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Hair colorist at the split ends of Manhattan's rich

James Whitmore has witnessed the ups and downs of the wealthy over three decades. These days, there are fewer visits from his clients, but there's one woman whose business he won't seek: Ruth Madoff.

July 03, 2009|Geraldine Baum

NEW YORK — Times sure have changed for Manhattan's super-rich.

It used to be when James Whitmore, hair colorist to the pampered chic, hadn't seen a client for awhile it was because she'd extended a trip abroad or was caught up redecorating a second home.

But now -- with America's economy imploding and Wall Street bankers the prime suspects -- there's no telling why a woman-of-means goes AWOL from her beauty regimen.

After Whitmore hadn't heard from an elderly client of 30 years, he called her only to learn that her husband, a financial advisor, was in jail. He'd robbed a suburban bank at knifepoint. Actually, it was at plastic-knife point, but he still made off with $5,900. A witness recognized the getaway car, a silver Lexus, and police eventually arrested him at his office in Rockefeller Center.

"Her husband didn't tell her they were having money problems," Whitmore says.

There'd also been a death in the family and a suicide, Whitmore explains, but it was the collapse of the husband's personal finances -- and the stock market -- that drove him to crime.

Whitmore, 59, tells this story without a trace of sarcasm. He is someone who has spent a career blurring the line between work and friendship.

"When you do something as long as I do and you've known people for as long as I have, you care about them," he says. "You go out of your way."

But Whitmore is also someone who believes "that life can still go on when the Dow dips below 10,000," says Thomas Collier, a friend and former assistant. "There is no one more grounded than James or able to deal with loss or fear of it. And that's so much what it's about in salons these days."

For more than three decades, from his listening station before the mirrors and next to the sinks in the best Manhattan hair salons, Whitmore has witnessed the wealthy as they faltered and bounced back.

Now during what some call the Great Recession, he is again a bystander while an entitled world goes haywire. Bernard L. Madoff's astonishing Ponzi scheme cleaned out a whole swath of affluent and philanthropic New York, and those he didn't topple were felled by fear of what could have been.

This time even Whitmore has experienced the fallout. He too lost a bonus and two-week vacation, and ended up changing salons.

More affecting has been a change in the mood in the fancy salons where Whitmore spends his days sluicing rivers of hair dye onto the heads of investment bankers' wives, lawyers from white-shoe firms and editors of glossy magazines that are disappearing at an astounding rate.

The orgy of shopping is over, and the conversation has shifted to a sort of proletarian chic. Women who once bragged about spending sprees now boast about how they've combined phone and online services to save money. They turn up at the salon in town cars instead of limousines to appear less indulgent. They stretch the limits between appointments from four to six or, heaven forbid, eight weeks.

So deeply felt is the loathing toward a former beacon of the high life who had the nerve to swindle fellow millionaires that not a single colorist would agree, at least publicly, to bleach the blond and reviled Ruth Madoff.

On a recent Friday before a holiday weekend, Whitmore is at his station in Midtown Manhattan painting pitch-black dye onto the head of Anne Maltz, who has had him repeat this process every two weeks since she became prematurely gray at 26. She is now 53.

As he attacks her roots, he explains how surprised he is that so many of his clients are relieved that he's left the posh salon atop Bergdorf Goodman, a sanctuary of mauve walls and fantastic views above Fifth Avenue.

It's not that Whitmore's clients find Bergdorf's unappealing. "You have to realize, the expensive jewelry counter is right in front of the elevators," Whitmore says. "And you know something, that's temptation."

Whitmore relocated this spring to the equally luxe Pierre Michel Salon a few blocks east on 57th Street, a 40-year survivor of economic ups and downs with an entrance on the street.

Maltz is peering intently back at Whitmore through the mirror in front of her as he talks.

"Oh, James, I'm not walking into Bergdorf's anymore," she says. An attorney who lives in Brooklyn, Maltz doesn't consider herself among the materially obsessed. But she explains, "I just don't want to be tempted."

Maltz says she is seeing fewer of Whitmore's other regulars during her appointments, and when she does, "they're talking a lot more about money, but not the way they used to."

The wife of a successful New York contractor confessed to Maltz that she'd finally used a gift certificate she had tucked away in a drawer: "Her husband didn't want her running through all the cash."

All this talk about cash catches the attention of a colorist at the next station while she methodically brushes white goop onto sections of hair and then wraps them in aluminum foil on the head of a client who is madly pecking away on her BlackBerry.

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