Small Town Boy Makes Good, One Celebrity Hairdo at a Time


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The hairdresser Maury Hopson is everybody’s best friend.

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Amy Lombard for The New York Times

One day in 1955, when Maury Hopson was a teenager in dusty Fort Stockton, Tex., he stopped in at the beauty shop, where his mother was getting her hair done, and he overheard some ladies gossiping about Elizabeth Taylor, who happened to be in nearby Marfa, filming the George Stevens picture “Giant.” One of the beauty-parlor busybodies said she had visited the movie set, and she took special delight in relaying to the other women that she saw the actress wearing “a dirty bra.”

“They were just cackling away,” Mr. Hopson said. “I was just sitting there, getting furious, because I was already in love with Elizabeth Taylor. Marfa at the time was very hot, so I was sure there was a legitimate reason for it. Mother could tell I was getting a little steamy, so she changed the subject.”

Two decades later, having become a much-in-demand hairdresser in New York, Mr. Hopson was summoned to a farmhouse in Virginia, where Taylor was living part of the time with her husband at the time, the Virginia politician John Warner. The photographer Francesco Scavullo and the makeup artist Way Bandy accompanied him on the trip.

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Mr. Hopson and one of his best-known clients, Elizabeth Taylor.

“We knew she was bored out of her gourd and would be glad to have some New Yorkers come down,” Mr. Hopson said. “We started working on her in this bathroom, just the three of us, in this hot farmhouse, with no air-conditioning, country-and-western station on the radio.”

The hairdresser and the makeup man began reciting lines from her old movies, lines that they knew by heart but that she had forgotten, and they all started laughing and howling, and the maid said they were just like a litter of puppies.

At some point, Mr. Hopson told Taylor he had grown up near Marfa, back in the days of “Giant.” “And she said: ‘What? You’re from that godawful place? It took me years to get the dirt and grime off of myself!’”

“And I thought: Mystery of the dirty bra, solved!”

Mr. Hopson and the movie star grew very close, which is no surprise given that, like most of those who excel in his field, he has a tremendous gift for putting people at ease. His clients trust him not only with their hair but with their secrets.

He is the man who persuaded Bernadette Peters to stop straightening her hair and go with her natural curls. Candice Bergen called him a wizard in her memoir, and he has been a guest at all four of Christie Brinkley’s weddings.

He did Brooke Shields’s hair for those scandalous 1980 Calvin Klein ads shot by Richard Avedon, when she was 15, and he gave Ivana Trump a defiantly gorgeous look after her public split from Donald Trump in 1990. He has hiked along the Great Wall of China with Sigourney Weaver and has gotten into mischief with his pal Keith Richards in Paris, Tunisia and the Bahamas.

“It’s no surprise that he’s good friends with as many celebrities as he has under his wing, because you have total confidence in him,” said Tonne Goodman, the Vogue fashion director, who has known Mr. Hopson since she was a teenage model in the 1960s. “He’s a confidant.”

Mozzarella Sticks and Liz Taylor

Even after five decades in New York, Mr. Hopson, 74, still likes a party. At the start of a night on the town in October, seated in a cab heading up the West Side Highway, he was talking about his No. 1 topic: hair.

“It’s like gardening,” he said. “You prune it to make it stronger.”

He got out of the car and walked into Pier59 Studios, the site of many fashion shoots, for its 20th anniversary party. He was wearing a black corduroy jacket with epaulets, a black cashmere sweater, black-striped pants and short suede boots. His hair was smoothed back.

Once inside, he mentioned a problem he has at parties: “It’s a minefield, because people run up to me and say: ‘Oh, Maury! We haven’t seen you since Barcelona.’ I don’t remember them or Barcelona.”

He stationed himself beneath a fake palm tree, close to the center of the action, and he took a sip of Champagne. “I just want to make sure I see Fern,” he said. A moment later, Fern Mallis, the event’s co-host and the creator of New York Fashion Week, made a beeline for him. They have known each other ever since she was a junior editor at Mademoiselle way back when.

“Maury has always been part of the world of the fantastic beauties, editorial images and ad campaigns — the subtle things that make you say: ‘I want to look like that. I’m going to rip out that page and go to the hairdresser.’” Ms. Mallis said. “And he tells you these stories and you are locked in.”

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A mix of Maury Hopson’s personal images, including his famous clients.

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Amy Lombard for The New York Times

“But I don’t dish,” he said.

The music grew louder. He stayed under the palm, watching the parade.

“I fired my agent a year or so ago because I didn’t need them,” he said. “I’m kind of trying to retire. It’s time.” Now he works by appointment only for a few clients.

Mr. Hopson greeted old friends, made new ones, threw his head back and laughed. He took out his phone to snap a picture of a male model. “He has a certain skull shape,” he said. In every direction, there were beautiful women. Would-be models, real ones, a few who really stood out.

“There are some you look at and you know they’ve got it,” he said. “They’re the ones who will pop off the page.”

Three young women were vamping and making grinding motions for a videographer. “You can spot the people who are desperate,” he said. “You can just tell. They’re working the room too much, aware of every angle.”

There was a commotion on the other side of the bar area. Curtains parted, revealing a female model with long brown hair atop a white stallion. She was wearing only a thong and, on her left hand, a thick leather glove with a falcon perched on it. Cameras and smartphones flashed as the horse clip-clopped across the floor.

That Instagram-ready moment marked the party’s climax, and Mr. Hopson decided to go. But that didn’t mean saying goodbye to the hosts. “C. Z. Guest used to say, ‘Don’t make a big deal about leaving a party, because then you spoil it,’” he said. “Just get out of there, for the sake of the party.”

In a downtown-bound cab at midnight, he was talking about Iman, the supermodel and entrepreneur born in Somalia whom Mr. Hopson began working with soon after her arrival in the United States in 1975. The “publicity” around her, he said, was that the photographer Peter Beard had found her in a field. He added: “In fact, she was a diplomat’s daughter who spoke five languages. We used to laugh so much about that. Anyway, she’s a lovely woman.”

At Fiddlesticks Pub & Grill on Greenwich Avenue, over a drink and mozzarella sticks, he reminisced about accompanying Elizabeth Taylor to a Florida “fat farm” in the 1970s, which he wrote about for Vanity Fair.

Walking in the wee hours toward the brownstone apartment on West 11th Street where he has lived since 1971, he recalled the time he was with Taylor in Washington, helping her get ready for a White House function. The necklace she planned to wear that night included an ancient pearl known as La Peregrina, which had once belonged to Queen Mary I of England in the 1500s.

Taylor’s former husband, Richard Burton, had given it to her as a Valentine’s Day gift after having bought it at a Sotheby’s auction for $37,000. All at once, Taylor decided to turn the necklace into a bracelet. Mr. Hopson watched as she wrapped it around her wrist — and it broke, with the pear-shaped Peregrina and several lesser pearls landing in his work bag.

“Pearls were everywhere,” he said. “Meantime, downstairs, they’re saying, ‘Come on, Elizabeth, you can’t keep the president waiting.’ It was always like that with her. You know, chaos.”

She didn’t bother to clean up the very expensive mess. When he called her the next day, he asked her if she was missing anything.

“Anyway, that was the sort of typical bedlam,” he said.

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Mr. Hopson, center, with Keith Richards and Patti Hansen on a boat.

After Taylor’s death in 2011, the pearl was sold at auction for $11.8 million.

Growing Up Gay in Texas

Maury Hopson was born in Marshall, Tex., near the Louisiana border. Family legend has it that at age 4, he turned to his parents and said, “When I grow up, I’m going to live in New York City.”

“You have to remember, this is in the early ’40s, and we didn’t have television then,” Mr. Hopson said. “They couldn’t figure out how I knew anything about New York City.”

He wasn’t thrilled when they moved to Fort Stockton, not even when the mayor gave the Hopson family a tour, stopping to point out the old military fort and officers’ quarters. “There I was, 15 years old and just furious at my plight,” Mr. Hopson said. “I was looking around at these tumbleweeds and cactuses, thinking, ‘What were they defending?’”

He managed to make friends at his new school. “Straight guys always loved me,” he said. “I think they felt comfortable. But there was something about me that was different. I had crushes on boys in junior high and high school that I adored.”

Like others in that time and place, he was car crazy. “I started a car-washing service in my parents’ driveway so I could pick up and deliver the 1954 Corvette, 1956 Thunderbirds,” he said.

Mr. Hopson was also the editor of the high school paper and class president, and even then he was known for his good taste. “I had a lot of girlfriends who always wanted me to tell them what to wear,” he said. “‘What should I do with my hair?’ ‘Should I wear this to the prom?’”

“I always had dates and all that stuff, because I didn’t know I was gay then. I mean, I knew I was gay, but I didn’t know how to be gay. First of all, you had no examples of what gay was. I mean, ‘gay’ was synonymous with ugly queers. You didn’t know anybody who was gay. You didn’t even know what you did in bed, besides kissing and fondling. It was really bizarre. I had never seen two men hold hands.”

Even now, that kind of thing makes Mr. Hopson a little uncomfortable. “I just have a feeling that somebody’s going to react,” he said. “It’s so crazy. When I see what goes on now with teenagers and young college kids, the freedom they have of being able to just hang on to each other going down the street — they have no idea. I said to a friend of mine I was so jealous that we missed that.”

While attending the University of North Texas, he was still going through the motions of being straight. “It was an environment of fear, if you ever let that side of yourself be exposed,” he said.

On several occasions Mr. Hopson and a gay male friend drove 40 miles to Dallas. “You can imagine what a gay bar was like then,” he said. “It was so dark and so sinister and creepy. We talked and flirted but we never went home with anybody.”

One night, a few men taunted Mr. Hopson and his friend as they made their way out of the bar to his MG convertible across the street.

“We got in my car to leave in a hurry, and one of them jumped into a sedan and pulled up behind, making it impossible for me to back out,” he said.

“The others surrounded my car and continued the homophobic ranting. I threw it into reverse and I started bashing their car and then throwing it into forward and bashing the other car. I was ready to tear the back off my precious car that I loved. But I got them out of the way and then I threw it in gear and drove off. They chased us through the Dallas streets but couldn’t catch us. I got back on the highway, back home.”

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The hairstylist Maury Hopson at Il Cantinori restaurant in Manhattan.

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Amy Lombard for The New York Times

Many years after that night, while spending time with Sigourney Weaver and Ang Lee, the director of “Brokeback Mountain,” Mr. Hopson told Mr. Lee that he had perfectly captured what it was like to be gay in the American West in those years.

The Femme Fatale

As a college sophomore, Mr. Hopson hit the academic skids and moved back home. He was directionless, working dead-end jobs until one day the proprietor of the beauty shop told him, “Maury, you could do hair.”

He took a course at the Tri-State Beauty School in El Paso. After that, he started cutting hair at a salon in Houston. Things were going well until a raven-haired beauty with pale blue eyes and a red Corvette entered the picture.

She began having “hair emergencies” that required his services four times a week. She made it clear she wanted Maury, too, although she was a married woman. He tried to discourage her, saying, “You think you love me, but really you just love the way I style your hair.”

One day she told him that her husband knew all about them (although there was nothing to know). Mr. Hopson decided to skip town, partly to get away from the femme fatale and partly to realize his hope of studying under the Manhattan-based hairdresser Kenneth Battelle, who was famous enough to go by one name (“Kenneth”) and whose clients included Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Mr. Hopson stalked the Kenneth Salon, in an East 54th Street townhouse. It took him weeks to work up the courage to open the big iron double doors and go inside.

The lush interior was by the decorator Billy Baldwin: banquettes, a grand staircase, yellow lacquer walls, flowered carpet, bamboo chaises with batik cotton seats. Women were reclining with their feet up and their heads under the dryers, with dainty egg-salad sandwiches on tables next to them.

After a difficult audition, he was hired as Kenneth’s assistant. Shortly afterward, he was part of a Richard Avedon fashion shoot, setting up the brushes and combs for his exacting boss as Veruschka, one of the first supermodels, got ready for a Vogue cover.

Mr. Hopson’s name was soon all over the place. The fashion credits in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour often read, “Hair by Maury for Kenneth Salon.” “I would go to the studios, and gradually I was building up pages with his credits,” he said. “And then more and more and more. And more. And then they just called for me.”

Aside from technical chops, Mr. Hopson developed a charming chair-side manner from watching Kenneth. “I learned the unspoken etiquette that is part of being fun and a good listener — all those things that occur in a rather intimate client relationship,” he said. “That rule is discretion, above all.”

In 1971, when Mr. Hopson told Kenneth he was leaving, his mentor was not pleased.

Mr. Hopson had decided to go solo, without a beauty salon of his own. He had business cards made and hired an answering service. “I’m the first freelance hairdresser,” he said. “There was nobody else doing it.”

“Maury was definitely the first,” said Julie Britt, a former beauty editor at Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar. “Right after he went freelance, a stream of people left Kenneth. The thing about Maury is, he would be so booked solid, you couldn’t even get him half the time, because he would be going off on shoots with Irving Penn or some ad campaign.”

Swans vs. Gazelles

Truman Capote called the grand society dames he went around with “swans.” Mr. Hopson has another name for his friends: “Swans are rather languid and serene,” he said. “I think of my gals as gazelles: independent, high-spirited and mentally capable of running 60 miles an hour in heels.”

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Maury Hopson (in jacket and tie) with Christie Brinkley at Joanna’s Restaurant in 1982.

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Ron Galella/WireImage

The first was Cheryl Tiegs. They met in 1966, in St. Thomas, during a shoot for Glamour. She was 17. “It was my first trip anywhere,” Ms. Tiegs said. “I just plunged into the ocean, and this good-looking fellow is doing the dog paddle, swimming toward me with a hairbrush in his mouth.”

Ms. Britt worked at Glamour at the time. “Cheryl got two covers out of that,” she said. “Because Maury was so adorable and so much fun, he reminds me a lot of that ‘Shampoo’ situation, where women would chase him. People were fighting over him.”

Another gazelle is Bernadette Peters. He first saw her in an Off Broadway production of “Dames at Sea.” Sometime later, she visited Scavullo’s studio, to have some publicity stills made. She was wearing her hair straight in those days, if you can believe it.

“I said, ‘Oh, what’s under there?’, and she said, ‘Oh, you don’t want to know’ in that voice of hers,” Mr. Hopson said. “She had curls she was fighting. So we did the shoot with the straight hair, and then I spritzed it down with water — and all the curls formed. I started pushing the curls around, and we redid the pictures. I dug the curls out of there. She loved it.”

“He’s the one who got me to reveal my curls,” Ms. Peters said. “From that day forward I always asked for Maury. All the time. Every time I’m on the Tonys, he does my hairdo.”

“‘Hops’ is really good at getting people together,” said Ms. Brinkley, who shared many hotel rooms with Mr. Hopson in the early years of her career. “I always say, ‘Hops, you’re a liver, because you know how to live.’”

Sigourney Weaver met Mr. Hopson — along with his friend and frequent colleague, Way Bandy — at Scavullo’s studio for a Harper’s Bazaar shoot not long after the release of “Ghostbusters” in 1984.

“I walk in and there’s Maury Hopson and Way Bandy,” Ms. Weaver said. “They were such opposites. Way was so elegant, a very sweet man, and much more quiet than Maury, who was like a bottle of Champagne exploding.”

At the studio, Mr. Hopson ran his hands through her hair and said, “I think we should cut a few inches off.”

“So he chops off half of it,” Ms. Weaver recalled. “He just gave me a great cut. At that point my hair was sort of dry, and he starts to get a mousse bottle out. This was quite an important photo shoot for me, a lot of pages. I said, ‘Are you sure you can put mousse in dry hair?’ He laughed and said, ‘Well, we’re soon going to find out.’”

The model Patti Hansen met him in 1973, when she was 16. She is friends with him to this day, as is her husband, Keith Richards. “Sometimes, when you need a laugh, just call Maury,” Mr. Richards said. “I love him dearly.”

The Birthday Dinner

On the night of Nov. 9, Ms. Weaver; her husband, Jim Simpson; and their daughter, Charlotte Simpson, were walking into the East 10th Street Tuscan restaurant Il Cantinori to join Mr. Hopson for a dinner on the occasion of his 74th birthday, and who did they see on the sidewalk but Mr. Richards, who was having a smoke. Ms. Hansen was inside.

Soon the whole gang, along with Mr. Hopson’s longtime friend (and former lover) Jim Byerley, were celebrating together.

These days Mr. Hopson is focused on writing his life story. “It’s a memoir, but I’m not trashing people,” he said.

It’s a story he almost didn’t get to tell. In 2003 he underwent brain surgery at NewYork Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, and the plan is to tell it in flashbacks from the intensive care unit. “Something Maury and I have in common is we’ve both had our heads opened,” Mr. Richards said, referring to the procedure he underwent to reduce brain swelling after he tripped over a tree stump in Fiji in 2006.

Mr. Hopson’s problem resulted from a motorbike accident in the Bahamas. When he awoke after the surgery, there, next to the bed, were Ms. Weaver and Mr. Byerly. And when the phone rang, it was Mr. Richards, calling from Shanghai, where he was on tour with the Rolling Stones.

Among all his accomplishments, Mr. Hopson may be proudest of hanging on to Mr. Byerley, even after they stopped living together. “We take care of each other in all kinds of ways,” he said. “It’s something I wish a lot of people could do. They’re calling it something else now — ‘conscious uncoupling.’ That sounds like, you know, throw a bucket of cold water on the dogs! That would make you uncouple.”



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