A life lived well in the duty of glamour

Special to The Times

Nowadays in the desperate search for glamour that consumes celebrities and wannabes alike, more and more people run to the plastic surgeon for liposuction, tummy tucks and other procedures that are not entirely without risk. But in the good old days when glamour was at its peak, the quickest and safest way to look glamorous was to be photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Artist, theatrical designer and photographer of the famous, the rich and the royal, Beaton not only had an eye for style and beauty but also perfected the art of retouching his photos to make sure his subjects looked as svelte and smooth-skinned as the vainest narcissist could wish.

Even as a little boy, clothing and appearances fascinated the future set and costume designer for shows such as "My Fair Lady." Although he was indubitably gay, this did not seem to prevent him from having an affair with Greta Garbo or considering marriage to another woman whom he had long liked. And, if his diaries cannot compete with Christopher Isherwood's when it comes to explicitness, candor or introspection, they can be quite honest and revealing in their own way.

Through most of the adult years of an eventful life (1904-1980), during which he hobnobbed with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Philippe and Pauline Rothschild, Vivien Leigh, Anita Loos, Irene Worth, Truman Capote and Stephen Tennant, Beaton kept a diary, publishing several volumes of it during his lifetime. As was the case with his photographs, these published diaries were carefully edited by his own hand.

But Hugo Vickers, the author of an excellent life of Beaton, had the opportunity to immerse himself in the original diaries for 22 years. In his introduction to "The Unexpurgated Beaton," Vickers notes the difference between what Beaton chose to publish and what he had actually written: " ... in the published diaries, opinions are softened, celebrated figures are hailed as wonders and triumphs, whereas in the originals, Cecil can be as venomous as anyone I have ever read or heard in the most shocking of conversation."

And, indeed, Vickers' unexpurgated edition contains unflattering portraits of many famous stars, including Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Capote and Leonard Bernstein. Yet there is perception amid the venom, a gift for seeing the difference between style and faddishness, elegance and ostentation, originality and shock effect, gold and dross.

Nor is venom the predominant ingredient in these pages. If Beaton loathed some individuals, there were others whom he admired, loved and cherished.

In 1970, he invited the 82-year-old actress Cathleen Nesbitt as a weekend guest: "She shows a rugged sense of reality that no doubt she has learnt in the theatre. She alludes to Willie [Somerset] Maugham as a bastard, she talks freely of the functions of the body.... She is completely unbitter in regard to her present-day life and career. Other rivals have surpassed her in the theatre. She has no regrets.... She does not think of herself, and she is generous, kind, unselfish and her sense of proportion is never 'out.' "

It is also touching to read of Beaton's devotion to an American man referred to only as "Kin," whom he met in 1963. In many ways they were an odd couple: the fastidious Englishman considered one of the world's best-dressed men and the beefy, intellectual, increasingly countercultural American. Yet even after Kin had lost his youthful charms and descended into more squalid living conditions, Beaton remained a loyal friend.

In covering the 1970s, this volume also records Beaton's insightful and often sympathetic reactions to the era's cultural changes. Here was a man who didn't simply gush platitudes, but who could see things that the more casual, less knowledgeable observer would surely miss.

Whether recounting his impressions of an Yves St. Laurent dress collection or paying tribute to the classicism of Coco Chanel, Beaton zeroes in on the qualities that made each of these designers so original and exciting.

Beaton's diaries also reveal his sensitivity to the differences between ostentation and genuinely gracious living, between moneyed vulgarity and good taste, between selfishness and generosity. In this respect, Beaton serves as a kind of social critic: a novelist, or in this case diarist, of manners.

Nor does he confine his critical eye to others: He can be equally critical of himself and of his own work. In these late diaries, which become increasingly sporadic after the stroke he suffered in 1974, Beaton leaves us with a sad and moving portrait of the ravages of old age, which were especially distressing to someone who had always taken such pride in his appearance.

Vickers shares his knowledge with the reader in sprightly and informative footnotes. Beaton, Vickers tells us, began keeping a diary as a young man, without any idea of publishing it: "If I knew anyone had read this I'd almost go mad and yet I feel I have to write it. It's so much myself -- the real self that not a single person alive knows."

Fortunately, thanks to these diaries, the self that Beaton was so anxious to hide comes through, in many ways more likable and admirable than the polished surface he worked so hard to present.

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