The Nation: Scenes from the Hidden Years

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Herewith excerpts from James Phelan's book.

Mell Stewart, then a suburban Los Angeles barber, was mysteriously summoned to the Beverly Hills Hotel in spring, 1961.

In due course a man edged up to Stewart in the hotel lobby, gave him the password, and said "Follow me." He led him out of the hotel lobby and through the lushly landscaped gardens to a bungalow. At the door he gave a coded knock —one rap, followed by four quicker raps, a pause, and then two more raps. It was a knock Stewart would use hundreds of times in years to come.

Stewart was admitted by a man who introduced himself as John Holmes (see box on aides). Holmes gave Stewart detailed instructions. He was to scrub up, doctor-style, in the bathroom before beginning the haircutting. Then he was to put on a pair of surgical gloves. He was to have no foreign objects, such as pencils or pens, on his person. And finally, he was not to speak to the man whose hair he had been summoned to cut.

"You can make signs, but you are not to say a word to him," said Holmes. "And you are not to tell anyone about this entire matter."

Stewart sat and waited for several hours, his imagination speculating wildly on the reasons for all these James Bond-like instructions.

Finally Holmes said, "Okay, Mr. Hughes will see you now," and took him into the bedroom.

What he found stunned him.

"I'm a country boy," Stewart says, "and I expected that a billionaire would surround himself in luxury, with Rembrandt paintings on the walls and exquisite furniture. I found a skinny, bare-assed naked man sitting on an unmade three-quarter bed. His hair hung about a foot down his back. His beard was straggly and down to his chest. I tried not to act surprised, as if I was used to meeting naked billionaires sitting on unmade beds. I started to put my case with the barber tools on a chair. Hughes shouted, 'No, no! Not on the chair!' "

Hughes turned to Holmes and said, "Get some insulation for our friend to put his equipment on." Holmes got a roll of paper towels and laid out a layer on a nearby sideboard. The sideboard was already covered with a sheet, and so was the other furniture in the bedroom.

Holmes spread another sheet on the floor, and then placed a chair in the center of it. Stewart scrubbed up and started to pull on the rubber surgical gloves.

Hughes looked at him quizzically. "What the hell are you going to do with those gloves on?" he asked.

"I began to feel like Alice in Wonderland," Stewart says. "Holmes had ordered me to put on the gloves and not to speak to Hughes under any circumstance. Now Hughes had asked me a question, and I didn't know how to make signs that would explain why I was putting on the rubber gloves."

Stewart summoned his courage and broke the no-talking rule. "I put on the gloves," he said, "because Mr. Holmes told me to put them on."

"You can't cut hair with rubber gloves on!" said Hughes in exasperation. "Take them off."

Barbering Hughes took three hours. There were a series of special procedures, which Hughes outlined in detail. Stewart was to use one set of combs and scissors to cut his beard, but a different set to cut his hair. Before Stewart began, Hughes

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