George Masters was blond and wan beneath his tan and his gold chains clinked one against the other as he appraised the pale and timid face before him. She stared into the mirror, too, a lawyer in her 30s, about to go off to her 15th college reunion, about to start a new job - about time, in short, to indulge herself.
He asked her about the type of makeup she typically used. She said, "I want do whatever I should do to look my best."
And behind the black lacquered screen was spread an awesome array of artifice to meet that artless desire, the armaments of beauty, pots and paints brushes, all marshalled before the bright lights of the makeup mirror, an arsenal of illusion.
"your eyes," he told her, "are very round, almost almond, and with your high cheekbones, I think we should emphasize that." He selected brushes, paints and sponges. He noted the concern in her almod eyes. "Don't worry, I'll go slow," he said.
"Please," she said.
George Masters has made up Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth and Ann-Margaret, among many others, and flashed most spectacularly across the public imagination when he transformed Lynda Bird Johnson, who was 19 at the time and being squired about by George Hamilton, and who Masters armed with enough shades and strokes to meet Hollywood glamour on its own terms, and for which the stars and their fans hailed him as a worker of wonders and maestro of his craft.
And while much of that is in the past now, and the bratty comments about his famous clientele all blithely disavowed, he remains the grand guru to battalions of women engaged in that bitter battle against time and the transient nature of the beautiful.
"The one and only George Masters," crooned his young assistant Ron Powers in mock adoration. "Oh, George, paing me, paint me."
Masters had three pairs of glasses with him that afternoon at the Chevy Chase Woodward & Lothrop's, two pairs fashionably tinted and one with lenses thick as bottles for the closeup bristling with colored pencils and wrote down everything that Masters applied to his clients' faces (including the brand names of what will amount to $100 worth of cosmetics per face).
Some of her friends, the young woman said, think she's crazy to be spending $200 on a makeup job, not to mention the extra for the makeup. "But I pay for experts's advice in other areas, why not in this?" she said. "This is an investment in your future."
"Rinse, blot, smudge," Masters said. "You see what I'm doing? That's a double zero and a No. 2 brush I'm using on her," he called out to Powers. "And write down about black at the base of blond eyelashes, that'll be good for the blond.
"I'll remember because I have blond eyelashes," Powers said.
"I'm not worried about you remembering it. I've got to remember to tell the writer about it," Masters said.
A book on his makeup techniques is being ghostwritten for Masters, and he is planning his own cosmetics line, opening a school that will teach his techniques in New York and a salon in Las Vegas - "best place in the world for it," he said. "The turnover in that town is incredible."
He chews gum constantly, lights up an endless line of cigarettes, sprays a mouth freshener every five minutes and doesn't eat during working hours "because it brings me down." After Washington, he was to follow the same routine in Atlanta, then Chicago. He's not sure how long he wants to continue. After a while, "It gets boring.
"He is 38, now, doesn't look it, but not, he said, because of any devotion to the image the mirror throws back to him and into which his clients stare so intensely.
"I'm very bad about me," he said. "I don't care what I look like." He was dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and corduroy pants and he pulled at his waistband every now and then with satisfied alarm. "They seem to be getting bigger every minute," he said of his slacks, and that was the result of a three-week diet in which he permitted himself nothing but fruits and vegetables. His pale blue eyes shone like ice, and the two scars on his face made him look like an aging kid, streetwise and a shade sexy.
It was time for the lawyer's lips, "Such rosy red lips," said Powers, "she won't need much." Mocha is suggested, and mocha is rejected - too dark. Meadow flower honey, perhaps? No. The lips, in the end, are gold honey; the eyes are done in plum.
No, said Masters, he is not Pygmalion, nor was meant to be. "I never do anything too extreme, you know what I mean?Nothing too dramatic. They can't handle it mentally. It freaks them out. It's not a power trip for me. I just try to please myself - I mean I don't want my reputation shot completely."
Outside his little vanity fair, shielded from the furniture department by the fragile buffer of the Chinese screen, the management was trying to placate women who had been waiting hours for their appointments, women who had Very Important Engagements that evening, women whose frustration was perhaps fueled by the very irrelevance of what it was they were waiting for.
So many women in so many department stores in so many cities - George Masters seeks no challenges in the faces he paints, so intricate problems of style and symmetry. "I'm not too artsy, you know what I mean?" he said. "A face is a face. I just make 'em look pretty."
He judges the faces turned so trustingly toward his by other criteria. "I like'em nice," he said. "So long as they're nice, it doesn't matter. Ugly women are very nice. They have to be. What else have they got to go on?" The hardest to do, he said, "are accidents. I never know what to do with accidents."
"But we do'em anyway," said Powers cheerfully.
Masters was finished with the young lawyer. She went off to have her hair combed, looking more vivid, certainly, but the shyness had been painted out of her eyes and the tentativeness from her smile.
"If they're bitchy," said Masters, "I just tell 'em, "You look too good, you don't need anything done at all.'" And that works? "Everytime.
"Once," he said, "I had a woman in Chicago, she talked about her moisturizer for an hour and a half. I finally said to her, 'You have me so upset, I just can't take it anymore,' and I made her leave. But usually they're much nicer than that."
His next appointment came in, a tall fading beauty with nervous eyes who looked at Masters as if she were seeking her reflection in his rose-tinted glasses. Yes, she said, in response to his questions, she wears a lot of makeup, feels naked without it, but "it looks like the '50s, and that's the problem."
A photographer friend, he said, was telling him recently about the young models in New York, how they started "so fresh and tight, you know, all the muscles in their face all right, and then, after six months, they're finished, most of them; everything's bee pulled out of place. It really freaked me out."
The eyes took forever. Powers scribbled the directions down. Plum triangles. Black creases. Shadows, concealers, advice - 'let it drift into nothing." He lets her put the mascara on.
"Hey, you're really stroking those lashes," Powers said admiringly. "You're a real pro."
"In the '50s," she said, "we did our eyes before anything, before we touched our lips."
"I guess it's insecurity," she said. "But I just feel terrific after something like this."
Masters looked at the remnants of her eyebrows. "You've been plucking too much," he said. "Don't pluck so much."
Masters still finds himself in a helicopter at times, doing a last-minute job, on Ann-Margret, or on a movie set, as he will be in Nevada in November, but the giddy years of glamorizing the stars are pretty much over and Masters is looking forward to spending more time in the propagation, rather than the practice, of his techniques.
"It's kinda funny," he said. "They just don't use the real glamor types anymore, I don't known if it's because there's no more star system or what; okay, Ronnie, we're using the No. 2 brush now, you see what I'm doing, rinse, blot . . ."
Only the lips remained. "Paint on a thinner mouth," he told her, and she set to work while Powers coaches a harried hairdresser on how to deal with an increasingly impatient next appointment. "Put this on her," he said, handing him two bottles of lotion and a piece of cotton. "Then tell her about how his assistant writes down everything she needs to know to do it herself. That'll pep her up."
The current client looked earnestly at the results of her own handiwork. "Did I come high enough, did I make it small enough?" She looked at the face that stared back at her, pleased. "You know," she said, "I've never had my cheeks on correctly before."
Powers peered beyond the screen at the next client. "Good," he said. "She's old. They go faster when they're older. They can't handle too much."