He was ‘the light of the party’ — and then he was gone. FD Luxe‘s Christopher Wynn pieces together the last day and night of a talented, troubled man
Paul Neinast was easily distracted and always late, but he was never this late.
The showy 59-year-old hairdresser’s first client of the day had shown up and was flipping through fashion magazines in Neinast’s Dallas salon. Then the second client arrived. Now, the third was waiting.
Neinast’s young assistant, Cynthia Vazquez, sent several text messages — “Are you okay?” — and called her boss. No answer. He always responded to her right away, but not on this cold Thursday morning, Dec. 13, 2012. Vazquez glanced around the room nervously and apologized, again, to the women. On the wall, framed press clippings and magazine covers hinted at Neinast’s celebrated past, but life had become less glamorous in recent years. The Neinast Salon on this morning was inside a Preston Center beauty store, in a small rented space: two swivel chairs, three sit-down hair dryers and access to shampoo sinks, shared with other leased spaces. The cost-efficient setup was a far cry from the coiffeur’s glory days, decades earlier, when he had presided over a string of trendy salons, culminating in 1987 with the debut of his dream, a sprawling three-story luxury salon and spa in the heart of Oak Lawn. Back then, Neinast not only cut, combed and sprayed the Texas-sized bouffants of Dallas society ladies, but his shears also snipped the locks of visiting celebrities: Linda Gray, Olivia Newton-John, Sandy Duncan. One of his regular clients, actress Susan Howard, who played Donna Krebbs on Dallas, became his longtime muse and friend. These days, although the curling wand had grown cooler, the Neinast name still meant something.
Vazquez decided to call the front desk at Neinast’s high-rise condominium building, on leafy Turtle Creek Boulevard. She explained to a manager about Neinast; he said he would check on the situation and call her back. Once again, she waited. Vazquez had only worked for Neinast for nine months. She was fresh out of beauty school when she answered his ad on Craigslist for an assistant, but was almost too intimidated to meet him after looking up who he was. They hit it off in the interview. Neinast loved that she had won a student competition to compete in Germany; he dazzled her with stories of his own hair-show days. The two quickly became a smooth team, with Vazquez working side-by-side with Neinast each day. “He did the haircuts, highlights and the blow-dries,” she says. “I did everything else.” She loved the funny, gossipy stories Neinast traded with clients while his Elvis Presley and Pink Floyd CDs played in the background. Of course, there was that laugh — that loud, deep belly laugh so intense at times that Neinast would have to lower his comb and scissors for a moment to get it all out. In fact, it seemed perfectly believable that, any minute now, Neinast would stroll through the shop door in a cloud of woodsy Bleu de Chanel cologne and exclaim “Hon-eee!” before launching into some story about the crazy morning he just had.
But instead there was only the steady whir of hair dryers in neighboring salon spaces, and Neinast’s eerie absence in his.
More than 20 minutes passed. The manager at Neinast’s building still had not called back. One of Neinast’s waiting clients saw how worried Vazquez was and asked her, “Do you want me to go up there and see what’s going on?” Thirty-something Janet LaBarba, with her trim figure and pretty, shoulder-length brunette hair, was more than a faithful client: She was a close friend of Neinast’s. Vazquez begged her to go. What LaBarba saw when she pulled up to Neinast’s high-rise shocked her. “There were police cars, a firetruck and an ambulance.” She went to the front desk and asked to go up to see Neinast, but a concierge made her sit and wait. Neinast had rented a condominium at Twenty One, as the building is known, for a couple of years. He was a familiar sight in the elevators with his constant companion, a massive, fluffy white royal standard poodle named Leopold. (The Dallas Business Journal once ran an item about Neinast and Leopold stranded on Central Expressway in the hairdresser’s broken-down red convertible. Three different taxi companies refused to transport the giant dog, so Neinast had to call someone at the salon to come fetch them.) Neinast was devoted to Leopold — friends joked that the dog had the best hair in the building — and was devastated when the poodle died suddenly that July.
Twenty One is old, built in the early 1960s, and vast, with more than 350 units, quite large by Turtle Creek standards. Its hodgepodge of updates translates into lower prices and cheaper rents than at other buildings along the tony boulevard, permitting Neinast to afford a prestigious Turtle Creek address. If he could not always achieve the financial success he wanted, he could at least project it.
What LaBarba didn’t know as she waited was that property manager Kerry Phillips had already gone to Neinast’s apartment, after getting the call from the hairdresser’s assistant. Phillips says he knocked on the door; there was no answer. He called out Neinast’s name then used a key — each resident supplies a copy to the concierge office — to go inside. The apartment was quiet. Nothing seemed askew. The rooms were filled with original architect-designed furniture — no knockoffs for Neinast — and good art. In Neinast’s peak earning days, he had decorated a previous Oak Lawn condo with Rembrandt and Renoir etchings and strung up a Baccarat chandelier. (According to reports, much of it was purchased by his business. In 1992, he got into a fistfight at his Crescent Court salon with a business partner, who accused him of siphoning off salon funds and refusing to pay some of the company’s debts. Neinast was treated for a broken jaw at Baylor Hospital, and the men later settled in court.) More recently, instead of driving a Mercedes or a vintage Cadillac Eldorado convertible, as he once did, Neinast was scooting around town in a black Toyota Prius, on which, according to one friend, he was missing payments. On Neinast’s television was taped a note, on Cattle Baron’s Ball stationery, with a handwritten affirmation: “I like money. I love it. I use it wisely, constructively, and judiciously …..”
Seeing nothing out of order, Phillips made his way down the hall. “I looked into the bedroom and saw him lying there,” he says. “When I called out and he didn’t answer, I went back and immediately called the police.” Phillips followed strict protocol by shutting the door to secure the scene. It was a shock for him. He was used to seeing Neinast in the halls in a perpetual good mood, always “very upbeat, happy, chipper.”
In the lobby, LaBarba was eventually told that Neinast had been unresponsive and that paramedics were now with him. She called Vazquez at the salon: “You need to come right away.” By the time Vazquez got there, a police officer had already broken the news: Neinast was dead.
The women were asked to come upstairs to the apartment to be interviewed. On the 22nd floor, a large and festive Christmas wreath hung on Neinast’s apartment door.
Three policemen were on the scene, as well as a medical examiner and a police detective, Dale Lundberg. Inside, a slim blonde woman was crying and upset. LaBarba and Vazquez knew her: Mary Anna Dennard. Dennard was an old friend of Neinast’s who had unknowingly become his neighbor down the hall a year earlier, having moved into the building after ending a 32-year marriage and life as a “North Dallas Hockaday mom.” She was surprised to bump into Neinast — she hadn’t seen him in years — at a residents’ party in the lobby. Dennard had absolutely adored him. She first met Neinast when she was 19. “I was an actress,” she says, “and so he knew some actor people that I knew, and he fit in great with us because he was very theatrical.” Dennard says Neinast credited her with getting him his first celebrity client. Dennard’s mother was best friends with Mary Martin, the Broadway star and mother of actor Larry Hagman. Martin was staying at the Dennard family home while in town and needed someone to do her hair. Dennard suggested her friend Neinast, even though he was fresh out of beauty school. He came over and styled Martin’s hair. Dennard says Martin loved it. Neinast would later confide: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!”
Taming the tresses of a Hollywood star was a dream come true for Neinast. As a young man, he was dazzled by celebrity, money and glamour. Neinast was born in quiet Denison, but his family moved to hustle-bustle Dallas when he was in the sixth grade. He was the second-oldest of four brothers; friends say he remained in significant contact with only one of them, Harry Neinast, a former general manager at Nick & Sam’s Steakhouse who became a partner last fall in Sammy’s Texas Barbecue in Uptown. Neinast’s father worked for a telephone company, but his homemaker mother hailed from an affluent family. Neinast was enamored with her. He also touted that his maternal grandmother designed handbags for I. Magnin.
Neinast loved clothes. According to Dennard, he once cut classes at Hillcrest High School with a friend to attend a men’s fashion show at Neiman Marcus downtown. At the grand finale, a male model hit the runway wearing a glorious fur poncho. Neinast swooned. “I’ve got to have that!” He called a salesperson over and had the poncho put on the family’s Neiman Marcus charge account. He wore it back to school. Sometime later, he came home one afternoon and found the poncho — and the Neiman’s bill — lying on the dining-room table. His mother confronted him: “This is going to have to stop. What were you thinking?” He told her, “Mother, I just loved it. It was so beautiful.” She made an appointment for the two of them to see Stanley Marcus downtown. Neinast expected to be forced to apologize, but instead his mother brazenly scolded Mr. Marcus. “Stanley, I cannot believe you allow this to happen. These are children, to let them come into your showroom and purchase things without their parents’ permission? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Neinast developed his elitist attitude early, Dennard says. “He thought he was fabulous — and he was fabulous.” He wanted desperately to be an artist in the glamorous styling industry. In 1971, after high school and much to his father’s chagrin, he enrolled in Isbell’s University of Beauty Culture on McKinney Avenue. The nine-month program reportedly took him 18 months to complete. Neinast was frustrated by only being able to practice his craft on the matronly women typically game for a student makeover. He needed hair models that would allow him to experiment and attempt the trendy cuts and styles he obsessed over in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. According to a Dallas Morning News profile by Glenna Whitely, he found them in the ladies of a topless club, The Painted Duck. One of the dancers passed along Neinast’s name to a friend who worked at the makeup counter at Neiman Marcus NorthPark. Referrals began trickling in.
Neinast then took a series of jobs at upscale Dallas salons. He was always a spectacle with his exaggerated clothing, bleach-streaked mane and bellowing laugh. Clients loved him and so did the local press. Neinast was a relentless networker and an unabashed name dropper, and he possessed an uncanny memory. According to Dennard: “He knew what happened, who it was, who they married, where they lived, what sorority they pledged, how much money they made, how much money they lost, who their next wife was and who was screwing who. I mean, he knew everything, because, think about it, he heard everything.” Neinast became one of the most connected society hairdressers in Dallas.
In 1978, at age 25, he had the gumption — and the backing from a wealthy client — to open his first salon, at Snider Plaza. He charged a fortune for his cuts, partially out of ego, partially to create buzz. The A-list ladies gladly paid. (Dennard notes that Neinast never once cut her hair because she would never pay his rates.) By the 1980s, Neinast’s salon was reportedly pulling in $1 million a year, and he was taking weeknight suppers at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, where he had a house account. He expanded into a three-story salon, in a pink granite building at Oak Lawn Avenue and Fairmount Street, in 1987. Just 18 months later, the business collapsed into bankruptcy, under the weight of its own excess and, most assume, Neinast’s spending. He continued opening and closing salons. He scaled down, then back up, depending on the times — but his name was still magic, and people still believed in his carefully coiffed image. If he had a chair and some scissors, he would survive.
Neinast was less successful in his relationships. He was married briefly to a woman — a stunning blonde — in the early ’70s. Dennard summarizes the couple’s short union thusly: “He just wanted somebody he could dress up. She was his American Girl doll.” Afterward, Neinast seemed to come to terms with being a gay man. He dated over the years, having at least one serious relationship, long-distance, with an artist. More recently, Neinast had rekindled a connection with a 54-year-old Los Angeles property investor, Ken Hurst, who also owns a house in Oak Cliff. Hurst was a student at SMU in 1981 when he met Neinast poolside at his Cedar Springs apartment complex. “I was immediately attracted to his laugh,” Hurst says. “And I guess he was attracted to something in me.” They became friends, dated briefly and then lost touch. A year before his death, Neinast reached out to Hurst via Facebook. The two picked up right where they left off, but slowly, cautiously. “Paul had a sage quality about him,” Hurst says. “He seemed to have a lot of wisdom — and underneath was this scared little boy.” Hurst was studying to get his doctorate in clinical psychology; Neinast asked him to consult on rebranding and relaunching the hairdresser’s line of beauty products. Neinast had been selling them in his salon and to loyal customers around the country, but he had dreams of making the line into something really big. “When Paul knew what he wanted,” Hurst says, “there was no stopping him.”
Hurst was on a cross-country road trip when he got the call about Neinast’s death. Now, almost nine months later, he still hasn’t been able to finish his dissertation on existentialism. Like a malfunctioning GPS unit, his brain just keeps recalculating.
On the morning Neinast’s body was discovered, police photographed a yellow sticky note on the hairdresser’s bathroom mirror with the handwritten message: “Paul, all I really know is I love you.”
Dennard thought Hurst had written it. He says he didn’t. His theory? Neinast wrote the note to himself, as an affirmation. “Paul really wanted to be loved,” he says.
Now he was dead. The paramedics found him lying naked in his bed, “very peaceful, his eyes were closed,” one of the medical personnel told Dennard. “He looked like he was sleeping.” A technician covered Neinast’s body with the expensively monogrammed bed sheet. An assortment of drug paraphernalia was on top of a bedside table, and in the table’s storage compartment below was a black bag containing cigarette rolling papers and a glass pipe. Authorities also found a syringe labeled as testosterone and multiple vials of injectable collagen — Neinast had remained obsessed with looking good until the end. According to LaBarba, Neinast had even had cheek implants, but recently had them removed after they caused an infection. She worried that complications from the trauma might have contributed in some way to his death. She and Dennard knew that Neinast had come through a battle with leukemia, but was in remission. He felt that he had beaten it.
Dennard says the police began asking the women questions. Would Paul have any reason to hurt himself? Was there anybody who had it out for Paul or would want to hurt him? Did anyone ever stay with him? Did he have a roommate? The answers were all no. The police brought in the neighbor across the hall, Barbara Glendenning, because Dennard knew she had gone to a party with Neinast the night before. Glendenning, soft-spoken and elegant, says she and Neinast returned home late, sometime after 1 a.m. She said goodnight to him. She was so tired that she forgot to withdraw the key from her door’s lock; it was still there that morning.
An officer examined Neinast’s cellphone, which had been found in the pocket of the yellow jacket he often threw on to go outside. The officer permitted Dennard to have it, to obtain numbers for Neinast’s brothers and for Ken Hurst, whom she wanted to call. She looked through the text history and became startled. “Oh, wait a minute, there was somebody here.” There were text messages from a phone programmed into Neinast’s as just a male first name, no last, sent early that morning. “Paul, I took the 20’s and got a cab home” was sent about 5 a.m. About two hours later, a second text message read: “I’m sorry about last night, next time I won’t smoke so much.”
By now, the detective working the case had learned there was security-camera footage showing that Neinast had gone out again, after coming home from the party. According to a police report, the video reveals that Neinast returned to his apartment about 2 a.m. with a man. About 3:45 a.m., the same man is seen leaving the apartment, alone.
The dynamics of the investigation changed. There were no signs of forced entry, but had the visitor caused or contributed to Neinast’s death? Was the mystery man trying to cover his tracks with those text messages because things went wrong? Perhaps Neinast slipped into trouble after the man left, unrelated to his visit at all. One thing was clear: The key to understanding what happened to Neinast in his last hours was the visitor.
Secrets do not keep long in a 23-story maze of neighbors who share hallways and elevators. Rumors circulated around the building about the strange visitor in the video. Descriptions were few, of questionable reliability and hopelessly vague: a young-looking man, possibly of mixed ethnicity. A connection was eventually made by the regulars in the high-rise’s basement gym that, in a broad sense, Neinast’s new personal trainer fit the profile.
Robert Elorduy is a self-employed massage therapist and trainer whose practice is called Vigor. He advertises his services on postcards and fliers that show off his highly muscled physique in a variety of shirtless poses. He is far more demure in person. Sitting at the former Rosemont Cafe in Deep Ellum, Elorduy looks like any other bearded hipster in a skull cap and jacket. Elorduy says Neinast hired him for a massage when the hairdresser’s regular therapist was unavailable. When Neinast found out Elorduy also offered personal training, he signed up. “He told me, ‘I used to look good when I was younger,’.” Elorduy recalls. Neinast explained that he had gained weight during chemotherapy for his cancer and wanted to slim down again and get his strength back.
The men worked out in the building’s gym each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — except for the week of Neinast’s death. Elorduy had rescheduled that week because he was on a cruise in Mexico. Elorduy says the police never questioned him about Neinast; somebody at the building’s front desk whispered the news to him later about the hairdresser’s mysterious visitor that night. He still feels guilty about being away. “Paul probably wouldn’t have stayed out late if I would have — if we would have — been training, because I trained him at 7:30 in the morning.” Elorduy says Neinast was always cheery and rattling off stories from his glitzy past. He was weak when they started training, but Elorduy says that just before Neinast’s death “he was getting stronger … quicker between sets. He was getting good cardiovascular and anabolic strength.” Elorduy says Neinast never hinted at doing drugs, but he was still smoking his beloved Salem cigarettes. He said Neinast was also seeing a spiritual adviser, who had recently told the hairdresser that he was “in a good place right now.”
The same sentiment is echoed by Neinast’s assistant, Vazquez. She says that on the day before the hairdresser died, he was happy. “He was very excited about getting on track with his workouts.
It was a shock when it happened, because he looked amazing.” In fact, she had just colored Neinast’s tresses — “he liked his hair to have dimension” — in his favorite Goldwell shade of medium blond. “He got so many compliments about how good he looked, he was losing weight and he was very excited that he was going to an event that night.” The two normally hugged when they said goodbye each evening, but Vazquez says they didn’t that night because she was busy sweeping up. Her last words to her boss: “Paul, don’t party too hard because we have to be at work early tomorrow.” He promised her he wouldn’t. She still regrets that she didn’t hug him one last time.
At the party that night, Neinast was in his element. Photographers snapped him looking handsome beside his date, Glendenning. The event, held at a Fair Park art gallery, was a Toys for Tots charity drive and a celebration of the two-year anniversary of the online style magazine, Driven. Neinast’s old industry friend, a makeup artist, hairstylist and photographer named Anthony Isambert, had launched the magazine; Neinast was excited to support him.
Isambert later recalled the night, from inside the Halcyon Days Salon & Spa at Neiman Marcus NorthPark, where he was a staff stylist until recently. Looking much younger than his 40-something age, and dressed in a stylish suit and chunky black glasses, Isambert says Neinast was “the light of the party.” He remembers cutting a celebration cake midway through the event and, in his remarks, thanking Neinast for being there. At the wind-down of the party, near midnight, Isambert had to help usher the euphoric Neinast out. “I had to literally go up to him and say ‘Hey, Paul, I’m so happy you were here.’ I patted him on his lapel and I touched his face, and I said, ‘You have to go.’ I said, ‘I’m so happy you were here, though’ and he gave me a big hug and kiss …..”
On the way home, Glendenning says the hungry pair drove to Snookie’s restaurant, where she and Neinast ordered fried mushrooms and nachos with jalapeños, topped off by a round of cosmopolitans. It was after 1 a.m. when the two got home. Glendenning assumed her friend went to sleep, exhausted, as she had been. She now understands that he didn’t. “I am getting the impression that there was a Paul that I didn’t know. The part of Paul that I knew was about his mother.” (Neinast often told Glendenning family stories.) “It was all the soulful things,” she says. But Neinast was also grappling with darker urges and impulses. It was no secret that he had struggled with drugs in the past, but friends thought those days were mostly behind him.
Eight weeks after Neinast’s body was processed, the medical examiner’s report concluded that the hairdresser died from “the toxic effects of cocaine and heroin” and that a heart condition and cirrhosis may have been factors. His death was ruled an accident. For some close to Neinast, the news wasn’t a shock — but it didn’t make sense. He had been doing so well. Why would he suddenly go on a binge, especially on a weeknight with multiple appointments booked early the next morning? Neinast respected his clients more than that.
Theories abound: Neinast’s visitor was a dealer who sold drugs to the hairdresser that Neinast’s system couldn’t handle. There was a sex transaction. The visitor helped Neinast shoot up or smoke something and, when Neinast passed out, got nervous and left, sending the text messages as cover. Even if the whole episode was Neinast’s own doing — his own choices — and he just wanted company, the mysterious visitor is the last person to see Neinast alive.
It may be shocking to discover that Dallas police have not interviewed the man. In fact, it seems they do not know who he is and may never find out. According to the investigation notes, the visitor’s cellphone number was documented in the police report. Now, almost nine months after Neinast’s death, the cellphone is being answered by a woman who says she is a 34-year-old in-home caregiver and mother of three, living in The Colony. The woman says she doesn’t know Neinast, and that she obtained her phone about two months ago via the AT&T website. The woman says she started getting “lots of strange phone calls” from a Dallas police officer and texts from a DPD detective the last week in July, at the same time FD Luxe escalated unanswered questions about Neinast’s visitor to Maj. Jeff Cotner from the Crimes Against Persons Division. The woman says she was questioned repeatedly about the person named in the police reports, the single name from the texts: Does she know him? Can she get in touch with him? They need to speak to him. She says one officer wanted to warn her that reporters might be calling, and to just tell them that “this is not his phone number.” Wireless companies do sometimes recycle phone numbers to new accounts. The woman says the father of her 17-year-old son — she says she is married to another man — does have the same first name as the person cited in the police report. [A spokesman for the Dallas Police Department declined to comment on the case.]
Regardless of the circumstances that night, why would Neinast be so reckless, when things seemed to be going so well? Dennard has a theory. It is about Neinast’s massive poodle, Leopold.
Dennard says Neinast kept up appearances, but the reality was his business wasn’t what it used to be, he owed money, he had problems with addiction, and he sometimes felt lonely and depressed. “In many ways,” she says, “he was struggling to keep the happy, good Paul afloat, but it was becoming more difficult to keep up the façade. Leopold was his anchor, because he had to walk him, to feed him. He was the most glorious extension of Paul. He was elegant, regal, well brought-up, great pedigree, beautifully coiffed, well-behaved and smart as sh**. I think losing him was devastating.” Her tone intensifies. “Leopold slept in that bed with him. You wouldn’t bring a bunch of nasty ne’er-do-wells in if your child was there.”
According to several of Neinast’s friends, the hairdresser’s ashes were scattered over his mother’s grave in Denison, in a private ceremony. [Neinast’s closest brother, Harry, did not respond to requests for comment.] Before Neinast’s mother died in 1973 from a long illness, she told her son from her bed, “Honey, everyone is always going to be jealous of you because you are so talented.”
The Neinast Salon on Luther Lane has today become Cyn Rose Designs, with Cynthia Vazquez at the helm. She has taken on a suite partner, Rose Gobin, and the two are making a go of it. Vazquez says the family provided Neinast’s client books to her; some of those clients have continued to come, others have moved on. “I called as many of Paul’s clients as I could to let them know,” she says, “because I know Paul really cared about them. I told them that I’m going to still be here.” She has made a few small changes in the tiny space, but one thing she hasn’t touched is the wall jammed with Neinast’s framed career memorabilia: photos of him with Susan Howard in Time, nods in Allure and Mademoiselle, a beauty shot of Dallas model and friend Jan Strimple. Vazquez plans to keep it, a sort of shrine to the beautiful and elegant world that Paul Neinast created, one sculpted and sprayed coif at a time. —firstname.lastname@example.org