New Again: Sir Cecil Beaton
ABOVE: SAM GREEN, CECIL BEATON, AND SUZIE FRANKFURT IN THE DRAWING ROOM OF THE SUITE CECIL BEATON HAS DECORATED AT THE PIERRE HOTEL.
Rizzoli recently published an intimate look at the fascinating “interior life” life of a 20th Century Renaissance man: photographer, designer, playwright, and diarist Sir Cecil Beaton. A visual and literary portrait written and curated by Andrew Ginger, Cecil Beaton at Home: An Interior Life reveals the artist’s passions, tastes, and personal lifestyle through the extravagance of his private country residences. For Beaton devotees and lovers of all things design, it’s a unique and illuminative glimpse at the artistic inspirations and everyday realities of the CBE.
In honor of the publication of Cecil Beaton at Home, we’re reprinting Beaton’s feature in the April 1978 issue of Interview. Much like the book, the interview finds him in an intimate setting: his suite at the Pierre Hotel in New York just two years before his death. The casual, up-close conversation covers everything from his house hunting habits to Saturday Night Fever, his famed career, travels, and the beautiful subjects of his photographs. —Frank Chlumsky
Sir Cecil Beaton: A Drawing Room Sketch
By Suzie Frankfurt and Sam Green
The Cecil Beaton Suite at the Pierre Hotel, February 24. Cast of characters: Sir Cecil Beaton, Samuel Adams Green, Suzie Frankfurt.
SUZIE FRANKFURT: Oh, Cecil, you look so well. Did you like Cartagena?
SIR CECIL BEATON: Yes, very much indeed. Sam’s house is a dream.
SAM GREEN: Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Suzie had come down for a few days while you were there? She’s so beautiful.
FRANKFURT: Oh no. Sam’s always teasing me about my hair. He thinks it looks terrible.
GREEN: Not today. It looks better.
BEATON: What’s the matter with your hair? You look pre-Raphaelite.
FRANKFURT: Oh Sam thinks… I don’t know. What’s the matter with my hair, Sam?
GREEN: We all know you have great hair. You just do it in such an odd way. It usually doesn’t go with the rest of the soignée.
BEATON: I like everything, especially that head of hair. You don’t even need a hat.
GREEN: Let’s put flowers on the top of her head.
BEATON: No. I like the hair on top of her head.
FRANKFURT: And I would like to change the subject. When are you going back to England, Cecil?
BEATON: The day after tomorrow.
FRANKFURT: So soon. But Sam says you have the most beautiful country house. Where is it?
BEATON: In Wiltshire, near Salisbury.
GREEN: It’s in a tiny village, 16th- or 17th-century.
BEATON: 17th. It was a hunting lodge for the Earl of Salisbury done in the Palladian style. It has a big sitting room and beautiful gardens. But that’s all there is to recommend it. I actually preferred living in London, but it’s too expensive and too hectic. So three years ago I had to give up the house in town.
FRANKFURT: I remember that house in London. We lived four doors away. I spent the summer there with my children.
BEATON: Why didn’t you come and visit me?
FRANKFURT: I suppose I was shy. The children and I walked by your beautiful windows at least once a day.
BEATON: Are the children at school there now?
FRANKFURT: No. They’re back here, in New York.
BEATON: And what do they make of New York.
FRANKFURT: The boys, they love New York. New York is so funny, sort of like a Mad Hatter’s tea party.
BEATON: Yes it is. Where do you live in New York?
FRANKFURT: I have a house on 80th Street. I wanted you and Sam to come by. I think my house would amuse you.
BEATON: Why is that?
GREEN: Because as my great and good friend pointed out, the house is sort of late Caribbean… Haiti circa 1800. I think you’d like it. But then, I’d like a flat in London.
BEATON: I like that idea.
GREEN: I get all these houses so my friends can stay at them.
BEATON: Yes, exactly.
FRANKFURT: Where was it you said we should all get a flat?
GREEN: In St. James-Albany. Isn’t that the only place, Cecil?
BEATON: Yes, but if you want a lovely little house…
GREEN: We’re not going to get married. You’d be happy in a flat in Albany, wouldn’t you?
BEATON: Yes, except I’d like to be on the ground floor.
GREEN: Yes, well so would I.
FRANKFURT: Are you glad to be going back to England, Cecil?
BEATON: No, not really. I’m just relieved. It’s been very hard work here, ricocheting from one place to another. From New York to Cartagena to New York. Taking photographs and seeing people. Always on the move. We just got back from a visit to the Met.
FRANKFURT: Did you see Vanity Fair?
BEATON: Yes, that’s what we went to see and it was marvelous.
FRANKFURT: I’d like to see a show with all your costumes.
BEATON: My costumes are all over the place now. The ones for My Fair Lady were sold at an MGM auction.
FRANKFURT: Did you do the costumes for the movie and the show?
BEATON: For the show I did the costumes, and for the movie I did the sets and the costumes.
GREEN: But you got an Academy Award, didn’t you?
BEATON: Well, I’ve forgotten.
GREEN: Oh, come on, how could you forget?
BEATON: Well, it just doesn’t mean anything in England. Just forget it. What are you doing this evening, Suzie?
FRANKFURT: I’m going out to dinner with a friend of mine from California. She’s the editor of Architectural Digest.
BEATON: Will you talk about architecture?
FRANKFURT: No, we’ll talk about love affairs. The ones she has and the ones I don’t.
BEATON: What do you mean? You must have love affairs. You’re so lovely.
FRANKFURT: Well, I don’t but I’m thinking of giving up celibacy for Lent.
GREEN: The lady doth protest too much.
FRANKFURT: That’s such a great hat, Cecil. Did you buy it here?
BEATON: No, I bought it in London, from Fergueson I think.
FRANKFURT: Anytime I’ve seen you or read about you, you were always wearing a magnificent hat.
BEATON: Oh, really.
FRANKFURT: I saw you once on Pelham Place in a big black fedora and a velvet cape. You looked like you stepped right out of a Beau Brummel soirée for the Prince of Wales.
BEATON: I did, really.
FRANKFURT: All your clothes are fabulous. What did you were when you were knighted by the Queen?
BEATON: I wore pale dark grey.
FRANKFURT: Pale dark grey! What a wonderful color.
GREEN: Can one wear just anything or is there a special uniform?
BEATON: Well, there is a uniform, and it isn’t pale dark grey. It’s grey and black and white.
GREEN: Does the Queen make you go down on your knees?
BEATON: Oh yes, and then she gets very heavy handed with the sword. Very very heavy.
GREEN: What do you mean?
BEATON: Well, she just puts it down just like that. She hits you with it. And if she doesn’t like you it’s the sharp side and if she does then it’s the flat. She hits you on both shoulders.
GREEN: Does she bop you on the top of the head, too?
BEATON: No! Oh dear no, Sam.
FRANKFURT: I’d like a picture of you at your investiture. Did they take one?
BEATON: Well, I don’t know whether or not they allow photographers when the Queen is actually knighting, but they took some coming and going and some while I was on my knees.
GREEN: Let’s reenact it right now. Suzie can be the Queen.
FRANKFURT: We don’t have a sword.
GREEN: We can use Cecil’s cane.
FRANKFURT: Did you know that the cane was Cecil’s father’s?
GREEN: I didn’t know that.
GREEN: Was it the only thing he left you?
GREEN: One never hears of Cecil’s father. Only his mother and sisters.
BEATON: My father was very sweet.
GREEN: Why don’t you ever talk about him?
BEATON: Well, he didn’t have anything to talk to me about except the stage. He was very keen on the stage.
FRANKFURT: Was he an actor?
BEATON: No, he wasn’t. He just loved the theatre and theatre people.
GREEN: Was he cute?
BEATON: Yes he was.
FRANKFURT: When did you two meet?
BEATON: Oh, about 12 years ago. He was running around doing chores for me.
GREEN: Who me? I beg your pardon. I most certainly was not.
BEATON: Well, you were. You wore an ordinary overcoat, no hat. And in spite of that we liked each other very much. We’ve had terrific get togethers.
GREEN: I was terribly unsophisticated before I met Cecil.
FRANKFURT: I’m sure meeting Cecil changes everything.
GREEN: My rich cousin Henry called me in Philadelphia when I was doing a museum show and asked me to come to New York for the day because Cecil Beaton was in town and wanted to see a lot of modern art. I couldn’t come the day he wanted. It was a Tuesday, remember? So I came on the weekend and Cecil called out of the blue. I guess you didn’t want to go to galleries with Henry.
BEATON: No. Well, I went to some.
GREEN: Henry said I was the best person to take you around. We were to meet at a restaurant. I think you were having lunch with some people at Quo Vadis.
BEATON: But this was not the first time.
GREEN: Yes Cecil. That was the first time we met.
GREEN: I remember, because you said, we’ll meet at the restaurant. Come around three o’clock. And I said, how will I recognize you? Don’t you remember?
BEATON: No. I don’t remember that.
GREEN: You thought that was terribly funny.
FRANKFURT: Where have you gone this time in New York?
BEATON: Oh, everywhere.
GREEN: Where’s everywhere?
BEATON: Well, the farthest away was Louise Nevelson’s house on Spring Street.
FRANKFURT: That is far. Did you photograph her?
BEATON: Oh yes. And she was just adorable. Adorable and cute and wonderful. And then I came uptown and photographed Diana Vreeland.
FRANKFURT: She’s my favorite. Did you photograph her at her apartment.
BEATON: Yes, it’s so interesting, just like Diana.
GREEN: Who else did you photograph.
BEATON: Oh, that beautiful girl. I can’t remember her name, but her hair was parted in the middle.
GREEN: Is she a California girl or … ?
BEATON: No, she’s French. She’s in that Buñuel movie.
FRANKFURT: Oh! Carol Bouquet. She was in That Obscure Object of Desire.
BEATON: Oh yes, that’s her. I didn’t see the film. How was it?
FRANKFURT: Incomprehensible, but fabulous. She was so beautiful. Where did you photograph her?
BEATON: In here. She was very romantic looking, so beautiful. She acts just like a goddess. She can’t see a thing. Just like you, Sam.
GREEN: I beg your pardon. Doesn’t she wear contact lenses?
FRANKFURT: Do you were contact lenses, Sam? Is that why your eyes are so blue?
GREEN: I thought you told me my eyes were red.
FRANKFURT: Oh no. Not tonight. They’re not as blue as Cecil’s, but they’re still blue. Cecil has the bluest eyes and the smoothest skin.
GREEN: That’s because he never drinks or smokes.
FRANKFURT: Did you photograph any men on this trip?
BEATON: Just one. I photographed a man called Pat.
FRANKFURT: Just Pat?
BEATON: Yes. It was 2:30 and it was Thursday. And I arrived an hour and a half late.
GREEN: It was worth waiting for.
BEATON: I saw a great movie yesterday. I saw Saturday Night Fever. I just adored it. It was absolutely marvelous.
GREEN: Do you think John Travolta is going to be the new star?
BEATON: Oh, he is already.
GREEN: A real star though? Do you think he’s got the quality of earlier stars you saw, like Marlon Brando?
BEATON: Oh well, not as good as that. Do you think so?
FRANKFURT: I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’ve been so busy.
GREEN: I really like it up here in this suite, Cecil. The view is spectacular.
BEATON: We can thank Earl Blackwell for that. He made all the arrangements. These accommodations were all due to his thoughtfulness.
FRANKFURT: Let’s have a toast to Earl Blackwell.
BEATON: But you only drink water.
FRANKFURT: That’s O.K. Maybe you’ll come back to us in the spring, when the potholes are filled with tulips.
BEATON: Oh Suzie I didn’t mind the potholes. I’m used to English roads. Anyways I wasn’t even supposed to come here at all. I was just going to South America but decided to break the trip up on either end and come here.
GREEN: Next time it would be amusing to go to San Francisco but it would be too much.
BEATON: I can’t travel that much anymore. It takes me three days to get rid of the jet lag and then by the time the three days are up, it’s time to go somewhere else.
FRANKFURT: But you’ve always spent a great deal of time in the United States.
BEATON: Up until three years ago I spent at least two or three months here a year.
GREEN: Do you find it changed at all?
BEATON: No, I don’t think it’s changed at all. The traffic is terrible, but it’s just the same, rubbish and muck.
GREEN: Well, that’s all because of the snow storm, all the garbage piles up.
FRANKFURT: I’m so tired of all the garbage. It’s so boring. Let’s talk about Cecil’s costumes. Was My Fair Lady the only musical you did the costumes for?
BEATON: No. Gigi, but it was never on Broadway, and it was a movie. And then there was Coco. That was only on Broadway. Then Traviata for the Metropolitan. Then I did some for… oh, I can’t remember the name—a large woman with glasses, it was an opera.
GREEN: Woman in Scarlet?
FRANKFURT: Maybe Sarah Caldwell. She’s large and must wear glasses. I saw Traviata this year at the Met. That third act in Flora’s house, all red. It’s really beautiful. But all the great ball scenes you’ve designed are really beautiful.
BEATON: The first show I did in England was Lady Windermere’s Fan.
GREEN: And then you did a few other ones for the stage in England?
BEATON: No, it was just Lady Windermere’s Fan.
FRANKFURT: How long has Traviata been at the Met?
GREEN: Well, Cecil, how long have we known each other … ? Since 1966 and it was that same year, so it’s over 11 years.
FRANKFURT: Did you come over for the opening of Traviata?
BEATON: Oh yes, for the original I did.
FRANKFURT: That must have been a memorable evening when the new Met opened with your opera.
BEATON: Well, as a matter of fact, it didn’t pen with my opera. It opened the second week. I think the first week was a very unsatisfactory play by Sam Barber, a modern opera.
GREEN: Nobody paid much attention to that. That’s why I thought yours opened.
FRANKFURT: I was in Florida being divorced. I missed everything. It must have been mad working with Mr. Bing.
BEATON: Yes, I enjoyed him very much. Very mad. Mad as a hatter. I like his book, because it’s so full of madness. There’s something rather sticky wicky about that book.
FRANKFURT: He did wonderful things at the Met though. All of the great productions were his. I don’t think the new ones are so good.
BEATON: No, I don’t either. They’re just trash.
FRANKFURT: One of his great productions with another great ball scene is Der Rosencavalier.
BEATON: Did they take that away?
FRANKFURT: No. That and Traviata and a few others are the only ones left. But they’re disappearing fast. Sam, why don’t you put on Cecil’s hat? You’ll look like an Anglo-Saxon Alfredo.
BEATON: Oh do, Sam.
GREEN: I once copied Cecil and went and had ten hats made at Herbert Johnson’s in London and I never wear them.
BEATON: Where are they?
GREEN: They’re in New York someplace. Here and there.
BEATON: Oh, really?
GREEN: Purple velvet ones and green fuzzy ones. But I looked like a fool. You need more height to wear big hats.
BEATON: You look fabulous in hats.
FRANKFURT: Oh, I agree. Very distingué.
GREEN: But people in New York don’t wear them much.
BEATON: Well, that doesn’t matter.
FRANKFURT: This winter they’re all coming out of mothballs.
BEATON: That hat looks fabulous on you. It’s lovely.
FRANKFURT: Sam, you do look beautiful.
GREEN: Did you know that Cecil is coming out with a new book?
FRANKFURT: Oh, you are? When’s it coming out?
BEATON: March 16. That’s when George Weidenfeld is giving a dinner party for it.
FRANKFURT: Is it a picture book?
BEATON: No. It’s mostly a conversation from my diary. It has a few photographs.
FRANKFURT: You did keep extensive diaries.
BEATON: Yes. All the time.
FRANKFURT: I think it’s marvelous to keep diaries. It’s a gift.
GREEN: You have to have a lot of time.
BEATON: No. You have to make time. Do you keep diaries, Suzie?
FRANKFURT: Only in my head. If I write it down, I sound like Pollyanna. I want everything to have a happy ending.
GREEN: Cecil’s diaries are fabulous. They tell all.
BEATON: Well, I’m not sure I do. I think I bypass more as I get older.
GREEN: Well, until you got fed up with the city you were right in the middle of things. And the diaries go through that period. It’s been many years since you published the last one. You’ve done lots of travels: South America and central America, Italy and the Bourgogne. These are all trips that I went on and there must have been other ones.
BEATON: Oh yes. There were. Well, you accompanied me on quite a number of them.
GREEN: Yes, I really did. All those great free-bees.
BEATON: I’d forgotten we went on so many. It must have been an enormous number throughout the years. It was just travel, travel, travel. I remember when we went to Guatemala in Mexico.
GREEN: Yes, all kinds of places. You’re the best person to travel with, Cecil. Remember when we went to Bogota and I went on a quest to find your aunt?
FRANKFURT: Does your aunt still live in Bogota?
BEATON: No. She died.
GREEN: This was years ago. This was Victorian times.
FRANKFURT: And you went to find her.
GREEN: Yes. We went to the most obscure places. All the houses she lived in and all the people that knew her. The funny old woman.
FRANKFURT: Did she come from England? Did she get married there?
BEATON: She was married in England. She married the Bolivian Ambassador to England and then he took her back to Bolivia and left his post.
FRANKFURT: She must have been interesting.
BEATON: Oh she was. Terribly, so.
GREEN: One would think that Cecil would be so fancy and need all of these comforts. Not so. He never grumbled on any of the crazy travels, even when we had to spend nights in airports, wait for two days for the next plane to come because of rainstorms. I mean, with nothing to eat. Once for two days we only had a hard-boiled egg. He never complained. Never once. A marvelous traveling companion.
BEATON: Well, that’s good.
GREEN: But he’s pissed when it’s supposed to be luxurious and it’s not.
FRANKFURT: What’s your favorite city?
BEATON: I don’t know which is my favorite city. Well, I adore Paris. I like particular aspects of Paris. Anyways, it’s hard to have a favorite city because they’re all different.
GREEN: But we did have a wonderful time in Venice. I never told you this, but I was terribly impressed, because we were there for the Volpi Ball and that was fun because I had never been to one. I had only read your diaries. A lot of your history showed up in 1/2 hour on one street in Venice. I don’t know whether you remember the Sitwells were coming down the street in one direction and Andy Warhol was coming from the other direction. And Audrey Hepburn underneath in a gondola. And do you remember the great conglomeration of people, all in one place, all going? Everyone was there for that ball and it was like a corpse.
FRANKFURT: What did you wear to the ball?
GREEN: I didn’t know I was going to a ball, so I didn’t bring anything.
BEATON: Quite right.
GREEN: Oh, I know. I had to go shopping in Florence to buy a velvet jacket because I had nothing. And a pair of pants. And I think you had a cream colored linen three piece suit.
FRANKFURT: Oh, Cecil where was your purple satin?
BEATON: I left it in London. I didn’t know I was going to be quite so dressy. Those bracelets are lovely, Suzie. They’re very old. You’re very romantic.
FRANKFURT: Oh, I know. That’s a pity. Let’s all go to Venice.
GREEN: We’ll do that tomorrow. For the moment let’s call room service and order a Bellini.
BEATON: Good idea.
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE APRIL 1978 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.