Cut, Curl, Column

Emilee Jenko understands the beauty of words.

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Roller girl: Intrepid columnist, hairdresser, and bingo wrangler Emilee Jenko. - Walter  Novak
Roller girl: Intrepid columnist, hairdresser, and bingo wrangler Emilee Jenko.
The Mike Roykos and Herb Caens of the world were brash, big-city columnists whose white-hot words burned through the page. Soot filled their lungs and tar mingled with their blood.

But they were pretty useless with a hair dryer and a set of hot rollers. Which is too bad, because beauticians get all the good scoops. Just ask columnist and beautician Emilee Jenko, mainstay of the Perry News.

"We don't gossip here," she says, then adds mysteriously, "Of course, I can't control what's said under the dryers."

A tiny woman with a champagne-colored updo and tortoise-shell glasses that take up most of her face, Jenko writes a column called Short Notes by Emilee. Distributed for free in Cleveland's St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, the 40-year-old monthly paper has a small but steady readership. It takes its name from the neighborhood's old name, which was taken from a statue of Commodore Perry that stood in Gordon Park.

Jenko started out at the Perry News 17 years ago, answering phones. She landed the column gig in 1991, when the presiding columnist broke her typing arm.

"She said, 'How about you writing a few things?'" Jenko recalls in her gold-mixed-with-sandpaper voice. "Then it just mushroomed!"

A chatty feature that dishes out proverbs and keeps abreast of neighborhood milestones, Jenko's column usually takes up a full page in the News, sometimes more.

"I know it says 'Short Notes,'" she says. "But I always have a lot to say. I write friendly things. Special things. I never put birth dates in, or ages. And I don't write anything political."

According to friend Jan Krivacic, Jenko's column practically sizzles off the stands each month. Krivacic reads it religiously -- as religiously as she has her hair done at Jenko's salon.

"She writes about the whole neighborhood," Krivacic says. "Marriages, birthdays, anniversaries. She puts it all in her column. It's like a Bible. You don't need to read anything else."In the June 2001 issue, readers were treated to breaking news about Fred Ziwich's new polka album and the Slovenian Home Brunch -- apparently a happening affair.

"I just loved the Karaoke," Jenko wrote. "Al Battestelli did the sing-along. The food was delish . . . My hat is off to all in the kitchen."

But she doesn't confine herself to society news. There's scandal and injustice, too. For instance, a band of plant vandals repeatedly knocked over all the flower pots on Jenko's block. Jenko wrote about the incident.

"I am sick and tired of having the flower tubs spilled over," she fumed. "It is very difficult to set them up erect again. They are so heavy and then that dirt is all over and if it rains what a mess!!! Take heed people. I'm really ticked to say the least."

Once the flower-tub issue hit the stands, "Whoever did it stopped knocking them over," says Jenko. She thinks it was just coincidence. But who knows -- maybe the proliferation of exclamation points struck fear into the hearts of the perpetrators.

As she talks, Jenko reclines in one of her beauty chairs, her chin resting dreamily on her hand, one leg demurely kicked, starlet-style, in the air. She's dressed head to toe in white and lavender, from her plastic butterfly hair clips to her pastel sneakers. Although the temperature's pushing 95 degrees, her curls stay in perfect loop-de-loops: not a single wilt or crimp.

Jenko bought the beauty shop 17 years ago. Back then, the place was in mint 1950s condition. It's still in mint 1950s condition. Sparkly pink hair-dryer chairs with bullet-shaped helmets are lined up like chorus girls against one wall. She keeps a Uniperm -- an electric hair-fryer with a B-movie air -- in the back, just in case, along with a boxed set of old 78s called Mood Music for Listening and Relaxation.

Placed prominently above two dryer chairs, her portrait smiles in soft focus against a velvety studio sky. "That was a picture that was taken of me when I was Slovenian Woman of the Year," she says. "Isn't that pretty?" She earned the designation a few years ago, because she's active in about a million clubs.

She's also in charge of bingo at the Slovenian Home for the Aged, where one of her duties is "Don't let anybody not win. If you win, you get 50 cents. Everybody else gets a quarter."

Being a social butterfly wasn't an inborn inclination. In the early '60s, as a young, single mom in an Old World milieu, she had to work hard to win the affections of disapproving neighbors. "People didn't accept me that well," she says. "But I kind of ingratiated myself." When her son, Rikk, "got to be in kindergarten, I said, 'I think I'll help on Tuesday in the cafeteria.' And then I became an officer in the mothers' club."

That was in addition to juggling several jobs, which she still does today, even though she's no "young chick." (She won't disclose her age, but she's on the twilight side of 50.) Her résumé includes a turn as mobster Danny Greene's secretary, before he was blown to smithereens in 1977. That was probably the scoop of the century. The FBI, which tracked Jenko down during a short stay in California, certainly was interested in it. But she wasn't writing her column at the time.

When she did start writing it, she used an electric typewriter Greene had given her. But the typewriter didn't work too well, so she "trashed it" and now uses a manual model.

"Putting her thoughts together" takes about three hours. "I just write the way I talk, and everybody seems to like it."

A few years ago, she stopped writing the column for a spell. She'd just been hired as an administrative assistant for the St. Clair-Superior Coalition, which publishes its own paper, and she was worried about a conflict of interest.

No Emilee in the paper? Her readership was beside itself.

"We almost had a fit," says Krivacic. "We had to get her back. She's the best-known beautician in the neighborhood. She's just a popular girl. That's all she is."

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