MY SUBJECT today is Maurice, a magician who works at Elizabeth Arden on Connecticut Avenue, an establishment I prize because it is a place where I can do no wrong. Naturally, a corporation has now come along to close it down.
I never met Elizabeth Arden, but I honor her. She figured out that people who go to beauty parlors know they are not beautiful and need to be put together, not put down. Nor do they need to be hassled or hustled to have a perm or buy expensive products. She asked only that her clients permit themselves to be spoiled.
There is no Muzak at Elizabeth Arden. And no arguments. So a moon-faced woman wants a modified whiffle, with the hair snarled or standing on end. Maurice might suppress a sigh, but he would go to work and produce an approximation, which made her think she had gotten her own way, and comb out the worst consequences. I call him a magician because for seven years he has produced an illusion that I have hair. With women who do have hair, he wrought miracles by the hour.
Yelle, Maurice's acolyte and shampoo-giver, is a gentle, quiet soul from Indonesia. She brings you spring water and coffee and pays your bill for you if to do it yourself might mean you would smudge your manicure. She is there to steady the pedicure customers who are shuffling about in paper shoes.
The manicurists all come from exotic places -- Cuba, Iran, Ecuador. Someone is always going off to "my country." When Yelle went home to Indonesia to get married, a huge farewell party was held. Maurice, who is Lebanese and a demon cook, roasted a farewell lamb.
A proud and loyal veteran of 17 years, Maurice said Arden provided "a complete beauty service." But what it really provided was ministrations. I have seen women straggle in with an inch of dark roots showing, their whole attitude suggesting defeat and low self-esteem. After a couple of hours of kindness and a lot of tinfoil, they march up to the desk where the stupendously well-groomed Mrs. Schaefer presides over the cash register and the appointments sheets, and they are transformed. They are blond, triumphant.
A corporation called Unilever, which owns Elizabeth Arden, wishes to close this temple of restoration. They will sell the building. Legions of satisfied customers will grind their teeth at the mention of Unilever's name.
Corporations spend billions building up good will, improving their public relations. And then they raise their prices as soon as Saddam Hussein gives the order for the tanks to roll. It was a terrific encore to Exxon's gross handling of the Alaska oil spill. I heard an unctuous oil executive explain that this was "an anticipatory increase." It's also called "gouging." Afew of the big guys have understood that in order to be beloved, you must do nice things. StarKist, for instance, announced it would not buy tuna that came from nets that killed dolphins. StarKist made a million friends among dolphin lovers. And 7-Eleven is sponsoring a literacy program. I am not surprised. 7-Eleven is itself a wonderful idea. Like the United Parcel Service, it makes life easier. My local 7-Eleven is manned by Cambodians, who are quick, quiet and ever smiling, sort of in the Arden mode.
The Arden spirit does not, alas, pervade all corners of the beauty business. Elsewhere, people feel obliged to tell you what you already know, that your hair is thin, your skin is greasy and your hands would not be tolerated in the Bolshoi ballet. And they have high-tech gadgets to study your defects, so that a simple attempt to purchase an item can be be as punitive as an encounter with a prison matron.
The other day I went to a Clinique counter to buy a jar of cleansing cream. The woman, a blonde with severely plucked eyebrows, asked me suspiciously, "Have you used the cream before?" I said yes. It was not enough. She whipped out a chart with a sliding light and informed me she would have to see if the cream was suitable for me. She checked the color of my eyes, although I didn't see the relevance of it, and my skin tones. She asked me what moisturizer I use. I said I didn't use any.
There was a sharp intake of breath.
"Why don't you use a moisturizer?"
I couldn't think of a reason. I felt the silence of fellow shoppers. I felt guilty, inadequate, as if I were about to be turned over to the FBI. "Forget it," I said, and crept away.
That woman wouldn't have lasted "A Morning of Beauty" at Arden. I will miss Maurice and Olga and Nora and Connie and Marcella and all the others who helped me face life. Arden's prices are high, but the attitude is worth anything you have to pay for it.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.