Pride of a Buffer Buff : Beatrice Kay, MGM’s Manicurist to the Stars, Collects a Tool of Her Trade
Beatrice Kay has held the hands of many famous movie stars and gazed into their eyes. She will never tell you who they are, for Kay is very, very discreet.
She has been manicurist at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios since . . . well, that’s something else that Kay isn’t telling. In her living room she has a blown-up photograph that shows Clark Gable sitting in a barber’s chair at MGM, having his nails tended by a raven-haired lady who looks very much as Beatrice Kay must have looked when younger. Is it she? That’s another secret; but I’d bet rather a large sum that the answer is yes.
There is one thing that Beatrice Kay is prepared to talk about: her collection of what she calls “old buffers.” A buffer is one of the manicurist’s prime tools--usually a wood object with a handle and with chamois stretched over it. It is used to give the nails a final gloss. Kay has examples that incorporate ivory, silver and enamel.
Kay is almost a hereditary manicurist--her Russian-Jewish great-grandmother used to be summoned from a shtetl (ghetto) in the environs of St. Petersburg to trim the Tsarina’s talons. Kay was born on 126th Street in Harlem, New York City. Her father, a building contractor, died after 10 years of marriage, leaving Kay’s mother to bring up Beatrice and her older brother. Kay’s mother received some $2,000 in insurance money after her husband’s death. She contracted with the manager of a Bronx catering hall to run the hat-check room. Her daughter helped on weekends.
Beatrice’s mother had plans for her daughter. No way was Beatrice going to remain a hat-check girl; she was going to get educated and become a brilliant attorney. Beatrice had other ideas: She discovered early her creative vein and clandestinely signed on at a commercial art school to learn costume design and millinery. But manicuring was her first love.
One day she was “fooling around” with her manicure paraphernalia when her mother came by and asked, “What are you doing, Beadala?” (Beadala is the Yiddish diminutive of Bea.)
“I am giving myself a manicure,” Beatrice said. She invited her mother to sit down. “When I got through, she looked at her nails and her eyes lit up, she was so happy. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘you remind me of my grandmother. She used to tell us how the Tsarina sent for her with a horse and carriage, and she went to buff the Tsarina’s nails.’ And I asked her, ‘What is buff?’ My mother said: ‘Buff: You hold something and you go like this and like this.’ And I said, ‘What happens?’ And she said, ‘Your nails begin to shine.’ ”
So Beatrice started to look for buffers. She couldn’t find any at Woolworth’s. Then she was asked to take a sick relative to Phoenix, Ariz., to convalesce. In Phoenix, she met a woman named Anita Harris “who was the best manicurist in the whole world. And she could handle a buffer.” Kay talks about Anita Harris and her buffer as Hemingway writes about a matador and his sword. Harris taught her the circular motion and the degree of pressure that produce the best results.
Back in New York City, Kay began designing costumes for Louis Gladstone, a big importer of fabrics. During World War II, he sent her to Hollywood to represent him at the studios. By then she was married to Irving Kay, a real-estate broker, and had a baby girl. “I grabbed my baby and came to Los Angeles. The truth is, the (New York City) winters were driving me crazy; they always did.”
Through her work for Gladstone, Kay became friendly with the women in the MGM costume department. One of them told her that the MGM barbershop needed a manicurist. It had been the barbers’ custom to summon any old stand-in actress to do manicure work. When Kay arrived and showed off her skills, she was quickly asked to stay. And stay she did.
It is at this point in her narrative that Kay brings down the iron curtain. Ask not for whom the clippers snipped. Not only will she not tell you stories about the stars she groomed, she won’t even tell you who they were. Her discretion is as implacable as a Trappist’s vows.
One big name did seep out, but only as a hypothetical “for instance.” Kay was explaining that she never had an opportunity to go on location. “Whoever the actor might be, however big--Elizabeth Taylor, OK?--she could have a hairdresser when she was on location, but the studio didn’t send a manicurist. So it became very handy for me to say, ‘Take this cuticle cream; take this hand cream; take these tools,’ and to show the stars how to use them.”
Kay’s adamantine discretion stood her in good stead when she appeared on the Ken and Bob Co. show on KABC radio. She was asked whether she could judge people by their nails. She replied: “I can tell everything about people by their nails: the state of their health, their life style, their sexuality.” Also on the program with her was radio personality (and car expert) Leon Kaplan. She was asked what she could tell about his sexuality. “I didn’t even turn my head to look at his hands,” Kay recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sure Leon Kaplan is very masculine, but unfortunately he’s a nail-biter.’ It had registered subconsciously.”
Kaplan followed her out of the sound studio and told her: “What you said touched my heart; I’ve suffered all this time.” His nails were bitten half-way down, and grease had gotten underneath them. He told Kay: “I could go on television, but how could I go like this? I don’t pick a coin off a counter if a cashier gives me change, I’m so embarrassed.”
Kay arranged for Kaplan to come to the MGM lot each Friday. “After six weeks, he was enslaved,” she says. “He’s on television now.”
Beatrice Kay is an institution at MGM, where she still works two days a week. When a TV crew recently came to make a film about the studio, they spent more time filming her than the senior executives. The interviewer asked, “Which star had the worst nails?” When that kind of question is asked, Kay adopts the apt strategy of the nurse in Harry Graham’s “Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes”:
Nurse, who peppered baby’s face (She mistook it for a muffin), Held her tongue and kept her place,
Laying low and saying nuffin.