It was like going to your grandmother's deathbed, visiting her dear pink dressing room for the last time.
The Elizabeth Arden Salon on Connecticut Avenue -- comfortably settled in the same location since 1914 -- closed Saturday. It will never open again.
"I'm in mourning," said Ilona Grenadier, who, like other clients, had booked a full day of appointments for sentimental reasons. She was wearing all black and carrying her umbrella, since it looked like the sky would be crying too. "Even my husband felt sorry for me this morning," said the Alexandria attorney. "Coming here is like entering pink madness. The smocks. The rooms. The wax baths. All the horrors and terrors of real life melt away."
The Sanctuary of Smooth Skin. The Church of Latter-Day Bikini Waxes. A quiet world without Unwanted Hair. On Saturday, behind the glossy red door, the taupe-colored first floor -- usually loaded with mannequins and stacked with makeup -- was stripped bare, raided like an Egyptian tomb.
The mummies, though, remained upstairs: women wrapped in seaweed, preserved in paraffin. All services were booked solid -- the 8 facialists, 12 hairstylists, 10 manicurists and 4 masseuses were kept busy.
Women brought their babies in strollers. These were the children they'd been bragging about; a last chance to gush. A receptionist's son came to take pictures. Champagne was served. Several clients cried while they changed, perhaps for the last time, into pink smocks.
Who will look after them now?
This place had endured the beehive and the flip. It endured Mary Pickford ringlets and the bobs of the Jazz Age. It survived even the pageboy. The beauty wisdom of the ages seemed contained within its deep pink walls. And beauty of all ages. There were ancient clients who came with nurses. There were young professional women discovering pedicures with their first paychecks. Generations of Washington women came for treatments, for a quiet time, for the company of other women. And always the same other women. The walls were papered in flowers, Vera prints, intertwined E's and A's. It was like a huge powder room in a country club that hadn't been redecorated in the fashionable chintzes of the '80s. There were dimly lit rooms filled with ointments, unguents, lotions and remedies.
It seemed, in spite of the ephemeral nature of beauty and fashion, a fortress of tradition.
The Chevy Chase salon will remain open. True. But it's not the same, clients say.
For one thing, it doesn't offer the Wax Bath Treatment.
"You sink into warm, wonderful wax," effused Grenadier -- who's been bathing in paraffin on the sixth floor for 25 years. "They give you this great lemon juice to sip. You sit in this marvelous very old claw-foot tub. They pile towels, like blankets, on top of you. They give you ice to eat. And you emerge for a massage... .
"You've died," she said, "and gone to Heaven."
There have been "many tears," according to manicurist Nora Solloa. Tears, but not much rancor. Employees -- both full- and part-time -- were handled with care by "The Company," as they call it. Severance pay was a month's salary for every year an employee had worked for Arden's. And several -- such as Solloa, who qualified for retirement -- were given health coverage for the rest of their lives.
"The Company" is actually Unilever, the world's third largest food company, which bought the salons in February 1989 when it purchased Faberge Inc. for $1.55 billion. On Aug. 8, the company announced to its Arden employees that all but three salons (Manhattan, Scottsdale, Chevy Chase) were being shut down. An apology and explanation was offered to customers in a letter dated Aug. 20: Dear Salon Client:
It is with deep regret that I must confirm the news you may have already heard: the Elizabeth Arden Salons in Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Palm Beach, and downtown Washington will be closing... .
Unfortunately, the Salons, although a well-loved part of the Elizabeth Arden tradition, did not generate a favorable return on investment.
Manicurist Solloa pulled out an emery board, then the nail buffer from her white rolling cart on the third floor. There was a splash of liquids -- astringents, lotions. She set out a small bowl of thick warm cold cream for a set of naked nails.
"I wish I could avoid today," she said. Her smooth hands lathered up a client's arm with moisturizer. She wrapped it, from elbow to nail tips, in a pink towel as she always does. This has been her technique for 27 years -- as long as she's worked at Arden's. "It's a very sad day for me," she said, averting her watery brown eyes to the pink flowered wallpaper. "I don't know how I'm going to work."
Elizabeth Shepard walked in, pushing a stroller. For nine years she's come, once a week, for Nora Solloa's manicures and pedicures. She works across the street at Merrill Lynch.
"Norrie," she said to Solloa, "I think I'm going to lose it."
A great fuss was made over Daniel Straub, Shepard's 7-month-old son. While his mother got her toes massaged and painted, another manicurist, Connie Carvalho, carried Daniel around the third floor. His hair, everybody said, had gotten very blond. "When Danny was born, I only missed two weeks of manicures," said Shepard. "And then I brought him in with me. Olga gave him his first pedicure."
"They share everything with us," says beauty services manager Ruth Wheeler of her clients.
Once it was rich wives and socialites sharing everything. Now it's mostly working women -- including senators, judges, lawyers, doctors, reporters, businesswomen, and cabinet secretaries -- sharing everything, exposing everything, getting deep-pore facials, getting body hair removed.
"They come before their weddings," said Wheeler, a delicate brunette. "We see them through their pregnancies. Then they bring their babies in. They come after their divorces, after their husbands die. We've been here, taking care of them, while the rest of their lives change. That's why," she said, "this place means so much to them."
Of the 80 employees at the downtown Washington store, only 18 were given jobs at the Chevy Chase location. Many of the rest have found jobs at nearby downtown salons, and are trying to lure their old clients. On Saturday, new cards were being handed out to old customers.
"The beauty service industry is actually booming, so the closing of these salons is a separate issue and not a trend," said Carole Dorsch, salon manager, dressed in a workday business suit and sitting behind her desk.
A hallway light was buzzing and flickering outside Dorsch's office, soon to die. "Very symbolic," she observed. Dorsch herself has worked for Arden salons for 11 years -- in Chicago, in Dallas and in Palm Beach before moving to Washington last March. It's unclear whether she will be continuing to work for them.
In the past two months, there were many inquiries from prominent clients wanting to purchase the salon and keep it running, according to Dorsch. "People's first reaction was: How can we save it?" Inquiries were referred to the main offices in New York, and nothing more came of them. The downtown location, she said, would require "massive renovations to keep going."
Ilona Grenadier entered a small dark room for her last facial treatment at this location. Stripped of jewelry and most of her clothes, she lay down on a bed and became enveloped in pinkness. The only sound she heard was the whirl of the air conditioner and the click of a photographer's camera. "Face Treatment Specialist" Deborah Gordon rearranged a table of liquids, splashes, tonics, skin rinses, lotions and fresheners.
"Women don't have a lot of escapes," said Grenadier. "This is it for me. I get all kinds of therapy here. Ramona -- have you met her? She's a trip. She does my wax baths and she comes up with all kinds of stuff, philosophies and ideas and help. I come home from this place and my husband can see the difference immediately."
Ramona was found on the sixth floor, the place of massages, exercise and baths. Ramona Brady is her full name. She was wearing a white smock and two diamond nose earrings and her black hair was in dreadlocks. She has worked at Arden's for only a year. Massage. Wax Baths. Seaweed Wraps. Steam Treatments. "Many people," she smiled, "have been very upset."
Philosophy? Therapy? Brady was asked her secret.
"Healing," she said. "That's what the sixth floor is all about. The conversation naturally leads to women's lives. We try to provide total wellness."
Brady has found a new place to work -- at Chardon a couple of blocks away. Ruth Wheeler is not sure what she'll be doing after a few weeks "of transition work." Facialist Gordon will be working at Walther & Coiffeure. Nora Solloa bought her 27-year-old manicure cart from the salon and will be taking it with her -- "for the memories" -- to Lucien et Eivind up Wisconsin Avenue.
Charlotte Bach-Hansen was sitting behind the fifth-floor counter -- a young blond Nordic goddess in a black suit.
"I worked in cosmetics at Garfinckel's for five years," she said. "And when it folded, Arden's offered me this job. Ten days later -- exactly -- they announced the closing of the salon. Everybody just looked at me and laughed."
She doesn't know what she'll do next. "Except," she said, "I'm looking to get out of retail."