Residents of the Upper East Side tend to stick to the familiar. They order their cappuccinos from Via Quadronno and dine over spaghetti primavera at Sette Mezzo or hamburgers at J. G. Melon. The women go to Valery Joseph or Julien Farel for haircuts, while the men go to Paul Molé.

“There’s getting to be fewer and fewer of these old New York institutions,” Jim Downey, one of Saturday Night Live’s longest-tenured writers and a Paul Molé customer since 1975, tells me.

The barbershop, which has been located on Lexington Avenue between 73rd and 74th since it opened, in 1913, is one of the Upper East Side’s few surviving fixtures. Up a stairwell lined with press clippings and grooming products, customers step into a black-and-white-tiled, wood-paneled time capsule. Regular clients are greeted with shaving mugs bearing their names. Hair is cut by barbers in ties.

Everyone from Henry Fonda to J.F.K. Jr., to Donald Trump, to Mike Wallace, to Chris Wallace, to Chris Wallace’s son, to Chris Wallace’s son’s son has sat for a $50 trim by Adrian Wood, the shop’s plump, 76-year-old owner. While some families pass down heirlooms, others pass down Wood.

“In Casablanca, everybody comes to Rick’s. That’s [this] shop,” explains media investor Jeff Sagansky, a Paul Molé regular since the 1990s.

So one can imagine the shock on clients’ faces when they arrived at the shop on February 1 hoping for haircuts and, instead, found a notice behind its locked security gate that read: PAUL MOLE WILL BE TEMPORARILY CLOSED / ADRIAN, WHO HAS OWNED THE SHOP FOR 50 YEARS IS TAKING BACK FULL CONTROL. THE SHOP IS ONCE AGAIN FAMILY OWNED AND OPERATED. WE WOULD LIKE TO THANK ALL WHO HAVE SUPPORTED US. THE LEGAL SYSTEM AND OUR WONDERFUL LANDLADY. The notice said customers could contact Wood directly for more information.

If they did reach out—as I, a former customer, did—they would’ve learned that Wood hoped to reopen the shop soon. The store’s closure was the culmination of several years of fighting and a scorched-earth legal battle between Wood and his former business partner and girlfriend, Susan Rooney.

Mixing Business with Pleasure

After Paul Molé died, in 1971, his son, also named Paul, took over the business. In 1974, shortly after Wood started working at the shop, he was recruited by Paul Molé’s barbers to take it over. He bought into the business through P.M.A.W. Hair Stylist, Inc., his own corporation. Then, in 2001, Wood became the sole owner of Paul Molé.

Rooney, a 62-year-old bespectacled woman, met Wood in 2009—after they had both separated from their spouses—through a friend of Wood’s daughter. Shortly after meeting, they started dating. She often called him “honey bunny” and her “soulmate,” according to Wood’s legal filings. Rooney promised Wood that she would “take care” of him as they grew old together, according to those same documents. “She wanted to get married. She wanted to adopt a child,” Wood tells me.

Paul Molé regulars get their own shaving mugs.

In 2011, Rooney started to formally manage the day-to-day operations of Paul Molé, a job that included paying the bills and taking care of administrative matters. “I just literally trusted her, and I let her just do whatever she wanted to do,” says Wood.

In the halcyon days of Rooney and Wood’s new romance, the duo agreed to formalize their partnership. They started a new corporation with a nearly identical name to Wood’s—P.M.W.A.—to operate Paul Molé. Wood says that Rooney’s friend and accountant, Christopher Miu, advised the couple on the agreement. (Miu later spent 14 months in prison for fraud, but continued to serve as the shop’s accountant until very recently. “I didn’t judge him for whatever that was. It didn’t affect us,” Rooney tells me.)

In 2012, Rooney paid $100,000 to purchase 80 percent of P.M.W.A. They signed a new lease for the barbershop, with Wood as the personal guarantor. Giving such a large percentage of the new company to Rooney was a practical—not romantic—decision. “I did not have the necessary funds to build out the [new] space quickly,” Wood later wrote in a legal filing.

Everyone from J.F.K. Jr. to Donald Trump, to Mike Wallace, to Chris Wallace, to Chris Wallace’s son, to Chris Wallace’s son’s son has sat for a $50 trim by Adrian Wood.

Around that time, Wood and Rooney signed an agreement that supposedly allowed the new company to use the Paul Molé name. “Little did I know at the time of Plaintiff P.M.W.A.’s formation that it was, in fact, the principal vehicle by which Ms. Rooney intended to rob me of my life’s work,” Wood wrote in a sworn testimony in September 2022, in one of the many lawsuits the two ultimately filed against each other.

The scissors came out in 2016. That year, some of Paul Molé’s star barbers left the shop to form their own, Barbarossa, which opened down the block from Paul Molé. According to Wood, they left because of Rooney.

Pietro Oliveri, one of the barbers who started Barbarossa, recalls telling Wood, “I don’t want to work for [Rooney].” The barbers were angry with her because she instituted a program that had them working more hours but for less money per haircut.

“I didn’t have to give him any explanation. He knew already I wasn’t happy with his girlfriend,” Oliveri adds.

Rooney claims they left because of Wood. After the barbers quit to start Barbarossa, Wood sent them a cease-and-desist letter for stealing clients, shaving cream, razors, and towels. In return, the barbers sued Wood for putting those accusations on Facebook, and claimed they left his barbershop partly because Wood made racist remarks against Jewish and Italian people. The lawsuit was dismissed.

After the mutiny, Wood says, he began to distrust Rooney, yet felt stuck in the relationship. After all, they were business partners. The remaining barbers noticed a burgeoning iciness between the former lovebirds. “There was always tension between them,” former employee Moshe “Moses” Rubinov, who recently opened up a new barbershop down Lexington, tells me. Rooney and Wood started coming to the shop on different days.

Somehow, Wood and Rooney continued living together, but “it was on a different basis” than before—perhaps less loving—according to Wood.

Things got worse during the pandemic.

In 2020, Wood claims, he discovered that P.M.W.A. had been undervalued by roughly $200,000 when he let Rooney take a majority of the company. Upon realizing this, he says, he pressed Rooney to hand over shares to make it a 50-50 partnership, and claims that Rooney orally agreed.

Tools from the barbershop.

Nothing kills a relationship quite as fast as a fight over money. When Rooney didn’t transfer the shares, Wood grew increasingly distrustful of her. Wood told her he was ending their partnership—both professionally and personally. But in June 2021, Wood learned of a new twist in the saga: P.M.W.A.’s outstanding payments.

In April 2020, P.M.W.A. stopped paying Paul Molé’s then monthly rent of $10,502.44 to the shop’s landlord, Vivien LeGunn. In a lawsuit LeGunn later filed against the barbershop, she testified that Rooney withheld rent “unless I agreed to give her a lease that was far below market rate.” Meanwhile, Rooney claims, she was close to negotiating a lease renewal in May 2021, but a few months later LeGunn “just stopped communicating completely. She got very hostile towards me. I don’t know why.” (LeGunn declined to comment for this story.)

“I didn’t have to give him any explanation. He knew already I wasn’t happy with his girlfriend.”

In June, LeGunn got Wood involved. “The landlord called me up personally and said the rent wasn’t paid,” Wood tells me. “I went to the bank, and I found out that [Rooney] removed me from the ability to sign a check, and so I couldn’t write the landlord a check,” he says. “Everything sort of went downhill after that.”

Rooney says she removed Wood as a signatory on the corporate bank account “after he broke into the safes in both my New Jersey and New York residences and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.” She tells me she couldn’t “trust him to not clean out my bank account.” There is no evidence that Wood was connected to the missing money, and he denies the allegations. “It was just another ‘How can I cause him as much grief as I possibly could?’” he says.

Between April 2020 and January 2023, the amount of unpaid rent swelled to $381,745.64. But with heightened eviction protections for tenants during the pandemic, LeGunn couldn’t evict Paul Molé.

During the period in which rent went unpaid, Rooney wired $50,000 from the corporate account to pay her own lawyers in legal disputes against Wood, money she ultimately returned per court order. She wrote $17,749.64 in checks to Gregory Rooney, her ex-husband, for digital-media services “to drum up business” during the pandemic. She also paid herself a $36,936.38 bonus from the account.

“I went to the bank, and I found out that [Susan Rooney] removed me from the ability to sign a check.”

Meanwhile, Upper East Siders continued patronizing Paul Molé, oblivious to the ongoing drama. “Maybe about a year and a half ago, [Wood] just wasn’t there. And no one would tell me where he was,” says Sagansky. “I thought there was a major health problem, [then] I was finally told that wasn’t the issue. But I didn’t know what the issue was.”

Wood lawyered up in August 2021. In the months after, Wood sued Rooney, Rooney sued Wood, and LeGunn sued Paul Molé, effectively suing Rooney.

Needless to say, Rooney and Wood’s personal relationship deteriorated beyond repair. Wood alleges that on June 2, 2021, Rooney threatened to kill him with a carving knife in their East 70th Street apartment if he didn’t leave the premises after a fight over the shares. (“That’s ridiculous,” Rooney tells me.) Rooney alleges Wood took $160,000 of her life savings from their Highlands, New Jersey, residence. (Wood says it’s nonsense.) They filed restraining orders against one another.

According to Rubinov, Wood began wearing a camcorder to work when Rooney was in the shop. “It was impossible to speak to him, because I don’t want to be recorded when I’m speaking to somebody,” he explains.

Customers were oblivious to the drama between Susan Rooney and Adrian Wood.

On June 3, 2021, Wood pleaded with Rooney over text: “I don’t want PM [Paul Molé] to fail, I’m tired, in pain. I want to retire,” he wrote. “We need to focus on what’s important!”

“Paul Molé will never fail with me at the helm. After all these years, you should already know that,” she responded. “It’s very dangerous to back me to a wall because everyone will go down with me!”

“I don’t want PM [Paul Molé] to fail, I’m tired, in pain. I want to retire.”

In March 2022, Rooney locked Wood out of the shop he had owned for almost 50 years because he was “causing too many problems,” Rooney recalls thinking. On the advice of his counsel, Wood entered the shop only when accompanied by former law-enforcement personnel until, a few months later, a judge ordered Rooney to change the lock and give Wood a set of keys.

July 2022 brought another lawsuit. LeGunn sued the shop for not paying rent and succeeded; P.M.W.A., and therefore Rooney, was evicted. Rooney left the shop on January 31.

The next day, much to customers’ surprise, Paul Molé was suddenly closed for business.

While lawsuits between Wood and Rooney are ongoing—and the question of who can use the Paul Molé name remains uncertain—Rooney was found guilty of withdrawing tens of thousands from the P.M.W.A. corporate accounts without Wood’s signature. The judge even reminded Rooney, “In this case where there are multiple violations of multiple orders, you can potentially be imprisoned.”

The shop has been closed since February 1, but Wood recently signed a new lease with LeGunn at the longtime location. He has to wait to reopen Paul Molé until his company—P.M.A.W.—gets licensing approval. He is hopeful customers will return once he’s back at his shop.

“This shop has been here 120 years, and we have good relationships with so many people,” he says. “The phone has been ringing constantly.”

Clients such as Sagansky, who couldn’t reach Wood at the height of the drama, are relieved that he will be back on Lexington Avenue. “I think that that shop is so inextricably tied to his self-identity,” he says. “I don’t know if he fully realized that when he was working every day there.”

Andrew Zucker works at a television-production company in New York City