Eivind Bjerke at his hair salon in Washington. -- Photo by Xavier Dussaaq
By Antonia Laborde (as translated by Carla García Zendejas)
Published originally in El País, September 21, 2020 – 14:30 EDT

As a child, Eivind Bjerke never imagined while milking cows in Norway that he would end up being the hairdresser to the most inaccessible heads in the world.

On his first day at the Oslo hairdressing school, people made fun of him. 6’2” tall Eivind Bjerke, from a farming family, wanted to be Vidal Sassoon. He had huge tanned hands from working the soil. “You will never be a good hairdresser with such big hands,” the teachers told him. And the young man set out to do what was necessary to prove otherwise. At the end of the course, he had job offers in various European countries, but his love of American glamour made him choose a hair salon in Washington. It was 1964 and the world had still not recovered from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “Why are you going to a country where they kill their presidents?” his parents reproached. In a matter of months, Bjerke was already inside the White House.

“I never thought while milking cows that I was going to end up touring the world on Air Force One”, says the 76-year-old hairdresser at his luxurious beauty salon in the Georgetown neighborhood of the US capital. The front door to the White House was opened by Lynda Johnson, daughter of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had her hair done with him at the first hair salon that hired him. Then came his sister Luci and then the first lady Claudia Alta Taylor (Lady Bird Johnson) He has proudly preserved photographs of weddings, costume parties, and presidential family events to which he has been invited. Half a century later, he continues to cut Lynda’s hair every week.

Bjerke styling first lady Rosalynn Carter in 1984.

Since that promising start to the American dream, Bjerke’s client list has expanded. Among former and existing clients, political animals appear such as the Carters, the Reagans and the Rockefellers. Also “Maggie”, as he refers to Margaret Thatcher, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, who sends him a cake every Christmas.

At first, Bjerke would tell his parents through correspondence about his access to the Johnsons and life in the capital of power. “Without saying it in these words, my mother replied: Eivind, stop bragging.” Bjerke never shared his adventures in the high political sphere again. “I did not want my mother to think that I felt special,” he says. Discretion is one of the attributes that took the hairdresser to the top…or to Camp David, which are practically synonymous in the American capital.

It was precisely due to this discretion that former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to occupy a seat on the United States Supreme Court, chose Bjerke to help her with wigs when she fell ill with breast cancer. It was 1988 and the press had no idea. The hairdresser would sneak the ex-magistrate through the back entrance of his premises and lock her in a room. He worked on initiatives with patients with this disease, so he was familiar with the problem. “It was a devastating moment for her. She had one of the most important jobs in this country and she would tell me, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ But I knew how to help her” says Bjerke, who is currently writing his memoir Hair Force One, the title he’s considering for the book.

He described Sandra Day O’Connor and Thatcher as “women of superior intelligence.” They asked him about his life, they had their feet on the ground. “There are clients who just want to get their hair cut and that’s it, but Maggie always wanted to talk,” he highlights. It has not been like that with all his powerful clients. When the Reagans came to the White House, some of the staff recommended Bjerke as a hairdresser. He went a couple of times to style the first lady, Nancy Reagan. It didn’t work. “Ronald was charming, but her not so much. There are people who look down on you. You are just a servant. I have no problem with that because it is who I am. But a lot of people from that upper class became my friends.”

In the Carter days, Bjerke’s most beloved presidential couple –he was hairdresser to the president and the first lady– arranged a visit to the White House for his parents. His father owned a tractor and his mother dedicated herself to raising her twelve children. When the Norwegian opened the door to the Map Room, “Rosalynn” the first lady, was waiting for them by surprise. She wanted to personally greet the parents of her beloved hairdresser. They understood little from each other due to the language differences, but they smiled a lot. After that tour, Bjerke’s mother said to him: yes, you are something special.