April 21, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Dolce past

Fabiana Benedetto with showgirl (soubrette) Wanda Osiris.
By Megan K. Williams
Published: 2012-10-20

abiana Benedetto and her husband Roberto Garlant spent more than three decades washing, dying, cutting and setting the hair of Rome's glitterati. During the Dolce Vita years of the late 1950s and 1960s, when Rome was a film industry hub, Fabiana was one of the most sought-after cosmeticians in the city. Both worked at René's, a hair salon whose elite included the wives of exiled kings, starlets, and members of the Mussolini family.

Benedetto and Garlant met in their late teens, when they began working at René's. It was in the late 1940s, with the anguish and suffering of the war years barely behind them. Benedetto was una ragazza di periferia — a girl from the suburbs — and Roberto the nephew of the owner’s wife who'd moved south from mountainous Friuli seeking work. They fell in love while cutting hair together and married in 1955. After years at René's, they left to open their own salon across the street on Via Veneto.

For more than three decades, working long hours with little pay, Fabiana and Roberto witnessed the dizzying rise and slow, sour fizzle of Via Veneto, which in the 1950s and 60s was by far Rome’s most illustrious street. Megan K. Williams, author of the acclaimed 2006 short story collection "Saving Rome," sat down with the pair, now retired, to hear some of their recollections.

The Early Years

Roberto: "When I arrived in Rome, there weren't even buses..."

Fabiana What can I say, other than I've had a life of work, of intense work. I wasn't yet 18 when I began working for René. I came from the outskirts of Rome, from a very humble family in a small apartment in the Fleming area, which much, much later became a respectable neighborhood. I'd get up at seven to be at work for nine. When there was no electricity, I'd often walk all the way across Rome to get to work, with holes in my shoes. I'd get there already tired! And then, we worked from 9 a.m. until the night. We often ate a sandwich standing up. There was no closing time. If a client showed up at 8 p.m. and wanted her hair done for a party — Oh! How many parties there were! — I had to do her hair. So she could be fresh, combed, with her make-up done, and ready to go to the party that started at midnight. So, you can imagine, to find myself in this glittery scene of the beautiful rich was somewhat traumatic. Then, of course, I got used to it.

Roberto I began working at René’s on May 1, 1946. I came from Friuli, where we suffered terribly during the war. When I arrived in Rome, there weren't even buses, just trucks that we hitch rides on for a lira. I had to walk from the station when I arrived, but it wasn’t far. Via Veneto was full of Americans and young streetwalkers back then. I slept in the basement of the salon, under the stairs, right near the entrance. It was terrible because this was where the young ladies brought the American soldiers to make love. Right beside the steps leading up to the Capuchin church! I hardly slept a wink. Then one day the plumber came by to do some work and forgot a water pump in the salon. By this point, I couldn’t take the noise anymore, so I grabbed the pump and sprayed them all. Oh, mamma mia! You should have heard them curse me up and down! But I just couldn't take it anymore.

La Dolce Vita

Fabiana Via Veneto was a world apart back then. Full of actresses and paparazzi. And I began to frequent — at work, let’s be clear — all these VIPs. They were the post-war years, the years after all that misery, from 1950 to 1960. But they really started in earnest in 1952. Rome wanted to have a good time, to forget the war, to have fun. Via Veneto went crazy.

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