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Kenneth Battelle, 86; celebrity hairdresser

Kenneth Battelle (with models) gave Jackie Kennedy her iconic hairdo.

1961 NEW YORK TIMES FILE

Kenneth Battelle (with models) gave Jackie Kennedy her iconic hairdo.

NEW YORK — In 1961, Vogue magazine said that ‘‘almost every famous female head in the world has gone or will go’’ to Kenneth, the hairdresser who created Jacqueline Kennedy’s legendary bouffant and softened the golden locks of Marilyn Monroe.

From the grandes dames of Manhattan society to presidential wives (including Kennedy and Rosalynn Carter) to foreign royalty to movie stars to a new generation of career women, Kenneth Battelle, who chose to be known by his first name only — and no ‘‘Mr. Kenneth,’’ please — was the coiffurist of choice.

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When he left his Manhattan lair in the 1960s, women around the country asked for his autograph. When Glamour mentioned his name on the cover, circulation went up.

Mr. Battelle died at 86 Sunday at his home in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.

Mr. Battelle was often called the first celebrity hairdresser, and he had a list of clients to prove it: Brooke Astor, Lee Radziwill, Katharine Graham, Judy Garland, and Audrey Hepburn among them. Lucille Ball called him ‘‘God.’’ His contribution to his craft — he insisted that it was neither a profession nor an art — was to persuade women to rely less on permanents, bleaches, and hair spray in favor of a more romantic look. He advanced the use of rollers to create natural-looking waves.

He also made his beauty parlor at 19 East 54th St. a place of fun, almost a club. The salon, filling four stories just off Fifth Avenue, was a wild montage of colors and patterns meant to evoke the circus. He served finger sandwiches and tea.

In 1961, Mr. Battelle became the first and only hairdresser to receive the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, given from 1943 to 1984. Vanity Fair said that in the 1960s only two hairdressers vied with him for tonsorial preeminence: Alexandre in Paris and Vidal Sassoon in London.

Kenneth Everette Battelle was born in Syracuse. His father, a shoe salesman, and his mother divorced when he was 12, and he took jobs as a short-order cook and a dishwasher to help support his four younger sisters. He enlisted in the Navy at 17 and attended Syracuse University on the GI Bill. Money ran out, and he attended beauty school after seeing an ad promising $100-a-week jobs to anyone who finished a six-month course.

His mother hated the idea of his becoming a hairdresser. ‘‘Red-blooded American boys don’t do that,’’ she would say, he recalled.

He found a job at Starlet Beauty Bar, opposite the Greyhound bus station in Syracuse. Prostitutes made up much of the clientele, he said. His bob cut there became ragingly popular.

After working briefly in Miami, he arrived in New York City with $9 in his pocket in 1950. He ended up working for Helena Rubinstein. In 1954, Jacqueline Kennedy, newly wed, arrived at the salon and asked for Lawrence, who usually did her hair. Lawrence was not around, so the receptionist paged Mr. Battelle.

Kennedy had what was called the Italian cut, which he felt was too short, layered, and curly for her tall proportions and big bones, he told Vanity Fair in 2003. He decided to stretch it out by setting it with big rollers. But rollers as big as he wanted did not exist then, so he had some specially made.

After John F. Kennedy became president, Mr. Battelle perfected the bouffant style that became associated with Jacqueline Kennedy. He thought the look would lengthen her head and balance her broad cheekbones. He used some hair spray, but allowed a few wisps to fall away to make her look less ‘‘set.’’ He was nicknamed Secretary of Grooming.

In 1958, Marilyn Monroe’s hair was falling out from overbleaching and overperming. Mr. Battelle fixed the problem, restoring its soft luster. Whenever she was in New York, Monroe came to see him.

He also groomed her for John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday rally in May 1962 at Madison Square Garden, where she sang ‘‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’’

Mr. Battelle dismissed the popular belief that women confide to their hairdressers the intimate details of their lives. No woman had told him such things, he told The Boston Globe in 1968, and he would discourage anyone who did.

But he did allow that when he was barred from visiting Monroe backstage at Madison Square Garden, he could not help thinking of the rumors he had heard that she was having an affair with the president.

‘‘She said she was fearful of publicity,’’ he said in the Vanity Fair interview. ‘‘I don’t really know what she had in mind, but since I was doing both Marilyn and Mrs. Kennedy at the same time, I imagine it was about that.’’

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