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Cecil Beaton in the bathroom of his home in Wiltshire, showing the walls decorated with autographed hands of guests, 1934Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Antisemitism, Now in Vogue

A scandal surrounding the fashion photographer Cecil Beaton speaks to the coded prejudices of 1930s America

by
Allen Ellenzweig
January 18, 2022
Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Cecil Beaton in the bathroom of his home in Wiltshire, showing the walls decorated with autographed hands of guests, 1934Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In researching the trans-Atlantic cosmopolitans of the 20th-century interwar years—all friends, family, and colleagues of my biographical subject, the gay fashion, dance, celebrity, and male figure photographer George Platt Lynes—I should not have been surprised to learn that Jewishness remained a suspect identity in his time. Cultural sophisticates did not always practice universal tolerance.

Even so successful a figure as the British fashion and celebrity photographer Cecil Beaton, a friendly queer colleague of Lynes, was found out using a low-class slur reserved exclusively for Jews in a published illustration for Vogue. Beaton’s misadventure was unique for its quick discovery and swift ramifications, though it speaks to the depth of such prejudice in the 1930s, that “low dishonest decade” of W.H. Auden’s description.

I might have been better prepared for the “Affair Beaton.” Passing ethnic slights occasionally made their way into the personal correspondence or historical record of Lynes and the orbit of family and friends who form the supporting characters of his biography. One minor yet telling example occurred in a letter Lynes wrote to his Parisian lodestar, the formidable Gertrude Stein. He’d been introduced to her salon in 1925, at age 18, when he went to Paris to complete coursework before entry into Yale. Lynes’ interest in modernist literature placed him in good stead with Paris’ self-appointed doyenne of contemporary English letters. He proved himself a junior litterateur and she soon began calling him, affectionately, “Baby George.” But he had serious ambitions and convinced Stein to allow him, on his return to Englewood, New Jersey, to publish for subscription sale the gnomic pronouncements comprising her essay “Descriptions of Literature.” Eager to please Stein, George sent her reports of notable subscribers for this first official venture.

To reassure Stein that he’d treated her text with care, George stressed that he’d corrected “six proofs”—hardly unusual given her repetitive language and eccentric punctuation—but also reported, as if explaining this roundelay of proofreading, “The business lady said that the printer was a chinaman.” If the “business lady” said this, it was likely intended as a joke. Lynes passed the comment on with, safe to say, his tongue firmly in his cheek. But the remark traded in condescension and stereotype of a kind that flourished in the last century after decades of foreign immigration to America. The nation was awash in ethnic and racial stereotyping on the vaudeville stage and the silent cinema, and the so-called “Yellow Peril” expressed fears of an overwhelming Asian invasion to white America’s shores. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was to last 10 years and restricted Chinese laborers employed in mining from entering the United States. It also barred Chinese already in the country from becoming citizens, and was not repealed by Congress until 1943.

Such condescension was symptomatic of the racial and religious bias in the America of a century ago. George’s father, for example, Dr. Joseph R. Lynes, who at the time of his death in 1932 was the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Englewood, had first studied law. When he succeeded to the bar he changed his middle name, which like his father’s had been “Isaac,” since he feared he would be mistaken for a Jewish lawyer. But soon, as Joseph Russell Lynes, his probity was such that he came to see the entire legal profession as morally suspect. He left the practice of law for studies at New York’s General Theological Seminary which he graduated in 1910.

During Dr. Lynes’ previous rectorships in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Jersey City, George and his younger brother Russell were trained in decorum by their mother, Adelaide, and the reverend. It is doubtful that real Jews participated in their lives in any significant way, although their very absence could allow for a tenacious set of mythologies to cling to this exotic sect with odd rituals and dietary laws—especially as tropes about Jewish rapacity and usury endured in American culture.

Once out in the wider world, young George faced a more diverse society. His teenage experience of boarding school was the Berkshire School for Boys in Sheffield, Massachusetts, where he met, although he did not exactly befriend (that would happen later), one of the few Jewish boys on campus—the intellectually precocious Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein recalled that Berkshire’s “weekly chapel service” would have “offended neither Catholic nor Jew.” And later, although Stein and Alice B. Toklas were the two Jews George knew best, their religious affiliation was even less part of their public identities than their lesbianism, which went understood but unspoken.

By the time George’s creative interests shifted to photography, he was under the sway of two American expatriates who had been living in France. Monroe Wheeler persevered as a publisher of poetry chapbooks by Yvor Winters, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, among others. Wheeler’s intimate companion, Glenway Wescott, had emerged in fiction as a voice from the American heartland and was classed with the young expatriates of the Lost Generation. On a business trip back to New York in 1927, the pair met and took up with Lynes on the recommendation of journalist Bernardine Szold, a worldly Jewish cosmopolitan, who knew Glenway as far back as 1918 and who had met young Lynes through Stein’s enclave. (Szold’s cousin Henrietta founded Hadassah in 1912, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.) For the next few years, the Lynes-Wheeler-Wescott trio reunited for extended periods in Paris and the south of France and motored through Austria and Germany. When Monroe and Glenway visited Englewood, George showed them a collection of his casual photographs; they recognized his raw talent and arranged to have a well-heeled woman friend of theirs, Hope Weill, lend him her professional camera equipment. Weill, along with her husband, Walter, were comfortable New York Jews; Hope provided George encouragement and counsel after Monroe and Glenway returned to their picturesque but modest villa on a hillside behind Villefranche on the French Riviera.

Within a few years, George began making his mark with his portraits of renowned artists and writers. He was soon introduced to an aspiring gallerist, Julien Levy, and his beautiful wife, Joella, daughter of the feminist poet and painter Mina Loy. Levy impressed George as “a very handsome, lazily ambitious, and prosperous young man” who had been one of the art-focused Harvard “modernists” like budding impresario Lincoln Kirstein and art historian Alfred Barr. George’s visual talent, social charm, and well-earned connections encouraged Levy, who committed to give Lynes a photography exhibition alongside the still emerging but more prominent Walker Evans.

The Levys and George set sail for France aboard the same ship in the summer of 1931; looking back on that voyage more than 40 years later, Julien Levy remembered the “perfectly cherubic George Platt Lynes.” At the time, George wrote his mother that the Levys were “surprisingly pleasant traveling companions.” But in the intervening months as his exhibition approached in February 1932, George developed a more critical view. He lent a hand at the Levy gallery and socialized with Julien and Joella. After one small dinner party George hosted, he wrote his lover Monroe Wheeler back in France:

I have an ever-increasing horror of bad manners, and of course the Levys are very vulgar. Bad table manners, etc., but that is the least of it. Since the gal­lery has opened, Julien has exhibited the worst sort of Jewish instinct, the gou­ging sort. And Joella has been so rude. … [She] in particular behaves abominably at cocktail parties, or perhaps it is only at our cocktail parties. (In parenthesis I may add that they have social aspirations.)

George’s disaffection with the couple is a catalog of antisemitic tropes: their vulgarity, their rudeness, their social-climbing, and of course, Julien’s grasping financial behavior, a “Jewish instinct.” George wrote from a set of accepted social prejudices at a time in America when Jews were still the exception, even within mixed societies like those he’d become acquainted with at the midtown salons of, first, Muriel Draper, and then of Kirk and Constance Agnew. As for being “vulgar,” well, to be gay was so vulgar one could not mention it in “polite” society— and this went for the more formal Askews’ Sunday afternoon “teas” at East 61st Street where you could be gay, “but, alluding to [it] was bad form,” wrote Steven Watson, who has chronicled the period. “‘Everybody knew everybody was sleeping with everybody and nobody talked about it,’ the bisexual Lincoln Kirstein sweepingly declared. ‘It was not a subject for gossip.’”

If George’s comments on the Levys represent the embedded social antisemitism of the period, as revealing was a comment Monroe Wheeler wrote to George’s mother, Adelaide, when he and George were crossing on the Hamburg-Amerika line between France and Ireland in the early summer of 1935. Describing the passengers, many of whom were German and Irish, Wheeler remarked that they were “a very sober and handsome lot— it being a Nazi boat there are no Jews to spread themselves.” This cavalier indictment is as distressing for its disdain of Jews as a group, as for seeming to endorse Nazi exclusion of Jews from daily life.

Cultural sophisticates did not always practice universal tolerance.

The irony is that among social companions and colleagues, Wheeler did not discriminate against Jews. He and Glenway considered Hope and Walter Weil trusted friends. Monroe had a close rapport with Lincoln Kirstein, a secular Jew with an admittedly Brahmin affect (not a Jew to “spread himself”) who invited George Balanchine over from France to establish an American classical dance and a school to teach it. Wheeler was also indebted to Bernardine Szold for bringing young Lynes to his attention and for introducing him to his business partner, the astute Barbara Harrison, a cultivated young woman of means with cultural aspirations. They had formed a publishing firm of limited illustrated editions, Harrison of Paris. Wheeler’s experience with deluxe books led him into the Museum of Modern Art’s highest echelons, eventually to head both its publications and exhibitions departments. In this role, he retained wide and cordial relations with prominent Jewish artists such as sculptors Jacques Lipchitz and Chaim Gross, photographer Lotte Jacobi, the artist and photographer Ben Shahn and his wife, Bernarda, and the French painter Marc Chagall whose images often commemorated Russian Jewish community life of his native village Vitebsk.

Similarly, George Platt Lynes was not a priori anti-Jewish. When the editor of the Yiddish journal Unser Buch [Our Book], one Mikhl Licht, enthusiastically approached Lynes out of the blue for permission to translate into Yiddish Gertrude Stein’s “Descriptions of Literature,” George interceded to help him secure clearance from Stein directly. George also suggested to the avant-garde Muriel Draper that the translation be read aloud at one of her regular salon gatherings of 1930s hipsters.

As for Glenway Wescott, when he became involved with a 24-year-old Newsweek jour­nalist in 1939, the young man’s sexual magnetism overpowered him, despite the fellow’s problems with drink and a tendency to extreme behavior. Glenway remembered him as “wicked on every point and he was wicked to me ... He once said something antisemitic and I said, ‘If you’re going to talk like that you can get out of my house. Antisemitism is just out; it doesn’t exist in my world.’”

Well, it did exist in his world, but neither George nor Monroe advertised it.

It was the sub-rosa nature of most expressions of antisemitism that Cecil Beaton exposed in his completely ill-conceived prank—if that’s what it was. Beaton provided small cartoon illustrations to accompany an article on “New York Society” by Frank Crowninshield in the 1938 February Vogue. His satirical drawings included in the margins tiny newsprint pages with gossip-style parlance in lettering barely visible to the naked eye:

Cholly asks: Why?? Is Mrs. Selznick such a social wow—Why is Mrs. Goldwyn such a wow?

Beaton also drew a “telegram”:

Party Darling Love Kike. Mr. R. Andrew’s Ball at the El Morocco brought out all the damned kikes in town.

Beaton was alerted by Vogue’s society editor, Margaret Case, who had spotted the offending language, that his comments would have to be altered, but he had grown irritated by the magazine’s editorial limits and interference. “Always the same story. Let them alter the whole beastly thing!” he replied and went about his business. But on the morning of Jan. 24, 1938, he was awakened at his suite in the Waldorf Tower by a phone call from a reporter asking for an interview about an item in Walter Winchell’s popular newspaper column. Winchell immediately got to the point:

The Feb. issue of Vogue, the mag., contains some hidden antisemitism! ... A magnifying glass is necessary to detect it in Cecil Beaton’s lettering for Frank Crowninshield’s article on New York Society on page 73 …

Beaton called the Vogue office and was summoned to come over immediately, where the gathering of editors, lawyers, and advertising staff made it clear to Beaton that he had stirred up a hornet’s nest. He made confused and conflicting excuses: He was not anti-Jewish; the people who run Hollywood imagine they are making art out of an industry; the lettering in question might just as well have spelled out abracadabra for it was never meant to be seen—or if seen at all, only by Dr. Agha in the art department. One theory has it that Beaton believed Dr. Agha resented him for gaining a filial devotion from Condé Nast and, therefore, Agha tipped Winchell off about the cartoon’s nastiness.

Emotionally shaken, Beaton survived the day’s planned commitments, avoiding any calls from reporters, but before he could make it to the opera that evening, Condé Nast’s butler hand-delivered a typed note from Mr. Nast. The boss politely asked Beaton to make it over to the Nast apartment no later than 10 o’clock that evening.

At the apartment, a stricken Condé Nast delivered the blow: “We’re in a tough spot … I could not mind more if I were losing my own son but I can see nothing else but to ask for your resignation.” Soon after, Beaton experienced a sensation of freedom, realizing he would no longer have to endure “the restrictions of Vogue” about which he complained. Of the formal statement Condé showed him, Beaton thought it “unduly pompous.” After announcing Beaton’s resignation to the press, Nast added:

My periodicals have been free of attacks on race and creed and I am determined that they must remain free from such attacks, whether committed wittingly or unwittingly. I was particularly distressed that these slurring comments should have been printed in Vogue, especially during these days of cruel, vicious, and unreasoning persecution of Jews.

Had he been aware of the slurs, he said, the drawings would have been discarded. As it was, of a run of 280,000 issues, 150,000 had already been shipped. Of the 130,000 not yet gone, they were reprinted “with the objectionable lines stricken out.” These efforts cost the magazine some $36,000 which, in 2021 dollars, would surely be staggering.

As for Beaton, his explanations sought to divert him from full responsibility but were no more credible than logical. At one and the same time he claimed not to know the meaning of the term “kike,” yet hearing that it was “derogatory,” he clutched his pearls about how “terrible” that was and added that he “knew it had something to do with the Jews,” but he didn’t know just what. Yet Beaton also separately claimed that his friend, the émigré Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, who railed against Jews, had made him “Jew conscious” to an extent that he would otherwise not have been. And besides, a Jewish friend of his used the term “kike” in such a way that Beaton believed it merely meant “vulgar people.” And so Beaton found others to blame since he was himself “violently anti-Hitler.”

To The New York Times, Beaton ate humble pie: “I regret this ill-mannered expression of my irritation and annoyance, caused by some bad films I had just then seen …” He said this without ever explaining the connection between the term “kikes” and the “bad films” he’d seen, nor why two wives of Hollywood producers need be subsequently implicated in his “irritation.” His biographer, Hugo Vickers, claimed that Beaton had viewed “a number of films which he found particularly inadequate. He resented the power that the Jews had over Hollywood, equating this with a lack of artistic taste.”

The implications of rank bias forced Beaton to state that he had “many friends who are Jews, great friends,” and yet none of them would think his “silly joke had any bearing on the standing of their great community.” But if he thought it was “silly” and now knew how grievously insulting the term was, why maintain the fiction that this was a “joke” in the first instance? What was supposed to be so funny?

To his own diary, Beaton repeated rationales that were just that: excuses. Again, it was his “subconscious” annoyance having seen “so many bad Hollywood films” and only the magazine’s art department would notice the comments. Oh, and he had worked on the drawings while suffering from a bad cold.

One journalist, a contributor for the left-wing New Masses, Robert Forsythe, had his own theory of Beaton’s subconscious motives. Beaton began “as a young man with a Cockney accent and manners … short of perfection.” Soon enough, though, the talented artist was taken up by influential and stylish people—including, eventually, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In fact, years earlier, by the time Beaton got to U.S. Vogue, he was a personage in his own right, an eccentrically stylish popinjay and “[b]ecause Beaton was always conscious of his past, it was necessary for him to be above it.”

In Forsythe’s view, Beaton saw David and Irene Selznick as Hollywood climbers because of their association with the high society figure Jock Whitney who was financially backing the Selznick International movie studio. Forsythe surmised that “nothing irritates a man who has climbed more than seeing another trying to climb. So in one place in the Cecil Beaton border, there is a reference to Mrs. David [Irene] Selznick, and in another you get the line about the kikes. An interesting study in psychology, if I am right.”

If Forsythe was right, however, it wasn’t simply that Beaton disliked Jews in Hollywood for producing films of bad taste, it was that they had the bad taste to envision themselves equal to participating in the best society. For Beaton, an Englishman who had practiced some alchemy to gain social prominence despite modest beginnings, this mixing of class distinctions was intolerable—especially because Jews succeeded at it. The position of Jews in England has always been equivocal, certainly since the Edict of Expulsion forced their removal in 1290; a whole history of Jews in British literature confirms their social position to have remained unresolved in the centuries since. (See my 2012 Tablet article “Likeness of a Jew.”)

Edna Woolman Chase, U.S. Vogue’s longtime editor-in-chief, once told Madge Garland, British Vogue’s fashion editor, that “while it was acceptable to dine with Jews in a restaurant, it was not acceptable to dine with them in their homes.” In some matters, the U.S. and Britain did indeed have a special relationship.

On Feb. 1, George Lynes wrote to his mother, who was abroad in France visiting her now widowed cousin Walter Hardy. George explained the widely reported circumstances of Beaton’s sacking by Vogue. “Now poor foolish Cecil wants to use my studio and that is of course impossible, and God knows what will become of him.”

Whatever Beaton’s true motives, the damage had been done. By April, Nast made clear Beaton would not be hired back. Many of Beaton’s other publication plans had to be scrapped and a design commission for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater was canceled. He had burned bridges in Hollywood and was likewise persona non grata on Broadway. A few years later, he mollified some critics with photographs that aimed at morale boosting for the British war effort; one in hospital of a little girl wounded in the Blitz made the cover of LIFE magazine. But it would take his Tony-award designs in 1956 for My Fair Lady to return him to popular recognition in America. His 1958 Oscar award for costume design for the Hollywood film of Gigi and two Oscars for 1964’s My Fair Lady, put him firmly back in the American eye. In the latter instance, he worked in partnership with the movie director George Cukor and producer Jack Warner. Two Jews.

Allen Ellenzweig is an arts critic. His book George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye was just published by Oxford University Press.

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