November 19, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C

Dolce past

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

Fabiana This was around the time King Farouk of Egypt was exiled in Italy. Soon after he arrived, he brought his newlywed wife. She was tiny, a porcelain doll of a woman, and terribly shy. I'd do her manicures and makeup and she’d blush all the way through it. We spoke in French and she’d tell me a little about the baby she’d just had. But she didn't know how to act with me, whether she should be friendly or distant. Perhaps she was used to slaves, who knows? But she was terribly uncomfortable. He, on the other hand, was an ox. Enormous. He'd drop his wife off with a couple of body guards and go off to do the whole circuit of cafès on Via Veneto. When he was finished, he'd come by to pick her up. One morning, though, after he dropped off his wife, his lover came by to get her hair done. She was a well-known Italian woman in the world of show biz. She still is, but I won't name names. Anyway, we had the wife in one cabin and the lover in another. And then along came King Farouk, poking his head in one cabin — we had private cabins back then — to say hello to his wife first and then to his lover, with the body guards waiting by the door.

Roberto I never saw Mussolini's wife again, except once briefly after the war. But her daughters, they came often. I became very good friends with the youngest, Anna Maria. She used to come with the daughters of the Canova Bar owners, who were close friends with the Mussolinis, who had saved the family from some catastrophe or other. In fact, the owners of Canova hosted our wedding reception there in 1955, covering all costs! That’s how generous they were. We were truly loved.

Anyway, Anna Maria was lovely. Poor thing, she had polio as a kid. I started off washing her hair and then we became friends. She introduced me to crossword puzzles, which I'd never seen before. She encouraged me to use my mind this way, she ordered me to! She was a tough cookie. But what can I say? She was a friend. Then she got married to one of those... what are they called? A DJ. One of the first. Then she moved away from Rome. She had a couple of children and then she died. But she never talked about politics. Never, never. And I'll tell you something else, she was poor. They didn't have two pennies to rub together.

Mishaps

Roberto One day the wife of a renowned Roman doctor came in wearing an exquisite lace dress from the great designer of that era, Fontana. I was dying her hair. You have to remember that hair dyes back then were much more runny than they are now, so I said to her, "Signora, please be careful not to move." But she was so proud of this lace dress and wanted to show it off to all the other women that she lifted off her towel and some dye splattered down the front. Oh, what a fuss she kicked up! She was furious. She left and had her maid send back the dress with a note saying she wanted it replaced. René told me, "You're the one who stained her dress so you're the one who has to pay for it."

Fabiana René was as cheap as it comes. We hardly earned a thing. He's dead, so I don't like saying it, but it's the truth, he hardly paid us a thing. He'd hand down his old pants and shoes to Roberto and his shoes were a size too small. Poor Roberto worked all day with his toes curled up in these shoes. We were exploited; were weren't on the books and the only reason I have a pension today is because I paid the state taxes myself. But we got by because of tips. The tips added up to a lot more than our salary. If Wanda Osiris or a famous actress was happy with her hair, she'd tip me more than I made in a month! Anyway, Roberto would have had to work ten years to pay back the cost of that dress!

Roberto Yes, I was desperate, crying and swearing. And then in walked the woman who worked up the street at the laundry. She was a wonderful woman, a real Roman character. Tosca was her name. She took the dress from me and gave it a close look and said she’d see what she could do. A few days later, she brought it back and you couldn’t see a trace of the stain. "How much?" I asked her. "How much!?" she said. "Nothing! Don't even think about paying me. Give me a free hair cut next time!"

I was so relieved I broke down. That's the kind of woman she was, so generous and giving. We used to let her and other clients with little money come in the back door after hours and we’d cut their hair as a favor. Anyway, later that doctor’s wife was embarrassed when she realized what I must have gone through. She claimed that she thought we had insurance.

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