Avoiding sports as a child, Cecil Beaton learned photography from his nanny on her Kodak 3A, and avoiding academics at Cambridge, which he left without a degree in 1925, he took his first published photo, printed in Vogue, of one of England's leading Shakespearean scholars in drag: To be exact, George "Dadie" Rylands, a Cambridge Fellow for 72 years, was costumed as the Duchess of Malfi. From there Beaton had to go work for his father's timber company, which he suffered for eight miserable days. After that he returned to his rightful place in the world of design, creating book jackets and studying photography until Vogue hired him fulltime in 1927. Although his style is flowery and theatrical, many of his most enduring images are serious people captured at critical times: a tense Churchill in 1940, Queen Elizabeth II's coronation portrait, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's wedding portrait. During the war, he volunteered and was posted to the Ministry of Information, capturing images of the Blitz, its young injured on the cover of Life, and RAF pilots in their cockpit.
Versatile in his talents, Beaton also designed the lighting, sets, and costumes for many Broadway musicals, winning four Tony Awards, and for several Hollywood extravaganzas, winning the Oscar for best costumes twice, for Gigi and most famously for his high camp creations in My Fair Lady. Although he never consummated his long unrequited love for Peter Watson, a gay art collector whose interests lay elsewhere, Beaton did enjoy possibly the greatest consolation prize of the twentieth century, an affair with Gary Cooper. For his entire life, he kept his childhood diary in which he first realized he was a "terrible, terrible homosexualist" and that shame never fully disappeared, driving him to a few misguided affairs with women later in his life, including one with Greta Garbo, who dumped him and went back to women. When he was seventy he suffered a major stroke that left him partially paralyzed, and though he adapted to drawing and photographing with his left hand, he never recovered his earlier ease. He died six years later, in 1980.