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An ode to a mentor: Robert Gage

Robert Gage and Nolan Bryant

Globe society columnist Nolan Bryant remembers ‘a tireless advocate of beauty in its myriad forms’

My friend and mentor, hairdresser Robert Gage, was not the type of person I ever thought would die. Sure, I know everyone has to take their final bow in this show called life, but Robert had an everlasting quality that made an official end seem slightly unimaginable. Even now, two weeks after his death at age 74, seeing his name in the past tense is unsettling.

Robert came into my life and was extremely kind to me at a time when others still weren’t quite sure what to make of me. We met just six years ago, at a cocktail party, of course, and became friends almost instantly. Within a week, I was at his shop on St. Joseph Street, the last of the fanciful salons that he dreamed up as the backdrop for a career that spanned nearly six decades.

The St. Joseph Street doors to Robert Gage Hair Salon

My wash, cut and set came with a memorable side order of Robert’s pearls of wisdom, introductions to interesting people under hair dryers nearby, and depending on the time of day, a stiff vodka soda. His was a salon in an almost Gertrude Stein sense, where the young, old, creative, intellectual, poor, rich (or “un-poor” as he referred to them), melded magnificently. With my beloved Robert in the leading role, every visit was pure theatre, a performance I would do just about anything to watch one last time.

I joyfully spent many subsequent afternoons in the salon, not just as a client, but rather drawn by the gravitational pull of Robert and his salon’s glamour-filled environment. On any given day, I could watch with delight as clients came though the lacquered French doors. In walked familiar philanthropists and Toronto blue bloods, women swathed in sable that he would quip didn’t own shampoo, who were dropped curb-side by chauffeurs for one of their thrice-weekly visits and others who came by subway, wind-blown and sporting well-loved blue jeans for their thrice-yearly chop.

Inside the salon

When a client’s head ducked under the dryer, Robert was quick to sit me down right beside the ones he thought I should get to know; I think he saw it as a way of educating me, a way of opening my eyes to new and fascinating people. And while they may have entered his shop from different walks of life, each and every one, after being snipped, quipped and swiftly spun out of his chair, swanned out feeling glorious and equipped with a shot of confidence to help them face the realities of everyday life.

Robert’s coif compositions were always voluptuous and glamorous. He considered himself a classic hairdresser and was trained at age 12 or 13 in a family-owned beauty parlour with a cast of characters that included Auntie Mame-like women and poodles dyed marvellous pastel hues roaming the salon. Later, his beloved wire-haired fox terriers, sans pastel dye, did the same in his own shops.

A framed photo of Robert and his dogs inside the salon.

By age 14, he was cutting hair and had caught the glamour bug. He would go through numerous looks and life stages, transitioning between them seamlessly with amusement. With only a Grade 6 education, profiles, quotes and society snaps that appeared in the press were a source of joy and validation for Robert and his work, which on the surface could be considered ephemeral, easily erased in a moment by a gust of wind, few drops of rain or the unavoidable growth that comes in four to six weeks time.

Robert elevated his work and life by allowing it to be informed by the world and people around him, collecting stories along the way that he recounted with great aplomb in his salon and around the dining table in his country home. He spoke of the past not in a way that made you feel that he longed for it, but in a way that was to inspire the now. “Starting a new era is easy. Ending an existing one is not sad nor unhappy, just perfectly timed!” he once tweeted.

A photo of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev shot by Robert Gage in Paris.

My mind reeled as Robert recalled the time he put an intoxicated Truman Capote to bed after a night in New York with friends Joyce Davidson and David Susskind, and would describe in exacting detail the stiffness of the white blouse, wideness of the belt and impossible thinness of Lee Radziwill the day he did her hair, or the evening in Italy with Toronto socialite Posy Chisholm Feick, where, in the back of a Rolls Royce en route to a dinner in a palazzo, he noticed the glossy coque feathers that sprouted from the tips of her satin slingbacks.

L to R: Krystyne Griffin, Scott Cragie, Melanie Munk and Robert Gage in Paris.

He never once told me the past was better; he loved the now as much as he did the then and encouraged me to do the same. Robert’s stories, not unlike those of legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland’s, blended facts with a dash of fiction; neither of them employed “faction” as a means to deceive, but rather to make situations and stories more wonderful and impactful. Were the poodles in the salon of his youth actually pastel-hued? Were there poodles? We’ll never know for sure, but what I know for sure, is that in the moment of their telling, these elements helped paint the picture he wanted you to see and be inspired by.

Robert Gage

The impact that Robert Gage and his stories had on my life is immeasurable. He taught me what others had taught him, about self-creation, how to talk to people, and how to believe in one’s own taste. He also encouraged me to experiment, to break the rules in regard to the way I presented myself, much the way he himself did. He would often gift me slices of advice to help me along. “Put a dot of brown eye pencil in the centre of the water line of your bottom lashes,” he said one day. “It will make you look as though you are about to cry and people will do anything you want.”

Another time he advised, “Try not to rush, or walk to fast, no chic person should ever look too busy.” And on matters of dress: “You know what would be wonderful? Pant legs that go all the way down and cover your shoes!” I remember returning to the salon sometime later, slowly, of course, in palazzo pants with a brown dot under each pupil.

Mr. Gage at the birthday of Mary Symons in 2014.

And while Robert himself could certainly on occasion be difficult or imperious, when it came to gossip or telling tales of his well-heeled clients, he never once, to my memory, dished something that wasn’t true. Gossip for Robert was not for sake of malice but, rather like his stories, a way of adding to the mystique and preserving the legends he had a hand in helping create.

Robert Gage on set with photographer Miguel Jacob.

A sign of Robert liking you, which many didn’t take kindly too, was a gentle teasing. He would joke that when he cut my hip-length locks to what they are today, that he finally made a man out of me, and when I began covering the society beat for The Globe and Mail, he would call in the early evening to see what party I was headed to and if I had my frock picked out yet.

One day during a visit to the salon, in an imperious moment of my own, I made a comment about a mutual acquaintance. Robert, instead of adding to my snide remark or agreeing with me as I thought he might, said something that is perhaps his best line and the one that has stuck with me ever since: “Everyone just wants to matter.” And that is exactly how I will remember my friend: as a tireless advocate of beauty in its myriad forms and of people, who just want to matter.

Robert Gage with long-time client Catherine Nugent Robert Gage with filmmaker Norman Jewison Robert Gage sips a martini. Scott Craigie, Joe Mimran, Robert Gage and Alfred Sung shopping in Paris