In March 2014, I was lucky enough to be asked to give a short talk at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in conjunction with the exhibition Stephen Tennant: Work in Progress. The exhibition featured letters between Tennant and his longtime friend Cecil Beaton, so I chose to focus my talk on their relationship. Much has been written on these two colorful characters (more so on Beaton), and I read Hugo Vickers’ biography of Beaton and Philip Hoare’s biography of Tennant, among other things.
Beaton, the son of a lumber merchant, had to work for a living; Tennant, the son of a baron, did not. Beaton wanted to “get in with” the crowd of smart, artistic, and wealthy people, and succeeded. Clearly they both paid attention to glamour and fashion, but Beaton made a career of that, working for British, French, and American Vogue for over fifty years, beginning around the time he met Tennant in 1926, and later becoming a set and costume designer, and going on to win three Oscars for Gigi and My Fair Lady.
After meeting at a party, Tennant and Beaton wrote to each other about people and things they saw, read, visited, etc. There were four letters between Beaton and Tennant in the exhibition, including one with the fantastic salutation “Cecil my Treasure Trove,” in which Tennant’s excitement about actresses he’s seen is made visible with his extravagant penmanship in two different colors of ink and manic underlining. We can just make out some phrases: “lots of snappy dialogue,” “rehearsals in progress,” “Theda Bara,” “Irene Bordoni.” His enthusiasm practically jumps off the page. Interestingly, Beaton and Tennant both wanted to be playwrights, but failed in their efforts.
In another letter, Tennant writes: “Dearest Cecil—I’m working on a most exciting drawing room comedy, called Forbidden Fruit or Pertinacious Paprika—risqué. Ella, the heroine, is thought too exotic, too capricious by her bourgeois family, and decides to take the bull by the horns and escape. ‘I want to be free!’ she says wistfully—to really live! (Is anyone free? I doubt it)…” A little later he writes, “One does gain in skill Cecil Dear if one goes on scribbling and spinning outrageous yarns for the theatre…”
In a 1929 letter from Beaton to Tennant, Beaton lives up to the image we have of him: “It certainly is lovely to be so appreciated, but one is almost nauseated by the awful incessant meaningless gush about one’s work. If people kept on saying “I do think you are good-looking,’ instead of ‘I do think your work is good,’ one would be much more pleased.” He also mentions having seen Noel Coward in this letter, which makes me wonder whether Beaton influenced any of Coward’s characters. We know that Tennant inspired characters in novels of the time by Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and V.S. Naipaul.
Beaton certainly succeeded in becoming sought after by the aristocracy—in 1937 he covered the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, in 1953 he became the official photographer for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and he was knighted in 1972, about as good as it gets for someone not born into the nobility.
Meanwhile back at Wilsford Manor, Tennant was working on Lascar. He began this novel about sailors, brothels and tattoo parlors in Marseilles sometime in the 1930s, and wrote at least seven versions of it, half a million words, but never got it satisfactorily close to completion. In the later decades of his life, he became a recluse, and for the last 20 years he mostly stayed in bed, receiving visitors and continuing to work on, but not finish, the novel. He did publish some prose and poetry, mostly through vanity presses, and exhibit some of his art at galleries in his younger years, but critical reception of his work is divided.
Later in life, the two friends seem to have had a role reversal, where Tennant felt he had failed to achieve anything and envied Beaton his success and position in society. Beaton brought famous friends like Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney to visit Tennant at Wilsford Manor. At this point, Beaton was world-famous, while Tennant’s social life was increasingly limited to people who would come visit him.
We can say that both Tennant and Beaton are very concerned with appearances—it is a defining characteristic of both of their lives. We might also say they were similarly vain and narcissistic. Beaton kept a diary throughout his life, from childhood until his stroke at the age of 70, which added up to 150 volumes. Hugo Vickers, Beaton’s literary executor and biographer, published the edited diaries in six volumes.
The November 15, 2014 issue of Library Journal includes my review of Vickers’ newest book on Beaton, Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles (Frances Lincoln, 2014). It is a starry collection of photographs and commentary from Beaton on his subjects, and includes a few of Beaton’s many images of Tennant–first as a Bright Young Thing, and later as an eccentric invalid.
My verdict: “Beaton’s sharp eye and sharper pen continue to fascinate in this handsome coffee-table survey of his work.”
Read the full review from Library Journal.