Thursday, January 1, 2009
The Barber Of Civility
Memo to President-elect Obama: Don't change your hair style.
Sez who? The late Milt Pitts, barber to the presidents. He cut every chief executive's hair from Richard Nixon to the first Bush, and he knew Carter was a goner in 1980 the moment Carter changed his part from right to left.
"You never change your style so dramatically overnight," Milt told me shortly before his death in 1995. "It unsettles people. It indicates a vacillating nature."
Milt was the barber at the old Sheraton-Carton Hotel (now called the St. Regis) in Washington. Twice a month, the Secret Service would chauffeur him to the White House, where there was a tiny, one-chair barbershop in the basement, right underneath the Oval Office.
When I first met Milt in 1985, he showed me a cigar box containing a lock of Ronald Reagan's hair.
"Look!" he said proudly. "Completely natural! You can tell it hasn't been dyed!"
Though he claimed to have liked all the presidents, it was obvious that Reagan was his favorite.
"The first thing I did was get rid of that pompadour. I gave him a layered cut, about 2 inches long, pretty even all around. Nancy walked in and said, 'Ronnie, don't you look good!' I knew right then and there, if Nancy liked it, I was a winner."
So what did he do with Nixon's hair?
"When Nixon first came to see me, his hair was much too long, about 8 inches, and it was dripping with Brylcreem. I took out all the grease and cut it back to 3 inches, longer in the back and fuller on the sides. It looked a lot better."
Mostly, Milt and his celebrated clients indulged in small talk. (Reagan, for instance, loved to reminisce about his old movies.) But there was one time when a president shared his inner feelings: It was Nixon, the night before he resigned.
"When I brushed him off and helped him on with his coat, he said, 'We did a lot of things right, but we've made some mistakes, too. No question of that. I'll see you sometime, perhaps at the Carlton.' Needless to say, there were tears in both our eyes."
And what was Ford like?
"The first Sunday after Ford took office, I was in the back yard mowing the lawn. My wife came out the back door and said, 'The Secret Service is calling you!' They said the president wanted his hair cut right away, and they were sending a car out to get me.
"When I got to the White House, in came Ford in his shirt sleeves, accompanied by a bunch of aides. He looked at me and said, 'Milton, I need a little haircut. Let me explain a few things to you. My hair is thinning and light, and if you cut the sideburns too short, it'll look like I have no sideburns at all. And I use Vitalis.' I said, 'Mr. President, everything you're doing is wrong.'
"All the aides started laughing, so I said, 'Excuse me, Mr. President, it's your hair I'm referring to.' And he said, 'I'm sure glad to hear that!' I gave him a shampoo, a razor cut, blow dry and a little hair spray. That way, it made his hair look thicker and fuller."
And the elder Bush?
"I've been cutting his hair for 18 years and it's never changed: shampoo, a layered cut while wet, sides short, blowdry, and a little spray. Just the way he likes it."
Milt had a shot at cutting Clinton's hair, too. He was recommended by another one of his customers, George McGovern, but he blew it a few weeks before the inauguration.
"A newspaper reporter interviewed me, and I said that Clinton looks like he has the same barber as Don King. After that, my chances went out the window."
So which president was the biggest tipper?
"To tell the truth" said Milt, "none of them has ever given me a tip."