Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Curls Carrie White Left Behind

“NO one knew who did Mamie Eisenhower’s hair,” Carrie White said. “But everyone knew who did Jackie Kennedy — Mr. Kenneth.”

Ms. White was explaining why she was drawn to hairdressing in the 1960s, when she used her diminutive femininity to slip through the gate of a profession ruled by testosterone-fueled showboats like Jon Peters, Gene Shacove, Vidal Sassoon and George Masters, at least one of whom inspired Warren Beatty’s character in “Shampoo.”

Those days were Camelot for the hetero-hairdresser, but it was Ms. White who touched the heads of Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley. She also cut Mr. Beatty, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn.
Long before Mr. Kenneth, some hairdressers not only were famous but also helped define the sensibility of their day. Ms. White, too, played a part in originating the look of her time. She fashioned the iron pageboy that transformed Louise Fletcher into Nurse Ratched. In 1967 United Airlines asked her to create a hairstyle that the company would recommend for all its stewardesses: she came up with a modish bob.

She could handle the old-style celebrity, women as disparate as Jennifer Jones and Lucille Ball. If you can recall the photos of Sharon Tate on her wedding day in 1968, you also might remember the delicate white bows that dotted the bride’s hair, which Ms. White sloped dramatically upward over the crown and tumbled back down again, landing below Ms. Tate’s shoulders in a poetic wilderness of curls. Neither the actress nor her hairdresser could have known it was the final days of the flower child.

Even now, sitting in her impeccable all-white salon in Beverly Hills, Calif., on a day off, Ms. White vibrates with antic energy. She is a Hollywood 68, meaning her hair is streaked and combed in a casual flip, her figure smooth and slim in a seamless black pantsuit, and her feet daintily shod in a pointy pair of Donald Pliner heels. Seriously skilled face work has been done; she admitted to missing a Botox injection this very day.
Ms. White’s profession took her out of a humble and unhappy childhood in Pacoima, Calif., that promised nothing in the way of high life. She tells all in “Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life” (Atria Books), which swerves from a name-dropping romp through the ’60s and ’70s to an agonizing diary of addiction.
The only child of an alcoholic mother, Ms. White was hugely social, excited about everyone she met, and people liked her back.

“Doing hair gave me validation,” she said. “It was applause on the hour, and I needed it on the hour. It’s a real self-worth job. If you didn’t like people, this was not the place to be.”

“If you are a hairdresser you must be current,” she said, and she always was. She did the hustle, the watusi and the funky chicken, wore Gucci scarfs, read Ram Dass and smoked ganja with Hugh Masekela.
And she enjoyed the perks of intimacy with her celebrated clients. On one day in London, Ms. White shared a cab with Twiggy, taking care to study her “intricate toy doll eye makeup,” before going to Cass Elliot’s party at John Lennon’s house, where she met Jimi Hendrix, whose hair was “untamed, not processed and greased like James Brown.” On the way home, after midnight, she impulsively stopped off at Vanessa Redgrave’s flat, where she sat on the floor while the actress performed a dance she was inventing for a film about Isadora Duncan.

As Ms. White recalls it, life was like a huge party, with everyone beautiful and interesting, and “people were free to roam.” Paparazzi had not yet formed into packs, and spontaneity was not only possible but also de rigueur.

Drugs of every stripe were available, she wrote; at one Sunset Strip restaurant patrons could leave $100 with the parking guy and later find a gram of cocaine in the glove compartment.
This was Ms. White’s life: on the plane to Ms. Tate’s wedding, she held her glass high and someone passing filled it with Champagne.
When roller disco came in, Ms. White could be found skating nightly at Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, where one evening her cigarette accidentally burned a foreign-born princess in a Ted Lapidus suit.
“You like drugs?” asked the princess, known only as K. With those words Ms. White, who had been married three times and had five children, entered the kingdom of the damned.

 With her two youngest daughters, ages 10 and 12, Ms. White and K moved into a gated Malibu mansion with an ocean view, a place she would eventually leave only to visit drug dealers or to beg money off bewildered old friends like Ann-Margret and Stefanie Powers. One day she offered Peter Bogdanovich a cut, sheared half of his head, took his $200 and left while he was on the phone. Her memory of her three lost years is extremely detailed, and it is pitiless.

“The soul is never loaded,” Ms. White explained. “It is always recording and clear about what’s going on.”
Ms. White wrote about the day when, lying in her own vomit, she begged her 12-year-old daughter to call her drug dealer. The girl would have to get on her bike and ride to a nearby phone booth; Ms. White had stopped paying bills. She knew then she had surpassed her own mother in maternal awfulness.

At the last in a series of recovery centers, Ms. White woke up with the buzzing of a man’s voice in her head. He was saying, “Now, here’s an example of what could happen to you, if you continue to go down the path you were headed.” Ms. White cracked open her eyelids to see a crowd of real people gawking at her from the foot of her bed.

She remembers having two thoughts. One: she still served a purpose in life, even if was only as a warning to others. Her second thought: “How’s my hair?”

Thanks probably to that tiny flame of wit and spirit that never went out, Ms. White was able to report back from the place few ever leave. It required, of course, a lot of humility.

She re-earned her hairdressing license, retraining alongside a lot of young people who had never heard of her or many of her famous clients. She made amends with friends and, as best she could, with her children. In 2005 she opened a salon again, though for the first six years she did not want to tempt fate by putting her name on it.

Writing the book helped as well. The first draft took 11 years and was 1,300 pages. She showed it to an old client, Michael Crichton. He called it “the enormity,” but he said he loved it, and he gave it to his agent, Lynn Nesbit. Ms. White was forced to cut it by two-thirds.

“It was like cutting the blue threads out of a Chanel suit,” she said. She remembers thinking, “Oh no, not the 'Mod Squad' story!” But she learned to be ruthless.

“By writing the truth I was protecting myself,” she said. “The book is what makes it possible for me to talk to you without worrying what you think of me.”

Ms. White finds today’s glamour a little less glamorous.

“Everyone looks like everyone else; it’s tragic,” she said.

In her day, watching the red carpet was suspenseful.

“You got to see what the actress looked like on her own, without help,” she said. “Her own jewels, her own dress, no stylists.” Now, she said, for a personality to stand out from the pack, she has to be as extreme as Lady Gaga.

She caught the recent Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was particularly struck by the designer’s holograph of the model Kate Moss, dressed in white and swirling in the air until she herself becomes white light and disappears.

“He put that image up there when Kate was struggling with heroin,” she said, her eyes bright and wet. “He dared them all to look away.”


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