Thursday, October 21, 2010

Style Section Posted: October 20, 2010 Iconic Costume Designer Edith Comes Alive in One-Woman Play!

By Caitlin Monaghan

There are few things that film buffs and fashion fiends wouldn't do for the chance to converse with legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who dressed the silent film stars of the 1920s, defined the dress of the Hitchcock blondes, turned Audrey Hepburn into a princess and put Princess Grace in gold lamé.

And for a few more days, they may have their chance.

Though Head passed away in 1981, fans can enjoy actress Susan Claassen's one woman show and portrayal of the iconic costumer in A Conversation with Edith Head, which is wrapping up its Los Angeles-area run on October 24.

Students of costume design, who grew up hearing fairy tale-like stories about the icon, will freak when Classen, bearing an eerie, spot on likeness of Ms. Head, discusses career highlights, dishes about Hollywood relationships and even divulges a bit of Head's private side -- a side rarely revealed. Claassen co-wrote the play with Paddy Calistro, the author who personally knew Head and helped pen her autobiography, Edith Head's Hollywood (published 1983) as well as the reissued 25th Anniversary Edition (published 2008).

Two dress forms wearing classic Head designs flank the set -- Bette Davis' brown silk, sable trimmed dress from All About Eve (1950) and Elizabeth Taylor's teen sensation white tulle, floral bud adorned strapless gown from A Place in the Sun (1951). And the host graciously interacts with the guests in her parlour. Head's favorite sketches and autographed headshots sprinkle the back wall. In true Edith style, Claassen is not shy to critique the audience's outfits, but her impromptu conversations reveal interesting characters in the room, like choreographer and actress Miram Nelson (once married to Gene Nelson), who conversed with Claassen's alter ego about the three times the designer and she worked together during their mutual film careers, including Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Film facts, photos and props swirl around the theater during the two-hour play (not including the meet and great and photo ops afterward).

In true Hollywood fashion, Head was terribly competitive (especially during the Academy Award season), and she did not mind bending the truth for her benefit. Though her career is glittered with marvelous achievements, pesky controversies litter her hefty dossier. During her acceptance speech for Sabrina (1954), Head did not honor Hubert de Givenchy, the designer of Audrey Hepburn's most famous pieces in the film, including the little black dress with the bowed boat neck that Head had mass publicized as her own namesake design for years. And the costume illustrator who apparently designed the menswear for The Sting (1973) sued Head after she accepted and was lauded for winning the first Oscar in Costume Design for a film without a female lead. "Accentuate the positive and camouflage the rest," was a famous Edithism. Perhaps she interpreted that statement too literally when it came to matters of paying credit where credit is due on her film projects.

Despite gossip and controversy, Head's 50-plus years in film included magical moments. When an assistant's mistaken measurements turned Head's rich brown gown design for Bette Davis into a sack of potatoes, Head was mortified. But Bette Davis simply shrugged the square neckline off her shoulders, thus lifting the waistline into new dimensions, and said, "See, doesn't this look much better." It did. Davis delivered her famous All About Eve (1950) line as Margo Channing in that dress, "Buckle your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

Head worked with some of her favorite leading ladies outside the studio as well. Close friends Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck often consulted Head to style and design outfits for various engagements, premieres and events. Head was the costume designer for Alfred Hitchcock's big-budgeted To Catch a Thief (1956), but she felt snubbed when she was not asked to design the future Princess Grace's wedding dress during her nuptials to Prince Rainier. Head instead designed Kelly's grey silk "going away" suit.

Eventually, Edith Head's brand grew from Hollywood back lots to American households. She wrote two books, The Dress Doctor, which sold 8.5 million copies, and How to Dress for Success. She was brutally frank with frumpy American housewives during her guest spots on Art Linkletter's House Party, a radio and television show that featured the first makeover segments of the 1950s and 60s. She and her team even designed "Edith Head Collection" sewing patterns that were sold through the 1950s and 1970s, a testament to Head's mastering of self promotion.

Which she'll gladly tell you about in person at the theatre.

Susan Claassen stars in A Conversation with Edith Head, El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, through Sunday, October 24. For tickets call 818-508-4200 or 800-811-4111 or order online at $35.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A CONVERSATION WITH EDITH HEAD - "It's a wonderful story with a great performance!"
BY MARY HALL 10/13/2010

Many people consider Paris, New York, London or Milan as the fashion capitals of the world. But the fact is Los Angeles has been the home of many wonderful designers. Many of these designers were part of the movie industry. They were not just great dress makers, they were illusionists, bringing glamour and fantasy to the big screen. A good flaws. One of the best, was Edith Head. Edith Head was a Hollywood costume designer for over 60 years. For most of those years, she worked at Paramount Pictures. She dressed stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey and Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly.

Now a wonderful play about her life has opened in Hollywood., not far from Edith Head's last design home at Universal Studios. Aptly named, Conversations with Edith Head, the play is based on the book of the same title by Edith Head and LA author Paddy Calistro. The play, featuring a tour de force performance by actress Susan Claassen, is now playing at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood. I had the pleasure of seeing the play over the weekend, and it's a wonderful piece. You leave feeling like you really met Edith Head. Actress Susan Claasssen bears a striking resemblance to the designer and the dialogue in the play is from the designer's writings and reminiscences.

Pictured: Susan Claassen as Edith Head with a replica of Elizabeth Taylor's dress from a Place in the Sun (photo courtesy of Susan Claassen.)
It is Edith Head's authentic voice that theater goers hear. And it is her authentic story, warts and all. Edith may have won 8 Academy Awards, but she did not always win the respect of other designers. Some looked at her costume work as fluff and not work of real artistic merit. It may have been Edith's sensitivity to these feelings that lead her to claim sole credit for Audrey Hepburn's Little Black Dress in Sabrina, when it was widely rumored to be the work of Givenchy. But Claassen makes you feel Edith's vulnerabilities which may have lead to her need to take credit for the work of others. Although Edith threw verbal daggers at would be fashionistas on the TV show House Party way before Simon Cowell, Claassen still plays her as a likable and admirable character. Her work ethic and loyalty to those she dressed are highlights of the play. The audience learns that Edith worked hard and learned her craft at the studios during the 1920s. She started as a sketch artist at Paramount and worked her way up the ladder without favors or connections. The female stars she worked with frequently became her friends, and they had a confidence that she would present them to their best advantage on screen. One of the highlights of the play is the many stories of her working relationships with Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. She was also a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, and you get to see how much Hitchcock respected her work, although he was not regarded as one who had an eye for fashion.

One of the most interesting things about the play, is the opportunity for the audience to ask questions of Edith/ Miss Claassen during the performance. Clearly, Susan Claassen knows Edith Head's history as if she knew her. She is able to answer the questions without any rehearsal or prompting. The questions and answers bring the audience into the world of Edith Head and create a very intimate theater experience. With Los Angeles Fashion Week about the start, it's a fitting time to take a look at a great Los Angeles designer. The play will be showing at the El Portal Theater in Hollywood until Oct. 24th. If you have the opportunity to see it, even if you don't know anything about fashion, take it.a conversation with edith head -

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Goldstar Reviews!

A Conversation with Edith Head, Gossip and Stories from Hollywood's Most Famous Costumer
El Portal Forum Theatre (North Hollywood, CA)


20 Member Reviews 4.8 Star Rating!!!

Goldstar Member
Member since 2007
3 Reviews
Written on Oct 12 2010
My 16-year-old daughter, 81-year-old mother-in-law, visiting from Cape Cod, and I had a wonderful time at El Portal with Ms. Head. I would high recommend this performance. The show was COMPLETELY spot on. We were transported back to 1981 and spent a lovely evening in the presence of Ms. Head. Come with a question or two to ask Ms. Head and enjoying basking in Hollywood of yesteryear.

Goldstar Member
Member since 2005
5 Reviews
Written on Sep 24 2010 not hesitate! I totally was there with Ms. Head in her studio, Ms Claassen was cloned for this production. The venue was very intimate kudos to El Portal.
Sage D.

Judy Pfleger
Member since 2010
1 Reviews
Written on Sep 27 2010
I have been to many events at the El Portal Theatre and I just love the intimacy of it. But this particular venue was way beyond my expectations. I love things about "old Hollywood" and Ms. Head was awesome. She has the character down so well, I was running up after the performance to ask her personal questions about her career-to which she answered without a beat!The simple staging was brought to life by her performance and since the theatre is so small, there are no bad seats. So I felt she was talking to me half the time and missed her when she wasn't looking directly at me. The acting, writing, staging was all perfection. Go, go go and enjoy.
Jude (no friend of any of the cast or crew--honest!)

Member since 2005
3 Reviews
Written on Oct 12 2010
Three of us went and loved it. We felt we were in the same room with the real Miss Head. Susan Claassen did a fabulous job - so much so, that at one point, while she was interacting with the audience, I wondered "What will Miss Head think of what I wore to this event?"

Goldstar Member
Member since 2008
7 Reviews
Written on Oct 12 2010
A specialized piece of material (Hollywood costuming in the "Golden Age", long gone) but within that framework a PERFECT one-woman show vehicle. Ms Claassen and her co-author provide historical context, fascinating name-dropping, and a delightful non-stop 90 minutes in a wonderfully intimate theatre (three VERY WIDE rows!). Susan Claassen's performance is skin-tight and could not be bettered, drawing the audience into her world, circa 1981 until you don't want it ever to end.

Goldstar Member
Member since 2007
1 Reviews
Written on Oct 12 2010
Great show! I really felt like I was transported back in time. Highly recommended!

Member since 2010
2 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
First of all, I was charmed by the El Portal and how it was set up into different theatres, This play took place in the more intimate setting in which you felt you were in Ms. Head's living room Ms.Claassen certainly became Ms. Head and didn't break character even after the play was over. She did an outstanding job in the knowing of her character's life. If you are a fashion lover, you will relish all the Hollywood insider tidbits you will learn about in this play!

Goldstar Member
Member since 2006
2 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
Wow!! What a joy! We loved it and I may have to go see it again. You feel as if you are with Miss Head in her private studio, so intimate and entertaining. We have our picture with Miss Head at the end of the show to remember the day!
Thank you!

Bobbie Bates
Member since 2008
1 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
Loved the show! A must see for any fan of fashion, costuming, and Hollywood history. Susan Claassen IS Edith Head. A delightful experience that I will never forget.

Goldstar Member
Member since 2003
4 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
Excellent acting and excellent production. Perfect for this small venue.
A delightful surprise . You actually believe that she IS Edith Head.
Very enjoyable.


Member since 2010
2 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
I spent a simply wonderful afternoon with one of my favorite Hollywood icons, eight time Oscar winning costume designer Miss Edith Head (portrayed to absolute perfection by actress and playwright Susan Claassen). The set was decked out in reproductions of Head’s costume sketches, photos, two Oscars and two dresses one worn by Bette Davis in All About Eve for which Miss Head won an Oscar. I sat in the front row of this charming 99-seat Equity waiver house. After the show all guests were invited to have a picture taken with Miss Claasen where she signed programs as well. Your name and email address were taken and the picture was sent to you by days end. Signature baseball caps and dress form lapel pins were on sale in the Green Room along with the 25th Anniversary edition of Edith Head's Hollywood.

Shelli Place
Member since 2010
1 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
A gem of a production. Susan Claassen's performance is enchanting. You will leave with a great sense of the person, the creativity and the magic of Edith Head. Make sure you look at the photos and Renderings in the Lobby. A good time had by all in the audience.

Goldstar Member
Member since 2003
1 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
This show was participatory, informative, amusing and touching. All you could ask for from a night of theatre! Ms. Claassen truly engages and listens to the audience thus each performance is guaranteed to be unique. And the subject leaves you full of nostalgia for the golden age of cinema.

Member since 2005
3 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
Loved everthing about this show, before, during and after. The setting was perfect, so personal. It would have been lost in a large theater.
Thank you for an enjoyable time.

Goldstar Member
Member since 2008
3 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
Excellent! Well researched and wonderfully executed. The author(s) and actress catch the woman in her entirety.

Member since 2010
3 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
Excellent- Funny, entertaining,informative. Fabulous one woman show.

Kim Nagele
Member since 2007
35 Reviews
Written on Oct 11 2010
A wonderful idea for a nostalgic performance. Well acted and great sets. Good interaction with the audience. Quite an entertaining evening.

Member since 2010
1 Reviews
Written on Oct 04 2010
well worth the drive. claassen embodied edith...literally. the walk, the acerbic tale-telling, the ego. all there. great fun.

Member since 2003
49 Reviews
Written on Sep 24 2010
Very enjoyable production. The resemblance of the actress to Edith Head was amazing. Very intimate feel, too, as "Edith" spoke with audience members and remembered their names!

Friday, October 8, 2010




Norman Lear with Susan Claassen

Susan Claassen With Barbara Rush

The radiant Barbara Rush along with Norman Lear congratulates their favorite designer, Edith Head, as portrayed by Susan Claassen at the LA Premiere of A CONVERSATION WITH EDITH HEAD at the El Portal Theatre. Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head worked with Barbara Rush on the 1963 Norman Lear film COME BLOW YOUR HORN and WHEN WORLDS COLIDE (1951).
Photos By: Leigh Ann Rahn
AT 7:24 AM

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Compelling MUST SEE doozy, for all lovers of fashion, and old movie buffs!

by Pat Taylor

Only one production to discuss this week…
By Pat Taylor on October 6th, 2010 Printer-Friendly
But it was a compelling MUST SEE doozy, for all lovers of fashion, and old movie buffs!

A Conversation with Edith Head

Susan Claasen as Edith Head with film star Barbara Rush on the opening night of A Conversation with Edith Head.

Edith Head…the cleverly ambitious and undisputed Diva of fashion design from the 1920’s until her death in 1981, was quite a woman! She started out as a young costume sketch artist at Paramount Studios in 1924, and became a Hollywood legend! Having worked on 1,131 films, she was nominated for 35 Oscars in all, and WON a whopping eight of the coveted “golden statues” during her illustrious career.

Susan Claassen is a mesmerizingly focused and entertaining actress, who brings Edith’s personal journey and colorfully true “show-biz” stories to life, in her brilliant one woman play. Feisty, funny and flawless, she gives a fabulous performance, holding us captivated throughout! Touring this show in the U.S., London’s West End, and at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, since 2002, this is the L.A. debut…running in our own Noho Theatre District.

Delightfully decadent, and deliciously juicy, stories unfold “behind the scenes,” about the industry’s beloved movie stars. We are privy to a wealth of informative “inside stories”…served up with a double dose of laughs! Such legendary talents as Claudette Colbert, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Grace Kelly, Garbo, Hedda Hopper, Elvis, Redford and Newman (…just to name a few) must surely be either “giggling” or “grimacing” in their graves, as her “telling tid-bits” are told.

On a stunning set, loaded with film star photos and memorabilia, designed by Claassen and James Blair, with costume recreations by Chris Brewer and Maryann Trombino…We savor the taste of old Hollywood! Co-scripted by Claasen and Paddy Calistro, (who is a leading authority on Miss Heads life, and author of her posthumous autobiography) much of the dialogue comes directly from the famed designer, herself.

Every performance will be a bit different from the last…as Edith spontaneously answers pre-written audience questions, and responds to the scripted interruptions from a man in the front row…well played by a charming Stuart Moulton!

For a totally enjoyable evening of theatre, boasting a “tour de force” performance by a diminutive woman who bears a striking resemblance to Edith Head…This is the one to catch! Billed as “An Evening of Wit, Wisdom, and a Whisper of Gossip…” we enjoyed every moment!

Running through October 24 at the El Portal Forum Theatre,5269 Lankershim Blvd. in Noho. For tickets call (866) 811-4111.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

PHOTO FLASH: Norman Lear and Barbara Rush Attend Opening Night of A Conversation with Edith Head By: Brian Scott Lipton · Oct 5, 2010 · Los Angeles

Barbara Rush and Norman Lear and Susan Claassen
(© Leigh Ann Rahn)

A Conversation with Edith Head, at the El Portal Forum Theatre, officially opened at October 1 at 8pm. The solo play stars Susan Claassen, and is written by Paddy Calistro and Claassen.

In this show, Edith (played by Claassen) shares her humorous and fascinating stories of working with Hollywood stars, directors, and producers from Mae West to Grace Kelly to Steve Martin, and shows actual wardrobe pieces, designs, and inspirations for some of America's most famous movies.

Attendees included producer Norman Lear, actors Barbara Rush, Paige Davis, Paul Sand, and Gregory Zarian; fashion expert Lawrence Zarian; costume designers Jean-Pierre Dorleac, Chiff Chally, and Jacqueline Saint Anne; Mary Rose, president of the Costume Designer's Guild, and Head's longtime friend, Tim Malachosky.

Edith Head Comes to Vibrant Theatrical Life @ the El Portal Read more:

by Paddy Calistro & Susan Claassen

El Portal Secondstage
through October 24

Edith Head describes the incredible Miss Bette Davis as a whirlwind. Well, as portrayed by the incredible Suan Claassen, Miss Edith Head must have been a volcano, or at the very least a small raging dust storm. When she enters her office with portfolio neatly tucked under her arm, it is a brisk distinguished stride that marks forever the great businesswoman/designer that was Edith Head. Now at the El Portal in NoHo, A Conversation with Edith Head is an authentically documented and loving tribute to the singular woman by a great actress in a detailed, tour-de-force performance.

With eight unprecedented Oscars, Head was a champion in a man's world and respected by both the clients she served and the big boys themselves. Clients included Clara Bow, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Davis, Grace Kelly, ElizaBeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, to name a few, and monumental directors including DeMille, Wyler and Hitchcock and studio execs like Lew Wasserman who set her up like a queen on the Universal lot, when she made her transition from Paramount.

Claassen looks remarkably like Head, and focusing on the characteristic bangs and bun on top of her head with pencil in place and dark-rimmed glasses, one could swear they were in the presence of the lady herself. Her posturing and hoity toity voice are executed undeniably well, making the total performance genuine and bizarrely alluring. Always aware of her unattractive size and smile, she considered herself an artiste of camouflage when it came to dressing others.

Stuart Moulton serves as moderator opening the 90 minute piece. Audience members are requested to write out questions before the show which Claassen addresses from the top in perfect Head matter-of-fact style. Answering the questions. she works in the framework of Head's life and career (beginning as a sketch artist in 1923 - 1981) and the amusing, sometimes saucy anecdotes about the various celebrities. Head loved most of the actresses, but, without Claassen going into detail, disliked Claudette Colbert. Claassen also has some fun comments about Stanwyck's low butt and Audrey Hepburn's long odd neck, which of course proved obstacles to easy fashion design. Intermittently, she asks audience members to stand up and cautiously appraises their apparel and sense of fashion. She called one poor man from Orange County a farmer because of his casual attire. Because of Claassen's quick wit, spontaniety and great ease in telling a story, the evening moves swiftly and never lapses into boredom. As the play takes place in 1981, when Head was working on Carl Reiner's film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, she was declining healthwise. To Claassen's acting credit, she shows the tormented side of Head, lapsing into moments of forgetfulness and ambitiously taking credit for designs she did not create. It is here that Moulton gets her back on track, caringly redirecting her distractions to serve the audience present with correct statistics.

The set design is credited to Miss Claassen and James Blair, and the beautiful gowns - Davis' Margo Channing's 'bumpy night dress' from All About Eve and Taylor's scrumptious white gown from A Place in the Sun -deliciously adorn opposite ends of the office set. On the walls there are a great number of autographed photos of the actresses Head attended and on small tables miniature manikins sporting different costume designs.

Calistro's wonderful script is based on the autobiography she co-authored with Head herself Edith Head's Hollywood, so what you get is the truth and nothing but the truth. Most actors and artists can relate to Head's insecurity about her profession: what it meant to be in the shadows behind those she served, making them look good.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable, rich and enlightening evening of theatre not to be missed.

Read more:

LA Times - Edith Head's legend endures A new book, a reissued volume and a one-woman show attest to the celebrated costume designer's lasting appeal.

Edith Head's legend endures
A new book, a reissued volume and a one-woman show attest to the celebrated costume designer's lasting appeal.

"Susan Claassen nails 'Edie' in her one-woman show, A CONVERSATION WITH EDITH HEAD."

By Julie Neigher
Special to the Los Angeles Times
October 3, 2010

It's been almost 29 years since Edith Head's died, but interest in the enigmatic American costume designer with the signature, seemingly impenetrable, circular eyeglasses has never waned. This fall, the Hollywood legend is the subject of a new book, as well as a one-woman show about her life that opens Oct. 1 at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

Why is she so fascinating to so many people? It's a combination of the eye-catching designs she created for the industry's grandest stars and the force of her bigger-than-life personality. Head claimed to have worked on more than 1,131 films in a career lasting from 1927 until her death just a few days shy of her 84th birthday in 1981, and she remains one of the most remarkable women in Hollywood history. No woman has equaled Head's 35 Oscar nominations or eight wins (for "The Heiress," 1949; "Samson and Delilah," 1950; "All About Eve," 1950; "A Place in the Sun," 1951; "Roman Holiday," 1953; "Sabrina," 1954; "The Facts of Life," 1960; and "The Sting," 1973).

Head's output was prodigious. In the 1940s, she produced costumes for 40-plus films a year. Savvy about advancing her career, she made sure to cement relationships with essential players. Barbara Stanwyck, Dorothy Lamour, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly often demanded in their contracts that Head design their wardrobes. Iconic director Alfred Hitchcock used her on 11 of his productions.

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Despite, or perhaps because of, her success, Head had a dark side. She was notorious for her tendency to treat staff sharply. To many of her associates, that famous bun with its array of pins seemed the perfect analogy for the designer's prickliness. And she wasn't shy about taking credit even if, on occasion, it was for someone else's labors. Although Hubert de Givenchy was the designer of Audrey Hepburn's classic black dress with its cutting-edge bateau neckline in "Sabrina," it was Head who took the bows for its creation.

Susan Claassen nails "Edie" in her one-woman show, "A Conversation With Edith Head," which premiered in 2002 and has traveled the United States and Europe, with a recent five-week run in London's West End. Claassen, at 5-foot-1 a remarkable fascimile of the diminutive designer, explains why it's taken eight years for the tour to reach Los Angeles, the place one might most expect for it to be performed: "We wanted to make sure when we came into Edith's home we came in the right way, through the right venue, so it would be showcased to pay tribute to the legacy," she says. "So even though we've played Southern California, this is the L.A. premiere."

The play is inspired by former fashion journalist and Los Angeles Times writer Paddy Calistro's book, "Edith Head's Hollywood," originally published in 1983. (A 25th anniversary edition came out in 2008.) Calistro and Claassen collaborated to create the one-woman show, and many of the insights into the designer's life were culled from intimate and lengthy taped interviews that journalist Norma Lee Browning had begun with the designer in 1979. Calistro was asked to complete this unfinished autobiography. Much of the play's dialogue is taken directly from Head's lips.

It's an intimate experience, and the small stage is replete with memorabilia (meticulous copies of Elizabeth Taylor's famous tulle dress with its 19-inch waist, adorned with violets, from "A Place in the Sun," and the sumptuous brown gown Bette Davis wore in "All About Eve" are displayed on mannequins). The production will satisfy those curious about costume design or gossip from Tinseltown's golden days, and, of course, those keen to understand the elusive Head.

Jay Jorgensen's new book, "Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer," a nearly 400-page hardcover, adds extra insight. The book features 350 high-quality images of previously unseen color pictures of costumes and behind-the-scenes action. Although many of Head's masterpieces were reworked, taken apart or no longer exist, Jorgensen's tome acts as a fundamental catalog featuring rare sketches and photos that visually archive pieces essential to costume design history.

There are the famous jaw-droppers: Grace Kelly's couture-quality wardrobe designed for "To Catch a Thief" that outshone sparkling gems even in the eyes of ex-jewel thief Cary Grant. Though nominated for her work on the film, Head lost to Charles LeMaire for "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing." She called the loss "the single greatest disappointment" of her career. As Jorgensen writes, "And while Edith could hold back telling an actress or director what she really thought, she had no trouble letting LeMaire know her true feelings about the loss … that her ornate gowns for 'Thief' were better than the traditional Chinese cheongsams that he designed."

Another costume, flamboyant as it is famous, is the ornate peacock-feather-emblazoned cape worn by Hedy Lamarr in "Samson and Delilah." Though she did win one of her beloved statuettes for this film, Head resented what she regarded as Cecil B. DeMille's garish taste in overruling one of her designs and insisting on the feathers. A stickler for authenticity, she was convinced that such feathers didn't exist in the region where the film was set. However, DeMille was adamant, and suggested that she hand-gather feathers from his own ranch. So Head and her team sifted through 2,000 plumes that had shed during molting season. In later years, she would always sneer when asked to discuss the wardrobe from the movie, especially when she found out, as Jorgensen notes, that "after the film's release archaeologists discovered the city of Philistia, and proved that DeMille had gotten it wrong."

Despite the Technicolor intensity of the peacock feather anecdote, most of the images in the book are humble ones: Head's publicity shots, catching her off-guard while working among her peers; images from her childhood; and intimate moments with her second and much-loved husband of 40 years, art director Wiard Ihnen (a two-time Academy Award winner himself). The woman in the photos isn't always the designer with severe bangs and dowdy suits. Often, shot without those intimidating spectacles, she reveals warm, brown eyes, and the typically pursed lips flatten into a calm, almost lighthearted, pout. There are glimpses of a playful young Edith in braids wearing colorful Mexican-inspired dresses. And we learn that at her treasured home, Casa Ladera in Beverly Hills, she displayed her more accessible side when she cooked and entertained.

But the overall impression is one of a piercingly intense woman whose passions most often settled on the dark side.

When asked his assessment, Jorgensen concludes that "Edith started out from almost nothing … She became one of the hardest-working executives in Hollywood, at a time when there were hardly any female executives at all. Of course, she had her faults, the biggest one being that she often lied to get her way. But she also loved what she did … I came to have a great respect for her determination. I think Edith's personality was formed at a very young age … I think she was always driven, and it paid off. [Head] felt being a star herself was the surest way to maintain her position at the studio, and she was right. I don't think Edith was any more corrupt than anyone else who achieves success in Hollywood. Nobody as famous as she was can be everything to everyone. Edith's worst trait was her inability to share credit. Her best traits were her charm and her intelligence."

Paddy Calistro also expresses conclusions about Head in the author's note from her book. "Was Edith Head talented? Yes, but … Was she a great designer? No. Will she continue to be the most famous designer in Hollywood history? Yes." Calistro's thoughts are clear-cut with respect to her subject's legacy. And she captures the great designer's essential duality well: "People despised her and people loved her."

"Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer," by Jay Jorgensen, Running Press, available at bookstores and online, $75.

"Edith Head's Hollywood: 25th Anniversary Edition," by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, Angel City Press, available at and Barnes & Noble, $25.

Susan Claassen in "A Conversation With Edith Head," El Portal Theatre, through Oct. 24. General seating with no intermission. $35. Contact (866) 811-4111 or
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