SO MANY names are dropped in Hugo Vickers' life of Cecil Beaton that the book has to be held with a catcher's mitt. The famous, the failed, and the forgotten pass like tourists through a turnstile. It is an exhausting pace, one finds, to have to be trendy 24 hours of every day. Beaton's life and work depended upon his being so.
"Life is very hard for a climber," he confessed to his diary early on, yet Beaton was a social climber of rare genius. Despite his professed contempt for the vulgarity and triviality of many of his portraiture patrons -- and he made most of his living by his camera -- he pursued their glittering but essentially dreary society for itself as well as for its income. He never understood that his concepts of what was beautiful had helped mold what he privately claimed to despise. "You can't imagine the stupidity and vulgarity of those rich people," he wrote of a show of his work at a gallery in Palm Beach in 1968, when he was 64. "However they bought all the forty-one pictures in three days."
Born to a comfortable middle-class Hampstead family in 1904, Beaton aspired to be different. In school he doodled dresses, hair styles, hats, and stage sets. Soon he was also painting his face and associating with pretty students of similar predilections. Inevitably that led to harassment by such aggressively male older boys as Evelyn Waugh, for whom he conceived a lifetime aversion. Failing to pass his Cambridge examinations -- he was too busy hatching self-promotion schemes -- he left without a degree but with ideas about unusual camera angles and a falsetto voice. Both proved useful for a drawing-room fame of sorts, but brought insufficient income to satisfy his businessman father. That meant enduring office work briefly until his incompetence permitted him to escape to the arcadia of titles and unearned income, and to the homosexual world of fashion, entertainment, pop art and rough trade.
"He loves high society," an art dealer observed later, "and moves in this watery element like a dolphin." Beaton was "without snobbery," the dealer thought, because his tastes were unintellectual and included low as well as high. His life style, however, required both, as did the glossy journalism where he made his bread and butter. For years Beaton's career was circumscribed (and artistically limited) by fashion sketches and photography for Vogue, a career interrupted in 1938 by an anti-Semitic gibe hidden in one of his drawings, his "Jew row misdemeanour" to the insensitive Vickers.
What attracted his clients were his exotic backgrounds and camera perspectives, and the publicity value of his subjects; what often attracted his sitters was Beaton's facility for making the camera lie through ingenious lighting and retouching. For magazines he was always in tune with the trendy, from film stars and professional beauties at the beginning to rock headliners in his last years; and always there were the titled to add snob appeal to his signature. Gladys Cooper and Greta Garbo, Lady Diana Cooper and the Duchess of Marlborough (subject of Vickers' previous book) would give way over the years to the Duchess of Windsor, Queen Elizabeth II, Mick Jagger, and Princess Grace.
Beaton's quest for a conventional facade for his life always warred with his inclinations. In his younger years, as a pretty male, he was always attractive to women and frequently had thrust upon him opportunities to test his less than confident virility. In his diaries he claims that Garbo, like several other women, went from portrait subject to sexual partner. The appearance of an attractive young man, however, often prevented Beaton from focusing his attention upon the woman in whom he thought he was interested.
After his fall from favor at Vogue, war photography -- but never combat assignments -- offered a turn-around to a stalled career. Beaton discovered camera opportunities and a zest for travel that brought him a new dimension of fame -- a bandaged, Blitz-injured waif in a London hospital bed; grotesque shapes of burned-out tanks in the Egyptian desert; the famous and the less-than-so in places with strange-sounding names. And always, now, there was royalty to record, with Beaton reaching heights of absurdity rarefied even for him. After Buckingham Palace was slightly damaged by a German bomb he gushed, "It is the genius of the Queen that has caused the Palace to be bombed so that East Enders should not feel that they are alone in their misery. What a wonderful person that Queen is, just by being so nice and good."
FAWNING UPON, and about, royalty was only one side of Beaton's emergence as an establishment figure. Wartime photography and writing had muted his preciousness, and he added to his list of acquaintances an array of admirals, generals and diplomats, and their ladies and lackeys. After the war such figures were transformed into governors-general and the like, and Beaton was assured a guest room in posh places worldwide. In England and America he was now more than a photographer, designing ballet sets, play productions and films. And he was a diarist. Beaton lavished thousands of words of his diaries on Garbo alone, sometimes writing about no one else for weeks.
Although their bulk and their triviality are daunting, Beaton thought that his diaries might turn out to be his chief claim to permanence. From 1922 through 1974 he produced 145 volumes, and after a stroke late in life, with his right hand useless, he returned to his diary left-handed. Once he worried that his diaries might create only "a certain posthumous interest and soon the ripples of my existence would subside and I would be forgotten and all my labours would have been in vain." To forestall that fate he published portions of his diaries in his own versions. Truman Capote, one of the close friends of Beaton's later years, warned that published diaries had to be honest. Beaton, however, was a compulsive retoucher. He employed ghosts, with styles even more dilettantish than his own, to rewrite his diaries and compose his books. Their commercial success -- despite some hints from critics that the diaries might not be all they claimed to be -- helped assuage Beatons' desperate envy of other guests of his society hostesses who seemed to be eclipsing him, one a smart young photographer named Antony Armstrong-Jones, who had stolen a subject of Cecil's, Princess Margaret.
Fashion remained Beaton's forte. No one else in his time seemed to have his insight into period nostalgia and the facility to re-create it in costume and setting. The stage Lady Windemere's Fan, the film Gigi, and both stage and film My Fair Lady, were brilliantly evocative and demonstrated Beaton at the height of his powers -- triumphs of the schoolboy who had once doodled in his copybook margins.
While Beaton chased fame in theater and film, and sought permanence in his diaries, cooked and uncooked, he is likely to live longest though the camera -- the ladder he used for social climbing and to support his life style. His drawing was elegant but derivative; his camera captured an over-ripe decadence that was indeed what the world lusted after, and which lives in his pictures. Toward the end, the physically failing purveyor of the beautiful people peppered his diaries with references to decay, disillusion and death. Occasional forays into society sustained him, as did adulation from patrons who recognized him as a documenter of glittering times past.
Now, at the Barbican in London, a huge retrospective exhibition of Beaton photographs sustains his camera reputation, although he knew so little about the technical aspects of his work that for many years his nanny, who first developed his pictures in the family bathtub, continued to process them for him. (Later he was served by a variety of commercial agencies.) Even his use of a highly professional camera was thrust upon him by Vogue. Still, his reputation will survive in pictures rather than words, and despite, rather than because of, this biography authorized in the next-to-last month of his life. There is little likelihood that another will succeed Vickers' soon, not because of its definitiveness, but because of its excesses, an indulgence that extends to the writing as well as the detail. Trains "lurch" from the station; Beaton is "hijacked" to California when he has only flown there on a business trip; head colds are "appalling." This book offers far more than anyone will ever want to know about Beaton, who is diminished by our knowing far too much. His most telling pictures are worth thousands of Vickers' words.
Stanley Weintraub, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, is the author and editor of many books, including, most recently, "Bernard Shaw: The Diaries, 1885-1897."