Bernice stood on the curb and looked at the sign, Sevier Barber-Shop. It was a guillotine indeed, and the hangman was the first barber, who, attired in a white coat and smoking a cigarette, leaned non-chalantly against the first chair. He must have heard of her; he must have been waiting all week, smoking eternal cigarettes beside that portentous, too-often-mentioned first chair. Would they blind-fold her? No, but they would tie a white cloth round her neck lest any of her blood—nonsense—hair—should get on her clothes.
“All right, Bernice,” said Warren quickly.
With her chin in the air she crossed the sidewalk, pushed open the swinging screen-door, and giving not a glance to the uproarious, riotous row that occupied the waiting bench, went up to the fat barber.
“I want you to bob my hair.”
The first barber’s mouth slid somewhat open. His cigarette dropped to the floor.
“My hair—bob it!”
Before I had nearly a foot of my hair shorn off, I reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” He based the story, which first ran in the May 1920 Saturday Evening Post, on a series of letters he exchanged with his younger sister. It was, appropriately, the kickoff to his iconic chronicling of the flapper era—when the story begins, the eponymous heroine is a dowdy wallflower, and everyone has long hair. Bernice becomes popular with an audacious “line”: she entices boys with the prospect of daringly bobbing her hair while they watch. But when a rival calls her bluff, Bernice is forced to submit to the shears. And then, the brutal fallout.
The story plays with ideas of virtue and symbolism, invoking everything from Samson to Berenice of classical legend. That she casts off her scruples with her tresses is no accident; and that the tease of danger is more alluring to the boys than the actual breaking of convention comes as little shock to the reader.
What I wanted from my haircut was a cross between Zelda Fitzgerald and Donna Hayward. And, of course, now you can do that: pull a few pics up and a change that would have rattled a ballroom full of 1920s Minnesotans garners nothing more than a few obligatory Instagram compliments. Everything’s a reference. Someone smart said not long ago that the difference between serious fiction and the other sort is whether or not the secondary characters function as more than wish fulfillment for a protagonist. Whether or not you believe that’s true, it’s interesting food for thought.
In short, this is not the story to read before undergoing a major change to one’s hair, however many bobs Fitzgerald may have ultimately inspired. And if you really want to see the sinister underpinnings, by all means seek out the 1976 TV adaptation: it stars Shelley Duvall and Bud Cort. (If nothing else, her hair looks great.)