appearance. He said that he wanted to marry a girl whom he loved with his whole heart, but she was not attracted to his strange and wild appearance. This bartender also wanted to have a handsome face like the one in the doctor’s advertisement. They put him to sleep and performed the same operation as they had done with the lender. The patient left the doctor’s institute with a face like an ideal philanthropist. The third patient was a politician, who was a candidate to become a judge and was almost sure that he could win, if only his face did not stand in his way.
Already on the first day there were twelve people walking around New York with faces identical to the doctor’s model, and that’s without counting the thirteenth man, on whom the model was based! Dr. Skinner and Dr. Skimmer were busy day and night, and by the end of the week there were 116 people walking around New York whose faces looked exactly the same!
But the next Sunday something happened in New York that shook up the whole city. When the famous Reverend Doctor Flim Flam finished preaching in his Temple, two secret policemen came up to him and arrested him as the man who gave a false check to a farmer. Dr. Flim Flam looked at them as though he didn’t know what to say, but his arguments were of no avail: the policemen had a detailed description of the culprit’s face, according to the farmer’s description, a face that matched Doctor Flim Flam’s down to the last hair. So, did they need any better evidence?
On Broadway, at the exact time of Dr. Flim Flam’s arrest, it happened that two other policemen arrested a famous tenor from the Metropolitan Opera House for the same crime of the false check, written to the same farmer. And there was a rumor that a millionaire on Wall Street was also arrested for the same false check to the same farmer.
But the great sensation came the next day, Monday morning, when dozens of detectives brought into court together with Dr. Flim Flam no fewer than sixty suspects, all sixty with the same face, and each one of them accused of the same crime of the false check! The laughter in court was indescribable. They say that the policemen and the detectives rolled with laughter. What kind of a trick was this? Was it a dream? But how could a hundred people in court have the same dream? The judge barely had the strength to say “dismissed” before he quickly fainted.
When Dr. Skinner DeLintz read in the paper the next day about this comedy in court, he wrote a letter of apology to Dr. Flim Flam. He decided then and there with his friend Skimmer to quickly abandon, at least for a while, the plan that “all faces should look like one race.”
Jessica Kirzane is a PhD candidate in Yiddish studies at Columbia University and the pedagogy editor at In geveb.