Meet the Man Who Styled Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe's Hair — But Never Shared Their Secrets

Liz McNeil
·4-min read

On the night that Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, her hairdresser, Kenneth (who needed no last name) visited her Manhattan apartment and styled her hair into a platinum blonde swoop.

“Marilyn did not want me backstage with her,” Kenneth said once in an interview. “She said she was fearful of publicity. I don’t know what she had in mind, but since I was doing both Marilyn and Mrs. Kennedy at the same time, I imagine it was about that.”

That story, and many more, are shared in a new biography of the legendary hairstylist: Kenneth: Shear Elegance, by Giuseppe Longo.

"There was Hollywood royalty and that was Marilyn Monroe, and there was American royalty and that was Mrs. Kennedy, and those were the two most famous ladies of that era," says Longo. "And they were both connected to Kenneth."

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The book tells the story of how the man born Kenneth Battelle became the hairdresser to the stars, including Judy Garland, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jackie's sister, Lee Radziwill, Princess Margaret (when she visited New York), and assorted other royalty and socialites.

He began styling Jackie Kennedy's hair in the late fifties when JFK was still a senator. According to Longo, Kenneth said: "She was a very pretty girl whose hair had a mind of its own. It was too short, layered and curly for her tall proportions and big bones." He suggested she grow her hair longer and use big rollers (created just for her) to slightly loosen her signature bouffant.

"It was also Kenneth's idea to have a wisp of her hair slightly undone, so her husband could tuck it back behind her ear," says Longo.

Kenneth styled the First Lady's hair on the morning of Nov. 21, 1963, before she traveled to Dallas with JFK. "Both she and the President were glowing that day," he recalled. "They looked so fit and so happy."

After the assassination and Jackie had moved to Manhattan, she was a regular at Kenneth's 5th Avenue salon into the eighties. Despite the proximity, Kenneth was never one to share client secrets.

"He was private and very discreet," says Longo, "and that's how he attracted both the wife and the mistress of the president. They fully trusted him. Kenneth treated his clients like royalty. He had a black Mercedes Benz that would pick up clients at their home and bring them to the salon."

"At the time the hairstyles required a lot of hairspray but Kenneth left his hairstyles a little undone," he explains. "He wanted the ladies to be able to move and not have these concrete fixtures on their head."

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He became especially friendly with Monroe. "Sometimes he would provide Marilyn with a wig and sunglasses and they'd go around Manhattan together, incognito," says Longo.

He also styled Marilyn's hair six weeks before she died for what was known as "the last sitting" with photographer Bert Stern. "Afterwards he ran to catch a plane and six weeks later, she was gone," says Longo. "I think he wished he had fully understood the depths of her sadness. Marilyn didn't divulge every detail. There was a sense that she kept that part of her life private."

After he retired and was living in upstate New York, he agreed to cooperate with Longo on a memoir but he died in 2013 at age 86 before interviews could commence . With the approval of his estate, Longo used his archives, previously unpublished photos, and spoke to his employees and some former clients, including Melissa Rivers, who visited the salon, along with her mom Joan Rivers, who was a close confidante.

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"Mr Kenneth. That's what I called him," writes Melissa Rivers in the book's forward. "That's what we all called the most famous hairstylist in twentieth-century New York."

"It was so much history," says Longo. "And I thought if it's not put on the record, it would be lost."

"Before Kenneth, women's hair was tucked away and hidden under hats," says Longo, "And with Kenneth, he made a woman's hair her most important accessory."

"Kenneth always pushed a hairstyle that would suit your look. He was not about the latest cut," explains Longo. "Each of Kenneth's cuts were unique, just like his ladies."