Being Abe Lincoln

Lincoln's features and clothing are stamped on the American imagination—and imitated by "Lincoln presenters" nationwide

On the porch of the Country Inn & Suites, in Beckley, West Virginia, five men sat in rocking chairs. They were tall men, in black coats and stovepipe hats. They wore beards shaved around the lips. They wore black boots. Gold chains hung from their vest buttons, holding watches tucked into vest pockets. In the lobby were dozens more men like them, on couches, emerging from elevators. One walked from the hotel restaurant carrying a Coke, its red shocking against the sea of antique black. He removed his hat and slipped the receipt for the drink under the elastic band inside.

Last April the Association of Lincoln Presenters held its seventh annual convention, in Beckley. I had heard there would be forty-four Lincolns there, and fifteen Marys. So I flew to Charleston, drove south sixty miles to Beckley, and stood in the lobby of the Country Inn & Suites, gaping at the sight: Black- and gray- and fake-bearded Lincolns, short and tall Lincolns, and a Lincoln in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank. A man in sunglasses who looked like Elvis Presley dressed for a Lincoln look-alike contest, or vice versa.

"If any personal description of me is thought desirable," Lincoln wrote in 1859, "it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and gray eyes—no other marks or brands recollected." About a year later, as the Republican nominee for President, he received a letter from an eleven-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, advising that "if you will let your whiskers grow ... you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin."

These physical characteristics—plus the black garb, the top hat, and the solemn look—are stamped on the American imagination, partly because Lincoln is such an important figure, partly because the rise of photography coincided with his rise to power. The various images of Lincoln—including those that appear on the penny and the five-dollar bill—are simultaneously familiar and, in a word that Lincoln often used, "strange." Something about him beckons others to look harder, to look deeper. Something about him beckons people to do strange things.

I justified my trip to Beckley as research for a book I am writing about Lincoln's melancholy: I thought I would find out how the presenters handle the subject, what they think about it. But really I went because it seemed a chance to see eccentricity distilled to its essence—a chance to put down my books and dwell, for a weekend, in a house of strangeness.

I had been in the lobby of the Country Inn & Suites for five minutes when Jim Sayre, a veteran presenter from Lawrenceberg, Kentucky, walked over and asked, in a voice of Kentucky lilt and gravel, "Are you a new Lincoln?"

"No, sir," I said. (You say "sir" to such a man, seven feet tall with his hat on.) I told him that I had come at the last minute, that I was a writer—and then these words just came out: "I didn't have time to get my outfit together."

"Well, come on," Sayre said, and five minutes later I was in his room upstairs, buttoning up his spare white shirt ("Wal-Mart special," he said), clipping on his spare flat bow tie, and pulling on his spare black trousers. "Always travel with a spare," he told me, less explaining than advising. I said okay and put on the hat.

For the rest of the weekend I found myself a pupil among masters. The slogan of the ALP is the poet Vachel Lindsay's line "Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all." These Lincolns have taken the slogan to heart in the most practical sense.

For instance, they told me that any stovepipe hat will do, but ideally it should be made of beaver for everyday wear—the rain rolls right off—and silk for special occasions. It's a nice touch to carry papers up there, as Lincoln did. Kids like it when you pull down the hat and put something in it or, better yet, take something out. Kids especially like the Grace Bedell letter, about the whiskers.

Speaking of which, the beard should be thick and full, but not around the mouth. It's less a beard, really, than two sideburns saying hello at the chin. But, many Lincolns told me, there is good work for beardless Lincolns.

Work—"gigs," the Lincolns sometimes say—isn't hard to come by. Most of these men became Lincolns without even trying. They may have done a favor for a teacher they knew, or played Lincoln in a community-theater production. And then they got asked again, for a parade or a history fair. They grew the beard, or shaved off the moustache that went with a beard they already had. Then they were ready for the big time—an event at the cemetery in Gettysburg, with more than a thousand people waiting to hear the Gettysburg Address. "Parades are the best," Rick Miller, a Lincoln presenter, yoga instructor, and sales manager for a marking-machine manufacturer, told me. "You can really bask in the love. People smile at you—invariably they smile. And they want to talk to you. People want to talk to a President, whether alive or dead. And it's a babe magnet. There were three women at the parade this morning; I could have danced with all of them."

About twenty ALP members do Lincoln full-time, and several are married to full-time Marys. Homer S. Sewell III has done 2,150 shows in forty-six states in twenty-seven years. He has traveled the country in his Abe-mobile, a thirty-seven-foot Fleetwood Pace Arrow (though he was trying to sell it; he wants to settle back down). Gerald Bestrom used to drive a 1970 Ford RV painted to look like a log cabin. (At the convention it caught on fire. Gerald had a job to get to on the following Monday morning, so he borrowed a state trooper's truck to haul his tower speakers, card table, Styrofoam hats, maul, and broadax. Gerald was planning to buy another used RV and paint it just like the old one. He said the cause of the fire was unknown, and he'd rather not say whom he suspected. When pressed, though, he pointed out that West Virginia is lousy with Confederates.) Max and Donna Daniels, an Abe-and-Mary team from the Chicago area, have been full-time presenters since 1994, when Max got laid off from his job as the assistant chief of maintenance at a bank. "We took that as God's way of saying 'You're ready,'" Donna told me.

Some other things I learned at the convention:

A four-color business card with a picture of you in dress and in pose helps convince folks you're serious. Spot color works all right, and if you need to cut costs, do black-and-white, and glue a penny on.

A tux jacket will do as a coat in a pinch, but make sure to cover the plastic buttons with cloth.

If a kid pulls at your beard, pull at his hair. He'll get the idea.

A good catchphrase helps—"On the Stages for All Ages," "Impressions of Mr. Lincoln," "The Living Lincoln," and so forth. It's also good to have an assortment of routines. One presenter, Charles Brame, offers "An Evening With Abe," "Hospitality," and "Mix and Mingle."

The Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois, and Ford's Theater—"these are Carnegie Hall for a Lincoln," I was told.

Pay varies. It depends on the job and on the Lincoln. The ALP's president, Dan Bassuk, for instance, gets $750 for a school visit. A parade or an evening performance can run $600 to $1,000. To have Max and Donna Daniels come to your wedding as Abe and Mary, mingle with the guests, and give a toast that ends with a fervent "God will forever bless and preserve—this Union" will run you $150.

That said, some Lincolns charge only a pittance. I got the impression that what really matters is not the money but the recognition and regard it represents. Take Cranston "Bud" Green, from Versailles, Missouri. He is seventy-six years old and walks with a sassafras cane. There was a buzz about him at the convention, not just because he is one of the oldest Lincolns but because he came straight to Beckley from open-heart surgery. I made a point of talking to him, and we sat on rocking chairs on the hotel porch. I told him about my book, and he told me he was manic-depressive. He told me about growing up during the Great Depression, about raising Christmas trees, about working as a pitchman at fairs. He told me about the hard times he has had. I asked him if being Lincoln helped. "Yes, it helps," he said. "But it can hurt, too. It hurts when the teachers don't call."

Hearing this, I thought of a letter Lincoln sent in 1842 to his friend Joshua Speed, who was in a funk at the time. "I think if I were you," Lincoln wrote, "in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle; I would immediately engage in some business, or go to making preparations for it, which would be the same thing."

Lincoln believed in hard work, and the Lincoln presenters—far from being the eccentrics I had expected—are really quite ordinary followers of this most American religion. They are attached to Lincoln by the simple fact that he provides a text, a character, a story to work on—not in the abstract sense but in the very concrete sense of attention paid, time spent, dollars earned.

During a bus trip to the nearby coal-mine museum someone announced me as the newest Lincoln, and I got a big round of applause. Afterward we walked down a road to an old schoolhouse and had our picture taken as a group. I had been in dress for a few hours, and by then the strangeness seemed perfectly ordinary.

After I got home, Dan Bassuk sent me a photograph of me with Bud Green. He enclosed a note on ALP stationery. "Good to make a Lincoln out of you," he wrote.