Saturday, October 3, 2020

Jay Sebring Is the Godfather of Men's Hairstyling. So Why Haven't You Heard of Him?

By Garrett Munce (Esquire)
Oct 1, 2020

The first celebrity men's hairstylist was murdered by the Manson Family. Now, a new documentary tells his whole story.

Jay Sebring...
Cutting to the Truth
Let's get this out of the way first: on August 9, 1969, members of the Manson Family murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four friends in cold blood. You know the story. It sent shockwaves through the nation that can still be felt in our culture today, decades later (see, most recently: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood). As Joan Didion famously said, it was the day the '60s ended. Charles Manson and his murderous followers became mythic boogeymen, but as their roles in American culture were cemented, the lives and legacies of the victims faded away.

One of those four other victims was Jay Sebring, who you probably don't know anything about except how he died. Tragedy has a way of eclipsing everything else, and one of the sub-tragedies wrapped up in the story we all know so well is that Jay Sebring is now famous for the wrong thing.

Sebring's legacy, a topic explored in the new documentary Jay Sebring...Cutting to the Truth, streaming now, is little-known but lasting. So lasting, in fact, you're probably part of it without even realizing. The haircut you have right now, and the place you go to get it, are direct descendants of Sebring's life and work as the first celebrity men's hairstylist.

Even without his close relationship to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring was a fixture of 1960s Hollywood in his own right. He was born Thomas John Kummer but changed his name to Jay Sebring after the famous racetrack; he alternated between driving around a Mustang and a motorcycle (sometimes in full leathers); he wore hip-hugging jeans and chambray shirts he bought at Fred Segal; he was a party boy known to work hard and play even harder, usually with a beautiful woman on his arm and some drugs in his pocket. His staff idolized him and his customers, most of them celebrities themselves, were in awe of him. He was such a well-known figure that rumor has it he was part of the inspiration for Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo (Beatty has never commented on this, but he was a client of Sebring's).

Above: Jay Sebring and Bobby Darin in 1961.
Lead image: Sebring cutting Jackie Cooper's hair.

His larger-than-life personality isn't the story—it's the starting point. When Sebring opened his eponymous salon in West Hollywood, he did something revolutionary for the time: He brought hairstyling to men. "Pre-Sebring, men only went to barbershops, women only went to beauty salons, and never the two did mix," says Anthony DiMaria, Sebring's nephew and the film's director. "Jay realized he wanted men to be able to be groomed and taken care of the same way that women were." A Navy barber who later went to cosmetology school, Sebring created a salon that catered to men, but featured things like wash stations where he shampooed his client's hair before cutting. He imported small, handheld hair dryers from Europe to replace the big, sit-under versions that were common in women's salons, but were never found in barbershops. This doesn’t sound like a big deal now, but in the 1960s, people’s mouths were on the floor. "What’s the big deal with a unisex shop?" asks DiMaria. "Well, at the time, they didn't do that."

It was such a strange idea that Sebring caught flack from the Barber’s Union, which tried to shut him down several times. "They tried to squash him because he wasn't fitting into barbers' guidelines," says DiMaria. Since he went to cosmetology school where he learned to cut hair on women, and not barber school, they claimed he couldn't legally cut mens' hair. His response? Hair has no gender. The clashes between Sebring and the Barber’s Union even got violent a few times, says DiMaria, since the union was rumored to have mob ties. "But Jay had friends, too, in Las Vegas and Detroit." Eventually Sebring founded his own union, the Hair Designers Guild of America, and even participated in passing legislation that did away with the "cosmetologists are for women, barbers are for men" delineation.

Sebring in Malibu in 1969.

Still, it was his hair-cutting technique that brought in the clients even more than his personal mythology. He called himself a hair designer, not a hairstylist, because "he knew that hair was the frame for the face," says DiMaria. "He cut it free flowing and he used his techniques to help express the individual." Walking into an appointment with Sebring meant you weren't going to walk out with the same barber cut that every other man in your office was sporting. You were going to get something completely personalized to you and, in most cases, a little longer and a lot cooler. People, especially celebrities, were willing to pay big bucks for that experience. While a barber cut ran around $1.25, Sebring charged $50 and sometimes more. His was said to be the most expensive men's haircut in the country.

He was the man behind Jim Morrison's iconic shaggy mop and the Rat Pack's sleek quaffs and Steve McQueen's effortless crop both in real life and in movies like The Thomas Crown Affair. He worked on Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman, and Henry Fonda. Bruce Lee was a client (whose hair he cut in exchange for martial arts lessons) and also a friend who is credited with helping Lee get his big break. Truly, name a male movie star in the '60s and they were probably a Sebring client. His technique and signature styles were in such high demand that before his death he was laying the groundwork to expand his salon into other cities including New York and London, had created his own men's-specific product line, and had even developed a series of educational training videos to teach his specific cutting technique. It's easy to wonder where he might be today if he hadn't died so tragically.

Sebring cutting Robert Phillips’s hair
on the set of The Dirty Dozen

Even without speculation, it's clear Sebring's impact on men's grooming can still be felt. "His approach to men’s hair was visionary," says hairstylist Martial Vivot. "The styles he did are our everyday inspirations [now]. Think of Jim Morrison and the Rat Pack—you've just covered the entire spectrum of men's hair styling from classic to edgy, longer, and curly. He embraced the hair, respected the hair, followed how the hair moves." Chances are, the barber or hairstylist you see today for your cut is influenced by Sebring, possibly without even knowing it. What we take for granted—from the types of tools our hairstylists use to the types of products we put in our hair to the fact that we might be sitting at a salon station next to a woman (and that it's okay)—is all thanks to Sebring.

"Jay created something out of nothing that went on to become a billion-dollar industry, elevating thousands of professionals and artists," says DiMaria. "I've always felt that he really, in his way, changed the world." Like many other visionaries, he burned bright and fast. "He is really like the Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain of hair," says Vivot. And while it's impossible to say what he would have accomplished if he'd lived longer, or whether we'd know his name for his work instead of his death, next time you walk out of the barbershop with a fresh cut, pour one out for Jay Sebring. We owe him.

A portrait of the man responsible for your
haircut, whether you knew it or not.


grimtraveller said...

One of the interesting things about the 60s is the amount of parallel developments that were going on in various disciplines. In a similar way to Philo Taylor Farnsworth being more or less written out of the history of the invention of television yet playing an important role, a number of men's hair stylists get no credit for hair styles that captured the imaginations of world's youth and got so many of them turfed out of scholl or their first jobs. The hair styles that the Beatles had, for example, were way more influential than Jim Morrison's. In a way, some of the people being tasked to come up with the hair styles that the hip wanted remind me of the jazz, psychedelic and nascent progressive rock drummers of the early to mid 60s who had to come up with new patterns and ways of drumming to frame the kind of compositions their band's musicians were coming up with that were departing from the norm.
That all said, I kind of like what Anthony DiMaria is doing in placing Sebring in an important historical position that would be valid regardless of whether he died like he did or lived to be 86. Other people who did as much for men's hair in Europe and the UK don't even rate a memory, let alone the mention of something so basic as a name.

gina said...

I agree Grim! My husband wrote a screenplay about Filo and it's awful that he is so lost to history. Same for Jay. I look forward to seeing this documentary. In addition, to dehumanize these victims into historical footnotes is unfair.

Monica said...

Yeah. I've been thinking about him a lot since Once Upon a Time. I ask a lot of people who saw the movie if they know the significance of the ending when Jay walks out to talk to DeCaprio. Half say no. I do not try to explain because it is just so big. Looking forward to the doc. I remember when Jose Eber designed Farrah Fawcett's iconic mane. When I was a teen, I begged my parents to take me all the way to Hollywood for an appt with Mr Eber. It was such a big deal then. Then Vidal Sassoon, Fekkai and so many other names. Sebring started it for sure. Matt, you're right. We owe him. Glad he is starting to get his recognition. That first pic of him with Darin cut through my heart. He would be almost 90. A big life lived in a short time.

Trilby said...

Really interesting read. Looking forward to seeing the doc. And I love the photo of him in Malibu in '69.

orwhut said...

I had my hair styled once and considering the price felt like I'd been scalped.

Patty is Dead said...

The documentary was so good. Very balanced. I like anthony, he made a good product that does his uncle justice.

gina said...

I agree with Patty...Wonderful, interesting story and just enough Manson to show Sebring was so much more than a victim!

Matthew said...

I hope that this goes to other channels or youtube. would love to see it. It's a shame that his legacy is his death and the way he was torn apart for his personal life when the police were investigating.

TracyMack said...

The doc included a lot of footage completely new to me, for example, the desert scene where Sebring is styling Polanski's hair. The director's conversations with his mom - Jay's sister - broke my heart. He really should be remembered for more than being one of the "four others".

grimtraveller said...

To be fair though, initially it was Sebring's achievements and celebrity for which he was known. That's partly what made the case so sensational at the start. He wasn't just one of the four others. He was the international jet setter that cut the hair of the celebs and whose celebrity friends cleared his house of drugs and put up the $25,000 reward money.
It kind of took many years of history and the attention given to the perps for him to be seen in perspective. Sometimes, history is like that. You need many years in order to see someone or something in its correct historical light.
I can't help wondering whether Anthony DiMaria would have even thought to make this movie if the TLB case had faded into obscurity after the convictions. said...

We go on and on bout how bad these murders were but the media never mentions people were committed much more murders like clementine barnabet who murderered 35 peopl including entire families in 1911, in 1923 she was released from prison and never heard of again

gina said...

The media was very different back then. And the time frame of TLB with the way things were in this country was a very specific time and place.

orwhut said...

This is fascinating! I've been reading about serial killers and axe murders for decades and your reference to Clementine Barnabet is the first I've seen of her.
Thanks for the tip.

orwhut said...

OT: The Listverse treatment of the Barnabet axe murders spreads the blame around. Copycat murders are mentioned, as well as Voodoo, and that mother of all axe murderers who I'm not sure existed, the man from the train. One Youtube presentation says Clemetine was given a frontal lobotomy while in Angola, pronounced cured, and released.
Accounts vary a great deal.

ColScott said...

I watched the doc and was pleasantly surprised- should I do a full review ???

Monica said...

Yes, Col. Please do. I just watched it tonight and was brought to tears. But I'm like that. Looking forward to your review as well as others' opinions. Still didn't answer why.

Doug said...

ColScott - Please do a review! Especially if you enjoyed the documentary (I would imagine that you went into the viewing with very modest expectations).

Monica's response to viewing the documentary is also very compelling. Makes me want to see it even more.

I'm gonna have to watch it next time I am out helping my mom because I don't use the required streaming services. Spoilers are fact, encouraged.

I look forward to your review.


starviego said...

Stoner did a good review here:

AustinAnn74 said...

Just watched the documentary over the weekend. It was sad to watch. I think a lot of people tend to forget the victims were actual living, breathing people with hopes & dreams like everyone else verses just characters in a story. The way their lives were snuffed out was so public and without a shred of dignity. That's why I'm so anti-Manson Family I suppose. Anyway, interesting, sad documentary....

Speculator said...

With you on that one Ann - a bunch of freaks who had nothing of value to add to the human race apart from cruel and cowardly murder

Speculator said...

With you on that one Ann - a bunch of freaks who had nothing of value to add to the human race apart from cruel and cowardly murder

St. Circumstance said...

I too want to see this documentary, Stoners review, and anything the Col has to add...

If it was good for Ann and Monica- I am in 🍻🥂

I have seen a couple of unrelated things recently which have raised my curiosity about the life of Jay Sebring. I am ready for the good stuff. I have hear enough of the rumors and innuendo. I am sure Jay was no Saint ( we can’t all be after all) but in my opinion he was a Hero where this case is concerned. The hero Roman should have been. Jays love for Sharon was true. He defended her honor and it cost him his life.

That’s what needs to be remembered about Jay Sebring. When it really mattered he was as solid as one can be...

Gene Aquamarine said...

"Why haven't we heard of him"? Hairstyles/Wigs/Intelligence. I think Tex may have sold a wig or two as well. We're not gonna talk about Reeve Whitson. But, even before O'Neill, the mighty Peter Levenda hinted at Sebring's intel links in his "The Manson Secret" book, the final book of his Sinister Forces trilogy.

Tragical History Tour said...

Some issue with the title here - We HAVE heard of him.

Because he was murdered alongside Sharon Tate.

The rest is OTT. "Changed the world.." Really? I guess he landed in the narcissistic world of Hollywood at the right time, where his services were overvalued because well... looks are everything.

But I never looked at Hank Fonda and thought - Man, what great hair!

Tragical History Tour said...

The Malibu pic is what struck me most.

I know he's not wearing THE pants he did that night, but the style is reminiscent enough to bring back images of those CS photos.

Tragical History Tour said...

Also worth a mention here is the late great Bobby Darin, pictured with Jay.

I can't find him referenced elsewhere on the blog, but 6 degrees of separation aren't needed for Darin and Manson.

Just one. He was the co-owner of Terry Melcher's music publishing and production company. (TM Music/Trio)

His nightclub band also included Roger McGuinn, later of the Byrds.

David Lane said...

Hello, my first post, but not my first visit. Thank you for your thoughts on the subject. My decision to post is in response to jonwhite above.

August the 11th 1969 was my first day at work after leaving school. The Saturday prior to this I worked part time on a farm in England. Between waking up, having breakfast and walking to work the ‘family’ were murdering their victims (subject to the various timeframes).

So I have a diaried connection to the date, and yes, I’ve been to Cielo Drive, read the books and seen the films. Not everyone of course has an interest, however it throws up a few conundrums for me. Firstly, why have a parole board if you’re going to ignore their professional decisions and more confusing why the notoriety ?

The reason for my last thought is a trip to the US I made in 1991. I passed through Phoenix Arizona on the night of August the 9th/10th and learned on my departure through a radio broadcast of the Wadell Buddhist temple shooting. Although robbery was the intent, the plan also involved leaving no witnesses.

On returning to the UK a few days later there was absolutely no coverage or mention of this ‘massacre’, in complete contrast to this UK newspaper of August 10th 1969.

PS.I do know the answer, however other than Sharon Tate I can’t believe there were many people of my age and older in the UK that knew the other victims.

Just shows even back then you had to be famous for the newspapers to be interested in your story /plight.