Remembering the Stylist Who Truly Understood Curly Jewish Hair
Those of us who have tangled with our Jewish curls owe a debt of gratitude to Rose Evansky, of blessed memory, the inventor of the blow drying technique.
Evanksy died last November at the age of 94 – not exactly in anonymity, but her name was not of the household variety, either. You could say that she flew under the radar on a stream of hot air. In the business, however, her name was legendary. Vidal Sassoon, the better-known British hairstylist, once called Evansky “without question the top female stylist in the country and the equal of any man.”
If you were a girl with curls in the straight-haired culture of the 1960s, you know from my angst.
Hair was supposed to swing, like everything else in the 60s! I inherited my father’s curly hair and struggled daily to tame it, with poor results. If there was an ounce of moisture in the air, my straightened hair would frizz up before I even made it down the driveway. My ringlets were a more reliable predictor of the relative humidity than the meteorologist on the 6:00 news.
I would sit on my bedroom floor paging through magazines, cutting out pictures of celebrities with flowing tresses, like Marianne Faithfull, Mia Farrow, and Patti Boyd. Standing in front of the mirror, I’d gently shake my head back and forth, like the model in the Breck commercial – but instead of rippling sinuously from side to side, my frizzy locks steadfastly refused to budge.
I tried every trick in the book. Wrapping my wet hair around orange juice cans and sleeping on them was a nightly ritual. When I could no longer tolerate the discomfort, I wrapped my wet hair around my head and secured it with tape. I applied the (probably carcinogenic) Curl Free and U.N.C.U.R.L. products many times, resulting in a flat, chemically burned look. My best friend even agreed to iron my hair – using a real iron from the laundry room – in a process that flattened the ends but left them scorched, too.
I’m pretty sure it was after Woodstock that “letting it all hang out” came to apply to hair, as well. Gingerly, I experimented with the new look. The day I emancipated my curls for good was when Carole King’s first album, “Tapestry,” came out. Barefoot with faded jeans and long, curly hair, Carole was my new role model.
And then, like a miracle, the handheld blow dryer came into my life. At long last, I could tame my stubborn locks!
Evansky, born Rosel Lerner in Worms, Germany, was 16 years old when her Polish father was sent to Dachau and she was hustled out of Germany on a Kindertransport to safety in Britain. Her father survived the concentration camp, and the family was reunited in London the following year. Rose found a position as an apprentice to Adolf Cohen, one of the giants in the hair industry, who also trained Sassoon.
She had a talent for the business, ultimately rising to the top of her profession as the most sought-after female stylist in posh Mayfair salons. With a keen understanding of the look women wanted and with their impatience for sitting under a hooded dryer, she came up with the idea of the blow-dry technique. Eventually, she became so successful that she opened her own shop, Evanksy’s, one of the most popular salons of the day.
Evansky once confessed to having “Jewish anxiety” when she introduced her new technique, but she needn’t have worried. Both the press and the public embraced it. As inventions go, this one ranks with microwaves and caller ID as one of my favorites.
In her 90s, Evansky wrote her memoir, In Paris We Sang, in which she described the harrowing adventures of her early life. It makes me happy to know that out of the darkness, she found fulfillment and success, and was given the gift of longevity to enjoy it.
Helene Cohen Bludman is a freelance writer with curly hair. She is a longtime member of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA.