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Ron Levin, Sought-After New York Hair Colorist, Dies at 81

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For over three decades at the ritzy Pierre Michel salon in Manhattan, the wealthiest and most powerful women in New York waited patiently for the time and attention of a talkative hair colorist named Ron Levin. In 1983, he started working at Pierre Michel, where he became one of the most celebrated and in-demand colorists in the city.

Those who entrusted him with their locks included Ingrid Rockefeller, Anne Hearst, Nancy Sinatra, Farrah Fawcett and Margaux Hemingway. Some clients flew into town expressly to see him. In 2000, The New York Times said Mr. Levin was “eternally overbooked and consequently in a position of power.” And if your last name wasn’t Getty or Morgan, good luck getting a speedy appointment.

“I’m the most fabulous colorist in the world,” Mr. Levin once said. “It’s 80 percent work, 20 percent personality.”

Mr. Levin died on Dec. 17 at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 81. His partner, Kenneth Schiller, said the cause was colon cancer.

For those who had a standing appointment with Mr. Levin, visits to the salon were a regal experience. Cappuccino and mineral water were served, and tuna and watercress salad was on offer. A booking started at around $300, not including tip, which clients weren’t stingy about if they wanted to get back into that plush chair anytime soon.

Mr. Levin was also known for his theatrical style. He used the salon as a stage to kvetch about matters of power, relationships and luxury real estate in New York.

“He went through things with these people,” said Mr. Schiller, who is his only immediate survivor. “Husbands dying, husbands cheating, breast cancer. Things that don’t feel good. Behind the superficiality, it was his job to make them feel confident.”

A profile of Mr. Levin in the magazine Manhattan, inc. in the late 1980s portrayed him at the peak of his powers, chronicling a typical afternoon with the colorist at the salon, which was then in Trump Tower.

That day, the literary agent Lynn Nesbit received lemon highlights. Kimberly Rockefeller handed Mr. Levin a wad of bills as she left her appointment. Mr. Levin was getting flustered, however, because a new client was expressing hesitation about her decision to become a redhead. Swiftly, his loyal regular provided reassurance.

“Trust him,” Ms. Nesbit said. “He knows.”

Mr. Levin started massaging a dark, viscous liquid into the woman’s scalp.

“You’ll love it,” he told her. “It will change your whole life. You’ll see.”

Ronald Stanley Levin was born on Oct. 9, 1939, in Philadelphia. His father, Herman, was a police officer. His mother, Madeline (Simmons) Levin, was a homemaker. He grew up in Philadelphia and, as a boy, spent summers with his family in Atlantic City, N.J., where his mother, wearing fur, sat on the boardwalk watching him play on the beach.

When Mr. Levin was 16, he realized he was gay, and he started visiting Rittenhouse Square to meet men at night. One evening, his uncle spotted him and told his parents. Angered, Mr. Levin’s father sent him for conversion therapy. Apparently, as Mr. Levin recounted, the shrink was also gay, and he recommended that Mr. Levin consider leaving home.

As Mr. Levin experienced tension with his family, he started to wait tables at what he recalled as a “gay restaurant” in Atlantic City, and he gradually realized something about his most successful customers: “The only gay people in those days that made any money,” he said, “were hairdressers and decorators.” Spurred by this revelation, he dropped out of high school and enrolled at a cosmetology academy. In 1956, he left home and headed to New York.

Mr. Levin’s relationship with his father, who died when he was in his late 20s (and who he sometimes claimed had been a lawyer), remained strained. His mother paid for cosmetology school and supported him through his early career.

In the city, Mr. Levin got a room at the Y.M.C.A. and started working at Larry Matthews’s 24-hour beauty parlor, a salon located in the theater district that catered to Broadway actors and those in need of beautification at 3 a.m. As Mr. Levin told it, a frazzled blonde sat in his chair one evening, and it was Marilyn Monroe.

“Here was a woman who was more famous in America than Jesus Christ and I had to do her color,” Mr. Levin was quoted as saying in “The Vogue Book of Blondes” (2000), by Kathy Phillips. “She told me very sweetly, ‘Just do my roots, bring them up very light and don’t use any toner.’ ”

A few weeks later, Monroe asked Mr. Levin to work on her hair at the Sutton Place apartment where she was living with her husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, and she gradually became a regular client. He was 18.

Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Levin developed a reputation as a magician who could bring incandescence to even the drabbest of bobs. He worked for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman before settling at the chic Xavier Salon in the 1970s. In 1983, he joined Pierre Michel, becoming part of the salon’s luxurious brand.

Carole Olshan, a trustee of the Hunter College Foundation and a vice president of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, visited Mr. Levin for highlights for over 20 years.

“He had a very good sense of what your color should look like,” she said in an interview. “And believe me, he had some tricky ladies. I would sit there, and there were some prima donnas. But he always managed to satisfy them. He always did it the right way. He was an artist.”

After Mr. Levin retired in 2015, he sold his country house in East Hampton and settled with Mr. Schiller in Palm Beach. He took up painting and enjoyed gardening on his terrace. He didn’t touch hair again, and he seemed glad about it. In 2018, he learned he had cancer.

“In his heart, he wanted to make women look beautiful and feel powerful,” Mr. Schiller said.

“Beauty is a complicated thing,” he added. “So is self-confidence. Neither are guaranteed with your power or money, and Ron understood that.”


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