Photo: The Learning Tree 1997
Although best known for his photographs of celebrities, socialites, and the British royal family, Cecil Beaton's work as a costume and production designer made an arguably profounder cultural impression.
While still in his teens, hoping to launch his family out of its middle-class existence, Beaton planted items about his mother and sisters in the society pages of London papers. Then he upped the ante by posing as an editor at Vogue and requesting images of his mother from society photographer Hugh Cecil. Without hesitation, the photographer asked her to pose for him and sent the images to the magazine, which soon published them. Having watched Hugh Cecil at work, an inspired Beaton began taking his own photographs of his family, often submitting them under an assumed name.
A contributing photographer to Vogue and Vanity Fair beginning in 1927, Beaton's first foray into costume design was the Broadway staging of Lady Windermere's Fan in 1946. He would go on to design costumes for a dozen more Broadway productions, earning him four Tony awards, including his second for My Fair Lady, the film adaptation of which won him an Oscar for costume design and another for art direction. He also won an Oscar for his costume designs for Gigi.
Never one to hide his homosexuality, he did attempt to overcome it, most notably with Greta Garbo, whom he described as "half boy/half woman." According to his diaries (published in the '60s and '70s), it was clear Garbo wasn't interested in marrying him, and he left her for a man he met at a bar in San Francisco.
Knighted in 1972, Beaton died in his sleep in his country home in Wiltshire, England, in 1980.