Vidal Sassoon: Razor Sharp

Vidal Sassoon: Razor Sharp

Jenni Frazer meets one of the enduring personalities of the Swinging Sixties, who is still so much more than a tonsorial Titan

I am sitting taking tea in the Savoy Hotel with Vidal Sassoon, wondering whether I can restrain myself from asking him what he thinks of my haircut.

It’s not often, after all, that one is in the presence of the greatest-ever wielder of a pair of scissors in the name of hair artistry, the man whose name is almost as synonymous with haircutting as Hoover’s is is with vacuum cleaners.

Readers will be relieved to know, however, that Sassoon is much more than the sum of his hairclippers. Lean and tanned, and an astonishing 75 this year, he was just off the plane from Jerusalem, where the name Vidal Sassoon does not mean shampoo. Rather, it resonates academic study.

The Hebrew University’s prestigious Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism is now celebrating its 20th year. Sassoon’s multi-million-dollar global hair empire paid for the launch, and still pays for the upkeep of the centre, the brainchild of the renowned Holocaust-scholar Yehuda Bauer. Together, Sassoon and Bauer went round the United States speaking in halls and private homes to drum up the initial support for the project.

“We thought we would get money from some people — and they didn’t want to know,” Sassoon recalls. “But others took us very seriously. And yes, I was hands-on: it wasn’t, ‘Here’s a cheque, build a centre’. We used the existing building of Contemporary Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University and we started to develop a really strong creative team.”

The team, now under the aegis of its British-born director, Professor Robert Wistrich, recently staged an international conference in Jerusalem on antisemitism and prejudice in the contemporary media. Papers were given by experts from Israel, the US, France, Germany and Sweden, as well as from the UK.

Few, however, of those present had had quite such an intense, full-on experience of antisemitism as the self-effacing Sassoon. At 17, he joined the 43 Group, a band of Jewish ex-servicemen most of whom had returned from the war with a determination to kick hell out of the postwar Fascists.

The group (named for the number of those first recruited) was actually formed in March 1946. One of its leaders was Gerry Flamberg, an early hero of Sassoon’s, who had won the Military Medal and been wounded at Arnhem. After the war, Flamberg had made a name for himself as one of the leaders of a march protesting against the internment of Jewish leaders in Palestine by the British authorities.

Sassoon was slight but tough — toughened by experience. His father had abandoned the family, leaving five-yeai-old Vidal and his little brother to survive in the Spanish and Portuguese orphanage in Maida Vale. Six years later, his mother remarried, but the then 11-year-old was evacuated – from London’s Petticoat Lane — when war broke out. At 14, a reluctant Sassoon was apprenticed — at his forceful mother’s behest — to Cohen’s Beauty and Barber Shop in the East End, to learn hairdressing at the comb of Adolph Cohen.

“If I made enough in tips,” he tells me, “I used to take the 25 bus to Tottenham Court Road on a Wednesday afternoon — that was our half-day — and go to the theatre. It was two shillings to stand at the back.” That, he says, is how he improved the accent of his spoken English.

But when following Gerry Flamberg’s banner, the hairdresser’s apprentice didn’t need to speak nicely. Assigned to a specific group, he took part in numerous actions against Fascists. “One Saturday on Ridley Road,” he says demurely, “five Jewish guys turned over the platform that Jeffrey Hamm [Oswald Mosley’s former right-hand man] was speaking from.” The “guys” included Gerry Flamberg. “The next day, every major paper had a headline, ‘Jewish war hero arrested at Fascist meeting'”

Sassoon insists that he “just made up the numbers” in the acts of organised violence, but he acknowledges that he was arrested and spent at least one night in jail. One senses that when a Jewish activist from the Haganah came to London to recruit from among the 43-ers, Sassoon’s mother, to say the least, was happy to let her battle-scarred son go off to fight.

So, at 20, Vidal Sassoon was in the Palmach. “Some creep of a newspaper guy,” he says now, “tried to get me arrested for treason by saying that I had been fighting against the British. But I only got there in July, and the British had left Mandate Palestine in May.”

After “very tough, exhausting and incredibly arduous” training, Sassoon and his little band of Anglo-Saxon volunteers were sent to the front line. Again, he is reluctant to place himself among the heroes of the War of Independence. “I just did what everyone else did,” he says. Stationed in the Negev, about 50 kilometres from Gaza, he had the bizarre experience “of being protected by [German] Messerschmitts — which were flown by Jewish pilots,” while being dive- bombed by [British] Spitfires, flown by the Egyptians.

Sassoon’s unit took, and kept, a hill for 17 days. After the action, he says, about 40 per cent of the group were dead or injured. “I had a friend, Lou Lenart. He was a captain fighter pilot from the US Marine Air Force. Ezer Weizman, who became Israel’s president, was his wingman. They had four Messerschmitts, which they would load up, bomb the Egyptian tanks, reload and go back to base. They would do this over and over again. The Egyptians signalled back to their command, ‘a major Israeli air force is attacking’ — but it was the same four planes!”

The Anglo-Saxons, he says, were three Brits — Jack Aptaker, Colin Fisher and himself — and an American, Shimmy Goldberg. Colin and Jack were wounded; “Shimmy and I were lucky.”

On the day that the war was over, conductor Leonard Bernstein came into Beersheba (“a one-street, camel town”) with the Israel Philharmonic to play. Sadly, Sassoon’s Gedud Shlishi (Third Division) was on guard duty that day, so he never actually got to hear Bernstein in Beersheba.

Had Sassoon’s stepfather not had a heart attack, he would have stayed in Israel, he says. “Hairdressing was the only thing I knew. My brother was still in school. I knew I had to go back and look after the family.” So he did, and though it would seem hard to find a logical transition from handsome soldier in the nascent Israeli army to hairdresser in the Edgware Road, Sassoon makes the link: “I came back feeling I could do anything. I stuck — sometimes literally — to hair. I had the feeling that I could do something with it.”

And he did. By 1954, he had secured a third-floor salon in London’s Bond Street, where he stayed until 1963, and where he had “the most fun ever, breaking all the rules. “We did colour, perms, and cuts with no sets.” Sassoon, working in a blaze of creativity in 1960s London, created the Bob and the Five-Point Cut. He cut Mia Farrow’s hair on the set of the film “Rosemary’s Baby.”

By 1965, courtesy of the chief executive of Lanvin, Richard Salomon, Sassoon was open in New York. “I took my London staff because they didn’t know how to do my cuts in New York.”

For a time, he commuted between London and New York before settling in California. And somewhere along the way, he married four times and had four children. Last year, tragically, he lost his eldest daughter, Catya, an actress and model, who was found dead at her home, aged 33.

But Sassoon, nevertheless, retains his enthusiasm for life and new experiences. Having finally hung up his scissors three years ago, he spends much of his time with his extended family (his second daughter, Eden, a former classmate of Monica Lewinsky, is marrying her Israeli boyfriend in September), his grandchildren — and monitoring the fortunes of Chelsea FC, where he retains season tickets.

His latest project, which he hopes will be adopted internationally, is for cities with a Holocaust museum to open a centre of Jewish culture next door. “I want them to show, from Moses to Kafka, what the creative contribution of the Jews has been. I don’t want people to leave a Holocaust museum and wonder why the Jews were murdered. I want them to go and see, and be able to say: ‘How could that happen to a people that did so much?’

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  • 25 April, 2003