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June 5, 2011

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Sassoon portrait

BRITISH tycoon Victor Sassoon was a legend in Shanghai, and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men who built the city in the 1920s and 30s.

Sassoon (1881-1961), heir of the British banking family, is famous for extravagant buildings, such as the Cathay Hotel, later the Peace Hotel on the Bund; his properties were located across the city and included the Art Deco Hamilton Building on Fuzhou Road and the Sassoon Villa on today's Hongqiao Road.

He worked relentlessly to protect Western interests in the Orient and helped European Jews survive in the Shanghai ghetto. Sassoon himself was Jewish.

The charismatic Sassoon was definitely the man about town and his lavish parties were legendary. The bachelor was well known as a ladies man. And the ladies, from starlets to socialites, made no objection to his walking sticks, necessitated by injuries he suffered in World War I while serving in the Royal Flying Corps.

One of the famous stories about Sassoon is his success in prohibiting the Bank of China from constructing a building higher than his Cathay Hotel. However, because of danger from the Japanese invasion, he left Shanghai in 1941 and moved to the Bahamas, never returning to China. He lived in the Bahamas until his death; he had no children.

Last Tuesday his former residence in what is now the Fairmont Peace Hotel was officially opened as the Sassoon Presidential Suite. The Sassoon family donated two portraits of Sir Victor Sassoon from his days in the Bahamas. His nephew Roy Ernest Barnes, now the managing director of Sassoon Group, and two nieces Brenda Barnes Marocco and Evelyn Barnes Cox sat down with Shanghai Daily to discuss their illustrious uncle.

Q: Did he tell you stories of his days in his Shanghai?

Cox: My uncle was a man who lived in the moment, in the future not in the past. Hence, he talked little about his life here. Even so, we felt that he strongly missed Shanghai. Sometimes we saw him frowning at the food on his place. "It's so much better in Shanghai," he used to say. After his death, we found his personal diary which recorded much of his life in Shanghai. We donated it to the University of Texas.

Q: Can you share some stories?

Marocco: Oh, he's very discreet in what he said. What I can tell you is that he very much appreciates beautiful women, especially pretty Shanghai ladies.

Q: How did he die?

Barnes: He died of heart disease in 1961. That's why my aunt founded the Sir Victor Sassoon Heart Foundation to assist Bahamian children who need heart surgery.

Q: Did you inherit your uncle's business talent?

Barnes: I hope so. However, his business success didn't only depend on his business judgment but also his strong personality and charisma. If Sir Victor were sitting here now, accepting your interview, HE would be asking YOU questions. He would want to know about you, for example, why you choose to be a reporter, whether you are married, and so on. He was a very interactive person. He had his unique way of reaching you. It was nearly impossible for anyone to resist the temptation from him. Frankly, I cannot be a second Victor Sassoon.


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