April Barton slipped into the back door of her hair salon, Suite 303, at 7 Bond Street in Lower Manhattan. “I’m late,” she said. “Which means Malcolm will be waiting.”
She was referring to one of her regulars, the curly-haired writer Malcolm Gladwell.
There he was, seated in a metal chair. He waved his hands a little as he described the look he wanted. Ms. Barton nodded along. Then she brandished her Sensei eight-inch professional right-handed hair shears and went to work, making small talk as she started to scissor her way, gently but with purpose, through the fluffy mound atop his head.
After 10 minutes or so, Ms. Barton became very quiet, and the mood in the room changed. She seemed to enter a meditative state as she worked from the interior regions of Mr. Gladwell’s thicket to its wild borderlands. Little by little, she was building a new shape in the frizz, molding the soft tufts, tendrils and tumbles until they conformed to the vision she held in her mind. Her goal: to keep the hair expressive and to allow it to retain its trademark height while alleviating its density by excising nearly half the curls, so that Mr. Gladwell’s scalp could breathe and his hair would once again have some mobility.
Ringlet by ringlet, the locks sailed to the floor. After about 45 minutes, they had formed a rough semicircle around the chair legs, and the cut was done. Another satisfied customer.
Ms. Barton, 48, charges men a minimum of $300 a cut. For women, the base price is $500. (The other hair stylists at her shop charge less.) She made her reputation while plying her trade in a corner suite of the Chelsea Hotel for some 17 years before the move to Bond Street and has counted among her clients the actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Adrien Brody, Nathan Lane, Ethan Hawke, Matthew Modine, Matthew Broderick and Kevin Bacon. Musicians who have sat in her chair include Mary J. Blige, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson and members of U2 during their stops in New York. (“Larry Mullen, the drummer, had a really cocky attitude,” she said.) Since she set up shop downtown, John Turturro and Cyndi Lauper have joined the crew of Suite 303 customers.
“I’ve been doing hair forever,” Ms. Barton said. “I’m good at it. It’s my thing.”
Mr. Hawke agreed. “I’ve been working with April since the late ’90s,” he said. “Whenever I need something important for a role, she’s the one I go to.”
Mr. Modine was even more effusive. “April’s an artist — a singer, an actor, painter, writer, poet — who happens to also cut hair,” he wrote in an email.
Ms. Barton knows so many people in the arts that when she speaks of Leo, she has to backtrack to explain that she means the artist Leo Villareal, who gave her the light installation that hangs in her salon, and not Leonardo DiCaprio, whom she said she partied with “right around his ‘Titanic’ days.”
“I don’t want anyone else cutting my hair,” said Mr. Villareal, a regular since Ms. Barton’s days at the Chelsea. “I’m an artist, so I see more of what she does in that realm. It’s like sculpting. It’s hard to describe, but she goes deep. She has a vision.”
Ms. Barton’s eventful life story would seem to set her apart from other celebrity hairdressers. She said she was “kidnapped” by her father and taken to California at 5, when her parents separated. At 15, she found herself in a trailer park in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she discovered her métier when she started cutting classmates’ hair. At 17, she said, she was a cocktail waitress with a cocaine problem. Eventually, she got over the addiction, she said, and stayed sober for nine years, only to fall back into her old ways before giving up drugs again in 2009.
Along the way, she said, she ran her own gigolo service for about a year.
Given the wealth of material, a regular, the agent and author Bill Clegg, has persuaded her to write a memoir. Lately, she has been meeting with him every Monday in his office on Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district to piece together her tale. He records the conversations and then has them transcribed.
“It’s been an effective way to get her voice,” Mr. Clegg said. “She speaks in a way that most decent writers write.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ms. Barton cut hair at various New York salons (including John Dellaria) before she began to feel burned out. “I took an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ trip to Bali,” she said, “and when I came back, I thought maybe it was my crossroads and that I wouldn’t do hair anymore.”
Her passion was reignited at a party where she had a talk with George Chemeche, the resident artist of the Chelsea Hotel. He suggested she meet with Stanley and David Bard, the co-owners and managers of the property at the time.
“I thought the Chelsea Hotel was too druggie,” Ms. Barton said. “But Stanley walked me to the corner suite, and I asked him not to say another word, just to let me stand there a bit. And I was like: There it is. There’s laughter, there’s people, there’s music. There’s hair. And I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
From 1995 to 2013, Ms. Barton’s three-chair salon, which she named Suite 303, after its location, was one of the great secret places in New York. The wood floors, stained red, were partly covered by a sheepskin rug. A fire burned in the hearth, its bricks splattered with gold paint, thanks to the artist Tara Amelchenko. People smoked and drank on the terrace overlooking West 23rd Street. It was a never-ending cocktail party without the social anxiety.
The whole thing “was like a Fellini movie,” said the fitness entrepreneurDavid Barton, who lived at the hotel in those days. Mr. Barton (who is no relation to Ms. Barton) added that Suite 303 included “a cavalcade of touring rock stars, high-end hookers, businessmen having a voyeuristic thrill, the regular Chelsea Hotel miscreants and a giant tarot card reader.”
“And there was April,” he said, “greeting each person like a long-lost friend.”
For the most part, Ms. Barton recalls her time at the Chelsea Hotel fondly. “It was home,” she said. “I was raised on the road; I was kidnapped. I never settled anywhere. So I stayed tight in my little corner suite at the Chelsea Hotel.” But she doesn’t romanticize everything about the place. “The heroin den on nine and sex parties,” she said. “It’s unbelievable, what I’ve seen.”
‘Who Is Your Pimp?’
Even with her artistic bent, she has perhaps always been a businesswoman at heart. In addition to the haircutting she did during her teenage years in Fort Lauderdale, Ms. Barton started a business she called April’s Roses. For this small enterprise, she made herself the boss of fellow teenage girls who sold roses in nightclubs.
Much later, in her early days at the Chelsea, she entered into another line of work soon after a friend gave her the gift of a night with a male prostitute. “I said to the prostitute: ‘Give me your connector. Who is your pimp?’” Ms. Barton recalled. When she finally met with the pimp, she told him, as she remembered it, “I want to talk to you about a business opportunity.”
Ms. Barton said she lasted a year running the gigolo service, in addition to her work cutting hair, before deciding to get out of the sex business. She worried that it might bring down the structure she had built.
“They had this weird mommy thing with me,” she said of the men in her employ. “It started getting bad. So I nixed it. It was coming too close. You know what meant the world to me? Suite 303.”
In 2011, the hotel shuttered its doors to guests, but Ms. Barton (along with roughly 100 permanent residents) stayed on through part of the renovation that began under new ownership. “Just when you think the Chelsea Hotel couldn’t get any eerier, I worked in the hotel for two years after it closed,” she said. In the after-hours darkness, she wore a miner’s light on her head while cutting hair. The end seemed near.
“Then I met Selima,” Ms. Barton said, referring to Selima Salaun, an optician who runs Selima Optique, a vintage and designer eyeglasses store on Bond Street. Ms. Salaun offered her a space in the back, where a cafe used to be. Along with the new location came new customers, thanks to Ms. Salaun’s clientele. “It’s been golden,” Ms. Barton said. “Selima brought me John Turturro, she brought me Cyndi Lauper. We’re compatible.” Over the last two years, the old guard from her Chelsea Hotel days has trickled in.
One of her popular treatments these days is called “etching,” which is, essentially, body-hair grooming, including the trimming of chest, armpit and pubic hair. “Some of these rock ’n’ rollers, if they’re onstage, or if you’re an actor and you’re doing a sex scene, you need it,” she said.
She took out her smartphone and showed a picture of one recently trimmed client, Dan Amboyer, an actor on the television show “Younger” and the blockbuster “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
“I never cut the hair,” she said. “The hair should hug the body and it should look uncut and it should feel not cut. Every quarter of an inch, I pencil it with a trimmer, so there’s no holes.”
She put the phone down.
“That’s the trick, you know?” she said. “Never let them know where you’ve been.”