Carrie Fisher (Saturday Times, November 19, 2011)

Carrie Fisher’s house is like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. In the winding path leading up to it there are grassy verges with giant toadstoolsand on the porch a wooden bird swings with a key in its mouth. There are stained glass churchy looking windows that make the light inside dappled and spooky. There’s a moose head over the fireplace, tan leather couches, vintage tapestry candlewick cushions, oak carved picture frames and owls. One wall is covered in oil paintings of Victorian cats and poodles. Everywhere there’s glass baubles and fairy lights, hand-painted lamps.
Tchotchke collected over a lifetime. Carrie Fisher is a hoarder of objects, yet maybe the sentiments behind all of them she’s had to relinquish from her mind.
Carrie Fisher had an A-list mind. It was sharp and sarky and required at all the best parties. Although she partied a little too hard, was bipolar, depressed, ended up in rehab and in hospital rooms having her stomach pumped a few too many times.
As she has documented in Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking. Her latest book Shockaholic is about the shock therapy she had to level her out, to kick back those addictive demons and her desire to mute out once and for all the shrieking feelings that tell her she is not good enough.
She can’t remember the exact moment where she decided ECT wasn’t as frightening as something from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Frances, that it wasn’t a punishment or an act of control or submission or tantamount to a lobotomy. She can’t remember that because a lot of her brain, the bits with the pain in it, has been shocked out of existence.
She describes it as ‘like getting your nails done if your nails were your cerebral cortex.’ She goes every six weeks and she says it feels as if her brain once set in cement was blasted open like a Hoover dam.
A lot of people float in and out of her house; her cleaner, her cook, her assistant, her mother’s assistant her mother Debbie Reynolds lives in an adjacent house.
She arrives tiny, bare feet, unpedicured, thin legs in black leggings, large breasts pulled inside a purple cardigan. Long dark hair pulled back. Her eyes look haunted and at the same time blank.
She is smoking a pretend cigarette. ‘It’s a pacifier with vapour. It makes me look like an idiot.’ I admire her moose and she tells me that she’s having a tiger’s ass delivered for the other side. ‘You see, that’s what I’ve been missing all my life. A life without a tiger’s ass is not worth living and not worth writing about.’
She likes to write everything down. Little phrases going round and round in her head constantly being perfected. Her clever mind took her such a long way, further than all the galaxies that Princess Leia could never even imagine.
She’s just been to the dentist and had a tooth pulled. She can’t have any pain medication. ‘My teeth are all new as of last whole thing with painkillers is you take them when you’re not in pain. And right now with the ECT I’m on a blocker so I can’t feel painkillers even if I took a truckload.’
Fisher always liked to block things out and now all of her short-term memory is completely dissolved. Large chunks of her vocabulary , something that was very precious to her, have gone and been replaced by simpler versions of the same word. She thinks that maybe it has improved her writing, made it more straight.
This book is definitely different to the others. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s missing. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s just more direct. It’s certainly compulsive reading.
It’s hard to put your finger on what’s different with this book. It feels direct, raw. It is certainly compulsive reading. ‘I am a terrible liar and this book… I got frightened that it was too personal.’
The book talks about waking up next to her dead friend Greg Stevens, a gay Republican political operative, celebrating Michael Jackson’s last Christmas with him, her relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, who stole her father Eddie Fisher away from her, and making up with Eddie Fisher, and losing him again when he died.
They had a lot in common. Nice singing voices, a desire to be heard and a desire to take drugs. But more of that later.
There is no filter mechanism with Fisher. She says everything she’s thinking. Most of it comes out in an unstoppable jumble of random thoughts that are tenuously linked.
‘I went to the shrink and I said I don’t have any secrets except the secret I get loaded. He said maybe that’s my only of giving myself a private life.’
When she was born she was public property, her birth across all the tabloids. She was born in the goldfish bowl. ‘You know how you saw your father more on TV than you did in real life. I don’t think many people would say, “Oh God. You too.”‘
A man with platinum hair peers in. ‘He lives with my mother. They are lovers. He is her gay husband. She’s copying me.’ The man turns out to be her mother’s carer. But Fisher did indeed have a gay husband, chairman of CAA Bryan Lourd. He’s an uber agent, flamboyant, generous, well-loved within the Hollywood community. Didn’t she realise he was gay when she married him? ‘He must have forgotten to tell me. And my mother also had someone come in and die in her house.’
She likes to talk about history repeating itself. Stevens was one of her greatest friends. He liked to as Hollywood folk call it ‘party.’ Apparently he had not been partying the night he died, but he took three OxyContins and he was next to her.
This was the catalyst for her mind to implode. She felt haunted. She felt grief and she seemed to process all of it in quite a psychotic destructive way.
Her daughter Billie suffered because she was full-time crazy. She feels very guilty about this now. Billie went to live with her father and now is studying at NYU. She doesn’t remember exactly how bad it was for a teenager to be living with a bipolar mother who got back into drugs.
‘The short-term memory is shit so I keep notes. Do you want some cereal?’ She is snacking on a bag of Jenny Craig cereal. Since her ECT therapy she forgot what she had to do not to gain weight. She gained 60lbs and has now lost 50 of them by sticking with Jenny.
In her book she writes, “Craig is great. Craig is good. Thank you for this portion appropriate food. Amen! And by men I mean the four or five that might look at me again in a few Jennified months.”
As she puts what look like Rice Krispies in her mouth one by one she puts on naughty face. ‘This is my contraband. They hide the snacks from me because I’m a truant. I like to get away with something. Also I slipped – Baskins and Robbins chocolate ice-cream. You don’t think I’m good all the time?’
Fisher would hate to be thought of as good. ‘I don’t know what the fuck happened. I went on the road. I wasn’t exercising, which I did freakishly do ever since I was in a mental hospital. I would exercise in the morning, then go to the mental hospital so at least I had control of my physical body. For 15 years I was exercising regularly. I went on the road. I was older. I would eat crap. I ate ten peanut butter balance bars a day and full fat Coca Cola.’
You didn’t have Diet Coke? ‘I don’t know why I didn’t. I got a little manic. It all started when Greg died. Then I started doing ECT and I’ve been more productive these last four years but I got fat. I stopped the drugs, but instead I was eating and shopping. And the sex. This was with strangers. People at bus stops. I didn’t have a relationship.
Manic depression comes with excessive promiscuity, spending. And then I stopped. And I stopped the substance abuse.’
She’s joking about the sex. She has not got rid of her addiction to shocking. She was supposed to have stopped the substance abuse years ago but somehow she got someone to give her OxyContin.
‘You die in your sleep. I have done that. But I didn’t do this this time. When I slipped four years ago I did it. That was my moment in the sun. everyone was devastated. I shouldn’t have but I did. I shopped. I brought presents and sent them all around the world. They had to stop my Barneys card.
‘I was spending everything I was making and I had to maintain this residence while I was on the road. Now I’m allocated a certain amount of money and I like getting away with something. She puts on a little girl’s voice. ‘Hi, can I have another $400 because I want to get shoes.
‘But between the shopping and the eating and the ECT I had the most productive four years of my life. The little slip thing didn’t do my daughter any good. She’ll never be able to think that I’ll be OK forever. Nobody who has been an addict can ever think that.’
She speaks about Billie with surprising maternal pride. ‘She’s kind, good, a fantastic girl. She’s a DNA jackpot. She just worries about me sometimes and I’m sorry for that but that’s her good little heart. She hated me for a minute there, sure. I did too. It was like a club. I wasn’t stumbling around or anything, I just checked out.’
She talks about shopping, sex, all with the same tone. ‘ECT is attractive if you’re suicidally depressed. I wasn’t suicidal but I came to a point where nothing was helping and I thought I was a burden on everyone. Being depress, being bipolar, medication I was or was not taking was not working. They flew me back from my show to do the ECT. You get to the end of the hall. There were no options. And this has made things possible.’
She means she was in a vicious spiral? ‘And now I’m circling the dream. They asked me to do it before and I said no. I’m not suggesting you feel a little bit blue get some ECT. But if you’ve exhausted the options of talk therapy coupled with medication and hospitalisation stays and none of this works you are obliged for the sake of your family to try it.’
She says ECT doesn’t hurt. ‘They put you to sleep and there’s no convulsions. It’s a short acting anaesthetic and they put you next to this thing that looks like a DVD machine. And the doctor puts these two little pieces of film here.’ She points to her temples. ‘They say dream a nice dream. You have a headache, you come home, you take a nap, you’re done.’
Only the other night did she move back into the room in which Stevens died in 2008. How did she end up sleeping with him? ‘The house was full.’
I’m only there for one afternoon and there’s been a constant stream of guests. Sean Lennon had a room there and James Blunt wrote a few songs in her bathroom that has a piano while he stayed there.
‘It’s a clubhouse. It’s fun. No wonder Greg wanted to die here.’ And then shouting: ‘No. He wanted to live here. Imagine, just three little pills and then he died. Like bam.’ She goes over the minutes of the night or as much as she can remember them, which is actually quite a lot for someone who has had their brain cells zapped. Even the shock therapy can’t quite remove it.
What you’re never sure of with her is the chronological order of events and when they happened. It all spills out of her like separate dream sequences.
‘I went to AA the whole time. It’s because of AA I’m not dead. But they don’t want me to talk about it because generally people talk about it then they get loaded. I went to meetings and I lied. I went to AA meetings on drugs.’
I think she’s very remorseful about this. It’s just her voice isn’t remorseful. It doesn’t register sad or happy. It’s as if she can only feel the emotions in the present.
‘In this period of time I have been doing ECT and AA. Anything with letters in it. My bra size was so big it was an L. Beverly d’Angelo (an actress friend who likes surgery) wants me to go in and have twin reductions. Right now I’m ignoring them. I hear it’s a painful surgery.’
She tells me that she read that she had a breast lift but didn’t remember it because of the ECT. Googling herself was another addiction. ‘I don’t like to look. This morning I read one about me being gay. People say bad stuff about you, like I’m not bankable.’
She lists the current Top 10 bad things said about her on Google. It’s strange she can remember. For instance if she sees a movie she can watch it over again because she can’t remember the ending, but she remembers everything bad said about her on the internet.
‘Even if I had half a brain that half would remember each bad thing. It’s emblazoned.
‘I can watch a movie from start to finish and not remember seeing it, so I’m constantly entertained,’ low chortle. ‘It happens with books. I keep getting to this passage and going wow this is really familiar. It turns out I’ve been reading American Pastoral three times. It’s about ageing.’
‘With age comes wisdom and a whole bunch of other bad shit, bloat and wrinkles and terrible things with the neck. I say in life you can live on one side of the magnifying glass or the other. The side that makes big things small or the side that makes small things big.’
And she can do that without mind numbing drugs? ‘Yes. You learn to be surrounded by the right friends. I don’t want my daughter to have to worry so I will do what it takes. When I slipped it was with opiates. I had to lie to get them and remember I don’t like lying.’
Does she think she and her daughter’s relationship survived the patch when she was in an altered state? ‘We did. But it cost. My purpose is to make her life comfortable. For her to live in a space where she’s the best person she can be. That she can be as happy as she can be in life. I have failed her but she has forgiven me. She will always have the hairs on the back of her neck stand out. They’ve been trained to.’ By this she means Billie will always be frightened of what her mother might have got up to.
‘She is doing incredibly well. She’s had the same boyfriend for two years. No one deserves this good a daughter, except maybe Nelson Mandela. She is studying music and music business, so there’s a little bit of her being like her dad, and there’s a creative part of her. She’s very responsible. She’s got a good voice. She takes singing, writing and philosophy.’
How does she get on with her ex-husband? ‘We have a good relationship. His hairs are also trained. The three of us went to Amsterdam for her birthday. And then we went shopping and decorated her apartment. We were in ABC (trendy homeware store in New York) for the entire day. I asked Bryan to get back together with me. I told him it would be good for his image. It could be seen as compassionate, weird and complex. I didn’t really mean it. He said what about his boyfriend? I said it would all stay the same.
‘Then there was that hurricane that wasn’t a hurricane and I’m in New York. Bryan, his boyfriend Bruce, and Billie are all somewhere else. Billie calls me and says “Daddy says you should go to the apartment” and I say I’m smelling a reality show. The idea of me moving into the apartment with Bryan, his boyfriend and Bryan’s boyfriend’s daughter who’s four. I thought maybe I could sleep with Bryan’s boyfriend, and then Cindy, my lesbian assistant, could sleep with Billie’s boyfriend.’ She booms with laughter at her own scenario.
‘We’ve come a long way. Even if we weren’t always in the best of shape our priority has always been our daughter. But we are actual humans, so we might have not got along as one might not.’
She loved him madly at some point? ‘Yes. I picked him to have a child, so it’s not like I’m unaware of his strengths.’
Was he a love of her life? ‘No.’ She picked him for his DNA? ‘No. He took very good care of me. He’s a good father. He was a reaction. He wasn’t Paul.’
She’s talking Paul Simon. They went out for six years, were married for two, divorced for one, and got back together for another three. Twelve years altogether. He counts as love of her life.
Does she mean that Bryan was the opposite of Paul? ‘I mean he’s a caretaker. Paul probably is a bit more now but he and I were not a good mix in a relationship. And to have brought other people into it would have been a scream. We understood each other. We had a blast. We were way too similar.
‘We stupidly read our horoscopes one day – we are both the same sign. It said Librans either get along like a house on fire or they fight like cats and dogs. We were a good match in this way but it didn’t work. It would be interesting if we wrote down what we were saying to each other. Sometimes we totally understood what the other person wasn’t saying. We are the same species and that does not make a good relationship.’
It makes a passionate yes. ‘Yes,’ said deadpan. They probably had great sex. ‘Probably.’ A dry laugh. ‘We had make up sex we broke up so often. Every time we broke up I would take that lamp with me and he knew it was for sure.’ She gestures to a hand painted glass lamp on the piano. ‘I would get that lamp and I would say I’m leaving. It cost $20,000. That was my break-up lamp.’
Interesting the treatment hasn’t made her forget any of that stuff. Her recall about Paul Simon is vivid and she is the most animated talking about him. ‘Yes, I remember Paul very fondly. I remember I took a lot of LSD at that period as well.’ Does she remember the LSD? ‘Very fondly.
‘Oh, shall I call my doctor now and say my foot hurts, I need some LSD.’ You get the impression she is used to calling up doctors for whatever she wants. She shared a dentist with Michael Jackson and bizarrely they spent his last Christmas together.
‘His kids are adorable. He was a good dad. He gave them whatever it was he hadn’t had himself. All that love. And you can see it. You cannot fake that.’
The dentist, Dr Chandler, is now deceased. He was happy to let his kid hang out with Michael Jackson and sleep in the same bed and then suddenly there was all those allegations of abuse.
‘He killed himself. Don’t you think he might be guilty? His own son stopped speaking to him and said it was all a lie. He trapped Michael. That guy was a monster. He was evil and manipulative and dark. Whereas Michael was good and sweet.’
Did she not find it scary that she and Jackson had a dentist and doctor in common, evil facilitators? She doesn’t answer directly.
‘Arnie (Klein) was his skin doctor and probably gave him pain medication because of the burns he had. I don’t think he would have had Demerol. But you know, doctors in this town, the bigger the celebrity the larger the prescription.’
What was Michael like to hang out with? ‘Well he wasn’t ordinary. There was no one like him. He was a mensch. He had a sweet kind of presence. He loved people and he wanted everyone have what they wanted. He wasn’t dark, he was just really odd, and wouldn’t you be? I’m odd. But there was a very ordinary part to him and there is to me.’
Part of her oddness comes from always being in the spotlight, even if in her case to start off with it was bathing in her mother’s glow. ‘We were in the public eye. He was in the iris, I was more in the whites. We both had complicated intense relationships with our parents. He danced his stuff away. When we went to the ranch we found out in the morning he was in this dark room and he’d been there dancing all night. Sweet.
‘It must have been hard for the siblings to have him and the mum, you know, always having to apologise for what he was so that you didn’t feel diminished by it. You never want to say this is a problem. Michael wanted to fit in. He wanted to make you feel comfortable, and when he couldn’t his solution was drugs. He trusted children because they couldn’t come up with ways to manipulate him or wrong reasons to love him. He liked people that didn’t know who he was. That somehow diminished something ugly. They were innocent, therefore he was innocent. But he wasn’t so innocent that he didn’t know when people around him were corrupt.’
Did she see him often with her short-time stepmother and his fantasy mother Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Oh, they were very peaceful together. They didn’t have to explain anything. They didn’t have to make the other person feel not so bad about being famous. It’s a very complicated club to be in.
‘When Paul and I were together the issue of celebrity was neutralized. We didn’t have to talk about it. We didn’t have to say fucking shit here come the paparazzi. Whereas to everyone else that seemed the weirdest thing in the world. What rendered that manageable was finding an ordinary space in this extraordinary one.’
Is she ever in touch Paul Simon? ‘Not really. Paul and I didn’t have children together. It was a very intense relationship. I don’t know how people do that. We can’t stay in contact because we had that kind of relationship: boom, boom, boom. It would be hard to maintain it to settle into some other kind of one. We have communicated through a friend of mine in England. He’s got a life now, a peaceful place. I saw him perform at Glastonbury and he’s fantastic. Introspective, intellectual.’
We backtrack to Elizabeth Taylor. Not that she purposely doesn’t want to talk about Paul Simon. It’s as if we’re constantly talking about everything at once and I can never be sure that our interview isn’t like that book she keeps reading over and over again and forgets that she’s read it.
‘Elizabeth Taylor and I became friends. She would ask me to present her awards and I would say “Here’s to the woman. Thank yo for getting Eddie out of the house.”‘
By Eddie she means Eddie Fisher, her father, who left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor. ‘She called me at one point to get Eddie’s number. I didn’t realise they hadn’t spoken. He didn’t believe it was her. Then she was telling him to talk to his doctor about his medication. They had a sweet talk. I called her when Eddie died and she cried. She was a good person.’
Was Eddie a good person? ‘Good person. Terrible father. I did not have a traditional relationship with him. (He was absent from most of her childhood and appeared later on in life.’ At one point they were drug buddies. Later on they became inextricably close.
‘I loved him and I know who he was and that’s because I stopped needing him or expecting him to act like a father.’
She thinks the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. They both had similar addictive personalities. ‘I knew he was insane and to a certain extent I catered to it. I made him laugh. He was hilarious and a darling, a child, a boy. He wasn’t a man at all, but not like Michael, he was sexual. Sex for him was an appetite. He was a darling man and I miss him.
‘My mother came over the other day and said “lots of pictures of Eddie in here.”‘ She pulls face of disapproval. ‘He had just passed and somehow all the pictures had arranged themselves around me in the room.’
Her mother was upset to see so many pictures of the husband who left her? ‘She took note.’ They never made up then? ‘No. they both came to my show the same night. He was in a wheelchair and she was in my dressing room and he came to see me and she hid behind the costumes. Then she went out into the hall and they met in the elevator. But it was the only chance they had to see each other.
‘He could always sing and once he sang at my show and they gave him an ovation and he stood up out of the wheelchair. He’d been healed by show business. I feel cheated that he died. We were having such a good time.’
She didn’t have him in her childhood and then she found him again. They seemed to be children together. ‘Then I got him only to lose him again. But at least I got him. He would have flirted with you. He was also really losing it. He thought this guy I was seeing who was white and 39 was Barak Obama. We both loved Barak Obama.
‘He smoked a lot of drugs and he liked to smoke a lot. We got him this pipe that looks like a woman’s ass. I used to get him strippers- although he hated the last set of strippers I got him. There’s the holocaust and then there’s Eddie’s strippers holocaust. They put chocolate on their tits and had him touch it. He didn’t like that. It’s not a good memory to have. I wish ECT had given you a menu: take this bit.’
Will she forget today? ‘I will forget details. They are not my strong suit. I forget words. I am used to being lickety split. And now I don’t connect as fast. Who knows if it’s ECT, LSD or AGE.
There’s a kind of optimism though. ECT has given her hope, not despair. ‘I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m going to go on the internet. Maybe there’s a web site I can start for over the hill celebrities. I would like a British boyfriend. I would like him to be black and a professor at Oxford. The white thing hasn’t worked and basically I worship Obama.
‘Salman is saying I could be Lady Rushdie. I’m having Halloween with him, but I know he likes much younger women.’ Her white fluffy dog starts wagging its tail excitedly. ‘That’s because my mother is here. Can you imagine sharing a dog with your mother? Can you imagine him having to choose between the two of us?’ Suddenly her voice breaks from its monotone. There’s an edge of competitiveness neediness, and we glimpse the old Fisher, the one who needs the dog to love her most.

Vidal Sassoon (May 2011)

Stepping into Vidal Sassoon’s home in Los Angeles is like stepping inside one of his famous five point geometric haircuts. It’s all about the details, the precision.
He, and his home, are strangely macho, stylish and uncompromising in an elegant way. The thing that’s instantly compelling about him is his machismo. Even though he’s in his eighties and very polite, he is commanding, takes no prisoners.
I have just watched Vidal Sassoon The Movie, a documentary. It talks about not just the artistic significance of his work and how he revolutionised the hair industry, but where he came from – a Jewish orphanage in London – and his life long battle against anti-Semitism.
He has a centre at the Hebrew University in Israel for the study of anti-Semitism and related bigotries. He is its major supporter.
You can see in him now the fierce and brave solider that went in 1948 to fight for the newly created State of Israel. But more of that later.
He’s impeccably dressed in grey jeans, patent leather tennis shoes, a black sweater with designer holes, a good manicure, and a good haircut.
The Vidal style of hairdressing was gentlemanly and fiercely heterosexual. He was part of the 1960s revolution, He had it all – style, women, money, dreams.
He once said, “In those days having sex was the same as having dinner. There was no fear because there were no diseases that penicillin couldn’t cure.
We can easily imagine him mingling with the beautiful people of the day – Twiggy, Mia Farrow, Grace Coddington. But the documentary shows there is a much grittier side to him, one that has endured hardship and tragedy. Unrelenting poverty forced his mother to put him and his younger brother in a Jewish orphanage. She was allowed to visit only once a month and never take him out, and most of the time he was starving.
There is no victim energy with Sassoon, nothing. Not a trace of resentment. Wasn’t that hard to accept? There’s just a little sigh and he says, “First of all what we truly have to look at is the situation. I was born in 1928 and by 1931 the Depression was beginning to mount. My father had left us, my brother, and myself. We were in Shepherds Bush, but we were being evicted, we had nowhere to go. In the middle of the night an uncle picked us up and took us to the East End of London, Petticoat Lane. One of those tall terrible tenements. The only toilet for four families was outside. You froze in January. You would hope that someone had just been to keep the seat warm. There was a cold water tap inside. You did what you could.
“My mother’s sister, my Aunt Kate, took us in. she had three children and her husband had died. There were two rooms with five children in one room on mattresses. It wasn’t the choicest way of living. The Jewish orphanage had a bath on every floor, and I was often found in it. Where’s Sassoon? He’s in the bath. I love baths and this was the first place I’d been that had one.”
Wasn’t the regime harsh and lonely? “It depends. We had one headmaster, Daniel Mendoza, who’d play football with us. For two years we had him and life was beautiful. There was one guy who was got rid of very quickly. He would come to the room before we got into bed and look at our underwear and if there was any mark you’d get six of the best with a brush. Once the authorities heard of this he didn’t last.
“We were not physically abused. We were told it was through the kindness of others that we were there.” This was something that ingrained deeply in him. He is hugely generous to charities such as the Katrina Fund. “I think you should be kind to others. You can’t take it with you. You give it away to good causes or you create good causes, and we do both.”
He is also hugely generous to the centre in Israel, which is run by Yehuda Bauer, a professor born in Prague who escaped the Nazis. “We were so angry once we’d seen Dachau and Auschwitz after the war. You couldn’t help it. When 43 Jewish ex-servicemen, one who’d won the Victoria Cross, these were tough guys, and they were not going to put up with it, the anti-Semitism (in Britain). They thought if the police aren’t going to do anything, we’ll do something. So they asked for volunteers. Hundreds of us went over (to Israel). The police were protecting Mosley. Where could he go when the war was over he’d been so far behind Hitler? He was married to one of the Mitfords with Goebbels present. Anti-Semitism is indigenous in so many countries and it can become endemic if they allow it to”
What did he think of John Galliano and his anti-Semitic outbursts? “He could go to prison for six months.” Does he think he should? “Well, for that foul mouth… When you have an influence over people because of what you do, yes, absolutely, he should. It’s okay saying sorry but when you are drunk you say what you really feel.
“Did you know that the two women he was insulting by saying they should put you up the chimney and I loved Adolf Hitler were not even Jewish? It’s opened a lot of people’s eyes. Sometimes people have to be re-educated.” He’s talking in a whisper as he says all of this but that doesn’t diminish the passion with which he talks, in fact the opposite.
He tells the tale of his mother on the day he left telling him he was doing the right thing. Imagine Jewish mother sending her boy off to fight.
His mother dreamt that he was going to be a hairdresser. “I usually left the house when she had other premonitions. She was quite a character.” Her vision was so strong that she packed him off at 14 to be an apprentice at a salon run by Adolf Cohen. It wasn’t something that Sassoon himself had dreamed of. He wasn’t an academic. He was good at sports. But somehow once in Adolf’s salon he was transformed and extremely ambitious.
Does he think that his desire to succeed was to prove to his father that he was worth something? “That might have been innate but I never thought of him again, I never saw him again.”
He says that at one point, at a particular low, when he was 10, he ran away from the orphanage to his Aunt Polly, a relative of his father – he didn’t know his mother’s address. Once reunited with his father he simply took him straight back to the orphanage and that was the end of their relationship.
He didn’t suffer anti-Semitism at school. “I played football for the school. They couldn’t have cared if I was Chinese, Indian, or what I was because I was one of their sportsmen. I was dreadful at studies. One teacher said ‘I can see that you have gaps between your bouts of ignorance’. I truly was nothing special.
He started work and found that his boss was a great disciplinarian. “You had to come in with a crease in your pants, shine on your shoes and clean nails, and it was the middle of the war.”
When he had his own salon he was equally rigorous. “I was very strict because I wanted to uplift the crowds. I never did scream at anyone, especially in front of others.” His voice is a sharp whisper and you can imagine him being courteously cutting.
His stylists say if they did anything wrong he would never shout, but they would know instantly. He would come over very contained and give them withering whispers.
He was working for Adolf Cohen on D-Day. “We’ll get you Adolf,” said the American troops as they passed. “We cut the hair for British and American soldiers. An enormous man came in and said ‘Are you the lucky Limey that’s going to cut the hair of this fine Irish gentleman?’ His neck was filthy. I gave him a bar of soap and he scrubbed himself as well as he could and I shampooed him. Every month he came back. He was a doctor of Irish literature, Dr O’Shaughnessy. He told me about Beckett and he taught me about Joyce. And he taught me about Donleavy.” So he gave him a love of words and rhetoric and theatre and every Wednesday afternoon he went to half price matinees in the West End on a bus.
“No one would come with me. I would stand at the back of the theatre and I just loved it. I enjoyed going alone.” There’s something about him that despite being in the frivolous hair industry he’s always been an outsider and a loner.
“It was a difficult time for Jews who were proud of being British and proud of being Jews. In ’48 we went to Paris. We were just sent to an address and then to Marseille to a displaced persons camp where people from the concentration camps who still hadn’t found their families were there. it was a great experience talking to these people. your sense of reality had nothing to do with the reality of the moment. It was what the Nazis had done. 55 million were killed in that war, but no one ever thought they would throw children in ovens.
“In July ’48 we got to Israel and I was in a hell of a good group. British Captain Wingate was helping train the Israelis. This was the best year of my life. When you think of 2,000 years of being put down and suddenly you are a nation rising, it was a wonderful feeling. There was only 600,000 people defending the country against five armies, so everyone had something to do.”
His dark brown eyes are on fire when he talks of his war memories. He remembers “we took a hill and attacked at four in the morning, took them by surprise. It was a hill overlooking a main road where the Egyptian heads of the army were heading. If they had passed this spot they would have been in Tel Aviv in a few hours but we took them.”
He describes his group of four American and British Jewish soldiers. “Only two of the four came out unscathed and that was the average all round, however many Egyptians died trying to get up that hill. They had terrible casualties. A faceless man sent them out there and they probably wanted to be with their loved ones.”
Were you very sad that you had to be part of that killing? “I wouldn’t have had any self-respect if I didn’t. Somebody had to be one of those somebodies. My mother the day I left for Israel said ‘You are doing the right thing son’. I’ve never heard of a Jewish mother wanting to send her kid off to war. She preferred my brother actually, he was always first in his class. The headmaster told my other that he was university quality. But the system then meant you could never get a scholarship. He became an accountant. He had a massive heart attack and died in his late forties. He smoked two packs a day. He wasn’t a drunk but somehow he lost his nerve. He was always asking why was I put in an orphanage. I never asked that. I knew she couldn’t help it. I accepted the situation, he did not.”
An interesting lesson, the temperament of two brothers and the difference between success and self-destruction. Sassoon never wallowed in what went wrong. He simply moved on to what he could put right for himself and in the world; brave, strong, a fighter.
My mother eventually remarried a man named Nathan Goldberg. He was a wonderful man, a working man, I doubt if he earned £25 a week, but he was generous, he gave of himself. He would take us to Trowbridge to the movies for the afternoon. We were evacuated to a village called Holt, and afterwards he would go to the bookshop where he would talk about authors and afterwards go home to listen to Mahler. In the final analysis my mother was proud of me. For the last 25 years I brought her here. She’d have a lovely little apartment and a lady that stayed with her. She had a driver who was an ex-cop who had only one eye. It was shot out during police duties. She would say he would drive better with one eye than people with two. When she’d get ready to go out the hat went on and white gloves.”
He is extremely proud of his academy. He loves the idea of spreading his method. “Now we have two schools in Shanghai. My work was accepted in so many countries, which was fascinating to me. Leonard and a whole bunch of people worked with me, not for me. When Leonard was on the floor you had to be on top form, and then he left and I thought ‘Hum, it took a long time to train him. So I thought of all the other guys there, lovely guys, and I said I can’t stop you from leaving but I’ll make sure you do very well if you’re here. (He gave them shares). And that worked like a dream, they stayed. They worked their tush off, you had to be a team, no one person could do what we did.”
The fluffier part of the documentary equates Sassoon’s bob to Quant’s mini-skirt. Anybody who was anybody came into his Bond Street salon: models, photographers, aristocrats, film directors, and Sassoon became friends with Roman Polanski.
“I’m sorry he got into all that trouble over here. Wasn’t Chinatown brilliant. Hollywood missed out. on the other hand you don’t go round sleeping with 14-year-old girls, but you never can tell the age.”
His friendship with Polanski led to one of the most publicised haircuts of the decade – Mia Farrow’s long sheets of blonde hair were chopped into a boyish crop that was the shortest hair ever seen on a woman. Polanski was filming Rosemary’s Baby and Mia Farrow had had an argument with Frank Sinatra, her then husband, in which she’d ended up chopping at her hair.
“When I got to her there were bits that were about an inch and bits that were ten inches. She didn’t tell me what had happened. Her bone structure was beautiful. I told her that we had to go very short. But it didn’t matter,” he whispers almost breathless in appreciation, “it was very special.”
It was cut at Paramount Studios where a boxing ring was set up and an audience sat on chairs arranged around it. He seems to love the idea of performance. His salon used to have huge windows so everyone could look in. what they saw was very egalitarian. For the first time a duchess would be sitting with a housewife, a model with a nurse.
“When it was shampoo and set people came once a week and went to the Ritz for lunch and there was no equality. By crating a situation that was about angles of the haircut you could keep it for four or five weeks without needing to do anything with hit so it worked beautifully, the socialites and showbiz people were sitting next nurses and secretaries. I used to dance around the chair, it was just my natural way of moving.” He talks about one day where he created a special haircut for Nancy Kwan and he immediately called in Terence Donovan so he could take pictures of the moment. It was a swinging bob with a short back that became known as the Nancy Kwan.
The five points was another style. Grace Coddington had it, and other models would ask her where she got the haircut and they would fly in to London.
Did he know that he was creating a revolution at the time or was he just working. “No, I knew that we were doing something very different. I married my receptionist. It lasted 18 months. She went off with a ski instructor but we’re still friends. She and Ronnie are friends. It was my fault. I never had time. I was all about my thoughts, my work, my inspiration. I was always in hair. Every relationship fell through except for Ronnie who’s been with me for 20 years. That’s the longest I’ve been with a lady including my second wife Beverly Adams, the mother of my children. That was 13 years (1967-1980). I’m not as friendly with her as we are with Elaine.
“I think what happened there is people lose their identity. If there’s one partner who’s very successful. Before me she’d made four or five movies where she had second billing with Dean Martin, but she lost her identity. What I was doing was so invigorating and so charged.”
After Adams there was a brief marriage to dressage champion Jeanette Hartford-Davis which began and ended in 1983. “With Ronnie it’s different. She took this house four years ago, it’s a Neutra, and made it livable. She never had an identity crisis because she knows her worth. She’s an art major, every evolved and involved.”
Ronnie is in the kitchen preparing chopped liver and bagels. Does he think he met the right person at the right time? “No question. I think that the thing about love is if after 20 years you’re still fascinated, you’re in love.
And did that not happen other times? “I don’t think we were in it together. We didn’t get each other as Ronnie and I do.” Do you mean you were living with them but you didn’t really know them? “I think our thoughts and our psychologies were taking us to different places. With Ronnie we can just talk about anything, about art. This whole room is art books.”
The house has many small adjoining rooms all very angular – teak book shelves house multiple heavy art books. “She has a wonderful eye. We rarely argue. We like the same things, the same shapes.”
Sassoon talks softly, sometimes in a whisper, but always precisely and with intent. He knows his worth and he knows his mind. There’s a great strength in him. Part of his success came from never compromising. He tells me a story about American Glamor magazine. He had lunch with the editor who said, ‘I find your work a little too boyish. If you can soften it down and make it more like Kenneth (look it up) we’ll give you a few pages. I said ‘You already have a Kenneth, you don’t need another one. When you feel you need a Vidal call me.’ If you have a sense of style and purpose and will you don’t want to compromise. You must always do what you feel is right.” Suddenly I see him on that hill, a fighter.
There was one fight he lost – he lost control of his product line which had been the first line of shampoos and conditioners that promised to deliver salon quality at home. It came with the tagline ‘If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.’ He says he wasn’t thinking straight because it all happened in the aftermath of his divorce from Adams.
“I was seduced by a company and this company came to me and said ‘We know you want to go international and don’t have the resources to do it. We’ll do it in a way that you will remain number one for a long time.’ A year and a quarter later a bigger company bought the company and I didn’t have an out clause. I left school at 14, I didn’t go to the London School of Economics, I didn’t know what an out clause was.”
In 2003 Sassoon sued Procter & Gamble alleging that P&G had destroyed his brand by skimping on marketing in favour of the company’s other mass market shampoos. The loss of his product line in America and Europe seems to have been the one blind spot for a man who always got his way.
It’s been said that if a woman came in for a haircut and asked for it to be a certain way or just a little cut off and he didn’t feel that was right he would give her the haircut he thought she needed, not necessarily the one she wanted. He smiles, “That’s very true. I remember one woman coming in and asking for a very short fringe and I said to her ‘That’s the most dreadful thing you’ve ever thought of’ and she said ‘You will do this because that’s what I want’ and I said ‘No madam I will not because that’s not what I want. If you will let me change your hair to something that really suits you I will.’ She rushed out.”
Sassoon was not going to be treated as a servant, he was a visionary. He didn’t want to do perms and sets. He saw them as a kind of prison for women. All of his styles were about liberation, movement. “They just put their hands through their hair in the morning and let it fall into a great shape.”
He met Ronnie in Cincinnati when visiting the P&G headquarters there. She was a design consultant for P&G. “It’s her home town.” He gives a sort of sly half smile that seems to say he’s happy to visit Ronnie’s relatives there but the place has bad memories.
They decided to end the product in Europe and the US without me having any say.” His son Elan has his own product line called Sojourn. “I haven’t been involved in it at all. Something he had to do himself.”
His daughter Eden runs a Pilates studio in Beverly Hills. Coincidentally I’ve been going to Eden’s studio for a year and she never once mentioned who her father was. “I had four children, now I have three. Catya was a great personality. She OD’d at a party on New Year’s Eve (in 2002).” Now he can never celebrate a New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. “I can’t really.”
Was it an accident? “How do I know,” he says breathy and defensive.” Maybe she just took too many drugs. “You can hardly call it an accident.” Was she depressed? “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. It was a young people’s party. We were just called the following day and told what had happened.”
Catya was a beautiful girl who had been a model and acted in various B-movies, including one produced by Roger Corman. Was she working at the time? “Because of the drugs… had she not been on them she could have done something in this town. Her mother being in films we had a whole bunch of publicity. There were studios interested in Catya but she kept shooting herself in the foot. Misbehaving. I don’t want to talk about it any more, if you don’t mind,” he says with a polite firmness.”
David, his youngest son, has got the sense of adventure. He’s tall and elegant. “I took him to Morehouse, the crème de la crème black school. I thought he’d want to learn that side of his culture. (David is adopted and mixed race). He said ‘No dad, not enough white chicks’.” Sassoon is laughing about this.
Catya had three children. Two are in Columbus, Ohio, with their father, the other one is in Africa with his father. Ronnie calls us for brunch and we walk through the elegant house into the kitchen. Would he have liked to be an architect? “No question. I would have loved that.”
Does he think Ronnie is his soul mate? “No question about that.” He makes me a plate of chopped liver and smoked salmon and Ronnie is organising some vitamin drips for their trip to the East Coast. He had pneumonia last year. There’s not a sign of any frailty now and if there was he’d never show it.