As 'beehive' inventor Heldt dies, Honfest creator Whiting reflects

Margaret Vinci Heldt, who created the beehive hairdo, died. She has special meaning in Baltimore.

Can you imagine Honfest without beehive hairdos?

Denise Whiting can’t.

So when the creator of Baltimore’s annual Honfest, a festival that spotlights the fashion and culture of Baltimore during the '60s, learned about the passing Friday of the inventor of the beehive, it struck a chord.

“Oh my God. I would love to have known her,” said Whiting, whose weekend festival took place a day after Heldt died. “I’m so sad I didn’t know about her sooner. We would have certainly honored her at Honfest.”

Margaret Vinci Heldt, who became a hairstyling celebrity after she created the beehive hairdo in 1960, died at a senior living community, according to Ahlgrim Funeral Home in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. She was 98.

The beehive — a tall, conical woman's hairstyle — became popularized during the 1960s and evolved into a style worn for decades as Hollywood's starlets walked red carpets. Heldt created it on the request of a hairstyling magazine that published images of it in February 1960 and called it "the beehive" because it resembles the shape of a traditional hive.

"I have lived a charmed life," Heldt said in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press. "The opportunities opened to me and I said, 'Now it's up to me. I have to make it work.'"

Heldt said the inspiration for the hairstyle came from a little black velvet hat, shaped like a small bump and lined inside with red lace. Heldt went downstairs to her family room one night while her family was sleeping. She put on music and started working with hair atop a mannequin head.

The magazine article described the hairdo as a "tall wrap-around crown, creating a circular silhouette with high-rise accents." Over the years, it was worn by cultural icons, including Amy Winehouse, Audrey Hepburn and Marge Simpson.

Heldt grew up in Chicago and loved hair as a child. She won a beauty school scholarship in high school, but her family couldn't afford to buy her a hair switch — a piece of fabric with long hair attached so students could practice — so she cut her mother's long hair into a short bob and sewed that onto burlap to use in class. She passed the state board exam in 1935.

Heldt opened her own salon — Margaret Vinci Coiffures — on Michigan Avenue in 1950. She won the National Coiffure Championship in 1954.

Heldt earned accolades during her retirement. The trade group Cosmetologists Chicago named a scholarship for Heldt for creativity in hairdressing.

Whiting, who was sitting in a hair-drying seat in the basement of her Hampden-based restaurant Cafe Hon when she learned of Heldt's death, appreciates the contributions the late stylist made.

“From the very beginning of Honfest, hair has always been a part of it,” Whiting said. “Hair is what makes a woman. It is her signature. It’s her exclamation point. It’s her attitude. It’s her chutzpah. Hair says a lot about the person.”

Whiting knows a thing about hair. Her sister, Amy Rose, is a hair stylist in Ellicott City.

“You confide in your hairstylist and you tell her your deep darkest secrets,” Whiting said. “Hairdressers, they do the same people’s hair their whole lives. My sister has done people’s hair on their death bed.”

She added: “Getting your hair done makes you feel better. Getting a beehive or updo, there is something special about that -- especially when your hair is up in the sky. There’s this transformative thing. You just feel different.”

Whiting said she plans to honor Heldt at next year’s Honfest, which will be it’s 25 anniversary.   

 “Next year we’ll do a tribute to her,” Whiting promised. “Because at Honfest we keep the beehive alive.”

Baltimore Sun reporter John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

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