By Luann Dallojacono
Talking to Simone Noferi is like watching one of Hollywood’s greatest films. The 96-year-old’s life story – which she can tell in its detailed entirety in about two hours – is filled with epic love and heartache, drama and comedy, grit and courage, underdogs and celebrities, and even cameos by Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.
“I used to do her hair at 2 o’clock in the morning for a 5 o’clock interview. I was on call all the time,” Noferi, of Lloyd Harbor, a former beautician, said. “She had an apartment on 54th Street between 3rd and 2nd avenues. I went to the apartment many times to do her hair… She was a wonderful person. She was an angel.”
Noferi is as sharp as a tack. The years may have dimmed her eyesight and weakened her hips, but her mind operates with the speed and vitality of a much younger woman. Sitting in the School Lane home she shares with her daughter, Candy Bertuccio, Noferi can recall the address of everywhere she has ever lived or worked; she refers to each character in her story by name, from doctors to judges and everyone in between. She even does a few impressions.
If her life were made into a movie, the opening scene might depict a bustling New York City salon, the Lou and Simone Salon, at 50 West 58th Street. As the camera weaves through the salon, it settles on one chair, where a lovely Czechoslovakia-born beautician is carefully doing the hair of the breathtaking actress Marilyn Monroe.
But this story isn’t about Monroe. It’s about the beautician. The camera pans upward, focusing on the beautician’s hands.
The fifth of 11 children, Noferi, born Marenka Bracha, described a childhood of going to school and helping her family at home and in their restaurant. Her path to New York emerged when her sister and husband, who were living in Jackson Heights at the time, suggested she visit them for six months.
“I said, ‘Of course, yes!’ I didn’t realize it was such a big thing; when you’re 15, you don’t realize how things are,” Noferi said.
The only way to make the trip at the time was by boat, and the six-day journey still haunts her.
“The ocean was a nightmare. They put me outside on the deck, tied me down with the chains because the water was coming over me, and I said, ‘Oh I want to die; I don’t want to live,’” Noferi said, a storm practically brewing in her blue eyes as she recalls the memory.
But then she lets out an unexpected little giggle.
“I was throwing up everything!” she said.
Once on land, Noferi said, she realized she would probably be in New York for longer than six months if the only way back was by boat. But as it turned out, her adventure was just starting.
Her brother-in-law, who was with the Czechoslovakian diplomatic service, was called back to Europe, leaving Noferi, her sister, and her sister’s two young sons in New York. It was somewhat of a lonely time for Noferi, a young girl with a passion for life.
“I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know nobody, I couldn’t talk to anybody, and nobody’s talking to me except my sister,” Noferi said. “I said, ‘What am I doing in this country?’ I wanted to get a job; I wanted to do something. Just to watch the babies was not enough for me. I wanted to learn something.”
Her first job was in a factory making men’s felt hats, the style rage at the time, but Noferi hated the working conditions. When she couldn’t breathe because of the fumes, she found herself at the doctor, dismayed that she was not qualified to do anything else.
“He said, ‘You are smart. You could learn something with your hands. How about hairdressing?’ So I went to hairdressing school at night and I became a beautician,” Noferi said.
A natural, she was scooped up by the man who owned the beauty school; he paid her $5 a week at his salon near the then-Earle Theater in Jackson Heights. Her entrepreneurial spirit did her well, as she was able to increase her pay several times by finding other salons that would pay her more. Every time she came back to her boss with news of a better offer, he would pay her more and more until he made her a partner. She was 17.
“He said, ‘You pay me off with whatever you make and you’ll be a partner,’” Noferi said. “But he was not honest with me.”
Six months later, Noferi said, she came to the salon to find a padlock on the door.
“Now I have no job, I have nothing, and the guy disappeared, and I had already paid him so much money,” she recalled. “There were lines of people waiting to be taken care of, just sitting on the stairs waiting for us to open the place.”
An attorney who worked nearby cut the padlock for Noferi and promised to help her, but when her boss showed up and demanded to know who cut the padlock, Noferi took matters into her own hands.
“I got so mad. I couldn’t curse him or anything – I didn’t know the words for cursing – but I had a broom in my hand… I said ‘Get out of here!’ and I ran after him for three blocks with the broom.”
“It was like a movie,” she said.
The attorney delivered and Noferi got her day in court, where she heard the judge utter the magic words: The store is yours.
So Noferi went back to work, where one of her clients was Oscar Hammerstein’s redheaded wife.
“She would bring all the movie stars to my place,” Noferi said.
The woman connected Noferi with cosmetics queen Helena Rubenstein, and Noferi eventually went to work for her.
“I made myself very popular there because I got all the movie stars… I was experimenting on different colors and gave some of the girls on the stage different colors and streaks – green, red, blue, orange. They never saw anything like it,” Noferi said. “Those were my ideas. I liked to do what no one else would do.”
With her career in place, one of two love stories began. Noferi met Bill, a Brooklyn boy with the National Guard, at a roller rink. When he was transferred to St. Louis, he wanted her to marry him.
“I said, ‘I can’t get married. I have to take care of my sister and her boys.’ Her husband was still in Europe,” Noferi recalled.
Bill was transferred two more times, ending up in Europe, and Noferi and his family eventually stopped hearing from him.
Noferi then caught the eye of another man, Louis Noferi, at a wedding. He taught her to dance and convinced her to meet him for breakfast, eventually capturing her heart and her hand in marriage – in secret.
A loyal sister, Simone Noferi couldn’t bring herself to move in with her new husband, leaving her sister and nephews behind. She never told her sister about the marriage and remained in the Jackson Heights apartment. She met Louis, who lived in Manhattan, every morning for breakfast.
But six months later, her cover was blown – by Bill.
“Bill came back from Europe and didn’t tell me he was coming. He rings the bell at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Noferi said. “I opened the door, and Bill said, ‘I’m back for good.’ I said, ‘Bill, don’t touch me, I’m married!’ And my sister said, ‘What did you say?’”
With the cat out of the bag and at the behest of her sister, Noferi moved in with her husband on the Upper West Side. “Louie” owned a beauty salon in the Bronx, but wanted to open more. The first Lou and Simone’s was born in Long Beach; several others followed in New York City and near Monticello, one of which was at the Laurel Country Club.
With the booming of the New York City salon came the high-profile customers, including Monroe.
“She had curly hair. They called it dirty blonde,” Noferi recalled. “She had a gorgeous head of hair.”
Noferi did her best to give Monroe her privacy. She remembers the actress walking into the salon wearing a little hood and a trench coat, even in the heat of summer.
“People would say, ‘Could you tell me things about Marilyn Monroe? I know she is your customer.’ I said, ‘What comes here, stays here. We don’t talk about people.’ All the rich people like us because we never revealed anything. That’s why we had such great clientele. They were the best,” Noferi said.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping part of Noferi’s story comes when she explains that Monroe gave her a plane ticket to the West Coast to visit her. But as the trip neared, an emergency kept Noferi grounded.
“My husband took sick and was in the hospital. I called her up and said, ‘I won’t be able to come,’” Noferi said.
The next day, newscasters told the world that Monroe had died on Aug. 5, 1962 at the age of 36 – a prescription overdose, the story would go.
“I’m leaving the hospital and I turn on the radio and I hear, ‘Marilyn is dead. Marilyn Monroe is dead.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh; I’m supposed to be there,’” she recalled. “I had the ticket; I had everything.”
The two were very close, so much so that Noferi remembers a time when the media reported that Monroe was in one place when Noferi knew first-hand she was somewhere else. She also remembers how devoted DiMaggio was to her.
“Joe DiMaggio, he loved her,” she said.
DiMaggio, whom Monroe married in 1954, would often ask the salon building’s doorman for Noferi.
“I’d come out and he’d say, ‘What kind of drink should I get her? I’d say, ‘7UP,’” she recalled. “Whatever I said was gold.”
Eventually Noferi wanted to move to “the country,” so she and Louie bought a place on New York Avenue in Huntington, with enough space for their daughter to play outside.
The Noferis continued operating the salons until Louie died in 1969. Through his sickness, Simone Noferi remained a devoted wife.
“The doctors wanted him in a home. I said, ‘He’s not going to stay in a home. Nobody’s going to take better care of him than I can.’ They said he had six months to live. He lived 15 more years,” she said.
Noferi was running the salons at the time, too, eventually selling all but the one in the city. Her spirit was tested again when, within a span of about six years, both of her nephews and her sister died.
Then in 1991, having sold all the salons but still working as a beautician in the city, a fall at a bus stop resulted in two dislocated hips and the beginning of a long road of surgery and rehabilitation.
“Naturally I couldn’t go to work anymore,” she said. “I couldn’t stand on my legs no more… After that, I was finished. That was my end, when I lost my legs.”
Few would agree that her story has ended, however. While the injury may have closed one chapter of her life, Noferi has found joy in other things. She is a loving great-grandmother, and she adores her daughter. Noferi loves antiques, and when she smiles at you, your heart warms knowing that this woman, who has been through so much, is enjoying your company.
She turns 97 on June 22.