But that didn’t prevent hairdresser and hairdressee from bonding. “Rehnquist is a very, very special friend,” Diego D’Ambrosio recounted from his salon on 19th and Q streets in Dupont Circle, the day before the chief justice died, as his small staff buzzed purposefully around him. “When I cut Rehnquist’s hair, we joke all the time. We play all the time…. I can talk with him freely, because he’s just a very, very, very close friend. We talk anything.”
Rehnquist is far from the only bold-faced Washington name who’s been a regular at Diego’s. In fact, he isn’t even the only Republican Supreme Court chief justice from the upper midwest. Diego points to a photo of a grinning, freshly coiffed Warren Burger, a customer for 30 years. Much like the man who succeeded him, Burger was “a very special friend. I love him. Well, I can’t say ‘love him.’ He like-a me very much. I like-a him very, very much.”
Diego seems to like everyone very, very much. His good humor and constant energy–greeting customers with a “ciao, sta bene?” singing along to the Verdi opera that plays all day, addressing his staff in Italian, Spanish, and English almost simultaneously (he says he also speaks French and Portuguese) –appear to have won him friends in some pretty high places. Signed photographs of the capital’s movers and shakers adorn every inch of available wall space. Reagan, Bush 41 and 43, Clinton, Cheney, and Quayle all stare down at customers–though none has actually dropped in for a trim, many of their staffers have been regulars.
Diego grew up near Rome and trained as a hair stylist–“no put barber,” he says–before coming to Washington in 1961 to work for a year at the Italian Embassy. Though he now considers himself American, his accent remains almost cartoonishly Italian. With his immaculate manners, coiffed silver hair, and perpetually elegant dress style–fine Italian shirts and ties, cufflinks, dress shoes–he could easily pass for one of the European diplomats who regularly stop by. Indeed, it’s the salon’s proximity to Embassy Row and the State Department that generates much of the high-ranking traffic. By Diego’s count, his clientele comes from 135 countries and includes 75 foreign ambassadors and 17 presidents and prime ministers.
If you can judge a man’s politics by the company he keeps, Diego is Lindsey Graham–a conservative who seems to get along with everyone. But, like Iowa caucus voters, he’s used to thinking of politics as an essentially personal experience: He supported Quayle’s short-lived run for the presidency in 2000 because of “the way he wrote the words to me in the picture.” Diego perceived a side to the former vice president that many observers missed: “For me, he’s a-very smart, very intelligent.”
“[Former British prime minister] John Major, he was at my place. One time, he was at the State Department. The State Department called me. [Afterwards] he sent a beautiful letter.” Major’s shock of silver hair, which he wears combed across his forehead, bears a certain resemblance to Diego’s own. “He said, ‘just a-like my hair.’ Very, very friendly.”
Bibi Netanyahu, the former and perhaps future Israeli prime minister, is also a friend. “He gave-a to me two books, one about when he stormed the airplane in Africa [in fact, it was Netanyahu’s brother, Jonathan who was killed in 1976 while leading an action against airplane hijackers in Uganda], and one about terrorism. Very, very, very pleased. Very great man.”
It isn’t all sunshine and light at Diego’s, though. A regular customer reports that drop-ins are supposed to be assigned to the four or five stylists in a rotating order. But patrons often request one well-liked stylist by name, causing jealousy and backbiting among his less-favored colleagues. The stylist has threatened to quit in response to the rancor, but so far he’s still there.
Lately, Diego has perceived a sense of anxiety among his customers as Iraq, Katrina, and rising gas prices have darkened the national mood. “[Before] everybody was happy. Now, you know, everybody is very, very–a little bit the opposite…. After September 11, everybody was with the president, myself included. Now, all of the problems we have here.”
Nonetheless, he sees his salon as offering for his well-connected clientele not just a good haircut, but also a respite, however brief, from the stresses of running the world. “The people of the government like-a the way I conduct this place. They like-a the security of this place. I listen to opera every day. My place is opera…. Americans, we look for security. That’s the way we are.