Vidal Sassoon: Not bad for a hairdresser
August 21, 2010
As we climb higher and higher up Mulholland Drive into Bel Air, the canyons falling away ever more dramatically on either side of the road, the cab driver puts his foot on the accelerator; every hairpin bend becomes perilous. At the highest point, hidden behind trees and at the end of a steep private drive, workmen are trying to link Vidal Sassoon’s toilets to the main sewerage system. Sassoon laughs that in this, one of Hollywood’s smartest neighbourhoods (Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty are neighbours), the loos often become blocked. It’s a gravelly, mischievous laugh that erupts frequently – a laugh at the great crazy sweep of things, underlined by experience – and it encapsulates Sassoon’s amazing journey from the streets of the East End of London to the Hollywood Hills.
That he bought – for $6 million, four years ago – this glamorously sophisticated house designed in the late Fifties by modernist architect Richard Neutra is not surprising.
It entirely fits Sassoon’s vision of “nothing superfluous”, gleaned from his long-held love of modern architecture. Constructed on one level, with original artworks by Ellsworth Kelly, Lucio Fontana (including something that looks like a flayed egg) and Anish Kapoor (a giant, hollowed out silver ball), this is a minimal masterpiece of construction, with partitioned rooms and simple furniture, and perfect for the man who, in the late Fifties, customised the geometric cut and layered bob. In his revolutionary open salons, he gently, and sometimes not so gently, urged his nervous clients to let their bouffants fall free, be chopped into, mussed, reshaped.
Sassoon, who was appointed CBE last year, cut Mia Farrow’s hair into its elfin crop for Rosemary’s Baby. He made his name international with a range of products; he got us to Wash & Go. His Sixties very definitely swung: he was heterosexual, a prodigious shagger, and mates with photographers such as David Bailey and Brian Duffy and actors including Michael Caine and Peter O’Toole. Now, even though the Sassoon name is owned by Procter & Gamble, and his salons are run by others (whom he knows, at least), he has a firm, if un-grandstanding grasp of his legacy. Vidal Sassoon changed not just the style of hair, but how we think about it. He wasn’t precious: he wanted to sell, go global.
As we walk around a swimming pool and a hidden viewpoint with a steam cabin and Jacuzzi overlooking the valley, his beloved shih-tzus, Lulu and Yoyo, shuffling at our feet, Sassoon reveals he is recovering from two bouts of pneumonia, the latest of which, in June, the doctors thought might prove fatal.
“I said: ‘I can’t die, I’ve got the film and the book coming out,’” he says, laughing. Self-promotion is second nature: back in the day, once he had established his salons, he travelled the world, spreading the Sassoon gospel at massive hair shows, and later with his shampoos and conditioners. Now he cannot wait to be back on the road, publicising his autobiography, Vidal, and Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, produced by his friend Michael Gordon, the founder of Bumble and Bumble. “People have said I must be mad – I should be in Hawaii with my feet in the sand. But that’s not me,” he says in his light but craggy voice.
The film is reverential: Gordon made it as an 80th “birthday gift” for Sassoon who, two years on, grumbles that the pneumonia has kept him from swimming and has decreased his muscle mass. He seems frail, stumbles once, and breathes carefully. But he looks nifty: he has close-cropped white hair, a tan and trendy duds (skinny grey trousers by Yves Saint Laurent, little grey scarf, black patent Dior trainers). A physio comes around to train his arms with rubber bands. He takes lots of vitamins, and every week “a gorgeous Russian nurse” administers globulin to top up his white blood cells. When he was ill in bed, he enjoyed being brought breakfast while watching his beloved Chelsea FC (“They’ve been my team for nearly 70 years now”) play live on cable.
“For a while, I felt very sick,” he says. “But the will pulls you through. I didn’t think about my mortality; I thought: ‘I’m 82, look at all the advantages I’ve had, how many creative, exciting people I’ve met, the salons.’ If it’s to be, it’s to be. But it’s very hard to rationalise that there are people a hell of a lot worse off than you when you look so bad, and think: ‘Oh, God, is this what I have come to? Someone give me a cyanide pill.’ That’s a joke.”
It would have been a bit of a bugger if he had died, because he and his wife, Ronnie, had moved here from Beverly Hills only last year. “I wanted to be closer to nature,” says Sassoon. Deer press their noses up against the windows, while the presence of rattlesnakes, coyotes and mountain lions means Lulu and Yoyo are kept on a tight leash. When we peer into his favourite bathroom (huge, white, massive power shower, steam jets), he says he loves it all the more “after coming from Wentworth Street, where four families shared one toilet at the end of an outside corridor – in January you can imagine how charming that was. You hoped someone had sat there first to warm it.”
This isn’t said with nostalgia. As his aesthetic shows, Sassoon revels in the present. When I ask why he has so much art on the premises, he looks aghast: “We’ve worked, we’ve made cash and the choice is you can either buy stocks and shares and open the paper every morning to see how they’re doing, or you can have the best things on your wall.”
Wentworth Street was at the heart of the Jewish ghetto where Sassoon lived in the East End with his mother and younger brother, Ivor, after the family had been abandoned by his father who, he says, “was fluent in several languages and probably had sex in all of them”. He was heartbroken when, aged 5, his mother put him in a Jewish orphanage in North London, where he was later joined by Ivor. “I thought it was a punishment for something, but I couldn’t hate her for it. She was doing it for my own good.” He ran away to see his father, who again rejected him. “When he turned his back on me that time, I never saw him again.” He died in his early seventies. “Ivor and I were told where the funeral was, and we said: ‘Why should we go? We didn’t know that man.’ So we didn’t.”
Ivor, who later became Vidal’s book- keeper, would often ask his brother plaintively why their mother had placed them in the orphanage: “There had to have been another way.” Sassoon would gee him along. “I’d say: ‘You remember how we used to enjoy playing soccer in the yard? The fact it was the first house we’d lived in where we could have a proper hot bath?’ And these little pep talks rallied myself. Right from when I was a kid, I took things as they came; good and bad, I rolled with the punches.” Later, in his teens, his mother met the beloved “NG” – Nathan Goldberg – “who became my father”, says Sassoon. Goldberg was, according to Sassoon, a lovely man “with a great sense of self even though he had been brought up with no advantages”. He cared deeply for the boys: he taught Sassoon about music (Mahler, Beethoven), and later offered him £1,400 to set up his salon. “He and my mother walked arm in arm wherever they went,” recalls Sassoon, “and that was very delightful to see.”
Sassoon was an apprentice first – forced by his mother – at Adolph Cohen’s salon on Whitechapel Road. “It was either become a tailor or a hairdresser in those days,” he says. “I didn’t think becoming a hairdresser was very dignified. If I was good enough, I would have preferred to have played for Chelsea, and if I’d had four more years of education, I’d have gone into architecture, no question.”
The family didn’t have the 100 guineas to pay for an apprenticeship, but Mr Cohen told the young Sassoon: “You seem to have rather good manners, young man. Start on Monday.”
But Sassoon felt like a social misfit, lacked focus and went from job to job. “I wasn’t a child genius, I wasn’t even the best apprentice. I was a bit of a rebel. If I couldn’t learn anything, I was off.” In one salon, he threw his scissors into the ceiling in frustration, and ran away to Paris for a fortnight, “which probably did me a lot of good”. If he got enough tips, he’d take the 25 bus into the West End for the theatre matinees. He’d study actors such as John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson to improve his diction: “I took elocution lessons.”
His mother, an ardent Zionist, held political meetings in the family home, and Sassoon joined the 43 Group, fighting fascists on the streets of the East End. Later, he fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and describes it as “a liberating time, waking each day in the desert, fighting for a cause I believed in”. He returned, aged 22, and thought: “If I’m going to do hairdressing, I’d better be serious about it.”
His next job, with the legendary Raymond, was the most instructive: the master of the so-called “teasy-weasy” showed Sassoon “all you could do with a pair of scissors”, even if his styles were more elaborate than Sassoon’s friskier vision allowed. “But you didn’t mess with Raymond: he was an amateur wrestler.” In 1954, Sassoon opened a small salon, and soon after that came his first grand affair, on New Bond Street, all dark brown and silver.
“It was like an art gallery,” a former member of staff recalls in the film. “I made promises I wouldn’t tease or backcomb hair or lacquer it to death,” Sassoon recalls. “It liberated women. They could come in once every four weeks or so, rather than three times a week. Women with less money would save up for a cut.” Inspired by Marcel Breuer’s design for the Whitney Museum, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s constructions in Chicago, he began his own revolution, cutting into and around the shape of the head tightly, the fringes heavy and angled. The biggest compliment he received was when Breuer said it was obvious that he had taken his cue from architecture.
“I was crazy,” he admits. “I would be dancing around the chair, almost breaking the ankles of the apprentices who were trying to pass me things. The one thing that mattered was that 45 minutes of haircut: did it suit her bone structure? Was I sending her out looking better than she looked before she came in?
I was a bit nutty to work with, but it wasn’t ego, it was a demand for perfection. One customer demanded I cut her hair a particular way, and when I told her we didn’t do that kind of work, she said: ‘You’ll do what I tell you, young man.’ I said: ‘No, but I will book you a taxi which will take you somewhere where they will give you what you want.’
“The customer was never right unless she had the good taste to truly know what suited her – then she was right.” What if they hated the cut? “I’d say: ‘Darling, in two or three weeks, it will grow and you come back as our guest.’ Sometimes it was just a case of getting accustomed to a new shape.”
As Sassoon’s fame grew, more salons opened in the UK and internationally, and famous customers streamed in. He cut Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth’s hair (“She loved Sassoon in his flat in the Sixties with Grace Coddington of Vogue sitting on the floor having a drink”), and was once summoned to an airport where Elizabeth Taylor gave him a hairbrush, and said, “You know something about hair…” even though her piled-high do was the antithesis of a Sassoon cut. He cut for Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies during the Profumo affair: “Some of the customers objected to their presence, so I sent a stylist to their homes.”
He styled his friend Mary Quant, once cutting her ear, and Frances Shand Kydd, the mother of Diana, Princess of Wales. (“She always brought a general with her as an escort.” Once, when he walked them to the door, a cab driver from the East End whom Sassoon knew drove past and shouted: “Wotcha, Vid, ’ow’s your bum?” “Good lord,” the general said. “I shall dine on this for a month.”)
As for Sassoon’s boys’ gang, Brian Duffy was “wild” and “Terry” Donovan “great fun. I have no idea why he committed suicide.” David Bailey “is the funniest man alive; he could have been a stand-up comic”. (At a recent supper at Scott’s in Mayfair, Sassoon’s wife said to Bailey, “I didn’t realise you were so cuddly,” to which Bailey replied: “Yeah, and I’m a good f***, too.”) The gang was close, he says, “because we started out with nothing, and we took the p*** out of each other”. Riotous partying is described in the book, although Sassoon claims he has never taken drugs and only got drunk once, “on champagne when I was younger, which put me off it for life”. Not only is he a health fanatic, he says: “I had to be up for work every morning. I couldn’t afford to abuse my body.”
In the salon, Sassoon remembers women deliberately booking the last appointment of the day, and then wanting to have sex afterwards. And did he? “Yes, if I liked her.”
He’s oddly coy about sex in the book, although he implies he was having a lot of it. “Yes, we all were,” he tells me. “I remember sleeping with one woman, and over breakfast in the morning she took out a notebook and crossed my name off. I asked her what the list was, and she said: ‘I’m going to screw the whole of Mayfair, but once only with each of the men I’ve listed in here.’ Sex was like having dinner because penicillin cured everything back then, and your life wasn’t at risk if you were promiscuous. The sexual freedom was so exciting, I took it for granted.” He didn’t feel he was emulating his father: “I wasn’t married. I wasn’t cheating on anybody.”
Sassoon claims he has never cheated on any of his wives, “but, fortuitously, the marriages didn’t last long, heh-heh”. His first wife, Elaine Wood, worked as his receptionist, and left him for waterski champion David Nations in the late Fifties. “He’s dead now, and she lives in Wales. I introduced them. I didn’t feel jealous; that just leads to a hardening of the soul. I thought it was better for two people to be happy than three unhappy.” The split from his second wife, Beverly Adams, in 1980, after 13 years together, was more painful and complicated. She was the mother of his children, Catya (born 1968), son Elan (born 1970) and Eden (born 1973). “She felt she was losing her identity. I made some stupid decisions with the business which affected what kind of a parent I was. I was out doing tours all the time. There were tense dinner parties and late-night arguments. I wouldn’t call us great friends now.”
This has surely been exacerbated by Catya’s death at 33 from a drugs overdose after a party on New Year’s Day, 2002. “New Year’s Day is never a good day for me,” he says, grimacing. “We sent her to Betty Ford and so many other recovery centres. I tried talking to her about drugs, my God, so many times. I did get frustrated, but addiction is a disease, and you can’t personally cure it.” Catya’s career as a model at first bloomed, then withered from drug use; in Hollywood, she got a few small parts in movies before her addiction killed her.
When I ask Sassoon what it is like to lose a child, he goes silent for nearly half a minute. “Total frustration,” he says weakly. “There are still days when… Catya days I call them… The last one was when I saw Kirk Douglas [a good friend] talk on stage about his son Eric’s death [from pills and alcohol in 2004, aged 46]. I burst into tears, I couldn’t hold it back. That’s a Catya day.” Does he blame himself for her death? “Oh, more than that. I made the decision to bring the family to LA, where drugs are so rife, in the Seventies. It probably brought it all on.” More grim silence.
He is estranged from his adopted son, David (again, from his second marriage), who “has gone his own way”. Their relationship has always been rocky: Sassoon tried to enrol him in an exclusive black-only school when David was younger, but the boy refused and, ever since, it seems, father and son have been in opposition. “We don’t speak and I hope that will change,” says Sassoon. He shrugs, smiles: “But I get on with life.” That, in a clipped but emphatic nutshell, is the Sassoon way. He propels himself forward; refuses to dwell on regrets, hurts and might-have-beens. Sassoon’s third marriage, to Jeanette Hartford-Davis, foundered because she preferred horse riding to him, he says. His fourth and present wife, Ronnie, a 59-year- old former marketing executive, is “a different kettle of fish. I’m still fascinated with her, and I always think when the fascination goes, the love goes.” It was she who decorated this home with minimalist flourish, it was she who brought him specially cooked suppers in hospital when he was ill recently.
“I was 62 when we met, she was 39. I asked if the age difference mattered to her, and she said: ‘Not at all.’” How was the sex, I ask. “Brilliant, the best,” he says, adding miserably that the doctors have told him not even to attempt it now with his body so weak, “but we’ll get back to it, heh-heh”. The couple wanted to have children, but the doctors told them that constant travelling was undermining Ronnie’s chances of conception. Sassoon loves to see the family around the pool, his two surviving children (Eden runs a Pilates studio, Elan has a hair-products business) and seven grandchildren, including Catya’s children.
He hasn’t cut hair for years, but on a recent sailing holiday, “There were two chaps on the boat, and I said: ‘Gentlemen, if I am going to have to look at you for two weeks, I am going to have to cut your hair. You look dreadful.’” Sassoon has arthritis in his fingers. It doesn’t hurt, he says, but ageing bothers him. “When I die, they’ll show a picture of me looking old and haggard. I want them to show a picture of me from 40 years ago.” He had the “wattle” of his neck removed, but has had no other surgery or Botox: “I was lucky with the genes.”
Sassoon still sees famous friends from the Sixties: Paul McCartney at one of his daughter Stella’s fashion shows, for example, and Mick Jagger at a recent lunch, where they talked about their shared love of Albert Camus. “He’s knowledgeable,” Sassoon says of Jagger. “He went to a decent school; he put the Cockney accent in afterwards.” Sassoon was initially seduced by the glamour of Los Angeles, but “while I’m not knocking it, reality took a walk here a long time ago”. Not for Sassoon, though: he helped fund the reconstruction of homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and contributes to Jewish organisations. “I’m a much stronger Zionist than I was. Whatever Israel does, it can’t do right. There is a natural hatred of Jews; it has been there for hundreds of years. ‘Never again’ means never again.”
Philanthropy is “the least” he can do: he was raised in a country that, after the war, “benefited from progressive socialism”. In LA, he says, it is seen as a bad thing, and he is “torn” because he is seduced by the rampant can-do individualism here: “What they don’t have is a collective consciousness to help others.” He remembers suddenly the public bath houses of the East End, where you’d shout your vessel’s number for an additional sluicing of hot water, and marvels again at how far he’s come… “Heh-heh.” The last time he was in London, he says, smiling, his old mate Michael Caine approached him in the Ivy, and said: “They haven’t found anyone to replace us yet, have they, Vid?”