BY KATHY PERUTZ
“Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” was an article I wrote many decades ago for Seventeen, a magazine for teenagers whose mothers subscribed to Vogue and whose older sisters read Glamour. I was in my twenties then, awash with hair, most of it piled on my head in a kind of jungle, thick and kinky and requiring my constant attention, much as if I owned a particularly neurotic dog. It had to be made straight and smooth despite its nature; it had to be cut, bleached and colored (but I’ve written so much about blond, blondes and becoming one that I’m satiated with the topic & won’t go into it here) and it cost me a fortune, at least $1500 a year, which in the 1960’s still counted as money and not just a tip at Mar-A-Lago.
I also paid much attention to the removal of hair, plucking my eyebrows or the area around and between them every day, after having watched my aunt Lisa, who was living in sin with my uncle Max, do exactly that on a beach in Truro on Cape Cod. It was called sin in those days simply to share a lodging with someone to whom one was not legally tied; those innocent ice cream soda days when Coke meant a drink in a green bottle and when it was not necessary to bribe, steal or murder to be labeled a sinner. Mere sex could do it, which added to the flavor, naughtiness being the spice or shot that transformed something simple into something transgressive. Lisa, who studied dance with Martha Graham, plucked her lovely eyebrows in the sunshine on the sand peering into the mirror of her compact. She had to do it every day, she explained, because every day new hairs appeared. It may have been her imagination; she was militant about cleanliness and possibly saw hairs where none had yet grown. But perhaps that was a by-product of having spent four years in Auschwitz. My mother, on the other hand, whose hair was as bushy as mine and a flaming auburn, never tweezed – or at least I never saw her do such a thing. But she was a more private person than Lisa, more aware of what can and can’t be done in front of the servants and children.
Then there was the hair that grew under arms, hair on legs, hair in the crotch. My mother never shaved her underarms, as most European women did not in those days. I, being first-generation American, needed to be as smooth as my classmates. I shaved, though rarely, and because my body hair was blond (there it is again!) I didn’t really need to shave my legs, though I did it for form’s sake and often enough that eventually I actually had a stubble to get rid of. My mother used Sleek on her legs, plastering them from knee to foot and then, after the white cream had set, scraping it off with a wooden spatula included in the package for this purpose. Bikini line had not been invented yet (neither had bikinis), at least not among ordinary people, though I am sure those women whose profession included exhibiting the genital area might have trimmed here and there. Dyeing of pubic hair was also not heard of yet, at least not by the average typist in Utah, and not even by Francesca, my up-to-date hairdresser in Great Neck near the railroad station.
But hair was definitely a problem, whether absent or present. Bald men tried to cover up their patches however they could, at least until Yul Brynner came along in The King and I (1956), swashbuckling his way into virgin American hearts and convincing the millions who saw the film that bald was as sexy as you could get this side of the Devil’s abode. Around this time it was proclaimed a Scientific Fact that bald men had more testosterone than others and when I had a prematurely balding Welsh boyfriend in the early 60’s, I was quite the object of envy at the parties we went to. (Deservedly so, I could add.)
By the seventies, grooming had changed, hair weaving was in for those men who could afford it. Bald was out because it signified the advance of age and people were becoming more interested in money than in sex. Men also began dyeing their hair (though keeping it secret) and plastic surgery helped both sexes remain in the “game,” as the making of money was referred to (perhaps on the model of Monopoly) until they were past retirement age.
Hair, which had always been a symbol of strength for men (see Samson & Delilah with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the title roles – 1949, Cecil B. DeMille – or read the Book), also served a double purpose for women, beguiling and concealing. This makes sense when we think of how women were/are forever depicted in stories, books, movies, art: the Virgin/Temptress, Eve/Mary, Mother/Bitch whose hair, falling below her shoulders, modestly conceals the beauty of her upper parts, in particular those breasts that give suck, and not only to infants. Lady Godiva was a heroine, riding naked on her horse through the streets of Coventry to protest unfair taxation – but (as the paintings reveal) she rode out clothed in her modesty, her purity and her long hair. It doesn’t take Freudian training to understand that Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, is a cry for the charmer to abandon herself to her would-be lover.
Paintings of Mother Eve usually show her naked, smooth-skinned and with long flowing hair. She is the temptress, born of Adam’s rib to tickle him with her locks and curls and entrap him in her (usually) blond tresses. John Milton, who wrote all about Eve in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, was a trichomaniac; that is, a person manic about hair. (He was manic about other things too, and had his wife sleep in a drawer that pulled out from the bottom of his bed when she was having her period – or so it is written by Robert Graves in Wife to Mr. Milton.) Eve’s hair is man’s downfall, never mind the apple and the serpent. If Eve had been bald we wouldn’t have sinned, and therefore would not have had to be redeemed, which would have made the writing of Paradise Lost and its sequel Paradise Regained unnecessary, since the epic is an elucidation of the Doctrine of the Fortunate Fall, which says that man sinned so Christ could rise and save us. It was those damn locks and tendrils of hair, the ones Milton couldn’t get enough of, sinuous tresses like the long hair that proclaimed a new generation in the late 1960’s when the musical Hair was first produced, the Age of Aquarius was upon us and young men started wearing their hair long and singing about peace and love and understanding. We still see these men from time to time: white-haired hippies with flowing manes or tiny ponytails, holding fast to their dream. It is by hair that we are known: hair tells others if we’re young or old, sexy or not, employable or ready for the trash. Hair, real or fake, has been the world’s obsession since the world (as we know it) began.
And never more than now. I would wager that in the last year and a half more words have been spoken, spewed and written about a certain head topped with an orangey hair-like covering than have been employed in the cause of human suffering during that same time. I, who once was plagued by a barely governable mass of hair, now wear a wig. Chemotherapy keeps me bald. I don’t disapprove of wigs. On the contrary; I depend on them – and love them too, for the way they can transform a young actor into a character stepping out of history, or make a judge out of a lawyer. But I do know the difference. There is hair and there is fake hair. There is truth and fake truth, which we call lies. There are men and fake men, those we call imposters if not something far, far worse: men who ally themselves with something – a country say – and hide their allegiance to another.