January 14, 1904– Cecil Beaton
I have been reading 2 volumes of Cecil Beaton’s Diaries over the past year, in small little doses, choosing to read a few entries here and there. He knew & photographed everyone that mattered for most of the 20th century.
As a gay man of his era, & a dandy like Quentin Crisp, he had to reinvent himself & discover a way to survive & thrive. I know that I have always been grateful to be a gay man because it meant that I was an outsider and not an old, straight, WASP male, but how much harder that must have been earlier in the century, when homosexuality was illegal & being exposed could mean the end of a career.
Born in 1904 in London & coming of age at the peak of the 1920s, Beaton was in love with the worlds of High Society, Theater, & Glamour. Beauty in his hands was transformed into fantasy, romance & considerable charm. His inspired artistic eye led to a following among fashionable society & eventually a full-fledged career as the foremost fashion & portrait photographer of his day. He was so attuned to the changes of fashion that his career maintained its momentum for more than 5 decades; from the Bloomsbury Circle to The Rolling Stones.
Beaton will always be remembered for his huge influence on the worlds of photography & fashion. His incredible work is the essence of elegance & grace, but his personal behavior was at times, anything but. He was not known to be a loyal friend, a humble talent, or a genuine soul of any sort. In fact, his persona & image were fabricated to gain him access to the world that had always been just beyond his reach.
Still, everybody loved Beaton the photographer. He worked for Vogue for 30+ years. Louise Dahl-Wolfe, at Harper’s Bazaar:
“He was such a naughty man. You had to laugh at all the awful things he said about everybody, especially the people at Vogue.”
In fact, Beaton laughed at everybody except himself, for whom he reserved total compassion and a dose of self-pity. His friend Truman Capote described Beaton as a “Total Self-Creation”.
Clever, if not intellectual, good-looking but not quite handsome, he always just failed to make the grade in the things that he thought mattered the most to him. Beaton was vain. He had his clothes made one size too small to flatter his already skinny frame. He was never quite glamorous, despite an international jet-set lifestyle that brought him into the orbit of everyone who was anybody for more than 6 decades.
Beaton had a burning desire to be part of aristocratic privileged Downton Abbey style, which was still going strong in the 1920s & 1930s. Beaton was what was known at the time, a “pansy”. With his ambition focused on the British Upper-Class and American celebrities, his gayness might have been a disadvantage, but he capitalized on it by aiming not at the men, but at the wives.
He was a truly great photographer, but he was always way too eager to flatter & please his subjects. Having flattered their bodies & faces, he flattered their egos by placing them in settings reflecting the latest artistic movement, making them seem “of the moment”. He even managed to make Queen Elizabeth II and The Royal Family seem especially lovely & stylish.
For most of the 20th century, Beaton was at the very center of the creative world: royal photographer, designer of sets and costumes for stage and screen, from Oscar Wilde’s comedies to the lavish Edwardian gowns for both the stage version and the film My Fair Lady (for which he won a Tony and Academy Award), as well as the belle époque look of Gigi, a chronicler of showbiz figures from Noel Coward to Mick Jagger, for whom Beaton had a passion (Jagger dubbed him “Rip-Van-With-it”).
He kept those detailed diaries that I have been reading, noting everything & revealing the true Cecil Beaton: a heady mixture of social insight, petulance & snobbery, much like the world in which he lived. His writings also reveal the thing that I suspect in Beaton’s heart he never could forget: those who are born outsiders must always remain outsiders; after all, outsiders can see things more objectively. The diaries show his witty and unsparing thoughts on the many stars he photographed. Beaton even enjoyed the naughty things that were said about him. Jean Cocteau called him: “Malice In Wonderland”. Alan Jay Lerner, the great lyricist & libretto writer of My Fair Lady and Gigi, claimed that there were several Cecil Beatons:
“We used to say that inside Cecil Beaton there was another Cecil Beaton sending lots of little Cecils into the world. One did the sets, another did the costumes. A third took the photographs. Another put the sketches in an exhibition, then into magazines, then in a book. Another Cecil photographed the sketches and sold these.”
“The camera will never be invented that could capture and encompass all that he actually sees.”
Beaton was also a world traveler, an arbiter of taste and fashion, a war photographer, a painter and exceptionally wicked caricaturist. He had an ability to mix with actors, painters, musicians, film stars, society figures and, later in life, the figures of what he dubbed “The Peacock Revolution” of the late 1960s & early 1970s.
Beaton was decidedly gay, and had many relationships with series of much younger men. His last lover was Olympic fencer Kin Hoitsma. The great love of his life was noted art collector Peter Watson, who held the rights to his photographs. But, Beaton was also for a time, the lover of the world’s most beautiful and famous woman, Greta Garbo, to whom Beaton even proposed marriage.
Beaton left this world in 1980, after spending a lifetime focusing his lens on the most interesting people of the mid-20th century. Not only did he photograph most of the interesting, alluring and important people of the 20th century, but he made them look stunning.
“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose & imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.”