Last January, I grabbed up a bunch of other costume freaks from our local theater and headed to the Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York. We were making this pilgrimage to worship at the shrine of the “Icons of Hollywood” costume exhibit, curated by one of Edith Head’s assistants and avid costume and prop collector, John LeBold.
John was Edith’s assistant from 1959 through 1968-ish. The marvelous exhibit was scheduled to close the next weekend, and, after quite a bit of begging, I was lucky enough to get permission to interview John when he came to fetch his gorgeous collection. The day was freezing cold, the driving was death-defying, but it was all worth it. John has fond memories and very close-up-and-personal reflections on Edith I’m proud to share with you on this, the 3rd segment in my month-long salute to our famous (and to some, infamous) October birthay girl.
(By the way, John’s collection is currently being auctioned and includes such gems as Dorothy’s WIZARD OF OZ pinafore by Adrian, Barbara Stanwyck’s THE GREAT MAN’S LADY dress, and Marilyn Monroe’s Travilla gold lame dress. Want to flip through the catalog and bid in your dreams? Here you go.)
John was a delightful interview subject. Although he was clearly tired and not well, he answered my questions with a twinkle in his eye. Often prompted and encouraged by his friend and agent, Joyce Aimee, John reminisced about his days in Hollywood, working for Edith. (That’s Joyce in the killer-cool hat!) Come meet Edith, the boss, by a man who just loved her.
(By the way, I’ll be peppering this interview with photos and sketches and such of the movies he worked on with Edith…you may recognize a few of them…)
Kay: I work as an image consultant and also a costumer, so I’m very interested in Edith Head’s process. From that viewpoint, when EH would welcome somebody in to start working with them, what kind of things did she do? Did she say, “Okay, stand there in your underwear and let me look at you?” How did she approach the process of getting someone into a costume-or even a private wardrobe? I know she did do some private wardrobes, for instance, Barbara Stanwyck.
J: She did a lot of personal wardrobes, yes. What she would first do, at least when she met me, is she would have me measure the person before she would interview them. We always had manikins of the person’s form down in the storage area, depending on which studio we worked with.
And he had a form downstairs. She wanted me to measure him and he didn’t want to be measured first. He insisted, “I want to see her first.” And I said, “Please, this is actually my first…you’re my very first person, now don’t get me in trouble.” (John was 18 at this time). He said, “No, I want to see her first.” I said, “Please, this is your robe; here’s the dressing room. Please go in there and take your clothes off; get down to your undershirt and underwear and I’ll measure you. Then I’ll give her the measurements and then you can go in and talk to her. (Laughs). He wouldn’t do it. Finally, I talked him into it. He came out and I could see that he had his pants off and everything, and he said, “Look, may I please go up before you measure?” And he was so insistent that I finally said yes. So anyway, he walked in and took his robe off and he didn’t have any underwear on! But he had his socks on. And Edith is sitting there, and she’s drawing and she looks up like this (looking over his glasses) and she says “Your socks don’t match.” (Laughs) And she went right back to drawing.
Well, he stood there totally humiliated, because he was trying to get the best of her. He turns around and walks towards me and I said, “I told you so.” (Laughs) So he went back and put his underwear on and put his robe on and walked back in. And they sat down and sort of both looked at each other and both laughed. and from then on, they just talked about the costume, which was for a Western, which they decided not to do! Yeh, it was done a few years later. Can’t remember the name of it.
But that was the process. They would sit down and start talking about it, about the costume. Very often, if she liked the person, they might come over to her house, in Culver Canyon. And very often, the first cuts, she’d have me go over the sketches that she would be making and say “What do you see this as?” as far as looking for fabric. Like, she would say “I think this would look good in a blue fabric. Do you agree?” And I would say, “No, I really think I would rather see it in a dark green or something…” and she would say “Hmmmm. Maybe. Why don’t you go find me something?”
She had no idea…I had just turned 18 when she hired me. I was working at Western Costume; I had just got fired from a bookstore where I was working. Only because I was losing so much weight. I wasn’t eating much food then, all my money I spent on film books. And my boss there said, “I’ve got to fire you, because you’re spending all the money I hire you with on books! Go find another job someplace; like maybe a bakery!” (Laughs.) So, I walked down the street and saw Western Costume. and I loved movies so much that I went in there and got the job!
J: This was ’59.
Peanut gallery: You should mention how you met Edith. That’s a great story.
J: Yeh, yeh…well, I was there almost a week and I spent most of my time, well, I wasn’t really working. I unzipped the costume bags and looked and said “Oh, my God!” This place was about 7-8 stories high and it was solid wood. I prayed every day, please, no fire! It was like a tinder box! The steps were this (measures about 10 inches with hands), very steep and about this narrow (measures about 4 inches with hand), about as wide as a lady’s foot. So, you had to walk down sideways. Very, very dangerous.
Anyway, I looked up one day and saw this lady walking sideways down the stairs and she had about 4-5 bolts of fabric in her hands. And I thought, oh, god, she’s gonna fall and break her neck. And I ran up and said, “May I help you?” and she said, “What did you say?” And I said,”May I help you?” And she yelled from the top of the stairs “You’re hired! What do you want to do?” (Laughs.) I said, “What do you mean?” I went up and took her by her elbows and walked her down the stairs and emptied those bolts onto a table. And I looked and it was Edith Head!
(Carroll Baker in Edith’s designs for SYLVIA.)
K: Was she a little woman?
J: Oh, very petite. And of course the big bun on the back and all the black hair (motions bangs across forehead) you know. And very kind. She was very kind, but she looked scary. But that was because of the harsh glasses and that bun, the old schoolteacher look. The severe look; which was groomed by her to look that way.
K: Now, why would she want to look that way?
J: She wanted to look severe because she was not a severe person. And she wanted to have that domineering look!
K: So she was letting her appearance do the yelling for her?
J: Yes, exactly! Because she was timid, actually, by her nature. Anyway, I said “What did you mean by that, that you hired me?” And she said, “You’re the first person in 35 years being in this damn business who ever said ‘May I help you?’” (Laughs) And she reached into her little chest cavity here and pulled out one of her cards and said, “Here. 8 o’clock. Paramount Studios. Meet me.” And that’s how it all started. And that Monday, I turned 18. And the following Monday was when I met Brando!
(Edith on screen with Elke Sommers in THE OSCAR.)
K: What was your primary job for her, as her assistant?
J: I was a sort of Jack-of-all-trades. And of course, when I started working for her, she had no idea it took me three busses to get from the San Fernando valley to get there. And another one or 2 busses to go looking for fabric. So, I would go downtown to the area where they sold fabric, and I would get all these little clips of materials. And she would look at the fabric and say “get me 50 yards of this, get me… so forth. Or “I don’t really like that one,” and I would say, “Oh, I really like that one.” And she’d say, “Oh, you think so?” (Laughs.)
K: She sounds like she was more collaborative than you might think.
J. She was very collaborative, because she thought I had good taste!
K. That’s quite a compliment coming from her, isn’t it?
j. Yes. Yes, well you know, actually, she had a lot to learn.
K. Really? In what way?
J. You know when she came to Hollywood, she didn’t know that much.
K. Well, I did read her biography. She sort of came in around the backdoor, using sketches from art students she worked with…
J. Yes. Mmm-humm. She always learned, she was quick to learn. I think she was still learning to the day she died. Kept her young. And she didn’t mind picking up things even as late as that.
K. And you worked with her until when?
J. Until I was 27, about 10 years.
K. Did she ever talk about the movie stars and say “Boy, I wish I could get her to wear this or that?”
(Bette Davis in POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES.)
J. Yes, she always talked about the movie stars like that. She thought most women had very bad taste.
K. What was her idea of good taste?
J. Dressed more tailored. And she really disliked the Helen Rose look…which I loved. I loved the feminine look myself.
(Helen Rose with Lauren Bacall for DESIGNING WOMAN.)
Edith knew how to disguise a body’s faults. If the waist was too long, she knew how to disguise it. It’s important to note that she never told them that, of course.
K. I hear that Barbara Stanwyck and Edith Head were very good friends…
J. Oh, yes, they were. They had a dear friendship.
K. Tell me about her, I just love her.
J. Oh, my god, she was just fabulous! She was priceless. What I loved about her was that she was such good friends with the crew and the rest of the cast. I only knew her in The Big Valley. When the scene was set, she’d say “Come on, boys” and she’d hoist up those big Western dresses and sit down and get out the cards and chips. And she was just fabulous. No matter who was there, she was just “Is that your wife? Is that your kids?”
K. Did she have a favorite star, Edith?
J. Well, Barbara was probably the number one person that she adored. She was over at the house quite often, too.
K. So they were personal friends?
(Helen’s work for Grace Kelly in HIGH SOCIETY.)
J. She preferred a more masculine, more tailored look.
K. I read she preferred dressing men to women, true?
(Two great Edith suits from HARLOW.)
J: The first time, when she discovered I liked Mexican food, she invited me over to her house in Culver Canyon. Of course, I, again, she didn’t know I didn’t have a car…so, it was take this bus and that bus all over the canyon. and then I had to get a cab to go up the canyon. One day, she looked down and said, “Where the hell do you park your car? I never see it!” (Laughs) Of course it was quite a long drive to where she was. It was like 5 or 6 acres of land. There was a swimming pool, the tennis courts, the terraces, and all that!
K. One of the things I’m curious about is, the designer will make the dress, but then you have the jewelry, the hats, the shoes…how does the costumer work with that? You start with the dress and then you say, alright, we’re going to go over to Joseff’s of Hollywood to find the necklace…?
J. That’s it, that’s how it happens sometimes, but they used to have the craftspersons right in the studio, they would make it right there. They USED to have it; they don’t have it anymore. Oh, it used to be fantastic! They had jewelry departments, purse departments. Oh, my god, it was fabulous!
(Edith and Elvis, together again for Blue Hawaii. FUN!)
K. Did the stars get to keep the things they wore? If they really liked them?
J. Well, only if it was in their contract and very few put it in their contract.
K. So, she would lay out all the sketches, and she and the actor would sit down and go over them? And collaborate?
J. With Grace (Kelly) she did, she took care of everything, cuz’ Grace didn’t want any part of it. She would tell Edith what she could do and not do. She’d look at what Edith would find and look at it, and approve of it, yes. But, to go and do it herself, no. I have pictures of Edith sitting with Grace sitting in her huge living room. With all the pictures on the floor.
K. Oh, yes! I’ve seen that picture! And what were you doing? Were you the picker-up of all those things on the floor?
J. (Laughs) Oh, yes, either that, or going downtown trying to find things for her. I was always the general go-fer. Which I never minded, cuz’ I loved Edith! And I loved being able to get things together and knowing that they would wind up on a beautiful person like Grace or Barbara.
K. How did you feel when you would see that on the screen, after all the gathering of things together? To see those beautiful things on the screen?
K. And you’ve been collecting for years now?
J. It started when I was 9, actually, and I found this costume. I was buying this piece for my mother for her birthday and it wound up that it belonged to Marlene Dietrich. Did you read about that?
K. Where *is* that shop? I’d like to shop there!
K. Now, everyone knows things.
J. I got some of my greatest things in downtown Hollywood. Little shops all around downtown Hollywood.
K. Didn’t people know what they had?
J. Oh, they knew what they had, but they didn’t value it. Actually, Debbie (Reynolds) and I started this whole thing.
And I used to go into Hollywood Blvd, and with $50 in my pocket, I would walk home with tons of Carmen Miranda hats for $5 a piece! And Betty Grable hats and beaded leotards. Her show costumes for $5 a piece.
K. You’re killin’ me.
J. (Laughs.) I couldn’t afford a car; I was spending all my money on this stuff and I would take 3 busses home.
(Edith designed for friend Shirley MacClaine, for MY GEISHA.)
K. Everyone knows the Edith Head stories and everyone seems to know so much about her. What was the most surprising thing about her?
j. Well, the biggest surprise was the first day she invited me over to her house. And I get out of the taxi cab and walk ALLLLLLLL the way up and I pass Bill, her husband; he’s playing tennis with…I can’t remember the first person I saw him play tennis with, some actor. Anyway, I go into the house and she welcomes me. And she still had her suit on and her glasses and her hair up. And she says, “John, I got to get out of this stuff. I can’t stand it in my own home. Sit down, I’ll be out in a minute.” So, she went in there and took about 10 min. She had pulled all of the combs out of her bun and she put on this Mexican muumuu, and she wiped all the stuff off of her face and came out without the sunglasses and her hair came down to the back of her calves! And I remember this muumuu was purple with big yellow sunflowers on it. Totally different than anything you ever saw! She looked like a little Mexican girl. And totally different than anything you ever suspected from her. And she said, “This is me.”
K. Was she different at home, a different demeanor?
J. Totally! A totally different person. like Little Miss Sunshine. And she went in there and cooked up this incredible Mexican dinner, 1-2-3. She liked to cook. And then, Bill came in with…who was it? Oh, Mel Ferrar! God, was he handsome at that time. Wow! I knew I’d remember it just for that reason.
K. So, there’s the bookmark in the head, right? You remember he was hot!
J. That’s right! (Laughs hard.)
(Stella Stevens in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR.)
K: Is there anything else that my readers would like to know? What about her collaboration with Hitchcock?
J: I don’t know if I should say this, but I don’t know if she liked him a lot.
K: Was he a likable guy?
J: I only worked on one film with him…and that was TORN CURTAIN.
K: With Julie Andrews.
K: Uh-oh. I didn’t know there was a landmine there…
J: You said the magic word.
Joyce: What about some of your favorite people?
K: Do you think Edith Head would look at the people today and think they had any style whatsoever?
Joyce: I think she would have ignored them totally!
(Natalie and Lauren in simple, lovely Edith designs for SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL.)
K: This is going to mean so much to my readers. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this.
J: It’s been a real pleasure!
Now, don’t forget to come back next time to Edith Headquarters for the final installment of this series. See you then!