When she graduated from Hollywood High School in California in 1961, Carrie White did her hair up in a bubblegum-pink beehive. She had learned, she wrote in her memoir, that “if I could get my hair right, my life would work better.”
After attending beauty school, she developed a reputation for getting other people’s hair right. And soon she was coloring, snipping and shaping the heads of Tinseltown’s superstars — Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando among them.
The media called White the “first lady of hairdressing.” Seated in her chair in her Beverly Hills, California, salon were A-listers as disparate as Jimi Hendrix, Nancy Reagan, Sharon Tate and Lucille Ball; her work on Elvis Presley ensured that his fans’ eyes were focused as much on his jet-black pompadour as on his gyrating hips.
By the late 1960s, her salon was one continuous party scene.
“Sometimes I cut hair on roller skates, in spandex pants, with a gram of coke in my back pocket,” she told Los Angeles magazine in 2019. In those heady times, White was a star herself, even appearing on an episode of the game show “To Tell the Truth.” United Airlines sought her out to create a hairstyle for its flight attendants: She came up with a modish bob.
But the party didn’t last. White’s life spiraled downward from drug and alcohol addiction, a horrific descent she described in her memoir, “Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life” (2011), which is being made into a movie starring Julia Fox.
After some years in the depths, White managed to get into recovery and stay there. Even as she resumed her hairstyling business with a whole new generation of stars, including Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock, she was a proud, not-at-all-anonymous member of Alcoholics Anonymous. She devoted herself to speaking publicly around the country about addiction and remained sober for the rest of her life — 38 more years.
White died May 3 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 78. Her family said the cause was cancer.
When White broke into the world of hairdressing, it was dominated by men — Vidal Sassoon, Jon Peters, Gene Shacove and others. Another popular male hairstylist was Richard Alcala, who was White’s third husband and who was one of the inspirations for Warren Beatty’s rakish hairdresser in “Shampoo” (1975). White was a technical adviser on that film.
In addition to styling stars for their personal lives, White sculpted many for the movies. Notable creations included the iron pageboy for Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and the orange locks for David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976).
“Doing hair gave me validation,” she told The New York Times in 2011. “It was applause on the hour, and I needed it on the hour.”
She was born Carole Douglas Enwright on Aug. 25, 1943, in Los Angeles. Her mother, Grace (Cloakey) Enwright, an illustrator for the movies, named her after actor Carole Lombard. Her father, George Enwright, left when she was a toddler.
As a girl, she wrote in her memoir, she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, and for a time she was raised by a foster mother. In a classic Hollywood reinvention story, she started calling herself Carrie in high school and later, after marriage, legally changed her name to Carrie White.
She grew up in Pacoima, a predominantly Black and Hispanic section of Los Angeles, then moved to Beverly Hills. At Hollywood High, many of her classmates were wealthy and polished. She concluded that a key to success, apart from buying a whole new wardrobe, would be to change what she called her “stacked pachuca hairdo adorned with spit curls on each side,” a remnant of her adolescence in Pacoima.
“The Hollywood High hairdo had a name: the Flip,” she wrote. “I would study the girls’ hair, imagining how they get it to curl up on the bottom. And I needed to cut bangs, smooth bangs that swooped to one side, not like my mother’s 1940s movie star bangs.”
After high school, she attended the Hollywood salon of the Lapin Brothers beauty school from 1961 to 1963.
She opened her own salon in the mid-1960s. One of her early clients was fashion designer James Galanos. He recommended White to well-connected actor Jennifer Jones, whose former husbands included David O. Selznick, producer of “Gone With the Wind” and other big pictures. Celebrities were soon swarming her salon, making it a place to see and be seen. “Some of the actresses would get their hair done before they got to the salon; it was such a scene,” White told Los Angeles magazine. She recalled the day in 1968 when Beatty came in with Julie Christie — to the mortification of Joan Collins, with whom he had had a relationship, and who was sitting under the dryer in rollers.
White spent many of her nights at Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, perfecting her roller skating and staying in shape by doing laps. She collaborated with fashion photographers like Richard Avedon on Vogue photo shoots and Melvin Sokolsky on shoots for Harper’s Bazaar.
After addiction ruined her life and career, she gradually worked her way back. She re-earned her hairdressing license, made amends with friends, styled clients privately and opened a salon again in 2005. Writing her memoir became therapy, but the first draft took 11 years and ran 1,300 pages. Cutting it, she told the Times, was excruciating, “like cutting the blue threads out of a Chanel suit.”
She closed her salon in 2017 and worked out of Farré Salon in Beverly Hills, where she maintained a trendy clientele until the coronavirus pandemic forced her to stop. But even before then, she had become disappointed with what she saw as a slackening in Hollywood’s glamour quotient.
“Everyone looks like everyone else,” she told the Times. “It’s tragic.”
White was married three times. Her brief marriage in 1962 to Jordan Schwartz, a fellow beauty school student, was annulled. She married Frederick White, a contractor, in 1964; they divorced in 1968. She married Alcala in 1970; they separated several years later, although they never divorced. He died in 1988.
Her companion for the past several years was Alex Holt, an academic tutor. They recently collaborated on a coming-of-age horror novel called “Disposable Teens,” which has not yet been published but is being shopped for a limited television series.
In addition to Holt, White is survived by a daughter, Tyler Browne, from her first marriage; a son, Adam White, and daughter, Daisy Carlson, from her second; and two daughters, Aloma and Pitita Alcala, from her third. She is also survived by 10 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
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Aloma and Pitita Alcala said that they had recently come across one of their mother’s speeches for Alcoholics Anonymous, and that it seemed most fitting.
“When I die,” White had said, “I want to be cremated and put into a disco ball and passed around to the song ‘Last Dance,’ by Donna Summer.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.