Jackie and Grand Central – a remembrance of two American originals

Written by Brian Toohey

When I learned that the October issue would be about the individual and the editor suggested perhaps I could share my memories of seeing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at the Kenneth Salon, I realized it could open something interesting.

The idea that it ultimately inspired came as a complete surprise, which is often the case.

The Kenneth Salon was a five-story townhouse on 54th Street and Madison Avenue. Jackie was a frequent guest.  The salon had an atmosphere of serenity and elegance. A warm light flowed from the carefully thought out spaces into a large open reception area.  There was a formal staircase and I would often stand at the top, in rapt attention as I watched Jackie ascend the stairs.  She moved with a quiet certainty in her signature oversized sunglasses, scarf and jeans, while her thoughts were held close to her heart.

Jackie had an indelible impact on American style. Originally, all of her clothes were of French design.  After entering the political scene, she had them created by American designer Oleg Cassini.  But Jackie was her own muse and a consummate stylist. The whole world waited to see what she was wearing and all the stores hurried to have her look recreated.  Yet despite all the adulation she received, she never made a fuss about herself.   I noticed that when I saw her in the salon, there was an aura of authenticity.  I felt she wanted you to feel equal, as I know she believed we all are.

Kenneth would often remind us that he thought of himself as a servant — and yes we were, in the best possible sense. We were in the service of creating style that would have a great effect on the total image of our clients.

Jackie’s hairstyle changed many times yet seamlessly from short to long, from bouffant to a casual mid-length bob. It’s interesting that today’s hairstyle is all about the individual. The only look that matters is the one that works for you.  Go ahead, be your own muse, just as Jackie was.

Stylists today have the benefit of advances made in technology. These advances build on the experience of the past. Then, the Kenneth Salon was the ultimate in fashion and service. I can say with all sincerity that where I find myself today — at Warren Tricomi, the tradition of service and careful thought for the client in an elegant environment still exists.

I knew Jackie believed an appreciation of the past must be present to ensure a better future.  It was with that understanding — and a firm sense of loyalty — that she worked tirelessly with the Municipal Art Society to save Grand Central Terminal from being torn down in order to erect a high-rise building.

In 1978, she took her fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Thus Grand Central became a designated landmark building. Its renovation is truly a work of art and one of the great public spaces in the world.   And all that happened because of the heart of Jackie O. When she died in 1994 — too soon — people stood in long lines in the terminal to write in a condolence book. Today Grand Central’s main entry is known as the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Foyer, marked by a plaque bearing her image and an inscription.

It is a love story I share.  You see, my dad was a conductor for the New York Central Railroad and an immigrant from Ireland.  I remember him carrying me in his arms as we walked through that wonderful old building and whispering of all the nooks and crannies and passageways hidden behind its walls.

I still spend a fair amount of time in Grand Central and I always appreciate its majesty and splendor. The pineapple-shaped chandeliers — whose exposed bulbs proclaimed the early 20th century’s newfangled electricity — cast a radiance along with the light that still streams from the tall arched windows.  I love the solid, old information booth, which is a meeting place for many.  Recently, I had the beautiful experience of seeing a large group from Germany gather there as they formed a circle and spontaneously burst into a chorus of Mendelssohn’s 100th Psalm. Their voices, soft and sweet, echoed through the great hall and filled the space with a joyful energy.

I found a quiet perch on one of the stairways to sit and observe the commuters to put the finishing touches on this piece. There were people from every ethnicity, every race, every station in life, yet a curious sense of equality, an energy permeated the room. My attention was suddenly drawn to a family from South America standing on the other side of the brass-railed staircase. Suddenly, their 3-year old son slipped under the rail and came to me with his hand outstretched. As our hands touched, he smiled as I looked into his eyes. It felt like it was an affirmation of all my thoughts at that moment. I now wonder if perhaps this was a nod and a smile from my dad and maybe even Jackie O.

Visit Brian at Warren Tricomi Salon, 1 E. Putnam Ave., Greenwich. To book an appointment with him, call 212-262-8899.

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