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Splitting Hairs : A Bald Tale of Two Guys, Too Much Testosterone and the U.S. Legal System

November 10, 1991|Mark Stuart Gill | Mark Stuart Gill is a writer living in Los Angeles. His last article for this magazine was "Losing It in Fat City."


The threat was delivered to Hal Z. Lederman's attorney: "Inform your client that if he continues to steal the formula, I'm not just going to sue, I'm going to take drastic action." It came from one Robert Murphy. Lederman, the marketing mastermind behind a hair-growth product called the Helsinki Formula, didn't let it bother him. He had been getting the same message for months.

So the following morning, April 15, 1987, Lederman was working at his desk in the office building he owns on Beverly Boulevard when he heard a commotion outside. The next thing he knew, the doors flew open. Half a dozen investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office swarmed in. They were outfitted in full flak gear and commando jumpsuits. The head commando flashed a warrant to confiscate all business records. It turned out there was a 1920 statute in the Los Angeles charter that made it illegal to sell hair-growth tonics within city limits.

Lederman was sprawled against a desk watching in horror as officers with .45 automatics rummaged through desks and wheeled out file cabinets. His baby-blue eyes were the size of compact disks.

"My God, this is hair conditioner," he screamed, "not cocaine! It's just hair conditioner!"

When the cultural history of the late 20th Century is recorded, it won't be about Madonna, political correctness or what Bo knows. It will be about hair loss. Think of the millions of thinning generational scalps. Think of all the weaves and toupees and transplants and baseball caps. Think of the articles, the talk shows, the endless Angst and fretting and mirror-checking, the matted doughnuts of loose hairs curled around bathtub drains.

By that time, no hair-loss story will seem more prophetic about the folly of our own vanities than the decade-long feud between Hal Lederman of Pantron I and Bob Murphy of California Pacific Research Inc. Each of their companies sells a similar hair-growth tonic that most people simply know as "the Helsinki formula." Ostensibly, their bitter feud is over the legal rights to the main ingredient of the tonics, a substance called polysorbate 60 that was proved to grow hair at the University of Helsinki, in Finland, two decades ago. They have spent a good part of their careers on the telephone threatening lawsuits and in court carrying them out.

Like the adversaries in any long-running dispute, Murphy and Lederman are both manic and stubborn, in some measure sympathetic, and glued together in irreconcilable conflict. Competing against each other, Lederman and Murphy have altogether sold nearly 6 million bottles of their tonics worldwide and have grossed an estimated quarter of a billion dollars. Judging from the thousands of unsolicited testimonial letters, they have attracted a cult of balding men so devoted to one product or the other that no amount of government legal action has been able to diminish the products' sales.

Just because the products are similar does not mean, however, that the two men are indistinguishable. Lederman is the embodiment of the California human-potential movement of the early 1970s: He has a peaceful demeanor and a deep tan, and he owns millions of dollars worth of oceanfront property. Murphy is an ex-Ramada Inn manager, a sweet-natured middle-class entrepreneur with insomniac circles under his eyes.

Lederman sports a rising bouffant of naturally thick silver hair; Murphy lets the hair on top of his head grow to enormous length and coils it turban-like around his balding scalp. Lederman dines at Chasen's and subscribes to Architectural Digest. He jogs a mile on the beach each morning and has a deal with actor George Hamilton to distribute the George Hamilton Sun Care system. Murphy eats candy at his desk for lunch and likes to play Keno in casinos. He once marketed a car seat belt for dogs and cats.

"It's hard to imagine two more unlikely guys selling a product to grow hair," Michael Mahoney, president of the American Hair Loss Council in Dallas, told me. "But then again, polysorbate 60 was such a fluke to begin with."

In 1974, Ilona Schreck-Purola, a physician at the University of Helsinki hospital, was doing skin-cancer and tumor research with 40,000 mice. Every morning she would clean the white mice with a solution called polysorbate 60 for her mentor, Dr. Kai Setala, an esteemed Finnish pathologist.

One day Schreck-Purola noticed that the mice seemed to be growing more fur. Not just soft, little mouse hair but thick, Gene Shalit-like stuff. Setala was skeptical. Polysorbate 60 was derived from corn and commonly used as an additive in cleansing solutions and food products. Manufacturers routinely put polysorbate 60 in salad dressing and ice cream as a binder. As an internationally acclaimed scientist, Setala wasn't going to risk losing prestigious grant money by announcing to the world that a food additive was a cure for baldness.

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