How much the styles of Swinging London in the sixties depended on the creativity of Jewish craftspeople remains to be fully appreciated. Leonard Lewis, the hairstylist known as Leonard of Mayfair, who died on November 30 at age 78, was part of the mix. Raised in the Shepherd’s Bush area of west London, Lewis explained in a memoir that his parents could not afford another child, with their eldest nearly 20 years old at the time of Leonard’s birth: “The last thing my mother wanted was another child when she fell pregnant with me… my family were not well off.” His mother drank beverages intended to cause a miscarriage, but which only damaged her eyesight.
Meanwhile his father hobnobbed with Jack “Spot” Comer (1912 – 1996) a Soho crime boss of Polish Jewish origin. Dreaming of escape from this milieu, Lewis went to see a 1952 French comedy film “Coiffeur pour dames” (Hairdresser for Ladies, released in the UK as “An Artist with Ladies” and in the USA as “French Touch.”) It starred the horse-faced French comedian Fernandel as Marius, a sheep shearer who changed his name to Mario to become a famed hairdresser and arbiter of style. Living in post-war deprivation, Lewis was impressed by the swirling Gallic universe of wealthy, chic women and the fashion mavens who made their elegance possible. There was also the seduction factor, with Fernandel caressingly displaying an overt erotic interest in his clients. If someone with the equine punim of Fernandel could impress the ladies, surely Lewis, who resembled a handsomer Sid Caesar, also had a chance.
Lewis wrote: “This was the world I wanted to join. I was always determined to do something different. To get out.” He became a manual labourer to pay for an apprenticeship at Evansky’s in Mount Street, London. There he trained with Rose Evansky, a German Jewish refugee born Rose Cannan who had married another refugee hairstylist, Albert Evansky. In the 1960s, Rose Evansky used a hand-held blow-dryer to invent the blow wave, a soft way of styling hair different from previous tightly compressed looks. In an interview in W Magazine, Rose Evansky, still thriving in her nineties, stated that her “usual Jewish anxiety” was a motivating factor in her creativity. Lewis’ next move was to the salon of another Jewish hairstylist who had grown up in Shepherd’s Bush, Vidal Sassoon.
According to Shawn Levy’s “Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London,” Lewis and Sassoon soon parted ways after a disagreement over cutting techniques. Eventually Lewis would open his own salon, The House of Leonard, on Upper Grosvenor Street in London, a glamorous spot which attracted celebrity clients such as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and her husband John F. Kennedy, then President of the United States. In 1966 Lesley Hornby, a teenaged model known as Twiggy, was brought to Leonard for a daringly short haircut that became famous around the world.
At the request of Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles, Lewis also reportedly trimmed the hair of the Fab Four into what became their familiar Mop Top style. Lewis would also train a number of leading UK hairstylists, including John Frieda, of English Jewish origin. Lewis’ renown attracted the attention of director Stanley Kubrick, who hired Lewis to design hairstyles and wigs for a series of his films, including “2001: a Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “Full Metal Jacket.” For “A Clockwork Orange,” Lewis created what he termed “forerunners to the punk Mohawk hairstyle, with the sides of the head shaved and the middle part spiked up and brightly coloured,” while the wigs he developed for “Barry Lyndon” were considered so precious that when he flew them from London to a location site in Dublin, each wig had its own first-class seat on the plane. Lewis noted about his long-time film collaboration:
“When he died, everyone started saying how difficult Kubrick was to work with. But he was lovely. He did tear out the pages of the beautiful books I had bought to research the hair – but that was just Stanley. He just said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll buy more.’ He let me cut his hair too, but then immediately made it scruffy again – that was just how he wanted to look.”
Nor was Kubrick the only director who sought Lewis’ expertise; he also designed hair for Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974). In 1988, a brain tumor forced Lewis into semi-retirement, and the later years of his life were in reduced circumstances, wheelchair-bound and living in humbler areas of London. Some of the haircutters he had inspired helped to pay for his medical care. He was still visited by a few friends from the glory days, including Kubrick and Jack Nicholson, who would request his usual haircut. Other former clients, such as Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, and Bianca Jagger were scarcer. Yet despite returning to the straitened income of his youth, Lewis had effectively achieved the paradisiacal vision of elegance he had so coveted in Fernandel’s “Coiffeur pour dames.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.