Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cecil Beaton, pronouncing provocatively from the grave

Cecil Beaton can fairly be called a Renaissance man. In his five-decade career he was a celebrated artist, portrait and war photographer, set and costume designer for screen and theater, dedicated diarist, and all around arbiter of style. As Hugh Vickers recounts in the introduction to one of our two volumes of Beaton's unexpurgated diaries (spanning 1960-1980), Jean Cocteau described him as "Malice in Wonderland," and he could be very catty indeed, as well as spot-on in his verbal character portraits.
The physical changes that flesh is heir to repelled him. Even Greta Garbo, whom he loved and vainly attempted to marry, wasn't granted immunity. In 1946, when he met her in New York and commenced an affair, he noted "the scrawny hands a bit weathered, the ankles and feet a bit poor and bumpy-looking." After several Manhattan trysts, she visited him in England but remained cagey (as she had all of her life). During a 1965 cruise around the Greek islands, Beaton was "appalled by how destroyed her skin has become, covered with wrinkles, double chin, but, worse, the upper lip has jagged lower and the skin has perished into little lines."
(No wonder GG took herself out of the Hollywood running, if she was to face snipes like that about her susceptibility to "time's winged chariot.") In a 2003 review of The Unexpurgated Diaries, the New Yorker's Thomas Mallon calls Beaton's affair with Garbo "a claustrophobic, creepy romance." Mud packs and antique shopping do not a grand amour make. Beaton agonized about revealing his liaison with Garbo after her death, but ultimately he let the diary entries about her stand (right, the pair in the 1940's).
"One book of his photographs ... was called 'Persona Grata' (1953), the category he most desired to occupy," writes Mallon. "He is here to estimate, not esteem. His physical inspections have a kind of naturalist's neutrality…. Colette looks like "an old chinchilla marmoset."
Vogue ©The Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
Whereas he adored Audrey Hepburn, whom he famously costumed in My Fair Lady, he loathed Katharine Hepburn, writing a scathing entry about her behavior and appearance in the misbegotten Broadway musical Coco. "She is the egomaniac of all time . . . 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…. I am quite scared of her.... I avoided her like the plague. At one point I felt I could hardly bear to remain in the theatre, the goings-on on stage so irritating and unattractive." [n.b.: he won a Tony; she was nominated but didn't.]
Katharine Hepburn as Chanel in the 1969 Broadway musical ''Coco"
"Has any photographer ever been so superficial as Cecil Beaton?" queried Philip Hoare in The Independent. "So obsessed with fame, glamour, the celebrity of his age? And has anyone ever done it quite so well? …. Beaton was a man who worshipped women but loved men." Right, Beaton's 1956 portrait of Marilyn Monroe, a print of which she owned. In 1968, Beaton's work was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery's first photographic show, a breakthrough both for London and for the museum.


  1. Did Cecil Beaton include an honest appraisal of his own features? (Garden gnome melting in the sun occurs to me).
    One of the reasons we must keep alive the written word is to avoid the superficiality that focusing on images encourages. Life is more than meets the eye.

  2. "Angel of beauty, do you wrinkles know?
    Know you the fear of age, the torment vile
    Of reading secret horror in the smile
    Of eyes your eyes have loved since long ago?
    Angel of beauty, do you wrinkles know?"
    "Reversibilite" by Charles Baudelaire

  3. Absolutely ... think of how women (and some men) have becomes slaves to dermatological and plastic surgery procedures ... real-life Photoshopping of the face.

  4. Cecil B. and I have almost nothing in common, yet I too adore Audrey and never thought much of Katherine.