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- November 29, 1976
- Vol. 6
- No. 22
Tyrant and Genius, Alexandre Holds the World's Loveliest Women in the Palms of His Hands
Alexandre once put Princess Grace of Monaco in a truck.
Alexandre was thanked by Judy Garland from the stage of Paris' Palais de Chaillot Theater for making her beautiful.
Alexandre has seen Liz Taylor au naturel.
Alexandre left the king and queen of Thailand weeping when he departed from Bangkok.
Alexandre knows that Greta Garbo holds her ponytail in place with a rubber band; he has seen it.
Alexandre is a name-dropper. And he has such a famous one himself that the names he drops drop his. He also has dropped his own—his surname, anyway. He is a monomial superstar, like Liz, Groucho, Ike, Bing. When President Kennedy, on his 1961 state visit to Paris, met him, he said, "Ah, Alexandre, the genius."
Alexandre is the master hairstylist, the coiffeur to queens, the 5'7", 135-pound absolute monarch of his salon on the elegant Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré. The tousled heads of Europe and at least four other continents make pilgrimages to it in a steady stream.
The salon occupies the second floor of No. 120, an 18th-century townhouse just a few steps from the exclusive Hotel le Bristol and the Élysée Palace. The current occupant of the palace, alas, has one of the few coiffures Alexandre does not lay his million-dollar (insured value) hands on. Mme. Giscard d'Estaing has her hair done at the Hilton. "It is easier for me to be received in foreign throne rooms than in the Élysée," sniffs Alexandre.
The parade of rich, beautiful and powerful women at Alexandre's luxe beauty parlor astonishes an assistant, Charles Nicholas. He is a 30-year-old Bostonian who sold his car and his shop (Mr. Charles of Swampscott) to spend six months as an unpaid apprentice to the French master. "You can't imagine the excitement," he says. "Two days ago we had Princess Grace in here. The last client today was a princess of Saudi Arabia. This morning I checked the hair color of Romy Schneider. Sophia Loren was in a little while ago."
Alexandre calls his clients—not just the Graces and Sophias, but all the visitors on his rendez-vous calendar—"my queens" or "my princesses" or "my women." He points out: "A couturier like Yves Saint Laurent works in a vacuum. He has the vision of the woman, but I have the woman herself." He had coiffed Elizabeth Taylor for so many movies that he was virtually a member of her household. It was during the filming of Doctor Faustus in 1966 that he saw her nude. "A Rubens," he exclaims. When she was near death from pneumonia in 1961, he created for her, right on her bed of pain, his famous "artichoke" hairdo, after which she speedily recovered. He gave Jackie Kennedy the regal look she wore on her 1961 visit to France. He also has ministered to JFK's mother, Rose, and in 1960, noticing that she was rattling her rosary under the hair dryer, asked why. "I'm praying that my son becomes President," said Rose.
Strictly as a one-shot coiffure for a big Monaco costume party in 1965, he piled Princess Grace's golden hair and jewels upon gold wire in a hairdo so tall that she had to pass up the state limousine and ride to the dance standing in the rear of a panel truck.
But just as surely as he has shaped his women's hair, so has Alexandre been shaped by them. He learned court protocol from the Duchess of Windsor and received acting tips from Liz (who got him the role of the Spanish ambassador in The Taming of the Shrew). Much as he loves them all, Alexandre will make calls only for three: Liz, Grace and Guy de Rothschild's wife, Marie-Héléne, Paris' most powerful locomotive, as the French describe trend-setters. One suspects that he might visit another Elizabeth, across the Channel, but he hasn't been asked. He would not do the same for the Dowager Queen Frederika of Greece. They have had a falling-out.
Liz, Grace and Mme. de Rothschild aside, Alexandre is the tyrant of No. 120. "Obey me!" he roared recently at a wealthy Lebanese who had made a suggestion about her hair. Then he added, "Or else I will not let anyone here touch you. And if you don't like it, find another barber." She succumbed.
Sometimes he combines tyranny with a touch of contrariness. One day he took over from an assistant at work on the Baronne Parisi, Rome's No. 1 locomotive. With scissors and comb he made her russet crew cut Astro Turf smooth. "She has the most beautiful hair in Europe. That's why I cut it off," he announced to a covey of visiting hairdressers. (Called stagiaires, they pay $50 to sit in for a day and watch, like doctors in an operating room gallery.) "It looks like a toilet brush to me," whispered one, careful not to let Alexandre hear.
The tyrant/genius was born Louis Albert Alexandre Raimon 54 years ago into a peasant family in St.-Tropez. Maman kept him in dresses and shoulder-length tresses for nine years during which he curled his dolls' hair. He shrugged off school and a job as a dentist's apprentice, and at 14 announced he wanted to work in the local hairdresser's salon. Sighs from his parents, then a decision, made by his grandmother: "Better a good assassin than a bad priest."
A family friend recommended him to the Cannes branch salon of the late hairstylist Monsieur Antoine. Alexandre started as the lowest assistant in the salon, assigned to shampoo duty. Meanwhile he bullied the concierge of his rooming house, her friends and the salon manicurist into letting him practice hairstyling on them. He haunted libraries and museums, seeking out illustrations of historical hairdos: Concierges emerged looking like Cleopatra, Empress Eugénie and Marie Antoinette. Finally it happened: A rich client noticed the manicurist's hairdo and wanted one just like it. Alexandre, 17, became a coiffeur. Within a year the first of a future stream of Rothschilds—the Baroness James—became his "exclusive" and began sending her friends.
World War II briefly halted Alexandre's career. He served with the Free French in the south of France as a colonel's orderly, got married, had two children and divorced. After the war he resumed his rise. First the beautiful Begum, whose husband, the Aga Khan, made the newsreels from time to time receiving his weight in gold from grateful constituents, summoned him to her villa to work on her hair. Then a call came from the Château de Croë, the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. There he scored a triumph, taming the duchess' wayward hair with a trick of his own invention: "knitting" individual locks in alternate directions over the roller. "What have you done to my hair?" she demanded next morning. As he held his breath, she went on: "For once it stayed in place."
Still in Antoine's employ, he followed the Windsors to Paris, darting occasionally into the Louvre to study the classic styling of some of the art. Then, early in the 1950s, nearly as famous as his clients, he left Antoine's. In 1957, after a bootless attempt at a partnership and a forgettable few months of operating in a fifth-floor walkup bachelor apartment, he let some clients with names like Rothschild and Onassis bankroll an Alexandre salon.
Today the boss is all over the place, long before the arrival, at 10 a.m., of the first white poodles leading their mink-clad mistresses on leashes. Up at 6 in the apartment overlooking the Bois de Boulogne that he shares with his business manager and promoter, Gerard Saldi, he handles his correspondence till 8. Then he taxis to the salon and inspects the premises: the electric dryers, the curlers, the combs and the manicuring equipment. Next he looks over the 14 coiffeurs in their white uniforms, and the 28 assistantes, pretty women in T-shirts.
From the moment the first client is seated, Alexandre is in everybody's hair. He moves swiftly from chair to chair, smiling, coaxing, suggesting, advising ("What jewelry are you going to wear?" "What kind of function is it?" "How tall is the man you're going with?"), reproving, touching up with comb and scissors and occasionally returning to his white plastic throne at stage center. At lunchtime waiters with café noir and club sandwiches circulate. "I wish the day had 12 more hours," Alexandre likes to say. "A 36-hour day would suit me fine." He keeps up his salon footwork till 6 or 7 p.m., then dashes off to a theater where he has designed wigs for a musical, to a fashion presentation (he oversees the hairstyling for the collections of Lanvin, Esterel, Givenchy and Saint Laurent) or to some other affair in which he has a professional interest. By the time he gets back to his Boulevard James apartment and into bed (which is flanked by an inscribed photo of Jackie, JFK and their kids on the left and pictures of the Windsors and Liz and Richard on the right), he is in a state of nervous exhaustion.
Although he sometimes calls himself an "industrialist," he is still essentially an artisan. He has opened a second Paris salon on the Avenue Matignon, and others in Rome, Milan, Madrid and Tel Aviv. (He has vague plans for a salon in New York.) He sells Alexandre foulards ($10 apiece) as well as combs, brushes, mirrors and ornaments, largely the work of his 32-year-old son, Michel, an industrial designer. (His daughter, Daniele, 33, is an unmarried biologist.) But he has turned down, to Saldi's dismay, lucrative offers for rights to make and sell many items bearing his name. An Alexandre perfume is rumored, but he won't talk about that, any more than he will discuss his earnings, a sensible precaution in view of the extreme sensitivity of French tax authorities.
Likened to a Pope by the press for what it sees as his increasing superstar inaccessibility, he confesses hurt. "That kind of glory can be like a bomb," he says. "Some women think they can't come to my place because they are not princesses or baronesses. But I'm not stuck away in my Vatican. Any woman can sit in my chairs. All she has to do is make a rendez-vous."
He does, however, consider himself a defender of the faith of beauty and elegance. On his visits to the U.S., he found an abundance of energy and a dearth of taste. He even saw women in public in curlers. "That is a lack of modesty that is unbearable," he says. "I detest it!"
For respite from the pressure of women pursuing "eternally fugitive beauty," he frequently goes into a windowless room, turns off the lights and stands in the dark until he can begin to think. Too often what he thinks of is the time he and Elizabeth Taylor were almost crushed by fans in Moscow. "I was very afraid," he said later. "Ever since that day I have lived in fear of being crushed beneath the high heels of an army of hysterical women. They are capable of anything."
December 19, 2014
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