The buzz around Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic, began years ago, and it had nothing to do with the sexual harassment allegations that made headlines in October.
Rather, it was about his exuberant hair.
“He has very important hair!” Gore Vidal exclaimed in a 1995 article in Vanity Fair. Four years later Sam Tanenhaus, writing in The New York Times Magazine, characterized Mr. Wieseltier’s mop as not merely “strikingly white” and “luxuriant” but “well, leonine.” And when word of Mr. Wieseltier’s unwanted advances emerged this fall, his hair cropped up again. “Two great white tufts of it,” said The Weekly Standard.
Behold the man halo — or, if you will, the “manlo.”
It’s the woolly, curly or frizzy nimbus that orbits, and sometimes sits atop, the skulls of certain gentlemen. Depending on the bearer, it can denote creativity, maturity or eccentricity.
The manlo registered a few weeks before Mr. Wieseltier’s ignominy, when Graydon Carter announced his resignation as editor of Vanity Fair after 25 years. Newsweek remarked on his “fluffy, almost airborne hair” (which, it noted humorously, also applies to President Trump). Variety called attention to his “unruly” whorls.
This hairy pantheon is filled with lofty examples. Boston Magazine once described James Levine, who was suspended this week as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera amid sexual midconduct allegations, as having “a wiry gray fan shaped like the wings of an F-16.” The hair of another noted maestro, Seiji Ozawa, is so famously expansive that the website classicfm.com reckoned it to be least 50 percent “cumulonimbus.”
Not long ago, The Washington Post published a photo essay entitled “Great moments in Bernie Sanders’s hair.” The gallery presented the Vermont senator’s minimal manlo in various incarnations, including “When it gracefully flowed in the Washington air” and “When it puffed itself out like a glorious mane.”
Theories abound on the manlo’s m.o.
“I don’t think you would find many bankers or lawyers with those haircuts,” said Anne Kreamer, the author of “Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters.” “It’s a mark of individualism: ‘We are not of the ordinary rank and file.’ It marks considerable self confidence.”
Kristen M. Barber, an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, sees evidence of class status. “There is a sign there that you are not worried about being judged,” said Ms. Barber, the author of “Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry.”
“These men have the privilege of not caring,” she said. “The idea is that they’re too smart and busy. It almost becomes symbolic of how dedicated they are to their art and their science.”
There’s also the thinly veiled issue of male vanity. “The airplane wings that are coming off so many of these men help them focus on that, rather than balding,” Ms. Kreamer said. “I think it’s a willful sense of camouflaging their age.”
Allan Peterkin, the author of “One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair” and “One Thousand Mustaches: A Cultural History of the Mo,” suggested the term “side-over” to describe the phenomenon.
“Cynics might say they are doing a more sophisticated version of the comb-over or the middle-aged ponytail, a.k.a. go bushy where you can, to counter what’s scant,” said Mr. Peterkin, a professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Toronto.
On the flip side, the manlo can indicate that the wearer has enough years under his belt to be past worrying about appearances. “It’s saying, ‘I’ve earned my gray — or my white,’” Mr. Peterkin said.
It may be worth remarking that some of the most memorable follicular explosions are fictional. In the 19th century, the actor Joseph Jefferson portrayed Peter Pangloss in the comedy “The Heir at Law” with a coiffure that suggested a horizontal volcanic eruption. Decades later, Bozo the Clown made a similar impression in orangy-red.
And then there was the mad inventor Doc Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd, in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” (He may well have taken his cue from the shaggy avatar Albert Einstein.)
Mr. Peterkin noted the deliberately cultivated and “performative” aspects of many a manlo, even suggesting that Graydon Carter has “sprayed his into submission.” Altogether, Mr. Peterkin feels, “It’s clearly an affectation.”
Or is it? It’s unlikely that the 19th-century recluse Langley Collyer, one half of the Collyer Brothers, cared what the outside world thought of his wild fringe. Nor did Larry Fine of the Three Stooges, who reportedly got his trademark finger-in-the-socket do when he neglected to dry off after a rinse in his dressing-room sink.
“I would call the style ‘benign neglect’ or even, to be more existential about it, ‘benign indifference,’” said Alexis Levitin, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, who once had an accidental set of low-lying curls. “I am in the vanguard of this look completely in spite of myself. God made it grow, at least on the sides, and I didn’t interfere.”
The future of the manlo is by no means clear. Younger, not quite gray outliers include the producer Brian Grazer and the writer Malcolm Gladwell, and their approaches seem to be variations on a theme from punk to puffy.
Who knows — the man bun bearer of today may well turn out to be the manlo embracer of tomorrow. After all, as gravity works its inexorable forces, there is nowhere to go but down.
“I think millennials are too selfish to not look good for their cause,” Mr. Peterkin said.