By Megan K. Williams
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
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Roberto We asked René if he would consider having us buy into the business and become partners. He was old by then and we were really running the place at this point. But he wouldn't hear of it, nor of paying us properly. So we decided to open our own salon across the street. This was in the mid-60s. Things had changed. People began demanding benefits, breaks, you had to start paying taxes. We ran our business above board and it was much harder.
Fabiana I insisted on paying people well and treating them with respect. The first 10 years were very good. Then business began going downhill. People left the centro storico to buy big villas outside Rome. Salons opened up in residential neighborhoods and people went close by to get their hair and make-up done. And then the kind of tourist changed. During the Dolce Vita it was all Americans from the grand hotels around us. But then the oil boom years began and it was people from the Arab countries. Women who had become incredibly rich over night, but who had lice. Terrible. I remember one who brought a suitcase full of jewels and showed it off to all of us. "Look, look," she said and we all admired them. Then she went to Via Sistina with this little suitcase to sit in the cafè and she was robbed in five minutes.
Roberto And then No Parking signs began appearing everywhere on the via. Then the war against the Americans. We were right beside the American Embassy and every protest march seemed to go down Via Veneto!
Fabiana A bomb even exploded in our salon. It wasn't meant to explode our salon, it was meant for a Swiss travel agency beside us, but our salon blew up instead. It was called Novembre Nero — Black November. They were Armenian terrorists and the Swiss had imprisoned one of their leaders. So they began planting bombs in Swiss businesses. We came to work to find the hairdressing chairs, glass, nail polish... everything spread out on Via Veneto. And nobody paid us a penny to cover the cost!
I then became obsessed with bombs, constantly checking if anyone had left suitcases on the sidewalk. My nerves were a wreck. It had gone sour. In short, we decided to leave. But I have to say, I was so happy doing this work. I did it with passion. I still dream about it — applying make-up, cutting hair. I felt born to do it.
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