Apparently There's a Market for Presidential Hair
An intimate conversation with the historian who collects it.
The world is fascinated with presidential hair — look no further than the constant news coverage surrounding the coif of our current commander in chief. But long before Donald Trump took office, author Jared Cohen — who, in addition to being founder and CEO of Jigsaw at Alphabet, Inc., has previously worked as a close advisor to Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice — was already one step ahead of the game.
Ever since he was a kid, Cohen has been fascinated by the Oval Office. He’s amassed an impressively large collection of presidential memorabilia over the years, featuring everything from campaign buttons and signed documents to, in what’s arguably the most intriguing aspect of his collection, locks of presidential hair. Yes — he actually owns strands of hair from the very heads George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and more.
The unique collectors’ items are pristinely preserved, framed and hanging on the walls of Cohen’s New York City apartment alongside signatures from the commanders-in-chief to whom they belonged. While it may be a different approach to decorating, before you question the rather unusual keepsakes on display, Cohen wants to make it clear that there’s more meaning behind the locks of hair than you might initially think.
“I know it sounds very strange to have these locks of hair,” says Cohen, whose fourth book, The Accidental Presidents, is out now. “When you actually see them, you conclude that it's still strange — but you also realize that it’s kind of cool. All the way up through the early 1900s, people didn’t ask for presidential autographs; they would write letters to the president asking for a lock of their hair. The president would send a signed letter back with a lock of their hair sealed with wax.”
Those strands have now become prized possessions for presidential aficionados like Cohen. But the dad of two has never actually purchased any. “My wife won't let me buy hair,” he says, laughing. “So now I negotiate it as part of the purchase of a signed document. I buy a lot of these signatures from someone in Westport Connecticut who, in addition to being a great collector and dealer, also happens to have the largest collection of historic hair in the entire world. He kept showing me the hair when I would visit his store, and eventually he said, ‘You know what? Next time you buy a presidential autograph, I’ll throw in some hair.’ So I bought a document that George Washington had signed when he was the general of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, and with it, he included five locks of George Washington’s hair.”
Now, in addition to hair from Washington — which Cohen says is his most exciting score to date — his collection has grown to include strands from Ronald Reagan, William Henry Harrison, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Adams. “The most famous lock of presidential hair is Abraham Lincoln's from the night of his assassination,” says Cohen. “I negotiated with the collector, and he ended up putting six strands together for me to go with this particular autograph. So I have a lock of Lincoln's hair from the night of his assassination.”
At this point, you may be thinking, “OK, how does anyone really know that these hairs are from the presidents?” But according to Cohen, determining authenticity is all about trusting the source. “Like all things, it comes down to the provenance and the person you're getting it from,” he says. “All of my memorabilia — locks of hair, autographs, buttons, a painting I have that Dwight Eisenhower painted while he was president — I purchase all these things through someone who is not only a great collector, but also himself a leading authenticator. He authenticates for a lot of the big auction houses: Christie's, Sotheby's, and the Smithsonian. I rely a lot on people who are most credible in this field. The collecting field is just ridden with reproductions and fabrications, so you have to be very careful about it.”
As Cohen explains it, avid collectors of presidential memorabilia can be grouped into two camps: “There are those who view it very much in terms of acquiring assets for their value, and then there’s the second category, which I fall into, of collectors who believe the acquisition of the signed document is the closest you can get to living and experiencing history,” he says.
Because the historical significance is most important to him, Cohen has no plans to acquire strands from Trump any time soon. “I don't actively seek locks of hair out — I just get them with presidential autographs,” he says. “I like historical figures and items that were owned by presidents. I like things that connect me to history much more than I like things that connect me to the present, so I don’t think I’m gonna go there [with Trump].”
When it comes to modern politics, Cohen believes that his all-time favorite president would have given Trump a run for his money had he lived in the age of the Internet. “Somebody once asked me, ‘Which president throughout history would've exhibited the most similar social media behaviors to Donald Trump?’ and it almost certainly would have been Teddy Roosevelt,” Cohen says. “I think he would have far eclipsed Donald Trump as a tweeter-in-chief.”
Before Trump had even announced his candidacy, Cohen began writing his latest book five years ago, focusing on eight men who weren’t elected as president, but rather ascended to the role following a president's death. “You would think that writing a book about presidents dying in office would have a melancholy feel to it, but the book ended up making me much more optimistic about our current political moment,” he says. “If you look at how hysterical everybody is and the hyperbole around the current climate, there's this huge recency bias. It’s as if we've never been here before, with people talking about the polarization of this moment that we're in right now. But it actually pales in comparison to things that have happened in the past. We’ve also had reactive and erratic presidents before. None of this is new, it’s just playing out on social media so it’s louder than anything we’ve seen before.”
Cohen’s book, Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, is on sale now.