Celebrity stylist, Haganah vet Vidal Sassoon dies

Entrepreneur and philanthropist who was committed to fighting anti-Semitism passes away at 84 in Los Angeles home.

Vidal Sassoon 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Vidal Sassoon 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“If I believe in something I go straight for it,” Vidal Sassoon once said. He spent his life living up to that ideal. He died on Wednesday in Los Angeles, aged 84.
Born in London in 1928 to a Sephardi father from Turkey and an Ashkenazi mother from Kiev, the man who would become an iconic hairdresser and stylist expended huge efforts and went to great lengths to stand up for the things he truly believed in.
Whether it was combating fascist thugs in London’s East End where he grew up, coming to the defense of the nascent State of Israel during the War of Independence, or fighting against anti-Semitism, Sassoon was not a man of half-measures.
But it was the arena of women’s hairdressing where he made his name, seeing in the designs and shapes of modern architecture the inspiration for revolutionizing how women looked.
Hair, Sassoon said, is the only part of the human form that can be modeled and stylized, “that you can cut shapes and angles and do wonderful things with.”
Had he gone to college, he said, he would have studied architecture, such was his fascination with creative formation.
Education, however, was not a possibility, his father having abandoned the family. When Sassoon was 14, his mother took him to a hairdresser to become an apprentice. He said of his time at the Whitechapel shop that he did not particularly excel, being more interested in the pretty girls than in hair design.
“At the beginning I didn’t want to have any truck with it all, but eventually a fascination grew,” he said in a recent interview.
In 1943, British fascist leader Oswald Mosley was released from internment, and he and his supporters restarted their political activities after World War II. At public rallies they would spout anti-Semitic hate and so Sassoon, along with Jewish veterans who had returned from fighting in Europe, set up the 43 Group of militant British Jews to rid the East End of the fascist presence.
Sassoon, aged 17, and the 43 Group brawled with the fascists, employing knives and razor blades during frequent street battles, and broke up their meetings designed to spread Mosley’s message of hatred.
In 1948, Sassoon, a self-described proud Jew, came to Israel to defend the newborn country from the invading Arab armies. He volunteered with the Hagana and spent a year in the country, taking part in pitched battles with Egyptian forces.
According to close friend and renowned historian Prof. Yehudah Bauer, it was never Sassoon’s intention to stay here. “He came to fight for the Jewish people, but he had his mother and brother back in London and so after the war he returned to them,” Bauer told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Sassoon was always proud of the role he played during the war, Bauer added.
“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,” Sassoon told the Daily Telegraph last year.
He opened his first hairdressing salon on one of London’s most fashionable thoroughfares, Bond Street, in 1954, and took women’s hairstyles away from the bombastic beehives of the 1950s to the modern, geometric chic for which he became renowned.
And Sassoon’s creativity in the salon was matched by his knack for business. He successfully marketed the styles he created and the name he had made, developed a huge line of hair products, opened many more salons in the UK and then the US, and built a multi-million dollar business.
He became a hairstylist to Hollywood stars when he moved out to Los Angeles in the 1960s, his easy charm and thoughtful demeanor standing him in good stead in the playground of the movie celebrities.
Having sold his business in 1982, Sassoon found himself looking for something to do and, following meetings and discussions with Bauer, provided money for the establishment of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Bauer told the Post how on one fund-raising trip, the two men were received by a wealthy Jewish philanthropist in Chicago.
They presented him with a slick, refined fund-raising pitch but the gentleman in question, having let them say their piece, pronounced simply that there always had been anti-Semitism, there always would be anti-Semitism, and that there was nothing which could be done about it.
The utter failure of their appeal was something the two men took with laughter bordering on hilarity and was a source of amusement for them whenever they would meet.
But such stoicism was not for Sassoon, and he set up the Vida Sassoon Center in order to have academics fight anti-Semitism in the public arena, not just in the study halls of academia.
“There are two types of Californians, the players and the workers,” he once said. “I’m one of the workers.”
Sassoon’s accomplishments testify to that.
Sassoon is survived by his wife, three children and grandchildren.