I told Marilyn Monroe to bleach down under, reveals Kenneth Battelle

The day I told Marilyn Monroe to bleach down under: Celebrity hairdresser Kenneth Battelle – who also styled Princess Margaret, Lauren Bacall and Jackie Kennedy – reveals how he saved the Some Like It Hot star’s modesty in a new book

As a moment of utter tenderness between a man and a woman, it is hard to beat. Seated in the back of their chauffeur-driven limousine as he returned from greeting a foreign dignitary, U.S. President John F. Kennedy leaned towards wife Jackie and gently smoothed away strands of hair from her face as she looked deep into his eyes.

The photo snapped by a lucky cameramen showed a warmth between the couple that belied the whispers about JFK’s infidelities. However, it was not quite as artless as it looked.

‘That’s exactly why I put them there,’ Jackie’s hairdresser, Kenneth Battelle — the man who created her signature bouffant bob — would later recall of his decision to tuck a wisp of hair behind her ear. 

He knew a strand or two would fall forward, and her husband would be compelled to move it away, cementing his attention to her in the eyes of the world.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s hairdresser, Kenneth Battelle — the man who created her signature bouffant bob — was such a regular presence at the White House that he was known, unofficially, by staff as its Secretary of Grooming

It was a subtle but clever piece of artistry from the man who was such a regular presence at the White House that he was known, unofficially, by staff as its Secretary of Grooming.

Whether hosting a formal dinner or preparing for a public appearance, Jacqueline Kennedy always called for Mr Kenneth, as he was known.

But the First Lady was just one of his prestigious clients, including everyone from movie stars and models — among them Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Jean Shrimpton — to society grande dames and foreign royalty, including Princess Margaret, whenever she was in New York.

Considered by many to be the first celebrity hairdresser, such was Kenneth’s fame that, in 1961, Vogue magazine declared that ‘almost every famous female head in the world has gone or will go’ to his salon, which was just off Fifth Avenue.

It is said his preference for softer, less lacquered hairstyles was key to the demise of the hat. And demand for his services from the elite meant he was behind the scenes at many historic moments.

It was Kenneth who styled Marilyn Monroe for her famous breathy 1962 ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ serenade of JFK. And it was Kenneth who perfected Jackie Kennedy’s ‘do’ before she and her husband left for a trip to Dallas, Texas — where, less than 24 hours later, he would be assassinated.

Considered by many to be the first celebrity hairdresser, his prestigious clients included everyone from movie stars and models to society grande dames and foreign royalty, including Princess Margaret (pictured) whenever she was in New York

The stylist died in 2013 at the age of 86 while preparing to work with writer Giuseppe Longo on his biography.

Now, through his notes and the memories of those close to Kenneth, Longo has written Shear Elegance, which traces Kenneth’s compelling story and legacy.

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1927 at the height of the Great Depression, Kenneth was the eldest of five living in what his client and friend, the late comedienne Joan Rivers, described as ‘abject poverty.’ ‘He told me he walked on the train tracks to pick up bits of coal to keep his family warm in the winter,’ she recalled.

The family’s circumstances were further reduced following his parents’ decision to separate when Kenneth was 12, after which his mother turned to her bookish, artistic son to support herself and his four younger sisters. He variously washed dishes at the railroad station, became a lift operator, a short-order cook, and sold beer at a baseball stadium.

Yet Kenneth dreamed of bigger things. A keen moviegoer, he was entranced by the glamour of Manhattan, which he encountered while on leave from the U.S. Navy. He had enlisted aged just 17.

So he enrolled in New York City’s Wanamaker Academy of Beauty, before setting up a hairdressing salon in his home town — much to the disgust of his mother, who thought it was not a profession for ‘red-blooded American boys’.

It was Kenneth who styled Marilyn Monroe (pictured) for her famous breathy 1962 ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ serenade of JFK at Madison Square Garden, while wearing a dazzling gown of nude-coloured mesh, emblazoned with thousands of rhinestones

From there, he went to work in a hotel salon in Miami, Florida, before moving to Manhattan in 1950 with just $8 in his pocket.

Luck was on Kenneth’s side: after fudging the truth about his experience, he landed a job at the flagship Helena Rubinstein salon. It was the start of a six-year stay that saw the start of his long-term friendship with a then unknown and newlywed senator’s wife from Boston. In 1954, Jacqueline Kennedy was staying at her sister-in-law’s Manhattan home while her husband had tests for a wartime back injury in hospital.

Kenneth was asked to step in when Jackie, a Rubinstein regular, arrived to find her usual hairdresser was off sick. Unimpressed by Jackie’s ‘washed-and-ironed hair’, Kenneth suggested she grow it so he could set it in big rollers for a softer, looser look.

‘I believed hair should be like fabric — light should pass through it, and you should want to put your hand in it,’ he said. ‘I thought of hair as soft, healthy, lustrous, innocent, and pretty, like a child’s.’

Jackie came to trust him implicitly, and when the Kennedys reached the White House, Kenneth followed. He styled her hair for major social events, including her husband’s 1961 inauguration.

Over time, her hairstyle would morph into the familiar tousled bob that inspired copies worldwide, although Kenneth would cringe at some of the helmet ‘dos’. By the time JFK took office, Kenneth was also tending to the locks of the woman who would become his best-known lover.

In 1958 he got a call from Marilyn Monroe. Their first meeting at her East 57th Street apartment — where Kenneth was struck by the star’s natural beauty when she appeared in just a bathrobe — was the start of a close working relationship, and a firm friendship. Pictured: Marilyn and Kenneth Battelle in 1961

In 1958 — now based at milliner Lilly Dache’s salon — he got a call from Marilyn Monroe. She was given the number by fashion designer and friend Norman Norell, after telling him her hair was falling out due to bleaching and perming on the Some Like It Hot set.

Their first meeting at her East 57th Street apartment — where Kenneth was struck by the star’s natural beauty when she appeared in just a bathrobe — was the start of a close working relationship, and a firm friendship.

‘She became my favourite steady client,’ he later recalled. ‘She had wonderful hair; she had wonderful everything. She was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.’

Kenneth was well placed to see the public obsession with Marilyn, later telling an interviewer ‘it was as if they owned her’. But he also saw her artlessness and vulnerability, recalling how he saved her modesty before the 1959 world premiere of Some Like It Hot, after a film executive spilled champagne on her tight, beige silk dress.

‘You could see everything, like she was in a wet T-shirt,’ he recalled. ‘She was going to throw the mink coat over the stains for the press conference, but I told her that if she wasn’t changing her dress, she should at least put on some underwear.’

Marilyn refused, not wanting visible lines showing under her dress.

‘I said: “I hear Jean Harlow didn’t wear underwear, either — but she used to bleach her [pubic] hair so it wouldn’t show through.”

He recalled how he saved her modesty before the 1959 world premiere of Some Like It Hot, after a film executive spilled champagne on her tight, beige silk dress. Marilyn refused to wear underwear, not wanting visible lines showing under her dress. ‘I [Kenneth] said: “I hear Jean Harlow didn’t wear underwear, either — but she used to bleach her [pubic] hair so it wouldn’t show through”

‘So I went downstairs to the hotel drugstore and bought her powdered milk of magnesia, 20 per cent peroxide, and spirits of ammonia. It’s a very old formula for decolorising hair. I told her, “Now go in the bathroom and bleach [it].” Nothing showed through when they switched on those bright lights.’

Kenneth also groomed Marilyn in May 1962 for JFK’s 45th birthday rally at Madison Square Garden, where she sang Happy Birthday while wearing a dazzling gown of nude-coloured mesh, emblazoned with thousands of rhinestones.

When Marilyn told him she did not want him backstage, Kenneth, although not prone to gossip, recalled rumours that she was having an affair with the president.

‘She said she was fearful of publicity. I don’t really know what she had in mind, but since I was doing both Marilyn and Mrs Kennedy at the same time, I imagine it was about that,’ he later reflected.

By August, Marilyn would be dead: in June, Kenneth had styled Monroe’s platinum waves for photographer Bert Stern’s Vogue assignment, unaware it would be their last meeting.

‘As she was posing for the last shot — lying on the floor with her hair spread out all around — I had to run for the airport to catch my plane. She asked me to kiss her goodbye,’ Kenneth said. ‘I have always wished I’d recognised the depth of her loneliness — perhaps I could’ve been a better friend if I had.’

Poignantly, she had called him from a payphone days before she died. ‘She said she was on the highway somewhere, driving around, and she just wanted to hear my voice. All in that breathy, little-girl tone she had,’ he said.

Just over a year later, Kenneth would be touched by another tragedy that made global headlines. The assassination of JFK.

He was called to the White House on November 21 to style Jackie Kennedy’s hair for what would be the last time while she was First Lady. The couple were flying to Texas later that day, and Jackie wanted a style that would last for the whole of their stay.

‘I cut it before they took off so it would stay fresh,’ he recalled.

He also chatted with the president, before being ushered into Jackie’s private quarters. ‘He said: “Hi, Kenneth, what are they saying about me in New York?” And then: “John [his son] wants to ride in the helicopter with me, but his governess won’t let him.” I said: “She probably doesn’t want to have to get him dressed,” and JFK laughed: “I think you’re right — I’ll dress him myself.”

‘And off he went. Both of them that day were glowing — they looked so fit and so happy.’

He was called to the White House on November 21 to style Jackie Kennedy’s hair before she and her husband left for a trip to Dallas, Texas — where, less than 24 hours later, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated. Pictured: JFK and his wife Jackie just after their arrival at the airport for the fateful drive through Dallas in 1963

The following morning, Kenneth was at work when news broke that Kennedy had been shot.

‘I remember Shirley MacLaine was there, too, and she started pounding and screaming, completely hysterical,’ recalled Karlys Daly Brown, a journalist who was also at the salon. ‘Kenneth was at work on a customer, and he kept on sectioning and cutting, sectioning and cutting, in a daze. He was traumatised, in shock.’

Kenneth remained close to Jackie, overseeing her new swept-back, girlish look after she moved to New York City to begin the next chapter in her life.

By then, Kenneth had his own salon, a majestic 17,000-square-foot townhouse with a coffered dome, marble Corinthian columns and flowing staircase.

Sited just off Fifth Avenue, it was a wild montage of colours and patterns, although the decor was not to everyone’s taste. Kenneth recalled one client turned on her heels and fled when walking in after the 1963 opening, shrieking that it looked like a brothel.

‘As she ran out, I said within earshot: “Do you suppose she’s been in one before?”’ he said.

He was also keenly aware of the need for discretion. On the ground floor was a clandestine styling room, where a mistress might safely be hidden from a wife.

Kenneth had learned to prioritise discretion over all things. Naturally humble, he referred to himself as a ‘hard-working servant’ and firmly believed his role was to stay in the background.

He was mortified to find himself in the headlines after being invited on to Aristotle Onassis’s yacht Christina. ‘When we got on board, people were already having dinner and dancing. Maria Callas [the opera singer] made a diva’s entrance and took a seat at the bar,’ he said. ‘I had never before seen a roomful of people stand up for a woman.’

Over the years, his roll call of A-list customers grew. It included Ava Gardner, Sixties supermodel Jean Shrimpton and Katharine Hepburn, who hadn’t allowed anyone to touch her hair for 15 years when she visited Kenneth in 1969.

Then there was Lauren Bacall, who was ‘terrified of hair cuts’, but later became a convert after being persuaded to visit Kenneth by friends. ‘He was better than they said,’ she said. ‘He was a charming and terrific and amusing man who cut hair better than anyone.’

Not everyone listened to his opinion. Elizabeth Taylor rejected his advice that she needed a trim.

Kenneth’s remained a society Mecca throughout the Seventies and Eighties — until tragedy struck in May 1990. A frayed electrical wire sparked an inferno.

The salon, Kenneth’s ‘whole life’, went up in smoke. Thwarted by a short lease and inadequate insurance, he ended up working at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he remained as popular as ever, finding himself cutting the hair of the granddaughters and great-granddaughters of his original clients.

He remained there until 2011, when he retreated to his house in upstate New York where, in May 2013, he passed away.

Modest to the end, he always retained the sense that what he did was ‘only a shampoo away from being nothing’. His many, devoted former clients, however, would surely have disagreed.

Kenneth: Shear Elegance by Giuseppe Longo is published by Schiffer on November 23, price £33.99.

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