Sacha Newley (Sunday Times Magazine, March 08, 2015)

I first met Sacha Newley over a decade ago at an exhibition of his paintings. The paintings were graphic, sad, disconcerting; spectres from his Hollywood childhood that seemed to haunt him. The gilded family of Joan Collins, Anthony Newley with their young children Sacha and Tara peering out into fake happiness in the golden Californian sun.
Sacha still paints, largely portraits. He’s just finished one of Jeffrey Archer. And he’s also written a memoir, Hollywood Child. The title sounds like one of his Aunt Jackie’s novels, but it couldn’t be more different. The characters are all dark and shadowy, most of them self-involved and there is no happy ending.
It’s the story of a childhood spent in big houses in Beverly Hills and London. It’s the story of his relationship with his father who when he was born in 1965 was at the apex of his stardom. Anthony Newley was complicated and largely absent.
His father and mother divorced in 1969 when he was three. Throughout most of Sacha’s childhood Dame Joan struggled. She had initial fame as a Hollywood starlet but her husband had wanted her to give up acting. After their divorce she networked with a passion for little else.
His surrogate mother was his nanny Sue Delong, a giantess who would wrestle him to the ground and sit on him when he misbehaved and grind him. It was the only physical contact throughout his childhood.
Sacha Newley, huddled into an armchair in a London members club, has the hooded eyes; the big brown grey wells that carry all the sadness of the world just like his father. But there’s a fineness, an elegance to his face. You see the beauty of his mother Dame Joan Collins.
The book has been optioned for a film by Donald Rosenfeld, producer of Remains of the Day and Room With A View. The original publishers recently pulled out because they feared it would offend their best-selling author Jackie Collins because of its unflinching tales of her sister Joan. ‘They admitted they were worried about a conflict with one of their biggest selling authors and they said we would advise you to find a publisher with no family ties.’ Dame Joan has in fact read the book and said she enjoyed it. ‘She hopes Felicity Jones will play her in the movie.’
I am not sure if his mother’s skin is as rhinoceros thick as it appears on one of his early portraits of her, or she has got caught up in the idea of Felicity Jones playing her in a biopic. Mommie Dearest for the 21st Century.
Sacha says all the time his mother doesn’t analyse much. ‘All that baggage is what ages people. She just lets it go,’ he says in a way that’s only partly admiring. Dame Joan and her son have a fascinating relationship. No matter how selfish and unempathic she was in his childhood, he always describes her as beautiful, particularly as she is dealing the most terrifying emotional blows.
His childhood was by turns extraordinary and excruciating. He was the son of one of Hollywood’s most shimmering golden couples. In the early sixties Newley’s musicals were the Tony’d toast of Broadway. His shows in Las Vegas were events. And his mother of course was impossibly glamorous.
They were both such extraordinary people. Although I wasn’t aware that my life was extraordinary at the time. I didn’t know what normality was. I was aware of being in a whirl of light, of electricity. They were generating a great deal of buzz, so my world was on fire. It was like being in a movie. Although I only realised that later.
‘My father was a genius. There’s no other word really. That kind of protean talent that encompassed so many different fields and areas in a way that nobody has touched since. If he had been less gifted he might have made his mark deeper in one particular vein. To my mind he is the third in the holy trinity of Sinatra and Sammy Davis. But he never achieved that status because he wanted to do everything, and that was his undoing. And also the fact that he was what nowadays be called a sex addict.
‘The libido was outside the box, off the chart. Girls were his thing. Some men of that kind of stature are into drugs or booze. For him it was the girls. If you wanted to indulge in psychobabble you could say he was looking for a connection that he never really found. The Don Juan motivated by his lack of fulfilment.’
They seemed ill matched from the start, Anthony Newley the intellectual, sensitive actor, singer, composer, lyricist, and the out of work starlet Joan Collins. ‘In many ways they complemented each other. He had great depth…’ And Joan Collins had great shallow? Her son laughs, not even a little embarrassed.
‘He was the introvert. She was the extrovert. He lived the examined life and she is not prone to self-examination. She acts, he reacts. He has endlessly second-guessed his every motivation. She would never do that. He said that being with her was like hanging on to the tail of comet – exciting. Her energy was incandescent.
‘He would sleep all day to accumulate energy, and she was a broken pipe gushing all the time. He was fascinated by her.’
Does he think they ever really loved each other? ‘She loved him deeply, deeply. When he left he truly broke her in a way that she’s never been broken.’
The impression I have always had about Dame Joan is that she is unbreakable, so I was startled when in the book there is a letter that Sacha found in his father’s boxes after he died in 1999. ‘I couldn’t believe the letter when I read it it’s so powerful. It’s a cry in the wilderness that I had never heard from my mother.’
In the letter dated February 13, 1970, she talks about looking at the empty closets that used to contain her husband’s clothes. She writes:
“I am desolate and destroyed…
You are gone, to another house and another life…
And I – I – who wanted and wished for an end to our 8-year farce am utterly miserable…
There is – or would be no chance for us anymore – right??…
What the fuck happened to us?? —
Certainly I loved you terribly…
It’s like crying on someone’s grave – it’s gone gone gone – you and me – Tony and Joan – Finis.
It’s such a waste and I’m so sad—You’ll never know how sad, miserable, bereft I felt coming to the end of our marriage. You think I’m cold or don’t care—“
‘I was profoundly moved by it because it showed me an aspect of my mother that I had never connected to. There was a pulse of emotion that I just didn’t expect. She was 29, 30. A young woman easily fooled. He totally betrayed her and broke her heart because he was a womaniser, a sex addict. And also due to his problems. He could never enter a room without watching himself do it. He was like the witness of his own life. He was never there and so his experiences were never real to him.’
Anthony Newley peaked in the late 50s, early 60s. His film career thrived with acting roles in Dr Doolittle and with his collaborative partnership with Leslie Bricusse. They wrote the stage show Stop The World – I want To Get Off, which was also made into a film with the hit song What Kind Of Fool Am I? They also wrote Goldfinger.
Bricusse was a Cambridge educated composer and impresario. Newley a Cockney Jewish kid from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up without knowing his father. ‘In many ways Leslie was like a father figure and dad was like the upstart son. Leslie knew he had found a Vesuvian talent in my father and he knew exactly what to do with it. They wrote the score for Stop The World – I Want To Get Off in three weeks in a bathroom because the house in which my father was living was being renovated. My father laid in the bath and Leslie sat in the toilet. Evie Bricusse used to say that the laughter that emanated from the toilet was thrilling to hear because she knew their synergy was incredible.’
In many ways it was a troubled showbusiness marriage. ‘They were competitive and that sometimes sparked genius and sometimes just a fight.’
Newley was insecure but with a towering ego. ‘My father was very much the It Boy and he pursued my mother hard.’ They met when Collins was dating Robert Wagner. Wagner took her to see Stop The World and then they went backstage and that’s when Newley decided he was going to seduce her.
Collins had previously been engaged to Warren Beatty and in the book Sacha says she even got pregnant by him. ‘They were both young stars under contract and a child coming along would have been a problem so they made the decision.’ To have an abortion? ‘At least he pushed it in that direction. She wasn’t entirely suited to motherhood. That’s certainly true.’ Indeed she wasn’t.
It seems that she constantly ignored the emotional needs of her children in her relentless ambition. That said, the picture that emerges of her is that she had a lot more grit than you would expect.
The Seventies were a nightmare for her. She was in her forties by the time she returned to LA in 1975 and a nobody. She was on that treadmill, working it, going to every party she could. She was also with a man who was a non-starter in terms of supporting her.’
On the rebound she married Ron Kass who was an accountant at Apple Records, but for most of their marriage he was looking for work. ‘He used to squirrel away a lot of her money and waste it but she found out too late when guys in jump suits came to collect the television and the Bang & Olufsen. I was in England at boarding school at the time.’
Collins had to endure the horror of downsizing her Hollywood home although she still managed to make modifications to the new house, a 10 x 20 walk-in closet and a fibre glass jacuzzi in the garden for Kass. He comes over as a rather grasping man.
‘He was the first good-looking American wearing chunky jewellery to come along. He still had the job at Apple with The Beatles when they met. He had this wonderful town house in Mayfair and it was intensely glamorous. It was the time of The Beatles final albums. They were all at the house.’
After he lost his job they would have moved back to California. ‘I didn’t know why daddy wasn’t there any more and I didn’t know why my new step daddy was there. I didn’t connect with him at all except over his car. He had the most marvellous Maserati convertible. He already had three children and once he’d had a child with my mother there was no feeling that he needed to connect with me.’
Kass and Collins had a child, Katy, who was involved in a terrible accident. When she was eight she was hit by a car when playing with a ball. She was in a coma for a month while her parents lived in a Winnebago in the parking lot at the hospital. ‘Katy never really recovered. She faces lingering challenges. Katy’s accident was one of the factors in the marriage ending. Instead of bringing the both of them together it drove them apart as grief can do sometimes.’ Soon after they separated Kass got colon cancer from which he did not recover.
At the time the young Sacha could only sense frustration, anger, loneliness, unhappiness and upheaval. Just as he had settled at the progressive King Alfred’s School in Hampstead he was moved back to California. He was given a Dalmatian puppy called Pirate when he was in London but the puppy savaged a Tiffany lamp and was promptly taken back to the pet shop.
‘I was devastated. It’s an emotional beat in the boy’s story.’ Suddenly he is referring to himself in the third person. But perhaps it’s not so suddenly. He has quite often painted portraits of himself looking down on a young self or another self, or in some way outside of himself. And now referring to the boy without the puppy he says, ‘He is lonely. And I don’t think he understands what has happened. Nowadays I think parents explain everything to their children, almost to a fault. But my mother never felt that was necessary.’
Much later on he realised that his mother was not without her own stresses. As she tried to assert authority his elder sister Tara had a teenage rebellion and refused to be told what to do. Collins said, “I’m your mother. I can tell you what I want to.” And Tara responded, “Well, why don’t you act like one.”
‘Tara was more forceful and connected with her feelings and emotions. I just wanted mummy to love me and I wanted a connection with the mummy I found so dazzling. She nourished me in the way a muse nourishes: at a distance.’
When he was 14 he and Tara went to live with his father on the other side of Beverly Hills. He felt he was punishing his mother because she had abandoned him. ‘So we abandoned her right back. Our dad at this point represented Shangri-La. His world was full of warmth, fire lit and granola. We could talk about our feelings here. It was night and day from being at my mother’s. They were living very different lives.
‘My mother’s house was like a streamlined vinyl cigarette, a speedboat. And my father’s was an old creaking galleon. My father’s world felt loving by comparison. But the house soon became too small for us all and we were yet again looking for another home, looking for the place where we would all finally feel happy and get along. And of course that never happened.’
His father sank his millions into a mansion once owned by Joan Crawford. He claims it was haunted and doomed, unlucky for everyone who bought it. His mother and Kass started working on The Stud together and that briefly re-cemented the marriage. ‘When we left to live with dad my mother went into a spiral of drinking quite heavily and Ron would take Polaroids of her when she was asleep or drunk and he would threaten to publish them if she ever tried to leave him.’
Throughout his childhood, with its constant shifting of emotional sands and changing locations, he didn’t feel he had a connection to anybody. The big space around him was to be filled by the big butch nanny Sue. ‘She was big in every way but her story weirdly does not appear in any of my mother’s biographies. She is lightly airbrushed out of the narrative.
‘Sue held it together. She held the world together as far as I was concerned. She was my continuity.’ There is a pause as we sip tea and venture into another corridor of pain. The relationship with Delong seems strangely S&M. ‘It was, yes,’ he laughs, a haunting laugh. ‘There was quite a lot of S&M. She would not just sit on me but sit and grind me into the carpet. I loved it, I didn’t love it. It was like the relationship boys might have with their older brothers, but in my case it was with a woman who was employed so it had a different frisson about it.’
Her presence in the book is visceral, shocking. After all the complex and taut emotions of the over thinking father and the never pensive mother, Delong’s physical presence and sheer physicality must have literally shaken his world. There is no description of his mother ever kissing or hugging him, yet this woman seems to be always chasing him, grabbing him.
‘Sue was an orphan and grew up as the eldest girl in a family of three boys. She was a giantess. Very butch, short haircut. Had a lady friend now and again who would pop by for a glass of beer and a chat. I think she was probably bisexual.’
Could she be more different to his mother who always looked so extremely feminine? He nods. ‘I think it’s true to say my mother didn’t receive a great deal of affection from her father. In fact he was a glacier. My mother didn’t get physical warmth from her father and a girl needs that.’
Is he saying she didn’t receive warmth so she didn’t know how to give it? ‘I think so,’ he nods sadly. ‘I think so. Sue was always standing by to sit on me if I acted up. And Sue I think understood the unspoken brief from my mother which was “I am overwhelmed. I am in a new marriage with two kids from a previous marriage and the boy is acting out. Manage this for me.” And Sue was only too happy to do that.’
He was totally accepting of being punished by Delong and being disconnected from his mother. To complain that he was unhappy or lonely never occurred to him. ‘I think to have made that connection with my feelings would have been dangerous.’
His mother never discussed feelings. ‘She was always concerned to hold things together, give the impression that things were good. Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on… Maybe I’m continually apologising for her.’
He is of course continually apologising for her. It is as if he wants her to be understood, to come over well, even when she’s behaved without sensitivity. Collins of course never wants to explain.
‘She is very realistic about her shortcomings. She said: “I was never a porridge stirring kind of yummy mummy. That’s not who I am.” And she is at peace with that.’
Even for someone who eschews analysis and introspection, this book must have been a gruelling read. She didn’t even ask him to change the references to her wearing a wig. ‘I think it’s common knowledge that she wears wigs. Her real hair is frail and thin so the wig has always been a way to enlarge the aura.’
Has she always worn wigs? ‘Yes. Maybe she did the odd beehive in the Sixties but it was mostly wigs.’ Has he ever seen her hair? ‘Yes. When she’s in the South of France and comfortable she’ll walk around without make-up. She has great bones. Her actual hair is thin. It hasn’t seen oxygen or light for 50 years, like various parts of psyche which also haven’t seen enough light. If she goes out without a wig there’s always a headscarf or a hat.’ Quite incredible to think that she was undaunted by her thin hair. Sacha shrugs, ‘Into every life a little rain must fall.’ He smiles benevolently and I can’t get the image of frail-haired Dame Joan out of my head.
She did point out one factual inaccuracy. It was an episode about his sister Tara nearly drowning in the pool of their house in Beverly Hills. It was not Tara at the bottom of the pool. It was Sacha himself. ‘I think that’s a good metaphor for my childhood. Drowning in a pool in the middle of a party.’
I think the false memory is a more interesting metaphor. The fact that he was drowning and he thought it was someone else. Perhaps he has inherited his father’s ability not to be present in his own life. ‘Exactly. All too often I witness my life rather than live it. And why does one absent oneself? Because of pain.’
The conversation morphs into talking about his father’s pain which was ongoing throughout his life and how he hired a private detective find his father. ‘He took Tara and I along for their first meeting which occurred in 1973. We went to this forlorn pebble dashed estate north east of London. In this dingy house a little man with National Health specs answered the door. Inside his little house it was a shrine to dad, all the cuttings and posters. I think it crushed my father. All I sensed at the time was a kind of confusion from him. I think he was very disappointed by the man he found because in his imagination he’d built up his father to be wonderful and then he discovered this puny little man. As much as he tried to restage the love affair between his mother and father it didn’t work.
‘He flew George out to Los Angeles and he went to live with grandma at the beach. After three weeks it was all over because he was grasping and difficult and rude.’
Sacha’s childhood was filled with characters who were difficult and disappointed, all alienated from each other. And in the background always a party with a smattering of A-listers. ‘It’s the only antidote to alienation: have a party. The thing about showbusiness is unless you have a regular gig there’s no security. You are serving a profession which is highly selective, highly judgemental and withering to your self-esteem at all times. The human soul is fragile and showbusiness is not good for it, but it is an addiction, a drug. It gives you a form of fulfilment which is illusory. It doesn’t last and it doesn’t build anything in the self.
‘Performers, entertainers, have to stay in touch with their inner child. It behoves them not to grow up. That keeps them in touch with their fantasies. My father was doing that on stage and mirroring that back to my mother. So she would feel that she wanted to be in that magical state as well. Her best friends Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon were in the make-up chair at 20th Century Fox and she was at home being a mum. She wanted to get a piece, and he didn’t really want her to go back to work. They had huge rows. That first row I remember vividly as I heard it through the intercom. I was three. It was like static booming. We couldn’t make out the words, we just knew there was a tempest in the house coming from mummy and daddy.
‘That’s why when my father’s movie Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? came along she was desperate to work. Her agreeing to it gives you an idea of how naïve she was.’ Basically Anthony Newley had created a porn film where she starred as Polyester Poontang.
‘Flower was his nickname for her and it’s hard to square Flower with Alexis Carrington but they are in fact the same woman. Joan had her head well in the sand when she arrived on a beach in Malta to shoot the movie. It was a porno with my father as Casanova. Much later than that she realised what he was doing was confessing to the world he was a sex addict. There’s a scene in it where Heironymous played by my father has a serpentine line of women stretching out in to the distance and my father is in a bed with a tent around it saying, “Next.” And one by one they go in.’
He never really found what he was looking for. After Joan he married an air hostess from Texas called Dareth Rich. ‘I was very attracted to her. She was a sexy woman. I think a lot of young boys get hung up on their stepmothers although she wasn’t very charitable in the end to me.’
He has two half siblings from this marriage; Christopher, who is sailing around the world in a small boat, and Shelby, a nurse. He doesn’t see much of them. ‘It’s an oil and water thing. It never quite works and I don’t think they need or want the connection.’
It was after she became pregnant with Christopher in 1979, when they had been together seven years, that Rich demanded Newley marry her. Soon after the marriage Vegas stopped employing him and his wilderness years started.
‘His show Chaplin did not transfer to Broadway after huge expenditure and then he got cancer. To salve his despair he started an affair with a 19-year-old and that was the end of the marriage. She threw him out, so he went to live at grandma’s house firstly in LA and then back in the UK.’
When he left California he had a yard sale where he sold his $3,000 suits that he wore to perform in Vegas for $15 each. ‘A big pick-up truck full of Mexican gardeners jumped out and started trying on the suits and bought the lot. The same suits that my father wore on stage at Caesars Palace were now being worn by Mexican gardeners.
‘When he came back to England in the late 80s he and grandma lived in an attic flat off Kensington High Street. My father always had great anger towards grandma because she allowed him to be evacuated during the war. He was billeted with an old crone out in the provinces and they had to share a room and a bed. She would wash naked in front of him every morning. He was eleven and she stank and one night she rolled over on top of him and almost suffocated him. For the rest of his life he could not share a bed with anybody he was so traumatised by the experience. Even in his late sixties when grandma was 94 carrying his porridge up the stairs while he was sick he would say to me, “I’m so angry with her I can taste it.”’
First of all he did an ill-fated show at the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington, Once Upon A Song, which was a disaster. He got a few episodes of EastEnders playing a crooked car salesman. ‘After that Scrooge came along. It hurt his pride that it was a Leslie Bricusse musical because he always wanted to think he could make it without Bricusse.’
He received great reviews but it was to be his last act. He had cancer which started off in the kidney but ended up in the liver and brain. He had eleven years of cancer treatments and finally died in 1999. His last words were, “It’s all a book.” Anthony Newley, it seems, was not present in his life even in death.
Sacha’s nanny Sue Delong also met with a tragic end. ‘After Sue was fired she went to work for Jackie (Collins) until Jackie discovered her trying to smother one of her daughters and then she went to work for Natalie Wood until things started going missing in the house. Then she went to the East Coast and worked for an art dealer until her terrible boundary issues got the better of her and she was let go.
‘At this point she checked herself into a low rent rooming house in Lower Manhattan and swallowed a bottle of pills but she was so enormous her body absorbed the poison and she woke up three days later with a terrible headache. Then she promptly put on her clothes and went back to the pharmacy and bought double the dose but by the time she got back two detectives were waiting for her so her second suicide attempt was foiled. (The police had been called by concerned neighbours).
‘She then came back to England where she had all kinds of health problems and she wrote to all of her former employers begging for money. One of the letters was to me. She asked for a drawing. I still feel guilty about it but I never replied. She was dead a few weeks later by asphyxiation. She locked herself in her car and fed the pipe in. We scattered her ashes in the East River. A surprisingly tiny amount of ashes for such an enormous woman.
‘Sue gave me something. When she first arrived I said I wanted to climb the tree and she allowed me even though my mother screamed from the top window to stop me. She encouraged me to climb higher and I did and unaccountably I burst into tears. Sue gave me continuity, she gave me a human sense of home. She let me climb trees and she gave me a toughness and self belief as a boy which I could never get from my father because he was a very feminised man. This woman gave me my boyhood self. I was physically revolted by her.’
In the book he dedicates as much time to describing Delong’s wobbling mountains of flesh as he does to his mother’s ravishing beauty. ‘Sue wore ghastly clothes, Spandex trousers and Spandex T–shirts. She looked a sight. Compared to this my mother was such a goddess. I was so polarised in my vision of women – with no middle ground.’
Being the son of a woman generally recognised as a world class beauty must your expectations of women. In one of his paintings, Mother and Child, the woman looks a little bit like Joan and a little bit like his first wife Angela Tassoni. Does he think he was searching for his mother in his first wife? He nods sadly, ‘Without question. I was under the deluded belief that they had similar energy but because of Angela’s Italian heritage I felt there was a yummy mummy thing and she held out hope that I could have some kind of synthesis of the two things I wanted.’
Is he saying that he wanted his mother and wife to be the same person? ‘Well, I guess yes.’ I needed to be hit squarely across my nose with a baseball bat and wake up.’
Before his marriage to Tassoni he was in a relationship with Diandra Douglas, former wife of Michael, nine years his senior. ‘Definitely seeking the mother and seeking the connection to the glamorous woman in the big boudoir.’
He is all about finding the connection that was missing in his childhood. Perhaps while looking for his mother he became his father because of the constant introspection. He had a therapists as a kid. But the therapist did not never last long because he was always moving or his mother ran out of money. One of the therapists offered art therapy which turned out some snakes ‘This was of course phallic so I could connect to my inner male. It was very powerful for me. I had a pet snake, Baxter, that my father bought me. When I was at school he tried to escape his aquarium and slit his throat.’ The snake is a recurring image in his paintings.
‘I’m not sure I have survived. But one hopes I can put the pain into my painting and writing, which is not always easy.’ After his marriage broke down three years ago he moved back to Britain. He now has a new partner Sheela Raman. ‘She is an extraordinary woman and she has given me a clear vision of myself, no longer the funhouse mirror version, and that’s really helped me. She is a writer working on a novel and a journalist.’
Being a long distance daddy to his daughter Ava (by Tassoni) seems torture to him but moving back to Britain has brought him closer to his mother physically and emotionally.
‘Mum and I of late have been recalibrating. I suggested we have a series of lunches together, just us, so that we could really talk about stuff without any distraction and we’ve achieved a level of connection that we’ve never had before. She is extremely well. Her life is still far too dramatic by half. There’s always something going on but I don’t think she could handle peace.’
Does he love her? ‘Beyond. My love for her goes deeper than I could ever really process and her importance to me is profound. I think of my childhood as a gift as much as it caused me difficulties.’
Just as it can’t have been pleasant to see her son’s vision of her looking way more troubled and lined than the world has ever seen her, she gamely hung the picture in the dining room. Michael Caine referred to it as “the picture of Doreen Gray.” ‘It’s very honest. She hung it up perhaps because Robin insisted.’
Robin (Old Etonian art dealer Robin Hurlstone) was her partner at the time. ‘He was magnificent in his sensibility and intellect.’ Why does he think that relationship didn’t work? ‘Because he didn’t want to play the game. He didn’t want to be Mr Joan Collins. But it did not end well. My relationship with my mother improved dramatically under his watch.’
Dame Joan has had five husbands. The first she married when she was 19 was movie star Maxwell Reed. A few months ago she announced she was raped by him before the marriage.
‘Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about her. He was a big movie star. Glamorous and a bully. He bullied her into marriage when she was 19. She was a stupid little girl and she wanted to get away from home, from her father.’ She wanted to get to Hollywood and Maxwell Reid was her ticket there. ‘Maxwell Reed wore more eyeliner than she did. He was a very questionable man. She’s always gone for the questionable, my father included.
‘When she was with Peter Holm, husband number four, I think that was an attempt to find her real father again. The discipline, the lack of emotion. He was actually a deeply nasty individual.’
Has she finally found happiness with Percy Gibson (He is 32 years younger. They married in 2002). He and Sacha are the same age. (49)A raised eyebrow: ‘They seem to get on incredibly well and I have a good relationship with him too.’ Perhaps at 81 she is finally a little less relentless, a little more peaceful. ‘Her life still seems far too dramatic. There is far too much happening. She is always dealing with some disaster. As much as she says she longs for a peaceful life I don’t think she can handle it.’
How does she feel about becoming a dame? ‘Delighted, of course,’ he says without a hint of sarcasm.



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.