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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The miniskirt was one of the iconic fashions of the '60s. The hairdo that went with it was a short cut, originated by Vidal Sassoon. When his style became popularized and caught on in salons around the UK and the U.S., short haircuts were named The Sassoon, even though they didn't necessarily have his flair and finesse. He not only popularized short hair, he popularized geometric and sometimes asymmetrical cuts.

Vidal Sassoon did the hair of famous models and movie stars and created a chain of salons around the world, as well as a popular line of hair products. But when he was growing up, his family was so poor, his mother put him in a Jewish orphanage for several years.

Vidal Sassoon has written an autobiography that will be published in April. A new documentary about him opens in New York this week.

As you listen to our interview, you can see a slideshow of Sassoon haircuts on our website, freshair.npr.org.

GROSS: Vidal Sassoon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the first famous haircut that you gave, I mean really famous, and this was to the actress Nancy Kwan, after she made her movie "The World of Suzie Wong." She was - she had really long, straight hair. Why did she come to you and what did you do with her hair?

Mr. VIDAL SASSOON (Hairdresser; Businessman): Well, she actually had almost four feet of hair, and being rather small - she was five foot two, actually - she almost sat on it. So you had to be very careful when you put your hands through her hair; otherwise, you'd be feeling parts of her bottom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: ...and that would not have done. But, you know, I never looked at beauty as beauty. I always looked at bone structure and the way the face was created; it's quite fascinating for me. And I thought: We could do almost anything with Nancy. And I started to cut the very back of the hair and I said, great neckline, I'll go shorter. And I went short in the back and graduated into much - into more length at the sides. And I suddenly realized we had a bob that could be international. And it caught on. It caught on to the extent that people were coming in and asking for it over time - not only with us, with many hairdressers. It had to be not only layered from the back to the front, but when she shook her head, it had to fall back naturally. So...

GROSS: Now did you set it at all or was it just in the cut that it fell that way?

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, never set those kind of heads. We, you know, setting was going out at the time - far out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank goodness.

Mr. SASSOON: ...into the country. It wasn't happening in the big cities.

GROSS: So when Nancy Kwan had her four feet of hair cut off for your bob, was it terrifying to her? Was she afraid that she wouldn't like it and she'd never be able to grow that much hair back again? And that hair had been her signature.

Mr. SASSOON: She was the coolest I have ever seen anybody. She played chess with her manager while I was cutting. It was quite extraordinary. There they were playing chess. I was cutting yards of hair off, literally, and she didn't make a murmur. I fell in love with her at that moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: So you ended up giving Mia Farrow a very famous haircut for her movie "Rosemary's Baby." And it was the director of that film, Roman Polanski, who approached you. How did you end up cutting her hair before "Rosemary's Baby"?

Mr. SASSOON: An interesting story. He wanted my balcony in London. I said, what do you want it for? He said I'm photographing Catherine Deneuve on the balcony, they're filming - "Repulsion" it was. And instead of staying for two days, as he promised, he stayed for a week. Well, our clients loved it. They were there on the ground floor, he's on the balcony and he didn't mind the noise. It was all part of the excitement, he didn't need quiet. So we just all carried on with our work and eventually he left.

Well, about six months later, I guess Roman figured he owed me something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: So he called and said would I come to Hollywood and cut Mia Farrow for "Rosemary's Baby." I said Roman, I cut it about two months ago. It's not that long. She's a client of mine. And he said, well, there will be something to take off, won't there? I said, yeah, I guess you're right.

Mia, out of some fit of pique - I'm not sure what it was all about, but she was married to Mr. Sinatra at the time - had cut into her own hair. She came to the salon and said: What can you do for me? And I said, take it very short. It's the only way. I can't pull the short hair long, but I can cut the long hair short. And we did it, and it suited her marvelously because she had a shaped face and bone structure that was just perfect.

GROSS: Was this when she was still on "Peyton Place?"

Mr. SASSOON: I don't know if she was.

GROSS: I'm just asking you because...

Mr. SASSOON: I truly don't.

GROSS: I remember when she was on "Peyton Place," she had really long hair.

Mr. SASSOON: Yeah.

GROSS: And then one season she came back and the hair was suddenly really short and everybody who watched the show was shocked.

Mr. SASSOON: We cut it very, very short. And it was fascinating for me. When I say very short, it was literally about a half an inch. And why I say it was fascinating for me, because we were known in the fashion circles. You know, I did the shows in Paris and Milan and what have you, and Middle America probably hadn't heard of us and they would have found Vidal Sassoon a tongue twister, you know, rather than Joe Smith. And suddenly Mia's face was everywhere on television having her hair cut. She was on the - obviously in the magazines, on the radio talking. It was just extraordinary. So suddenly Middle America began to know who I was. So she did me an enormous favor.

GROSS: So when you cut her hair for Roman Polanski, for "Rosemary's Baby," you had already given her a short haircut and then you gave her an even shorter one for that film?

Mr. SASSOON: Exactly.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it was actually an event, the haircut, because I guess there was a studio set up like a boxing ring for you to cut her hair in and invited reporters to watch. So it was this - it was like a sporting event, you cutting her hair.

Mr. SASSOON: The reporters were totally unruly. They climbed into the ring and were photographing from the chair where I was working. I couldn't move and we had to clear a space, but they stayed in the ring. And it was filmed, you know, NBC, CBS in those days, and ABC, and then, of course, photographers and reporters.

And she started off berating the photographers: Why are you here photographing a haircut when the indigenous Americans - it was the Marlon Brando thing at the time, that she was involved - the indigenous Americans are living so badly and we are treating them so badly. And this went on for about 10, 15 minutes. Nobody took any notice, fortuitously. I mean it would have been quite something had the photographers rushed out to go to the reservation, but they didn't.

And eventually she calmed down and got into the act and had some fun. She pretended to cut Roman Polanski's hair and we had - we just had a ball. It was one of those nice afternoons.

(Break)

GROSS: So this is the part of the interview in which I confess that at the time that the Sassoon spread around the United States and spread into like neighborhood salons back when they were called, in my neighborhood, beauty parlors, I had a Sassoon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I had the neighborhood version of the Sassoon sometime in the mid-'60s. I liked it. It was very easy to take care of and my hair was kind of unruly without it.

Mr. SASSOON: Well, I'm glad they did a...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SASSOON: Yes. I'm glad they did a great job.

GROSS: So, what did you think when The Sassoon spread to people like me, who got their hair cut in the neighborhood, you know, in the neighborhood salon and it wasn't the work of art that you had done, but it was a very popular haircut, very, you know, easy to take care of, look good. How did you feel about the neighborhood cuts?

Mr. SASSOON: We were totally flattered, you see. It was, you either create something and you keep it a secret and you die with it - what's the point? If you can benefit a craft, and in essence from that benefiting of the craft, you're doing something for fashion worldwide, I think that's so much more important. It's something that you leave behind that you probably will be remembered for.

GROSS: When you started cutting hair, what were the hairdos that were popular?

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, flips and lots of lacquer...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: ...which was very difficult, updos, you know, the ladies that lunch, those updos. But, well, the cutting wasn't there, number one, as it should've been. It was early.

GROSS: You mean it was mostly about setting and spraying?

Mr. SASSOON: It was setting and spraying. Yes.

GROSS: And the hairdos?

Mr. SASSOON: Look, some of them looked very, very pretty but I wasn't after pretty. I was after bones, getting into that bone structure, making it work.

GROSS: And the teased hair and the...

Mr. SASSOON: Well, it was a joke, really. Teasing people's hair like that and making it look very presentable for the day, but what do they do the next day, you know?

GROSS: Oh, I remember when I was growing up the women in my neighborhood would go to the salon on Saturday and then they'd get their hair set, teased, sprayed - really sprayed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And, you know, and then every night that week they'd sleep with a hairnet so that they wouldn't muss their hair, and they would just kind of like pouf it out a little bit with their fingers or with a bobby pin in the morning and they wouldn't comb it or wash it or do anything till they went back to the salon the next Saturday.

Mr. SASSOON: How unhealthy.

GROSS: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were you familiar with that approach to hair? Did you...

Mr. SASSOON: I never, never used it. I mean I just thought, no. It's got to be in the cut.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SASSOON: From '54 to '63, when I went into my own first salon, I just said we're not doing any of that old stuff anymore. It's very pretty and nice, but we're going to stick our guns.

GROSS: You're being so kind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: Well, you know.

GROSS: When you started doing hair professionally, you went to a vocal coach, a speech coach, because you grew up poor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You grew up in an orphanage part of the time. You had a Cockney accent, and you wanted to lose it. So you went to a teacher who actually worked with theater actors.

Mr. SASSOON: Yes.

GROSS: Why was your accent important enough to you to study for three years?

Mr. SASSOON: I couldn't get a job in the West End. They would say, go and learn the language. And by the way, the language is English. I mean, it was that kind of thing. And...

GROSS: What did you sound like before?

Mr. SASSOON: Bit like that, then darling. 'Ello. 'Ow are you, love?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: It was a bit Cockney. Anyway, Georgia Brown, who played Nancy in "Oliver," we grew up together. We were kind of kids 13, 14, and she became terrific. She did it on Broadway, as well as London. And she said, Vid, take some elocution lessons. It will be very good for you, especially if you're going to be speaking in the future. I said sure. Who should I go to? She said Iris Warren. I've already spoken to her. So I went to Iris Warren. She looked at me and said: I don't take hairdressers. I work with actors. But be at the Old Vic at two o'clock on Thursday.

So I get to be Old Vic, and I'm in the green room, and this mellifluous voice was coming over the soundtrack, you know. And I was going wow, I know that voice. I couldn't quite place it. The voice went. I was called in to Iris Warren and she said, well, did you hear it? I said yes, it was marvelous. She said who was it? I said, I couldn't quite get it. She said couldn't quite get it? That was Laurence Olivier. And then she said to me, on the podium. I got on the podium. Enunciate. There were some words there to read. I enunciated. And she said God, that's bloody awful. But I think I might be able to do something with you. She was quite fascinating. There was so many moments where I thought I was being trained like an actor, and I was - although I never did want to be one, frankly. Had I had a second choice, it would've been architecture. But my three years with Iris Warren were wonderful, as far as I was concerned.

GROSS: You spent part of your childhood in an orphanage. Your father left the family when you were very young. Your mother was very poor. You and your younger brother and your mother moved into your aunt's house. But at some point, your mother felt that it was just an untenable situation and she put you in a Jewish orphanage. So why did she need to do that, and how did she tell you that she was going to put you someplace else for a while?

Mr. SASSOON: Well, there were five kids sleeping on mattresses in one room, and my mother and my aunt sharing another room. That was it, two rooms. And it did become untenable. And my mother approached the Jewish authorities, and they took me into the orphanage, and then my brother 18 months later, because he was rather too young at that time.

GROSS: How long were you in the orphanage?

Mr. SASSOON: I was in the orphanage for close to seven years.

GROSS: What did your mother tell you when she put you there?

Mr. SASSOON: She said that I'd be at a school where I could learn so much more than if I was in an average school, but it was a sleep-in school. I'd have to stay there. And...

GROSS: How accurate a description was that?

Mr. SASSOON: Very accurate. But it didn't please me one bit.

GROSS: So was it more of a school, or more of an orphanage?

Mr. SASSOON: It was an orphanage.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SASSOON: But you were sent to school. It actually wasn't - you didn't actually have school at the orphanage. You were sent to school.

GROSS: Did you get to see her mother during those years?

Mr. SASSOON: She was allowed to see us once a month.

GROSS: And were you angry with her for putting you there?

Mr. SASSOON: No. No. Fortuitously, that kind of anger or angst never occurred to me. I knew she was - even in those early years, I knew she was in terrible straits, and she had no alternative.

GROSS: Now, you became a shampoo boy when you were 14. You say in the documentary about you that it was your mother's idea for you to become a hairdresser. She had some kind of dream or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: Premonition.

GROSS: ...premonition or something that you should be a hairdresser.

Mr. SASSOON: Premonition. Yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: How old were you, and how did she say to you, I've had this dream, son, you should be a hairdresser?

Mr. SASSOON: I looked at her in horror. My response was no, never. Well, what do you want to do? I don't know. But at 14, to become a hairdresser...

GROSS: Why was that horrifying to you at the age of 14?

Mr. SASSOON: It just wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to play soccer and I wanted to - I was always into - you know, I won the school championship in running, and I was into all that kind of thing where sport was concerned. I was useless as a student, absolutely useless.

GROSS: Had you...

Mr. SASSOON: I never could learn anything that I didn't like.

GROSS: So when she took you to a hairdresser for you to apprentice and you became a shampoo boy at the age of 14, what did you like about it? What changed your mind and made you think, yeah, this is for me?

Mr. SASSOON: The pretty girls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: It's the truth.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: There were so many pretty girls coming into the salon as clients, and others working in the salon. And I thought, hmm. This is rather nice. But I was a very average shampoo boy in the sense I could shampoo, but, I mean, I was a very average apprentice. I wasn't any better than anybody else. And the war was on. You slept on your pants in the shelter so that you had a crease the next day. Mr. Cohen, who I worked for, was a great disciplinarian. I think I learned so much from him because of that. You had to have pressed trousers, clean shoes and clean nails. Now, this is in the middle of a war, and you weren't even at home. You were sleeping in shelters. So sometimes it wasn't quite possible, but we did our best.

(Break)

GROSS: So, when did you realize you wanted to make this your life?

Mr. SASSOON: Well, I was politically involved with the anti-fascist group 43 Group, and that meant that sometimes you got into a little trouble. At the age of 20 I joined the Israeli Army. I was in the Palmach, which was one of their great groups founded by, actually, Rabin and Orde Wingate and a whole bunch of marvelous people. I spent a year there, came home, had nothing. The only thing I knew what to do was hairdressing and I was very quite bad at that. And then I decided well, if I'm going to have to be in hair, let me change my attitude. Let me see if I can do something worthwhile. And things started to happen.

GROSS: Now, during your career you've done so many fashion shows. So two of the main things that have had an impact on hair in the past few decades are fashion shows and music, especially starting with The Beatles, whose haircuts...

Mr. SASSOON: Mm.

GROSS: you know, ended up like changing so many people's hair.

Mr. SASSOON: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you first saw The Beatles' haircut, what did you think of it?

Mr. SASSOON: Great. Because in a funny way their whole front was very much like our five-point cut.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: Think about it. You know, that fringe, that bang that came all the way down to the sides, it was very much like the five-point cut. I should have sent them a letter of thanks, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you thought of it as like the male version of The Sassoon in a way.

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: No question. Yes.

GROSS: And hippie hair. When hippies started like in the late '60s and a lot of men and women - young men and women - started wearing their hair long, messy, not going to professionals to get it cut or styled, what did you think?

Mr. SASSOON: I think they should be charged and given six months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: It was a dreadful time. And even today when I see these long hanging locks at the sides that haven't been shaped well. Long hair is beautiful when it's cut long. But when it's just left hanging and straggly, I think, do these people have style? I mean, their clothes look well, but where is their bone structure? You can't see a thing. All you can see are curtains.

GROSS: Curtains being the hair that's covering the face.

Mr. SASSOON: Yeah.

GROSS: So one last question. You have a nice head of hair. You're in your 80s and you still have a really full head of hair, right?

Mr. SASSOON: A little - getting a little thin on top, darling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. If you had lost your hair at a young age, would that have had a bad effect on you? Did you ever worry about that? Would you have cared?

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, I think it would've had a terrible effect. I mean there's this guy talking about marvelous hair and he's got none. No, I don't think it would've worked at all. I'm very lucky to keep my hair.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, it's been such a pleasure, Terry. Thank you so much.

GROSS: The new documentary "Vidal Sassoon" opens in New York this week and will open in other cities in the coming weeks. You can see a slideshow of Sassoon's haircuts on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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