Cecil Beaton: an Oscar-winner's biography

Cecil Beaton: A Biography By Hugo Vickers. Boston: Little, Brown. 656 pp. $25. Cecil Beaton strutted through several eras, from the Roaring '20s to the psychedelic '60s and beyond. To portray them, he called on many artistic skills - snapping photos, writing books and articles, creating d'ecor for plays and ballets, winning Oscars as a Hollywood set designer.

Along the way he got chummy with the Royal Family, earned a knighthood, gossiped incessantly, kept a voluminous diary, maintained a complicated web of international friendships, and fell in love from time to time - including a wistful affair with no less a legend than Greta Garbo.

What drove Beaton to his many accomplishments was no mere hankering for money or power. Although he lived in high style, he could rarely boast of a ``steady'' income and often felt surprisingly insecure.

Rather, it was an obsession with being in the public eye. This began during his middle-class English boyhood, when he connived to get his family spots of ``publicity'' in the local newspaper. It continued until near the end of his life, when he confessed to being ``worn out by the social mishmash'' at last. He kept busy in his old age but lived in an isolation bred largely by his colossal snobbishness - or ``high standards,'' to use biographer Hugo Vickers's deliciously Beatonian euphemism.

Mr. Vickers portrays not only Beaton himself but the cultural and social scenes (the latter almost Proustian) that were his natural habitat. The book draws so heavily from the Beaton diaries that it becomes a mere gloss on them at times. It offers only limited insights into the homosexuality that Beaton himself was ambivalent about. And it never quite reaches a conclusion on the key Beaton question: Was he an artist who interpreted his age, or a dilettante who reveled only in the surfaces of things?

Still, this carefully crafted book provides much fuel for the reader's own speculations.

It also makes for lively reading much of the time, especially in the early chapters - and takes on high drama now and then, as when telling how a bizarre lapse into anti-Semitism put a scar on Beaton's career that he never managed to rub out.

``Anything for the Uprise'' is the title of one chapter, using a revealing Beaton term. Vickers shows the triumphs and tragedies that grew from such an attitude - the credo of a quintessential social climber.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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