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 & there. He knew & photographed everyone that mattered for most of the 20th century.
As a gay man of his time, & a dandy like Quinton 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 & not a 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, Cecil Beaton was in love with the worlds of high society, theater, & glamour. Beauty in his hands was transformed into elegance, fantasy, romance & 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 5 decades; from the Bloomsbury crowd to the Rolling Stones.
Beaton will always be remembered for his huge influence on the world 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 was fabricated to gain him access to the world that had always just beyond his reach.
Still, everybody loved Cecil the photographer. He worked for Vogue for 30+ years. Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who worked for 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 much compassion & self-pity. His friend Truman Capote described Beaton as a “total self-creation”.
Clever, but not intellectual, good looking but not quite handsome, he just failed to make the grade in those things that he thought mattered the most. Beaton was vain, & he had his clothes made one size too small to flatter his already slim figure. He was never glamorous, despite an international lifestyle that brought him into contact with everyone who was somebody for more than 50 years.
Garbo, who he almost married.
Shooting Keith Richards in LA.
He had a burning desire to be part of aristocratic privilege, Downton Abbey style, 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 classes & American celebrities, his gayness could have been a disadvantage, but he capitalized on it by aiming not at the men, but at their wives.
He was a first rate photographer but he was always seemed too eager flatter & please. Having flattered his subjects' 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 2 & her family look beautiful & stylish.
Mick Jagger circa 1966
For 4 decades he was at the center of the creative world: royal photographer, designer of sets & costumes for stage & screen, from Oscar Wilde’s comedies to My Fair Lady (for which he won an Oscar for the film version), a chronicler of showbiz figures from Audrey Hepburn to Mick Jagger, for whom Beaton had a passion, (Jagger dubbed him “Rip-Van-With-it”). & he kept those diaries that I have been reading, noting everything & revealing the true Cecil Beaton, a mixture of insight, petulance & snobbery, much like the world in which he lived. They reveal the other thing that I suspect in his heart he never forgot: those who are born outsiders must always remain outsiders, after all, outsiders can see things most clearly.
Cecil Beaton died in 1980, after spending a lifetime focusing his lens on the most interesting people of the mid-20th century.
"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."