Recollections of a Conversation With Vidal Sassoon

Sassoon told Haaretz how his years as a Jewish orphan in London made him sympathize with the discrimination of Israeli Arabs.

Orly Halpern

Some of my most interesting stories have come about after arriving late at an event I was supposed to cover and sitting in the back. In March 2003, while working for Haaretz English Edition, I was sent on what I imagined would be a boring assignment: to write about the 20th anniversary of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

I arrived late and found a seat near the back. As I sat down I noticed a smartly dressed older gentleman to my left. He wore a dark silver, pin-striped suit that had a slight sheen to it. His glasses were nothing like those thin metal spectacles men his age usually wore. Over his shoulders, a thin black scarf thrown on casually - yet stylishly - finished the look.

I had to speak with him and learn who he was. So, as the event ended and he got up to leave, I turned to him and noticed his name tag. Vidal Sassoon. My mind raced. This was not only the man whose donations were behind the whole center, this was the person who designed the jeans I made my mom buy me when I was 13! This was the man whose simple bob hairstyle would be copied on my head and and on those of hundreds of thousands if not millions of other females. This was one of the fashion icons of the 20th century. I asked him for an interview.

Sassoon - who passed away last week at the age of 84 - took me out for dinner and told me his life story. For all his wealth and success, he was one of the most down-to-earth people I ever interviewed. He spoke of how he went from being a poor Jewish boy in London, washing people's hair at a hair salon, to becoming the most famous hairstylist in Europe at his time and a setter of fashion trends. "In the 1960s I was part of the scene because, without being presumptuous, I was creating it," as he put it.

The Sassoon brand would later be associated with hair salons, beauty products and jeans. But with all the fame, he carried with him a deep sense of justice and an empathy for the underdog which was shaped by his childhood in London's East End. From the age of five till 11, Vidal and his younger brother lived in a Jewish orphanage, because his father had walked out and his mother could not support them. It was there he first experienced anti-Semitism.

"From the orphanage to school we had to walk, 12 of us in a line, close together, past a school that was anti-Jewish," he told me. "As a child in London, I never felt British. You were the outsider and they made you feel that way ... There were many anti-Semitic incidents. You were picked out as Jews. We looked different."

Ironically, it was this sense of disconnect that would later make him empathize with the Arab minority in the Jewish state.

Sassoon suffered less in his youth than others because he was an excellent sportsman, but his difficult childhood and identity as a Jew combined to create a thread that extended through his life. At 17 he joined a Jewish organization that fought street battles against followers of British fascist Oswald Mosley. In 1948, he traveled to Palestine to volunteer for about a year with the Jewish forces that fought the Arab armies in the Independence War.

"I didn't know anything, but my mother was a Zionist, so I went," Sassoon admitted. He was put in a unit with two other Britons and an American. "The other soldiers used to call us the 'Anglo Saxons.' In England, I was just a Jew, wasn't I?"

Hollywood and Hong Kong

Sassoon's career in hairstyling began at Adolph Cohen's East End hair salon, where at 14, he washed clients' hair.

"The first six months I made five shillings a week [60 U.S. cents]," he reminisced. "After two years it went up to 10. I had Wednesday afternoon off and it was matinee day. If I had enough tips, I would take a bus to the West End to see a film. I would stand at the back with my arms over the railing and try to imitate the matinee idols. But I had this strong Cockney accent.

"I tried to get a job on West End at age 17 and the secretary told me to go get voice and elocution lessons," he added.

In the '60s his career as a hairstylist took off, due among other things to his eponymous blunt-cut style. Sassoon began cutting the hair of famous women from Hong Kong to Hollywood. This was the man who turned Peter O'Toole into a white blonde for "Lawrence of Arabia," who once gave Mia Farrow a $5000 haircut, who hung with Mary Quant, the renowned designer to whom the miniskirt is attributed.

"I was part of a group that didn't care what I was," Sassoon recalled. "You were either talented or you weren't. Until then, there was a feeling [as a Jew] of not being part of where you were born."

"Israeli Arabs must have the same feeling," he added, in our conversation. "I believe if in a generation or two Israeli Arabs are not integrated into society you'll have a fifth column here ... There is a temptation if you're not equal to rebel against society. However, if a kid grows up in a society which cares for him and gives him Israeli opportunities, he will support it."

In the same vein, he said that Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," which refers to the "soul of a Jew," had to change. "The anthem should belong to all Israeli citizens, it should be 'Israeli soul.'"

As for his personal life, Sassoon, who moved to America in the 1970s, married four times. He had four children from his second marriage, the youngest a black boy whom he had adopted. "Coming out of an orphanage [adopting him] was the natural thing for me," he told me. One of his daughters died of a drug overdose in 2002.

In the latter part of his life he became involved in philanthropy, establishing a foundation in his name. In 1983, he provided the funds to establish the center at Hebrew University. (After his death, his family requested that people send donations to it. ) Among other things, in 2005, he donated funds to the homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina.

As we finished dessert, I remember he pulled out some cards he had with him, which bore his favorite quotations. One of them read: "One must never be afraid to go too far, success lies just beyond."

Vidal Sassoon
Vidal SassoonCredit: AP