Cecil Beaton entered the new decade at Reddish House, the country home at Broadchalke, not far from Salisbury, to which he had retreated regularly since he bought it in 1948. Here he was able to lay aside the studied image he wore in London and the United States, and relish all aspects of country life. His friend Michael Pitt-Rivers once asked him, "Cecil, why is it that you are so loathsome in London and yet so delightful in the country?" Cecil mused a moment and confessed, "It's true!" A sterner note was added by another Wiltshire neighbour, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, who stated simply, "We wouldn't let him get away with it."
Cecil was fortunate to live in a beautiful and historical part of the country, not far from Stonehenge and Old Sarum, near the great stately home of Wilton, seat of the Earl and Countess of Pembroke, and with sympathetic neighbours in and around the area of the Chalke Valley, the Earl and Countess of Avon at Alvediston, Michael and Anne Tree in Donhead, Lord and Lady David Cecil, Viscount and Viscountess Head, Richard Buckle at Semley, Billy Henderson and Frank Tait in Tisbury
This country life afforded him welcome respite from the more synthetic worlds in which he made his living, the magazine world of London, Paris and New York, and none more remunerative, yet more irksome to him, than the world of show business on Broadway and in Hollywood.
When in London, he lived at 8 Pelham Place, a late-Georgian house in South Kensington, which he had bought in 1940. He was there during the week, though at every opportunity he escaped to the country.
Cecil had indeed lately returned to Britain from a disagreeable stint in New York, designing Coco, a musical based on the life of the celebrated monstre sacré icon of twentieth-century fashion, "Coco" Chanel. She was a peasant-born seamstress, who became a legendary figure in the world of haute couture, creating nimble and stylish suits and freeing women of the encumbrances of formal clothing. Her empire has thrived since her death.
The musical starred the legendary American film star Katharine Hepburn as Chanel. She was one of the few great stars of stage and early screen to survive into the twenty-first century. Her "apple-a-day" smile and her long, discreet affair with Spencer Tracy assured her a place in many hearts, if not Cecil's. She had mistrusted Cecil since he had written of her "rocking-horse nostrils" and her "tousled beetroot-coloured hair" in Cecil Beaton's Scrapbook in 1937, not to mention his concluding that she was "in close proximity very like any exceedingly animated and delightful hockey mistress at a Physical Training College." Hepburn insured that, in his Coco contract, he was forbidden to publish a single word about her.
The musical was written by Alan Jay Lerner, the brilliant, nervous, highly strung playwright, with music by André Previn. Lerner was normally partnered by Fritz Loewe, who wrote the music. Lerner and Loewe were the team which had created Gigi and My Fair Lady. Lerner once vexed himself over the line: "Those little eyes so helpless and appealing, one day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling." Loewe reassured him: "It's your lyric and if you want to crash through the ceiling, crash through the ceiling!" Lerner wrote the words for Coco, but unfortunately he and Cecil fell out badly during this show, because Cecil always needed a hate figure and this time it was Alan. Cecil blamed him for causing Rosalind Russell (the American leading lady in films who favoured roles as a career woman and starred in Gypsy) to be dropped in favour of Katharine Hepburn.
This was the more strange, since the show was produced by Frederick Brisson, businessman producer, who had been trying to get the musical into production since 1954. He was a man of limited charm, who was married to Rosalind Russell. Elaine Stritch called him "The Wizard of Ros." He was the son of Carl Brisson, the Danish director, an international favourite of stage and screen, who made many films in Britain.
Katharine Hepburn and Cecil were not soulmates.
Coco and Katharine Hepburn in retrospect[December 1969]
No cause for regrets. I knew the show would be no good with such a rotten book. I never fooled myself into thinking the book could be sufficiently improved. It's no good wondering if Alan Lerner had not made a great mistake by throwing out Rosalind Russell (done in such a dishonest, beastly way) in favour of Katharine Hepburn. In fact R. R. would have given a better performance, would have projected the songs better, but the show would not have succeeded in becoming a smash hit, though it might have lasted longer than it will if K. H. is still determined to leave at the end of April.
It may, however, suit her to stay on to receive the applause of the multitudes. She is the egomaniac of all time and her whole life is devised to receive the standing ovation that she has had at the end of her great personality performance. As the play nears its end and she is sure of her success, she becomes raged, the years roll off her, and she becomes a young schoolmistress. Up till then she has, to my way of thinking, been as unlike Chanel as anyone could be. With the manners of an old sea salt, spreading her ugly piano-calved legs in the most indecent positions, even kicking her protégée with her foot in the "London" scene, standing with her huge legs wide apart and being in every gesture as unfeminine and unlike the fascinating Chanel as anyone could be. Her performance is just one long series of personal mannerisms.
I would not have thought audiences could react so admiringly, yet the first time I saw a run-through rehearsal, I was impressed and even touched. But ever since I've found her performance mechanical, inept (her timing is erratic), she stops and laughs, she falters over words, she is maladroit, and she is ugly. That beautiful bone structure of cheekbone, nose and chin goes for nothing in the surrounding flesh of the New England shopkeeper. Her skin is revolting and since she does not apply enough make-up even from the front she appears pockmarked. In life her appearance is appalling, a raddled, rash-ridden, freckled, burnt, mottled, bleached and wizened piece of decaying matter. It is unbelievable, incredible that she can still be exhibited in public.
Fred Brisson tells me that one day he will repeat the vile things she has said about me. As it is I have heard that she has complained about my being difficult, stubborn. She obviously does not trust me or have confidence in my talent. She pretends to be fairly friendly and direct, but she has never given me any friendship, never spoken to me of anything that has not direct bearing on the part that she is playing.
I have determined not to have a row with her, have put up with a great deal of double-crossing, chicanery and even deceit. She has behaved unethically in altering her clothes without telling me, asserting her "own" taste instead of mine. (On the first night she appeared in her own hat instead of the one that went with the blue on her costume. Instead of the Chanel jewellery she wears a little paste brooch chosen by her friend . . . in quiet good taste.) She is suspicious and untrustworthy.
Never has anyone been so one-tracked in their determination to succeed. She knows fundamentally that she has no great talent as an actress. This gives her great insecurity so she must expend enormous effort in overcoming this by asserting herself in as strident a manner as only she knows how. She must always be proved right, only she knows, no matter what the subject. It is extraordinary that she has not been paid out for her lack of taking advice. But even if this is her last job, and it won't be, she will have had an incredible run for incredible money. She owns $20 million. She is getting $13,000 a week. But in spite of her success, her aura of freshness and natural directness, she is a rotten, ingrained viper. She has no generosity, no heart, no grace. She is a dried-up boot. Completely lacking in feminine grace, in manners, she cannot smile except to bare her teeth to give an effect of utter youthfulness and charm. (This, one of her most valuable stage assets, is completely without feeling.) She is ungenerous, never gives a present, and miserly. She lives like a miser, bullies Phyllis [Willbourn] and thinks only of herself day and night. Garbo has magic. Garbo is a miracle with many of the same faults, but Hepburn is synthetic, lacking in the qualities that would make such an unbearable human being into a real artist.
I hope I never have to see her again.
Cecil was fond of his Wiltshire neighbours. He was devoted to Michael and Anne Tree, and relished having them as nearish neighbours at Donhead. Michael was the son of Ronald Tree and his wife, Nancy Lancaster. Lady Anne was a daughter of the tenth Duke of Devonshire. They were rich and deployed their riches with style, commissioning Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe to create their garden at Shute House.
Cecil was reading Enid Bagnold's autobiography. Enid was best known for National Velvet and The Chalk Garden. She lived at Rottingdean, an addict of vast doses of morphine. Cecil had fallen out with her over his sets for The Chalk Garden, which he designed in New York. To his rage, the sets were not used in the London production. Over twenty years of non-speaks ensued. Enid's autobiography (Heinemann, 1969) was a remarkable book. She had been scared to write it for fear of upsetting her children with an account of her affair, as a young girl, with the literary lothario, Frank Harris. This she covered with eloquence: " 'Sex,' said Frank Harris, 'is the gateway to life.' So I went through the gateway in an upper room in the Café Royal."
Cecil was expecting the arrival of Eileen Hose, his secretary. She joined him in 1953 and stayed with him until the end, becoming housekeeper, nurse, amanuensis, accountant and best friend. After his death she served as Literary Executor and settled his affairs, donating his papers to St. John's College, Cambridge, organising a sale of his drawings and paintings, and giving his Royal photographs to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Boxing Day26 December 1969
Such a wonderful illuminating view from the top of the Downs, looking over the distances of Fonthill as I drove out to my Christmas Day lunch with the Trees. It was a sunny day and the winter scene was strangely soft and welcoming in a haze of sweet-pea colours, pale buff, pale mauves, pale blues and rose, the sight was eternal. It was of simple basic shapes, the distant woods were bare and just like patches of colour, no trimming, a living sculpture. Something breathing and alive, but unmoving. It was the best I'd seen since I left and I only now realised what solace to the spirit I have been missing. I was pleased with Anne's highly civilised conversation, so basic and honest and funny. She is one of the best that England produces, and I came away deeply satisfied with my happy outing to read Enid Bagnold's remarkably excellent autobiography. This is a great lesson in depth and all her qualities are apparent (also her dislikeable-ness-she is not a nice person). But her honesty and strength of character are amazing and I feel sorry that she should have spent so much time writing plays at which she is no good.
Her description of past events reminded me of the Japanese film Rashomon where so many people tell their varying versions of the truth. I knew so much that Enid believed in was not the same as I feel to be the truth. But the book kept me riveted for 2 days and it is a remarkable legacy for her to leave, an important and profound reportage in-depth of a strange, remarkable, original and warped life.
By degrees, the cotton wool gives place to sinew and muscle, and I am able to keep awake for a few hours. There are no pressing engagements and this gives me a wonderful feeling of luxury. The house is warm and scented with Smallpeice's pot plants and the neighbours I visit seem lively and bright, and when Eileen arrives with Alan and Charles, there is much laughter and the memories of 51st Street are fading quietly as my brain is filled with other music played on the record player.
5 January 1970
I kept this bloody diary every day while I was busy with idiotic events in New York. Now that I am quietly ensconced in the country, in my own adorable surroundings, I find I have not one moment of energy to even find where I have left this book. Ten happy days have passed. The first 5 were spent almost exclusively in sleep. I could not keep awake after I had had my late breakfast. I slept all afternoon and 12 hours at night. Then I started to read-Enid Bagnold-her autobiography-her plays. Then I started to write (the Sam Green piece) and every day was filled. Social life at a maximum, dinners or visits of succour to recent widows-Essex, Pembroke, Radnor, David, Dot and Anthony come to dine (spent from a pro-Communist on-thrust from Dot, which angers Anthony). The evening was a marvel of intelligence and delight and I was so pleased, when, as a result of the flowers Smallpeice has produced all over the house, Dot examining the dining table said "You have banished winter."
A recurring feature of Cecil's life was to be entertained by the super-rich. On the one hand, he loved the luxury and the chance to observe them. On the other hand, he was jealous of their riches and disapproving of their way of life. His hosts in Palm Beach in January 1970 were the Guinnesses.4
Group Captain Loel Guinness and his third wife Gloria were supremely rich members of the Guinness clan. Loel was the father of Lindy, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. Gloria's past was less clear. She was the daughter of Raphael Rubio, of Mexico, and had been married to Count Egon von Fürstenberg and Prince Ahmed Fakri. She was popular with young aristocratic men, whom she initiated into the ways of the world. In later life, when people like Cecil complained that their private parts were getting smaller, she would mutter, "I wish mine were."
Excerpted from The Unexpurgated Beaton by Cecil Beaton. Copyright © 2003 by Cecil Beaton. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.