Patrick O'Connor

The Gods Grow Old

Beaton In The Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As They Were Written


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FOR CECIL BEATON disillusionment was not only sad, it became boring. Things that seemed alluring when out of reach become commonplace; people who were once glamorous become middle-aged and tiresome. Close family are indifferent to success and estime, unimpressed by his endeavours. Even the gods have grown old: Garbo’s hair is streaked with silver, Churchill is senile, Picasso’s eyes have lost their brilliance, Chanel is ‘going mad in a rather interesting way’.

At the age of sixty-one, when this new volume of unexpurgated diaries starts, Cecil Beaton had never been more famous. Afier the success of the film version of My Fair Lady (which he had designed in Hollywood), his first two volumes of diaries – heady doctored and edited – had been best- sellers. Glossy magazines, newspapers and royalty still lined up for his Beaton: ‘something photographs. He had a secure home life, with a beautifid house in the country, and a stylish London pied-2-terre with a dining room lined in black velvet. A handsome young Cahfornian art historian was in situ as live-in lover and ornamental hermit.

Yet someone whose whole life had been devoted to the glorification of cosmetic glamour could hardly fail to be rattled by the onset of old age; and rather than retreat into the past, Beaton took to the Sixties with something like a mixture of desperation and adventure. His friends called him ‘Rip-van-With-it’. He found that the young appreciated him for his aestheticism, and that they were refreshingly unaware of some of the snobberies that had driven him in his youth. David Hockney, Mick Jagger, Patrick Procktor, David Bailey, Julian Bream, all became friends. The new generation of actors and models wanted to work with him.

Barbra Streisand, aged twenty-six, knew all about the power that goes with stardom. While designing the Brighton scenes for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Beaton records, with some admiration, her attention to detail. ‘She does not make up her mind if she will wear shoes without heels, or low heels or high heels . . . so three pairs of each are ordered in every colour: Yet he adds that he considered her ‘an equal, and only now and then do I realise that I am sparring on equal terms with someone who is 50 [sic] years younger than I am’.

The Sixties brought Beaton the accolade of being the first living photographer ever to have a one-man show at the National Portrait Gallery. ‘As if I haven’t taken enough photographs during my lifetime’, Beaton complains – as he is expected to do lots of portraits to bring the exhibition up to date. This resulted in one of his most famous pictures, HM the Queen wearing a navy-blue serge admiral’s cloak. The account of a day the weekend?’ at the Palace persuading HM into the right mood to take the photograph is an interesting pendant to Beaton’s rosy-hued account of his first visit, more than a quarter of a century earlier, when, in a daze at the number of portraits Beaton had taken of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, an equerry took him aside and said, ‘Do you realise you are the most fortunate young man I’ve ever known?’

The longest section in the diary is the account of the cruise Beaton went on as the guest of Ckcile de Rothschild, who had become Garbo’s closest friend. Did either of them wonder at the coincidence of their names – Cecil and Cicile? Both, at dfferent times, were devoted to the Silent Swede. Mme de Rothschild never swerved in her allegiance, but by this date Beaton was out of love with Garbo and was appalled by her self-centred moods, her indfference to the rest of the guests’ feelings, and her lack of interest in the world in general. This was seven years before Beaton published his book The Happy Years, which deals with his romance with Garbo in New York and Hollywood in the late Forties. He notes, though, that they are ‘living on borrowed time’ because he suspects (quite correctly, as it turned out) that once he has published hs book, Garbo will break off relations with him. As far as Beaton was concerned, she had become a ‘non-giving, non-living phantom of the past’.

Beaton seemed to be attracted to impossible people. His year-long relationship with the Californian came to an abrupt end, and according to Truman Capote this broke his heart. When the law in Britain regarding homosexuality is finally changed in 1967, Beaton writes about the consequences of the old law with a sort of wistful acceptance. ‘It was only comparatively late in life that I would go into a room full of people without a feeling of guilt.’ It would have helped enormously not to feel ‘a felon and an outcast’.

The group of friends familiar from Beaton’s earlier diaries and hm his photographs begins to grow old and ill and to he. Names that were once famous in the gossip columns, many of which can have no meaning to youngerreaders, are here dealt with, for the most part kindly: Simon Fleet and Lady Juliet Duff, Iris Tree and Princess Olga (‘she can be very dd5cult7). Cartier-Bresson refuses to let Beaton take a photograph of him: ‘I’ve no chance to pull the strings.’ There is a hilarious story about Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill. Mrs Kennedy wants to send a present to Margot Fonteyn. What should she do? Her sister leaves a message, suggesting a case of champagne. In the early morning, furious, Jackie calls back, ‘Who do you think I am? A Croesus?’

Beaton’s diaries are perhaps unique in offering such a double vision of the 1960s – of the rich and famous, young and old, viewed through a technician’s lens. He never seems to stop working, and at the very end of the decade he is embroiled in the fateful production of the Andri. Previn and Alan Jay Lerner musical Coco, which would lead to his split with Katharine Hepburn. Yet, while rehearsals progress, he stdl writes of her as ‘Kate the Great’.

As usual, Hugo Vickers has provided a mass of footnotes, to remind us who The Seekers were, or to pinpoint films, books and plays, as well as such characters as Dr Steichen Calderone (President of the Sex Information bureau, and daughter of the ‘old photographic monster’, as Beaton calls Edward Steichen). Autumnal mellowness was not Beaton’s idea of fun. Would he have been hghted if the Queen Mother had known that he was apt to describe her as ‘Fatter, dumpier and more Scotch than ever’?

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