Updated August 6, 2019 - 9:15 am
For nearly 50 years, Jay Sebring has been reduced to one of the “others.”
As in, during the early hours of Aug. 9, 1969, as part of a killing spree that would shock the nation, members of the so-called Manson Family brutally murdered Sharon Tate “and four others.”
Somehow, the man who basically invented men’s hairstyling and helped create the iconic looks of Steve McQueen and Jim Morrison — Sebring was so big, he had a cameo in a 1966 episode of “Batman” as celebrity stylist “Mr. Oceanbring” — had been diminished to a footnote in his own death.
But now Sebring is finally having another moment.
He’s portrayed by Emile Hirsch in Quentin Tarantino’s buzzy drama, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
And he’s the focus of “Sebring,” the long-in-the-works documentary made by his nephew, Henderson native Anthony DiMaria.
“I’m starving for a new generation to know who Jay Sebring was,” DiMaria says from Los Angeles, where he divides his time with his home in Henderson. “There’s a reason why you’ve never heard of him, and I think that the primary cause is that, essentially, the victims — their identities, their legacies — have been erased over the years. They’ve been treated as faceless incidental props in the mass packaging, peddling and consumption of their own murders.
“One of the things that is so glaring is that, counter to that, the people who committed these crimes, the killers, have somehow been glamorized into rock star serial killers.”
Need proof? Go to Amazon.com and — forget about the hundreds of books about Charles Manson — you can purchase a variety of backpacks, luggage tags and T-shirts bearing his likeness, including some that feature him wearing a “Make Murder Great Again” hat.
There’s not a single product in any category that directly relates to Sebring, though, despite his being one of the main architects of the way men looked in the 1960s.
“Pre-Sebring, men went to a barber, and they said, ‘Where do you want the part, on the left or the right? You want a flat top?’” DiMaria says.
Among the innovations Sebring is credited with bringing to men’s hair care are the pre-cut shampoo, the use of handheld hair dryers and the use of hairspray instead of goop like Brylcreem.
At a time when barbers were charging $1.25 a cut, Sebring was pulling in $50 or more.
Stylist to the stars
Sebring, a Michigan transplant born Thomas John Kummer, struggled for a time after opening his salon in 1959, on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax in West Hollywood.
Then, DiMaria says, actress BarBara Luna, whom Sebring was dating, brought singer Vic Damone in for a cut that changed his entire look. Damone flew Sebring to the Sands in Las Vegas for another cut, and before long, he was styling Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
“Stanley Kubrick hired him to design the ‘Spartacus’ cut. And from there, it’s endless,” DiMaria says. “It was Bruce Lee. It was Steve McQueen. Paul Newman. … Warren Beatty. Then he did the Jim Morrison cut. If you look at that iconic Jim Morrison haircut, in which he literally sculpted it to his face, he was defining the times of the ’60s.”
Then, after he was murdered — along with Tate, aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and 18-year-old Steven Parent, who was visiting the property’s caretaker — Sebring’s accomplishments were trivialized, if they were remembered at all.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s been devastating to our family,” DiMaria says. “It’s because we know who Jay was. We saw that direct experience with how dynamic and charismatic he was, and how he literally created an industry that today generates almost $20 billion annually worldwide.”
‘I gotta know you’
DiMaria was 3 years old when his uncle was murdered, but he insists he has memories of them chasing each other around the yard of his childhood home in Henderson.
“I was playing with this guy. I don’t think I really understood the dynamic of what an uncle is, but to me, he was like my new cool friend. … He made me feel like an equal. Like I was an adult.”
DiMaria’s parents, Tony and Peggy, Sebring’s sister, moved to Henderson from Detroit in 1965. Tony’s brother had a shop at Caesars Palace, and the couple planned to stay in the valley for a while before moving on to L.A. to be closer to Sebring. The murders changed all of that, and they’ve been here ever since.
Sebring would visit them often in Henderson, and he brought Tate along several times while they were dating. When she was pregnant with DiMaria, Peggy has said at some of the dozens of parole hearings at which they’ve testified, Tate had to fly back to Los Angeles early but made sure she stopped on the way to the airport to pick out a lightweight poncho as a gift for the expectant mother.
A few months after the murders, DiMaria found a picture of Sebring in a photo album and asked Peggy when he would see his friend again.
“I saw a look in my mother’s eyes that I never saw before,” DiMaria recalls. “It was a look of pain and vulnerability. And I don’t mean like weeping, I mean to the core. … When I saw that, I just kind of knew that I never wanted to do that again.”
Still, there was something about that photo that fascinated the boy.
“I can’t describe it,” he says. “It was like it was a vortex, that picture, pulling me and saying, ‘I wanna see you. I gotta know you.’ And that feeling never left me, my whole life.”
In its final stages
Initial reports of what happened that August night inside the home Tate shared with her husband, director Roman Polanski, relied on speculation and titillation, DiMaria says.
“Essentially, the narrative was, ‘Yes, something horrific happened in the (Hollywood) Hills last night. But don’t worry, it won’t happen to you. It wasn’t random. It was somehow drugs and sex.’”
I’m starving for a new generation to know who Jay Sebring was. There’s a reason why you’ve never heard of him, and I think that the primary cause is that, essentially, the victims — their identities, their legacies — have been erased over the years.
Those stories didn’t stop DiMaria from reading everything he could get his hands on, including autopsy and toxicology reports, over the years.
In 1997, he started reaching out to people who’d known Sebring. By 2008, he was formally working on turning those interviews into a documentary. After a variety of setbacks and delays, he says, “Sebring” is in its final stages.
“We’re going to be out later this year for sure.”
‘Film is a first’
As for that other movie, DiMaria admits to being wary when he heard Manson and Tate were going to be a part of Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
“Quentin, you know, he pushes boundaries in terms of some things that are provocative. And, certainly, there’s an element of violence in his films,” DiMaria says. “And after 50 years of seeing how profoundly the murders have been sensationalized and exploited, I was quite concerned.”
DiMaria reached out, met with the director and producer Shannon McIntosh and shared some photos of Sebring at his home and shop to help them better understand his style and personality.
The finished product focuses on fading Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stuntman-turned-personal assistant and drinking buddy. Dalton can’t get over the fact that Tate (Margot Robbie) and Polanski just moved in next door.
As portrayed by Hirsch, Sebring meets up with the couple and Steve McQueen at a party at the Playboy Mansion. He practices martial arts with Bruce Lee by the pool. He informs an inquisitive Tate that, not only do dirty movies have premieres, but “they’re fun.” And he’s at Tate’s home when Manson shows up looking for its former occupant, music producer Terry Melcher, and promptly sends the scruffy visitor on his way.
“I feel that what they’ve achieved in this film is a first,” says DiMaria, who, along with Tate’s sister, Debra, receives a “special thanks” in the film’s credits. “For the first time in 50 years, they’ve treated the victims, Jay and Sharon, like people.”
Jay’s story finally told
The words “50 years” have been echoing quite a bit recently as news outlets mark the golden anniversary of the slayings.
DiMaria and his family haven’t necessarily braced for the attention. They’ve never really stopped dealing with it. It’s not like you get a break from thinking about a loved one when his murder is everywhere you look.
Even somewhere as innocuous as “Saturday Night Live.”
DiMaria remembers a 1979 sketch starring Bill Murray as an actor playing Sebring in a musical based on him and Manson.
There will never be any silver lining in anything with regard to these tragedies. But knowing that Jay’s story will finally be told, there is some sense of comfort and providence, I feel, that has been missing for so many years.
“My ears started ringing, and I thought, ‘My uncle’s life and death, his own murder, is a joke on my favorite TV show.’ And that’s the type of disconnect that we as a family have experienced, that so many media forms treat as pop, bubblegum entertainment.”
It’s taken a half-century, but with projects such as “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and DiMaria’s upcoming documentary, another side of Sebring is, at last, being shown.
“There will never be any silver lining in anything with regard to these tragedies,” DiMaria says. “But knowing that Jay’s story will finally be told, there is some sense of comfort and providence, I feel, that has been missing for so many years.”
McQueen’s $3,000 haircut
In Anthony DiMaria’s “Sebring” documentary, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” writer and director Quentin Tarantino shares a story that helps illustrate Jay Sebring’s status as a rock star among hair stylists.
“So, if Steve McQueen is in New Orleans doing ‘(The) Cincinnati Kid’ and needs his hair cut, he wants Jay to cut it,” Tarantino says. “From what I heard, Jay had a policy: ‘I get paid $1,000 a day. I do not cut on the day I arrive, and I do not cut on the day I leave. So $3,000. That’s the deal. And you pay me to come out, and you put me up.’
“Is a haircut worth $3,000? Well, it was to Steve McQueen.”