In a much-publicised 1968 event, Vidal Sassoon cut "Rosemary's Baby" star Mia Farrow's hair into a radical crop
Hairdressing innovator, '60s style visionary, passionate campaigner, global business entrepreneur, football fan and philanthropist, Vidal Sassoon will always be one of Swinging London's most famous sons. Saga Magazine's beauty editor Lynnette Peck Bateman, who met Vidal on several occasions, said: "He was truly a gentleman hairdresser who was genuinely interested in women and how they lived their lives. He told me that he deliberately invented ‘wash and go’ hair cuts as women were busy now juggling work and family.
"Prior to 1963 (when he pioneered the asymmetric bob) women had to spend hours at hair salons being ‘done’, sitting under dryers and inevitable leaving with stiff bouffant looks.
"Did you know he was also the first hairdresser to come up with the idea of putting his name on a bottle of shampoo (and he made millions in the process from doing this). Although, when I interviewed him he was more interested in telling me about his architect-designed house in LA and how the England football team were doing...
"I did find him erudite, charming and very, very bright. A light has gone out in the world of hairdressing."
Vidal spoke to Jonathan Margolis for Saga Magazine back in 2008. Below is our interview with a man whose amazing life turned out to be cut above the rest:
It’s 1946, the depths of the postwar austerity days. In a smoky pub in the East End of London, there’s a massive ruckus. A bunch of followers of the recently released Sir Oswald Mosley has gathered.
Incredibly, barely months after the end of hostilities and the liberation of the appalling concentration camps in Europe, these Hitler-worshipping roughs are still intent on spilling blood in what is then the heart of Jewish London – streets in which the aromas of baking bagels and salt beef dominate the atmosphere.
But the Jews, tipped off by sympathetic non-Jewish spies in the fascists’ midst, are there in force to meet their tormentors. And the Mosleyites are no match for these boys, all (bar one, of whom more in a moment) are tough ex-servicemen. Dozens of fascists are left bleeding and whimpering on the floor under an onslaught of fists, knuckledusters, boots and knives. The police are called, but, thanks to friendly anti-fascists in their ranks, are mysteriously slow in arriving.
With the Mosleyites crushed, the Jews melt away. It was hardly a fair fight; they are led by men like Gerry Flamberg, a former Para wall of muscle who won the Military Medal at Arnhem, and Leonard Sherman, a Welsh Guards martial arts expert. Among the gang are also a VC, several holders of DSOs, DFCs, DSMs and, oh, one who hasn’t exactly seen active service – a 17-year-old Cockney trainee hairdresser by the name of, er, Vidal Sassoon.
“It’s funny, I always drew the line at knuckledusters,” Sassoon says with a smile at his beautiful house in Los Angeles. “I just couldn’t cut somebody’s face open, it wasn’t me. I was spending all day trying to make people look beautiful.” As for being a street-fighter who even spent a night in prison, while simultaneously inventing modern hairdressing, he says, “Yes, my life has been full of contrasts like that.”
The former street-fighter is 80 this year, but doesn’t look a day over a fit 70 in the California sunshine. “Back then we all had jobs. So I’d get back to the salons where I was working, often with a black eye and cuts, and I’d say something like, ‘Oh, I tripped over a hairpin.’”
It’s almost as if the handsome young Sassoon, who’d been brought up in an orphanage in Maida Vale after his deserted mother had to give him up, was struggling against his destiny. The moment there was another chance of less hairdresserly action, he was off to join a Commando unit in the new Israeli army, battling the massive Arab armies who were trying to strangle that tiny state at birth.
He only returned after the War of Independence was won and a letter arrived from his mother saying his stepfather had had a heart attack and Vidal needed to get back pronto to earn the family a living. He still didn’t really want to be a hairdresser, but not because it wasn’t macho enough for him. “I just didn’t want to do hairdressing as it was then,” he explains.
He’d been reunited with his mother at 11, and she had taken him by the hand on his 14th birthday to become apprenticed to a hairdresser in Whitechapel by the strangely hilarious name of Adolf Cohen, a disciplinarian who insisted his staff came to work from the shelters with clean nails, shiny shoes, and pressed trousers – but was not exactly a hair artiste.
So where did Sassoon find the inspiration to become the man who single-handedly made hairdressing an equal partner with fashion and played a major role in defining the Sixties and beyond?
“I was just an ordinary apprentice, no more or less talented than the others, interested in but not totally fascinated by what was going on. Except that somehow I had a good way of massaging and lots of people used to ask for me for a shampoo. I enjoyed massaging heads, and feeling the bone structure. It brought something to mind that was interesting to me.”
Sassoon now believes his natural leaning was to be an architect, and it was the way the head and the hair that covers it was designed that intrigued him from the age of 14. Architecture, he says, stimulated everything he did as he worked his way through West End salons, establishing his own in 1954 in a third-floor space in Berkeley Street (where a guinea paid for a cut, shampoo and set) and worked his way up to become a key icon of the Sixties.
“My inspiration wasn’t fashion, not by any stretch of the imagination, you know. I was fascinated by great architecture and shapes and what they did for cities. And hair was just a marvellous medium for doing something like architecture with people. It moved, it flowed. I discovered you could cut hair in so many different shapes and angles.
“It was extraordinary. I mean, if you had to choose a part of the body to work on, wouldn’t it be hair? What I was actually doing was not like work. I could investigate, develop shapes and angles that hadn’t existed before. There was a sense of purpose there from quite early on.
“I spent from 1954 to 1963 trying to change hairdressing into an art form which conformed with body structure and bone structure. That was the change, that’s what it was all about.” By the time Sassoon moved to Bond Street, his celebrity clientele was growing. “I was meeting people I’d never dreamt I’d meet, frankly. What I loved about the Sixties was the appreciation of talent, it wasn’t where you came from or who you were, just what you could do.”
One key event, in 1963, he remembers well. “The actress Nancy Kwan came in, and she had four feet of hair and I cut it all off. The whole time I was cutting, she didn’t look. But when I finished, she put her fingers through it, let it swing and then she smiled. She smiled with her eyes, and you knew that the smile was real.
“I said to my assistant, ‘Could you get me Terence Donovan on the phone?’ and I said, ‘Terry, can you work tonight? I think I’ve got something,’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ And that was the one that got into the press, Nancy Kwan’s bob photographed by Terry Donovan went all over the world. He took the best picture of the bob ever, a superb picture.
Another highlight involved Roman Polanski, who had been filming Repulsion with Catherine Deneuve (who was about to marry David Bailey). Polanski wanted to use the salon balcony ‘for a couple of shots’. Well, that couple of shots took five days. He felt a little guilty and later he called me to say he was filming Rosemary’s Baby and would I cut Mia Farrow’s hair. I said, ‘I always cut Mia’s hair, she’s a client.’
“So off I went to Hollywood and it was unreal. First class all the way, all very, very nice, quite different from our tenement in the East End. They paid $5,000 for the cut, which was right because I had to cancel a week’s work. Had I known the publicity they got from it, I would have added another nought.”
A global empire followed, two marriages (he is still married to Ronnie, his second wife), the tragic death of his daughter, Catya, of a drugs overdose, the fight with Procter & Gamble when they took over his brand and changed it in ways he didn’t like, the divorce from the business that still bears his name, the death of his beloved mother, Betty, at 97: but throughout there seems to be a tension between Sassoon the hairdresser and Sassoon the left-wing political activist.
He hasn’t done a cut in 25 years (apart from giving his three shih-tzus an occasional trim) but is still busy talking politics and doing what he can at 80. He founded the International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. More recently, he has been organising a sort of “Hairdresser Aid” for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“America doesn’t look after its infrastructure as it should, so we built two houses in New Orleans straight after Katrina, one for a black family, one for a white family. We’ve got 12 done now and by June it will be 22. You’ve got to be aware and involved, with half the world not knowing where their next meal is coming from. It’s not charity, it’s social conscience.”
He has not left the world of hairdressing entirely behind. He lives in London for three or four months a year, hanging out with old friends like Mary Quant, popping into Ronnie Scott’s, using his Chelsea season ticket (he’s been a supporter for nearly 70 years), and visiting his old salon and academy, even though he has no official link with it now.
“It has a connection which is very spiritual,” he explains. “They do my work. I hope this doesn’t sound presumptuous, but we started a revolution in the Sixties that not only was created for its time, but today allows other hairdressers from all over the world to take it further.”