The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980
Email this review


The late photographer’s diaries from the 1970s, in which he assails the rich and famous he dislikes, composes paeans to the ones he favors, and, ultimately, bores with the bulk of his quotidian detail.

Most people will likely give short shrift to this heavily footnoted volume cover-to-cover (the identities of Jacqueline Onassis and Rose Kennedy are spelled out) and will instead skip to the passages of celebrity-trashing. And there are plenty of them. Katharine Hepburn is a “dried-up boot”; Mae West’s “muzzle” resembled an ape’s; Virginia Woolf was a “swine”; Dorothy Parker was “never funny”; Leonard Bernstein was “disgusting and repellent”; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were vulgar (her breasts were too big); Peggy Guggenheim was “ugly and gauche”; and so on. Perhaps not surprisingly for a visual artist, he placed special emphasis on appearances—especially the ravages of aging—that he most often condemned: sagging breasts, lined faces, too-thick makeup. Ugly furniture and clothing put him off. Words like “horrid” and “appalling” and “hideous” he wielded like weapons. He detested his own physical decline as well, commenting on the unpleasantness delivered by mirrors, and in one truly touching excerpt, he writes of his own prostate surgery and its attendant terrors. He admired Queen Elizabeth II (he was one of the official Royal photographers), found the young Princess Anne ugly, loved his friend named Kin (who managed to have no flaws, in Beaton’s considerable estimation, other than his failure to write letters to Beaton frequently enough), was impressed with Rebecca West and charmed by Coco Chanel. Beaton published sanitized volumes of his diary during his lifetime—and greatly feared the negative criticism that he gleefully heaped on others.

Nasty and vain, pathetic and dull. (40 b&w photos throughout)

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 2003
ISBN: 1-4000-4112-0
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2003