Farewell, pink bathrobes! Farewell, china cups of tea! Farewell, Miss Judith, Miss Mary and all the other Misses who dye hair, wax eyebrows, massage shoulders!
Yes, it's true -- Elizabeth Arden, the downtown beauty salon where the pampering is discreet and the prices are high, is closing its red door forever.
"Oh, tragedy!" Mary Hoyt said yesterday when she heard the news. "I remember sneaking out when I was at the White House, and just absolutely dropping out of sight," said Hoyt, who served as Rosalynn Carter's White House press secretary and is now communications director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "I would go over there and they would minister to me -- a little tea, a little terry robe, a shower, a massage.
"You know you are being cosseted, and they seemed to be able to do it without making you feel like you've just blown a month's salary -- which you have."
Only three of the dozen or so salons will remain open: the small store in Friendship Heights, the New York salon and the Elizabeth Arden Main Chance spa outside Phoenix. One employee said she believes the downtown salon will close in October and that as many as 100 employees could lose their jobs in Washington.
No official comment about the closures was available yesterday from Unilever, the European food-and-soap conglomerate that owns Elizabeth Arden. Division President Joseph F. Ronchetti did not return telephone calls yesterday, and the company spokesman was unavailable.
But the closing of most of the salons appears to signal a move by Unilever to concentrate on department store cosmetics, including the Elizabeth Arden line. "We view cosmetics as part of a fashion portfolio," James Miner, vice president of marketing for Elizabeth Arden, told the Wall Street Journal last week. "It's part of a total look, and the place you get the rest of the look is a department store."
The salons and the Elizabeth Arden line of cosmetics have been sold and resold over the years. Unilever bought the company in February 1989 as part of its $1.55 billion purchase of Faberge Inc.'s cosmetic and fragrance businesses. Faberge had acquired Elizabeth Arden in 1987 for $700 million from Eli Lilly & Co. The company was sold to Lilly in 1971, five years after the death of its 81-year-old founder, Florence Nightingale Graham, a k a Elizabeth Arden.
"We're just a dustball in their corner," one Arden employee said of Unilever.
Although the Friendship Heights Elizabeth Arden will remain open, at least for the foreseeable future, to many people the much larger downtown salon on Connecticut Avenue between L and M is the Real One. Nancy Reagan got her manicures there. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler has gotten facials there. UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas is a longtime client, as is Eunice Shriver. Any number of financially comfortable but imagination-impaired husbands have bought their wives last-minute Christmas gift certificates. And with devoted regularity the old-line socialites of Washington have repaired there to be repaired.
When they heard of the closing, faithful customers reacted first with shock and then with a welling of nostalgia for another era, a time when people with money could find a form of obliging and self-effacing service that has by now become an anachronism. First Garfinckel's, now this! they said.
"I'm just so sad about it!" said Joan Gardner, a regular in the Washington social rounds. "The first big present my mother-in-law gave me was a visit at Main Chance. It was a very old-fashioned kind of service and caring that almost doesn't exist anymore. Around the world, when you travel, the red door was a security blanket. You knew the place would be nice and clean and polite -- even in Hong Kong there was one. No more."
Not only was there an Arden salon in Hong Kong, but also in Blair House for White House visitors.
In one of Arden's signature touches, leggy models in designer outfits walk through the downtown salon carrying cards identifying the creator of their clothes and pausing in front of the hair dryers for inspection. Elizabeth Arden was crafted to appeal to those who could pass the first-floor designer clothes department without flinching at the prices. But professional women who would never have dreamed of buying clothes there ventured in for other services and a touch of the Arden pampering.
"There are people in there who walk in and you know that's their whole lifestyle," said one young woman who visited the salon often with an older relative. "They're the ones who come an hour late, and they have their Chanel shoes on and you know they go constantly. Then there were the people you see a lot, especially on Saturdays, and you know they've saved up -- this is their splurge."
For the really big splurge, there is the Miracle Morning or Main Chance Day -- the former at $175, the latter at $225. For the money, women get manicures, massages, waxing of eyebrows and makeup lessons, haircuts and "a light lunch."
Both steady customers and the employees, some of whom have worked there for 40 years, have suspected for months that the end might be near. Clients said the building was increasingly shabby, and employees said the cosmetics and clothing end of the business was doing poorly. "It's been bought by so many people it just isn't the same," said Gardner.
Unilever's acquisition of the company was part of a $3.2 billion buying binge in 55 countries last year, as Unilever sought to expand its presence in consumer product lines, from laundry detergent to frozen pizzas.
The purchases pushed Unilever, the world's third-largest food company and a leader in such unglamorous household products as Wisk, into the more fashionable line of toiletries, giving it ownership of such well-known brands as Calvin Klein's Obsession, Elizabeth Taylor's Passion, Lagerfeld and Chloe.
But apparently the giant in world mass marketing couldn't make a go of a venerated beauty salon in the heart of Washington's business center.
That, anyway, is what several employees said they were told.