Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis has been a muse and inspiration to the fashion industry since honing her first lady style in the early ’60s. A new book, “Kenneth: Shear Elegance,” focuses on the hairdresser who created her signature bouffant and post-White House hairstyles.
The book, to be published Oct. 15, displays the range of Kenneth Battelle, who became the first-name-only star tending the hair of Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jean Shrimpton, C.Z. Guest, Joan Rivers and Hillary Clinton. During the ’60s and ’70s, a hairdo by Kenneth was a status symbol prized by celebrities, socialites, fashion magazines and aspiring career girls.
Mr. Battelle did Marilyn Monroe’s hair before she purred “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy at a 1962 fundraiser in Madison Square Garden. He styled the actress’s hair into a cascading swoop and enlisted hot rollers to produce volume.
Luck brought Mr. Battelle together with Mrs. Kennedy before she became first lady, when he pitched in on a day that her regular hairdresser was sick. Over the years, times and trends changed and she moved on to one of Mr. Battelle’s former employees. Mr. Battelle moved out of the limelight but his story intrigued Giuseppe Longo, a freelance writer and the author of “Shear Elegance.”
Mr. Battelle consented to the book but died in 2013 at age 86 before Mr. Longo began work. He collected stories about Mr. Battelle’s career from interviews with clients, friends and associates, including Victoria Meekins, the vice president of his New York City salon, which closed in 2015. Ms. Meekins gave Mr. Longo her blessing to pursue the project, he said. Mr. Longo supplemented the interviews with news clippings as well as photos of Mr. Battelle at work and of clients showing off his styles.
“Shear Elegance” reflects the enduring fascination with Mrs. Kennedy Onassis as well as the hunger for stories about celebrities from personal assistants, stylists and other behind-the-scenes players. It is a time capsule of an intimate —and bygone—era in the hairstyling industry, which has been disrupted by Covid-19.
Edited excerpts from an interview with Mr. Longo:
In the book, you advise readers to Google the names of many of Kenneth’s clients. Why?
I’m only 34 years old but I’m very passionate about elegance in former eras. But I know my contemporaries, my peers—they’re not. So, I thought, I might know who Babe Paley is but possibly someone else my age is going to be, like: “Who is Babe Paley?” [Ms. Paley, a high-society swan, was married to CBS founder William S. Paley.] So I felt, what if I can kindly suggest to readers that they use Google as they’re reading the book and research these names? It was my way of tying in today’s generation with yesteryear’s era. You don’t have to be from the ’50s or the ’60s to enjoy the story just as much.
There’s not much about Kenneth’s personal life. Was that deliberate?
Kenneth was very hesitant to write a book—because aside from the gossip between the ladies, everybody just wanted to know every little piece about Kenneth. I wanted Kenneth—had he been alive and picked up this book—to have approved. To have been, like, ‘OK, he respected me and he did it right.’ That’s why I solely focused on his grand career. And I wanted to leave that mystery, because I wanted to respect him.
You have stories of his humility, including his being horrified by the society-column headline, “Pickle Queen Goes to Yacht Party with Hairdresser,” after he went to a dinner with actress and socialite Drue Heinz. How do you think he would he feel about hairdressers today flaunting their ties with celebrity clients on Instagram?
Kenneth would be appalled. That would be the ultimate scandal for him, to show photographs of his clients. Kenneth was so into discretion and privacy that he didn’t even advertise his salon.
There are some revelations about clients, like when Princess Muna Al-Hussein of Jordan fainted from heat during a photo shoot. How would he feel about these stories being in a book?
Those are stories that actually Kenneth revealed himself [to others]. So I felt like it had been public knowledge and I would assume he would be fine with it being known now.
What do you think should be his legacy?
When you think of Marilyn Monroe, you think of her swoop. When you think of Jackie, you think about her bouffant. A lot of hairstyles that Kenneth did on a daily basis still penetrate today’s hair industry. He cultivated timeless styles.
Write to Ray A. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org
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