Remembering Vidal Sassoon

It was only a few weeks ago that I was sitting with Vidal Sassoon in the living room of his sprawling Bel Air home. It was a chilly early evening and we warmed ourselves by the heat of the fire that was roaring in the fireplace.  We were drinking green tea – it was always green tea for Vidal – and he’d been reflecting on his earlier years in Hollywood.

He stared at me intently across the coffee table, his eyes probing mine.  Penetratingly. And then with a sudden sigh, he leaned forward and carefully, softly, uttered the words.

“I’ve got leukaemia,” he revealed flatly.  Before I could react, he inhaled deeply and added, “I’m really quite ill.”

He saw the shock in my face and continued softly, “I’m resigned to it. I’ve had a wonderful life. A fantastic life.” He gave a slight smile that was tinged with sadness. “I can’t complain. I’m 84, I just had my birthday a short while back. It’s been a fabulous ride.

“I got diagnosed two years ago but I wanted to keep it quiet. Now it’s progressed and I have to go to the hospital for treatment a couple of times a week. My life revolves around that now. And reading.  I used to swim every day for exercise but I don’t have the energy to maintain that regimen.

“I get terribly tired. It’s very difficult for me to walk far. I have to rely on a walking stick, in case I get into trouble. Some days I’m okay, others I’m just overwhelmed by tiredness.

“But what can you say about it. I’m not in pain. I just get very tired easily.”

It was devastating news. I’d known Vidal since I was a child –  my ‘uncle’, Robert Zackham, was Vidal’s oldest friend and working colleague, and my hairdresser father had partnered Robert in his salon, where Vidal often came to visit.

Our last rendezvous took place very recently. We’d talked on the phone some days earlier and arranged that I’d go to his house a few days later. I wanted to capture some of his memories for a BBC radio documentary I was writing.  He was happy to oblige. “As long as I’m fine on the day,” he added cryptically before ringing off.

Little did I know that it would be his last interview.

His house on Mulholland Drive on the outskirts of Bel Air was partially hidden behind a clump of trees, the number barely visible from the road. Like his previous home in Beverly Hills, it could only be reached via a long, winding driveway flanked with exotic trees and plants. It felt like driving through the Botanical Gardens.

When Vidal emerged from his bedroom and walked down the long hallway, its walls showcasing exquisite sculptures, I was shocked to see him looking frail and gaunt. He was leaning on a cane. “I use it to keep myself steady,” he waved off my concerned questions and offered a swift smile. “I’m no spring chicken after all.”

He had lost weight since I’d seen him last. I put it down to his health regime. He was always a health nut. And he spoke not slowly, yet without speed. I put that down to his having had a busy day.

I was so wrong.

In the vast living room of Vidal’s architecturally-magnificent minimalist home, we sat in front of the fireplace and reminisced. He felt a tremendous pride in everything that he’d done and last year documented it all in his autobiography and a riveting documentary. Yet behind the pride lay a humility. Often self-effacing, never arrogant, Vidal’s demeanour was dreamy and reflective. 

Every now and then, Ronnie, his devoted wife, popped into the living room to check that all was fine. On one appearance she was followed by their two little grey Lhasa Apsas, Lulu and Yoyo. On another, she brought with her a blanket which she lovingly draped over Vidal’s lap in case he got cold. His faithful manservant brought tea for us and with it a plate of English biscuits.

We’d just been discussing some of the voluminous tomes on art and architecture that adorned the room. His passion for the subjects knew no bounds. And he was as knowledgeable on each as if he had made them his life’s work. He viewed hairdressing that way. As architectural shapes. Works of art.

Then he had dropped that shocking news.

There was always something about Vidal Sassoon that set him apart from other men. It wasn’t that he was the best haircutter in the business, although he was. It wasn’t that he was the most famous hairdresser in the world, although he was that too. And it wasn’t that he had turned rags into riches, which he had.

No, it was his gentleness that stood out. Moving in a world notable for being cutthroat, Vidal was that most unlikely of souls –considerate, gracious and very gentle. Devoid of arrogance, he exuded confidence, yet with it a humility, rare in one so successful and ruling over a multi-million dollar empire

In early years, I often saw Vidal (‘Viddy’ to my parents) at hairdressing functions. My father sometimes let me play truant from school and took me with him when he was entered in one of the international hairdressing shows. He knew they excited me and he harboured hopes of my following in his footsteps. I remember one occasion – I must have been about 10 – when my father was designing the hair of a beautiful blonde model and Vidal was doing the same in the next chair with a brunette Miss World. I watched him, glued to his hands, fascinated by the way he worked. Deftly and with immense concentration. Snipping creatively and running his fingers through the hair and letting it swing back naturally into shape.  Layer after layer.  Building the form. He could have been layering and designing a block of flats the way he went at it.

In later years he told me he had always approached hairdressing geometrically, like architecture which he adored. If his mother hadn’t had other plans and if he’d been able to have an education, his dream would have been to become an architect. (“To me, architecture was the extreme art form.”) But in those war years, kids from the East End didn’t have a lot of choice over their career directions. Especially when they came from a single parent home – his father had abandoned the family when Vidal was three; when he turned 5, his mother put him in an orphanage for seven years because she couldn’t afford to keep him.

She’d had a premonition that Vidal would become a hairdresser, so for her there was no question about it when she carted him off to Adolph Cohen’s Whitechapel salon where he became a shampoo boy at 14 by day, while at night vicious German bombs lit up the skies “and rearranged the streets of London”.

He secretly joined the underground Jewish group, The 43, a group determined to quell fascism and anti-semitism. Vidal was its youngest member and was horrified by some of the things he had to witness and even carry out himself. He finally dropped out when it became too violent for him but he continued throughout his life to fight against anti-semitism.

He became a dedicated friend of Israel. A devout Zionist like his mother, in 1948, at 20, wanting to do his bit in the fight for Israel’s independence, he joined the paramilitary arm of the Israeli army and fought in the Arab-Israeli War. Israel remained in his blood to the end and he visited many times. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he later established the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. Stamping out anti-semitism remained a fervent pursuit throughout his life.

He would have stayed in Israel had his family not needed him back home. He returned to London and to hairdressing. Just a few years later, in 1954, at 26, he opened his first salon in Bond Street.

“I decided if I couldn’t change things from the hairdressing art form into what I considered architectural hair cutting art form then I would leave the craft,” he told me.

He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and revolutionized the industry by turning hairdressing into an art with his headline-making cuts.

Vidal was the quintessential ladies’ man. With his dazzling smile and keen eye that always spotted the best in a woman’s face he was able to design a cut and style that played up her bone structure. (“You cut according to the angles of the bones, the body, the shape. You never cut to make people look pretty. That’s not what it was about. That was the old way.”)

His ‘Sassoon look’ became the fashion of the day. Movie stars and ordinary people flocked to his third floor salon.  It was there that Vidal lopped off 4 feet of Nancy Kwan’s hair. And where Mia Farrow and Lee Radziwell – “she always said she’d bring her sister (Jackie Kennedy) but it never happened” – were among his huge clientele.

After opening a salon in New York, he eventually moved to Los Angeles and landed a television talk show. It was short-lived but established his immense popularity among those who only knew him through his slogan “if you don’t look good, we don’t look good”.

Vidal was a raconteur par excellence and never failed to amuse with a story or two. One of his favourites revolved around a meal in a Moscow restaurant when a bunch of menacing looking Russians walked in.

“These guys heard us speaking English and one of them leaned across the table and said ‘Bobby Charlton!’  I’m a soccer fan you know. So I said ‘Lev Yashin!’ who was the great Russian goalkeeper. ‘Aah, Lev Yashin!’  So then they ordered vodka. And it kept on coming. Well after Pele and Bobby Moore and goodness knows who else, I finally staggered out of there. But we’d made these great friends who hugged us as we left. They couldn’t speak a word of English and we couldn’t speak a word of Russian. Just footballers’ names. And so much vodka it was ridiculous!”

Vidal had four children, the oldest of whom, Catya, died of a drug overdose. He never recovered from the pain of losing her.  But with his fourth wife, Ronnie, 23 years his junior – they met when he was 62 and she was 39 – he found a tranquility that had been previously missing. For 20 years, Ronnie was his anchor. And “my tower of strength throughout this illness.” 

His legacy will be the phenomenal contribution he made to the world of hair fashion. But it will also be his lifelong devotion to Israel and its causes. And his efforts to quell anti-semitism.

“You do what you can in this life,” he told me once. “And if what you do can make a difference then that’s all you could ask for.”

Vidal Sassoon made a difference.