August 20, 1907 – Sydney Guilaroff
Sydney Guilaroff was the chief hair stylist at MGM from 1934 until the late 1970s. He worked on at least 2000 films. Probably the greatest hair stylist in the history of Hollywood, he was the first ever hair stylist to receive film credits.
He did the hair for work and the galas for the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hedy Lamarr, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Lena Horne, Kathryn Grayson, Ann-Margret, Spencer Tracy, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.
Guilaroff was more than a stylist to the stars. He was a confidant who was summoned by Grace Kelly to Monaco to style her hair for her wedding to Prince Ranier. He sat with bedridden Crawford the night she won the Academy Award for Mildred Pierce (1945), a surrogate father to Elizabeth Taylor when her husband Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash, and the one a distraught Monroe called the night she died in August 1962 and then served as one of the pallbearers at her funeral.
He was, by all accounts, an elegant and charming man, he was also extremely popular with the stars, with a reputation for discretion. Because of his position, he heard plenty gossip and private information, yet he could be relied on for his confidentiality. Debbie Reynolds:
“Sydney knew everyone and all their secrets and was totally trustworthy.”
He was born in London to a family of Jewish Russian immigrants. His family moved to Canada, and at 14 years old he left to take a job sweeping the floor of a beauty salon in New York City. Two years later, he was so creative at hair dressing that he had his own clientele. In another two years, most of the salon’s clients requested his services.
Claudette Colbert discovered 21-year-old ”Mr. Sydney” in 1928 at the elegant Saks Fifth Avenue salon in Manhattan. He gave her the bangs that were her trademark for the rest of her life. He created the iconic bob for Louise Brooks, which she used throughout her career; a few months after he gave Brooks her signature look, he saw her in a film with his hairdo. It was the first time a film star had worn one of his creations on screen.
Crawford insisted that he be her only hairdresser, she made the studio fly her to NYC for hair styling before she started each new film, MGM finally decided it was cheaper to just move Guilaroff to Culver City. Guilaroff:
“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 him to a contract in 1935. Guilaroff:
“I can’t say I liked Mayer, but I respected him. He was dedicated to making fine films, but he could be cruel. I thought his eventual treatment of Garbo and Crawford was abominable.”
He took Lucille Ball from a blond to a redhead and gave that bubble cut worn by Ingrid Berman in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) that became a worldwide craze, copied by millions of women. For Garbo he created both the curly coiffure of Camille (1936) and the pageboy of Ninotchka (1939), and he styled Garbo’s hair for all her subsequent films, including her final movie, Two-Faced Woman (1941).
He was able to keep the hairdos of Esther Williams looking good while underwater by applying a touch of Vaseline to her hair. He created Jean Harlow‘s blond curls after going nearly bald from bleaching. He was responsible for Lamarr’s shoulder-length tresses and stunning period wigs and hairdos for Quo Vadis (1951) and Cleopatra (1963).
Taylor was so insistent that Guilaroff do her hair for Cleopatra, to be filmed in England, that she was willing to pull out of the project when the British unions opposed the plan. Finally, it was agreed that Guilaroff would prepare her privately in the early mornings but was not allowed to set foot in Pinewood Studios.
Guilaroff’s diplomacy was tested when he worked with both Shearer and Crawford, and the all-female cast in The Women (1939). Guilaroff gave Crawford a curly permanent, leaving more time to work with Shearer. Crawford said tartly after filming:
“Norma wore her usual ‘classic simplicity’ do, which took two hours to achieve each morning.”
The Women star Rosalind Russell:
“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 realized I was sloughed off.”
For Dietrich in Kismet (1944), he had her blonde hair piled high then twisted and braided for spectacular effect. Years later, he styled Dietrich’s hair for her famed cabaret shows, and spent time in Europe with her. Guilaroff:
“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 styled the hair of Monroe for her first important screen-test and was her confidant throughout the rest of her life. He worked on her last film, The Misfits (1961). Guilaroff:
“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.”
Guilaroff designed Dietrich’s dark wig in Orson Welles‘s Touch Of Evil (1958).
Of Ava Gardner, he wrote:
“I miss Ava the most. 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.”
He wrote that his greatest challenge was the 1938 production of Marie Antoinette, which required 2,000 court wigs, some with live birds in cages, lesser wigs for 3,000 extras and Shearer’s monumental bejeweled and feathered artists’ ball creation. For that project Guilaroff and costume designer Adrian traveled to Paris to research costumes and wigs during the time of Marie Antoinette.
In 1938, Guilaroff became the first unmarried man in the USA allowed to adopt a child, a one-year-old boy named Jon. The adoption was opposed by the state of California, which did everything legally to prevent it. Guilaroff, ultimately prevailed and went on to adopt another son, Eugene. Accounts say that he was a doting father, plus the boys got free haircuts.
In his memoir, Crowning Glories (1996), Guilaroff finally spilled-the-beans and filled his book with insider Hollywood tales and secrets. He wrote that Monroe told him that she planned to reveal to the public her affair with Robert Kennedy. Also, in the memoir, he attempts to fashion himself as a straight man who bedded many of Hollywood’s biggest female stars. In Hollywood, where image is everything, he never wanted anyone to know that he was a queer or a Jew. Too bad then when recently departed Esther Williams outed Guilaroff as a gay man (not bisexual) in her memoir The Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), plus Scotty Bowers, in his tell-all Full Service (2012), claims to have had dozens of liaisons with Guilaroff. Poor man, he was so paranoid about his gayness that he tried to pass off boyfriends as relatives.
In 1994, when Lena Horne returned to the MGM lot to serve as a narrator for That’s Entertainment Part 3, she requested Guilaroff do her hair for the planned sequence. He was back at the studio more than 60 years after first arriving at MGM.
His last project was The Two Mrs Grenvilles (1987), which reunited him with Claudette Colbert. It is sort of lovely that she was the first star he styled and the last.
Guilaroff put down that styling brush and blow-dryer for good in 1997, taken by pneumonia at his house in Beverly Hills, six months shy of his 90th birthday. In The Women, the beauty salon that figures in the plotline is name Sydney’s.