Margaret Vinci Heldt, 98; took hair to new height with beehive

Mrs. Heldt’s do was famously worn by Audrey Hepburn and the 1960s group the Ronettes. Caryn Rousseau/Associated Press/file 2011

WASHINGTON — Margaret Vinci Heldt, a Chicago hairdresser credited with teasing, sculpting, and spraying the first beehive, the conical up do that heralded a towering new era in style when it debuted in 1960, died Friday at a hospital in Elmhurst, Ill. She was 98.

The cause was heart ailments, said her daughter, Carlene Ziegler.

In the American beauty shops of the 20th century, styles came and went. There was the bob, the pageboy and the bouffant — and then there was the beehive, a hairstyle unrivaled by any other in the heights to which it soared, the volume of hair spray it required to stay in place, and the nostalgia it inspired as the years wore on.

The beehive is widely recorded as the creation of Mrs. Heldt, a daughter of Sicilian immigrants who by 1950 had become the proprietress of Margaret Vinci Coiffures on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. A regular contributor to Modern Beauty Shop magazine, she was invited in 1960 to submit to the publication a new do for the new decade.

‘‘Nothing much had happened since the French twist, the page boy and the flip,’’ Heldt recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. ‘‘They told me, ‘We want you to come up with something really different.’ ’’

As Mrs. Heldt recalled the story, she went home, took out her mannequin, and set to work. Seeking a creative spark, she referred to her black velvet fez, which she said contained her hair nicely. Her new hairdo, she decided, would fit inside the fez.

Her brushing and back-combing produced a style that appeared in the February 1960 issue of Modern Beauty Shop, where it was defined as having ‘‘wrap-around crown movement, softly draped bangs and ear-hugging side patterns.’’

In an interview with Modern Salon, the magazine’s present-day incarnation, Mrs. Heldt credited an editor with spotting a small black bauble in her model’s blond hair, noticing the resemblance to an apiarian colony, and coining the moniker ‘‘beehive.’’

The hairstyle became a hit ‘‘in real life and on runways,’’ Michele Musgrove, editorial director for Modern Salon, said in an interview. While the Ronettes, the 1960s girls group, took the beehive to lofty altitudes, Audrey Hepburn carried it to the peak of elegance, most memorably as Holly Golightly in the 1961 film ‘‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’

A woman who wore a beehive could count on it to last a week or more, provided that enough hair spray had been applied and that she took care to protect her crown by wrapping it at night in a scarf or toilet paper.

‘‘I don’t care what your husband does from the neck down,’’ Mrs. Heldt recalled admonishing her clients, ‘‘but I don’t want him to touch you from the neck up.’’

Many women favored the beehive, Mrs. Heldt observed, because it made them feel ‘‘willowy and tall.’’ In retrospect, the hairstyle captured in its tangle of bobby pins and torrent of hair spray the zeitgeist of the 1960s. In her book ‘‘Fashion Fads Through American History,’’ Jennifer Grayer Moore noted a resemblance between the ‘‘helmet of hair that is the beehive’’ and the helmets worn by astronauts and cosmonauts during the space race.

Amid the other race of the decade — the US-Soviet nuclear arms race — its rounded, vaguely pointed tip also seemed to recall the B-52 bomber. When it was not called the beehive, the hairstyle was called the B-52.

In time, the boldest of beehive-wearing women abandoned the dictum that less is more. ‘‘Everybody wanted the beehive, even women with real, real short hair,’’ Mrs. Heldt told CNN. ‘‘They looked more like anthills than a beehive,’’ she said, adding that they ‘‘got bigger and bigger and became hornets’ nests.’’

But even as it gave way to the sleeker styles popularized by the British hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, the beehive retained a certain appeal. Marge Simpson of the animated show ‘‘The Simpsons’’ sports a sky-high blue one. Amy Winehouse, the British-born pop singer who died in 2011 at 27, was among the entertainers who adopted the look for the 21st century.

Michela Teresa Vinci was born in Chicago. Her father made wine barrels, and her mother was a homemaker.

Mrs. Heldt, who changed her name to Margaret when she was in elementary school, told the Chicago History Museum that she knew by age 7 that she wanted to be a hairdresser.

When she enrolled in beauty school, she could not afford the hairpiece required for practice sessions. In an act of generosity that recalled a scene from O. Henry’s ‘‘The Gift of the Magi,’’ her mother offered her own hair to her daughter to make a wig. Mrs. Heldt’s father, who loved his wife’s locks, was reduced to tears.

He was reduced to tears again when his daughter won a hairdressing competition.

‘‘My father, he started to cry,’’ Mrs. Heldt recalled. ‘‘My mom, she took my hand and, man, did she give me a talk. She said, ‘Now, my child, I want you to know that you are one of God’s chosen people’ — in Italian it sounds wonderful.’’

Mrs. Heldt retired from hairdressing at age 80.

Her husband of 55 years, Carl Heldt, died in 1998. She leaves two children, William Heldt of Oswego, Ill., and Carlene Ziegler of Wellington, Fla.; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

‘‘It’s kind of nice to know maybe in my own way I was able to give something to my profession that became a classic,’’ Mrs. Heldt once remarked, looking back on the beehive. ‘‘It still has a touch of glamour doesn’t it?’’

In another interview, she expressed her appreciation for the one ingredient without which her success never would have been possible.

‘‘I don’t know how we could have done it,’’ she told the Chicago Sun-Times, ‘‘without hair spray.’’

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