HUGO VICKERS: Diana's racy dress and more delicious gossip

Princess Diana’s racy dress? Well, what a mighty feast to set before a king! The waspish verdict given to royal biographer HUGO VICKERS after a night at the opera – just one slice of delicious gossip from his scintillating diaries

  • Hugo Vickers commissioned to write authorised biography of Cecil Beaton
  • Exclusive extract begins with Vickers’ visit to Beaton’s home Reddish House
  • Touches upon the moment Diana Cooper saw Lady Diana Spencer at the opera
  • Comment on her dress she said: ‘Wasn’t that a mighty feast to set before a king?’

When Hugo Vickers was commissioned in 1980 to write the authorised biography of Cecil Beaton, he was granted privileged access to the photographer’s friends and staff — and all his private diaries and letters.

Many of Beaton’s circle had been the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s. Others were louche aristocrats, renowned former beauties, movie stars and writers, not to mention Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother.

By then in their 70s and 80s, most welcomed the chance to gossip. Over the next five years, Vickers asked them about everything from Cecil’s homosexuality to his extraordinary costume designs for My Fair Lady and his bizarre love affair with Greta Garbo. Many of their recollections duly appeared in Vickers’ best-selling biography.

What few knew, however, was that Vickers also recorded their more gossipy indiscretions about their circle in his private diary — which is about to be published for the first time.

Our exclusive extract begins with Vickers’ visit to Beaton’s home Reddish House in Wiltshire a month after his death, where Cecil’s secretary Eileen divulged details of his oddest guest, Greta Garbo…

Our exclusive extract begins with Vickers’ visit to Beaton’s home Reddish House in Wiltshire a month after his death, where Cecil’s secretary Eileen divulged details of his oddest guest, Greta Garbo… Pictured: Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo

Wiltshire, Feb 21, 1980

Eileen tells me she only met Garbo once when she visited Cecil after his stroke. She thought her a silly woman, who maintained she did not want to be recognised, then turned up her mackintosh collar and put on dark glasses so everyone knew at once who she was. Nor was Eileen impressed by Garbo remarking: ‘Sheep, I love sheep.’

She took her into Salisbury to try on shoes at Russell & Bromley and was irritated when Garbo asked of the shop assistant: ‘Do you think she knows who I am?’

And of Cecil’s state after his stroke, she said: ‘You see, I couldn’t have married him, could I, him being like that?’ It sounded cruel that she was so dismissive of him.

Wiltshire, March

Many came to Reddish House, imparting information of various kinds. Frank Tait, a doctor, told me Lord Olivier once came out of the shower in a theatre, stark naked, and said: ‘Isn’t it a pity? I’m the greatest actor in the world and I’ve got the smallest c**k.’

Rottingdean, May 6

Today Lady Diana Cooper [widow of Tory MP Duff Cooper] and I were visiting Enid Bagnold, the author of National Velvet. Poor Enid has become a morphine addict following a bad fall.

Diana’s motive for visiting Enid is largely to get morphine from her. This Diana keeps in a cupboard in her bedroom, so she can possibly make her ‘Exit’ one day. So, in a sense, my visit was a drug run.

Tangier, July 1-8

I’m in Tangier, staying with the Earl of Pembroke’s son, David Herbert. My bedroom has a Beaton sketch of the naked backside of a man on the wall. The backside, David said, was Mick Jagger’s.

London, March 5: Diana Cooper has just seen Lady Diana Spencer at an opera evening with Princess Grace of Monaco

London, Oct 15

I took Diana Cooper, dripping in ostrich feathers, to The Ritz, where we met Alastair Forbes [journalist and courtier]. A noted ladies’ man, he pointed out that, thanks to his ministrations, one of the Queen’s maids of honour at the 1953 Coronation was not a maid in the accepted sense.

London, Feb 4, 1981

At the Travellers’ Club to meet historian Sir Steven Runciman, who was at Cambridge with Cecil. He has a self-assured arrogance, though I’m told his works are unreadable. When he was knighted, he told Princess Marina that the honour made him feel ‘middle-aged and middle-class’. Princess Marina repeated this to the Queen. She was furious — and Sir Steven will receive no further honours.

London, Feb 5

Diana Mosley — widow of Oswald — has come to London for several days. As fascist sympathisers, she and her sister Unity saw much of Hitler and his henchmen before the war. She said of herself: ‘There aren’t many people who have known both Goebbels and Cecil Beaton.’ Her face creased with laughter when this was repeated back to her.

London, March 3

At lunch with his PR, I learn that Truman Capote was due in England to promote his book. His lover, a rough of course (but one he’d loved for years), seduced his young secretary (female) and Capote flipped. Later, I think, he was carted off to a mental home in California. Foyles and everything had to be cancelled…

London, March 5

Diana Cooper has just seen Lady Diana Spencer at an opera evening with Princess Grace of Monaco. She was very funny about Lady D’s ‘provocative plunger’ black dress: ‘Wasn’t that a mighty feast to set before a king?’

London, March 31

Lady Diana Cooper gives only two luncheon parties each year, one for [former PM] Harold Macmillan, and one for the Queen Mother, which took place last week. At the lunch, Diana spent most of her time mixing and pouring an immensely strong brew of gin and grapefruit.

A few days later Diana showed me the Queen Mother’s [thank you] letter. She made reference to the ‘HOUSE POISON’ in capital letters and said the guests spoke more freely, their voices rising, as the cocktails took effect. She’d clearly hugely enjoyed it.

Faringdon, April 10

Robert Heber-Percy invited me to the estate he’d inherited in 1950 from his lover Lord Berners.

His best story over dinner was that he thought Cecil was going to make a pass at him, so Lord Berners and he swapped beds. When Cecil entered the bed, Lord Berners called out, ‘Cecil, what a delightful surprise!’ ‘He never forgave me for that,’ said Robert.

London, March 5: She was very funny about Lady D’s ‘provocative plunger’ black dress: ‘Wasn’t that a mighty feast to set before a king?’

Robert had also had an affair — as had Cecil — with Doris Castlerosse [great-aunt of supermodel Cara Delevingne], a viscountess, who once said: ‘There is no such thing as an impotent man, only an incompetent woman.’

For his birthday in Paris, Doris took him to a brothel and said she’d paid for him to be able to whip a naked whore to death. Robert gave the woman a couple of disconsolate taps. Doris spluttered: ‘I haven’t wasted my money just for this,’ and delivered a welt-raising cut. Robert said: ‘Doris, any more of that and I’ll be sick.’

London, May 18

Count Friedrich Ledebur, a former Hollywood actor and friend of Garbo’s, told me that when she goes to stay with Cecile de Rothschild, if they go out she never has any clothes.

Dior or Cardin is called up and this is arranged. Garbo doesn’t like to pay. She’s very mean.

The Count and Garbo often travelled together. He said that, on a walking holiday in Greece, Greta liked to walk naked — she instructed him not to look, and always to warn her whenever anyone was around.

Each time he called out, ‘Greta, there’s a peasant coming,’ she’d quickly put something on.

Monte Carlo, Sept 18

This afternoon, I met Lesley Blanch — author of The Wilder Shores Of Love. She said the Queen thought the Princess of Wales’s wedding dress was ‘very Shaftesbury Avenue’.

Paris, Sept 23

I was very excited today to be meeting Princess Grace of Monaco at her home in Paris. At first, I wasn’t sure I recognised her. She is much fairer — do I mean faded? —and has a flattish face, a little wider than I’d expected.

We talked about shyness and she said: ‘Most people are shy, especially when they’re young.’ She cited ‘Prince Charles of England’ as an example of someone who had conquered his. His wedding to Diana had been marvellous, she said, especially the crowds.

‘On the night of the fireworks, we all went in buses to Hyde Park from Buckingham Palace and the crowds were so thick.

‘There were millions there, so close to each other. That never happens in Europe… how Lord Mountbatten would have loved it. He adored ceremony.’

Speaking of the Cecil generation, she said they all took offence very easily and cut each other dead on the strength of something someone had repeated to them.

New York, Nov 15

At a dinner given by Diana Vreeland, there was Stones talk — they are making £70 million over their present tour of 32 cities. It’s said Mick Jagger is scared stiff of being gunned down — after John Lennon, he fears that he is the next.

Many came to Reddish House, imparting information of various kinds. Frank Tait, a doctor, told me Lord Olivier once came out of the shower in a theatre, stark naked, and said: ‘Isn’t it a pity? I’m the greatest actor in the world and I’ve got the smallest c**k.’ Pictured: Sir Lawrence Olivier with wife Vivien Leigh

New York, Nov 24

Daphne Fielding [former wife of the 6th Marquess of Bath] invited me to lunch to talk about Cecil and told me that Doris Castlerosse seduced him in a room filled with tuberoses. The intoxication of the smell was powerful. And Doris helped him considerably. ‘He wouldn’t have had to do a thing,’ she said.

London, April 1, 1982

Dinner at Diana [Cooper’s] to meet the Queen Mother again. There was a long discussion about the artist Edward Seago. The Queen Mother said she’d been asked by the Tate to lend a picture, and had offered one of his. They didn’t want it.

‘So I said, “Well, then, I might not lend anything.” Finally they took an English landscape, a large one. Really! Horrid snobs!’

Broadlands, May 29

At Broadlands [Hampshire home of the Mountbattens] today, I met the Romseys and… then… the Prince of Wales and then… THE PRINCESS OF WALES. So exciting. The princess was in pink — almost Barbara Cartland pink.

She looked radiant — she is a real star — with her mop of fair hair and flashing eyes, a firm handshake from quite a podgy little hand, a smile for everyone.

‘Good evening, ma’am,’ I said, and passed on quickly, swooning out onto the terrace and lawn.

I was most surprised by the effect that she had on me. It was as though one had met the girl of one’s dreams, never believing such a thing possible.

New York, Dec 1

I went to see art patron Mrs Nin Ryan — Ted Heath is a good friend of hers. He once came down to tea in blue bathing trunks, with his huge tummy hanging over them. ‘He didn’t look aesthetic,’ she said.

June Hutchinson [an attractive English widow Cecil had once thought of marrying] was there, and said it was the first time she’d met Heath since having a romance with him. Funny that Heath and Cecil have that in common.

London, Mar 22, 1983

I’ve just talked for 25 minutes to Audrey Hepburn. She was so nice about Cecil — who photographed her many times and designed her costumes for My Fair Lady.

‘There’s nothing very flamboyant about me or anything terribly beautiful… at the end of My Fair Lady, he gave me a set of the photographs he’d taken. I remember saying to him that, like every woman, I would have loved to have been beautiful — and for a moment I was. I meant that. If somebody loves you very much, they make you feel beautiful, and he did it with his tenderness and his art.’

London, March 24

The Baron [Lord Weidenfeld] gave a dinner party to celebrate the publication of Christopher Warwick’s biography of Princess Margaret, a book she’d sanctioned and controlled.

The princess — glittering and shimmering in gold and tangerine colours — arrived quite late.

She sailed over to me after dinner and said of Cecil: ‘He hated me because I was so ugly.’

I thought Princess Margaret looked like a beautiful monkey, with very pretty eyes, good and unmoving hair, and pouches under the eyes. She has a vulgar laugh.

London, May 18

Ali Forbes came to lunch at my flat. He told a story about David Niven: he’d been staying with [actress] Jeanette MacDonald and her husband, and was changing in a tent on the beach.

A hand came through, passed between his legs and took hold of his scrotum. It was Jeanette — who thought she was groping her husband. ‘Lunch is served on the terrace,’ she managed to say.

New York, June 28

Phone call with Truman Capote — a friend of Cecil’s until he became jealous of Capote’s success with In Cold Blood. He said Cecil introduced him to the Queen Mother. ‘I kept her fascinated telling her about murder cases. She is a wonderful person,’ he said.

London, Dec 14

Dame Julie Andrews was the first Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in both New York and London in the late Fifties. She recalled an early photo session.

‘I was quite nervous of him — this eminent gentleman who always looked so very stylish. I felt, in those days, particularly, terribly gamine and absolutely not sure of who I was at all, and he kept saying, as he was photographing me, “Lovely — oh! Beautiful — wonderful — yes, yes.”

‘Then, eventually he ended up by saying, “Of course you do have the most unphotogenic face I’ve ever seen”. I suddenly went down like a pricked balloon.’

Adapted from Malice In Wonderland: My Adventures In The World Of Cecil Beaton by Hugo Vickers, published by Hodder on May 13 at £25. © Hugo Vickers 2021. To order a copy for £22 (offer valid to 14/5/21; free UK P&P), visitmailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.

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