The Barber of Deauville
Shortly before 8:00 a.m., he descends from the spacious lobby of the Radisson Deauville Resort, at 67th Street and Collins Avenue, to the underground network of shops that now principally serves as an access route to the hotel's pool area. Reaching the door of his barbershop, the one he has operated since the hotel opened in 1957, he still marvels at the competitive advantage provided, in theory, by his location, only steps from the elevator and directly in front of the winding staircase leading down from the lobby. All day long guests go up and down those stairs -- the hotel does a good business -- but few of them ever step inside his shop. Five, maybe six customers on an average day. Still, Leslie Prince, the Barber of Deauville, shows up for work every Monday through Saturday. After 45 years, what else would he do?
It wasn't always like this, of course. When he first opened up, when he and this stretch of Miami Beach were both much younger and busier, he had not just one other barber working for him as he does now, but four others, a dozen customers waiting to get into one of the shop's five chairs, and guests calling down from their rooms: "Leslie? It's Mr. Sobeieski in 317. Shave in half an hour?" "Can you work me in around four o'clock?" "Hello, barbershop? I need a trim and a manicure."
The Deauville, built just a few years after the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels to the south, was easily the equal of its more famous counterparts in scale and splendor: over 500 guest rooms, a collection of massive ballrooms, and even its own radio station, WAEZ-FM, located in the lower lobby. Every fifteen minutes the station would air a weather forecast promoting both the beach and the hotel: "... and here at the beautiful Deauville Hotel, it's 85 degrees."
And then there were the stars. Lots of them. Appearing at hotels and clubs on the beach, or in town for a television show, they'd find their way to the Barber of Deauville. The shelves of the shop are still lined with their pictures, taken as they sat in the Barber's chair. The ghosts of show biz past. Visitors to the shop occasionally inquire about the photos, and about the men in them. Sometimes the Barber initiates the talk.
"You know who that is?" the Barber of Deauville asks a recent visitor, pointing to one of the yellowed black-and-white glossies and thinking the man too young to know the answer. "Bobby Darin. You know what he was famous for? Mack the Knife.'"
Nice kid, that Darin. Insecure as hell, though: short, not particularly good-looking, and painfully aware of the fact his hair was already thinning by the time he was 25. Onstage he made up for his perceived shortcomings by adopting the persona of the finger-popping swinger. In the Barber's chair, he was just another guy. "Hey, Leslie, take it easy up on top, huh?" he might have requested. "This hair has to last me another ten years." The Barber recalls he died young. Thirty-seven. His heart. Pity.
Then again, if he had lived, Darin might have ended up as much a has-been as Eddie Fisher, another of the Barber's onetime clients. The baby-faced crooner with the wavy locks made headlines in the late Fifties when he left America's sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, for America's Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor. Shtupping the great temptress was one thing, but abandoning the mother of his children to do it? The public turned on him.
The Barber of Deauville, a learned and philosophical man, was probably less judgmental. A barber learns a lot standing behind the chair, listening while pretending not to. And then, too, one has to be understanding. After all, the Barber might have figured, Liz Taylor never made him an offer. If she had, he might have gone the way of all flesh, like Eddie, whom the Barber sometimes sees on cable documentaries, looking like hell, his voice and his looks shot, hair teased and dyed, still crying like a nebbish because Liz dumped him for Richard Burton.
Quite a few of the ghosts in the pictures have become punchlines. Liberace, of course. And Robert Goulet, who once starred in Camelot, the Broadway soundtrack of the Kennedy years, and who now mostly gets laughs by acknowledging his own schlock value.
Still the Barber remembers when Goulet and company were big, when the Beach belonged to them and Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason. Haircuts, shaves, and manicures by pretty women were de rigueur, like Botany 500 suits, Dobbs snap-brim hats, gold cuff links, silver lighters, Countess Mara ties ...
And even barbers could become stars. "Did you know Perry Como was a barber before he was a singer?" asks the Barber, motioning to an old photo of him with the easygoing king of easy-listening. "He was a nice guy, too."
Things didn't all change at once, but they changed. Perhaps it's the pictures that don't hang on the walls of the shop that tell that part of the story. It was at the Deauville that the Beatles landed in February 1964, for the second of three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show (the first had taken place a week earlier in New York). In the days leading up to the show, broadcast live from the hotel's Napoleon Ballroom, the boys frolicked in the surf behind the Deauville, took in the local sights, and generally cultivated the public's growing fascination. What the world's most famous band didn't do, of course, is visit the Barber of Deauville. The mop tops didn't have haircuts. Instead, like women, they had hairstyles. Love me 'dos.
The counterculture wreaked havoc on the comb-and-scissors trade. Some men didn't come to the barbershop as often. Others stopped coming altogether. There was a hit musical about growing your hair out to hippie length, for chrissakes. So the Barber of Deauville made do, kept the over-30 set clean-cut while the younger generation tuned in, turned on, and dropped dandruff.
It didn't help business that Miami Beach as a whole went into decline. The sun-and-fun capital of the world was supplanted by other destinations: Atlantic City and Las Vegas, for instance, where hotels could deliver stars like the ones in the Barber's photos -- and bigger ones like Frank Sinatra -- as well as gambling.
And when Miami Beach did come back, it was South Beach, and not the northern reaches of Collins Avenue, that got most of the high-end tourist action and became the backdrop for the Miami Vice style: fast-paced editing, unstructured jackets, and casually coifed hair. Unkempt was cool. What chance did a barber stand when the best-dressed men in town went without socks and sported two-day-old beards?
Time passed. A lot of the old-time cutters and shavers who worked with the Barber made the move to the Great Chair in the Sky. "Norman was here 35 years," says the Barber, recalling a shopmate. "Then one day, he got up, didn't feel well, went to the hospital, and died." He smiles, not because he doesn't miss his old friend but because he knows that eventually everyone has to go, and, well, better to go quick, while you're still useful.
Not that he himself is going anywhere. At least not yet. Maybe business will pick up again someday, the Barber speculates. Doesn't the Deauville, renovated a few years ago, look nice? Certainly the shop is a neat affair, featuring the same space-age-style orange-and-white chairs it did in its heyday. And men do occasionally sit in them and bask in the glow of the past.
"You ever do Jackie Mason?" inquires one recent customer from beneath a hot towel. "Jackie Mason?" repeats the Barber of Deauville, dispensing the lather and searching his memory. "No. Alan King? Yes." Lots of people used to come in here.
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