Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Conversation with Edith Head

We recently attended "A Conversation with Edith Head: An Evening of Wit, Wisdom and a Whisper of Gossip",  Susan Claassen's incredibly engaging and entertaining one-woman show, at the National Arts Club.

About 10 years ago, while watching a TV documentary about the legendary costume designer, Susan was struck by her uncanny physical resemblance to Edith Head. That was the start of it all. She exhaustively researched the designer's life and discovered Paddy Calistro's book Edith Head's Hollywood and eventually collaborated with Paddy on this play, based on Paddy's book and 13 hours of taped interviews with Edith herself. Having this record of the designer's distinctive voice undoubtedly added to Susan's accurate interpretation of Edith's unique vocal cadence and deadpan delivery.  To learn more about  Susan Claassen and her show, click here or go to her website at  For an additional perspective on our evening at the National Arts Club show, check out Malinda Knowles'"take" on the show at
David Zyla, chair of the National Arts Club's Fashion Committee, was the Master of Ceremonies, introducing Stuart Moulton, Miss Head's host, who serves as a foil, periodically interrupting the actress with his own questions or corrections and with questions from the audience. Stuart is visible in the right of the photograph, perched in the front row, ready to pounce with the correct date of a film or other detail stemming from the designer's humorously selective memory.
Below is a press shot of Susan Claassen in character on the set. Edith Head  (1897-1981) won a record-setting 8 Oscars for costume design and received a record-breaking 35 nominations. Edith's famous quote: "There's nothing like a row of Oscars for putting the fear of God into an actress who thinks she knows everything about dress designing." The designer had "attitude" in spades. One of Jean's favorite songs by the band "They Might Be Giants" is their song "She Thinks She's Edith Head", which appears in both their 1999 album "Long Tall Weekend" and their 2001 album "Mink Car". The song itself deals with the singer's remembrance of a girl from his past who assumed a more sophisticated facade and whose attitude he compared to Edith Head's and to Cosmo editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown's.  (Sounds like good company to us!)
Components of the set can be rearranged depending on the size of the stage. This is a shot of the stage at the National Arts Club. The show is set in 1981. Ms. Head's career spanned 58 years. After 44 years at Paramount, when the studio did not renew her contract, her good friend director Alfred Hitchcock put in a good word for her with Lew Wasserman, head of Universal Pictures, who not only gave her a raise, her own bungalow on the studio lot and a monogrammed golf cart, but also gifted her with a Mercedes! Her signature look -- straight-cut bangs, dark glasses and tailored suits -- made her immediately identifiable. She dressed plainly so as not to compete with her movie star clients or the costumes she was designing. Her tinted glasses were to help her see how the fabrics and colors would photograph in black and white.

One of the designer's favorite actresses was Bette Davis, and the respect was mutual.

This is a recreation of the costume Bette Davis wore in "All About Eve", for which Miss Head won her third Oscar in 1950. Although it photographed as black in the film, in real life it was decidedly brown.   The films for which she won her eight Oscars were: The Heiress, 1949; Samson and Delilah, 1950; All About Eve, 1950; A Place In the Sun, 1951; Roman Holiday, 1953; Sabrina, 1954; The Facts of Life, 1960; and The Sting, 1973. Before 1967, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave separate Oscars for Black and White and for Color films, which is why Edith was able to win 2 Oscars in the same year: Samson and Delilah was in color and All about Eve was in black and white.

The mock Oscars which appeared on the set were courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Photographs of the designer's favorite stars populated the set and inhabited the designer's thoughts and reminiscences.  There are several of Gloria Swanson, for whom Edith designed costumes for her amazing performance in Sunset Boulevard in 1950, for which the actress received an Academy Award.  Sunset Boulevard is Jean's all-time favorite movie and Gloria Swanson is her most favorite actress ever.  Often, when asked to describe her own style, Jean says: "Goth meets Sunset Boulevard!"  In the show, Edith mentions the actress' infamous shoe size:  2 and a half!
Edith talked about Grace Kelly, whom she dressed in Rear Window in 1954 and To Catch A Thief in 1955 with Cary Grant, and how the actress' future husband had come to the set on the Riviera to meet the actress.
Front and center in the photographs is a shot of the ultimate movie stars who need no last names: "Liz and Dick".
Elizabeth Taylor was one of Edith's favorite actresses, with whom she had a long-standing friendship.

This is a sketch of the gown that Elizabeth Taylor wore in A Place in the Sun, for which Head won her 1951 Oscar.

Onstage is a recreation of the gown worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the film, which showcased her 19-inch waist.

Head always wore a necklace made of round ivory opera passes dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.  She bequeathed it to Elizabeth Taylor in her will. In 2011, it went up for auction at Christie's in New York, where it sold for over $314,000!  (Christie's lowball estimate: $2,000.)  Here is a shot of the actual necklace.

And here is a close-up. Susan wears a beautiful recreation on stage.

Below, a costume worn by Katherine Hepburn in the western Rooster Cogburn in 1975.

Miss Head and her star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Here is Jean's lousy shot of the on-stage sketch of Edith's sketch of Paul Newman and Robert Redford for The Sting, for which she won her eighth and last Oscar in 1975.
Next to the Oscar for The Sting is a photograph of Paul Newman.
Milliner Ellen Christine was in the audience that evening, sporting a chapeau of her own design. Also seated near us was our buddy artist Jane Folds, who first alerted us to this program, and departed before we could take her photograph.
We were happy to run into our friend Linda Zagaria looking very chic and summery.  (Don't fail to peek at Valerie's new/old Andy Warhol shoes.)

After the show, Susan Claassen, still channeling her inner Edith Head, greeted members of the audience and bestowed a gold metal foil sticker with her seal of approval which read: "Edith Head Approved"!  We would have been devastated had we not gotten one each.  If you look closely at the photo of Valerie and Linda Z above, you can see they are both sporting their gold seals!

As an added treat, not only did the star of the show pose for photographs, but she also emailed everyone a copy. (Can Edith "vogue" with the best of them or what?)  Here's our photo.  Thanks, Susan!!!


  1. Susan does an excellent job of channelling Edith, whom I have always thought a fascinating woman. I would love to see that show, and hopefully receive an Edith Head Seal of Approval. The opera pass necklace is swoon-worthy. Valerie - I need a closeup of those shoes!

  2. That necklace is just to die for!
    Love the Warhol shoes.
    Edith is one of my idols. Will the show come to Boston?

  3. Edith Head sometimes was a guest on the Art Linkletter show when I was a child. I think she gave fashion advice, but don't really have a clear memory of what she said because I was intrigued by her individualistic appearance.

    Love that necklace!

  4. Awesome blog, love the funky head pieces!

  5. What a treat this has been to read and savor! xxoo