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Kenneth Battelle gave Jacqueline Kennedy her tousled bouffant, readied Marilyn Monroe for that famous J.F.K. birthday serenade, and created the chic-est heads at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball. After a half-century, New York's master hairdresser is snipping, shaping, and soothing a new generation of best-tressed women
In the witching hours of May 16, 1990, a frayed electrical wire-embedded inside a second-story wall of the granite town house at 19 East 54th Street-sizzled and threw off sparks. By 4:51 a.m., when the first alarm rang, this miniature torch had ignited the third floor, and by 5:58, after two more alarms had sounded, 125 firemen from 27 companies were battling a conflagration that was incinerating the entire five-story 1897 structure. Nobody was trapped inside, however, as the palazzo-like building had not been used as a private residence since its original inhabitant, a Vanderbilt, had moved out in 1917. Since the spring of 1963, it had been occupied by Kenneth, Manhattan's poshest hair salon-and had served as home away from home for its proprietor, the master hairdresser Kenneth Battelle, and his devoted staff of 100, as well as for his clientele of grandes dames and celebrities, including, over the years, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Brooke Astor, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Graham, Pamela Harriman, Bunny Mellon, Diana Vreeland, Jayne Wrightsman, Drue Heinz, Babe Paley, Rosalind Russell, Hedda Hopper, Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe.
That fateful morning "it was raining in a way I had never seen before," Kenneth says today. Employees showing up for work, clients arriving for standing appointments, and longtime customers-alerted by radio and phone-braved the downpour to witness the inferno with Kenneth in woeful disbelief. News of the calamity swept through New York's rival salons, where rumors sprang up that the fire had been the handiwork of an arsonist. Some competitors even went as far as to send representatives down to 54th Street to poach Kenneth's dispossessed staff. "Nobody offered me a job," he says. "I do, however, recall a girl from a daily newspaper asking, 'Kenneth, how do you feel right now?' And I replied, 'How the f do you think I feel? Go away!' I mean, how does anyone expect you to 'feel' while you're watching your whole life go up in smoke?"
The "whole life" of Kenneth Battelle, only son of a traveling troubleshooter for the Nettleton Shoe Company, began in Syracuse, New York, in 1927. When he was 12, Kenneth's parents separated, and his mother turned to her bookish, artistic boy to support her and his four younger sisters. He obliged by washing dishes at the Syracuse railroad station, operating an elevator, short-order cooking, and selling beer at a baseball stadium. "And every chance I got, I attended the movies," he says.
As the movie theater was not quite enough of an escape, at 17 he enlisted in the navy. On leave one day in 1945 just after the war ended, Kenneth was strolling down Park Avenue in his sailor uniform when "a car suddenly turned a corner," he says. "It was a large, beige Lincoln Cabriolet, with spoked wheels and side-mounted tires, driven by a chauffeur in matching beige livery." The car stopped in front of Louis Sherry's restaurant, and a lady's black, diamond-buckled satin shoe slid through the open door, followed by a slim leg sheathed in black silk hose embellished with clock needlework. Next came a neat, crimped head crowned by a small hat. "A black veil of dotted Swiss lace obscured her face," Kenneth continues, "and she was dressed in a soft black satin suit with a deep, unpressed hemline. When she stepped onto the pavement and started walking, the bottom of her skirt swished sensually around her legs, and then unwound and wrapped back the opposite way." Back at the base, Kenneth declared breathlessly to a friend, "I have just seen why I have got to move to New York City!"
Allotted funds by the G.I. Bill to attend school for only six months, Kenneth had to jettison his plans to become a psychiatrist. "So when I spotted an ad for a beauty school that read, earn $100 a week in six months, I thought, That's for me," he says.
While enrolled in New York City's Wanamaker Academy of Beauty, on East 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, he moonlighted at Chicken Divan, a restaurant in the East 50s, and played show tunes at a piano bar. After further studies at his hometown's Marinello Academy of Beauty Culture, he found a job at the Starlet Beauty Bar, across the street from Syracuse's Greyhound bus station. "I made up something there called the 'club cut,'" he says-"a Waspy, wavy bob inspired by 30s magazine illustrations." In six months, Kenneth says, "we became the shop in town." Emboldened by this local triumph, but afraid to make New York City his home, in October 1949 he migrated to the hair salon of Miami's Sorrento Hotel. Finally, on July 1, 1950, with $8 in his pocket, he moved to Manhattan, into an apartment above a pair of randy …