November 20, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C

Dolce past

By Megan K. Williams
Published: 2012-10-20

"And then along came King Farouk..."

Fake nails, false eye-lashes, evening maquillage... I did it all. To get an appointment with me during the busy years, you had to book 15 days in advance. Fifteen days! I had three girls who did the foundation for the women, all with make-up I mixed myself. Then I would do the eyes — it was all I had time for given the demand. You have to remember that there wasn't much make-up around at the time, but we were on the avant-guard.... Our false eye-lashes, for instance, we attached one by one — not in one easy piece, like everywhere else — but one at a time, with silver threads in between and attached with special glue. Blond women would come to us to get their eyelashes dyed so they didn’t have to apply mascara. We did extraordinary things for the times! Not even in America were they as advanced as us!

Back then, women didn't know how to put makeup on — only a bit of blush — so they came to me to have their eyes done. I was one of the few who’d studied at Madame Eve's. She had a beauty school at Piazza di Spagna. She was Hungarian, just like Zsa Zsa Gabor, and her mother, who was a chemist, worked with her, mixing all the makeup. She invented a special eyeliner. All sorts of products — even creams with collagen. She was the first! One the favorite products were drops that turned your eyes blue. They dilated your pupils and turned the white of your eyes blue. These drops sold like hotcakes. When women left, they were transformed. Later, though, they discovered that the drops damaged the eye. They wrote about it in the paper and they had to pull them off the market. But she made a marvelous lipstick that we’d send to Marilyn Monroe in Hollywood!

Roberto The first years all the most famous theater actresses and actors came by. Andreina Pagnani. Renato Rachel, Barbara Stanwyck. And then with teatro leggero — light theater — le soubrette (showgirls) began coming in. They hardly paid me a thing, but I did it anyway. And then [showgirl and singer] Wanda Osiris. She did a wonderful show with the most beautiful girls in the world, "Le Bluebell." And the Nicholas Brothers. Robert Taylor. And of course Tyrone Power. I went to see Tyrone Power’s wedding and I forgot my camera in the taxi!

Surprises

Roberto I had already worked a little in René's back in November 1941, when the war was in full swing. I was only 11 and my aunt invited me down to Rome for a few months. I slept where I slept later — in the little room under the stairs. One evening, my uncle told me to make sure I woke up early the next morning because a lady was coming and it was very important to her to have her hair done before the salon opened. I was the one who put on the hot water and opened the salon, you see. So the next morning, I got up early and put the water on and went to open the door. When I peeked out I saw a carabiniere and a dark car. Then a short, little woman appeared who looked just like my mother. She said, "Little boy, open up and let me in. It's cold out here."

So I let her in and we chatted a little and then she said, "Wash my hair, won’t you." And I said, "Me?! Wash your hair! I don’t know how." I could hardly reach the sink. But she insisted and so I had to wash her hair. "Bravo, bravo," she kept saying. I thought it would never end. Finally, my uncle arrived and saw what was going on and nearly had a heart attack. "What on earth are you doing?!" he screamed. But the lady reassured him, said, "Look how well this young boy has washed my hair."

My uncle shooed me out of the way and I scampered down into the basement, sure I was going to be punished. A while later, though, he called me back upstairs. The woman was under the hair dryer by then. "Come here," he said, with a chuckle, "I'd like to introduce you to Donna Rachele Mussolini."

I nearly fainted. Mussolini's wife!

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