November 4, 2016

Marshall and His Barber

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-1-26-32-pmThe photo to the left titled “Private Gets in General’s Hair” ran in the The Montrose Herald, as well as many other American newspapers, in August of 1945. But the man in the photo cutting General Marshall’s hair was not his regular barber.

Joseph Abbate, who had been Marshall’s barber since 1939, opened the barber shop in the Pentagon in 1943. Haircuts were 50 cents each, and many military men passed through his doors. On the office wall Abbate hung photos of the men who solicited his business including James Forrestal, President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, General MacArthur, etc. Rank had its privilege at the shop, and admirals and generals could come in at any time and be served immediately. It was a policy that only had two complaints in 40 years. However, Marshall, was aware that a trip to the barbershop as Chief of Staff would create a gathering of onlookers and requested that Mr. Abbate come to a small anteroom outside his office for his hair appointments.

This situation gave the men time to get to know each other. In 1944, Abbate and his wife Helena gave birth to their third child, a boy, and promptly named him George Marshall Abbate. On April 8, 1944 Marshall sent a congratulatory letter to Abbate writing, “although I should be interested in his progress in any case, the fact that you have honored me by giving him my name will cause me to follow his development with a very special interest.”

josephabbateOn two rare occasions, Marshall requested a favor on behalf of his friend. The first occurred during the war. Abbate had been trying to reach his family in Italy and had been unsuccessful. Marshall made a request of General Devers to deliver a letter and $35 to Abbate’s uncle and to see what information he could find out about his situation. The second occurred in 1949. Knowing Abbate was a devout Catholic, Marshall reached out to the Personal Representative of the President to the Vatican and asked that Abbate be allowed to receive a Papal blessing. Marshall wrote, “Joe is quite a character. He has done for most of the leading figures in the Army – MacArthur, Patton, Devers and a long list of others including, of course, several Secretaries of War. He is a very fine man and has done quite a bit to help his uncle’s people in Sicily.” Abbate was granted a blessing and offered an audience with the Pope if he was able to make it Rome. A month later Abbate visited his family in Italy and sent Marshall a postcard on his way to Rome.

Abbate never forgot this and supported Marshall whenever and however he could. When Marshall became Secretary of State, Abbate sent his congratulations and flowers to his new office. And when Marshall was honored at Marshall Day at VMI in 1951, Abbate was present for the event, offering his comments to the press, that Marshall liked his hair “short in the sideburns and not too long on top” and that “his hair combs better dry than most people’s wet.

In 1951, Mr. Abbate was told by Pentagon personnel that he needed to find a buyer for the Fort Myer barber shop stating that the PX’s policy was that the concessioners must be personally on hand to supervise their concessions. Abbate had been running the barber shop in the Pentagon and at Fort Myer for almost two decades, splitting his time between the shops. In 20 years of friendship with Marshall he never talked about his business, but Marshall took a keen interest in what was being done and how Abbate was being treated. Marshall became profoundly irritated by a Pentagon staff member who said that “regardless of the investment and gross business that Abbate did here at the Pentagon, his net take should not exceed the income of a Brigadier General.” Marshall felt that the Defense Department was charged, among other things, to look after the interests of small business. Abbate was able to keep his barber shop and worked there up until his death in 1966. The shop was eventually taken over by his son Donald, who owned it until the 1980s.

Marshall and Abbate’s friendship continued even after Marshall retired. Abbate sent the Marshalls a silver bowl on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary in 1955 and visited them in Leesburg in 1956. On his 76th birthday Marshall received a telegram from Abbate and replied, “it is a wonderful feeling to be remembered by old friends.” And in 1959, Joseph Abbate served Marshall one last time as pallbearer at his funeral.