Brenda Balthazar knew she was in for an experience that would make her want to sink her fingers into her hair and tug on it in frustration. She was about to receive a haircut from Willie Lee Morrow.
As usual. Morrow had already kept her waiting an hour. “I did have someone else do my hair once, five or six years ago,” Balthazar confided to me. Her expression grew pained. “It was a mess. What can I do? He’s the best,” she said helplessly, gesturing in the direction of Morrow’s office.
We were sitting just outside Morrow’s inner sanctum, in his private shop which contains a single barber’s chair and a single sink. Nowadays Morrow uses this room to trim the hair of only a select group: Judge Earl Gilliam, former baseball star Willie McCovey, and a few other long-time friends like Balthazar. As San Diego’s most ostentatiously successful black businessman. Morrow these days is besieged with many, many more demands than simple barbering — among them the running of his tempest-ridden multimillion-dollar beauty supply company.
“My greatest fear is that one day he’s going to tell me he just can’t cut me anymore. As it is I’ve gone three months between haircuts . . .” Morrow’s abrupt entrance interrupted Balthazar’s whisper. The barber-businessman was dressed nattily — a golden tie clip in the shape of a pair of scissors anchored his expensive maroon shirt.
But, typically, it was Willie Morrow’s head that drew our attention. His bearded face looks younger than his age, forty-two, and his large, expressive eyes would dominate that face if it weren’t for his glistening black mop of hair. The loose, individually coiled curls resemble the stuff of a freshly wetted permanent on the head of a Caucasian. Separate tendrils, some thick, some as delicate as those to be found on a grape vine, fringe his light-brown visage. East Coast blacks call this hair style the “wet look.” Around these parts, it is known as the California Curl, and at least for the moment, it’s the crown that has made Willie Lee Morrow king.
Moving imperially, he draped Balthazar in sheets and began fluffing up her helmet-shaped natural. “See how long it’s grown?” the woman said with a grimace. Morrow often ignores direct questions, and now, characteristically, his features remained flat and impassive. Instead, he clicked on an electric razor and began passing it over the outer sphere of Balthazar’s uneven hair, using subtle, almost surgical, movements.
Then the first interruption came. Morrow's comptroller poked his head in the barbershop door, asking for advice on a business negotiation. Without halting the haircut. Morrow directed him to telephone another business contact. Not a moment later, two of Morrow’s three children, Cheryl and Todd, trooped into the small room. Seventeen-year-old Todd had come to collect from the comptroller’s office a hundred dollars his father had pledged to the youth’s high school yearbook.
The comptroller returned to announce the success of his negotiations, but before Todd could ask the comptroller about the money, Morrow was announcing that he had decided how to handle Todd’s college education. “I think I’ll have him go to some community college, but only in the morning. Then he can work half days here at the business. I want him to learn the strokin’ and the process.”
“I already know the business,” Todd interjected.
‘‘You already know the business, eh? Do you know how to fill out a truck bill o’ ladin’?”
‘‘Do you know how to take an order, Cheryl?”
‘‘Yes, I do.”
Morrow grilled them for a few more minutes, then the questioning dissolved into a jovial reminiscence of one frantic day the Morrow family made and packaged 1200 hair combs in their home.
But Morrow soon returned to his theme. "I think it be a waste o’ time sending you to some four-year school. You got to learn from your daddy. . . . School tend to make a man too cautious. You got to roll the dice! School just get your head all balled up!”
Indeed school never had much of an influence on Morrow back in the Alabama cotton fields that were his birthplace. He recalled that only the “A” students had a shot at college, and lacking that, “you couldn’t be nothin’ but a cotton picker or a brick layer or nothin’ but a sharecropper.” From earliest childhood, however, he dreamed of achieving far more. The answer seemed to lie in the barbering to which he was first exposed at the age of thirteen, when he began cutting his seven siblings’ hair.
Today the story told around Morrow’s California Curl Company is that Morrow’s father, Hollie, ran bootleg whiskey in his spare time as a sharecropper, and from the proceeds of both he scraped up the money to send his eldest son away to barber college in San Diego. Morrow had an uncle here, and the Alabama youth lived with him near Thirtieth Street and Logan Avenue while he attended classes at the Independent Barber College downtown on Fifth Avenue. He was graduated in July of 1959 and returned to his home in the south, but he said, “When I got back it didn’t look the same no more.” He paused dramatically.
"The fields seemed harder.” And again. ‘‘The sun seemed . . . hotter.” So he came back to San Diego, where a barber named Horace Smith gave him a job. Smith’s shop stood in the middle of the same block now occupied by Morrow’s two-story California Curl Company complex, on the south side of Market between Forty-second and Morrison streets. In fact, as Morrow patiently trimmed Balthazar’s hair in the second-floor shop, he was standing not too far from over the spot where he earned seventeen dollars in his first week of work at “Smitty’s.”
Another man charged into the room. It was Neal Dwinell, who directs the manufacturing of Morrow’s line of more than fifty beauty products. Dwinell looked harassed; he wanted to know if Morrow’s latest concoction, a curl relaxer called Jajie, was to be bottled in black bottles or in blue ones. Morrow gave him orders, only to be interrupted by his secretary, who alerted him to an urgent long distance call. Morrow disappeared for an extended time.
“You see?’’ Balthazar asked me. “It’s like this every time. It drives me crazy. But I'm a real perfectionist about my hair. And he is the best.” Both Morrow and the comptroller re-converged upon the barbershop, and Morrow’s face flushed with anger. “You know what I decided, Rich? I’m goin’ to fire Ted Fisher. Goin’ fire his ass!” He railed for a moment, and the comptroller murmured sympathetically. “That's the best news I’ve heard in a month, Willie.”
The aggressive action seemed to excite Morrow, and the next time he was called away to the telephone he jerked his head at me. “You want to see how I gotta talk around here? C’mon.” We adjourned to a separate little ofFice, and he ferociously punched the telephone button connecting him to the waiting caller, a delinquent bottle supplier. Morrow chewed him out vigorously. “We can’t build no company on that kind of arrangement. . . ! The credit supposed to be being reduced instead of going upward. Am I right or wrong. . . ? I don’t care what the obligations are!”
Back in the private barbershop, Morrow put down the electric razor and took up a pair of scissors to sculpt away even more finely at Balthazar’s coiffure. I took advantage of the momentary quiet to ask Morrow how he first became an acknowledged expert on black hair. Back when he attended barber college, the instructors exclusively taught techniques for caring for Caucasians, but by 1965 Morrow had somehow picked up enough knowledge to write and self-publish a textbook, The Principles of Cutting and Styling Negro Hair.
In answer to my question, he ordered me to join him behind Balthazar. Intense, he bade me to scrutinize the soft black globe of the woman’s hair. He made me see that some of the surfaces reflected back the room's light, while other surfaces were inky. “That’s because black hair is flat. It’s not like your hair, which has a round hair shaft and which would all look shiny. You’re seeing the two different sides of her hair.’’ Excitedly, he picked up a shorn curl. It almost formed a complete circle, and Morrow pointed out its diameter. Years ago, he asserted, he innovated the use of rollers which were bigger than the natural curl. “You can see that the average person who’s doin’ hair would never be as sensitive to all the wisdom that’s right in front of you.’’
But Willie Morrow was both sensitive and sharp-eyed back in those early days at Smitty’s, and soon the reputation of his talent grew. People whose hair he cut back then — and that seems to have included half the black population of this city — recall his single-minded ambition. “He was so impressive,” recalls one old friend. “He seemed to absorb a lot of the wisdom that barbershops throw out. Like a sponge, he was absorbing the young attorneys, the young teachers who came in to get their hair cut. But most of all he seemed singularly obsessed with getting ahead.”
He took his first big step when Smith offered his five or six employees an opportunity to buy the shop. “None of the others wanted to do it. They thought it was too expensive.” So Morrow dug into his savings and came up with the $5000. “I often think about how little that cost me,” he chuckled.
He directed his attention to more than just investment opportunities. Like an artist studying his medium. Morrow experimented with his customers’ hair. He analyzed and categorized it. He pestered people for anecdotes about the tortuous history of black hair care. And when a neighbor returned from a 1962 trip to Africa with a hand-carved African comb, Morrow looked upon it with' wonder.
Morrow said that at that time not a single comb on the market was specifically designed for Negro hair. “You know what people would use? Angel food cake cutters. They were weapons. Man, they wouldn’t even allow you to take the thing to school ’cause you could kill someone with that thing!” Seeing an obvious demand, he began to hand-carve wooden combs, based on the African model, in the back of his shop. The customers loved them. Soon Morrow refined the manufacturing operation, rising early each morning, turning out combs, and then putting in a full day of barbering. He was to continue tinkering over the years. In 1965 he developed an “Afro pik,” and today the California Curl Company sells seven different comb models, about 12,000 of them each week.
Brenda Balthazar currently has custody of Morrow’s extensive comb collection. She met Morrow eleven years ago when she walked into his barbershop for a haircut. Now, in addition to being dependent upon his haircutting expertise, she works for him on a contract basis as an interior designer.
She says the comb collection eventually will be displayed in the “gallery” section of Morrow’s headquarters, where part of his extensive African and black art collection is showcased. The art collection is only one component in the building’s ambience of prosperity. Plush carpets cover the floor and the rich wallpapers are African-inspired. One meeting room boasts exotic masks, while another displays cloth imported from the Ivory Coast.
From the outside, Morrow’s plant is equally impressive, particularly in contrast with the other buildings occupying that section of Market Street. The California Curl Company fills the entire 4100 block. While it looks like one building, it’s actually two, one of which was completed about May of 1980. The second was finished this past February. The facade is cream-and khaki-colored, accented here and there with sky-blue grill work. Sky-blue graphics also announce the presence of the public barbershop and beauty salons (where Morrow now has two barbers and seven beauticians working for him), and a retail outlet where people can walk in off the street and buy California Curl creams and tonics.
Morrow gave me a whirlwind tour of all those facilities the first time I met him. Grabbing a package of processed cheese and a handful of crackers, he wolfed down bites as he led me through labyrinthine corridors. He declared it would be better for me to get acquainted with his business before I talked to him. Then he stopped and stared into my eyes. “Racially, this is the most perfectly integrated company in the world,” he stated solemnly. Abruptly, he signaled for me to follow him.
He whisked me through the administrative offices, pointing out that his sales director was a black woman, his accountant a Filipino woman, his comptroller a white male. Near the central lobby we ran into two black men in three-piece suits. One was Morrow’s executive assistant and the other was his general manager, John Johnson. Morrow said, “Now you’re meeting some top executives who are the opposite color than you are!” His eyes glinted with mischief.
I hurried to keep up with him as he strode off into the section of the building which houses the offices of the radio station he acquired this past January, 92.5 FM. (Actually, the station, XHRM, is Mexican-owned, but Morrow controls it.) In the office of his radio program director, Morrow introduced me to the young man and cracked, “He’s on at seven in the morning. Listen to him. You be totally confused all day.”
Continuing the tour. Morrow told me that he has set up his own construction company. In that department, we stopped while he asked about some permits and then ribbed those employees. He has his own graphic art department, and when he checked some recently typeset material, he kept up the patter. “I’m about all these people here. Like Terry, here [a white male artist]. He goofs off all the time, but I keep him here to keep the balance between black and white.” Then he was off again, down to the warehouse area. In the past, Morrow had all his beauty products fabricated up in Los Angeles, but about a year and a half ago he began shifting that operation down to Market Street. Now about forty-five percent of the items with names such as Baby Soft Hair Moisturizer and So Soft Sheen Curl Activator are produced in a huge room containing 250- and 500-gallon plastic tanks. Nine to ten workers in the bottling room fill about 1200 dozen bottles per day. In a nearby room, workers arrange on large sheets of cardboard the Morrow combs, which are injection-molded by three different companies in the Clairemont area. Using a shrink-wrap machine, they enclose the cardboard in plastic and then mechanically slice the large section into the individual units that will be sold in stores and beauty salons.
Finally, Morrow walked outside the plant to the vacant comer lot just to the west of it. Here earth-moving machines were digging and grading in preparation for the start of construction of yet another California Curl facility, a two-story, 21,000-square-foot building which eventually will house all the company’s bottling and mixing. Morrow says it will cost about a million dollars.
He says he has already invested about two million in the two existing structures. His truly astounding claim, however, is that he’s had to finance all the construction with cash, that no banks would lend the money to him. He stood in one empty storage room and spoke bitterly. “I own this box. These are my lights. This is my building.” The first time I asked him why no one would lend to him, he gave me a withering look. “This is Southeast San Diego. You don’t invest millions of dollars in Southeast San Diego.”
Morrow urged me to return and talk to his staff before interviewing him, so a few days later I sat in the ofFice of John Johnson, Morrow’s general manager. In many ways, Johnson is everything that Morrow is not. A portly man of about Fifty, Johnson is polished, temperate, educated at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. He first met Morrow back in the early Sixties, when Johnson was head of the San Diego Urban League and used to frequent Morrow’s barbershop as a customer.
In those days, Johnson used to host weekly breakfast meetings at which black entrepreneurs could get acquainted with white establishment leaders such as Dick Silberman and Bob Peterson. Johnson only invited one barber — Willie Morrow. “He was so impressive in terms of his ambition that he couldn’t be left out of any meeting.” Johnson left San Diego to work for the Urban League in New York for a few years, but when he returned in 1974 to take a job as a deputy city manager for San Diego, he and Morrow renewed their acquaintance. By that time Morrow had begun living the high life, dressing well, building an eighteen-room mansion with an Oriental motif on Tooley Street in Encanto. But his really big business break had not yet come.
Back in the mid-Sixties, Morrow had begun tinkering with more than simple combs. He also had applied his creativity to the problem of perfecting a permanent-wave solution that would work on black hair. Morrow says the chemical solutions designed for Caucasians “put curl into the hair. But we was going for a whole different thing. We already had the curls.” When black people nonetheless used the Caucasian permanents, the results frequently were disastrous. “It was too strenuous, too destructive, too dryin’,” Morrow recalls. The chemicals often turned the black hair red.
Morrow continued to research the question into the early Seventies, although in 1969 the U.S. Army claimed his attention. The Army had grown concerned about complaints that barbers on its military bases were ignorant of black hair care. Since Morrow was an acknowledged expert on that subject, the Army hired him to teach black hair care techniques on military bases in thirty countries around the world, a contract that was to last for four years. At its conclusion. Morrow had built up a healthy business in supplying beauty products to the military, although his company continued to struggle with cash-flow problems. In 1975 he finally perfected something that he called the Tomorrow Curl, the first permanent-wave process designed for naturally curly hair. For two years sales were tepid. Then in 1977, beauticians suddenly began buying the renamed California Curl in a frenzy.
“The Afro had died,” Morrow explains. “The people was ready for something new.” Unfortunately, however, the California Curl Company wasn’t ready for the barrage of nationwide orders. Johnson says the major beauty supply companies soon jumped in with their own permanent-wave products for blacks, and Morrow’s firm scrambled to play catch-up. Only this past year did two things combine to put the company within sight of recapturing that momentum, Johnson says.
He explains that as recently as January, beauticians using the various permanent-wave processes required about three hours per client. But the ever-restless Morrow devised a way of compressing the work into a one-hour treatment. That process, called the One-Step, went on the market late this spring. “Now”, says Johnson, “it’s hard for us to keep up with it in production. It’s really jumping off the shelves.’’
Furthermore, Johnson says Morrow has now surrounded himself with a sophisticated team of subordinates to help him deal with what has become a ten-million-dollar-a-year business. “Once we get back on top with these new products, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about holding it again," Johnson says. Yet he concedes that the road to the top still will be uphill. Although Morrow’s firm is known industry-wide as the ethnic hair care innovator, it’s still a David compared to such Goliaths as Revlon, the Chicago-based Johnson Products Company (which has sales of about $40 million a year), and other competitors. Morrow’s general manager says, "The hair business is so competitive that he [Morrow] will introduce something at a trade show and by the time he gets home, they can duplicate it." The industry giants can vastly outspend California Curl. “But we can still stay with them because Mr. Morrow can go to shows just about every weekend.’’ And at the trade shows Morrow wields a powerful advantage.
Every week such trade shows draw beauticians to various convention facilities around the country, where they watch “platform artists" like Morrow demonstrate their wares. Johnson has traveled with Morrow to such events, and the general manager describes his boss in tones of awe. “He’s on, eight hours a day for two days and more. He doesn’t eat. I don’t know how he does it. He always has a crowd of fifty to a hundred people around him. It’s just the damndest thing you ever saw.’’ Johnson says the moment Morrow walks in, people stop what they’re doing and begin to flock in his foot-steps. “He’s developed a stage presence. He takes over crowds. He has this charismatic personality. He has these curly ringlets. Also he’s been in the business for twenty years and he knows these people and they know him. Nationwide, he is a very, very famous man. They love him because first, he’s very masculine. He’s not bad looking. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about hair, and he’s compelling when he works with it. He has an almost evangelistic zeal." While most beauticians take about forty-five minutes to roll hair in curlers, Johnson says Morrow can do the same task in twenty-two. “He’s like Houdini. Mr. Morrow can do this in twenty-two minutes because he wants to be the best. He steels himself to do it.”
Johnson is somewhat milder than Morrow is in theorizing why the San Diego financial community hasn’t been willing to bank major money on the California Curl Company. But he’s no less dumbfounded by that lack of support. “We ought to have a two- to three-million-dollar unsecured line of credit. Instead, everything has been done out of cash flow.” Part of the explanation, Johnson says, is that “San Diego is not the best climate for the black businessman — possibly because we have no great black successes such as those that exist in the cities back East.” He speculates that when the local power structure looks at Willie Morrow, “there is covert disbelief. There’s the feeling, ‘How could this guy come here and build this company, and never go to a bank?’ ” And Morrow’s brash, unorthodox style doesn’t help to dispel white suspicions, Johnson suggests.
Despite Morrow’s unorthodoxy, Johnson asserts, “I think in his own way Willie Morrow is a genius. He’s a genius in the hair and beauty products industry.” And Johnson insists that Morrow personally is a kind and gentle man. “He has basically a hard exterior and sometimes he’s insensitive to what his demeanor might do to one’s psyche. But underneath it, he’s the softest touch.”
It’s not difficult to find others who shower Morrow — or at least his success — with the highest praise. “He’s a dynamo,” says Chuck Shockley, a business consultant who met Morrow several years ago when Shockley worked for the San Diego Urban League. “He sets a pace that’s really abnormally high. So his patience can wear quite thin with anyone who works below that pace. . . . But he is a warm, sensitive, caring person.” William Jones, the administrative aide to Councilman Leon Williams, says, “Willie is one of the most friendly people I’ve met. He’s very creative, very resourceful. . . . He doesn’t have the typical credentials but he has other credentials. He has common sense. He has terrific sensitivity. He knows the market that he’s selling to.”
Many leaders within the black community furthermore state that Morrow, as that community’s most conspicuous success story, enjoys wide respect and admiration from local blacks. But there are dissident voices which assert that Morrow’s relationship with his employees all too often is a brutal, rapacious one.
Those voices come principally from former employees, and there are plenty of them. According to one reliable source. Morrow has fired more than forty people since the beginning of this year alone (the California Curl Company has a total staff of only seventy to eighty people). I talked to a number of those ex-employees and most were unwilling to let me use their names. Some still feared Morrow 's influence, while others gave a range of other reasons. But all expressed a desire to set straight the record on Morrow. “Every thing isn't what it appears to be," said one.
Such critics sketch a behind-the-scenes picture of near chaos. “He doesn't believe in any policies or procedures. Very little is written down," says one of Morrow's former administrators. “He runs that business out of his head." He and other critics charge that Morrow w ill not tolerate any independent thought or creativity around him, and wields a virtual reign of terror to keep his employees properly submissive.
“All of us were publicly humiliated,” says one former member of the administrative staff. Another elaborates, “In order to break people down, he attacks them. He attacks their person and tells them that they’re nothing. He would come into meetings and you just knew that today was attack day; he was out for blood. The weird thing is, after a point you got used to it. His tactic was to come in smiling and happy and to tell a few jokes — and then you really knew he was out for blood. Everyone would just sit there waiting to see who would get it this time.”
That same former employee continued, “I think that everyone who has ever worked there has idolized Mr. Morrow. He is a lovable man. He reeks of charisma. He is just bursting with ideas. He is aggressive and assertive.” Yet balancing those strengths are a towering ego and a volatile temper, she states. She and others say that Morrow buttresses the constant belittling of those around him with sudden irrational firings.
“He stalks people, and begs ’em and begs ’em to come to work for him. And then all of a sudden, they’re gone,” says Rosemary Ivey. Ivey rose from being a hair-care kit assembler to an assistant supervisor in the fourteen months she worked for Morrow. Then she was precipitously fired this past August 7.
That was a Friday, and Ivey says all the paychecks were late. Furthermore, the employees were handed counter checks instead of the regular payroll checks, an anomaly that was blamed on a computer foul-up. Ivey says she didn’t receive her check until about 5:30, then w hen she noticed that it was it made out for $140 instead of the normal figure of $170 and change, she went up to the administrative offices, where several other employees had gathered to complain. She says Morrow summarily ordained that all the complainers be paid in cash and fired on the spot. In the angry exchange, she says Morrow snarled, “You didn't have a dime when you came to work here." Ivey adds, “That’s a lie. I quit the city schools to come to work at California Curl. . . . I just wanted to work for a black man, but I never will again.”
Of course, these are former employees, disgruntled ones, and Morrow’s admirers dismiss their complaints as springing from the inevitable resentment that accompanies success. Another former employee, Richard Calvin, sees Morrow’s management style in a different light. Calvin worked as Morrow’s general manager until he was fired in March of this year, but he says tolerantly, “When someone is energetic and creative, people around him very often find it difficult to keep up with his creativity.” Calvin confirms that Morrow’s creativity did cause him some problems, also that Morrow tended to publicly humiliate his subordinates. “But I’ve owned my own business, so I can appreciate what he has to go through. . . .People have different ways of expressing frustration and successes at the same time.”
Of the criticism. Morrow himself says, “The people that you get this from are black people who have spent their whole lives in social service. And when they run into an entrepreneur, they simply do not know how to do business. Black people do not have experience doin’ business like this. Their competition is a guy on the East Coast who works for Revlon and is an ass-kicker!” Thus, when people have fallen down on the job, he’s had to fire them, often regretfully he insists. “Nobody understand the guy that sit at the top. Nobody know what he has to go through.
“You really can’t get the truth about a black person until you get away from the envy and that chicken-wire shit. . . .To ask a black person about me would be a total injustice to me.” Instead, he urged me to talk to white employees like Rich Rechif, the comptroller, and Terry Whistler, who works in the art department.
“He’s not the easiest guy to work for because he’s so high-energy,” said Rechif, who confirms Morrow’s lack of written procedures and the company’s high turnover. “But his biggest strength is his willingness to really dig in and work. I’m a hard worker, and in my former jobs I could always say that I worked harder than the boss. But I can’t say that here.” Whistler echoed Rechif s comments and added, “He’s a complex individual. Willie doesn’t work in the most conventional manner. He’s the guy who’s singing in the shower and gets an idea and he calls you at eleven at night to tell you about it. And then you come in at eight in the morning and he’s already changed it all around. And it just snowballs.” Morrow did finally acquiesce to an interview in his office. It’s a spacious room in which one entire wall is covered with plaques given in his honor. Morrow’s big desk faces directly across from the mirrored door of a clothes closet. But he instead chose to sit in front of the desk in a chair facing me. I asked him once again about his allegation that San Diego’s bankers have uniformly turned their backs on him. I mentioned the incredulity I had heard expressed by those like the Urban League’s current president, Clarence Pendleton. Pendleton cited other minority businesses in Southeast San Diego who have managed to get financing. “Where we have had good packages with long-term stability, we have been able to get them through,” Pendleton had said, adding, “I’m not inclined to believe that there’s economic red-lining.”
Morrow nearly rose out of his seat at that. “Clarence Pendleton got rocks in his head! I mean, shit! Even the government says they red-line. Do you know what the biggest problem is in America? The biggest sickness in America is that blacks and whites both refuse to look at the thing for what it is!” Nonetheless, Morrow declined to specify which banks had turned him down. ‘‘I can’t afford throwin’ no mud now.” Then he seemed to offer an additional explanation for the rejections. “Let’s face it, I have no background. I have no prior or pre-performance. All I had was dreams and big ideas and the average banker's not going to hang his salary on some little black guy who’s got big ideas.”
One of the doors of Morrow’s office opened and a woman entered. “Excuse me, Mr. Morrow, but there’s someone on the phone with a hand massager, who wants to know if you’re interested in marketing it for him.”
Morrow reflected, then muttered, “Can’t see that I’d be interested.”
“I didn’t really think so, but I just wanted to check.”
“I guess you could tell him to bring it in. Won’t hurt to take a look at it.” He instructed the woman not to make an appointment for the man but to have him “just drop in.” Then Morrow returned to my next question. I had heard criticism of him for encouraging black people (through the use of his products) to alter their natural features. Morrow in 1973, in fact, wrote an interesting pamphlet entitled Four Hundred Years Without a Comb, which details the grooming abuses that black people have suffered — first at the hands of their slave masters and later as they futilely strove to make their hair look more Caucasian. I asked if he saw any irony in his current promotion of permanents, if they weren’t just the modern day equivalents of the old hair-straightening process known as conking.
“Europeans don’t leave their hair in its natural state,” he retorted promptly. “You fashion it, you design it, you shape it. You put a fashion design in it. That’s what we’re doing with the California Curl. Before, if I was sitting here with bone-straight hair, that’s not in line with my skin color, and you know that wouldn’t be natural. But my hair could look like this naturally.” (He gestured to his own locks.) “So the curls are in line with my nature.”
Morrow’s private secretary, Alison Brown, interrupted to say that the general manager of Morrow’s Crocker Bank branch was on the phone. Apparently without warning, the bank had closed the company’s checking account and Morrow was livid. “Embarrassed me all over town!” he raged. No sooner did he recover his composure from that intrusion than the woman who had asked about the hand massager tore into the room, all in a dither. “Sorry to interrupt, but this is an emergency! One of the hoses broke downstairs and there’s chemicals spraying all over the place, and they’re worried about an explosion and want to know how to turn off the electricity!” In a flash. Morrow bolted out the door at her heels.
I turned to Alison Brown, Morrow’s unflappable (white) secretary, who had been casually sitting in on the interview. I asked her how she remained so serene in the face of such tumult. “Oh, this is nothing compared to what it was like when I first came to work here.” That was almost a year and a half ago; she told me how Morrow then was involved in the most minute details of the company operation. “People used to come to him with every tiny sort of problem." Besides, Brown told me, she had worked professionally for only one year before coming to work for Morrow. Prior to that she had traveled around the world, living with “country people” in Greece, Indonesia, and other parts of the globe. “So now I take a lot of satisfaction from knowing that I can handle a thousand things at once.”
I asked her what he was like to work for, and she pondered a moment, then smiled angelically. “He’s a very exciting man to work for. He’s brilliant. He really is. I’ve had only a handful of days when I've thought, ‘Darn that man!’ Otherwise, he’s a real sweetie.’’
Morrow returned, snorting derisively that the spilled sodium bromate had been no cause for such alarm. Then I asked him about the secret of his business success, a question to which he warmed immediately. “I have a great sense of awareness. I have a sense of discernment that’s unbelieveable. I’m a great psychologist. I can get people fired up. I have a keen — what’s the word for it, Alison?’’
“Instinct . . . intuition . . . I'm really keen that way. Most men, they just runnin’ on some corporate rules. Instead, I can feel how the company runs. And I can handle any situation within my company.”
He continued, “I make people respect me. Also, I’m a cunnin’ kind of player now. Most people think, ‘He’s a little black guy.’ They comin’ down here to do business. Did you hear what I just say now? Most people come down to the black community and they look down on it. And most people come in to talk to me and they'll end up talkin’ down to me. And I just sit here quietly and listen to ’em. But the next time you come in here, then I’ll jam you up and ask all the big questions.” His eyes sparkled and I could see all the charm and the theater that captivates those who know him, that draws the crowds of adoring beauticians to surround him every weekend.
I got one last glimpse of that charisma on October 9, Willie Morrow's forty-second birthday. Brown had invited me to attend a company pot luck which was due to start at 1:00 p.m. When I arrived at 1:15, hungry California Curl employees were crammed into the posh “community room.” A tantalizing display of fried chicken and ribs and casseroles and salads and desserts was arranged around a big birthday cake inscribed, “To the Boss of the Year.” As the minutes ticked by, the question was whispered more and more frequently: “Where's Mr. Morrow?”
A little after 1:30, Brown finally tracked him down and brought him to the waiting party, which burst out into a chorus of “Happy Birthday, Mr. Morrow.” He was glowing. Despite Morrow’s capacity for lapsing into that disturbing, sphinx-like stolidity, when he's exuberantly happy, he’s as charming as a child.
“You know what I did today?” he asked his workers. He described how he had run two to three miles, then exercised for a half hour. “That’s pretty good for a man of forty-two!” he chortled. He wasn’t hungry. He told the crowd how he had met with Dick Gregory that morning and feasted on various cheeses. “Now I know how he can fast. He ate enough to last him for two and a half months!” To the boisterous applause of the assembled workers, he then called up his father, who works in the California Curl warehouse, and his mother, who works outside the company as a maid.
With his arm around each of them, he joked about their ages (“He’s about ninety-five; Mom’s about eighty-seven”), then Morrow recounted a conversation between the two of them he claimed to have overheard one night in Alabama. “They was sittin’ by the fire, and I hear him say, ‘Olean?’
“ ‘Yeah, Hollie?’ ” (Morrow drew out the lines masterfully, like a professional comedian.)
“ ‘Sho’ is a beautiful night.’
“Then dad spit his snuff in the fireplace. He was chewin’ a big cud.” (The employees began to giggle.)
“ ‘You know we been married seventy-five years?’
“ ‘Yeah, Hollie.’ ”
Morrow was getting to the punch line and his eyes were twinkling with merriment, and all around him his workers were smiling, as were his slightly embarrassed parents.
“ ‘After all these years, I just want you to know that I’m still proud of you.’
“ ‘Yeah, Hollie. I’m tired of you too.’ ” The room exploded into laughter.
Morrow released his parents and continued to strut back and forth the length of the buffet table. He clapped his hands together, brought them up to his mouth to accentuate his words. And although it was close to 2:00 p.m., he still had the crowd laughing and clapping and beaming at his delight. He recalled his birthday last year, marred by strife which apparently had led to another mass firing. “I’m a lot pleaseder with the people who are here at this birthday than I was last year. I think all the people that are here are worthy of sharin’ this birthday with me.” Finally, he allowed that it was time for them to eat.
And yet he still couldn't let them go. He had to tell them about the words of Dick Gregory. In a hushed, dramatic voice. Morrow recounted how Gregory had told him that in six months “everything you ever wanted is goin’ to be right at your feet.” Only reluctantly did Willie Morrow at last wave his workers on to the long-delayed lunch. “After all,” he said, “you got to get back to work so we can all make money.” Everyone laughed.