From shampoos and conditioners to hairdryers and other styling tools, there are few who haven’t used, at some point in his or her lifetime, a Vidal Sassoon product. What most aren’t familiar with, however, is that the late Vidal Sassoon was more than just a trendsetting pioneer in the hairdressing industry. As it turns out, the man credited with popularizing the simple, “wash-and-wear” haircut also fought Islamists, Fascists and Anti-Semitism.
That’s quite a life worth celebrating.
While you will surely hear of his celebrity, and his place in American and British popular culture, Sassoon’s true legacy is one that you will likely not find reported on in any mainstream media outlet.
Vidal Sassoon was a Sephardic Jew (Jews of Spanish, North African or Middle Eastern rather than Eastern European descent are typically referred to as “Sephardic”) born in Hammersmith, London. With a womanizing and absentee father, his mother could no longer afford the financial burden of single parenthood.
“I was born in 1928 and by 1931 the Depression was beginning to mount,” Sassoon reminisced during an interview with the Telegraph in 2011. “My father had left us, my brother, and myself. We were in Shepherd’s Bush, but we were being evicted, we had nowhere to go.”
He went on to explain that his uncle took them to a tenement on Petticoat Lane where there was only one toilet to serve four families — and it was located outside. “You froze in January. You would hope that someone had just been to keep the seat warm.”
His family was taken in by his mother’s sister, but with three children of her own, the situation proved untenable. Ultimately, Sassoon’s mother was forced to place him, along with his younger brother, in a Jewish orphanage. While his mother was allowed monthly visits, the two children remained there for seven years.
Sassoon always maintained that he never blamed his mother, who he remained close with her entire life.
Upon his return to London, the 14-year-old started apprenticing as a hairdresser and by age 17 longed to serve in the Second World War. He would soon find out that he did not need to go abroad to fight Fascists, however, as there were plenty right there in England. He was the youngest to join the “43 Group,” an organization founded in 1946 by Jewish veterans who had returned from war only to discover that British Union Fascist Oswald Mosley was fanning the flames of anti-Semitism across the city. Sassoon, along with his compatriots scoured the streets of east London breaking up any and all Fascist gatherings they uncovered. The British news outlet the Telegraph even gave the famed stylist the title, “anti-fascist warrior-hairdresser.”
In a program recorded for the BBC, Sassoon shared the story of how he once turned up to work with a black eye after a night fighting Fascists. Often, the 43 Group were only armed with knives and razor blades.
“I’ll never forget one morning I walked in and I had a hell of a bruise – it had been a difficult night the night before – and a client said to me, ‘Good God, Vidal, what happened to your face?’ And I said, ‘Oh, nothing, madam, I just fell over a hairpin’.”
By 1948, Sassoon did have the opportunity to serve in the military. This time for Israel. At age 20 he joined the Israel Defense Forces predecessor, the Haganah, and fought in Israel’s War of Independence. He described the experience of training with the Israelis in an interview with the Telegraph as “the best year of my life” stating:
When you think of 2,000 years of being put down and suddenly you are a nation rising, it was a wonderful feeling. There were only 600,000 people defending the country against five armies, so everyone had something to do.
Reflecting on his wartime experience, Sassoon continued, “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. 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.”
He admitted that the killing saddened him, that he wouldn’t have had any self-respect if he didn’t, but that “somebody had to be one of those somebodies.”
By the 1950’s, Sassoon began his hairdressing career in earnest — although back then the highly-shellacked beehive up-do was all the rage. He opened his first salon in London in 1954 but did not break industry-ground until the 1960s when he perfected his trademark bobs and asymmetrical haircuts which liberated women from being slaves to “the dryer.”
“My idea was to cut shape into the hair, to use it like fabric and take away everything that was superfluous,” Sassoon said in 1993 in the Los Angeles Times. “Women were going back to work, they were assuming their own power. They didn’t have time to sit under the dryer anymore.”
After working as a stylist for the lead actresses in two major motion pictures, Sassoon expanded his business, opening more salons, and eventually academies in England and the United States. He also developed a line of haircare products that are still on offer in stores across the world. You might recall his trademark slogan: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”
Sassoon maintained the belief that hairdressing was an artform and shared his personal and professional experiences in three books over the course of his lifetime. He told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 that he was proud to work in the hairdressing industry:
“Hairdressers are a wonderful breed,” he said. “You work one-on-one with another human being and the object is to make them feel so much better and to look at themselves with a twinkle in their eye. Work on their bone structure, the color, the cut, whatever, but when you’ve finished, you have an enormous sense of satisfaction.”
All of these experiences combined shaped Sassoon into an ardent philanthropist who was active in a number of charities and causes. Notably, in 1982, the Israeli War veteran founded The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was also a major contributor to The Boys Clubs of America and the Performing Arts Council of the Music Center of Los Angeles.
Sassoon remained an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism until his death, once saying that disgraced fashion designer John Galliano could and should “go to prison for six months” over a vitriolic outburst in which he professed his love for Adolf Hitler.
It was also clear that the style icon cherished family. He had four children, one of whom died on New Year’s Eve in 2002 of an apparent drug overdose and left behind three children of her own. In the Telegraph interview, Sassoon was markedly distraught by the experience and one could tell that he had hoped his daughter would have availed herself of all the opportunities he and her mother had provided her.
His other children include a daughter, Eden, and sons Elan and David, the latter of whom was adopted — likely indicative of the former orphan’s compassion and empathy.
In the same Telegraph interview cited above, Sassoon recalled his mother fondly, saying “in the final analysis my mother was proud of me.”
Sadly, after a three-year-long battle with Leukemia, the brilliant businessman and visionary, pop-culture icon, righteous warrior, and member of the Greatest Generation died at his Los Angeles home on Wednesday. He was 84.