I sometimes doubt that Americans understand issues of class at all. Our society is so pugnaciously egalitarian that we imagine tangible assets are what distinguish one set of people from another. But as the English understand class, it has little to do with one’s funds and everything to do with one’s upbringing. Cecil Beaton, despite his father’s timber merchant background, was the very picture of high class, the kind of person who, at the age of eleven, could stage a somewhat fuzzy photograph of his sisters among trees and title it “Babes in a Corot Wood” yet have no one think him precocious. (Two years later he shot a photo of his sister Nancy which he titled “A Norfolk Bacchante” which was probably a bit much, even for his crowd.) I think that folk of Beaton’s station in life (at least at the beginning of the twentieth century) simply assumed everyone knew who Corot was, that everyone appreciated and understood great art and music, but some were simply limited by their purse for opportunities to experience it.
Beaton began quietly, attending university only long enough to acquire the contacts he needed to get himself started in the world of publishing. Before long he was on the staff of London Vogue and building a real reputation for his style. While his photographs weren’t thought of as technically innovative, his compositions were, even to the point that some lumped him together with the surrealists, a thing which neither Beaton nor the surrealists cared for at all. But it was Beaton’s unique gift, that in the middle of his extravagant design for a still, he could yet manage to snap at the precise instant to capture the elusive character and emotion that is bread and butter to the image makers. Small wonder people wanted to be photographed by Beaton.
Beaton did not make his way to Hollywood until 1931. He had a great romp through the stables of stars, taking pictures pretty much as he pleased. But the star he most wanted to photograph, Garbo, refused him altogether. She wanted nothing to do with him. “He talks to newspapers,” was her only comment. In his book, Beaton, James Danziger reports of Beaton’s first glimpse of Garbo taken from his diary. From the diary: “If a unicorn had suddenly appeared in the late afternoon light of this ugly, ordinary garden, I could have been neither more surprised nor more amazed by the beauty of this exotic creature.” Yeah, I imagine he probably talked like that, too. Per Danziger, “as it came time for Garbo to leave Beaton asked, ‘Can I lunch with you tomorrow?’
‘No,’ was her reply.
‘Shall we meet again?’
In desperation Beaton grabbed hold of a feather duster that lay on the sofa next to where she sat. ‘Can I keep this as a memento?’
‘Then this is good-bye.’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so. C’est la vie!’ ”
(Beaton, edited and with text by James Danziger, 1980, Viking)
Beaton’s life is fascinating and far too complex to even outline here. Suffice it to say there was public shame and bleak failure, followed by a rebuilding of his reputation. He ended up in the films he loved so much, both as an actor (rarely) but more successfully as a designer. He won Academy Awards for costume design for Gigi and for My Fair Lady. He worked on Broadway as a lighting designer, costume designer and set designer. He did okay. Four Tony Awards.
He knew almost everybody and worked with most of them, both in politics and entertainment. He was in on almost every cool cultural twist in modern, western, artistic life, from carrying Anita Loos piggy-back around San Simeon to hanging out with Keith Richards. And yes, lest you were worried, in the mid 40s he finally got his way and even the goddess Garbo finally said, “Yes.”
C’est la vie!