Stories Feature
Hair Icons: Kenneth Battelle

Kenneth Battelle styling Marilyn Monroe's hair in the late 1950s

By Tautahi Subritzky

Kenneth Battelle (Mr Kenneth to you) is often referred to as the first celebrity hairstylist and is unquestionably recognised as a hair icon, but how did he get there?

Kenneth’s first position in hairstyling was at the Starlet Beauty Bar, opposite the Greyhound bus station in Syracuse (his home town). Local sex workers made up much of his clientele along with other local patrons. It was on these heads that Kenneth honed his skills, and developed his first ‘must have’ style. The ‘club cut’ - a wavy bob inspired by 30’s magazine illustrations. The cut became so popular it made Starlet Beauty Bar “the shop in town.”

After achieving local success, Kenneth left his hometown briefly working as a hairstylist in Miami, until finally making the decision to relocate to New York City in 1950 (with $9 in his pocket). He applied for a position with Helena Rubinstein which was where his career took off.

A portrait of Jackie Kennedy and J.F.K., Yellow Room, 1959 by Mark Shaw

After she wed J.F.K., Jackie Kennedy had what was called the ‘Italian cut’, which Kenneth felt was too short, layered and curly for her tall proportions and broad cheekbones. it was makeover time! This is where Jackie's ‘bouffant’ was born.

“I believed that hair should be like fabric—light should pass through it, and you should want to put your hand in it. I thought of hair as soft, healthy, lustrous, innocent, and pretty, like a child’s.”

Kenneth’s goal was to persuade women to rely less on permanents, bleaches and hair sprays in favour of a romantic look with natural-looking waves.

Marilyn Monroe on the night of her infamous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ performance

In the late 1950’s, Kenneth found a new client in Marilyn Monroe. Kenneth had started a new position at a millinery turned salon, Lilly Daché and after completing filming on ‘Some Like It Hot’ Marilyn found her hair was at breaking point, falling out from over-bleaching and over-perming.

She reached out to Kenneth Battelle. With his awareness and understanding of the damage that the aforementioned hair treatments were causing, he made her hair softer, smoother and straighter. He wasn’t completely opposed to bleaching of course and claims to have assisted Marilyn (not a fan of V.P.L.) in lightening the shade of her pubic hair so as to not show through her white shift dresses when she was being photographed with flash photography.

Kenneth groomed Marilyn for one of her most poignant performances in history, the 45th birthday rally for J.F.K. in Madison Square Garden, where she sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’. Kenneth was not allowed backstage prior to her performance, which we have all come to learn why.

19 East 54th Street in New York City, Kenneth Salon.

Kenneth Battell’s maximalist salon with interior designed by Billy Baldwin, who was heavily inspired by the interior of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.

More for you...