In Washington, D.C., a town where image can be everything, Joe Quattrone has been helping the very powerful look their very best for nearly 40 years. His client list is a “Who’s Who” of prominent policy-makers that includes presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Norman Mineta, the longest-serving Transportation Secretary in the Transportation Department’s history, became his close friend. New Jersey Representative Bill Pascrell talks with him about sopressata, hand-made Italian salami, which the barber knows how to make.
Quattrone stepped behind the chair in the House of Representatives barber shop – called House Cuts – with scissors in hand on March 2, 1970, and has been there ever since. Actually, he was supposed to start on March 1, but at 2:30 a.m. a bomb went off in the ladies’ bathroom of the Senate, so he had to delay a day.
Known as Joe Q, he is a dyed-in-the-wool—or in this case dyed-in-the-hair—success story. As a child on a farm in Italy, he sometimes had to flee to caves with his family during air raids in World War II. In 1948, he immigrated to Steubenville, Ohio—which is also the hometown of one of his heroes, the late singer and actor Dean Martin.
Joe Q has been president of the Italian American World War Veterans organization, and he was recently appointed to a Jefferson County, Ohio, commission to find someone who, as he expressed it, “has done a lot of good” and submit that person’s name for an award.
He shared his story in an exclusive interview with HistoryNet. The interview began on September 1 but had to be cut short—no pun intended—when a Congressman arrived for a haircut, and it was continued the next day.
HistoryNet.com: What made you decide to leave Italy and come to America?
Joe Quattrone: I came from farm land, and I didn’t like working the farm. I had a lot of family in Ohio who visited us in Italy. To me they were like a god. I wanted to be like them.
HN: You were a youngster in Italy during World War II. Since one of our magazines focuses on that war, do you mind telling us a little of what it was like from the perspective of a young Italian boy?
Joe Q: Italy was very clean. When Mussolini was in power, you couldn’t even spit in the street or throw paper in the street; you’d be fined. So it was very clean.
Where I lived, there were a couple hundred people in the town. During the war, we had caves to go to when (air raid) sirens would go off. Water would drip down on us and there was clay mud, but it was the only place we could go to get away from the bombs. There were five in my family. Once, when we were running to the caves, my grandmother got a stone under her foot and fell. She told my father, “Go, save yourself and the children. I’m old; if I die, it doesn’t matter.”
My father told her, “If you die, we die with you.” We helped her up, and we all made it to the cave.
Once, a fighter plane—I think it was German—came in low, maybe a couple of hundred feet in the air. I saw the guy with goggles in the cockpit. We thought we were all going to die, but he saw we were civilians running, and he took off. He didn’t shoot even one shot.
One day, some Germans came marching by. I was curious to talk to them; all of us kids were. They told us, “Today, tomorrow, ‘boom-boom-boom.’ Then no more boom-boom-boom. The war will be over; the Americans are coming.”
HN: Where did you live in Italy?
Joe Q: We lived on the mainland in Archi Reggio Calabria province. (Archi Reggio Calabria is in the toe of Italy’s boot, a few miles southeast of Messina on the island of Sicily—Ed.) One day we came out of our cave and looked at the ocean. You couldn’t even drop a pin in the ocean, there were so many American boats.
An uncle had visited us before the war and gave my grandmother a small American flag. She kept it in a trunk, and when we saw the Americans, my father gave me the flag. Maybe 100 of us went marching down to the ocean, with my father leading.
We took some of the soldiers to our home. They stayed maybe a month, treated us fine. I’d go around to different houses, get the Americans’ clothes, and my mother and sister would wash them. The soldiers would pay us with rice sometimes, sometimes with money. Sometimes they gave us pizza. That was the first time I ever had those little hot dogs in a can.
HN: So how did you get to America after the war?
Joe Q: My oldest brother came here in 1938. During the war he served with the American Army in intelligence. He was in Europe when the war ended and asked for leave to come see if we were dead or alive. Our mother died in 1945, and my brother asked our father, “Can I take another of your sons?” Father said, “Sure, why not, if he can have a better life?”
I came to Steubenville, Ohio, and worked in my brother’s restaurant.
HN: How’d you get into barbering?
Joe Q: As a boy in Italy, I kind of thought I’d like to be a barber. I would go to the barbershop there after school, what little school I had.
In 1960, I visited a friend in Washington and helped in his restaurant. I liked Washington. There wasn’t much going on in Steubenville at that time and I was already married, so I started working construction. After I fell and hurt my back and legs, a friend who was a barber asked why I didn’t go to barber school, so I enrolled.
I worked in a private shop for a couple of months, then applied for an opening at the Pentagon where there was a big shop serving the military. There were 23 barbers in one room; each would do 36 haircuts a day.
Later, I was one of 44 barbers at Andrews Air Base. I’d been doing the short military haircuts, but I started doing regular cuts and styling. When a job opened in the House of Representatives shop in 1970, I went to see Wayne Hayes, the Congressman from my district in Ohio. Two days later, they called and told me I had the job.
HN: You’ve trimmed the hair of many of the most powerful people in America. Who do you regard as some of the most memorable?
Joe Q: I’ve cut the hair of all the Speakers of the House. Tip O’Neill was a nice jokester. Ted Kennedy asked another senator, Edmund Muskie, who cut his hair. As a joke, the senator told him, “I import a barber from Italy.” He recommended me to Senator Kennedy, and that’s how he started coming to me. There’s a whole page about my friendship with Senator Muskie in Bernard Asbell’s book The Senate Nobody Knows.
HN: Has the nature of your business changed since you started cutting hair in the House barbershop?
Joe Q: Oh, yes. It’s dropped off about 25 percent since 9/11. That caused security changes; people can’t get in and out of the building for a haircut now.
HN: Much was made of John Edwards’ $400 haircut during his presidential campaign, so we have to ask: How important is a politician’s hair in the way voters perceive him or her?
Joe Q: It’s very important, but I doubt he paid $400 for a haircut. He may have paid that because the barber had to leave his shop and go to him. Sometimes I’ve gone to hospitals to cut senators’ hair, but I did it on my own time after work and didn’t charge them because they’re my friends. But if I did charge, it would be $100 for me to leave my shop to cut someone’s hair. If I were working for the government, being paid by the taxpayers, I’d never leave my shop to cut someone’s hair; I don’t think that would be right.
HN: Any tips for the rest of us on how haircuts can help us project an image?
Joe Q: That’s hard to say. Some like it short, some medium. If you want hair to always look fresh, always look the same, it needs to be cut every 10 days.
HN: Anything you’d like to add?
Joe Q: They’ve been extra good to me here, better than I deserve. I’m a very lucky man. It’s been a pleasure to serve them.