Fifty-Five Years of Headwork

By Louis Banks


President Cleveland wanted an “invisible” haircut. Charles Schwab liked witch-hazel. But let Jack Brady tell you about the idiosyncrasies of famous men. He’s shaved and trimmed them for 55 years.

BACK in the days when haircuts were 20 cents, shaves were 10 cents and beards were parted in the middle-in the 1880’s, to be exact an alert 15-year-old youngster stood at the elbow of a portly old German and watched intently as the grayed man deftly snipped the hair of his customers, carefully scraped lather from their bewhiskered faces and cleverly fashioned wax mustaches.

J. W. Brady was learning the barbering trade. Today Jack Brady looks back over the host of famous heads he has cut hair from, the multitudes of tender necks he might have cut but didn’t and decides that if he had to do it all over again, he’d still be a barber … if he could be an honest one.

Murderers, police chiefs, Mayors, Presidents, brokers, financiers, golfers, editors he’s shaved and trimmed them all in the fifty-five years of his career. Located in a small shop in a Los Angeles office building, Brady, whose tanned hands and wrists are every bit as steady as they were long ago, admits he is thinking of retiring. But the gray-headed old barber, with a twinkle in his eye, goes right on shaving customers who have stuck with him for two decades.

When he was 18, he decided to set up a shop of his own, and chose exclusive Nantucket, a summer resort island off the coast of Southeastern Massachusetts. The high light of the fifteen years in Nantucket came one day when a buzz of anticipation suddenly ran around the little shop. President Grover Cleveland was coming to be shaved and shorn!

SOON the kindly Cleveland marched into the shop surrounded by several aides, sat down in Jack Brady’s chair and asked for a haircut- the greatest moment of the barber’s life! “President Cleveland wanted an invisible haircut,” Brady relates. “His kind of man didn’t want any sharp lines showing after his hair had been trimmed. “He came to my shop frequently after that first time. In fact, he came in nearly every time he was out our way fishing. He would always ask questions about this island. I made it my business to know the answers. “After I had finished him, he would get out of his chair, glance in the mirror, put his hand in his pocket and bring out a $5 bill for me. Then he would shake hands and go on his way with a crisp, ‘Goodbye, Mr. Brady.'”

The Nantucket business was good. Brady was the first white barber on the island, and he drew what is called in the language of the tonsorial parlors, “the best trade.” In the vacation season he would sometimes have as many as twelve men working under him, while during the rest of the year he made a comfortable living.

He remembers a loyal customer who used to drive one of the first automobiles in the East the lengthy distance of nine miles every week to the Brady door. This man would jump out of his extravagant “horseless carriage,” stride into the shop, and order the edges of his mustache trimmed! the rest of his face was bearded.

Now before we go any further, let it be understood that Mr. Brady’s history is probably of no more unusual interest than your own grandfather’s. He has no startling success story to tell in the usual American sense of the word “success.” He hasn’t found a money-making way to eliminate whiskers or hasn’t opened up a chain of barber shops which turn out one customer every ten seconds.

Jack Brady has just lived for seventy-two years and enjoyed life, raised a happy family of children, cut hair and shaved beards, voted, paid taxes, looked into political fights and minded his own business as best he could . . . and that, in itself, is success. Perhaps if he has a bid to fame, that bid comes through the celebrated customers who have come into his shops and come back again because they were more than pleased with the work. Charles M. Schwab, today the dynamic chairman of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, was a Brady customer in New York City. ‘ In those days we just put on lather and shaved no hot towel stuff or other fancy work,” the barber declares. While the businessman would be taking off his coat, I would be mixing up the lathor.

The minute he would sit down in the chair I’d have him ready to shave. ‘Mr. Schwab was always in a hurry. I’d try to shave him quickly and then rub witch-hazel on his face and have him out of that chair in record time. “I think ‘he liked that.” Brady’s post at the Waldorf-Astoria was a good one.

When he first wandered into Manhattan from Nantucket, he was invited by one of his former customers, Frank Allen manager of the swank Astor House to stay at the hotel free of charge. Then, a barber with a millionaire’s address, he started out to find a job. He walked into the Savoy Hotel and asked the manager of the shop if he needed any “help. “Now I was pretty tanned from my summer in Massachusetts,” Brady declares. “The manager of the shop looked at me and said: ‘”You look more like a farmer than a barber!’ “‘All right bub,’ I answered.. ‘If you, don’t want me, say so. Whiskers grow all over the world.’ ” The manager, it seems, was interested. He asked Brady where he lived. ‘My address is the Astor House,” Jack replied. It took nearly ten minutes for Brady to convince the unbelieving barber shop manager that he actually lived at the Astor House. Even then the perplexed haircutter called the hotel five times just to check up. Finally, in a sort of half-awe, he hired ‘Jack.

Brady was at the Savoy shop for a year and a half when he moved over to the Waldorf-Astoria at the excellent salary of $14 per week and worked there for seven years. At the Waldorf, a barber was likely to draw blue blood if he nicked the chin of a customer. But just let him draw any sort of blood and out he would go! The list of New York’s great who depended on Jack Brady for their smooth appearances reads like the Social Register.

FlRST of all there was Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy would jump into the chair, order a haircut and leave without saying another word. He liked it cut short so he would bristle. The bush-like Roosevelt mustache was private property they say he trimmed that himself. Then there were Percy Belmont (his tips weren’t very big.) John D. Rockefeller, Jr., (a nice young chap) Guggenheimer Busch of the Anheuser Busch Brewery; Pierre Lorillard of tobacco fame; Judge Dringo of the Supreme Court; Honest John Kelley, Tammany leader, ‘whose thousands of dollars changed hands every night,” Beeman. the bearded gentleman whose picture appears on chewing gum labels. Diamond Jim Brady was another regular Waldorf customer. Brady, like Roosevelt, was silent when in the chair. “He felt he “was a little bit above the barbers.” Barber Brady says.

From New York Jack drifted around to other jobs until an advertisement about California caught his eye in 1920. He promptly went home, counted his pennies and set out for Los Angeles . . . where he landed on July 9. The first thing he did was go down to the Rosslyn Hotel to get a shave. While the barber was shaving him, Brady happened to mention that he, too was in the haircutting business. Like a flash they tried to put him to work that very day, for California was in the midst of a boom and barbers were few and well-rushed. However, Brady staved them off and went in search of a place to sleep. From rooming-house to rooming-house he trudged. Finally, one kindly old landlady took pity on the wearied man and offered to let him sleep in the bed of one of her roomers who had gone away for the week. “That night 1 was dead tired,” Brady says, “but I woke up in the middle of the night with a hazy recollection that the bed had been tossing and heaving me around like a corn popper pops corn.

I noticed there were people walking around overhead, but I decided I must have had a nightmare and went back to sleep. “The next morning I came out to find the piazza full of trunks. It seems that California had had an earthquake and everybody was on the way back East, terrorized by the temblor. “Well, it didn’t worry me any. I found that there were more rooms and more jobs and went to work the next day at the Rosslyn.

Thus began my life in California.” Brady’s prize Los Angeles customer is Chief of Police James E. Davis. For seventeen years Davis has followed his barber around Los Angeles as have numerous other customers. Davis, Brady says, takes a “personality” haircut. This is a type of trim that shows the features to-the best advantage and is fashioned so the face does not look too long or too short. Many other prominent Angelenos wend their ways to the third floor of the Haas Building at Seventh and Broadway where Jack Brady and one other barber hold forth.

The little shop is the result of a long saving. It was started because Jack hated the way bosses made him high-pressure customers, so he set up his own business and went into barbering with 155 patrons who followed him! And thereby hangs a severe condemnation of fellow barbers in Los Angeles. In THE first place they are “mean” because they try “to steal your customers away from you when you work in a large shop.” As a matter of fact, there is only one other barber in Los Angeles that Brady will trust and he has to do that because he cannot cut his own hair. His friend, Charley Schrack, who owns a shop on Beverly Boulevard, comes to the Brady house every other week to swap haircuts.

Brady’s barbering has occasionally taken a turn toward research. On one such fact-finding expedition he dug up the origin of the barber pole: “Long ago it was customary for barbers to perform minor operations in surgery during the era when bleeding was regarded as a cure for most ills. The barber did the bleeding, and in the operation it was necessary for the patient to grasp a staff or a pole. Such a pole, with bandages to tie the patient’s arms, was always kept in readiness. “When the stall was not in use the bandages were fastened to it and it was placed at the door as a sign or symbol that the barber was proficient in bleeding. As a later development it became customary for barbers to use a pole painted with stripes around it, instead of the actual poles used in operations. Red stripes took the place of blood-soaked bandages!”

On the subject of “experience” vs. “barber schools” Jack speaks of the schools with all the contempt that an old-time editor uses against a job applicant who presents a degree from a college of journalism! “Barber schools? Oh, they’re all right. They teach you to scrape off whiskers and trim hair but someone needs to teach barbers the ethics and the manners of the game!” He reveals that a barber can fashion your hair in a way to make you or break you. You may even have several hidden grooves in your head which a clever haircutting artist has hidden from the public for years by trimming evenly over the low spots. Your brains may bulge over your ears and again your barber can deceive the man in the street into believing that your head grew in a straight line.

Brady also has a very pronounced philosophy on the reputation of the barbering profession for talking a great deal. “If a customer wants to talk, I will talk. If not, I’ll do his work. Personally, I don’t believe in talking while I do my job. A lot of busy people want to make plans and rest while they are in a barber’s chair. “In my job you’ve got to be a good judge of human nature. When a man is seated in my chair I wash my hands, step back to him and say: ‘What can I do for you?’ “He tells me and I do it. If he doesn’t want to say another word he doesn’t have to and I don’t try to sell him a half dozen different tonics and shampoos … “I figure that a man knows what he wants. If his head is dirty he probably is aware of it. Why should a damned barber tell a man to wash his head? If he wants a shampoo okeh.” All of which leads to a new maxim: beware of talkative barbers!

JACK BRADY says they make conversation when they want to break down your reserve and sell you something. Haircutters are no different from gas station attendants they want to sell their profitable accessories and some of them don’t care how they do it. So if a barber starts telling you about the no-hit, no-run game that so-and-so pitched yesterday, beware lest you go out of the shop with a haircut, manicure, shave, oil shampoo, facial massage and a bill for $3.50! Of course, if a customer wants to talk, the conversation might well swing around to politics so a barber can be a good political worker if he wants to be. Brady frankly admits he worked for Mayor Shaw during the last elections. “One night I went to one of my neighbors to tell him my views on Shaw,” the barber relates. “He said to me, ‘No wonder you want Shaw, you have Chief of Police Davis as a customer and you don’t want to lose him!’ ” “I amazed him by saying, That’s exactly right, I don’t.” “Oh, I can keep up with any of them!”

J. W. Brady is another example of the man who built a “better mousetrap.” They come as far as ninety miles to get him to cut their hair. His prize customer, a man with a regal goatee and mustache, drives regularly from Beverly Hills simply because he can’t find anyone else in the city who can wax the ends of his mustachio with such a competent twist. Brady’s parting warning to the younger generation is that it should not think it is so smart going without hats all the time. “Baldness is on the increase,” he says. “These youngsters with greasy hair pick up every germ within a mite and to think the law makes us sterilize-our equipment!”

Jack Brady (hand in pocket) Nantucket 1895

The Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1937, page 7, Newspapers,com

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