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Vidal Sassoon dies at 84; hair stylist revolutionized the field

He changed women's styles with his sleek, geometric cuts, popularized the hand-held blow dryer and helped launch the age of the signature hair salon.

May 10, 2012|By Mary Rourke, Special to the Los Angeles Times

After nearly a decade in his first shop, he moved in 1965 to a ground-floor location nearby. Sassoon was after a young, hip clientele, and he gave his salon the sleek black-and-white modern look that signaled the change.

A year later, Sassoon joined forces with Lanvin-Charles of the Ritz as the featured hairstylist at a salon on Madison Avenue in New York City. It was his launch in the United States.

He moved his corporate headquarters from London to Century City in 1974 and made his home in Beverly Hills for many years.

It was a long way from his beginnings in Shepherds Bush outside London.

He was born Jan. 17, 1928, to a carpet salesman, Vidal Sassoon, who abandoned his family. His mother, Betty, worked in a dress shop but could not support her sons, so 5-year-old Vidal and his younger brother, Ivor, were sent to an orphanage.

"Like most ghetto kids I knew it was important to be 'somebody' so I became a good soccer player, because excelling at a sport seemed to make you special," he said in "Vidal Sassoon, Fifty Years Ahead." Soccer turned him into a lifelong fitness buff.

His remarried mother retrieved her sons from the orphanage after six years, and Sassoon got on well with his stepfather, Nathan Goldberg.

During World War II, when the children of London were evacuated to the country, Sassoon and his brother lived with foster parents for about a year. Back home in London, Sassoon left school.

Trying to break into the beauty business, Sassoon interviewed at Cohen's Beauty and Barber Shop. When shop owner Adolph Cohen said he charged apprentices a fee of 100 pounds, Sassoon tipped his hat and said "Thank you, sir" on his way out of the shop. Cohen liked his courteous manner and let Sassoon stay without paying tuition.

He soon discovered that his cockney accent was a handicap for a young man with higher aspirations. "You couldn't get a job outside the East End with a Cockney voice like mine," Sassoon later said. To correct it, he took elocution lessons and went to the theater to listen to the trained diction of actors.

To practice cutting hair, he went to London's skid row once a week and gave free cuts to the homeless.

In post-World War II London, anti-Semitism flared. Sassoon, who was Jewish and whose mother was a devoted Zionist, became involved in an anti-Fascist group and attended Zionist meetings.

When Israel declared its War of Independence, Sassoon joined an international group of volunteers to fight in the war. He spent the year in Israel's Negev desert, where his unit took heavy casualties. A scurvy epidemic added to their troubles. But the experience gave him a strong sense of his own identity.

"It was the year that gave me the most confidence about the future," Sassoon told The Times in 1985. "I came home after a year and although my profession was only hairdressing, I knew I could change it."

He remained an active supporter of Israel. In the early 1980s he co-founded the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism with professor Yehuda Bauer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and regularly traveled there.

After his year in combat, he worked at a number of hair salons until he opened his first shop.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Sassoon expanded his empire with salons in European and U.S. cities. He also launched product lines in England and the U.S.

He wrote a book, "A Year of Beauty and Health," with his then-wife, actress Beverly Adams, in 1975. Combining his passion for health and fitness with his knowledge of the beauty business, he broke new ground. The book remained a No. 1 bestseller for months.

After years of 60-hour workweeks, Sassoon said he was ready for a change. He sold his European salons and teaching academies to several of his colleagues in 1979, and the U.S. salons and schools in 1983.

When he sold his hair-care product line to Richardson-Vicks in 1983, his company's annual revenues were a reported $110 million.

Procter & Gamble purchased the business in 1985, and Sassoon remained a consultant and spokesman until 2004. He had sued the company for failing to promote the product line to his standards, and the suit was settled out of court.

His first marriage, to a receptionist at his London salon, ended in divorce.

With his second wife, Adams, whom he married in 1967, he had four children, Catya, Elan, Eden and David. After the couple divorced in 1980, he was briefly married to Jeanette Hartford Davis. His daughter Catya died of a drug overdose in 2002.

Sassoon is survived by his wife of 20 years, Ronnie, three children and seven grandchildren.

In the 2011 documentary "Vidal Sassoon: The Movie," the stylist said: When "the doubters tell you it can't be done, nonsense. If you can get to the root of who you are, and make something happen from it ... you are going to surprise yourself."

Rourke is a former Times staff writer.

Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.

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