Before there were electric clippers, there was Harry.
Before there was styling gel, there was Harry. Before there was mousse, hair spray, Vidal Sassoon or $200 trims, there was Harry.
There has, it seems, always been Harry.
That would be Harry Gelbart, who has been cutting hair, man and boy, for longer than most people do anything. And at 88, he is still cutting hair in a age when stylists, not cutters, abound.
By his own estimate, Harry has given 300,000 haircuts over the past 75 years. In his swift and capable hands have been entrusted the heads of everyone from John Kennedy to Bennie (never call him Bugsy) Siegel.
And on a recent Tuesday afternoon full of sunlight and soft breezes, I gave my own old gray head to Harry. Just a little off the sides, not too much off the top.
Harry is tucked away in the corner of a Beverly Hills bank building in a shop called Little Joe’s. I sought him out because someone said to me he is probably the oldest barber in the world, and because I weary of an age that guns down the young and terrifies the old.
I needed someone gentle to talk to, a moment away from a city full of people afraid to walk after dark.
Harry is a tidy little man with a small mustache and curly gray hair who could pass as a character actor in one of his son’s movies.
The son is Larry Gelbart of “M.A.S.H.” and “City of Angels” fame, and so many other good things it would be inappropriate to list in a column about his pop.
I am certain, however, Larry would agree that cutting hair is at least as much of an art form as writing.
In writing, for example, it is not necessary to know the shape of a person’s head or to cover bald spots or to give a haircut that doesn’t look like a haircut.
To see Harry work is to witness the artistry of a man who deals in the most fragile of all human elements, a person’s looks.
I watched his hands move like butterflies over one head and then felt them on my own, with the clipping of his scissors keeping time to a rhythm Harry has perfected over a lifetime.
That is not to say I am ready to abandon my own haircutter, who is Bobby Wallis of Woodland Hills. There is a relationship between a man and his barber closer than that of a mother and her baby. I would give up my cardiologist before I would give up my barber.
But to experience Harry is to experience a past so gentle it evokes memories of boyhood and balloons. Even Harry’s jokes are old. Like the dog with no legs whose owner never gave him a name. “Why give him a name,” he says, “when you call him he’s not going to come anyhow.”
Harry began as an apprentice barber at the age of 13, when a lot of kids today are occupied with sneaking 9-millimeter Lugers into school. He cut his daddy’s hair first, and went on from there to a mountain of hair falling around his feet.
“I only take what’s mine,” Harry says, clipping away.
He has cut the hair of more celebrities than he cares to list and once declined an invitation to be President Kennedy’s personal barber because he didn’t want to leave Southern California.
Harry told the virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz, a good customer, that with his hands he’d have made a great barber, and convinced Siegel he should not throw a man through a plate-glass window just because he called him Bugsy.
I asked Harry, who looks no older than 61 and who has had a double bypass, how he manages to stay fit. “I keep breathing,” he said, trimming my sideburns.
Then he explained that he walks three miles every day and has a shot of vodka before every meal. It has carried him through 51 years of one marriage and 16 years into another.
“Today’s hairstyles are crazy,” Harry said when I asked if he tried to keep up. “I don’t do those. I give haircuts.”
Then he imparted the joke about the guy who is told by a shoe repairman it would take a week to fix his shoes. “Your sign says ‘Shoes repaired while you wait,’ ” the customer complains. The repairman shrugs and says, “If you wanna wait, wait.”
Harry smiled, finished up and handed me a mirror to view his work. It was very perfect.