Articles

The Man Who Clipped the King

With Gallic aplomb, “Red” Tasse is ready to prescribe for a king, advise a prime minister or trim your hair

DOROTHY SANGSTER November 1 1949
Articles

The Man Who Clipped the King

With Gallic aplomb, “Red” Tasse is ready to prescribe for a king, advise a prime minister or trim your hair

DOROTHY SANGSTER November 1 1949

The Man Who Clipped the King

Articles

With Gallic aplomb, “Red” Tasse is ready to prescribe for a king, advise a prime minister or trim your hair

DOROTHY SANGSTER

PAUL EMILE (“Red”) Tassé, who in his 30 years as head barber of Ottawa’s famous hotel, the Chateau Laurier, has had some strange experiences, will never forget the night he found himself in bed with the Queen of England’s hairdresser.

That was away back in 1939, when Tassé was appointed royal barber on their Majesties’ tour of Canada, but the whole thing is still vivid in his memory.

“You understand, it was this way,” he says with Gallic eloquence and the appropriate gestures. “I had the upper berth and the Queen’s hairdresser had the lower berth, and in the middle of the night, boom! My bed has bust! And there I am, lying in bed beside the Queen’s hairdresser. Mon dieu, it was funny!” Reporters thought it was funny too, so the story got in all the papers, complete with pictures of Tassé—the whole six feet and 200 pounds of him, including his waxed mustache. Soon he was being ribbed as a gay blade.

“But,” says Tassé, “the Queen’s hairdresser was not a woman, as you might imagine. It was a man, a nice little Cockney chap by the name of Pat Powell. So it was not so much after all, eh?” And he gives his characteristic moue, his Gallic shrug.

Ottawa’s grey-stone, green-turreted Chateau Laurier, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill, has always been the meeting place of great names and famous people. In some ways (he hotel is practically an adjunct of the Parliament Buildings.

Enter by the wide front door, turn left by the newsstand and go downstairs, and you find yourself

facing a glass door leading into the very heart of he Chateau Laurier—the barber shop. Here, at e number one chair, stands barber Tassé in his w e coat, just as he has stood every day since Jul; ..8, 1919. In those 30 years he has looked down oi. the heads of nearly all the great and near-great who ever visited Ottawa.

He remembers Sir Robert Borden, Sir Wilfred Laurier. He has barbered royalty like King Prajadhipok of Siam, Prince Chichibu of Japan and the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth. Chichibu he recalls, sat surrounded by a royal guard of five detectives who watched every flick of Tassé’s razor, and then forgot to pay for his shave.

Tassé’s satisfied customers have included the late Neville .Chamberlain (“poor fellow”), Prime Minister Attlee, and “Happy” Chandler, governor of Kentucky, (now U. S. baseball czar) who later declared the Canadian barber to lie the only barber in years to part his hair straight! He has known Prime Minister St. Laurent since he was a young lawyer. His clientele has included Cabinet Ministers James Lorimer llsley and the late lan Mackenzie; Premier Smallwood of Newfoundland and the man who commanded his brother’s regiment in World War I, Col. Clyde Scott. Col. Scott he remembers as a fine-looking young chap who was always accompanied by a small blond daughter called Barbara Ann.

But it was with Canada’s two bachelor Prime Ministers that Tassé established the closest rapport.

Some years ago after R. B. Bennett had gone into opposition, journalist Bruce Hutchison dropped into the barber shop just as Tassé was waving Bennett into the chair for a shave. What he saw was a striking indication not only of Tassé’s vivid tonsorial technique, but also of the easy-going relationship existing between the two men.

Wrote Hutchison, “The ritual is elaborate and rich. Tassé piles steaming-hot towels, one, two and three on Mr. Bennett’s face and whistles a little French-Canadian tune. He whips up a huge lather and hums an old voyageurs' song t hat his fathers used to sing on the Ottawa long ago. Then, as he plies his razor, Tassé discusses the affairs of the day with the former Prime Minister, an Empire statesman, in the most confidential manner . . .

“He listens, head cocked to one side, to the mumbles that come through the hot towels; he whispers cautiously into Mr. Bennett’s ear. They both roar with laughter tit some private joke that must be good. Mr. Bennett has time to laugh these days and that makes Tassé happy.”

The Race With Mr. King

However, from the point of view of time, place and political agreement, it is Mackenzie King’s career that has most closely paralleled Tassé’s own. As Mr. King once put it, “1 have been trying to see how long I can lead the Liberals, and Tassé has been trying to see how long he can remain head barber at the Chateau. Sometimes I think he is a bit ahead of me.”

For 30 years now, Mr. King’s regular Tuesday afternoon haircut (at half past one) has been the highlight in Tassé’s week. So friendly are relations between them that Ottawans out for an evening stroll have more than once come upon the two of them ex-Prime Minister and Chateau barber out for a breath of air together in Major Hill Park.

This unexpected rapport between a Prime Minister and his barber has at times caused some consternation in government circles. For instance, when Mr. King flew to the San Francisco conference in 1945, RCA F brass at Rockeliffe airport was astounded to see Tassé burst into their midst in an ancient jalopy, all ready to take a hand in the farewells.

“What’s wrong with that?” Tassé wonders. “This is a demoeraticcountry, isn’t it?”

Tassé, who has been known to turn up at Laurier House? at the crack of dawn rattier than let his favorite Prime Minister attend an important function without a haircut, maintains an attitude toward Mr. King that is

halfway between that of a solicitous mother hen and a sympathetic comrade.

When King once confided wistfully, “You know, Tassé, I should have been married years ago,” Tassé-—although an out-and-out family man himself — nevertheless exclaimed, “Oh no, Mr. King. If you’d had a wife you’d never have been Prime Minister all these years. She’d have demanded your time. She’d have involved you in jealousies. There’d have been black sheep among the children. Oh no, Mr. King, no.”

That Tassé should have reached this stage of intimacy with one shy bachelor prime minister is unusual. That he achieved approximately the same thing with two of them is downright extraordinary.

Yet the man whom King has called, “A good Liberal, day in and day out” discerned in Conservative leader Richard Bennett a warm inner personality and charm. Says he, “A strange man ... a moody man . . . I think a very lonely man. People wanted to know him better, hut he seemed afraid to let anyone come too close.”

A Favor for Bennett

Bennett, in his turn, took a warm fancy to Tassé.

Once, during the lean depression days, an English businessman spent six weeks trying to see Mr. Bennett, then Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was simply not available. On the eve of his despondent return to England, he phoned the Chateau switchboard and asked for a barber to come up and give him a haircut. The barber arrived, and it was Tassé. As he snipped away, the frustrated businessman poured the whole sad story into his ear.

Tassé said “Excuse me,” picked up the telephone, and asked for Mr. Bennett. Five minutes later a delighted salesman learned that the impossible had happened: he had an appointment with the Prime Minister for the next day.

(For himself and his family, however, Tassé has never asked favors. “What we have got, we got for ourselves,” he tells you proudly.)

Shortly after this occasion, Mr. Bennett evened things up by calling on Tassé for a bit of help. He had been asked to give a speech in Montreal, and he wasn’t too sure of his French. Could Tassé help? Tassé could, and did, furnishing the Prime Minister with a dozen witty French phrases guaranteed to win the hearts of a French-Canadian audience.

When the time came for Mr. Bennett’s speech to be broadcast, Tassé tuned in on the family radio. Fie listened for a couple of minutes, nodded in approval, and then dashed off a wire, “Your French was wonderful!” He signed it by his nickname, “Red.”

in Montreal, Mr. Bennett was just concluding his speech when a messenger lx>y handed him the telegram. He read it and grinned.

Turning to the chairman, he said, “You thought my French wasn’t so hot, eh? Look, I’m even getting telegrams from Russia! They like it fine over there!”

And to Tassé, he sent forthwith a portrait of himself inscribed “To Red— but not Russian Tassé.”

Tassé’s most poignant memory of Bennett is of the viscount’s later visit to Canada, some years after he had retired from public life and went to England to live.

On the last night of this visit, Bennett wandered into the barber shop, had his hair cut, and liten asked

casually enough, “Are you going anywhere special tonight?”

When Tassé admitted that he wasn’t, Bennett asked if he could stay a while and chat.

The two men pulled down the blinds in the barber shop and reminisced for nearly four hours. At a quarter to eleven the lonely Bennett rose to go. “Well Tassé, this has been one of the finest evenings I’ve had in the past few years. Of course you know this is the last time we’ll ever meet.”

“Oh no,” said Tassé. “You’ll be back again.”

“I’m a sick man,” the viscount said, and departed.

After he left, Tassé sat down in the empty shop and cried for 10 minutes.

Paul Emile Tassé is practically an Ottawa boy, for he was horn in 1888 in Gatineau Point, Quebec, just down the river from the Capitol. When he was eight his family moved to Ottawa. The Tassé cows were pastured near what is now the exclusive residential district of Rockeliffe. At 12, young Red Tassé was an apprentice barber with a borrowed chair in the old Grand Union Hotel.

Ottawa was a roaring lumber town in those days and every month, dirty and wild and eager to spend their wages, the shantymen poured into town. Their first stop was the hotel barber shop where treatment No. 1 was a thorough delousing with soda water. Then the chastened lumberjacks were shaved, and their hair cut. To cap the beauty treatment, young Tassé as the apprentice—had the unappetizing job of cleaning their teeth with the one toothbrush the shop possessed.

In those days, a haircut cost 15 cents and a shave 10 cents, but it was a lucky lumberjack who got out of the shop without forking over a good part of his pay. For besides his toothbrushing duties, Red Tassé was expected to peddle cheap jewelry and $15 suits at a 10% commission which went to the house. For all his work, including making fires and cleaning up, he received the grand salary of 50 cents a week, and no tips.

At 15, Tassé had his own chair. Shortly after, he left to go to Pembroke to learn English. A year later he returned to ply his trade in Ottawa. In 1909 he met a charming young pianist by the name of Choline Pichot, married her, and returned after an extended honeymoon to find that he had been fired for overstaying his leave.

Our Taciturn M.P.’s

Tassé promptly got another job in the Parliament Buildings for the length of the session. In the spring, with several valuable new contacts, he returned to his old job at “The Grand,” at the hotel’s invitation. His next move was to the old Russell Hotel, where Sir John A. Macdonald had once lived and where poker-playing millionaires merged with politicians from the Hill. F’inally, on July 28, 1919, the Canadian National Railways hired Paul Emile Tassé to be head barber of their Chateau Laurier shop, with the added duties of supervising CNR shops from coat to coast.

There he has remained ever since.

Tassé, who two weeks before the last federal election predicted that Mr. St Laurent would get in with 150 seats makes no secret of how he gets his information.

“I’m a barber. I cut men’s hair. I talk. They talk.”

One of his frequent and heartfelt complaints is that politicians aren’t what they used to be vocally, that is.

“In the old days,” Tassé remembers, “Members of Parliament weren’t so busy. They had more time to sit around and enjoy life, more time to talk.”

Oddly enough, Tassé draws the line at the very people who, according to popular belief and rumor, could supply him with unlimited conversation— women. He absolutely refuses to have a woman in his shop for a haircut. When a reporter once asked him, “How are you going to keep them out?” Big Red drew himself up.

“With the police, if necessary,”

The Chateau shop operates from 8 a.m. to 6.30 p.m., five days a week. When Tassé, the manicurist and the five other barbers arrive in the morning, they usually find seven or eight customers already lined up waiting for them. Each barber has his own clientele, for, as Tassé says, “Even when a barber’s a good barber he can’t please everybody. Some people swear by me. Others won’t come near me.”

About half the Chateau customers order a shampoo with olive oil; a few ask for a tonic as well. A haircut, without extras, costs 65c and takes 15 minutes. Routine tip is 25c. A shave is :35c but shaves are not much in demand these days.

Home on St. Patrick

Tassé is a 100% family man, and at (6.30 when the shop closes he makes straight for Lower Town where his family are already gathered for the evening meal.

No. 356 St. Patrick Street, just 10 minutes from the Chateau, is an old red brick tenement house set square on the sidewalk. Looking at its rather shabby exterior you wonder at Tassé’s statement that, “I’ve brought up eight children in this house and if 1 ever move away it will be to the cemetery.”

But once the front door opens, you see what he means. The Tassé house is Home with a capital H. It is full of the souvenirs and personal belongings of the whole Tassé tribe, all of whom enjoy life to the fullest.

Since the dining room is set directlv in the middle of the house, to interview Papa Tassé is to meet the whole tribe before the evening is over. There’s smiling, dark-eyed Maman, called ma fille, by her affectionate husband, who shakes your hand, welcomes you in excellent English, and brings out iced Coke on a tray. There’s two-year-old Madeleine, one of the grandchildren, who politely offers the stranger a lick of her red-apple-on-a-stick. In between, you may meet some or all of the Tassés’ seven surviving children: Adrien, who is according to his father, “the liest children’s haircutter in Ottawa”; George, who sings in a Hull night club and has just acquired a new radio contract; Jean-Paul, who works in the government printing bureau; Hubert, who is employed by the Fire Department; Lucille, who is married to a parliamentary reporter; Ghislaine who recently married a consular clerk with External Affairs, and Fernande, wife of an employee of the French Embassy.

Tassé and his wife suffered their deepest grief when their 18-year-old son, Rodolphe, died of pneumonia a few years ago.

Probably the family’s most joyful celebration was the 35th wedding anniversary five years ago, which started out as a modest surprise party for Tassé mère et père, and grew so fast that they had to hire a school hall to accommodate the vast throng of wellwishers. Striped barber poles as decorations honored Tassé’s profession, and Ottawa’s leading orchestra was hired by Harry Maclean at a cost of $400 to play a single aria from “The Barber of Seville.” While Tassé showed a fine aplomb by greeting 400 guests by their first names and kissing all the

ladies, and a group of Mounted Police guarded the expensive gifts, Prime Minister King rose to his feet for an impromptu speech, declaring to the delight of his audience, “One thing is sure - I’ll never be able to celebrate my 35th wedding anniversary.”

But the very pinnacle of fame was reached by the Tassés in 1939 when Papa was appointed royal barber to the King. Suddenly the smiling, mustached face of Tassé was in the papers everywhere. He received fan letters from Canada, the United States and Britain. One ingenious reporter even persuaded Tassé to lie back in his own chair and he shaved. The result: a gag story on “How It Feels to Barber the King’s Barber.”

Questions were fired at him:

“What will you talk to the King about?”

(Said Tassé: “1 won’t, open my mouth unless he speaks to me first..”)

“How will you shave the King when the train is moving?”

(Tassé announced that he planned to shave His Majesty while the train was standing still. “But as for you reporters,” he added, “I’ll shave you when the train’s moving. After all, if I cut the throat of a newspaperman there’s always two or three more to take his place.”)

When the royal train finally pulled out, he was in the seventh heaven of delight. True, the King had politely declined to let himself be shaved so the souvenir razor Tassé had brought along never came out of its box. But His Majesty was happy to have the Canadian barber cut his hair, and this Tassé did on four separate occasions.

“Fine fellow, the King,” he reported later. “Just, tells you to go ahead and cut it your own way.”

Then there was the wonderful day Tassé was permitted to give a bit of advice to the King. The Monarch, after a particularly grueling day, had confided that he was very tired.

“A little champagne, a brief rest, and Your Majesty will feel fine,” Tassé prescribed.

The King sipped the champagne, took the rest, and declared that he felt much better.

Today, besides the enamel tiepin which Tassé wears as a gift of their Majesties, two reminders of the royal tour are in evidence in t he Tassé home —a scrapbook containing the story of the royal tour and a framed photograph of the British Monarch standing beside the Canadian Prime Minister at Banff. Of the latter, Tassé says with a grin, “That was the time I barbered two Kings in one day.”

Ironically, the man who has been close to kings, potentates and two prime ministers has so far been unable to get himself elected to even the lowly office of alderman. Three times now Tassé has run for office in civic elections, and three times he has been defeated.

Nestled in the bosom of his large and loving family, however, Tassé finds political defeat not too hard to take. The night of the last civic elections found him sitting in the living room listening to the radio, surrounded by his brood. Soon it was evident that Tassé was out of the running. The radio was switched off, Tassé called for beer all round, and somebody got a square dance started, with Maman at the piano and three of the other relatives playing violin, guitar and big bass fiddle. The music swelled up high and merry and young laughter was everywhere.

Tassé, sipping his ale, was already accepting his defeat philosophically.

“Bennett got licked in his day . . .” he mused, “King got licked . . . Who is Tassé that he can’t bo licked?” jc