Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Two Deaths

Two men of great accomplishment have died: Maurice Sendak (who was 83) and Vidal Sassoon (84).

Sendak is of course widely admired for his wildly imaginative stories and illustrations. My favorites: In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak had a strong and public Jewish identity, having been born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents who lost many relatives in the Holocaust. The surreal buildings in Night Kitchen were recognizable as part of the Brooklyn skyline of his childhood. And, he said, the Wild Things were recognizable as relatives who would gather around his bedside when he was sick. His characters, such as Max in Wild Things and Micky in Night Kitchen, were both surreal and real; his New York Times obituary today included this quote:
“My God, Max would be what now, 48?” Mr. Sendak said. “He’s still unmarried, he’s living in Brooklyn. He’s a computer maven. He’s totally ungifted. He wears a wolf suit when he’s at home with his mother!” You don’t have to agree with that assessment — I bet Max became a marine biologist and resembles Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” — to find it terrific.
Vidal Sassoon's Jewish identity was more obscure -- but I'm sorry to say, that seems normal for a British Jew. His parents were poor Sephardic immigrants. I'm interested in the fact that his life was the subject of a movie (maybe I'll see it some time).

Sassoon's fame as a hairdresser to the rich and famous and as a creator of high-end hair products (that eventually sunk to a lower end) doesn't seem very Jewish at all. But he was more than just another quietly Jewish Brit: he fought in the Israeli independence war. He said:
My mother was the strongest Zionist; she used to have Zionistic meetings in the house. I had to stand on the corner to make sure only two people went in at a time, in case we caused a ruckus because it was before Britain left Palestine. An Israeli Palmach officer came to London to talk to us; he said as soon as Britain moved out of Palestine, which was expected in May, there would be a war. By July many of us were there already, and I was in the Israeli army, two months training, the toughest training I’ve ever had in my life. And then we walked one night through the Arab lines to the northern Kibbutzim, and the action started. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life; I felt so good that after 2,000 years of butchery and barbaric behavior against the Jews, “Never again” had become the slogan.
I admire Sassoon for his invention of wash and wear hair styles, replacing painful curlers and other barbaric customs with a blow dryer. I also admire him for having been a Zionist fighter.

Update: the Forward has an excellent obit here: "Vidal: A Jewish Soldier of the Hair Salons Remembering the Struggles of Vidal Sassoon." And Tablet has another: "Vidal Sassoon, Streetfighter."

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