ABOARD A SHIP crossing from New York to Southampton in 1930, 27-year-old Cecil Beaton, already a fashionable photographer, met a fellow passenger he had long admired, envied and hated for having triumphantly achieved all he himself wanted. This was Noel Coward. But the meeting turned sour: Coward told Beaton he was "affected," his talk was "undulating," his clothes "conspicuously exaggerated." Later he explained why he had been so beastly: "You should appraise yourself.Your sleeves are too tight, your voice is too high and too precise. You mustn't do it. It closes so many doors. It limits you unnecessarily, and young men with half your intelligence will laught at you."
Impressed by this advice, Beaton put it down in the diary he kept all his life (it has been published in six volumes from which the present book is a selection) until a stroke at 70 stopped his fluent writing hand. But it is doubtful that he followed it quite faithfully -- photographs reveal an obstinate dandy. True, he was never again flung into a river in evening clothes as he had been at a party shortly before meeting with Coward, but he recognized in some men a temptation to bully him and in later years would adroitly sidestep assaults by the likes of Prince Philip and Evelyn Waugh, his earlists tormentor. ("During my first morning [at school] the bullies, led by a tiny, but fierce Evelyn Waugh, at once spotted their quarry in me during the morning 'break' as, terrified, I crept around the outer periphery of the asphalt playground.")
Other advice he did not always heed came from the great hostess of Emerald Cunard, among whose articles of faith was the belief that no one should ever be sincere -- "The whole structure of society falls." While this journal of a life successfully lived as an arbiter of elegance and artistic jack-of-all-trades records the utterance of much flattery, Cecil Beaton seems nevertheless to have a strong urge to be sincere -- though not to the point of farch like John Gielguid, whose urge to say just what's on his mind has been known to cause tears. Beaton readily owns up to a middle-class background much like Evelyn Waugh's, but unlike Waugh, who made up for his social deficit by a burlesque impersionation of an aristocrat ("he was very conscious of what a gentlement should or should not do: no gentlemen looks out of a windown, no gentlemen wears a brown suit"), Beaton is not a truly dedicated snob. Royalty, whose ladies he has photographed with such romantic charm, certainly moves him deeply: "I never in my life seen such a marvellous regard," he writes of the Queen, "or such a look of interest and compassion. I was thrilled." Yet he does not miss her "cumbrous" mouth or the shortcomings of her coiffure and customes.
The thrill he fells in this star presence is the same he felt as a child when Lily Elsie came on stage, or what he yearned for each year when his mother applied for tickets to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and was regularly rebuffed -- a deprivation he made up for lavishly in the sets and customes for My Fair Lady . He can smile quizzically at himself: "When talking to Royalty I am apt, perhaps out of nervousness, to do an imitation of them to their faces, talking to the Queen Mother in the same wistful tones with wrinkled forehead. 'It's delicious, enchanting,' are her favorite words, and I find myself repeating them. I was being wistful, hesitant, and much too sycophantic when I heard, with admiration, Freddie Lonsdale just being himself.
He has no difficulty being himself with artists, writers, theater people and sympathetic women. He and Picasso hit it off from the start; his last sight of him is in a new swivel chair in which the master almost "twirled himself into space." There is a wonderful set-piece describing the aged Augustus John at work; he is tenderly funny about the difficult Dame Edith Evans; revealing about "the real" Olivier, "the mummer, the ale-drinking Thespian -- not the rather overwheled and shy cipher with the wrinkled forehead who goes out in society"; Truman Capote, who "seem to attract drama," so that Beaton fears he "he may not survive to make old bones"; Max Beerbohm, frail, van and so vividly gifted "at describing the physical exterior of his victims . . . that one kew exactly what they must have looked like. The youthful Churchill had dry hair like a waxwork, no wrinkles, and the pallor of one who has lived in the limelight."
Among women, he loves Lady Diana Cooper at least as much for her utterly unaffected natue as for her aristocratic beauty and connections. There's something natural and sympathetic about him too that makes women feel comfortable. The Duchess of Windsor, often so edgy and defensive, is cozy the Beaton; Mrs. Patrick Campbell, an Edwardian survival, moans into his attentive ear. "Why must I look like a burst paper bag?" A girlish Edith Sitwell twinkles at him; a deliquescent Mae West, shy, nice, and vulnerable, too. He admisres Gertrude Stein's "gout impeccable" but finds the optimism of this "great general and optimish" alarming -- at its very brink she refused to believe that World War II could happen.
The war widened Beaton's horizons more than most men's. The Ministry of Information set him to making a record of it. His famous photographs of St. Paul's among smoking ruins, and of a tiny bomb victim in a hospital bed are romatic classics. He lived on a bomber base, feeling guilty for being a civilian, and chronicled the monotonous, terrifying existence of the pilots, who might or might not make it back safely every night. He went to the North African desert, the most "wasteful, heartless, and purposeless" of war theators. He lived through the crash of a Dakota on the English coast and writes a brilliant description of what it is like to know you are about you are about to die in an airplane. He survived to fly again, to take coutless photographs in India, Burma and China.
The war had given him glimpses of a life beyond his familiar circuit. Field-Marshal Lord Wavell had especially impressed him, and he recognized that although they were poles apart, something in each responded to the other -- "the fact that he approves of me makes me inordinately proud." The more so since since Beaton is troubled to realize with a "a shock of himilitation the limitations of my specialized existence," how remote he is from "ordinary men of intelligence." Even in his own "specialized existence" he wants to be better than he is, and at age 50 went to art school where, if he didn't stay long enough to learn much, he did come to realize that mastyery entails years of perserverance. "The big rousing shock has been to realize what a serious business it is!"
Nor was his love life quite predictable. He writes about his long, baffling affair with Greta Garbo with intense, affecting feeling. The first meeting was in Hollywood in 1932. Transported by champagne in orange juice and handsqueezed, until dawn. "Tommorrow I got to work with a lot of people who are dead," she told him. "It's so sad. I'm an onlooker." But she refused to see him again. "Then this is Goodbye?" "Yes, I'm afraid so. C'est la vie!" Fourteen years later they met again. "At the the sight of Garbo I felt knocked back -- as if suddenly someone had opened a furnace door on to me." A hesitant, painful relationship was begun, he groping toward her, she always moving just out of reach. When she deigned to visit him in his hotel room she was her wacky, elusive self, while he remarked every detail of her beautiful face, her gestures, her accent ("valuable" becomes "vuargh-luobbhle"), her fear of human contact. One day words popped out: "Why don't you marry me?" Her response was oddly conventional: "Good heavans, but this is so sudden!" They walked in wintry Central Park, Garbo striding, leaping laughing, drinking from fountains. One day she chirped: "Like you, I like you -- it's not a big work, but I like you, and whenever I say goodbye I want to see you again," But it not to be. At one of their partings, tears flowed down his cheeks. He had made her love him, but he could not change her life. At their very last meeting, she declared: "I do love you, and I think you're a flop! You should have taken me by the scruff of my neck and made an honest boy of me. I think you could have been the Salvation Army." "thank you for telling me that," he murmered. There are moments when one could weep with Beaton.
He a kindhearted man on the whole, no bitch, and his observations on the gifted people, who hve been his friends are shrewd but affectionate. Clever Picasso once told him that he had the eyes of a painter, like Chardin or Fragonard, not the lens-like eyes of a photographer. But -- along with his vivid diaries -- Beaton's photographs, particularly the war photographs -- 30 or 40,000 of them, now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum -- are his lasting memorial, evidence, if it was needed, that this magician has put in a lifetime of extraordinary industry.