By now, the esteemed Waldorf-Astoria hair salon known simply as Kenneth should have gone the way of the Stork Club and El Morocco, swank mid-century spots that lost their edges, then their premises. Instead, owner Kenneth Battelle (best known for giving Jackie her bouffant) has turned it into an institution whose storied, kitschy history works for it, not against it – sort of like Playboy, only with class. Last year, Battelle savvily turned over the reins to Kevin Lee, a sweet-faced, well-connected stylist who has boosted the salon’s appeal among the young and influential. But Kenneth – who just turned 75 – has no intention of snipping himself out of the scene, just updating it.
“The country has changed, the culture has changed,” he says, explaining why he was inclined to bring in a younger managerial hand. As he talks, he clips up the blonde locks of a woman in her fifties who flies in from North Carolina every eight weeks for a trim. “In my day, there was no grunge,” he continues. “Anyone who had grunge wasn’t allowed in the restaurant, if you know what I mean.”
Broke after leaving the Navy in 1945, Battelle ended up cutting hair by answering an ad in the paper that promised good pay. “It wasn’t a calling,” he says, but even then, he thought salons should be glamorous places where “people ran around in mud packs and came in with their Russian wolfhounds.” For a while, his own salon, which he opened in 1963, wasn’t far off from that ideal: Diana Vreeland, Babe Paley, and Jean Vanderbilt were among the high-end regulars who swept in for upsweeps. He convinced Jackie to go bouffant, he says, because “being a tall lady – she had shoulders – she needed the balance. We’re talking about a big head versus a little head.” As for Marilyn (“A wisp,” he recalls dreamily, “we were lucky to have known”), he persuaded her to straighten her ringlets. “When you have a blob of curly platinum hair, that’s all you can see,” he explains. “You don’t see the beautiful face.”
Now Lee, a close friend of Michael Kors, has reeled in the young fashion and society set – Tory Burch, Lauren duPont, and Marina Rust Connor all ran into each other there before a big event at the Frick last year. “It was like the party before the party,” says DuPont. “It’s like a secret club – they know your name at the front desk. They bring you tea on these little trays. It has all this history.”
Battelle himself still has a devoted, if aging, celebrity clientele, although he recently lost one – his close pal Joan Rivers. “She’ll tell you I don’t cut her hair anymore because I hate it,” he says. “Why do I hate it? Because I hate it – it’s short. It’s blond. It’s spiky.”
“Real mod,” pipes up his client in the chair.
“Oh, that’s not a word anymore, dear,” he says. “You’ll date us both.”