Rabbi Israel Elia, head of the venerable Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London's Maida Vale district, remembers the day when he met Vidal Sassoon, one of the congregation's most celebrated sons. Elia had been quietly working in his office on a spring morning two years ago when an anxious colleague relayed the news that a film crew had gathered outside the building. The rabbi went to investigate.
"At the head of the crew, there was a smartly dressed man with delicate, graceful features," Rabbi Elia recalled yesterday. "He walked over to me and introduced himself as Vidal Sassoon. He was making a film about his life and career." Pointing to an annex at the side of the synagogue, Sassoon explained that the building had housed the orphanage where he spent his childhood.
"So I took him inside," Elia said. "He told me, 'I want to show you where my dormitory was.' We entered a room and he looked around. He was excited: 'Yes, this was it, this was the dormitory.' I looked at him and said 'Vidal, your dormitory is now my office.' He threw his arms around me and hugged me, telling me about the kindness of our community, how his accomplishments would not have been possible without that generosity."
Such were the inauspicious beginnings of a man who, through an international chain of hair salons and a bewildering array of grooming products, revolutionized women's style in the decades that followed World War II. The son of a Turkish Jewish father and a Ukrainian Jewish mother, Sassoon was born in Shepherd's Bush, West London, in 1928. Known to its residents as "The Bush," it was a neighborhood with a tough reputation, home to large immigrant communities from Ireland, Poland, and other points east and west.