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HAIR PIECES // Hollywood's headmaster

CROWNING GLORY: Reflections of Hollywood's Favorite Confidant

By Sydney Guilaroff as told to Cathy Griffin

(General Publishing Group, $19.95)


If it's true you'd tell your hairdresser what you wouldn't anyone else, then Sydney Guilaroff was privy to many juicy tidbits during his reign as stylist to the stars during Hollywood's Golden Age. Since 1934, when he was hired by MGM Studios, his fingers have styled the tresses of starlets like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. Guilaroff tells his story in Crowning Glory: Reflections of Hollywood's Favorite Confidant.

His road to Hollywood is itself something out of a Frank Capra movie. At 14, he packs his bags in Canada, pockets $15 from his folks and boards a train to New York City, taking a maintenance job at a hair salon in the Hotel McAlpin. Watching stylists, he picks up skills and begins cutting hair himself. Fate brings in a "distinctive young woman" whom for $1.50 the daring Guilaroff gives a drastically short cut with bangs. Months later, he realizes at the movies he has cut the hair of silent screen star Louise Brooks.

As his clientele grows, more stars drop in. In what proves to be his big break, he gives Joan Crawford a new look, parting her hair on the left, giving it a single wave and tucking it behind her ear. An ecstatic Crawford and then-husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. demand in her MGM contract that Guilaroff be her personal hairdresser. The buzz grows and soon Guilaroff is styling everyone on the lot.

Aside from his self-professed "God-given talent" with a head of hair, Guilaroff has a knack for serendipity. He's everywhere, an eyewitness to some of Tinsel Town's most famous events. He bumps into Lana Turner at the hardware store purchasing a butcher knife. That night, her daughter Cheryl _ or perhaps Lana herself _ stabs to death Lana's gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. Guilaroff receives a convoluted phone call from Marilyn Monroe on the last night of her life confessing affairs with the Kennedy brothers and her knowledge of "dark secrets" in Washington, D.C.

In a happier episode, he sits with a bed-ridden Crawford as she learns via television she has finally won the elusive Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Mildred Pierce.

Apparently, when starlets weren't crying on the coiffeur confidant's shoulder, they were in his bed. Though he never married, he makes a point _ several times _ of declaring his heterosexuality. After a lengthy platonic relationship with Garbo, they have an affair. Later, in the mid-1960s, his good friend Ava Gardner "fell passionately in love with me," he says.

Unfulfilled by the "glitter and glamour" of Hollywood, Guilaroff yearns for a family. Although in 1938, he writes, "There was no lack of women in Hollywood who might have eagerly borne my baby," he chooses to adopt. Eventually he adopts another child, and, according to the book's many photos, a grown grandson.

But it's his glamorous, often ingenious work, featured in more than 1,200 films, that Guilaroff remembers most proudly. He studies Cleopatra's 'do at London's British Museum to create historically accurate coifs for Elizabeth Taylor. He devises a special wig for aging Marlene Dietrich that tautly pulls her forehead, smoothing her face for her role in Around the World in Eighty Days.

His work extended outside the movies, too. He styles Grace Kelly's hair for her marriage to Monaco's Prince Rainier and prepares an "angelic" Natalie Wood for her funeral: "I wept the entire time as I swept back her hair."

What would a hair stylist's memoirs be without a little invective? Nice guy Guilaroff proves he gives good dish by zapping Mickey Rooney ("so very obnoxious that I couldn't even talk to him"), Lucille Ball ("Power corrupts"), and Aristotle Onassis for dumping opera diva Maria Callas for Jackie Kennedy, "a woman as uninteresting as he was . . . whose only claim to greatness was that she had been married to the President of the United States."

For Guilaroff, glamor comes first. Katherine Hepburn couldn't get into his cocktail party because "I find trousers on women distasteful under any circumstances." He doesn't even spare his beloved Garbo. Upon seeing her a year before her death in 1990, he says, "She looked dreadful in dark glasses with long, whitish gray hair." Garbo commits the ultimate sin: "She, who had once epitomized glamour, now cared so little about her appearance."

Gina Vivinetto is a Times staff member.