A Conversation With: Beatles’ Hairdresser Leslie Cavendish
Leslie Cavendish has never forgotten the day, just over 50 years ago, when as an employee of Vidal Sassoon’s revolutionary London hair salon, he styled Jane Asher’s strawberry-blonde mane and became entangled with The Beatles. The British actress had been a regular at Sassoon’s Bond Street location, a celebrity magnet attracting all the fashionable women of the day. But on that particular Saturday, September 3, 1966, to be exact, Asher’s regular stylist, Roger Thompson, later Sassoon’s first-ever international creative director in New York, had fussed too much with an earlier client’s hair and had fallen behind. He asked young Cavendish to do the wash and blow-dry and absolutely lived to regret it when that little twist of destiny ended up catapulting his trainee – and not him — into the orbit of The Beatles’ fame. After taking extra care, and ensuring that she liked what she saw looking back at her in the mirror, he listened in astonishment as Asher asked him would he mind doing a house call to cut her boyfriend’s hair. Her boyfriend happened to be Paul McCartney. Asher scribbled his address on a piece of paper pulled from a notepad in her handbag. He recalls the moment vividly in The Cutting Edge, his scissors-sharp 2017 memoir whose North American edition comes out today at The Fest for Beatles Fans in New York.
“When she passed it over and I saw the address, 7 Cavendish Avenue, I said:
‘What a coincidence. My surname is Cavendish.’
‘It must be fate, then, Leslie,’ she said with a smile. ‘Don’t you think? I’ll tell him you’ll be over at about six.’
It certainly was fate.
My life would never be the same again.”
How much it changed forms the focus of the more than 200 pages which follow in this book, a rollicking and often amusing read that travels the drugs-enhanced breadth and sex-saturated depths of Swinging London before burrowing deep inside The Beatles’ inner circle. This is where Cavendish quickly found himself after expertly snipping the locks off one of the Fabs – and inside a large en-suite Beatle bathroom. McCartney not only liked what the house-calling barber did with his hair (including when he later cut it almost all off to allow the Beatle to travel incognito on a much-needed vacation to Africa with Asher and Fabs fixer Mal Evans in tow), he genuinely liked Cavendish, an amiable bloke from the rather undistinguished North London neighbourhood of Burnt Oak who spoke East End slang and football in just about equal measure.
Macca, as the British press had anointed him, enjoyed Cavendish’s company so much that following what soon became their regular haircutting sessions, he invited the hairdresser downstairs to his music room for a spliff and a work in progress. The first song McCartney played for him was “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which he was then preparing for the as-yet-to-be-released Sgt. Pepper’s album. “That first private, post-haircut concert was a surreal experience,” writes Cavendish, an early Beatles fan. “There I was, hanging out with Paul McCartney as I might do with [my friend] Lawrence in front of my Decca record player, enjoying a preview of Beatles songs that hadn’t even been released. As I listened to a few other bits of music, sipping on my tea, it dawned on me that this incredible hairdressing gig might not be a one-off. I might have actually gained a new client. Perhaps even four.” Which is exactly what happened.
As anyone who knows anything about Tthe Beatles can attest when one did something the others quickly followed. The four-headed monster, as Mick Jagger took to calling them, played, worked, sang and groomed in unison. So, it wasn’t long before Cavendish began cutting George Harrison’s hair, and then John Lennon’s, whenever he could get the most erratic of The Beatles to sit still. Ringo was married at the time to a hairdresser, Maureen (née Cox) Starkey, and so his head tended to be off-limits – though Cavendish did trim it on occasion. But like the others, Ringo welcomed his presence and accepted his being around.
He hadn’t counted on the mobs of photographers who followed The Beatles’ every move to capture his image, along with theirs, for the British papers. When his bosses at Vidal Sassoon saw what he was up to, and realized that he had lied to them, they promptly sacked him – and over the phone.“My nightmare had come true” says Cavendish in his book which he co-wrote with Eduardo Jáuregui and Neil McNaughton. “I was out of a job. I mentally waved goodbye to my swinging Chelsea life, my professional standing, most of my celebrity clients, perhaps even The Beatles.”The Beatles allowed Cavendish to sit inside the booth at Abbey Road Studios during recording sessions. Which they rarely let anyone outside their group do. They also invited him to be part of their new movie, Magical Mystery Tour, which immediately followed their groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s album in the summer of 1967. Filming began in September of that year, and Cavendish played hooky from the salon where he was then still employed, claiming to be sick, in order to ride the painted bus with them, from London to Newquay in Devon.
He hadn’t counted on the mobs of photographers who followed The Beatles’ every move to capture his image, along with theirs, for the British papers. When his bosses at Vidal Sassoon saw what he was up to, and realized that he had lied to them, they promptly sacked him – and over the phone. “My nightmare had come true,” says Cavendish in the book he co-wrote with Eduardo Jáuregui and Neil McNaughton. “I was out of a job. I mentally waved good bye to my swinging Chelsea life, my professional standing, most of my celebrity clients, perhaps even The Beatles.”
But charmingly wily and quick on his feet, Cavendish thought of a way to save face. He asked to see Sassoon in person, a fellow Jew, also from working class London, who had once risked all to fight for the Zionists – a cause also dear to Cavendish, who had spent the Summer of Love in Israel as a volunteer reservist during the Six-Day War. Sassoon had given his blessing to Cavendish then; perhaps he would excuse him now. Contrite, Cavendish said the obvious, that by cutting Paul McCartney’s hair, which the media had loudly bruited, he had brought great exposure to the Vidal Sassoon brand, which had resulted in the salon’s attracting even more high-profile clients, including pop stars and actors. He acknowledged he had made a mistake, and begged for a second chance. Sassoon relented. Cavendish got his job back. But he wouldn’t stay long.
To his surprise, Paul and George wanted to make their relationship with him official. In the spring of 1968, Cavendish walked into a meeting arranged with them at their Apple offices on Savile Row at which he learned that The Beatles had determined to go into business with him. They wanted to set Cavendish up in his own shop which they – and they alone – decided would be located on the ground floor of what at the time was known as Dandie Fashions, the hip men’s clothing boutique on the King’s Road in South Kensington. A legendary store epitomizing Swinging Sixties-chic, it had been founded in 1966 by the bona fide British dandies Neil Winterbottom, Freddie Hornick and Alan Holston with the aristocrat Tara Browne (the Guinness heir immortalized in “A Day in the Life”) and the Australian-born designer John Crittle, later father of the celebrated British ballerina, Darcey Bussell.
Soon after Browne (the man who blew his mind out in a car) died in a fatal motor accident in December 1966, the stylish entourage disbanded and Crittle joined forces with The Beatles. The group, with their heaps of cash, had bought out Dandie Fashions and, with Crittle’s help, evolved it into Apple Tailoring (Civil and Theatrical), an adjunct to the larger Apple Boutique, which The Beatles were then operating on Baker Street. Their new fashion store opened on May 26, 1968, and this is where Cavendish next found himself ensconced. Without much persuasion, he now easily said goodbye to his career at Vidal Sassoon and hello to his new gilded life as The Beatles’ full-time hairdresser.
He settled right in, decorating his basement salon with an antique Victorian barber’s chair, which he had re-upholstered in crushed blue velvet, and swinging saloon-style doors. He was the new fashionable man about town, quoted in the papers, photographed in the magazines. George came frequently to bliss out while Cavendish ran a comb through his thick hair. Other rock stars followed. Keith Moon and Dave Clark soon became regulars. Jimi Hendrix, who shopped upstairs, would pop his head in and, through the purple haze of smoke, ask for fashion advice. Cavendish had a very good thing going. But good things rarely last.
For starters, Cavendish and Crittle didn’t get along. But their differences paled in comparison to those of The Beatles, who, in 1968, had started slowly but irrevocably to drift apart. If that weren’t grief enough, The Beatles had operated their fashion businesses as they had run Apple, as the embodiment of a hippie ideal – which basically meant no one was minding the till. The boutiques hemorrhaged money, leading The Beatles eventually to abandon them, They allowed Cavendish and Crittle to keep their respective businesses, however, which both men did for another two years. But by 1970, The Beatles had broken up. The 1960s dream was over. Cavendish was forced to move on.
In 1972, he turned away from hairdressing altogether and devoted himself to fashion, which had been his family’s business back in Burnt Oak. It wasn’t a bad move. He made a killing, so to speak, with the rise of punk, selling Doc Martens boots to fledgling skinheads before the footwear became fashionable. Eventually, he moved away from London, resettling in Spain where he married and became the father of two. Now that his children are grown, he has returned to the city of his birth, where today he leads VIP Beatles tours, elucidating through lively anecdotes and intimate first-person accounts how they rocked the world – and he shaped their look. It’s where I meet him, over a coffee in a Paddington hotel bar that stretches for hours, and over two days. The time flies.
In person, Cavendish, who wears his hair clipped shorter than during his Mini-driving Chelsea days, is a natural raconteur, a true mensch. No wonder The Beatles fell for him. Both in his writing and in conversation he comes across as genuine, a guy who cuts incisively to the heart of the matter in counting himself lucky. “I am honoured I ended up cutting their hair,” he says after a long and winding road of reminiscing. He smoked a lot of weed in the 1960s, but he remembers it all. He really was there. “The Beatles were history,” he continues, his voice strong and proud, “and to have been part of their fantastic era was incredible. Thank you, Paul. And thank you, Jane Asher, for allowing me into your hair.”
Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper’s award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada’s paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada’s most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.