Vidal Sassoon was perhaps the world's best-known hair stylist. He created an innovative geometric cut in the 1960s, favored by celebrities, and experimented in other sensual cuts and new products as he branched out from his base in England.
His recent death brings to mind the magical year I lived in Hampstead, 20 minutes north of London, and my tenuous connection with Sassoon.
It was 1971 and I was in my twenties. My sons were three and one, and the older one went to an English nursery school wearing "Wellies" on his little feet when it rained. He started calling me "mummy" and asking for "ban-nah-nas" and needing a "flannel" to wipe up things.
My husband was studying for his PhD, and we were living on a little lane called "Wild Hatch," right off of Hampstead Heath. His dad had left him an inheritance, and we were spending much of it without a clue. We lived in the moment, professional students until our thirties, in an optimistic stupor, blissfully unaware how things would be changing in a few years.
We had a nanny. We had a sporty gold car. We rented an Edwardian mansion next door to the president of British Airways, a proper man who would mow his own lawn in a three-piece suit. When I backed my car over some of his flowers he said, "I'm so sorry. Were those in your way?"
Our house overlooked a tranquil park, which was really the Golders Green crematorium. I never had a clue that bodies were cremating. And the place was exceptionally quiet.
Besides taking my boys for walks on the heath, I spent my days in homey, leisurely ways: baking bread on my Aga stove, poking around antique stores, going to jumble sales to find little treasures, and pruning the rosebushes. As my older neighbor Dorothy said many times, "You lucky American girl."
One day I was getting my hair trimmed at a Sassoon salon on the High Street of Hampstead Garden Suburb. My hairdresser, who was Ceylonese (the following year he'd be called Sri Lanken) asked if I would let him try hairstyles on me after-hours a couple of times a week, for Sassoon. In return, he would do my hair for free.
The idea was intriguing. A gypsy look was trending, focused on flowing tresses. My auburn hair was thick and long, with a natural wave. Just right, it seemed, to use for experiments.
So sure enough I'd go into the salon and he'd brush and roll and upsweep and braid away, seeing what worked and what didn't. And when I returned home I'd dress up in lacey blouses, and long silky skirts in peacock colors, never washing or even brushing out the hair creations.
I liked this deal so much that even when there was a long strike and subsequent brownout, with electricity off every few hours in and around London, I'd be at the Sassoon salon late in the day, and the Ceylonese hair stylist would work on my hair into the evening, by candlelight, the flickers multiplying into hundreds of flames in the shop mirrors, the newest Beatles album playing in the background.
And I'd drive back into the dark night, with no streetlights, no stop lights, risking my life to get my hair done twice a week.
The hairstyles kept getting more extreme. The newness wore off. The brownouts continued. And so after a couple of months, we called it quits.
But reading of Vidal Sassoon's death, I remembered with much fondness and wonder that time in England when I lived on Wild Hatch. I could see myself sitting in the candlelit salon on the High Street, emerging with the odd, experimental hairstyles.
How young I was. So very young, and satisfied and unaware of the realities to come in my life, many of them darker than the brownouts,
I could not imagine that a few years after I returned to the states I would become a struggling single mom who cut her own hair and rented out rooms in her house.
No, in 1971 in London, I was having a Sassoon moment.
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