“While London had Vidal Sassoon and Paris had Alexandre, it was Kenneth who anchored New York City. From his salon on 54th Street off 5th Avenue, he became the holy mecca for ladies worldwide. Royalty, Hollywood actresses, and the Park Avenue Swans were only a part of his prestigious clientele roster. Both men and women tremendously respected him for the power he wielded with his scissors,” wrote Giuseppe Longo, author of the upcoming book “Kenneth: Shear Elegance,” in an email.
Longo became interested in documenting the tales and travails of the late tress artiste who he became acquainted with through a good friend employed at the Waldorf-Astoria salon. “To me, it was far too beautiful and remarkable to let it slip away forgotten. I became one of Kenneth’s greatest fans,” Longo continued. The book details some known and unknown facts and opinions through a foreword from Melissa Rivers, who, as a child accompanied her mother Joan to many appointments.
A second foreword is by hairstylist/entrepreneur Garren who writes about how Kenneth was a huge influence on his career. Mr. Kenneth (as he was known) is often considered the first celebrity hairdresser. He was also famously referred to as the supreme being by Lucille Ball as she exclaimed “Where’s God?” upon entering his salon.
“Kenneth: Shear Elegance” is a hagiographic testimony to that high regard. It includes biographical details of Kenneth Battelle’s early hard-knock life in Syracuse, New York, in the 1930s. At the tender age of 12, he was left to provide for his four sisters and mother after his father, a successful shoe executive left. “He grew up in abject poverty,” said Joan Rivers, who would become one of his closest friends. “He told me he walked on the train tracks to pick up bits of coal to keep his family warm in the winter.”
After an unpleasant 18-month stint in the Navy, Kenneth had considered becoming a psychiatrist. His free six-month education provided by the GI Bill obviously wasn’t going to allow for that. To learn a creative craft and earn a living, he enrolled in hairdressing school (much to the chagrin of his mother, who believed that “red-blooded American boys” didn’t do anything artistic). “Kenneth is a kind of hair psychiatrist who not only changes women’s looks but their lives and careers,” Vogue Magazine would later write in its pages.
“I just think of what Halston told me a long time ago: ‘You’re famous because of your clients, not because of you’” – Kenneth.
The book’s prose and photos chronicle Kenneth’s rise through the ranks of the hairdressing world. He started working in a tiny salon across the street from the Greyhound Bus terminal in Syracuse, later moving to Florida, where he heard that hairstylists could thrive. Kenneth long harbored the idea that he’d end up in NYC after seeing an elegant woman get out of a limo. By padding his resume he snagged a job at Helena Rubinstein’s Fifth Avenue salon under the auspices of Michel Kazan.
As the “lowest rung on the ladder,” Kenneth received all the clients that no one else wanted – assistant beauty editors, models, and former employees – those who were given free services by Madame in exchange for magazine credit lines. Kenneth’s work ethic and a knack for reading and interpreting what was in a client’s head and what should be on her head served him well.
One fateful day in 1954, an unknown senator’s wife came in to have her hair done to find that her regular stylist was out sick. This was to be the beginning of a long relationship between Jacqueline Kennedy and Mr. Kenneth. Suggesting that her current “Italian cut” was all wrong for her – too short and curly to flatter her bone structure – he urged her to grow out her locks, inventing large Lucite rollers to stretch out and elongate her coiffure.
With the era of the hat declining, a smart millinery empress known as Lilly Daché enticed Kenneth to become her “genius of hairstyling.” She had just opened a beauty parlor atop her nine-story emporium on East 56th Street.
He became a stylist to the who’s who of the day from British star Kay Kendall, Babs Simpson, Bunny Mellon, Lucille Ball, Carol Channing, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Vanderbilt, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Lee Radziwell, and of course, Jackie’s husband’s rumored mistress Marilyn Monroe. He did Monroe’s hair for the famous Madison Square Garden “Happy Birthday Mr. President” tribute and the iconic photos known as “The Last Sitting.”
In 1961 Kenneth became the only hairdresser ever to win the prestigious Coty Award. In 1963 he opened his eponymous House of Kenneth townhouse salon with sponsor Glemby International. Ahh, remember the days of the full-service beauty salon? Great lengths are gone to describe how Kenneth’s salon had the power to transport you – his design influence was the Brighton Pavilion in England.
You were welcomed by “big-flowered, chintz-padded walls on a commanding black background,” writes Melissa Rivers of the Billy Baldwin décor (here in several color photos). The salon encompassed five separate floors devoted not only to hair but also to relaxation and fitness. Hair, nails, and makeup, of course! How about a gym, massage and sauna area, a room to enjoy coffee and sandwiches, or just catch a nap on a comfortable lounge chair?
A Mercedes was ready to drive clients home, pick them up, or take them wherever they wished to go! Mistresses and wives were catered to on different floors to prevent any awkwardness. Kenneth, in partnership with Glemby, had his own wigs, falls, nail polish, and even makeup for the face and bosom at one point – you can see the long-ago advertisements for these products in the book.
“Being styled by Mr. Kenneth meant that although you may have arrived disheveled, you truly had ‘arrived’” – Melissa Rivers.
There are plenty of tributes to Kenneth, the man, and the magical salon in the book. On a personal note, I’m kind of sorry I missed it – I had the idea that Mr. Kenneth was synonymous only with the dated bouffant worn by society women while I went for an edgier look. Kenneth, the man, is praised for his distaste for gossip (and gossipers) especially concerning his famous clients, and for his generosity. He would work gratis for any client who may have fallen on hard times, perhaps unable to pay.
Another anecdote — a customer who presented Kenneth with a photo of an ad from a competitor, requested that he mimic that haircut. Inquiring as to why she hadn’t gone to Vidal Sassoon, the woman replied that she couldn’t get an appointment. “You want this cut, you shall have it,” Kenneth declared as he called the Sassoon salon obtaining an immediate appointment.
Unfortunately, Jericho’s walls (or at least those of the Kenneth salon) went down in the pre-dawn hours of May 16, 1990. Due to a faulty in-wall wire, perhaps due to the recent and expensive renovation, the hair palace went up in a blaze of glory. The book details how Kenneth went into a deep depression for years afterward. Finally, with the help of clients and friends (including Joan Rivers), he reopened a scaled-down version of his previous salon at The Waldorf-Astoria, where he styled hair almost to the end of his days.
Again, I missed my chance – the company I worked for in the late ’80s kept a small satellite office on the hotel’s Lexington Avenue side. At the same time, the Kenneth salon was situated (naturally) on the chicer Park Avenue side.