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When Gay Talese Met Frank Sinatra's 'Hairpiece Lady'

The writer goes back to his notes on a very-real toupee attendant

This article is from the archive of our partner .

On Friday The Atlantic Wire contacted Gay Talese regarding Barbara Sinatra's interview with Andrew Goldman in The New York Times Magazine, in which she said Talese's account of an "inconspicuous little gray-haired lady" who handled the performer's toupees in his 1966 Esquire profile "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" was "a lie." He was already at his home in Connecticut for the weekend and didn't have access to his famously comprehensive notes, but he was adamant that Barbara Sinatra was wrong. Apparently, The Times Magazine agreed. The "lie" quote has since been removed from the interview and on Saturday an editor's note was appended to the online version: "In fairness, that characterization should not have been included in the interview without any corroboration or any response from Mr. Talese. He stands by his original account."

Back in New York City on Monday, Talese has had a chance to consult his notes from the legendary piece and was gracious enough to share what he found in his archives with The Atlantic Wire. Here are his extended notes of meeting Frank Sinatra's "hairpiece lady." They are very detailed.

June 6, 2011

Dear Mr. Gustini:

When you contacted me this weekend, telling me that the Times Sunday Magazine interview with Barbara Sinatra expressed doubt on my report that her late husband used to employ a woman who carried his hairpieces around in a satchel, I was in Roxbury, Connecticut; but now that I've returned home to New York I was able to check my files (where I save all my notes from sixty years of interviewing people) and discovered the name and phone number of Sinatra's hairpiece lady, and some items about my interview with her.

The interview took place on Monday, Nov. 29, 1965, on the set in Los Angeles of a film Sinatra was starring in, Von Ryan's Express. When I saw him he was very angry at the slow-pace of the film's director. The film had a water scene, and the director's aides were trying to pour large jugs filled with water  into a pool, but Sinatra kept yelling, "You're pouring it wrong!  For god's sake, tilt it! It'll come out faster...not straight up, but tilt it--any physics lesson should explain that to you--tilt it, I'll come out faster." His ranting  seemed ridiculous to me, but Sinatra could be ridiculous when he was bored and angry about the wasting of  time. He hated, while making a movie, to be sitting around doing nothing while the director took many minutes getting the stage crew and other support players in their proper places and doing whatever they were supposed to be doing. I was then on the far edge of the movie set, trying not to be noticed  by Sinatra because, even though he did not grant me an interview, he did not negate my request to be able to observe the film being made.  

So I was trying to observe the goings-on without him seeing me watching, and perhaps demanding that I be removed from the set. I kneeled low, very near to a quiet little woman who was sitting in a canvas chair knitting something. After a few minutes, I asked her what she was doing on the set, and she said she was Sinatra's hairpiece carrier. I said I was astonished to hear that Sinatra had such an employee, and she replied that she'd been doing the job for three years, and that he paid her $80 a day, and it ended up being on average $400 week, or about twenty grand a year--not a bad living, she added, since it consisted of nothing more arduous than carrying 30 or so hairpieces around in her satchel. She let me peek into the satchel, and she added that Sinatra himself had another 30 hairpieces that he himself kept for use when she was not around. She said she accompanied him not only to movie sets, but also to concerts, nightclub performances, and whenever else he might be acting or singing or dancing at a professional engagement.

She gave me her name (Helen Turpin) and her phone in L.A.: "ST 9 6399." I wrote this in my notes, and filed it away with many dozens of other pages of notes, and did not consult this file until this morning--in reply to Barbara Sinatra's claim that the hairpiece lady did not exist.  Ms. Helen Turpin may not exist today (I never spoke to her again after our half-hour meeting back on Nov. 29, 1965), but she was very much alive then, and remains alive in my notes, and I hope Barbara Sinatra will take my word for this. The hairpiece lady might appreciate being acknowledged, even if she has gone off to her final reward for carrying Sinatra's hairpieces so faithfully.

Anyway, thanks for alerting me to this situation over the weekend.


Gay Talese.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.