Movie Talk

The endearing reason why Lincoln grew his beard

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln, clean-shaven (Photo: Superstock/Everett Collection)Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated biopic "Lincoln" opens in limited release this weekend. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the nation's 16th (and arguably most beloved) president, the film is already an Oscar favorite and sure to spark renewed interest in all things Honest Abe.

Of course, one doesn't think of Abraham Lincoln without his beard. And almost as legendary as the beard itself is the story of why he chose to grow one. The beard almost didn't happen. According to many sources, including "Team of Rivals," the nonfiction account of Lincoln's presidency on which the film is based, Lincoln grew the beard after receiving a letter from a young girl named Grace Bedell, who saw a drawing of a clean shaven Lincoln on a campaign poster.

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The letter read (grammar errors and all):

Dear Sir
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin's. I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chautauqua County New York.
I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye
Grace Bedell

Ms. Bedell's charming correspondence earned a response from Lincoln, who wrote:

My dear little Miss
Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received - I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters - I have three sons - one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family. As to the whiskers have never worn any do you not think people would call it a silly affection if I were to begin it now?
Your very sincere well wisher
A. Lincoln

[Related: 'Lincoln' star Daniel Day-Lewis heard the voice in his head]

Of course, Lincoln did end up taking Bedell's advice. By the time he was elected president in November, 1860, he sported a formidable beard that, along with his stovepipe hat, would become his trademark. Several months after they exchanged letters, Lincoln met Bedell at a stop in Westfield, New York. Bedell, who died in 1936 at the age of 88, recalled the incident.

"He climbed down and sat with me on the edge of the platform. 'Grace,' he said, 'look at my whiskers. I've been growing them for you.' Then he kissed me. I never saw him again."

Lincoln was the first (but not the last) president to have a beard in office. Bedell's story was the inspiration for the children's book, "Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers."

While Lincoln's appearance is almost regal in retrospect, at the time, his look was anything but. He was called, "the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet-face ever strung upon a single frame" by at least one publication. In her book "Team of Rivals," author Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that while Lincoln gave a speech to over a thousand people, one observer noticed that "one of the legs of his trousers was up about two inches above his shoe; his hair was disheveled and stuck out like rooster's feathers; his coat was altogether too large for him in the back, his arms much longer than his sleeves."

[Related: Find showtimes and tickets for 'Lincoln']

Watch Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg discuss 'Lincoln':

'Lincoln' Q&A: Finding the Voice 'Lincoln' Q&A: The Role of Fear