Rest in peace, most beloved mustache

No caption.
No caption. Photo by Isaac Arnsdorf.

Something’s different about Peter Salovey.

Did he lose weight? That’s very kind, but no, not really. Did he get new glasses? No, it’s not that either.

Peter Salovey, pictured with his mustache, after University President Richard Levin appointed him to the provostship a year ago.
Peter Salovey, pictured with his mustache, after University President Richard Levin appointed him to the provostship a year ago.

“It’s really a huge change,” said Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle “It takes some getting used to.”

His receptionist, Liz Grandel, loves the change, which she thinks makes him look so much younger.

“He’s quite good-looking,” she said. “He doesn’t need to look like Groucho Marx.”

Grandel e-mailed Salovey’s assistant, Sarah Skubas, who was on vacation, to warn her about the surprise. This was big news, and everyone on campus was talking about it during the last week of July.

Skubas e-mailed Salovey, “Campus is abuzz with sightings of Salovey sans mustache. Is this true?”

Salovey responded that he would neither confirm nor deny.

But when she saw him, there was no denying.

“I didn’t know he had lips!” Skubas exclaimed.

Suttle was also on vacation that last week in July when the big change happened, so when he returned, everyone else already knew. His colleagues all played a trick on him by not warning him. When he saw Salovey for the first time, he did a double-take and exclaimed, “What have you done with the Provost?”

In 2007, a photoshopped image of Salovey, then dean, without his iconic mustache circulated on Facebook, prompting a spontaneous save-the-’stache movement. Salovey received a flurry of e-mails bemoaning his decision to shave. When he appeared in the fall, mustache intact, he received another round, this time praising his decision to grow it back. Salovey of course, had done neither.

It was just a rumor. Alas, not so this time.

Though his Wikipedia entry still notes his “Groucho Marxesque mustache” as of press time, and his photograph on the Provost’s Office Web site still portrays it proudly, these are now out of date; a new official University portrait has been taken and will be posted shortly.

“I didn’t get much sleep the night before the appointment,” said Michael Marsland, who took the photograph. “That mustache has played a prominent role in many of my photographs over the years. Staring through the shutter, it’s like you know it’s Peter Salovey, but something tells you this is an impostor.”

Knowing the Provost’s new facial stylings would be of interest (or at least amusement), Berkeley College Dean Kevin Hicks sent Salovey a few suggestions for what his explanation could be. Under the moniker “PS,” Salovey posted a variation on one of them to the News’ Cross Campus blog:

“Although I loved my mustache, it was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. In these times of economic constraint, I have to find ways of cutting costs. I hope to regrow the mustache in Fiscal Year 2012, following significant financial recovery.”

But that of course is not what really happened.

“I never planned to shave off my mustache,” Salovey admitted in an interview Thursday, pronouncing it “moo-STASH.”

He was on vacation as well, visiting friends with his wife in Italy. While they were eating pasta by the sea, these friends started teasing Salovey about his mustache, which he has never spent a day without since the summer before he entered college at Stanford in 1976. They said he didn’t even know how he would look without it, that he was afraid to shave it off.

“They were making me feel like a wimp,” he recalled.

So he pointed to the fish they were all eating and proposed a challenge: “If you eat the eyeball of this fish, I’ll shave my mustache.”

The friend raised his fork, plucked out the fish’s eyeball and put it in his cousin’s mouth.

Now Salovey knew his own honor was at stake. He thought he would shave it off, surprise everyone, and then immediately start regrowing it.

But the reception was surprisingly positive. Salovey can’t remember why he grew the mustache to begin with; maybe it was to appear older. Now, at 51, he thought that might be worth reconsidering.

“At the end of the day, my wife likes it,” he said. “That probably should count the most.”

Still, he’s not committing to being clean-shaven forever.

“I’m having difficulty when I look at myself in the mirror seeing myself there,” reflected Salovey, who is also the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. “It is a little superficial, but your identity really does get wrapped up in these things. I’ve always been a guy with a mustache.”

So in a summer marked by the losses of luminaries such as Michael Jackson, Walter Cronkite, Farrah Fawcett, Robert McNamara, Billy Mays — it could go on — add one more to the list:

Peter Salovey’s mustache, which earned the distinction as Yale University’s most famous facial feature, died this July on a vacation in Italy. It was 33 years old.

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