It is one of the most unlikely bits of fashion trivia anyone could possibly imagine. Vidal Sassoon, the man who invented modern hairdressing, gave us the five-point cut, the asymmetric bob and Mia Farrow’s $5,000 haircut for Rosemary’s Baby, was a streetfighting man.
Sassoon, who has died at the age of 84, kept his story to himself for over half a century. But in an exclusive interview with me several years ago he spoke at length about his exploits on the streets of London in the postwar years doing battle with Oswald Mosley’s reformed Blackshirts across bombed-out London.
Speaking from the Beverly Hills mansion he shared with his fourth wife, Ronnie, and his beloved shih-tzus, he explained with pride about his anti-fascist past.
“I was 17 when I came back to London after the evacuation,” he recalled. “I wanted to be a footballer but my mother insisted I get a profession, so I was apprenticed to a very distinguished hairdresser called Adolph Cohen, who was known by everyone as ‘the Professor’. We lived on the fourth floor of a Petticoat Lane tenement in the East End, where the smell of bagels wafted up from the bakery downstairs.
“It was a happy time. But then that poppinjay Mosley was released from prison, where he had spent most of the war. And our lives were to change for the worse.
“Suddenly there were fascists preaching hate on every corner,” said Sassoon. “These rabble-rousers were the same Nazi sympathisers who had spent the war years in prison, and now they were starting where thay had left off.
Oswald Mosley and Blackshirt supporters
Oswald Mosley and Blackshirt supporters: enemies of Vidal Sassoon (media.web.britannica.com)
“Their speeches and their literature depicted us, the Jews, as coarse, ugly caricatures with long beards and dirty fingernails, dressed in black gaberdine. And they hurled the same abuse that I remembered from the1930s. I was too young to do anything about it then but I had never forgotten the fear. When you’ve got a thousand throats all screaming ‘Yids, yids, we’ve got to get rid of the yids’, it’s pretty terrifying. They’d wear uniforms, insignia, the whole thing.
“I don’t remember when we decided to fight back but the pictures we were seeing from Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau gave the slogan ‘Never again!’ real meaning.”
The fresh-faced cockney lad signed up with the shadowy 43 Group, a crudely armed paramilitary force started by Jewish ex-servicemen. “As a 17-year-old recruit, I was proud to be involved. We had turned the other cheek for the last time,” said Sassoon.
His comrades were mostly battle-hardened war veterans, unsung heroes who had fought for their country for five years and had returned to be abused by fascists as they walked down the street. They were well-organised and ruthless.
“We would get a phone call to be in a certain pace at a certain time – to disrupt a Mosley speech or one of the pubs. There was even a plot to kidnap the quisling [Mosley] himself, strip him and dump him naked in Piccadilly Cicus – and the actions would begin. It was pretty terrifying. I remember Jackie [Myerovitch, the leader of the East End group] being badly slashed, but there was no time to worry about such things.”
Sassoon was to become one of the most respected fighters. “He was only a kid, but he was tough little shtarka,” said the ex-paratrooper and former 43 Group commander Gerry Lambert, using a Yiddish phrase for “hard man.”
Other former 43 members remembered Sassoon well. “To think what a big deal hairdresser he would become you would never have guessed to see him there, deep in the fray,” said one. “At that time he was just the sort of guy you wanted by your side when the fighting started. We used the same weapons as the fascists – knuckle-dusters, coshes, and cut-throat razors.”
On one occasion, Sassoon found himself in jail. “I’ve lost count of the number of actions I was invloved in,” he chuckled, “but I remember the night we were told to go up to Kilburn [northwest London] to break up a fascist meeting. There was a real punch-up. We chased the Blackshirts into a pub, but we were being chased by the police. They arrested us, threw us in the van and started calling us ‘fiilthy foreign Jew bastards’. They beat the hell out of my old friend ‘Big Mo’ Levy and chucked us in the cell for the night.
“When we met up before the magistrate the next morning we told him about the police brutality but he refused to believe us. He said ‘those things do not happen in Britain, now go home and be good boys.”
In 1948, Sassoon was to test his bravery again, leaving Britiain to fight in the Israeli war of independence. At the time he hoped to stay in Israel, attend university and become an architect but his family’s poverty forced him to return to London, where he later applied his interest in Modernism and Bauhaus design to launch a revolution in hairdressing.
Looking back, he regarded his double life as a streetfighter as little out of the ordinary for the time and place. “I took a few knocks, but we did physical damage to them, too. That’s what happens when there is hate. Violence for it’s own sake is nonsense but in defence of one’s children and one’s elders it is a necessity.”
But, I suggested, to show up for work in a ladies’ hairdresser’s salon of all places, battered and bruised from a night’s rampaging, must have been surreal.
“Well, yes,” he said gently. “I had to have a sense of humour. There was an occassion, one morning after a particularly nasty tear-up, that I went to work at the salon in Mayfair with a badly scratched face and this refined client looked at me and said, ‘Good God, Vidal, you look terrible. What happened to you?’
“Nothing much,” I said. “I just fell over a hairpin.”