Of the gazillions of people who have worn Vidal Sassoon’s signature geometric hairstyles, bought his eponymous hair products, or aped his famous “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good” tagline, very few have probably spent even a flash of a second thinking of the man himself as a Jewish hairdresser. But there’s a center for anti-Semitism studies named after him at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, and he shares his surname with one of Britain’s most famous Jewish families. On the other hand, Vidal Sassoon is a sui generis icon, a man who, as Mary Quant puts it in a new biopic, “put the top on” the ‘60s.
But the documentary—grandly titled Vidal Sassoon: The Movie (and even more grandly captioned, “How One Man Changed The World with a Pair of Scissors”)—makes it clear that the 83-year-old is, in many ways, a classic Jewish figure: The outsider who upended the whole system in order to create a place where he belonged.
He was born in London in 1928, to a Greek father and a mother with Spanish roots; after his father left the family, his mother retreated to her sister’s in the East End, while Vidal and his brother were sent to live in a Jewish orphanage in North London, where they were in the choir at the local shul. (There is a charming scene of Sassoon returning to his old place and shyly singing a few half-remembered bars.) He passed the Blitz in the countryside, and, after the war, returned to live with his mother, who took him to apprentice with Adolph Cohen in Whitechapel—“the heart of the ghetto,” in Sassoon’s recollection. By day, he worked on women’s pincurls; by night, he joined a group of local Jewish boys who, too young to have fought the Nazis, began protesting the political appearances of Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. “We’d do some damage,” Sassoon said. “There was always this sense of having to prove something to myself.”
In July 1948, Sassoon decamped for the newly founded Jewish state and enlisted in the Palmach. “I found myself there as a human being,” he said, of fighting in the Arab-Israeli war. “I just thought as a kid, it was an adventure.” But one night in the desert, watching the stars, Sassoon resolved to become the greatest hairdresser in the world. He returned to London and apprenticed himself to Raymond Bessone, the city’s best-known celebrity hairstylist, and, at the same time, he began the process of erasing the marks of his origins, taking elocution lessons to smooth out his Jewish-inflected Cockney accent.
When director Craig Teper interviewed him at his home in Beverly Hills for the film—which was originally intended to be a private tribute from Sassoon’s friend Michael Gordon, founder of Bumble and bumble—Sassoon told the crew that religion didn’t hold much meaning for him anymore, and that his new commitment was to philanthropy, specifically his post-Katrina projects in New Orleans. But then he talks about his daughter, Catya, who overdosed on New Year’s Day, 2002, and the film cuts to soundless footage of her as a little girl, squirming in her father’s arms at some kind of celebration. The toddler reaches out and plucks a white satin kippah—the loaner kind people make available in baskets at parties—off his head. He laughs, gives her a squeeze, and then settles it back atop his hair.