steven ivory

Steven Ivory

*Vidal Sassoon, who passed away May 9 at age 84,  was more than a hairdresser. The London-born Sassoon, who, in the early ’60s of London’s “mod” era, reinvented the bob hair cut, was a  visionary and business tycoon and philanthropist whose international chain of salons, schools, hair products and TV commercials revolutionized the art of hairdressing and ”hair” industry.

Our lives first intersected in the ’70s. The resulting essay, “When One Door Closes,”  was originally posted at EUR in 2001 and published  later that year in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. When Sassoon read the piece there, through the newspaper he reached out to me and a friendship was born.

I’m reposting the piece in honor of Vidal, one of the kindest, coolest, hippest and most compassionate cats I’ve ever had the honor of knowing.

When One Door Closes

The day I answered the ad for the position of doorman at a swank West Los Angeles high-rise apartment building, I’d reached the end of my rope. It was the mid-’70s, and after a particularly rough year of living like a refugee, I did something many young creative types liken to suicide: I got a real job.

A disinterested building manager hired me on the spot, throwing a young, labor-challenged trainee into the den of parking valets working the evening shift. I wasn’t supposed to last long. Indeed, even as I filled out my first time card, I pondered what I considered more honorable employment, like robbing 7-Elevens. But when the eagle spread its wings that Friday, the sensation of a meager, steady paycheck plus tips got the better of me. I decided to get measured for that uniform and, for the time being, write by day and open a door at night.

Over several weeks, the valets schooled me on the rite of the hustle. I became obsessed. On my watch, no tenant or visitor ever got the opportunity to touch that door. I was a ninja on it.

Among the building’s collection of wealthy retirees, foreign diplomats, kept women, well-to-do working-class, financiers, high-class hookers and corporate execs was a show business quotient that included composer Marvin Hamlisch and Elvis’ legendary manager, Col. Tom Parker.

I remember introducing tenants Sly of Sly & the Family Stone and “Roots” author Alex Haley to one another in the elevator. Each was tickled to make the other’s acquaintance, with Sly even coming out of a haze long enough to be sociable. (Later on, Sly got behind on his rent and the office banned him from the building for a time. Usually following house rules to the letter, I looked the other way when Sly and entourage would sneak through.)

However, my favorite tenant was hair-care icon Vidal Sassoon. Though he’d made a fortune in the haughty beauty business, Sassoon, a fit and handsome then-50something Brit, was affable and down to earth. He’d return from the office in the evenings and we’d chat briefly about whatever was going on in the world.

With an ex-wife, kids and, at the time, a gorgeous, flirty young girlfriend in and out of his daily life, it was clear that Sassoon loved women. Yet every now and then his eyes would do a quick, discreet dance over me with a purpose and gleam that I could only decipher as…The Look. Not a leer, and certainly not offensive. Just, you know, The Look. I interpreted various strains of The Look for the better part of a year until one Monday afternoon, when I received great news: A music magazine wanted me full time. I was overjoyed, but torn. Why venture back into the rickety world of creative employment when I’d come to enjoy what the artistic sector smugly referred to as “civilian life”?

“Because writing is what you do,” Sassoon said rather sternly during our evening chat. “Is it your ambition to be a successful writer or a doorman?” The following evening, he congratulated me on submitting my week’s resignation notice.

“Tell you what,” he said in a chipper English accent. “On your last day, when you complete your shift, come up to the apartment and we’ll celebrate with a toast.”

“Oh, that’ll be late,” I said. “I don’t get off until after 11.”

“That’s OK.”

“That’s pretty late, Mr. Sassoon,” I pressed, not wanting him to feel obligated. “Not too late to have a drink with you,” he said. “To celebrate your new job.”

“But . . . ”

“Let’s do it. I won’t take no for an answer.”

Sassoon then stepped onto the elevator. As the doors closed, he gave me a wink, a smile and laid it on me–a deluxe version of The Look.

Friday night I clocked out for the last time. I changed into my jeans and secretly made my way up to Sassoon’s apartment. Employees were prohibited from socializing with tenants. I was no longer an employee, but I was nervous about Sassoon. I knew The Look. As straight as an arrow, I had no interest–even if I was flattered. And curious.

In anticipation of my arrival, the apartment door was slightly ajar. As I stood in the hallway, the silence was sliced by a female’s lusty giggle from within. My knock was answered by the voice of Sassoon: “Ah, my friend! Bring those broad shoulders on in here.”

With some trepidation, I pushed open the door and found Sassoon and his girlfriend relaxing on a couch in his sumptuous living room, sharing a joke. I apologized for intruding, but Sassoon simply waved it off, stood up and poured me a glass of Champagne. “Here’s to your new job,” he toasted. Glasses clinked and we sipped.

While the three of us sat and engaged in small talk, I found myself miles away, recalling mid-’60s Oklahoma City–a child sitting with Daddy in our powder-blue ’50 Chevy Bel Air, parked outside Dr. Porter’s white middle-class home, waiting for Mama to get off work. Five days a week Mama cleaned Miss Porter’s house, cooked meals and helped raise kids. Then she’d come home and do the same thing for us.

Nightly, Mama brought home stories of middle-class America–tales of annual vacations and family pets that lived indoors. In Los Angeles, Jessie Turner–Mama’s mother and my grandmother–did the same thing. But on her days off she took home more than stories: We were grateful for millionaire real estate agent George Gregson’s discarded monogrammed bath towels, which grandmother dutifully distributed annually between family in Oklahoma and Compton.

Once upon a time, “the help” was about all black folk could be in America. Being a doorman wasn’t quite cleaning toilets, but it held its challenges and lessons, the biggest being that the job doesn’t make the man. Standing sentry at that door, I learned that, ultimately, it’s about the personal pride and ingenuity you bring to the task. I became a damn good doorman and ended up proud that I took the gig.

Those thoughts were interrupted by something I didn’t count on: Sassoon’s girl said she had a big day tomorrow and rose to leave. As he saw her to the door, I drank up, hoping to make a quick exit as well. But Sassoon was vigilant, motioning me to stay put.

“So,” he said, waving, “follow me.” He walked into the bedroom. I was now downright put off. I certainly wasn’t interested in the man, but if simply showing me to the bed was the extent of his romantic technique. . .

Sassoon spoke before I could.

“I have a confession. I didn’t invite you up here simply to have a drink.” Here it comes.

“I’ve been watching you for a while now, and . . . ” Pause. Whatever Sassoon wanted to say, he was having trouble with it. “I’ve wanted to ask you, but I didn’t know your position on something like this. I didn’t want to offend you, but I thought, ‘He’s a nice guy. What the hell, just ask him.'”

With that, Sassoon turned and walked over to his closet. “Would you be interested in this?” On a hanger was a suit–a tan-colored jacket and trousers. Nothing flashy, but exquisitely, classically cut. For a second, I was embarrassed. When that second passed, I said the only thing you can say when a man with the taste and charm of Vidal Sassoon leads you to his closet and presents you with one of his suits: “Man, if it’s not monogrammed, it’s mine!”

Sassoon observed with satisfaction as I slipped the jacket over my white button-down work shirt. It fit like a glove. So this was what The Look was all about–sizing me up for a suit.

And this is who Vidal Sassoon was–a man who looked at a man opening a door and saw something more.

“Vidal, I love this,” I gushed.

“Great. Then it is yours.”

Sassoon explained that he’d had the suit custom-tailored a couple of years before but could count on one hand the times he’d worn it. He’d had it cleaned in anticipation of offering it to me, but said he forgot one minute detail. “There’s a small hole in one of the jacket pockets,” he cautioned. I stuck my hand in the left pocket and found no hole, but slowly came out with a crisp $100 bill.

“Maybe it’s in the right pocket,” he said, looking concerned and ignoring the money. I dug into the right jacket pocket and retrieved yet another $100 bill. I looked up at Sassoon to see the mischievous grin of a man whose little ruse had worked.

“Hey, buddy,” he reasoned, “if you’re going to be a writer, you have to look good and have a couple of bucks in your pocket.” My eyes began to water. A handshake became a hug. I kidded Sassoon that I thought he had had something else in mind. He just laughed. “Ha! You WISH!”

There were tenants in the lobby when I stepped off the elevator in my new suit. Some offered the bewildered gaze that people give to familiar faces seen out of uniform for the first time. Halfway across the lobby, my walk worked itself into a dignified strut. I heard that door close behind me for the last time as I went proudly into the night with a new suit, some cash in my pocket and a dream in my heart. It was a start.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].