- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003


By Cecil Beaton (introduction by Hugo Vickers)

Knopf, $35, 508 pages


Does a diarist write for himself or for others? Like many another keeper of a journal, Cecil Beaton began by doing so for himself alone. But with fame and fortune comes the possibility — perhaps even the inevitability — that others will read one’s jottings and this, as with the proverbial observed tree falling in the forest, will subtly alter their tone and their substance as time passes.

World-famous as a photographer of the Beautiful People (whom he usually made a little more lovely than they actually were), Beaton was also a terrific designer of costumes and sets for the stage: For all the melody of its music and the wit of its lyrics, would Lerner and Lowe’s “My Fair Lady” have been the sensation it was without those stunning garments and striking mises-en-scene? So it is not surprising that Beaton is adept with his pen at creating penetrating verbal portraits and evoking atmosphere and occasion alike.

Famed as a champion toucher-up of photographic portraits, he felt the need to edit and tone down his writings when portions of his diaries were published during his lifetime, partly from tact and social necessity given the circles in which he moved — and partly, I suspect, because of the chastening effects of his native England’s robust libel laws. This did not always prevent them from being sensational: Who would have guessed that this lifelong homosexual would reveal in the early 1970s that he had several decades earlier enjoyed a passionate sexual relationship with Greta Garbo?

Now we have the unexpurgated diaries of his last decade “as he wrote them,” we are assured. Unfortunately, for more than half of those years preceding his death in 1980, he was a shadow of his former self, having suffered a severe stroke, and as a result his entries in the last years of his life are sporadic. But until that terrible blow struck him in 1974, he was clearly still quite devoted to his diary and so in the first four heavily-laden years of that troubled and troubling decade, he tells us what he really thought.

The first surprise — a rather pleasant one — is that this rather brittle and distinctly chilly man was capable of not merely strong feelings but deep emotion. In these years, his eros — or perhaps one should say agape — continues to be focused on the unlikely connection he had formed in California in the mid-1960s while toiling unhappily on the movie version of “My Fair Lady.” Even now identified to readers of this volume only as “Kin,” the cynosure of all this love has gone from an improbable Princeton-educated, Olympic-fencing-team young hunk, to a still more startlingly un-Beatonish (you’d have thought) aging, hippie intellectual, living in conditions of considerable squalor.

The thought of Beaton, usually swanning among the rich and famous (aristocrats, royalty, Rothschilds, American multi-millionaires) wherever he went in the world, gladly spending quality time in the incongruous setting of a funky and dilapidated San Francisco loft would have defied imagination. Now we know from these diaries the profound attachment he felt for Kin; the very oddness of the couple makes his emotion all the more moving.

Indeed, Beaton could be a loyal and devoted friend to people of either gender, although it did seem to help if you had a title. Some of those who had this advantage also had more intrinsic qualities to recommend them, as in the case of Lady Diana Cooper, to whom he was obviously truly devoted. But in many cases, the fussiness and persnickety attitude displayed in the diaries could make him a waspish friend and on occasion even an uncomfortable social presence.

There is also a lamentable lingering whiff of anti-Semitism, which was so ingrained that it got him effectively blacklisted for many years from working in the United States. And he really could be venomous. His generally excellent editor, Hugo Vickers, who has annotated this volume so knowledgeably, notes that Beaton was prone to making various people with whom he worked “hate figures.”

In the case of Alan Jay Lerner, a much-favored (or dis-favored) target, he was surely not alone in his dislike. (Ask his numerous ex-wives.) And he was certainly justified in a lifelong hatred of Evelyn Waugh, who had tormented and bullied him at prep school. But some of his judgments in these diaries do seem over the top. Princess Margaret may have treated him haughtily and peremptorily, but did she deserve this verdict on her appearance when she was still in her early forties? “Her appearance has gone to pot … Her complexion is now a dirty negligee pink satin. The sort of thing one sees in a disbanded dyer’s shop window.”

Katharine Hepburn may have been hell to work with in the musical “Coco,” but surely it is harsh at best to say of her that “she is maladroit, and she is ugly. That beautiful bone structure of cheekbone, nose and chin goes for nothing in the surrounding flesh of the New England shopkeeper. Her skin is revolting and since she does not apply enough make-up even from the front she appears pockmarked. In life her appearance is appalling, a raddled, rash-ridden, freckled, burnt, mottled, bleached and wizened piece of decaying matter. It is unbelievable, incredible that she can still be exhibited in public.”

These are perhaps the high — or low — points of Beaton’s vicious diatribes, but there are plenty of other examples and the plethora of them in these pages will undoubtedly put off some readers, particularly if those attacked happen to be favorites. Besides which, Beaton is more attractive when he uses a rapier rather than a sledgehammer.

Sometimes a little waspishness can even creep in to salt a perceptive and humane judgment, for example this one on the recently-deceased novelist Nancy Mitford: “She laughed readily, chuckled, gurgled, was a bit governessy in personality (the dry lips, the tiny mouth) and I could never trust her not to sacrifice one for a joke … But she was witty and one laughed a lot in her company … genuinely, I cannot really admit that my heart went out to hers, but then her heart was a very peculiar one, and not at all like other people’s.”

And certainly Beaton can be harsh with himself as well. These unexpurgated pages provide a lot of insight into the reasons behind his publication of the sensational diary revelations about himself and Garbo. He reveals genuine agony about his decision to publish and be damned, so to speak, and his judgment on himself is unsparing.

It cannot be said that Beaton escaped unpunished for what he wrote even in those earlier, more discreet diaries. Greta Garbo might not have descended upon him breathing fire, but in 1974 he actually received a brutal physical assault at the hands of a figure quite tangential to his life who had taken violent exception to some rather throwaway remarks. Exiting a fashionable London party in search of a taxi, Beaton was “followed by the ‘Mad Boy’ [Robert] Heber Percy, who wore his asinine grin. As he was within 18 inches of me he surprisingly gave me the most terrific blow on the chin … suddenly, in a flash, I was being seriously beaten up.”

Beaton’s life was indeed not the airbrushed, polished affair that might have been expected of a society photographer and arbiter of elegance. These diaries are full of gems of all sorts, nasty and nice, and provide an unexpected portrait of a man who was much more complicated than his pictures and tableaux.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, California.

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