Susan Claassen transforms into the legendary costume designer in “A Conversation with Edith Head”
Susan Claassen transforms into the legendary costume designer in “A Conversation with Edith Head”

Enigmatic designer Edith Head comes alive onstage

During a six-decade Hollywood career, legendary costume designer Edith Head inhabited multiple closets, including the wardrobe departments at Paramount and Universal Studios.

She netted eight Oscars, 35 Academy Award nominations and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and costumed such stars as Mae West, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn.

She knew whose bodices to play up and whose hips to camouflage. Privy to gossip, she kept the stars’ secrets under wraps — as well as her own.

Now her fanciful life will be presented onstage in “A Conversation with Edith Head,” a primarily one-woman show that will have its Bay Area premiere Dec. 7-16. The show, which has garnered kudos worldwide, will be staged at Mountain View’s Pear Theatre. Local actor Michael Saenz will field questions from the audience post-performance.

The designer was born Edith Claire Posener in 1897 to Jewish parents, a fact she never admitted in adulthood, at least not publicly. The name Head came from her first husband, whom she divorced in 1936.

While she enjoyed a long-term second marriage to art director Wiard “Bill” Ihnen, she never addressed rumors about her relationships with women, including Barbara Stanwyck. She also lied about her age, and nabbed her first gig at Paramount by submitting sketches by other students at her art school.

Susan Claassen, who developed “Conversation” with author Paddy Calistro, has much in common with the woman she plays onstage — her appearance, her love of clothes and her Jewish background — with one notable exception: She tells the truth.

“I am in no closets,” said Claassen during a phone interview from New York, where each year she plays a clown in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. When she’s not clowning around or taking “Conversation” on tour, Claassen is managing artistic director at Tucson’s Invisible Theatre. She’s in her 48th season at the theater and premiered “Conversation” there in 2002.

She remains in character even after the show, which in 16 years of touring has drawn celebrities who knew the designer, including Hitchcock star Tippi Hedren and the late Joan Rivers. Some audience members talk to her as if she actually is Head. The wig with full bangs and chignon, dark glasses and tailored suit make the resemblance uncanny.

Susan Claassen transforms into the legendary costume designer in “A Conversation with Edith Head”
Susan Claassen transforms into the legendary costume designer in “A Conversation with Edith Head”

However, unlike the designer, Claassen is an open book. Two years ago, after same-sex marriages became legal, she married her partner of 32 years in a sailboat under the Golden Gate Bridge. When the couple returned to Tucson, where Claassen is an active member of Reform Congregation Chaverim, their rabbi conducted a ceremony under “a gorgeous chuppah.”

In addition, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona has honored her for her charitable and cultural contributions, and she presented a program on Jewish humor at a Federation fundraiser.

“Conversation” came about serendipitously. Seeking ideas for one-person shows for other actors at Invisible Theatre, she stumbled upon Head’s story on the Biography Channel. Impressed by Head’s accomplishments, she was also transfixed, thinking: “Gosh, I look like her!”

She read everything about the designer she could get her hands on, including Calistro’s “Edith Head’s Hollywood,” an authorized biography published after Head’s 1981 death. She flew to Santa Monica to meet Calistro and the two women put their heads together to collaborate. “We were like magnets,” she said.

One of their challenges was discovering the truth, because Head “lied about everything,” virtually inventing herself, according to Claassen. In the show, she confronts myriad controversies “in a way that is appropriate to Edith.”

The rumored relationship with Stanwyck? “We were good friends,” Edith says onstage.

And the designer’s Jewish roots? Edith grumbles that legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland “told the Hollywood Reporter that I was Jewish. Diana is impossible! Vogue was right to get rid of her. What difference does it make that I was born Jewish? I’m now an ardent Catholic. My mother always told me to blend in.”

Said Claassen: “Whenever we have a Jewish audience, that line gets a great laugh.”

“A Conversation with Edith Head.” Dec. 7-16, with Dec. 6 preview, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View. $35 with student and senior discounts. thepear.org

Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.