Kenneth Battelle, who was dubbed ‘hairdresser to the stars’ during the 1950s, died at home in Wappinger Falls, New York, on May 12th, 2013.
He was born in Syracuse in 1927, the eldest son of a shoe salesman. When his parents divorced, Kenneth – then aged 12 – took a number of jobs, including cooking and washing dishes, selling beer and operating an elevator, to support his mother and four younger sisters. “And every chance I got, I attended the movies,” he told Vanity Fair.
At 17, Kenneth joined the Navy where he served for eighteen months. He later studied at liberal arts at Syracuse University, but had to drop out after six months as he could no longer afford the fees.
After seeing an advertisement for a beauty school that promised graduates $100 a week jobs, he began his training as a stylist, and paid his way through more odd jobs, including playing show tunes in a piano bar. But his mother initially objected to his new choice of career, telling him, ‘Red-blooded American boys don’t do that.’
Undeterred, Kenneth eventually found a hairdressing job at the Starlet Beauty Bar opposite Syracuse’s Greyhound bus station. He stayed there for four years. Most of his clients were prostitutes, he said, and his 1930s-inspired variation on the bob cut – known as the ‘club cut’ – was, according to Douglas Martin of the New York Times, “ragingly popular.”
In 1949, Kenneth briefly moved to Miami, where he worked in a hotel salon. Less than a year later, he returned to New York with $9 in his pocket. After turning down an offer from Elizabeth Arden (which meant relocating to Kentucky), Kenneth was hired by Helena Rubinstein at 52nd and 5th, where he would remain for the next five years.
The newlywed Jacqueline Kennedy dropped by the salon in 1954. Her regular stylist was unavailable, and so Kenneth stepped in. He suggested she grow out her short, layered and curly ‘Italian cut’ hairstyle. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration with the future first lady, the leading fashion icon of her generation.
Kenneth had extra-large Lucite rollers specially made to stretch out and lengthen Jackie’s hair. This gave her a softer hairstyle, in contrast to the rather stiff, heavily-permed coiffure that was the prevailing mode for women at the time, and which Kenneth described as ‘washed-and-ironed.’
“I believed that hair should be like fabric—light should pass through it, and you should want to put your hand in it,” he recalled. “I thought of hair as soft, healthy, lustrous, innocent, and pretty, like a child’s.”
After leaving Rubinstein’s salon, Kenneth moved to Lilly Daché’s nine-storey millinery emporium on 56th Street. Realising that hats were going out of fashion, Daché added a pink-and-white salon to attract new customers. His growing list of celebrity clients included Mrs Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill; the socialite, Brooke Astor; Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post; and movie stars such as Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn.
Lucille Ball would enter the salon and ask, “Where’s God?”
In 1957, Gillis McGil – Kenneth’s house model – intercepted British comedienne Kay Kendall en route to Rubinstein’s, and took her to Kenneth instead.
“I’ve got to do something about my hair,” Kendall – a vivacious redhead, who had just completed filming Les Girls for MGM – declared. “I look like Danny Kaye in drag!” The results were revealed in an Irving Penn portrait, published in Vogue. Kay’s new look became a world sensation, with women queuing around the block to have their hair styled by Kenneth.
In late 1958, Marilyn Monroe began a friendship with Kenneth that would endure until her death four years later. In 2002, he described MM to Susan Dominum of New York magazine as “a wisp we were lucky to have known,” explaining that he persuaded her to straighten her ringlets. “When you have a blob of curly platinum hair, that’s all you can see,” he said. “You don’t see the beautiful face.”
Kenneth reminisced about Marilyn at length, and with great fondness, in a 2003 interview with Amy Fine Collins, for Vanity Fair.
“She was finishing up Some Like It Hot,” he says, “and she complained to Norman Norell that her hair was falling out from over-bleaching and over-perming. He gave her my name, and she called me from his showroom. I made her hair softer, smoother, and straighter. From then on, whenever she was in New York, she came to me at Daché or I went to her apartment at 444 East 57th Street.”
Kenneth travelled with Monroe to Chicago for the world premiere of Some Like It Hot in March 1959. “Marilyn didn’t care much about clothes or jewellery,” Kenneth says. “Before we left she went to Jax on 57th and Fifth and bought three silk shifts—one in white, one in black, and one in tan. She borrowed a beige mink from Maximilian and took along two strings of pearls. When we got to the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago, a movie P.R. guy spilled his glass of champagne down Marilyn’s front. She was wearing the tan dress—and you could see everything, like she was in a wet T-shirt. 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. She said no, she wouldn’t do that, because underwear made lines. I said, ‘I hear Jean Harlow didn’t wear underwear, either—but she used to bleach her hair so it wouldn’t show through.’ I went downstairs to the hotel drugstore and bought her powdered milk of magnesia, 20 percent peroxide, and spirits of ammonia—you only need a few drops. It’s a very old formula for decolorizing hair. I told her, ‘Now go in the bathroom and bleach the Y.’ Nothing showed through when they switched on those bright lights. After that she was more careful.”
Monroe called on Kenneth for another, more poignant public appearance—her release from Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in March 1961. “Arthur Miller declined to come, so Joe DiMaggio got her out instead,” Kenneth remembers. “Marilyn was very vulnerable—the kindest, sweetest, most generous person I’ve ever known, period. And I don’t mean generous with gifts. I mean generosity of spirit. That’s why she was slapped down all the time, always getting hurt. Anyway, I went to help her make her exit from the hospital. She simply told me, ‘I want to look good.’ When she came outside, I was absolutely staggered by the way her fans behaved. It was as if they owned her—as if she belonged to them. But Marilyn had that ability to make her movie audiences believe she would leap out of the screen and sit on their laps.”
Kenneth also groomed Marilyn in May 1962 for J.F.K.’s 45th-birthday rally at Madison Square Garden, where she sang ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President.’ Monroe (rumoured to be having an affair with JFK at the time) “did not want me backstage with her,” Kenneth says. “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.” The last time Kenneth ran his fingers through Monroe’s platinum waves was in June 1962, for Bert Stern’s final sitting with her in California for Vogue, just five weeks before her death. Monroe, however, was not the only celebrity on location that summer day at the Bel-Air Hotel; by then, recalls Babs Simpson, the editor on the Vogue shoot, “Kenneth was so famous that in the Los Angeles airport people stopped him for autographs.”
From the day of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, to his death in 1963, Kenneth was the new administration’s ‘Secretary of Grooming.’ “Kenneth had a gift for dealing with people like Jackie, Marilyn, and Judy Garland—they could trust him never to showboat or coast on their fame,” said a former fashion editor for Vogue. “His hair for Jackie was particularly brilliant because he understood how it would work with the camera—the height he gave her lengthened her head and balanced her broad cheekbones. It was a kind of grown-up exaggeration of little girls’ hair. With Jackie’s bouffant, Kenneth killed off the hat.”
Only Alexandre of Paris, and Vidal Sassoon of London, matched Kenneth’s a celebrity status in the 1960s. “A Sassoon cut sculpted and defined the face; a Kenneth cut framed and enhanced it,” said Roger Prigent, a photographer who worked with both men. “Kenneth was not avant-garde like Sassoon. But he had all-American class.”
In 1963, Kenneth opened his eponymous salon on East 54th St. It was decorated by Billy Baldwin to resemble Brighton Pavilion. “One woman shrieked, ‘I’m getting out of here! It looks like a brothel!’” Kenneth recalled. “As she ran out I said within earshot, ‘Do you suppose she’s been in one before?’”
In 1974, Kenneth opened another salon in Atlanta. Among his clients was Rosalynn Carter, who became America’s first lady three years later.
Kenneth’s New York salon was destroyed by fire in 1990, and he relocated to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (where Marilyn Monroe had once lived.) In 2002, Kevin Lee – a stylist for Kenneth since 1987 – became his new creative director, although Kenneth was still cutting hair in 2008.
“Nobody asks me for an autograph anymore,” he reflected in 2003. “No one in Wappingers Falls, where my country house is, knows who I am. And that suits me just fine; in 54 years I have never once seen my reflection when I look in the mirror—only my client’s. I like knowing when I wake up every morning that I can make people happy.”
‘He’s Still Hair’, New York magazine, 2002
‘It Had to Be Kenneth’, Vanity Fair, 2003
Kenneth Battelle at Wikipedia
Kenneth Battelle at Voguepedia
‘Hairdresser to the Stars’, obituary, New York Times, May 2013
Earl Gustie, obituary, Chicago Tribune, 1998