Obituary: Sydney Guilaroff

Widely regarded as the greatest hairdresser in the history of the movies, Sydney Guilaroff created the hairstyles for many of the most important stars, spending most of his career at the most glamorous of studios, MGM.

From Garbo and Harlow to Taylor and Monroe, his distinctive styles helped to create mood and define the characters of leading players. An elegant and charming man, he was also extremely popular with those stars, not least because of his reputation for discretion. In a position where he became privy to gossip and private facts, he could be relied upon to maintain confidentiality. "Sydney knew everyone and all their secrets," said Debbie Reynolds, "and was totally trustworthy."

Close friends included such stars as Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor (he accompanied her to Mike Todd's funeral), Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe and the elusive Garbo, with whom he maintained a close friendship until her death.

He worked on over 2,000 films, plus television shows and stage presentations, and was the first hairdresser to receive credit on screen. For Garbo he created both the curly coiffure of Camille and the pageboy of Ninotchka. He created the famous bob for Louise Brooks, the short locks and bangs for Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow's blonde curls, Hedy Lamarr's shoulder- length tresses, and stunning period wigs and hairdos for such films as Marie Antoinette, Quo Vadis and Cleopatra. Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and Greer Garson are other screen beauties who relied on the skills of Guilaroff.

Born in London in 1906 but brought up in Winnipeg, Canada, by his Russian parents, he went to New York in his early teens determined to find work there - at one point he slept on benches in Central Park. At 14, he worked in Gimbel's department store, then found employment as assistant in a hair salon, sweeping and doing odd jobs. The owner, impressed by Guilaroff's commitment, trained him in hairstyling, and by the time he was 18 he was being requested by most of the customers.

Louise Brooks, her hair styled in the popular "Buster Brown" look, came to the salon asking for a new style. "I cut one side slowly," said Guilaroff, "and she said it looked good - she trusted me - so I cut a bit shorter and cut in a `slant' fashion, the longest point of hair coming to her ear-lobe. I then shingled her hair very short in the back. A few months later I saw her in a film with my haircut. It was the first time a film star had worn one of my creations on screen."

A bout of tuberculosis sent Guilaroff back to Winnipeg, but on recovery he returned to New York and a position at another hairdressing establishment, "Antoines", frequented by the rich and famous. Corinne Griffith, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins were among his customers, but it was Joan Crawford who changed his life. After he had styled her hair, she insisted he be her only dresser.

"For the next three years she would make the trek from Hollywood to New York to have me design a new hairstyle for her upcoming films. She would photograph the hairdos and watch me carefully. Then, armed with her photos and knowledge, she would instruct the hairdressers at Metro how to style her new look. Finally, Louis B. Mayer complained about Joan always leaving Hollywood before she would start a film and asked Joan why she insisted on me. The next thing I knew I was aboard the Sunset Limited and headed for MGM and a new life."

Mayer signed Guilaroff to a contract in 1935. "I can't say I liked Mayer." said Guilaroff, "but I respected him. He was dedicated to making fine films, but he could be cruel. I thought his eventual treatment of Garbo and Joan Crawford was abominable."

One of Guilaroff's first tasks was to devise suitable wigs for Jean Harlow, who was rapidly going bald due to years of weekly bleaching. Guilaroff's first film with Garbo was Camille (1936) ("I had been on the Metro lot for nearly six months without meeting Garbo, which was distressing to me. Then Crawford recommended me to her and I was called to her dressing room to discuss styling ideas for Camille"). Guilaroff was to style Garbo's hair for her subsequent films, including her final movie, Two-Faced Woman (1941).

Guilaroff's own favourite film was the sumptuous Marie Antoinette (1938). "The designer Adrian and I went to Paris to study and research the fashion and hairstyles of Marie Antoinette's time. Of all the work I've ever done my best and most challenging work was found in that film."

The following year Guilaroff's diplomacy was tested when he worked with both Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford (plus an all-female cast) in The Women. Never having worked with both ladies at once, Guilaroff solved the dilemma by giving Crawford a curly permanent, leaving more time to work with Shearer. Crawford said tartly afterwards: "Norma wore her usual `classic simplicity' do, which took two hours to achieve each morning." Rosalind Russell added, "I was also supposed to have access to Sydney, but he got rid of that by having me wear a hat throughout the picture. At the time I thought it was a divine idea. When I saw the film I realised I was sloughed off."

By now Guilaroff was head of Metro's hair department and in demand by all the top stars. Vivien Leigh, unhappy with the work done by the producer David Selznick's crew on Gone with the Wind, arranged for Guilaroff to work on her hairstyles, though he received no screen credit. "I helped her in my own time, and designed hairdos to go with her numerous costume changes." In 1943, when Selznick's protegee Ingrid Bergman was about to star in For Whom the Bell Tolls at Paramount, Selznick insisted that Guilaroff be allowed to cut her hair for the role - the resultant "bubble cut" created a world-wide craze and was copied by millions of women.

The following year Guilaroff created one of his favourite hairstyles for Marlene Dietrich in Kismet (1944), giving her blonde hair piled high then twisted and braided for spectacular effect. Many years later he styled Dietrich's hair for her famed cabaret appearances, and spent some time in Europe with her. "She was such fun - I remember the press went crazy because Marlene and I got kicked out of a gambling casino in Monte Carlo. She was wearing this really daring skin-tight black leather outfit, and in those days the casino would not let any woman in that did not wear a gown." Guilaroff later designed for Dietrich the dark wig she wears in Welles's Touch of Evil (1958).

He solved the problems of keeping the hair of the swimming star Esther Williams beautifully coiffeured both in and out of the pool by applying a touch of Vaseline.

His many films with Ava Gardner included Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and Show Boat. "I miss Ava the most," he stated recently. "She was simply stunning, a great actress underrated because of her incredible beauty. Of all the stars I've ever met, she was the most natural and down-to-earth." Elizabeth Taylor, another beauty who became a friend, was so insistent that Guilaroff do her hair in Cleopatra, to be filmed in England, that she was ready to pull out of the film when the British unions opposed the plan. The matter was resolved when it was agreed that Guilaroff could prepare the actress privately in the early mornings but was not allowed to set foot in Pinewood Studios.

Audrey Totter, who had one of her finest roles as leading lady in Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1946) credits Guilaroff for his contribution to her portrayal. "Bob told the legendary hair stylist, "I want something unusual for Audrey", and he got it in a succession of pretzel-twist upsweeps that gave my character the proper smart, taut look". Guilaroff also gave Lucille Ball her celebrated golden red hairdo for Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and worked too on men's hair. "I did them all - I think my favourites were Clark Gable, Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor."

Guilaroff styled the hair of Marilyn Monroe for her first important screen- test, and was her friend and confidant throughout the rest of her life. He worked on her last film, The Misfits (1961). "She was wonderful in that. She did the film to please Arthur Miller, yet he was having an affair - this made poor Marilyn very unhappy." Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Ben Hur (1959) were among Guilaroff's favourites of the films he worked on. His last was the television movie The Two Mrs Grenvilles (1987), which reunited him with Claudette Colbert. "She was the first star I styled and the last. I originally styled her at Antoines when she was filming in New York. I studied her lovely face and cut her hair very short, then gave her bangs. She kept the hairdo for the rest of her life, with small variations on it."

A few months ago Sydney Guilaroff published his auto- biography, Crowning Glory.

Sydney Guilaroff, hairdresser: born London 2 November 1906; married (two sons); died Los Angeles 28 May 1997.

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