This is a piece I wrote a few years ago - probably 3 at this point. I did read it for HBO’s Inspiration Room recently and thought I would share it with you all now, too. Maybe it’s extremely bad timing, or incredibly good timing, considering it’s about Jewish history as much as beauty culture, but it’s all good. I am okay with having uncomfortable conversations about optics, and violence, and legacies, and I am willing to learn how to do better next time around. This piece also didn’t have the privilege of being edited by someone who could save me from my own foot in my mouth, but I hope you’ll like it regardless.
I’ve been thinking about the hairstylist Vidal Sassoon lately, because I both need a haircut and because I think a lot about how beauty shapes our world, both visibly and otherwise. Before he became the hairstylist known for inventing the five-point bob, he was part of a British anti-fascist group called the 43 group that would literally punch Nazis in the streets. He was their youngest member. Just a few years later he went to war to help establish Israel. He was an anti-fascist, but also a proud Zionist, and he fought on the front.
Sassoon inherited his politics from his mother. He never hid it; in his autobiography the opening paragraphs describe his mother’s zionism as a response to the Holocaust, and the clandestine meetings they’d host at home, with Vidal and his brother ushering people through the streets home while avoiding suspicion. His fondest memories of childhood involve political indoctrination by the woman he loved most in the world.
He grew up in the midst of World War II, and was sent to an orphanage when his family became impoverished. In September 1939 he and a hundred thousand other children in London were ushered to a small village named Holt. They were cared for by locals who worked in munitions factories that supplied the war.
Sassoon went to school as planes flew overhead and he learned air raid drills in school. He would also experience times when the air raids were not drills. Fear was not only normal, it was childhood. He was reunited with his mother a few years later and moved back with her to London. By then, he was used to the mundane violences that are a consequence of war, and also the knowledge his identity was considered his victimhood.
When he became a bike messenger in London, he biked past screams of injured neighbors daily to deliver news. He did this until his mother brought him to hairstylist Adolph Cohen. “Professor Cohen’s first rule was that all male apprentices must have a crease in their trousers every morning. When I tried to point out that there was a war on and we were sleeping in the Underground, I was told in no uncertain terms that I should find a way. I soon discovered that putting my trousers inside a folded blanket that was then slept on didn’t do a bad job at all.”
Sassoon’s stories of doing hair during the war are spectacular. During an air raid, Sassoon’s job was to go down to the air raid shelter and turn off the electricity to the salon so the clientele’s hair would not be burned off in the perming machines. There was a notice in front of every chair in the salon: “Madam, during an air raid, you are permed at your own risk.” Sassoon forgot to turn off the electricity once and a woman with burned hair left the salon with a bob. Her review: “Not bad for wartime.”
Sassoon didn’t write specifically about the moment he decided it wasn’t enough to nurture beauty in women at salons. He did write that the images coming from Auschwitz and Dachau moved him. “Never again,” he wrote, “became a command, not just a slogan.” After writing that, he sought out anti-fascist fighters.
He joined 43 group in 1946. Forty three Jewish ex-servicemen and women attended the first meeting and resolved to stop the fascists still on the streets of Britain. They organized, opened gyms to train neighborhood fighters, and took to the streets at night to destroy the opposition with their fists and fire and batons, infiltrating groups and then breaking them up. In the East End, where Sassoon lived, the fighter Big Jackie Myerovitch showed up to a Vidal family meeting and recruited Vidal when he was eighteen years old.
By day Sassoon trained as a salon stylist. By night, he was fighting under the tutelage of ex-military men like Gerry Flamberg, who won the Military Medal for extraordinary courage. On one occasion a brawl gave Sassoon a bruise on his face that he could not conceal from his salon clientele. When they asked what happened, he simply said that he tripped over a hairpin.
The 43 Group worked in secret. And they did work: the British Fascist Movement didn’t grow, it got smaller. Sassoon and those who taught him did the work. They enacted consequences for fascist thought in ways we have failed to keep to heart.
I wish that the story ended there, it’d make my point easier: we aesthetes who live by our beauty products should still go out and punch fascists. Heroes don’t have to be exceptional, and in fact they cannot always afford to be. They can be the person you pass on the street who has simply chosen to do an exceptional thing in a time where the awful thing is obscenely rewarded. Your hairstylist could be the next Sassoon, could do direct action to make their community safer while also providing you with an excellent bang trim and bob. I’d like to end there and say it’s simple. But his story is more complicated than that, and so is the cycle of violence.
A few years after his work with 43 Group, he joined what would become the Israeli Defense Force, fighting for the establishment of Israel. He was part of the first wave of volunteers. On his way to the front he spent five weeks with Holocaust survivors and various refugees in the camps in Marseilles, learning their stories. Sassoon’s memoirs never included anything acknowledging the reality of displaced Palestinians; his chapters on the war never mention him killing Palestinians though he was on the front lines as part of the Palmach - the elite fighting force of the Jewish army, many of whom became the founding force of the IDF. It seems incredibly unlikely that he didn’t, given half his battalion died on the battlefield.
His battle to establish Israel as a new state meant his participation in helping destroy someone else’s home. First he fought for anti-fascism and the right to survive in his home, and then he pursued his right to live by forcing others out of Palestine. He would return to Britain only at the request of his mother. As his career blossomed he eventually used his wealth from becoming a celebrity hairstylist to establish The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-semitism, in Jerusalem.
Beauty operates thru the lens of identity politics, and identity is nothing without the power that determines who lives better or lives at all. Identity and fear compelled one man to take to the streets, and his talent propelled him towards the possibility of spending his money to establish a source of history and political positioning. The beauty industry keeps quiet about its participation in politics, but Sassoon is a perfect example how they feed each other.
I don’t think we have learned all that we can from stories like Sasson’s. We can learn from the courage it took to take to the streets and fight and still live and work, how to balance daily action with creating beauty, how to utilize talent for political power, and remember that our choices power things greater than ourselves. You cannot absolve an institution alone but you can actively revolt against it. You can learn from enemies and people you don’t agree with and be better for it. Even then, you’re not immune; you might go on to harm people. You have a choice, and you have to make it over and over again, until you’re six feet under. Of course it’s hard. The fact it is hard has made the work seem doomed. But even if history has patterns and we feel helpless to them, even if we are very ordinary and not invincible and very afraid, we can learn to help. Someone will always need our help. The way that help looks changes all the time.
Sassoon isn’t a hero. That’s a vast oversimplification of his impact on the world, and it would excuse violences he almost certainly participated in that harmed Palestinian people. I am still grateful for him in a lot of ways, because his oversized impact is confirmation that one lifetime can be so complicated and surprising and worthwhile. His legacy is necessary if we’re to imagine our fragile and valuable positioning in both beauty and politics. After all: beauty isn’t liberatory or terrible, just a vehicle of ideas. But a vehicle can be a getaway car or a Trojan horse depending on who’s driving.