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"A make-believe siren, unsophisticated as a Rhine maiden": new book reveals Cecil Beaton's cutting verdicts on the stars he photographed


He was the flamboyant society photographer whose candid portraits of stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly have become synonymous with a golden era of glamour, fashion and celebrity.

But beyond the camera lens, legendary photographer Cecil Beaton was often scathing about the subjects he snapped.

A new book lays bare Beaton's devastating verdicts on the beautiful women - and men - he profiled over the years.

Cecil Beaton: Portraits & Profiles features the photographer's private diary entries, with a series of witty, cutting and fascinating observations about the high-profile names he worked with.

One of the most iconic Cecil Beaton portraits of Marilyn Monroe taken at the Ambassador Hotel in New York City in 1956 (Getty Images)

He perceived Marilyn Monroe, one of his most famous subjects, to be "...a make-believe siren, unsophisticated as a Rhine maiden, innocent as a sleepwalker."

"She is an urchin pretending to be grown up, having the time of her life in Mother’s moth-eaten finery, tottering about in high-heeled shoes and sipping ginger ale as though it were a champagne cocktail," Beaton wrote, after working with the actress in 1956.

"She is strikingly like an over-excited child asked downstairs after tea. She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on to the sofa. It is an artless, impromptu, high-spirited, infectiously gay performance."

In a stroke of astonishing foresight, he added: "It will probably end in tears."

Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton by Cecil Beaton, 1971 (Rex Features)

But Beaton's acerbic assessment of Monroe was nothing next to his opinion of Elizabeth Taylor, whom he shot alongside Richard Burton in 1971 (above).

"She’s everything I dislike," Beaton ranted, of one of cinema's most enduring stars.

"I have always loathed the Burtons for their vulgarity, commonness and crass bad taste, she combining the worst of U.S. and English taste.

"I treated her with authority, told her not to powder her nose, to come in front of the cameras with it shining. She wanted compliments. She got none.

'Don’t touch me like that,' she whined! Her breasts, hanging and huge, were like those of a peasant woman suckling her young in Peru. On her fat, coarse hands more of the biggest diamonds and emeralds... And this was the woman who is the greatest 'draw'. In comparison everyone else looked ladylike."

James Fox, Cecil Beaton and Mick Jagger on the set of the crime drama Performance in 1968

Mick Jagger, whom Beaton photographed with Anita Pallenberg in 1968, got off lightly in comparision. Beaton appeared perplexed by the Rolling Stones frontman, describing him as "very gentle, and with perfect manners."

"I was fascinated with the thin concave lines of his body, legs, arms. Mouth almost too large, but he is beautiful and ugly, feminine and masculine, a 'sport', a rare phenomenon," Beaton noted.

"He asked,'Have you ever taken LSD?' – Oh, I should. By now it was three o’clock and my bedtime. They [the Rolling Stones] seem to have no magnetic call from their beds. Never a yawn and the group has been up since five this morning. At 11 o’clock he appeared at the swimming pool. I could not believe this was the same person... His figure, his hands and arms were incredibly feminine. He looked like a self-conscious suburban young lady. He is sexy, yet completely sexless. He could be a eunuch. As a model he is a natural."

Cecil Beaton and Audrey Hepburn pictured together at a fuction in 1965 (Rex Features)

It seems few stars were spared Beaton's stinging observations in his diary entries. Grace Kelly, he judged, had two sides to her face - "that side is very heavy, like a bull calf, but the left side is intensely feminine and creates the counter-point."

And Julie Andrews, the toast of the big-screen during the 60s, was, according to Beaton, "almost unbelievably naïve and simple. She was angelically patient at the many fittings of her clothes and never expressed opinion."

Artist Salvador Dali came in for perhaps the most embarrassing summary. "I loved him for being such an original individual but today was terribly put off by his really appalling bad breath," Beaton wrote.

But Audrey Hepburn (pictured above with Beaton) clearly entranced the photographer.

"It is a rare phenomenon to find a young girl with such inherent 'star' quality," he noted, of the Breakfast at Tiffany's star. "Yet she has too much innate candour to take on the gloss of artificiality Hollywood is apt to demand of its queens.

"Her voice is peculiarly personal, with its unaccustomed rhythm and sing-song cadence that develops into a flat drawl that ends in a childlike query. It has a quality of heartbreak.

"Intelligent and alert, wistful but enthusiastic, frank yet tactful, assured without conceit and tender without sentimentality."

HM Queen Elizabeth II with her Maids of Honour at The Coronation, 2nd June 1953, by Cecil Beaton (Getty Images)

It seems Beaton was also a big fan of Queen Elizabeth II, whom he photographed on a number of occasions from 1943 onwards (including her Coronation in 1953, above).

"Her real charm, like her mother’s, does not carry across in her photographs, and each time one sees her one is delighted how much more serene, magnetic, and at the same time meltingly sympathetic, she is than one had imagined," he wrote.

"In the photographs there is a certain heaviness which is not there in real life, and one misses... the effect of the dazzlingly fresh complexion, the clear regard from the glass-blue eyes, and the gentle, all-pervading sweetness of her smile."

Cecil Beaton pictured in 1966 (Rex Features)

Beaton died in 1980 aged 76, leaving behind a treasure trove of photographs and a legacy as one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of the twentieth century.

Cecil Beaton: Portraits & Profiles, edited by Hugo Vickers, will be available from September 4.



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