When I think of hairdressers to the stars the first name that springs to mind is Jose Eber, who coiffed the fabulous Elizabeth Taylor and was a fixture on the talk show circuit in the 1970’s. There was also celebrity style-maker Vidal Sassoon and Jon Peters, first hairdresser then partner and co-producer with Barbra Streisand. You might also recognize the names of Perc Westmore, Jack Pierce, Max Factor, and Sydney Guilaroff, who worked in hair and makeup during the golden age of Hollywood. Back in the days of silent film, the credit roll was very short; stars, director, title writer and cameraman covered it. Unlike the 10 minute (or longer) crawl that ends films of today, grips, lighting, set builders, drivers, cooks and hairdressers were never named, their lives invisible to the movie going public. Here is the story of one remarkable woman.
She was one of the unsung heroines of silent film. Not only a hairdresser to the stars, but she was so highly respected and valued she was placed under a seven-year exclusive contract with Famous Players-Lasky, just like a movie star. Her name, Hattie Wilson Tabourne, is very likely one you’ve never heard of. Tabourne was an African American woman which makes her exclusive contract all the more amazing–as amazing as one of her imaginative creations.
Not much is known of Hattie Wilson’s early life. I have not discovered her place of birth beyond noting she was born in Nebraska in 1880 to Charles and Susie Wilson, found on her son’s birth certificate. In true Hollywood fashion Hattie knocked two years off her age, listing it as 1882. When and why she and her family traveled to Los Angeles is unknown. The brief facts are this: Hattie began working in hairdressing in 1897 at age 17. The family was living in Pasadena according to the 1900 census. Hattie’s mother Susie passed away in Los Angeles in May 1907. Hattie met musician George Le Roy Tabourn, a married man, and began a relationship with him. Hattie gave birth to her son, Charles Le Roy Tabourne, in Los Angeles in 1909. At some point in between Charles Sr. divorced his first wife. On September 29, 1916 Hattie married George in Alameda, California. At the time of their son’s birth, Hattie lived at 2006 East 9th Street in Los Angeles (in a home that has since been demolished).
Hattie’s apprenticeship began when she worked for Madame Weaver Jackson, “one of the most exclusive hair dressing establishments on the Pacific Coast,” in her salon on 318 South Spring Street, which served “some of the most noted professional people of America.” By 1913 Hattie had moved on to the Frederickson Salon on 743 S. Broadway; many of the clients Hattie styled soon followed. In 1915 she lived at 2173 E. 9th Street and was listed in the city directory as a hair dresser. The 1920 census records show she’d moved to 914 Hemlock Street in Los Angeles (that home has also been demolished) with her son Charles. Charles, then eleven, suffered from polio according to the newspapers. One can assume that with her husband either absent or traveling, Hattie was the sole reliable family breadwinner.
The discovery of Hattie’s talents as a hairdresser and her move into studio work are credited to silent star Julia Faye. Faye related she “discovered” Hattie in a downtown salon and brought her to the attention of director Cecil B. DeMille. Hattie was already well known as a hair stylist with the smart set, given her long association with Madame Weaver Jackson and Frederickson’s. Faye may have introduced her to DeMille, but Hattie had already worked in film. She gained early fame by creating a hairstyle called “The Yukon” for Dorothy Dalton in the 1917 Triangle film The Flame of the Yukon (happily the film still exists). Given that hairdressers and make up artists were not given credit until many years later, Hattie was probably called upon to work on other films for Triangle Studios before coming to the attention of DeMille. It also makes sense to surmise that her film work began as a way to bring in extra money in order to care for her disabled son.
Once aligned with Cecil B. DeMille, Hattie was soon under contract to Famous Players-Lasky. Whether she headed the hairdressing department is not clear, more research is needed to nail down definitively yea or nay. Nonetheless, her value to DeMille and the studio was readily apparent in that she was offered a seven year contract. I believe this is totally unique for someone who was not a star on screen and all the more remarkable for an African-American woman of her time.
It can be argued that Hattie’s designs were instrumental to the career of Gloria Swanson once she became DeMille’s favored leading lady in the late teens. Swanson started in comedy, but her image transformed by her association with DeMille and his social/marital comedies. Swanson was soon known as a screen queen and a stylish clotheshorse. In Male and Female, over the top gowns coupled with Hattie’s hairstyles and Swanson’s spoiled pout presented a perfect picture of a diva. Swanson was now a real star, the queen of the lot and Hattie was her preferred hairdresser from this point until Swanson went to France to film Madame Sans Gene in 1924.
The magic of Hattie’s coiffures started with “her assessment of the contour of the face.” She built hair styles to compliment the features and was legendary in her loathing of the then fashionable “bob.” Once stars bobbed their hair, she had to work artfully to add to or conceal the bobbed locks with attachments, flowers, wigs and hair ornaments. She was especially famed for her artistry with hair ornaments. She twisted gold ropes, rows of brilliants, and other adornments into fantasies through the tresses of such stars as Nita Naldi (who kept her long hair and resisted the bob), Agnes Ayres, Leatrice Joy, Bebe Daniels, Lila Lee, Wanda Hawley and Pola Negri, to name a few.
Hattie also worked on the male stars at the Lasky studios, famously on Rudolph Valentino for his role as Juan Gallardo in Blood and Sand. She braided his pigtail, added sideburns and the heavy unibrow. Everything was done correctly and true to what would befit a real matador. Her attention to detail was also noted for her work in James Cruze’s 1923 epic The Covered Wagon–she worked not only on Lois Wilson, but all the male stars, Alan Hale, Ernest Torrence, a grizzled Tully Marshal, and the hero of the picture J. Warren. Kerrigan.
Hattie was, according to news reports, distraught when she cut Betty Bronson’s lengthy tresses to prepare her for her role as Peter Pan. She also designed Ernest Torrance’s wigs for Captain Hook and triumphed in creating the gypsy hair styles that framed Pola Negri in the 1923 film The Spanish Dancer. Even though Hattie did not like bobbed hair, she offered advice on who can wear it and how to care for it. She could not fight the trend, but she used her skills to conceal it on screen whenever the scenario called for longer tresses or a more attractive, less mannish look.
- “Bobbed hair makes anyone appear ten years younger. Never will women pass up a chance like that.”
- “There are a few women to whom bobbed hair is not becoming. If you are one of them, don’t bob. But with the prevailing styles, your long hair should be arranged to be as close to the head as possible.”
- “If you have a small, well-shaped head, you may wear a shingle bob. Otherwise not.”
- “Do not have your hair cut too high in the back, particularly if you are inclined to be stout.”
- “Keep the hair well brilliantined if it is not naturally glossy. Dull hair is not attractive.”
- “For evening wear bobbed hair appears more stylish if a small artificial braid is worn just above the forehead.”
“Study the bobs of women you meet, particularly of those who are our own styles. The study is worth your time for you will be wearing bobbed hair for years to come.”
Hattie the Hairdresser was also a teacher. It was estimated more than 50 women were trained under her at Lasky Studios, although none seemed to have Hattie’s magical touch. One of her assistants recalled after her passing, “Her hands had some strange effect on hair. It seemed to shape itself miraculously under her touch. Waves, fringes, perilously frail designs assumed permanence after she had touched them. Hattie loved hair.”
Hattie died on March 30, 1925 during a surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. In her obituaries it said she was survived by her father, her son and numerous cousins. None had any mention of her husband, George Le Roy Tabourne, though one can assume he was long out of the picture. Her funeral was held at the chapel of Conner and Johnson and newspapers stated hundreds of friends stood outside, their heads bared in respect. Not named in the newspapers, many film stars and colleagues from the Lasky Studios also attended the services. The stars and industry people not present sent huge floral tributes, including orchids and other exotic floral arrangements. Hattie was interred in a green silk dress and wearing a jade necklace, purportedly a gift from a grateful (unnamed) film star. Fittingly, Hattie’s hair was arranged by two of her assistants. She is buried along with her mother at Evergreen Cemetery.
Hattie’s early death was compounded by the real tragedy in what happened to her boy, Charles. Charles survived Hattie by only five months. Can one surmise that Hattie’s father and other surviving family were not in a position to care for him? The exact nature of his disabilities are unknown. In Hattie’s obituaries, it said Charles suffered from polio. In late June 1925 Charles was sent to the Sonoma State Home in Eldridge, CA for care. His stay there was a very brief 22 days. He died on July 17, 1925 of “chronic parenchymatous nephritis,” chronic kidney disease or renal failure with no mention of polio. Horrifically, a contributing factor in his death was “sunstroke.”
An autopsy was performed and the doctor stated “gross pathological & clinical findings,” whatever that means. My assumption is the state hospital was overcrowded and given that Charles was an African American, his care was probably less than stellar. Was he wheeled out for an afternoon airing and forgotten in the hot summer sun? I shudder at the thought, poor boy. I consulted a medical pal with a copy of his death certificate who surmised after looking it over he had “a really crappy death.” The death certificate states that the undertakers handling his remains were the same who handled Hattie’s funeral and burial and his body was sent back to Los Angeles. Cemetery records at Evergreen do not show that Charles was buried there. Tragically, one must assume he ended up in Evergreen in a potter’s field. No further record of Hattie’s father has yet been found.
I was spurred to research Hattie in reading Donald Bogle’s excellent book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, in which he mentioned Hattie only briefly. I have two photos of Valentino in my collection taken during production of Blood and Sand where he is being attended by Hattie. I’ve always wondered about her. In working on Hattie’s story it took a lot of digging and searching. I’m thrilled to have found as much as I have. Nevertheless, I hope this is only the beginning of deeper research about Hattie Wilson Tabourne. While her own son died tragically so soon after his mother, I hope there may be descendants of her cousins that might find this or the Find a Grave memorial I created and be able to fill in more about Hattie.
Here is hoping that somewhere there may survive more tangible relics of Hattie, like family memories, photographs and documents. Her talent is unmistakable and a delight to behold in the films that survive and the stills for films that don’t. As her filmography gets expanded (currently one listing at IMDB), Hattie will get the recognition and credit she deserves as a pioneer in cinema. I feel such respect for her as craftsperson and a teacher. In reading her obituaries she garnered so much respect and love among her colleagues on and off screen. She was an enterprising and successful African American woman in her chosen field. Truly a role model.
 Special thanks to Rebecca Eash for finding her son’s birth certificate and census information on Hattie and her family, it really does take a village.
No mention of polio is part of Charles Tabourne’s Death Certificate.
As another illustration of her stature within the industry, Hattie’s death was noted in the trade magazine, The Exhibitor’s Herald.
Special thanks to Karie Bible and Steve Goldstein for traveling to Evergreen Cemetery, visiting Hattie’s grave, leaving flowers and taking photographs for me.
From Charles Tabourne’s Death Certificate.
Categories: guest contributor