For more than 60 years, famed hairstylist John Weiss was the confidant of prominent members of Toronto society.
It’s because he cared about his customers, says his wife, Lisa Weiss. “He listened and learned from their shared life experiences with him on the dates,” she says. “He constantly accumulated knowledge. He was an amazing storyteller and passed on these stories as life lessons to other generations. It was his gift. »
John Adolf Sam Weiss was born to Max Weiss and his wife Marthe Spiller, both from Switzerland, one stormy night on the family dairy farm in Harvey Township near Peterborough.
The youngest of eight children, he grew up on the farm with his siblings Margaret, Elsie, Lillian, Bert, Dora, Max and Sallie. He attended a one-room country school adjacent to a cow pasture. After graduating from high school in nearby Lakefield in 1953, John joined the army cadets and rose to the rank of major. He was later chosen to meet Queen Elizabeth on her 1959 royal tour. “He said his knees were weak,” Lisa explains. “It was a highlight of his life to be in Her Majesty’s presence.”
John’s parents died in the 1950s, leaving no will, Lisa said. “The eight siblings gathered around the kitchen table and voted unanimously that Bert should inherit the farm because he was the one who worked it. Everyone else got married and moved out . That was it.”
In Peterborough, John apprenticed as a hairdresser with his sister Lillian at Lillian’s beauty salon, where, Lisa says, “the ladies loved him”.
After receiving his barber certification in 1956, John moved to Detroit to learn the Harper Method – named after Martha Harper, whose network of salons promoted her ideals of hygiene, nutrition and exercise – and represented Vivax, a company specializing in hair regrowth. Under the tutelage of stylist Jean-Claude Zago, John became an expert in advanced styling, razor cuts and vintage hair design. He moved to Toronto, where he worked at the upscale Joseph Bobyk Salon in Yorkville, “one of those salons where limos would drop off customers,” Lisa says. It was through the salon that John began working for the CBC, beginning with the “Cross-Canada Hit Parade”, styling hair for Shirley Harmer, Robert Goulet and wigs for Canadian singer Juliette.
He went into business in 1958, buying a small salon in Oshawa which he renamed John Weiss Hair Design. That same year, he met model Lisa Podehl while working on a hair show at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. “He asked to do my hair, but I was under contract with Wella,” says Lisa. “That’s when he started courting me.”
Shortly after they met, Lisa became a flight attendant with American Airlines and moved to New York. “John was waiting for us to arrive at the Toronto airport just to have coffee with me while we were on a layover,” she says. “The crew took pity on him and the captain invited John to come into the cockpit as a guest. We flew to New York. John was treated as a guest of honor. Upon his return, John rushing to Oshawa, usually by bus and hitchhiking, until, Lisa says, “he finally bought his first car, a little MG.”
The couple married in 1960 and raised two children, Katherine (b. 1961) and Ronald (1963), in the century-old house where John tended his award-winning garden. A few years later, the family bought a second house, which became their home – and a venue for many weddings and fundraisers – for nearly 60 years.
John’s the reputation grew rapidly. He was president of a provincial hair association and a judge for the 1964 Miss Canada pageant. Because his whole family had tight curls, “John became a genius with manipulating curly hair,” says Lisa. “There was no hair problem he couldn’t fix. His motto was: fashions change, but style remains. working his magic – and to this day, families still ask for his old photos.
Prolific local philanthropists, the Weisses held sold-out fundraisers in support of local causes, including the Oshawa Symphony Orchestra (now the Ontario Philharmonic); the Parkwood Foundation and the Rotary Club, where John befriended General Motors founder Sam McLaughlin. John was a frequent guest at the Parkwood Estate and styled McLaughlin’s youngest daughter, Isabel McLaughlin, a modernist Canadian painter and philanthropist who became a lifelong friend. John also befriended many other prominent figures, including Verna Conant, daughter of canning company founder ED Smith and wife of then-Attorney General Gordon Conant.
With the pandemic and the passing of their son Ronald, 2020 has been a tough year for John. He retired from hairdressing and focused on his music – he was an accomplished pianist and cellist – and walked the couple’s dog, Sacci, along Lake Ontario. At the end of his life, John’s COPD was complicated by pneumonia. Palliative care nurse Jean Hoover, who came to the Weiss home daily, was a friend and former client. “I asked him what I owed him,” says Lisa.
“Don’t talk about money anymore,” she replied. “John looked after me for 52 years. I had just returned from my honeymoon when I met John and never left him. Now is the time for me to pay it back.
He knew the meaning of friendship, had a confident spirit and believed in the inherent goodness of human nature, and people did not let him down. John was blessed with natural talent, Lisa says, but he never took it for granted: “He believed in hard work. Talent without dedication is wasted.
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