Attorney General William French Smith favors a swank Beverly Hills salon; composer Leonard Bernstein, the privacy of his own home.

Ted Koppel of ABC-TV's "Nightline" does touch-ups between visits. Maury Povich looks for excuses to postpone the ordeal.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William Rehnquist pay bargain rates ($10) at a Washington men's place that has their photos on the wall. Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann pays three times as much to visit a women's shop when the women aren't there. WHUR radio's "The Quiet Storm" host Melvin Lindsey offers lunch or dinner in trade.

Whatever their habits, the objective is nearly always the same, to reduce the threat of the same private, fearsome event: the monthly haircut.

Never mind their public images. Show most men a scissors, say their hairdressers, and they revert, trembling, to latter-day Sampsons.

"It's the most scary thing I do routinely," says a Washington columnist.

The fear affects both salon-goers and barbershop diehards, two wholly alien species who tend to eye each other with suspicion.

"I find I'm at my most creative in finding ways to postpone going to the barber," says Channel 5 news anchor Maury Povich, who frequents what he calls a "no-frills joint" in Bethesda. "I just don't like to go.

"Well, first of all, it's a waste of time. I'm completely out of control of my life. I'm strapped in this chair. The first thing they do is make you feel like you're in zero gravity by making you lie in a prone position with your head in some bowl. After that, they cover you with a big white sheet and place you in front of a mirror . . .

"You spend a half-hour looking at every wart on your face, constantly reminding yourself you're getting old. Then, when you're all done, even after you told the guy what to do, you still go out looking like you're getting ready to have your Bar Mitzvah."

Why is a treat for most women a trauma for so many men?

A Washington psychoanalyst, recovering in anonymity from a recent, regretted visit to his wife's hairdresser, says the roots of his and other men's anxiety are no longer than their hairstyles: There is less room for error. "I'm terrified that if he doesn't cut it right, you can't glue it back on."

Too short, for men, means exposing what one hairdresser calls their "ear phobia." Melvin Lindsey remembers the time he had his hair cut too short and people announced, 'Oh, I know you. I saw you on TV. You're the guy with the big ears.' "

But others offer different theories to explain men's fear of being scalped.

To hear many hairstylists tell it, the era of unisex hairstyling has brought more men into the salon but hasn't taught them to enjoy the experience. They say that privilege, with rare exceptions, is reserved for women, to whom occasional self-indulgence is not so at odds with a stubborn cultural stereotype of rugged independence.

"For women, it [going to the hairdresser] is a luxury," says Washington hairstylist Robin Weir, whose prominent clients include First Lady Nancy Reagan. "They enjoy it and relax. Men very seldom relax. To them, it's a bother: 'God, I hate getting my hair cut.' They want to get on with it."

And get on with it in privacy, lest they be caught in an act perceived by some to be about as manly as wearing galoshes.

First-time salon-goers, say their stylists, are dragged in -- almost to a man -- by their wives and girlfriends. No going up to well-coifed strangers, as women may do, and asking for a name. Unheard of, say hairdressers. Hairdressing is just not an approved staple of most men's conversations.

Inside a salon, only the boldest are apt to allow themselves to be shampooed and shorn alongside women.

Traditional barbershops avoid the problem by catering almost exclusively to men. Many salons, like Robin Weir's or the Beverly Wilshire's, have separate facilities for men.

Others learn to accommodate, especially when more than a cut is involved.

"Men are very closeted about their hair color," says Michael Steinhauser, hairdresser at Norbert. "They always want to book their appointments for late in the afternoon when no one else is going to be there. It's always, 'When is his the hairdresser's last appointment?' The same thing goes with perms. They don't want to be seen with perm rods and hair color. Women could care less.

"Also, men don't buy many nice hair-care products, whereas women do. Even if they use the best, they don't want to tell you. They don't want to admit to being vain."

Consideration for male clients' special sensitivities shows up in other ways. If they don't want shampoos -- many don't -- they don't get shampoos. If they don't want to talk, they don't have to. While women, at least according to popular stereotype, share intimacies with their hairdressers, men as often share silences.

Says Steinhauser, "A man's coming in this afternoon. I've been doing his hair for three years. Each time it's the same: He says, 'Hi, How are you today?' Then his face goes into the paper and he doesn't say another word."

At the salon in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, Beverly Hills, where haircuts start at $35, hairdresser John Duron explains why he's a favorite of William French Smith and other Cabinet members 2,300 miles away. "My thing is not so much that I do their hair a certain way. I treat them a certain way. I talk to them very seldom. I give them their privacy. I ask them no personal questions."

Robin Weir says his male clients tend to talk about safe, predictable subjects. Such as? "The female clients. 'Who's she? Is she single? Is she married?' Attorneys are the worst. They have to know something about every woman in the place."

Men's individual preferences for men or women hairdressers are as decided as their breakdown on the barber shop/ beauty salon question.

"Most of the men who come here out of Washington don't mess around with women barbers," says the Wilshire's Duron. "They are very, very strait-laced about that. If they have women working here, they won't even go into the nearest chair. These are pretty straight men."

Steinhauser explains what he says is a common preference for male hairdressers another way: "The last thing men want is to let a woman know they're feeling insecure about anything."

But some men are ardent about their choice of female hairdressers. Says Melvin Lindsey, "I like a woman cutting my hair for a couple of reasons. One, being a woman, she knows how she wants a man to look. Then there's a sensitivity level I appreciate more."

For whatever such broad generalizations are worth, men and women hairdressers tend to rate their male customers high on some counts, such as tipping and loyalty.

"I think they're even more loyal than women, as far as they'll follow you anywhere," says Susan Wolf at Norbert. "Women are always ready to try something new."

Hairdressers all have their stories of clients coming hundreds -- even thousands -- of miles, timing their visits conveniently with business.

They rank men low generally on patience and easiness to please. "They say, 'Look, I just want it to look perfect all the time,' " says Charles Stinson of Charles I, who does Koppel's hair. "I don't think it's ever talked about how tender men are, how sensitive to anything that makes us look funny or look laughable."

Even the pros are fussy. Jerald Donaway, president of the American Council on Cosmetology Education (which oversees hairstyling schools), describes just how far his trust in a new hairdresser goes. "I never say, 'Do whatever you want.' Before washing it, I say, 'Note where the part is, how far over the ears I want it and don't make it any shorter than that.' "

Warren Burger may be the exception. Says Diego D'Ambrosio, owner of Hollywood Men's Hairstylist and Burger's hairdresser for the past 21 years, "Anything I give to him, he likes."

And where do the hairdressers go for their haircuts? To each other, though even there, not without occasional complaint.

"I need a good hairdresser," laments Weir. "Every time I get my hair cut, there's less left."