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Toronto's John Steinberg had a style all his own

John Steinberg was much more than a maverick hair stylist. Throughout his 52-year career he was a mentor, writer, lecturer, businessman, television personality, movie and theatre hair stylist, fundraiser, representative for major hair products, and a sponge for information.

He once calculated that over the course of his career he had given more than 90,000 haircuts. His clients ranged from politicians, to celebrities, to reformed criminals. Steinberg talked to them to discover what was going on in their lives and, as a result, educated himself. His daughter, Hayley Morgan, says it was not uncommon for the two of them to go out for a bite to eat and walk out of the restaurant knowing everything about their server's life.

Steinberg died at the age of 67 on Aug. 31 at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital.

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He was born into a traditional middle-class Jewish family in Hendon, a suburb of northwest London, England. His father, Bernard, was a manufacturer of wedding dresses. His mother, Freda, ran a lingerie shop until she gave it up to raise John and his older sister Jennifer. On the night of John's birth, Aug. 18, 1944, bombs were raining on the capital, so Freda was forced to deliver her son at home with the help of a midwife.

When he was 15, his mother encouraged him to enter into a hairdressing apprenticeship. In his 2008 co-authored book Follicles, a compilation of articles that he wrote for the industry publication Salon Magazine, Steinberg recalls that he thought it was a fine idea because he'd always loved fashion.

"I welcomed the opportunity to be involved with it through working with hair. And since I didn't have the talent or the look to be a pop star, working in a hair salon offered me the next best opportunity to be surrounded by girls."

Steinberg began his apprenticeship as a greeter at Scott's of Regent Street in London, where he said he learned the value of manners. The bane of his existence at the time was a nylon uniform he was forced to wear and that he described as "unbearable." Later, in charge of his own salon, Steinberg favoured pyjama bottoms, and occasionally thermal underwear, topped with a funky blazer.

In 1967, he moved to Canada with his wife, Adele, a jewellery designer. Steinberg's father had contacted an old friend in Toronto and asked him to assist his son in finding work in a hair salon. Steinberg soon began cutting and styling at the Commerce Court for Bruce of Crescendo. He was eventually promoted to creative director of their three salons.

Hayley was born on a sunny day in 1977, and Steinberg wanted to name her Sunshine. She is relieved today that he finally acquiesced to Sunshine becoming her middle name.

His daughter remembers their family home being filled with friends and parties but, as a 13 year old, her parent's artistic bent perplexed her. "I couldn't understand why my parents were so different from everyone else's," she said. "My mother had bright red hair and wore crazy glasses. My dad's choice of fashion was eccentric. He would dye his hair and his eyebrows white. He had a thick curly Afro, until one day he showed up at my friend's house with it all shaved off. I was mortified."

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By the 1980s, the colourful Steinberg had established his own aptly named salon, the Rainbow Room in Toronto's Rosedale area. The small but hugely busy salon was the hairdressing choice of celebrities like Margaret Trudeau, Kurt Browning and Bruce Cockburn. It was the type of place that embraced the avant-garde. A request for fuchsia armpit hair or a multi-coloured Mohawk was simply part of a day's work.

Steinberg enjoyed the buzz around him and was much in demand. "His answering machine messages were legendary," says Morgan. "They were changed every few weeks with either a quote from Winston Churchill, Monty Python or some spiritual Zen saying. He called his two grandchildren and me almost daily. He always made me laugh. He would usually end our phone calls by saying, 'This conversation is terminated,' or, 'I'll see ya when I'm looking at ya.' "

Steinberg was known throughout the styling industry by his nickname, "Rosedale Rebel." He was the charismatic, creative Brit who loved the sport of boxing and enjoyed a friendly spar as a means of exercise. He also had a reputation for being forthright and adept at throwing a verbal punch. One day, annoyed by a client, Steinberg, in an uncharacteristic manner, had been giving her the silent treatment. When she asked if he knew a certain man, he finally responded, "Yes. He's an asshole." The woman jumped from the chair and gasped, "He's my husband."

Steinberg said, "I don't care. He's still an asshole." The woman thought for a few seconds, then said, "You're right," and sat back down.

Later, when questioned by other stylists as to why he had said such a thing, Steinberg replied, "I was in too deep. I had no choice. But the worst thing about it is … I have no idea who she was talking about."

"John loved to push the envelope," says former Rainbow Room stylist, Ray Civello, the founder of Civello Spa and Salon and president of Aveda Canada. "He lived to reinvent everything. Rules he'd made up the day before he'd break the next day. And that garnered a lot of attention from the press. He was very sought after in terms of his image and what he was doing at the time. He was a non-conformist."

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The early 1990s were a decade of change for Steinberg. His marriage ended and he set up a new salon on King Street West called John Steinberg and Associates.

His new partner in the venture was Russ MacKay, initially hired as a trainee at The Rainbow Room. The men were united in their love of rock 'n' roll and took great delight in trimming the locks of musicians like Carole Pope and Geddy Lee. MacKay eventually left the business, but remained friends with Steinberg, accompanying him to chemotherapy and visits to his oncologist. As a thank-you, two months before his death, Steinberg took MacKay with him when he returned to London for a final goodbye to his old haunts. "My Dad was very proud of being British," Morgan says.

Steinberg will be remembered for his wry sense of humour, his creativity and his generosity. Beginning in 1994, he partnered with Langton Communications to host an annual pool tournament, which raised more than $180,000 for breast cancer research. This achievement earned him the 2005 Contessa Community Service Award, one of many categories in the Canadian beauty profession's equivalent of the Oscar. The category is being renamed The John Steinberg Award for Community Service. His daughter is scheduled to present it to this year's winner at the 2011 awards on Sunday at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto.

Three years ago, Steinberg created a cross-Canada lecture series called "Are You Curious?" Aimed at stylists, Steinberg saw the lectures as working two ways: Through them he could impart his considerable knowledge. But, equally important, they allowed him to stay in touch and learn from young people. Although he remained active as long as he could, Steinberg had given thought to the time when he would no longer work. He wrote in Follicles, "When I retire I shall take up hairdressing as a hobby." A posting on Facebook by Steinberg's friend Paul Hilderbrandt reads: "By now all the angels in heaven have beehives."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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