Sylvia Barnhart, the woman who first dyed Marilyn Monroe’s hair blonde, has died. In recent years she was a favourite at meetings of the Marilyn Remembered fan club in Los Angeles, California.
In 1945, Norma Jeane Dougherty was a 19 year-old model in Los Angeles, working for the Blue Book Agency. Her hair was then naturally mid-brown. That winter, she was offered a series of shampoo print advertisements with photographer, Raphael Wolff, on condition that she bleach her hair first. Norma Jeane’s boss, Emmeline Sniveley, explained that blonde models were currently in vogue because they photographed well in any colour or light.
Norma Jeane was sent to Frank & Joseph Hair Stylists, just across the street from The Ambassador Hotel, on Wilshire Boulevard, where the Blue Book Agency was based. Over an eight-month period, Sylvia Barnhart straightened and bleached Norma Jeane’s hair to a golden blonde. During this time, Norma Jeane also changed her name to the more glamorous ‘Marilyn Monroe’, and signed her first film contract with Twentieth Century Fox. Marilyn later confided to friends that she had initially disliked her new name, and was unsure about going blonde.
But when Sylvia moved to Frank & Joseph’s other salon on Hollywood Boulevard, Marilyn followed her. Eventually Marilyn had her hair lightened to a dazzling platinum blonde, or in her own words, ‘pillow-case white’. For several years afterward, Marilyn kept a weekly appointment with Sylvia on Saturdays at 1:30 pm. ‘She’d come in like two or three hours late and still expect to be taken care of,’ Sylvia recalled. ‘But she was just magnificent, breathtaking to look at.’
In his illustrated guide to Marilyn’s Los Angeles addresses and haunts, Hometown Girl (2004), Eric Woodard wrote that ‘nearsighted Sylvia was inspiration for Pola, MM’s character in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953.) One day Monroe saw her bumping into furniture while without her glasses and even borrowed a spare pair to rehearse with.’
Woodard also stated that the Wilshire Boulevard salon where Sylvia met Marilyn is now part of the Wilshire Plaza, while the Hollywood location is now a toy store.