Vidal Sassoon remembered: Anti-fascist, hairdresser, friend
Vidal Sassoon’s lifelong commitment to standing up for his convictions was recalled this week by a childhood friend who joined him in fighting fascists in London’s East End.
A decade before he became known for styling celebrities in his Bond Street salon, Sassoon gained a reputation for confronting fascists at their meetings in Ridley Road and Tottenham.
His escapades, many of them with Jules Konopinski, attracted the attention of the 43 Group, a band of ex-servicemen who waged a bloody street war against Oswald Mosley’s followers in the years after the Second World War.
“We were approached by people who said, we like the way you behave — or misbehave,” said Mr Konopinski. “We were the babies. Some of the things they asked us to do weren’t really nice, but we did them.
“There was a lot of fighting in those days but we did equally to them what they attempted to do to us and we were doing what the police should have done.”
Arrested himself several times, Mr Konopinski was with Vidal Sassoon when he was carted off by police in Kilburn after a “fracas outside a pub where they were meeting”.
“He was very strong — someone you wanted to have along,” said Mr Konopinski, whose wife had her hair styled by Sassoon just before their wedding.
The two men’s involvement in the 43 Group led to their next adventure: travelling illegally to Mandate Palestine in May 1948. They told friends they were going to Belgium for a few days, but boarded a plane in Marseille bound for Haifa and stayed for 15 months.
“We left with one-way tickets,” Mr Konopinski recalled. “We really believed in what we were doing.”
They were particularly incensed at the fact that the British government was turning away ships with Holocaust survivors.
“So we went over to do our duty. We were two physical young men, and we were itching to make sure Israel gained its independence.”
Vidal Sassoon served in the Palmach and went south — “in the thick of it” — while Mr Konopinski was stationed in the Galil, but they would meet in a hotel in Tel Aviv when they were on leave.
“You can’t explain what it was like to be there, everyone was so elated and we couldn’t wait to get stuck in.”
Back in London, Sassoon returned to hairdressing. But, according to Mr Konopinski, his original dream was to be a footballer: “He was a fanatical Chelsea supporter. His mother put him into hairdressing as a means of earning a crust and he had a natural talent.”
As well as “smashing up” fascists, they spent their teenage years at Jewish youth clubs, at dances or at Johnny Isaacs fish-and-chip shop.
“Vidal and I used to go to parties and we would immediately find some blankets and hide them so that if we couldn’t get home we could make a bed on the floor,” remembered Mr Konopinski.
“He was very popular with women. For boys from the East End with barely a suit on our backs, we were invited to the most prestigious homes, because we were popular, gregarious, we could entertain.”
Later on, Sassoon developed a “celebrity aura,” said Mr Konopinski. “And he had a great smile on his face, a mesmerising personality.”
But Sasson’s fame did not distract him from acting as a front-line operator in the battle against extremism and prejudice. He founded the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism in 1982.
“He was a great man, a great friend,” said Mr Konopinski. “He never lost his commitment — he was always 100 per cent dedicated.”