Hugo Vickers’s 1985 biography of the society photographer Cecil Beaton is a landmark in life writing. On publication it became an instant bestseller, admired as much for its unflinching account of Beaton’s complex sex life as for its assessment of his artistic achievements. Recently reissued, its revelations may now seem somewhat tame, but it remains a vivid record of the life and work of one of the brightest Bright Young Things ... Vickers made a firm decision to keep a diary of the process, especially of his meetings with key figures in the Beaton story, with details of 'what I thought of them, what they said about each other'. It is his edited entries from his 51 journals of this period that now form the basis for this illuminating and brilliantly scurrilous companion to his original book ... The rivalry between aged aristocratic beauties provides several comic moments ... Scholars of what is now known as queer history will find much to interest them in this book ... This sensible approach allows the reader to understand the homophobia that prevailed so widely in Britain and America into the 1980s and beyond ... to paint a subject in all their colours is exactly what a biographer should do, and in this regard Beaton could not have picked a better person for the job.
A time capsule from the last days of a posh and largely gay Ruritania, and a primer on the interwar glory days of English modernism, the book is a self-knowing account of Mr. Vickers’s ascent from outsider to insider ... Names are dropped as carefully as cigarette ash: Diana Vreeland, Princess Grace, Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn. But it’s the supporting cast that really creates this madcap social history. As Simon Heffer did with his annotations to the diaries of the Anglo-American sybarite and politician Chips Channon, Mr. Vickers supplies another pleasure of a lost age, the footnote ... When Mr. Vickers has his eye to the keyhole, we see a secret panorama.
This book is a luxuriant trawl through the recovered past. It’s an invigorating, if breathless, ride. Film stars and fascists, dukes and dinosaurs, beauties and monsters, aesthetes and queens...Sad to report, many are negative, bitchy and contradictory ... The most interesting parts of this book, however, are those in which Vickers becomes snugly embedded in the milieu that mostly rejected Beaton ... On page 44 of this extraordinary book, Vickers reveals (in a footnote): 'I had spent much of my teenage years making models of living figures'. You may wonder if, in publishing these diary entries, he isn’t so much celebrating the monstres sacrés he met in the 1980s as cutting them down to the size of his figurines.
These diaries lack the waspishness of Pope-Hennessy, who could be withering about royal decor and ruthless in his thumbnail sketches of fat foreign princesses ... What they exude instead is the rather touching sense of the dazzlement, excitement and nervousness of a 29-year-old biographer setting out on his quest, thrilled to have an excuse to visit everyone famous or grand he has ever heard of ... Rather than being annoyed by Vickers’s childlike delight at all this flattery and attention, I took it as a necessary ingredient, an added layer of fun for the reader. As with The Quest for Queen Mary, you read this book not so much to learn about Beaton, rather to relish the foibles and preoccupations of his circle and his biographer ... If you tend to glaze over at pages dotted with names, you might find it all a bit hard-going. The gossip keeps coming, a constant trickle of half-forgotten networking and long-forgotten feuds ... He carries us along, name-dropping as he goes, and it’s all delicious in its way, recreating a lost world.
While Vickers is good at reproducing the atmosphere, the element of luncheon parties, memorial services and magnifying glasses on plumped lace pillows that sustains this fading coterie, he catches few such moments of oblivious self-exposure. Instead, people talk mainly inconsequentially, sometimes showing off, and often both ... Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of this adventure, and the part that Vickers has captured whole, is how little interest the subject of Cecil Beaton excites.