by Barnaby Conrad III
Published by Chronicle Books
132 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
I knew a woman, a natural brunette, who actually did The Blonde Experiment. A business consultant who traveled a great deal, she showed up at one consulting job with glorious, golden tresses. She reported that, while she got a lot of attention, she felt it was of the wrong kind. "No one took me as seriously," she reported. "It was like people suddenly expected me to know less than I did. Less than they usually thought I would."
In The Blonde, author Barnaby Conrad III credits actress Carol Channing with a similar experience after her success on Broadway in the musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "Men would take me by the arm and lead me across the street like so many seeing-eye dogs. They sat on the edges of their chairs to hear what I thought about the weather. I didn't have to be bright; I wasn't expected to. All I had to do was be blonde."
While it's tough for me -- a brunette who has spent most of her life that way -- to credit life-changing experiences to hair color, there is definitely something to the blonde mystique. I mean, there must be, right? Because according to Conrad, fully 40 per cent of women today who color their hair choose to go for blonde.
The hallmarks of twentieth-century American culture have been invention, social mobility and the inordinate worship of youth. Notions of blondeness are as wildly protean as they are often silly: The blonde is somehow more of a woman; the blonde is an innocent; the blonde is an indicator of a thoroughbred heritage; the blonde is a trophy of achievement and affluence; the blonde is a bright blossom on the maternal vine, a conduit of genetic allure. The blonde seems to embody every aspect of American culture.
In terms of achievement and affluence, until recently that supposition had to be at least partly correct. These days being blonde can be as simple as a stroll to the neighborhood drug store and picking out a box of shampoo-in hair color in the shade of your choice. Earlier blonde-wannabes didn't have it so easy.
Hairdo historian Mary Trasko records that blonding concoctions often included ceruse, a derivative of lead. One recipe called for "a quart of lye or a pound of lime... mixed with ceruse and warm water, with saffron or turmeric sometimes added to achieve a yellow tone." Trasko continued, "This noxious mix was left on the hair overnight and allowed to dry into a hard shell. The next day it was chipped off, at which point it seems miraculous that any hair should be left on the head!"
And, one supposes, only her hairdresser would know for sure.
While women with blonde ambitions would find things easier as time went on, even easy was a relative thing. Included in The Blonde is an advertising photo from the 1930s depicting a happy blonde looking at once carefree and oddly encumbered as she smiles into the camera holding all of the paraphernalia that will be required to dye and style her hair at home.
The Blonde is Conrad's fifth book. Three of those have been similar in tone and substance: single-topic books giving a superficial in-depth look at an interesting subject and accompanied by complementary art and photographs. Absinthe: History in a Bottle; The Martini and The Cigar were all somehow more completely realized books. The Blonde is a little harder to pin down. Is it a celebration of blondissima? A scathing look? Or just a knowing wink? In some ways The Blonde seems to attempt to be all of these things and -- predictably -- fails to create an ignitable work. That is not to say that The Blonde isn't an interesting book. And it's certainly lovely and well produced. However, it fails to scratch below the surface of blonde mystique. There are lots of anecdotes and photos of Hollywood blondes, and these are interesting, even if sometimes slightly maudlin ("The world changed when Norma Jean's dream died on the Los Angeles night in 1962, and so did the Blonde.") or occasionally shallow.
However, The Blonde succeeds in being a lovely and attractive book just the right size to take a good position on the coffee table. Especially for those of the persuasion that "blonde is more than just a hair color." | October 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.