He had an eye for the telling detail

Gavin Lambert is the author of many books, including "Natalie Wood: A Life," "Nazimova" and "On Cukor."

“I suspect Cecil would prefer to be remembered for his talents in mediums other than photography,” Truman Capote wrote in 1968. Among Cecil Beaton’s “multiple gifts” -- costume and set designs for theater and films, sketches and paintings -- Capote singled out “his very remarkable journals.” This was exceptionally farsighted, as only two volumes (covering the years 1922 to 1939 and 1939 to 1944), considerably doctored by Beaton himself, had been published by then.

Beaton’s biographer, Hugo Vickers, who also edited the unexpurgated, “as he wrote them” diaries for 1970 to 1980, commented that Beaton the photographer was a “master retoucher” and had two reasons for retouching his diaries. (Beaton produced six slim volumes for publication.) He wanted to avoid offending (and probably being sued by) celebrated friends and enemies who were still alive, and he wanted to present himself not “as I really am, but as I’m trying and pretending to be.”

In fact, expurgated or not, Beaton was a master chronicler of his times as well as his life. His ice-blue eyes seemed to fasten instinctively on what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the defining moment,” pen and camera equally alert to the revealing gesture or physical or psychological detail, whether it was the Bangkok storekeeper whose face becomes “an inhuman mask” in a streak of sunlight or Marlon Brando looking warily at Beaton’s lens “as if about to be stung by wasps.”


On Coco Chanel: “Her large-boned, eloquently articulated hands are so accustomed to plying material that even when she is talking at lunch she is pleating the table napkin and turning it round, squaring the edges, the fingers trembling with energy and sensitivity.” Quoting Georgia O’Keeffe discussing her secluded life in New Mexico: “ ‘I’m not really interested in human nature. When I was living with [late husband Alfred] Stieglitz I saw enough of it to realize I didn’t like it.’ ”

On Picasso at 83: “The number of paintings he did! Sometimes eight in one day ... with every sort of trick employed. Perhaps he dipped the paint into a cork and pressed that into the canvas.... I noticed no brushes.”

On Katharine Hepburn at 61: “I see an extraordinary physical human being, a red-mottled, shiny face bereft of make-up, with wonderful bones and a marvelous, clear, childlike regard in the eyes.... I see a schoolmarm, a Victorian sportswoman ... someone who is completely uninterested in the events going on around her.”

As a young man from a suburban middle-class family, Beaton was eager for fame and acceptance by “the best people” but suffered deeply from growing up in a homophobic society that mocked him as effete. And it was not until 1967, he wrote later, when same-sex relations between consenting adults were legalized in Britain, “that I would go into a room full of people without a feeling of guilt.” Although he had transformed himself into an admired and successful dandy by then, his romantic history added up to unrequited loves, occasional furtive one-night stands and a courtship of Greta Garbo.

The earlier expurgated diaries make it clear that Beaton was powerfully fascinated by “this marvelous gay creature [with] the sadness of Deburau, the clown” when they first met in 1932. “You’re so beautiful,” Garbo told him, then warned that he would probably never see her again. In fact, she eluded him for 10 years and rejected his proposal of marriage. Although Beaton claimed that he made love to Garbo several times, the master retoucher may have been at work here. Her parting words in 1948 ring maddeningly true: “You should have taken me by the scruff of my neck and made an honest boy of me.”

The diaries “as he wrote them” record another meeting in 1965, when Garbo, still “up to her old tricks,” is funny, charming, petulant, cruel and “covered with wrinkles.” By this time Beaton had become involved in the most fulfilling romance of his life, with a 29-year-old art historian, 30 years his junior, whom he met in a San Francisco gay bar. He appears in Vickers’ biography and the diaries simply as “Kin,” and Beaton described him as “an essentially difficult character, lone, solitary and seeing too far, [but] he inspired in me the sort of gentle emotion that I have not felt in a long time.” The affair mutated to long-distance friendship when Kin decided to remain in San Francisco, but it clearly energized Beaton’s ‘60s, which became one of his busiest and most creative decades.


Beaton designed costumes and sets for the film of “My Fair Lady” and for productions of “La Traviata” and “Turandot” at the Met; exhibited new paintings in London and New York; traveled to Italy, Greece and Turkey with Kin; experimented with mescaline and enjoyed the visual sensations; and embraced the audacious spirit of John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” and the Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey “Flesh” and “Lonesome Cowboys.” He also took memorable photographs of subjects from David Hockney to Marcel Proust’s housekeeper.

The 1970s, unfortunately, were marked by ill health, declining energy and the stroke that left Beaton at first unable to speak or walk and paralyzed his right hand forever.

The last time I met him, he was able to speak and to walk with a cane. But he confided matter-of-factly: “If I can’t learn to use my left hand in six months, I shall kill myself.” He didn’t have to, and began first to write letters, then his diary, then to paint again, then to take photographs again. A week after the death of Timothy, his 17-year-old cat, Beaton wrote the final words of his diaries: “I was still alive but Timmy had gone through to oblivion. He was perhaps lucky? Who knows?” Six days later, on Jan. 18, 1980, at the age of 76, he died. *