…who died today in Los Angeles – once gave this fantastic interview on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. His name is associated with 60s glamour, but he grew up in a two room tenement in the East End of London after his father left his mother. His mother and his aunt lived in one room, five children lived in the other.
Then at the age of 5, he was sent to live in an orphanage, where he lived till he was 11. His mother was allowed to visit just once a month. During the war he was sent to live with a family in the English countryside. Back in London in his mid teens, he brawled in the streets of East London with Oswald Moseley’s fascists. He then spent a year in the Israeli army.
“All the experiences I had gave me strength rather than pulled me down.”
He was so ambitious, he admits, he let his work ruin his first three marriages. But his fourth marriage, when he was 62, lasted until his death. His daughter Catya, died of a drug overdose at the age of 33 in L.A. “You can’t go through life in a fairytale,” he said. “The downs come and you have to steel yourself.” He’d have made a fine Stoic, tough, willful and resilient – as far from the Warren Beatty/Shampoo vision of the celebrity hairdresser as you could imagine.
“Sassoon’s dark brown eyes are on fire when he talks of his war memories. “We took a hill and attacked at four in the morning, took them by surprise. It was a hill overlooking a main road where the Egyptian heads of the army were heading. If they had passed this spot they would have been in Tel Aviv in a few hours but we took them. Many Egyptians died trying to get up that hill. They had terrible casualties. A faceless man sent them out there and they probably wanted to be with their loved ones.”
Was he very sad that he had to be part of that killing? “I wouldn’t have had any self-respect if I didn’t. Somebody had to be one of those somebodies.”
While Sassoon was off becoming a somebody, his brother was at home becoming an accountant. He later died of a heart attack in his forties. “He wasn’t a drunk but somehow he lost his nerve,” he says. “He was always asking: ‘Why was I put in an orphanage?’ I never asked that. I knew she couldn’t help it. I accepted the situation, he did not.”