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.