Message In A Shampoo Bottle
Sunday, September 1st, 2002
A cut above: Jay Sebring, who invented a new way of styling men’s hair, with Paul Newman on the “Harper” set in 1965.
Fall 2002 – I have interviewed many celebrity hairstylists in my day, but this would be my first dead one. I figured it would be challenging but not impossible, since the initial contact had come from him — or at least, from his products, which had come to me through an intermediary: black packages with red lettering. I held the shampoo like a talisman, noting the cross surmounted by a circle, the Egyptian ankh, sacred symbol of life.
Up until Aug. 9, 1969, the name beneath the ankh had stood for Jay Sebring, the No. 1 haircutter to the stars, the guy who came out of beauty school and invented a whole new way of cutting men’s hair. Who went into a white-coated profession dressed in hip-hugger jeans and chambray shirts. Who studied martial arts with Bruce Lee and raced sports cars with Paul Newman. Before Aug. 9, 1969, it was a name known only in select circles; afterward it was known everywhere, as the name of the man who was butchered with Sharon Tate and three others in the notorious Manson murders.
Now, here was the name again, on a bottle of shampoo, where it had been leading a parallel existence for more than 30 years. To look at it, you would not have known that the events of that heinous night had ever occurred. I felt like Jay Sebring was calling me on a mission: to restore the name to the man, to devictimize the victim.
Where to begin?
It didn’t take the deductive powers of a Philip Marlowe to call the toll-free number on the side of the package. Right away I got lucky. Nancy Papin, executive vice president of Sebring Products, answered the phone. Her husband, Robert, had been distributing the products for two years before Sebring died. They now own the company. The products go to about 2,500 shops across the United States. Not only that, there is a certified Sebring method that is still being taught and followed. Nancy gave me a number in Houston.
Mike Guessfeld picked up. He had the soft voice of a well-raised Southern boy, and didn’t stint on the “Yes, ma’am”‘s and “No, ma’am”‘s. Guided by the phantom hand of Sebring, he has been cutting hair for over 30 years. He learned the Sebring method from the two hottest barbers in New Orleans, who had once sought out Steve McQueen on location, hoping to cut his hair and establish their reputations. But when they saw McQueen, it was clear that he didn’t need a haircut. In fact, they were so blown away by how good his hair looked that they went to Los Angeles to meet the man who cut it. They learned the technique and opened a Jay Sebring franchise in the Big Easy.
One of my favorite Web sites — www.findagrave.com — listed Jay Sebring, born Oct. 10, 1933, and revealed a simple headstone in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Southfield, Mich., for Thomas J. Kummer. The accompanying head shot could have been that of a movie star, a three-quarter profile with half the face in shadow. The expression was thoughtful, even moody. The hair was impeccable.
The man who had renamed himself after an auto race in Florida, who had scored big in Hollywood, had been carried back to where he started. I was not certain he would be pleased.
It had been years since I’d been to the City of Angels. Because Sebring had driven a Mustang Cobra, I thought I should, too, but Hertz could offer only a Toyota Camry, so I took it and immediately drove to Benedict Canyon, to what had become known as the Sharon Tate house, although she and her husband, Roman Polanski, were renting it at the time she died. The low, rambling ranch house was gone, replaced by one of those mutant behemoths that seem to be spreading across the country. Farther up the canyon, I turned on Easton, looking for Sebring’s Tudor, once owned by Jean Harlow. It had the head of John Barrymore carved into the rafters, secret ways to get out of the house in a hurry sprinklers over the windows to make it look as if it were raining outside.
I gunned the Camry up the steep, narrow road, trying to imagine Sebring and Tate roaring up in the Cobra on their first date. According to Larry Geller, Elvis’s memoir-writing hairstylist, who originally worked for Sebring, it was Gene Shacove, then the hottest women’s hairstylist in Los Angeles, who first told Sebring about Tate. They were at the Luau, a restaurant next door to Shacove’s salon. Geller says: “Gene was telling us how beautiful this new starlet was, and Jay started pounding the table, saying: ‘I’m going to get her. I’m going to get her.’”
Sebring asked Joe Hyams, at that time the West Coast bureau chief and columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, to introduce him. Hyams arranged an interview with Tate at Frascati’s, a restaurant on the Sunset Strip. Hyams says: “As I was finishing the interview, Jay came in and sat down next to Sharon. After a while I left. The next day I called Jay to see how it went, and she answered the phone, so I assumed it went well.”
It was in Sebring’s house that Jean Harlow’s husband had committed suicide, about two months after they married. Geller remembers that when Sebring bought it, he showed him the bathroom where the body had been found, and said, “When I go, the whole world’s going to know about it.”
Sebring, with the actress Sharon Tate, in a photograph from the Sebring family album from the mide-1960’s.
Is it the manner of Sebring’s death that casts a Gothic shadow over his life, or was it always there? I longed to see the half-timbered house but was foiled once again. I stopped the car and looked up to where the house should have been. The California sun blinded and confused. The vegetation obscured. Frustrated, I turned back to Beverly Hills and the salon of Joe Torrenueva at Camden and Wilshire.
Torrenueva went to work at Sebring’s right out of beauty school. He was 18; Sebring was in his mid-20’s but already a star with his own shop on Fairfax in West Hollywood. The shop had three doors, one to the main salon, one to the private room where Sebring and Torrenueva worked and one to the office on the second floor. It would be 3:15 p.m. Torrenueva would be finishing with a client and taking the next one. Over in the other chair, waiting since 3 o’clock, would be Henry Fonda, looking at his watch. In the meantime, Torrenueva would have heard the Cobra pulling in at 2:50. At 3:20 Sebring would rush in from the outside with his cutting tools, muttering that it was crazy out there on the set, he couldn’t get away…
“I idolized him,” Torrenueva said. Sebring took him along when he went to Las Vegas every three weeks to cut hair — Sinatra’s, Sammy Davis Jr.’s, the casino owners’. Sebring would fill him in on the clients: “These guys are from the Purple Gang in Detroit. Just keep quiet and cut. You’ll be O.K.”
After the killings, the police and the F.B.I. went to see Torrenueva. He got a call from a client in Las Vegas: “Joe, I know you’re worried. Listen, you’re a good guy, you never hurt no one. No one’s gonna hurt you.”
Torrenueva, half Puerto Rican and half Filipino, showed me his scrapbook with photos of Sebring and the celebrities, many of whom now come to Torrenueva. He’s small, with a complexion as clear and fine as a baby’s, short dark hair just touched with silver. I felt that if he were cutting my hair and looking into the mirror instead of my eyes, the words would flow; instead they stumbled and halted.
“Sharon Tate was his girlfriend for a long time,” he said. “To me he always loved her. There was a mystique about him. He was very shy, except with close friends. He was guarded. He had a lot of things going on that were just ready to click.”
In the pauses and non sequiturs, I sensed the restlessness, the discontent, that haunted Sebring. Torrenueva — married since 19, a father and grandfather — seemed to be still puzzling over Sebring’s state of mind. The handshake from this soft-spoken man was a surprise but made sense. The power was in his hands.
A block away, on Rodeo Drive, I headed into DBL Realtors. (When pursuing the deceased, it pays to play the hunches.) I described my mission to the young receptionist. Would anyone there know what happened to the Tate house? The receptionist suppressed a smile. There was someone who worked there but was out; she claims she rented the house to Sharon Tate. I left the number of my hotel.
There are still three doors to the shop on Fairfax, and it is still a salon, only now it serves women. A beautician was escorting an elderly client to the door — red-tinted hair back-combed and lacquered to last two weeks. Blotting the vision from my mind, I tried to recall the stories about the way it had been. Larry Geller: “One afternoon, I had just graduated from beauty school, and I saw this stained-glass window with an Egyptian ankh on the door. My first thought was that it was a beauty salon, but it was wood-paneled inside. Jay was on a ladder hanging a plant. He said this was something new, hair architecture for men. I started the next day. They shampooed. No one had ever shampooed men before. The problem was how to dry the hair. You couldn’t put men under those helmets. Heat lamps were slow. Then someone heard about a hand-held plastic contraption from Europe. They began blow-drying hair, and selling the dryers to clients at cost.” Geller adds with a laugh, “We were artistes, not businessmen.”
Hyams once arrived on his motorcycle. While cutting his hair, Sebring asked if Hyams would show him how to ride the bike. So Sebring appeared at Hyams’s house off Coldwater Canyon on a Saturday morning. Hyams said, “He was wearing full-tailored black leather, down to the black helmet and sunglasses.” Sebring rode up and down the street, and then asked if he could borrow the bike for the weekend. “I got a call an hour later,” Hyams continued. “He had had an accident on the first turn.” The motorcycle was pretty badly banged up, and Sebring said he couldn’t afford to pay to have it fixed; would Hyams take free haircuts in exchange? At the time barbers charged around $1.50 for a haircut, and Sebring’s went for $25. “Henry Fonda would be there when I went in; there’d be starlets shampooing hair. It was the hottest place in Hollywood in the afternoon. There was gossip, coffee, pretty girls and the haircuts were damned good. It was worth the few hundred dollars in damage to get the bike repaired.”
Around the corner from Fairfax is Fred Segal, a fashion mecca then and now. At that time, Fred Segal’s big idea was to tailor blue jeans. Sebring, recognizing a fellow visionary, bought.the hip-hugger straight-bottom jeans and faded blue chambray shirts, and sent his staff to get them, too. Within six months, all of Hollywood was coming in. As I drifted around, looking at the artistically ripped, dyed and wrinkled street clothes for millionaires, I imagined Sebring coming by for some tight-fitting bell-bottoms to wear out to the many clubs he frequented at night: the Daisy, the Factory, the Candy Store. He was friend and barber to Warren Beatty, and some say he was, with Shacove, the inspiration for the frenetic hairdresser Beatty played in “Shampoo.”
Sebring, arms crossed, with employees of his West Hollywood salon.
Far from the madding crowd. Jay Sebring with his Porsche in Joshua Tree National Park in July 1968.
Sammy Davis Jr., with his wife May Britt, gets the Sebring touch in 1962.
Back at the hotel there was a message from a realtor, Elaine Young, and three numbers. I called, and she gave me a private number to call her back. She was clearly rattled that I found her by just walking in off the street. “I was his best friend!” she exclaimed. She was married to Gig Young and used to go with him when he had his hair cut, to gossip and see the stars.
“Jay was very good-looking. He was crazy about Sharon. The biggest mistake he ever made was not marrying her. She left him and went to Europe and married Roman, who treated her like dirt.”
Polanski never returned to the house in the canyon. The owner of the house moved in and stayed for years. “He said the house had good vibes.” It sold not long ago to a developer who tore it down to build an 18,000-square-foot house that just sold for about $8 million.
The week before the murders, Young had been to see Tate. Tate wanted to redecorate a room for the baby she was expecting in a month and asked for Young’s advice. “Jay was halt staying there with her,” Young said. “Anyone could walk in and out.” Young was in the car when she heard the news on the radio. “I was devastated.” She was still a little shaken at the coincidence of my finding her, but over the years she’s come to accept that her real estate karma leads to strange places: “I sold the O.J. place to O.J.”
Before heading out to the airport, I stopped on Rodeo Drive to check out the clothes at Theodore, just as I did in the summer of ’69, when I purchased a string bikini in purple panne velvet. Yes, I was in Los Angeles then, cooling off in turquoise pools high above the city, breathing in the blood-warm air heavy with jasmine, eucalyptus and sweet-smelling herb. I was riding on the Marrakesh Express with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and although I didn’t know Sebring, I was living in a world already altered by him. As Geller says: “Jay was on top of Mount Everest. I would love to watch him style hair — what he could do with scissors. Every movie I see from the 60’s, that was our work. We created the look of the 60’s.”
Until I’d made my journey guided by a ghost, I had known only the name of the victim of the man with the crazy eyes. Now I understood how much of what I had been seeing that summer had been shaped by Sebring’s spirit, and how much the name lives on. The bottle of shampoo only begins to tell the story