VILONIA — Robie Popham Permenter of Vilonia has yellowed newspaper clippings, autographed photographs and notes displayed in an album reflecting the 50 or so years the 88-year-old served as a beauty operator.
Her customers included some rich and famous people, including first lady Mamie Eisenhower and members of her family.
“She was a beautiful woman,” Permenter said, referring to the first lady, who died in 1979. “She had good hair and beautiful teeth. I did her hair nearly three years. She could be a real lady.”
Sometimes, Permenter said, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was also there. She never cut his hair, but she gave him manicures on occasion, she said.
“He would just sit down in a chair and talk to me like normal while I worked,” Permenter said. “I was comfortable talking to him.”
On that note, however, Permenter said, she couldn’t help but be in awe of the president. She had read his life history when she was a student in school and had prepared a book report on him.
“I sure didn’t think I would ever be meeting him when I picked that book out to read,” she said.
Permenter, the wife of Sgt. Eugene Houser at the time, was the operator of the Hospital Beauty Parlor at Camp Gordon, Ga., near Augusta. The Eisenhowers frequented the area during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency from 1953-1961. He enjoyed playing golf at the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament.
Permenter was recommended to Mamie Eisenhower by the base commander’s wife, who was a “good friend” of the Eisenhowers and who was also Permenter’s customer.
Preparing for her first meeting with the first lady, Permenter said, she took a “small pill,” prescribed to her by a doctor at the base hospital, to calm her nerves. Secret Service agents picked up Permenter and took her to the vacation cottage where the Eisenhowers stayed during their time in the area.
“She came to the door with a cup of coffee in her hand,” Permenter said of the first lady. By the time she finished her breakfast and coffee, Permenter said, “I felt at ease and like I had known her for a long time. She was very down to earth — just as common as I am. We just talked about everything like I did with my other customers.”
Permenter and Mamie Eisenhower learned they had some things in common. Both had husbands who had served overseas in World War II. Also, Permenter had four brothers who had served, yet she doesn’t remember that being a particular topic of discussion. There was a lot of small talk. Eisenhower also loved to “regift” the items sent to her at the cottage. She would take many of the flowers to the children’s ward at the base hospital. Permenter recalls taking home a dozen red, long-stemmed roses, a corsage with orchids and many small gifts for her children. That pressed corsage is among the items in Permenter’s album. The note on the corsage states that it was worn by Mamie Eisenhower of Washington, D.C.
Permenter also met Mamie Eisenhower’s mother, Elivera Mathilda Carlson Doud, and took care of her hair a couple of times. Permenter also cut the hair of the Eisenhowers’ granddaughter Ann, who was about 4 at the time. A beauty shop of sorts, Permenter said, was set up in the cottage to provide a place for her to work.
She remembers one time, the day before the first lady’s birthday, when the president kept popping in and out, trying to come up with a present for his wife. He suggested many things, to her dislike. Finally, Permenter said, he settled
on giving his wife a pink gown and matching robe. At the time, Permenter said, he had a “slight tan and beaming smile.” Mamie Eisenhower walked away that day with a “feather cut with pin curls all around to accent her bangs.”
Referred to by her fans as “Mamie Bangs,” they weren’t just a fashion statement, Permenter said. The first lady wore them to cover a small scar she had from being kicked by a horse when she was a teenager.
Permenter can’t remember exactly what she charged for a shampoo and set back then, but probably about $1.25. She does remember she charged $14 for a perm, and she said she gave the first lady just one perm. Another thing Permenter remembers is that the first lady didn’t tip.
“It wasn’t a common practice then, though,” Permenter said.
Mamie Eisenhower, Permenter said, invited her to go to the White House as her personal hair dresser, but Permenter turned down the offer. However, it wasn’t without consideration. She was a single mother at the time raising her two oldest children, Sherry and Tish. Taking care of them outweighed the move when the children’s nanny emphatically declined to go. Without her, Permenter said, she knew it would be a tough adjustment and one she wasn’t up to handling.
Flipping through the memory book, Permenter said one of her favorite notes is the one dated Nov. 30, 1953, and written on White House stationery by the first lady, that reads, “This is just a little note to tell you how very nice it was to see you again on our recent Augusta visit. It is good to know that I can count on your able assistance while we are down at our vacation spot.”
Permenter was born in Alabama. She moved to Arkansas when she was about 11. That’s also when she got her first perm. She said it cost about $1, and it was given by “an old electric machine that burned the back of my neck.” At age 17, she married Eugene Houser against her parents’ wishes, she said. He was soon inducted into the Army. While he was away serving in the military, her dad paid for her to attend beauty college in Memphis. She graduated in 1944 and began working immediately.
Permenter moved to Searcy in 1960 from Texas. In 1962, she moved to Vilonia and opened a beauty shop. She also served as an instructor at Jones Beauty School in Conway for about four years. She said her second husband, Samuel Popham, died of a heart attack in 1982. They had two children, Vonda and Sam Jr. She married John Permenter and retired in 1996.
“That was all a long time ago. I’m done with being a beauty operator,” Permenter said. “I’m satisfied now with spending time with my husband and family and just doing my yardwork.”