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The Power of Hair

(Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

Hair is the crown that grows on us: the surprise fuzz on some babies, the thick hair of youth that even youth does not prize enough, the strands of the old, unattended on nursing-home pillows. Samson’s strength lay in his hair; so does woman’s: “Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains / And mighty hearts are held in slender chains.” When my friend Doug upstate cuts his own — he stands in the shower, lets it stream down, then scissors around the bottom — he puts the hairs outside so that birds can use them in their nests.

Hair was a battleground for my teenage years, as it was, I suppose, for every male of my age. I used acting to outflank resistance: Nicky Arnstein and Frederick Graham could be portrayed only by a mustached youth. They say that men grow facial hair when queens rule England. So Elizabeth was responsible for the Sgt. Pepper look. It works here too: Look at the late-19th-century (peak-Victorian) occupants of the White House. But when Tom Dewey ran in the reign of George VI he was dismissed as the little man on the wedding cake.

My wife has had the same cutter since she was 16. She and her mother found him on one of their annual pilgrimages to the city. He worked in the salon of the swinging Londoner who pioneered the natural look, freeing women from curlers and space-helmet hair dryers. My wife felt awkward as a kid; here was ease and sophistication. When she moved to the city herself, their rendezvous became more regular. When he got an assignment to do a layout of a fancy haircut for a young-women’s magazine, hers was his head of choice. Her boyfriend at the time wrote a wistful poem: “You’re on the cover of Ingenue. What will I do? Everyone will see your face, Recognize you every place.” The boyfriend left, the cutter stayed true. He moved from salon to salon, and later from place to place — islands, deserts — but he always came back to the city, either to live or to make visits to the locks of old customers. For the last decade or two he has come to our apartment. We spread a sheet on the rug to catch clippings, plug in the extension cord for his clipper, keep track of the item he invariably leaves behind like a clue to find his way back again. He had a Virginia accent, one of the lovely ones. His years away have worn it to a memory, like the smell of vintage port on a cork. He has returned at last to the Old Dominion, to the city he grew up in, a few blocks from the house he lived in.

After talking about each other, he and my wife talk about her mother (he knew her head well), his mother (he prepared her coif for the coffin), his basset hound.

Lately he became ill. His mother lived into her 90s, we do not expect the big trip, but will he ever be able to take the trip to the city again? I think little of my hair now, wrongly. Against the rout of baldness I have kept a nice white cockatoo crest, carefully nourished by our cutter. But for my wife hair is a matter of identity — the difference between savoir faire and high school. She has a length that amounts to a look. Everything from affect to earrings matches it. She can’t just step in at the nearest barber pole. Who, even if only temporarily, could take her cutter’s place?

She asked a younger friend whose look is similar who cuts her hair, and we checked him out.

This column, you will have noticed, avoids proper names (well, but for pols, sovereigns, and other exhibitionists). Enough to say that the new cutter shares the name of a predator: Lyon, Foxe, Badger, Fisher — one of those. Like them, he has a tail — silver, braided, neatly pinned up. We met him at his chair in a small salon between a pet store and bake shop.

He got my head right away. Men — it’s just like our clothes. Pants, shirt, jacket: This is all on earth ye know, and all ye need to know. Women are different, for cutters and for women both. Cutters are regularly subjected to demands as imperious as they are absurd. Make me look like the Caribbean diva. Well, lose 40 pounds and sell a hundred million records, and we’ll try. Women, for their part, only want to look like what they were before the world was made. I try to lose as many pounds as I can, which is few, and I will never sell any records, but I know I am unique, so if you can’t make me look exactly like the Caribbean diva, make me look special.

My wife’s preferred hair length is short — quite short. There is a stone in a wet spot behind our house in the country that every spring dons a coat of springy moss. My wife’s head would be that stone if it were bright green. Black women comment on it appreciatively (you see more short hair on black women’s heads than on white women’s). The first time our new cutter tackled my wife, her hair came out short. But then, as it grew, it began to look like — ordinary hair.

Discussion ensued. This was not a question that could be resolved by fiat. At issue were the cutter’s creativity and the cuttee’s style. Originality of the deed and originality of the presentation. My wife employed all the communicative arts acquired in years of being a psychoanalyst and the liberal wife of a winger. The cutter consulted all his skills acquired in years of getting from here to there (here to hair). Over the visits the mossy stone flickered, held steady for longer and longer, finally became real. A meeting of the minds, a meeting of the heads.

This article appears as “Cutting It Close” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Richard Brookhiser

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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