Hairdresser to the Stars - Black History Month 2018
|Hattie Wilson Tabourne in 1915|
Not much is known of Hattie Wilson’s early life. I have not discovered her place of birth beyond noting she was born in Nebraska in 1880 to Charles and Susie Wilson. This information was found on her son's birth certificate.* In true Hollywood fashion Hattie knocked two years off her age listing it as 1882. When and why she and her family traveled to Los Angeles is unknown. The brief facts are this: Hattie began working in hairdressing in 1897 at age 17. The family was living in Pasadena according to the 1900 census. Hattie’s mother Susie passed away in Los Angeles in May 1907. Hattie met musician George Le Roy Tabourn (later spelled Tabourne), a married man, and began a relationship with him. Hattie gave birth to her son Charles Le Roy Tabourne in Los Angeles in 1909. At some point Tabourne divorced his first wife. On September 29, 1916 Hattie married musician George Le Roy Taborn in Alameda, California. At that time of their son’s birth, Hattie lived at 2006 East 9th Street in Los Angeles (in a home that has been demolished).
According to the 1920 census she lived at 914 Hemlock Street in Los Angeles (that home has also been demolished) with her son Charles. Charles, then eleven, suffered from polio according to the newspapers. One can assume that with her husband either absent or traveling, Hattie was the sole reliable family breadwinner.
The discovery of Hattie’s talents as a hairdresser and her move into studio work are credited to silent star Julia Faye. Faye related she “discovered” Hattie in a downtown salon and brought her to the attention of director Cecil B. DeMille, although Hattie was already well known as a hair stylist given her long association with Madame Weaver Jackson and Frederickson’s. Faye may have introduced her to DeMille, but Hattie had already worked in film gained early fame by creating a hairstyle called “The Yukon” for Dorothy Dalton in the 1917 Triangle film The Flame of the Yukon (film still exists). Given that hairdressers and make up artists were not given credit until some years later, Hattie was probably called upon to work on other films for Triangle Studios before coming to the attention of DeMille. It also makes sense to assume that her film work began as a way to bring in extra money in order to care for her disabled son.
What is important, once aligned with Cecil B. De Mille, Hattie was soon under contract to Famous Players Lasky. Whether she headed the hairdressing department is not clear, more research is needed. Nonetheless, her value to De Mille and the studio was apparent in that she was offered or negotiated a seven year contract. I believe this is totally unique for someone who was not a star on screen.
|Agnes Ayres in the fantasy Cinderella sequence in Forbidden Fruit (1921)|
The magic of Hattie’s coiffures started with "her assessment of the contour of the face." She built hair styles to compliment the features and was legendary in her loathing of the then fashionable “bob.” Once stars had bobbed their hair, she had to work artfully to add to or conceal the bobbed locks with attachments, flowers, wigs and hair ornaments. She was especially famed for her artistry with hair ornaments. She twisted gold ropes, rows of brilliants, and other adornments into fantasies through the tresses of such stars as Nita Naldi (who kept her long hair and resisted the bob), Agnes Ayres, Leatrice Joy, Bebe Daniels, Lila Lee, Wanda Hawley and Pola Negri, to name a few.
Hattie also worked on the male stars at the Lasky studios, famously on Rudolph Valentino for his role as Juan Gallardo in Blood and Sand. She braided his pigtail, added his sideburns and the unibrow. Everything was done correctly and true to what would befit a matador.
Her attention to detail was noted for her work in James Cruze’s 1923 epic The Covered Wagon--she worked not only on Lois Wilson, but all the male stars, Alan Hale, Ernest Torrence, a grizzled Tully Marshal, and the hero of the picture J. Warren. Kerrigan.
Hattie was, according to reports, distraught when she cut Betty Bronson’s lengthy tresses to prepare her for her role as Peter Pan. She also designed Ernest Torrance’s wigs for Captain Hook. She triumphed in creating the gypsy hair styles that framed Pola Negri in the 1923 film The Spanish Dancer.
|Forest Halsey and Agnes Ayres in Forbidden Fruit (1921)|
|Hattie adjusts Valentino's pigtail for Blood and Sand (1922)|
|Theodore Roberts, Lois Wilson and Milton Sills in Miss Lulu Bett (1923)|
|Betty Bronson as Peter Pan sporting her bob.|
- "Bobbed hair makes anyone appear ten years younger. Never will women pass up a chance like that."
- "There are a few women to whom bobbed hair is not becoming. If you are one of them, don't bob. But with the prevailing styles, your long hair should be arranged to be as close to the head as possible."
- "If you have a small, well-shaped head, you may wear a shingle bob. Otherwise not."
- "Do not have your hair cut too high in the back, particularly if you are inclined to be stout."
- "Keep the hair well brilliantined if it is not naturally glossy. Dull hair is not attractive."
- "For evening wear bobbed hair appears more stylish if a small artificial braid is worn just above the forehead."
- "Study the bobs of women you meet, particularly of those who are our own styles. The study is worth your time for you will be wearing bobbed hair for years to come."
|Hattie seen here with Agnes Ayres in 1922 |
(found at Internet Archive)
Hattie was also a teacher. It was estimated more than 50 women were trained under her at Lasky Studios, although none seemed to have Hattie’s magical touch. One of her assistants recalled, Her hands had some strange effect on hair. It seemed to shape itself miraculously under her touch. Waves, fringes, perilously frail designs assumed permanence after she had touched them. Hattie loved hair.
|Pola Negri, contoured and coiffed by Hattie in The Spanish Dancer (1923)|
The real tragedy in this story is what happened to Hattie's boy Charles. Charles survived Hattie by only five months. Can one surmise that Hattie's father and other surviving family were not in a position to care for him? In Hattie's obituaries, it said Charles suffered from polio. I have no idea. In late June 1925 Charles was sent to the Sonoma State Home in Eldridge, CA for care. His stay there was a very brief 22 days. He died on July 17, 1925 of "chronic parenchymatous nephritis" chronic kidney disease or renal failure, no mention of Polio. Horrifically, a contributing factor in his death was "sunstroke." An autopsy was performed and the doctor stated "gross pathological & clinical findings" whatever the hell that means. My assumption is that the state hospital was overcrowded and given that Charles was an African American, his care was probably less than stellar. Was he wheeled out for an afternoon airing and forgotten in the hot summer sun (average mid-July is 83)? I shudder at the thought, poor boy. I consulted a medical pal with a copy of his death certificate who surmised after looking it over he had "a really crappy death." The death certificate states that the undertakers handling his remains were the same who handled Hattie's funeral and burial and his body was sent back to Los Angeles. Cemetery records at Evergreen do not show that Charles was buried there. One must assume he ended up in a potter's field. Absolutely heartbreaking.
|Illustration from Hattie's obituary in the Los Angeles Times.|
Remarkably, her obituary took up nearly half a page.
|Nita Naldi benefitted greatly with Hattie's designs|
Here is hoping that somewhere there may survive more tangible relics of Hattie like family memories, photographs and documents. Her talent is unmistakable and a delight to behold in the films that survive and in the stills for films that don't. As her filmography gets expanded (currently one listing at IMDB), Hattie will get some recognition and credit she deserves as a pioneer in cinema. I feel such respect for her as craftsperson and in reading in her obituaries, so much respect for her as an African American woman in the 1910s-1920s. Truly a role model.
|Hattie's grave at Evergreen Cemetery|
(photos by Karie Bible)
*special thanks to Rebecca Eash for finding her son’s birth certificate and census information on Hattie and her family, it takes a village.
**As another illustration of her stature in the industry, her death was noted in the Exhibitor's Herald.
***special thanks to Karie Bible and Steve Goldstein for traveling to Evergreen Cemetery visiting Hattie’s grave and taking photographs for me.
**** From Charles Death Certificate.