The sweet smell of soft grease mixed with the pungent aroma of burning hair filled the bedroom as the woman's fingers, darting and dancing as they flew from jar, to handful of hair, to hot T comb, to curling iron, pressed and curled black women's hair into the night. When the beautician's 14-hour day was completed and the women cleared from her son's bedroom, four-year-old Frank could go to sleep.
Grace Savage, fresh from Rocky Mount, N.C., was setting the stage for a 40-year career in the local beauty industry that brimmed with flamboyance, flair, and a maverick's eye for the sure-shot gimmick and crowd-pleasing whoop-de-doo. Her pink Cadillac convertible and trademark silver streak snaking through her upswept jet-black hair ensured her distinctiveness, as did renaming herself Madame La Savage.
Setting a deliberate course, she marched to fame and fortune, winning awards for her hair styles and designs along the way. When she died recently, she was not mourned as Grave Savage of Rocky Mount, but as Madame La Savage of the international beauty community, of old black Washington society, Madame La Savage the trend-setter, the teacher and confidante, and Madame La Savage, mother of high-achieving twins.
La Savage's 1938 arrival in Washington is now the stuff of legend. "Dahling," she is quoted as repeatedly saying to friends, relatives, and audiences gathered to hear her at social functions, "I arrived here with two twins and two cans of milk."
"She was a black queen," said long-time friend Daisy Spencer, a retired beautician who once ran her own shop. "She talked beauty all the time and she was quite serious about what she did."
La Savage was a shrewd businesswoman. At the time of her death at 62, she was preparing to launch a new venture called La Savage International Enterprises, a boutique featuring clothing, jewelry and cosmetics that she had planned to operate out of her home at 1129 Columbia Rd. NW.
"La Savage was perpetual motion," remembered daughter Francis, a marketing director for Stewart Taylor Associates, a New York-based management consultant firm. "When La Savage got turned on to something new and different, she was off and running."
Francis said her mother changed her name from Savage to La Savage, pronounced La Sa-vahj', when Francis, then a high school student studying French, told her about the French pronunciation of their last name. "She liked the sound of it, so in short order she became Madame La Savage," Francis said.
Shortly before the 1949 opening of the La Savage Beauty Clinic at 2228 Georgia Ave. NW, La Savage ordered her children to address her as "Madame La Savage." Francis adapted with ease, but Frank, 11 at the time, resisted.
"She had always insisted that we refer to her as 'Mother Dear' and I had come to like it. I couldn't cope with the switch at first, but eventually it got to the point where I could handle it," he said. Now, like everyone else, Frank and Francis refer to their mother as "La Savage."
But her early life as one of eight children living in a rural North Carolina town was not as grand as her adopted name implies. Her father died in a train accident in 1930, leaving her mother to care for the family. Country married life befitting hometown girls repulsed teen-ager Grace Savage, but it was one of few options open to her. La Savage tried marriage, but the union began to falter about the time that her sisters, her brother and her mother fled Rocky Mount to seek a better life in the nation's capital. Six weeks after the birth of her twins, La Savage, then 19, pulled up stakes and headed North, leaving her husband and the tobacco-and-railroad town of Rocky Mount behind forever.
"When I met her at the door, she was carrying the twins in one arm and, with the other hand, carrying a bag with two cans of milk," her sister Naomi Davenport recalled recently.
Thirteen people shared the two-story frame house at 3522 Center St. NW. Everyone worked, living in the city. La Savage joined her sisters and her brother on the federal work force. But not for long.
"She knew right away a clerical position wasn't for her," said Frank. "She was too independent and creative." Within a year, Madame C.J. Walker and her School of Beauty, someone new and something different, turned her on.
Walker, born Sarah McWilliams in 1867 to ex-slave parents, invented the hot comb and curling iron that became the standard for straightening and grooming black women's hair. Her invention in 1905 made her one of the country's first millionaire businesswomen.
La Savage signed up for night classes at the Walker School of Beauty, then located at Ninth Street and Florida Avenue NW.
"She was nervy and beautiful," recalls another friend and beautician, Naomi Noah. "During those days, she would take her little son right along with her while she learned the Walker Method. He would curl up and sleep and she would soak up all she needed to know."
While her diploma was still warm, La Savage opened for business at home after her day job at the Department of Labor.
After midnight, when her appointments were completed, according to her daughter Francis, La Savage would "fall across her bed completely exhausted, unable even to take her clothes off."
Frank Savage, now 43, chairman of the board of the Freedom National Bank in New York and a vice-president and investment officer for the Equitable Life Insurance Company, remembers having to give up his bedroom during La Savage's "Mother Dear" period when her business was just starting.
"It was the largest room in the house," he explained. "I shared it with my grandmother and cousin. I slept on a cot."
Word spread: Grace Savage was good. In the '40s, many black women wanted their hair done in the styles worn by Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. With her hair dressing, hot comb, curling iron, and dazzling fingers, Grace Savage could make hair fall her way. Curl her way. Wave her way. Arthritis would eventually still her fingers. Standing 12 to 14 hours a day would gradually destroy the tone of her shapely legs. But now, business was picking up so rapidly, she quit her government job, pursued pressing and curling full time, and while doing so perfected her other trade-mark: The Rap.
While giving her client a shampoo in the family's bathroom wash basin, La Savage would squeal: "Dahling, you look won-der-ful-l-l, keep yourself well-groomed, buy yourself a new dress, you're so bea-u-u-ti-ful-l-l." On it went, through the wash, the dry, the straightening, the curl. Customers loved it: The Rap and the dancing fingers.
"I began sleeping more and more on the downstairs couch," said Frank Savage.
La Savage broke out of the family compound in 1949. Business was too hot for the house. As always, planning carefully, La Savage brought off her new phase with a flourish: the grand opening of her pink-and-black La Savage Beauty Clinic.
She pulled the family right along with her. Francis was the shampoo girl. Frank, the clean-up man. Sister Naomi, a beautician. La Savage, of course, was the star. She styled. A client had to worked her way up to the La Savage Chair.
"Dahling," she would say, "you look daz-z-z-ling, feel good about yourself. You look won-der-ful-l-l." La Savage's fingers never stopped moving.
It was at this location that La Savage reached the heights of her profession during the '50s. She appeared everywhere. Meeting with business and professional organizations. Traveling to New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware to appear in beauty shows, receive awards, speak before groups. To the Liberian Embassy to do the hair of the ambassador's wife. To the Ghanian Embassy to do the same. At cotillions, balls, fund-raisers, she was there. Gold-coast parties, she was there. And she was the hostess, too.
"She gave so many parties, I couldn't make them all," said sister Naomi.
"La Savage became a wealthy woman," said son Frank. She purchased a home in what was then, in the early '50s, a solidly professional area: the 1100 block of Columbia Rd. NW. And, her clothes: The wardrobe.
"La Savage dressed," states daughter Francis. Silver fox furs. Sparkling, gem-laden rings. Large, dangling, winking earrings. Gowns: brocaded, strapless, caped. In reds, aquas, blues. Said Francis: "You knew she was around."
The pink Cadillac rolled in all the Howard Homecoming Parades. With a sign stating "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" taped to the car door, La Savage, exquisitely silver-streaked, sat up front, while models, usually Howard students apprenticing in her shop, sat atop the convertible's rear seat.
Arthritis slowed her dancing fingers in the sixties, and she became diabetic. She began losing interest in hair styling, concentrating more and more on her line of beauty creams, lotions, perfumes, colognes and make-up kits. Home permanents had come on the scene, damaging business. Then the Afro hit hard. And then the riots.
"Her shop on Georgia Avenue NW was not touched, although the rest of the block was devasted," said Frank Savage, "but she had no desire to return to the business as it was. She had become more interested in the merchandising end."
Out of her home, she sold and promoted. La Savage devoted more time to youngsters who wanted to get into the beauty business. She gave lectures, arranged demonstrations. She immersed herself in civic activities and continued her long association in activities sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women.
"She liked home cooking and warm people," said her friend Daisy Spencer. "She could talk to everybody, and she had encouraging words for everybody."
At La Savage's funeral last week, Spencer was part of a delegation of beauticians, hairdressers and hairstylists who made up the old Chapter 221 of the National Beautician's League, a social and fraternal organization that is represented in most states. "It was sad to see how many of us are now gone," said Spencer.
At 62, preparing to get a new business off the ground, having printed up hundreds of flyers to blanket the city to announce a "holiday opening" scheduled for mid-November, La Savage was struck down by a massive coronary while shopping at the Giant Market at Ninth and O streets NW. While in perpetual motion, she died.
"Death wasn't on her mind," Spencer said. "She was a lady on the go, still doing, still planning."