En garde! Maybe M. Emile was a lousy hairdresser, but he gave his place tone | History | Smithsonian
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En garde! Maybe M. Emile was a lousy hairdresser, but he gave his place tone

En garde! Maybe M. Emile was a lousy hairdresser, but he gave his place tone

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M. Emile was tall and thin, with sparse, pomaded hair. He had traded his upper lip for a little awning of a mustache. He had the incurious gaze of a museum guard. Between clients he took off his white jacket and brushed it hard, as if it had offended him.

M. Emile's accented English was serviceable, but he didn't use it much. I too kept my mouth shut. I was 10 when I was first brought to M. Emile; in two years of monthly visits, I said nothing to him but "Merci."

M. Emile didn't address me at all. He merely extended his palm to my mother, waiting beside me on a folding seat. I climbed onto the client's chair and my mother brought her seat near. M. Emile regarded my head.

My hair was dark brown. I wore it in a Dutch cut-sides and back and bangs ferociously straight.

M. Emile picked up a clean pair of scissors. He held it at arm's length. En garde! I thought. He bent his elbow and began to cut. Touche. I was learning French in "Enrichment" class.

M. Emile snipped. He executed a coup de grace. I blinked through the mirror at my abbreviated Dutch cut. After certain sessions it was particularly uneven. Sometimes what remained of the bangs slanted like a roof.

My mother sighed, just a little.

You may wonder why we continued to patronize M. Emile.

The answer: M. Emile was European.

To my mother, the post-World War II Europeans trickling into town were heroic and wise. The newcomers, many sponsored by the local Committee to Aid Refugees, included my Viennese friend Tanya and her parents (Tanya was in Enrichment too). Also two Czech brothers starting a jewelry business. Also the Armands-Maman and three daughters-who lived in a little flat. All four dressed gorgeously on no money; they drank wine and laughed and listened to recordings of great tenors.

My mother liked Tanya; she invited the Czechs to dinner; late on Saturday afternoons she tottered blissfully home from the Armands. And she rushed to patronize the new French hairdresser, whose backing, like that of the Czech jewelers, had been supplied by the Committee to Aid Refugees.

My mother wore her own hair in a shoulder-length bob. The ends waved naturally. The hair was parted on the side and clasped in a barrette. Even M. Emile could not damage this style-or, if he did, the harm could be repaired at home. But a straight curtain of hair like mine showed every flaw in the artisan's technique. While M. Emile set about exposing my ears, the right more than the left, my mother's eyes told us both that she respected the hairdresser's valor. When he said "The child is finished," my mother's shoulders lifted in a shrug that might have indicated disappointment. But M. Emile and I knew what it meant: beauticians were a dime a dozen; brave Frenchmen were to be cherished like Caruso recordings.

The months went by. My mother and I and a few nearsighted old ladies continued to take our business to M. Emile; the rest of the neighborhood, on one pretext or another, made appointments with his two talented assistants, Mollie and Nora. M. Emile gave them the same remote courtesy he awarded his customers. They grinned tolerantly and flicked suds at each other.

Meanwhile the Enrichment class yawned over Socratic dialogues. Also my skin started to break out. I grew two inches in one week. Overnight my hair became moist and limp.

"Hmmm," said M. Emile one day, cracking the conversational ice. "Mon Dieu," he added. What a chatterbox. "The hair of the demoiselle has a mind of its own." The stuff hung in weak spirals; the recent deployment of the scissors had resulted in strands of differing lengths. My mother fluttered; her daughter's hair was apparently both stubborn and incompetent.

But I was overjoyed. M. Emile had not referred to me as "the child." He had called me "the young lady." A young lady could make decisions for herself.

"Merci," I said, meaning Adieu. "Jamais plus!" I said to my parents at dinner. "I'm going downtown to Ultra-Chic like everybody else. Monsieur may be French, but he's no artiste; and what makes you think he was a maquisard?" My mother murmured something into her coffee. "He looks like a collaborator to me," I went on. My father put up a warning hand, and I calmed down.

By the end of the year, Mollie and Nora were serving all the customers. M. Emile answered the telephone and collected money. No longer needing his white coat, he wore instead an ancient pin-striped suit. With his old-fashioned elegance, with his politeness uncomplicated by conversation, he gave the place tone. Then-after what must have been an odd courtship-he married one of Mollie's hennas and moved to Miami.

To this day I regret impugning M. Emile's patriotism. He wasn't a collaborator. But he wasn't a hairdresser either. He had probably worn a cutaway in the great hall of some provincial department store and kept an eye on the decorum of the salesladies. This resume must have been a problem for him-the Refugee Committee was interested in entrepreneurs, not floorwalkers. His solution, if unheroic, was at least bold. "Que faire?" M. Emile might have said, if he had ever felt like talking.

Mollie and Nora took over the shop and made a lovely go of it.

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