The old Sephardic surname “Sassoon” was shared by two Englishmen who had little in common other than their good looks, their military valor, their love of sport, their glory in separate spheres, and their longevity. For me, however, they had a meaningful relationship. It came into focus some forty years ago, when I was a young poet, living in a London garret and working as the tutor for a rich family in Berkeley Square. I frequented the margins of two cultures: one, grand and literary; the other, madcap and Mod—both exotic to me, like that sibilant patronym, a bridge between them.
The elder Sassoon, Siegfried, was one of the leading poets and most searing critics of the First World War, in which he served as an officer, lost a brother (at Gallipoli) and a friend of the heart (Wilfred Owen), and won a Military Cross. He was born, in 1886, into a dynasty of immensely rich merchant bankers, originally Iraqi Jews. But his father, Alfred, was disinherited for marrying an Anglo-Catholic—Theresa Thornycroft, a scion of prominent sculptors, and herself an artist of note. Siegfried, named after Wagner’s hero, was educated at Cambridge; served as the literary editor of a socialist newspaper, where he employed E. M. Forster, among other luminaries; and published several acclaimed works of autobiographical fiction, in addition to the satiric poetry that he felt was misunderstood. (“I have always been a religious poet,” he said.) After a paternal aunt, Rachel Beer, the editor of the Sunday Times (which she had bought) left him a fortune, he lived the life of a British gentleman on his estate in Wiltshire—foxhunting, golfing, and playing cricket into his seventies.
The younger Sassoon, Vidal, who revolutionized the art of haircutting, and died, of leukemia, on Tuesday, at eighty-four, was the son of Jewish immigrants—a Greek father, Nathan, and a Ukrainian mother, Betty. He grew up in London tenements, and spent part of his scrappy childhood in a Jewish orphanage. (After Nathan Sassoon, a wastrel, abandoned his family, Betty was too poor to raise her sons. By the time she remarried, and was able to make them a home, Vidal was eleven.)
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