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Monthly Memoirs Monday, 01/30/2023

Confessions of a Beauty Parlor Junkie

March 2023 Monthly Memoir

You can cheat on your husband. You can cheat on your wife. But you can never cheat on your hairdresser. I learned my lesson the hard way when I strayed from the path of righteousness and had a different stylist cut my hair.

I am by nature a loyal person. Once I commit to a hairdresser, I am faithful forever. So, you can imagine the guilt, the trepidation, the self-incrimination when I found myself in the chair of Rolfe of Madison Avenue, I, dressed in a crepe robe over my little black dress worn for such a momentous occasion as a haircut. Here, emaciated models and famous starlets hovered about waiting for their flowing manes to be styled and moussed by one of the finest “follicle engineers” in Manhattan.

It was not entirely by accident that I landed here on this chilly afternoon. My daughter Elizabeth, who had an in with the latest trendy New York hairdressers, had made me an offer I tried, but couldn’t refuse. “I’m giving you a birthday gift of Rolfe,” she said. “He’s a master at his craft.”

I tried to renege. “That’s a very nice gesture,” I said, mustering up as much gratitude as possible, “but I only let Robert cut my hair.”   “This is Rolfe of Madison Avenue, mom” she reiterated.  “No one can ever get an appointment with Rolfe.  He’s one of the top stylists in the city.”   “I prefer Robert of Westport,” I said.

“You need to get properly programmed” Liz implored, with the authority of one who knows the score, and who won’t take no for an answer.  Before I could protest further, I was whisked off the “Shampoo Room” and was sandwiched between the two Jennifers: Lopez and Aniston, both of whom seemed oblivious to the fact I was an intruder in the Land of Beautiful People. I was shampooed by Margot, whose magic hands anointed and massaged my scalp with the exuberance and skill of a personal trainer.

“You have an arid scalp,” Margot said. “I need to give you a treatment.” “Oh,” I said, thinking that Robert was never the bearer of bad news, or ever insulted my scalp.

Surviving this ordeal consisting of oils, lotions, moisturizers and something called “scalp rejuvenator” I was delivered to Rolfe’s station, and plunked down in a leather chair awaiting the maestro’s arrival. Just as I ruminated my fate of having given myself over to a perfect stranger, Rolfe appeared…or more to the point, he pirouetted over with such agility, he could have been the lead ballet dancer at ABT.

“Daaar-ling,” he squealed, fondling my tresses, “you’re a sight for sore eyes.”  I didn’t take this as a compliment.

Wielding a pair of scissors, he asked me to rise as he clipped away with wild abandon. “Head left. Head right,” he commanded. “Stand up. Sit down. Bend your head forward.”

I bent down as far as was humanly possible, hearing my neck crack in the process, while Rolfe snipped away, belting out Broadway show tunes. In the middle of The Lady is a Tramp the trim I had asked for escalated into a full-fledged haircut that I knew had disaster written all over it. I flinched slightly and was admonished by Rolfe, who, hating to be disturbed in the midst of a creative moment, had a full-blown hissy-fit.

“Madame, if you want to look like Jennifer Aniston, you need to hold still.”   "Who said anything about Jennifer Aniston? “I asked. “I want to look like me.” That remark so stunned Rolfe that he dropped his scissors, stared at me, quizzically, and asked, “but, Mon Dieu, why?”

After another half hour, a pile of my hair surrounding the chair, Rolfe stood back, emitting a proud “Voila!”  I was then primped, puffed and stuck under a heat lamp to bake. I took a look at myself in the mirror and screamed. I indeed looked like Jennifer Aniston…if Jennifer was having a bad hair day.  Even my daughter agreed that Rolfe had gone a bit over-the-top…literally.

The next day, my hair stuck under a large hat, I arrived at Westport’s Paul Albert Salon to pay homage and wax apologetic to my beloved Robert for having cheated on him, and for whom I begged forgiveness. “I’ve been unfaithful,” I confessed. “I am a wanton woman who strayed, and who needs to be severely punished.”

Robert, removing my hat, looked down at my head. “I’d say this is punishment enough,” he replied. He positioned me in his chair, and gently, deftly put me back in working order. What resulted was a haircut that far surpassed anything Rolfe of Madison could ever have created.  

Do I have an arid scalp?” I dared to ask Robert before leaving the salon. “Your scalp is as velvety smooth as a baby’s bottom,” he said. That’s why I love Robert: he lies, while I live in a constant state of denial. It’s a match made in hair heaven.

Conversely, other such memories flood my mind, one most fondly, which is Pearl’s House of Beauty in Passaic.  Back when I was a child, our mothers went to store-front establishments known as beauty parlors. They sat under cone-shaped dryers in their black nylon smocks with wads of cotton over their ears to keep them from getting baked. They all looked like aliens from outer space.

How well I remember those Saturday afternoons when my mother dragged me downtown en route to her wash, set and comb-out. I sat on a small leather-covered stool surrounded by a bevy of beauties all in the throes of having their hair ‘permanent waved’ with electric wires and vile-smelling blue goop. The stench was so strong it cleared out my nasal passages with only one application. I vowed that I’d rather grow up to have ugly hair than be subjected to such atrocities. Each woman looked like she was about to be electrocuted rather than beautified.

But once again, there is resurgence into the world of wash, sets, and comb-outs. Wavy styles and bobs are making a comeback. Chubby rollers, bobby pins and blow-dries are the rage. It won’t be long before women begin setting their hair in curlers and going out in the middle of the afternoon, donning a kerchief, and running out to the grocery store for a quart of milk.  What all this means is we are turning into our mothers.

My mother’s hair never changed in all those years. Once a week she kept her standing appointment at Pearl’s House of Beauty, nestled between a bakery and Garber’s furs. Pearl’s had black and white linoleum on the floor and a large potted palm that collected dust. It became a permanent fixture, which was never moved in 25-years. 

Pearl, a wafer-thin woman in her mid- forties, who wore her hair in a beehive and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes, stood behind my mother, assessing her head. Equipped with hundreds of bobby pins and clips, she gave her a style that defied imagination. Her hair was curled so tightly, no comb could run through it. I can attest to the fact that in all the years of my childhood, my mother could never run a comb through her hair.

Hair spray was also the rage. It was analogous to the mousse and gels of today. Hair was never supposed to move, but sat high on the head as a separate entity unto itself. After her appointment, nobody was allowed to touch my mother’s head for the remainder of the afternoon. If you did, she would throw her hands in front of her face, shouting; “be careful! You’ll muss my do.” But it was impossible to muss industrial strength hair that had been lacquered to the point of becoming a breakable object.

On special occasions, I was brought to Pearl’s House of Beauty for a wash and set. I sat on two telephone books, the back of my head resting over the sink while Pearl herself shampooed my hair. She massaged my scalp with fingernails that were sharp enough to be considered lethal weapons. A shampoo administered by Pearl was one of the more grueling experiences of my youth. My hair was then towel-dried into a turban; my tangles combed out with a metal comb reminiscent of the kind I used on my cat. Afterwards, my head ached for hours from puncture wounds inflicted by Pearl’s talons.

Then Pearl, a half-inch ash dangling off her cigarette, told me to sit up tall and to hand her bobby pins with which to attach the pin curls that were guaranteed to turn me into a raving beauty. I was placed under a dryer, set to broil, where I read Silver Screen magazines, flanked by women having their nails filed into painted stilettos.

Saturday was when all the ladies gathered to get “the works.” Included in the price was the best gossip in town. Pearl could dish the dirt better than anyone. She was the Cindy Adams of Passaic, who had something on everyone. I learned more about my friends’ mothers than I had any business knowing. But not to be verbally worked over was even worse than anything Pearl could ever say. To be included in her gossip gallery meant you were one of the elite group.

When I grew up and began taking my hair seriously, I vowed never be caught dead in such establishments. Hence, I brought my mane to more chic salons where I was served tea in china cups while hairdressers like Rolfe of Madison Avenue fawned over me in ways that Pearl would never understand. But, in retrospect, Pearl was my first role model. It was she who showed me the ropes. Pearl, who could simultaneously wind a strand of hair around her finger, tell a joke, crack her gum, and answer the phone. Everything I know about hair I learned from her.

I grew to love those Saturday afternoons – loved poring through the endless stacks of movie magazines, while Pearl and my mother discussed split ends and, the latest rage: poodle cuts, pixie cuts and the flip. There I would sit, slugging down bottles of Coke and trying on shades of nail polish with names like Passion Pink, Smoky Bronze and Fire and Ice. Before we left, Pearl would brush my hair and run some green Pomatex into each strand, which would add luster to my curls.

“Are you brushing 100 strokes a night?” she asked, pointing a nail at me.  “If you want to grow up and have hair like Veronica Lake, you need to brush. That was before I even knew who Veronica Lake was.

Back then, my mother and I were beauty parlor junkies. She never missed her standing appointments and I never missed tagging along. When I recall those days, I think of smelly creams, permanent waves, and bullet-proof dome-shaped dryers, and the women who sat cross-legged in their chairs, blowing on their nails, and waiting for their perms to “take.” 

I took it all in, observing every minute detail of these women who went through ritualistic torture whenever beauty called. And, in some inexplicable way, I learned what it was like to become a woman and be part of the grand cyclical plan of hair maintenance. Those Saturday afternoons became my rites of passage from childhood into my young adulthood.

 Even now, when I rerun the tapes, I can see it all from my Passaic perspective: the cracked red leather-covered stools, the racks of magazines, the curling irons, and the ashtrays piled high with cigarette stubs, while Pearl, the Queen of Coiffure, reigned over her hazy hairspray-infused domain, turning us all into her version of ravishing creatures. 
Judith Marks-White, JHSNJ member

Getting a perm 1950's
painting those nails
under the hair drier
1950's Beauty Parlor