I’ve seen ’em come, and I’ve seen ’em go,” says Kenneth Batelle. “What we offer here has never depended on what others do or charge. And it never will.”
So much for the competition. Yet Mr. Kenneth, the hairdresser who has been associated for three decades with the coiffures of beautiful women, has yet to create a single cut synonymous with his name. Surprisingly, there has never been a Kenneth “look” or “style”—only what he calls “soft, romantic hair—healthy hair you’d want to touch.”
Kenneth’s disdain of labels and fads is one reason Jacqueline Onassis has been faithful to him since 1952, and why her daughter, Caroline, is now a customer. So are Ethel Kennedy, Barbara Walters, Diana Vreeland, Happy Rockefeller, Lally Weymouth and Goldie Hawn. The list seems endless.
“Gurus have hit hairdressing like religious sects,” Kenneth sighs, “but that’s not what it’s all about. Fads are for women who have no self-image, for teenagers—or for women who think they are. God, I hope the Farrah thing is over!”
In an era of rock-disco ambience and assembly-line service, Kenneth, now 50, has built a $2 million business on understated elegance and the most personal attention in town. “Some people think the word ‘service’ is dirty,” he says, “but that’s what we sell.” In the Billy Baldwin-decorated salon in mid-town Manhattan that Kenneth opened in 1963, clients relax in discreetly curtained rooms with paisley-tented ceilings, lacquered furniture and flowered chaise tongues. They may be there for the touch of Kenneth’s own shears. Although he supervises a staff of 90, he personally keeps 10 to 12 appointments a day (at $50 a cut) and is booked two months in advance.
Three years ago he expanded with a second Kenneth salon in Atlanta, which Rosalynn Carter patronizes (she is occasionally “done” by Kenneth himself). He sympathizes with the hair problems of First Ladies. “You know damn well these women are in and out of helicopters,” he protests, “but we expect them to look like Barbie dolls.”
The one unyielding rule in Kenneth’s salons is: “Our customer is always right, no matter who she is. She has a right to be demanding—she’s paying for it. This isn’t a place where a stylist’s ego gets put on a client’s head.” Hair should fit a woman’s life-style, he believes, and be done in a way that she can keep looking good herself. He is infuriated by customers who do not know what they want. “No one,” he insists, “should ever say, ‘Oh, do what you want’—even to me.”
At heart, Kenneth is both a teacher and a proselytizer. Born in upstate New York, the only boy in a family of four sisters (his father was a shoe salesman), Kenneth attended Syracuse University until money ran out. “I saw an ad for a hairdressing school that promised $100-a-week jobs,” he recalls. “That was an awful lot of money then.” He took the course and went to work in a three-chair beauty shop in Syracuse—for $30 a week.
He soon struck out for New York, landing a job with Helena Rubinstein, then moving on to Lilly Daché. One of his clients was Glamour beauty editor Karlys Daly, who was impressed by his commitment to loose, easy, wash-and-wear hair. She signed Kenneth to write a series of how-to articles. “When I started to teach women to do things themselves,” says Kenneth, “everyone said I’d wreck the business.” Kenneth flourished. “He was the only hairdresser ever featured on Glamour’s cover,” Daly recalls.
For Vogue and Glamour, Kenneth made the equivalent of three and a half trips around the world, arranging coiffures on such royal heads as Iran’s Farah Diba and Queen Sirikit of Thailand. What finally made him a national byword was President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural; the bouffant hairdo he styled for Jackie swept the nation.
Once he opened his own hair salon, Kenneth found himself catapulted into the jet set. “He was the first hairdresser to make it into the houses of the rich and powerful as a guest,” says beauty editor Daly. “If you went to a party and Kenneth was there, you knew it was the A list.” She adds, “If anyone has been in a position to capitalize on his clients, it is Kenneth. He has never discussed any of them.”
Kenneth has since taken himself off the party circuit. “It didn’t work,” he explains. “Now I have a life separate from my clients, and it works better.” But he remains the soul of discretion. Clients occasionally whisper confidences to him, he acknowledges. “Not that I’m not titillated by that sort of thing,” he admits. “But I discourage it.”
There are reports of an occasional rumpus in his normally well-behaved salons. Kenneth admits that “a current wife and an ex-wife or a mistress may turn up at the same time. We make sure that doesn’t happen again.” And if things get out of hand? “Then,” says Kenneth firmly, “I take over.”