New York in the ’60s
The Big Apple has always had a unique kind of energy. You can feel it the moment you arrive, no matter who you are, or where you’ve come from. Fred Astaire got that part right.
1964 Has endured a rocky start for all of us. Our President had been assassinated, our new Camelot already in ruins… but life went on and so did we. When I arrived in New York, there was a certain feeling in the air, and you could sense it from the soles of your feet up to the almost tingling tips of your hair. Perhaps it was a different kind of energy from the one I sensed on that childhood hilltop, age four, and the one in Grandma Lena’s garden, but it was energy nonetheless. It was everywhere, in all the people, on every street, and in every brick.
The famous World’s Fair was opening its doors for the first time in history, and already the streets were crowded with visitors, hoping to see a vision and a show of the bright future they imagined. It was a new world of skyscrapers, smog, cabs and hotdog stands, Madison Avenue and Times Square, and masses of people moving in throngs down every street. It was going to be the next big life adventure, Antonio style – and I would be damned if it wasn’t going to be done my way.
On February 7th of the same year, a Pan Am Yankee Clipper flight 101 from London Heathrow landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport, and four young British men stepped onto the tarmac. “Beatlemania” had officially arrived in town with their falsetto whoops, jangly guitars and floppy pudding bowl haircuts creeping around every corner, leaking out of every passing radio. Sinatra was long gone, Elvis was looking like a dinosaur lumbering up over the horizon of the past.
This was the strange world I was stepping into, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
Thanks once again to the US Navy, Uncle Sam generously paid the dime for my education, no matter what school I chose. I had no idea where to start, so I enrolled in the Brooklyn Campus of the Pratt Institute, and signed up for a few basic classes that interested me: Architecture, illustration, graphic design, painting and drawing.
What was I thinking?
As soon as I started, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. It felt like senior year in high school all over again. After my white-knuckle adventures in Morocco and my life-affirming travels in Europe, this business of study was claustrophobic, and soul-destroying. I felt like a true artist, a dynamo of creativity, and hell, I didn’t need stuffy old lecturers telling me what I could or could not do.
In my view, I had already graduated – albeit from the Navy – and life itself, and the whole universe was going to be my university. There was just no way that these lecturers were going to box me into a life that wasn’t worth living.
Thanks to my grandmother’s influence I trusted the process of life, but still – there were practical considerations to take into account. A few hundred dollars a month from the Navy paid for my classes and books. I was covering my rent and subway rides, but even so, I was working three jobs, plus attending the occasional class.
The pressure increased until the critical point arrived – and then, right on cue, the phone rang.
When you learn to flow with the process of your own life, these kinds of things happen all the time. Call it the Law of Attraction, synchronicity, or just the Mystery and Magic of Time – but it’s real. When the time is right, the waves of the sea part, and the pathway opens up.
I picked up the phone. On the other end of the line was Larry Decrasanti, who was then my boss at Luxury Catering NYC, where I worked as part time bartender, waiter, cook and bottle washer.
“Antonio!” He said over the crackling line, “A good friend of mine just broke up with his girlfriend and they have a rent-controlled apartment at 77th street on 2nd Avenue and they just deserted the place…”
I could not believe what I was hearing. Here was the answer I had been looking for! Larry kept talking fast:
“…So go to the west side real estate office and claim this address: 1442 2nd Avenue Apartment 21, and tell them it is Dominick Scarpenatti’s Apartment.” He said.
I dropped the phone and began a mad scramble across New York. I had to repeat the address name over and over in my head to make sure I didn’t forget it! I must have looked like a mad man standing in the subway car or running down the street repeating it. I nearly tripped over a woman and almost bumped into a cop, but I made it panting and happy!
After arriving to the west side real estate office, the woman who worked behind the desk took one long look at me, and then disappeared behind closed doors for a few moments, that seemed to me like an eternity. Then she reappeared with papers in her hand.
“It’s $68.00 a month, rent-controlled. That means the rent stays at $68.00 for as long as you live there, provided you don’t sub-lease or abandon the apartment…” She continued talking, but I couldn’t hear everything she was saying since I was so lost in my thoughts … It’s impossible, but it’s happening! Pure gold! I thought to myself.
A rent control apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan was rare. But for $68 a month, including 4 rooms, and with a view of the east river – it was a gift from the universe. My days of sharing a Navy barracks dorm were over. Hello Freedom!
Funny enough, Larry’s role in my life wasn’t over. He was also the one who by some miracle or another got me the job as an apprentice at Kenneth’s Salon, which was also going to be the first stepping stone to the next leg of my journey.
Life’s University Continues: Kenneth’s Salon
I had already enrolled in hair-dressing school, but I still had no idea that this was going to be the direction my life’s path would take. But, as I was to learn, some kind of unstoppable force was at work.
The fact that my ancestral roots stretched back to Venice counted in my favor that day. Rosemary Sorentino, the woman who interviewed me, and for whom I would be working as an apprentice, was from Sicily. We bonded instantly, in the true Italian way, and she hired me on the spot.
Little did I know what that would mean for my career. This wasn’t just a regular hair salon for the rich – it was the place to go for the super-rich and famous. The Salon belonged to Kenneth Battelle, who most people called “Mr. Kenneth.” He has been described as the world’s first celebrity hairdresser. For people like me he was the Michelangelo of hair.
Kenneth became wildly famous for creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s bouffant in 1961. Among his customers were the famous Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and many of America’s most high-profile socialites such as Brooke Astor and Happy Rockefeller, all the Kennedy ladies, and the Fords. Mr. Kenneth was also the first and only hairdresser to win a Coty Award.
If Mr. Kenneth was Michelangelo, then Rosemary Sorentino was the Leonardo da Vinci of hair coloring. What a place to work at! All these famous personalities had to pass through my hands on their way to the maestros – and I was learning fast from the University of Life. It felt like I had been given an all-access backstage pass to the lives of some of the most famous people in the world. Even if I was just a lowly apprentice and an outsider to many places I visited while working at Kenneth’s, I had somehow been admitted into the inner circle of fame.
I remember that one famous client, Faye Dunaway, was shooting the Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, Rosemary and I were in the contract, and we got to fly back and forth between LA and NYC. We also got to attend a cocktail party in Fay’s fabulous West Side apartment. When we got there, we couldn’t help but notice the entrance bedecked with silver foil, which Faye had set a trend for. I will never forget what I felt when I walked through the door and saw that inside she had an incredible Spanish kitchen, with a balcony so we could step outside –something which was quite rare for NYC.
Another regular customer at Kenneth’s was Jackie Kennedy. Rosemary colored her hair every six to eight weeks. During this time she was regularly featured in all the newspapers. Her affair with Aristotle Onassis the wealthy Greek shipping magnate –or “Ari” like she affectionately called him– was hot news. She used to affectionately call him “Ari,” and told us that “they still want to kill us.” She was with him because he offered her and her kids protection from whoever killed Kennedy and from the press and public. I remember I had lunch with Kenneth and Rosemary several times at Jackie’s Central Park condo. I will never forget that going through all those security checkpoints was one of the most glamorous and exciting times in my life.