Pride (and prejudice) goeth before the fall could well describe the whole L’Affaire Galliano, which has seen the firing of Christian Dior’s brilliant, evidently troubled designer, John Galliano, for anti-Semitic remarks made while in an obviously inebriated state, and been an obsessive topic of conversation in the fashion world and beyond. Although Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian VOGUE, has commented on the dust-up, American VOGUE – specifically editor Anna Wintour, whose great influence was instrumental in launching Galliano’s early success – has been surprisingly quiet.
There are probably varying reasons for this, but I can’t help recalling another, earlier example of anti-Semitism infiltrating the gilded halls of
fashion, in the very pages of American VOGUE. Galliano unfortunately had his racist remarks recorded by a cellphone, but in the case of
photographer/artist Cecil Beaton, in 1938, his words actually made it onto the printed page. Beaton, like Galliano, was British and a fashion wunderkind, specializing in ultra-chic romanticism, whose photographs, sketches and writing were prominently featured in Conde Nast publications like VOGUE and VANITY FAIR.
However, he faced disaster on the morning of January 24, 1938, during which Hitler’s Third Reich had been in place for five years, when he
was awoken by a reporter asking for his response to comments which had appeared in powerful columnist Walter Winchell’s post: “The Feb.
issue of VOGUE, the mag., contains some hidden anti-Semitism! …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…[such as] ‘Cholly [Knickerbocker, a gossip columnist] asks: WHY?? is Mrs
Selznick such a social wow – Why is Mrs Goldwyn such a wow? …Party Darling Love Kike. Mr R Andrews ball at the El Morocco brought out all the damned kikes in town’ …So delighted was he with his little trick that he spread the news among his intimates, gloating of how it had put one over…Naturally, that is how we heard about it.”
These microscopic scribbles were incorporated into an accompanying sketch Beaton had drawn, which his friend, VOGUE editor Margaret
Case, had seen and warned him to remove. He had bristled, “Always the same story. Let them alter the whole beastly thing!”
Instead of avoiding the issue entirely and not immediately contacting Dior, as Galliano evidently did when his story initially broke, Beaton
phoned VOGUE and was summoned into the office. He wrote in his diary that he was scared but even more so when he saw the faces of
Case, and other editors and lawyers clustered outside of publisher Conde Nast’s office. He explained that he was not anti-Semitic but
resented “the people that run Hollywood and pretend to make an art of what they known is an industry,” and that the offending words were never meant to be seen or if seen at all, only for submission to the art department, which was headed by Dr. Agha, who may have been Winchell’s informant, as he had long been jealous of Beaton. Beaton then wrote two formal apologies which were issued to the press.
A stressful day followed, filled with activities, including a lecture, cocktail party and opera, for a very shaken Beaton. At the last event, he found Conde Nast’s butler waiting for him with a note from Nast asking him to come to his house, and “I am so terribly distressed over this horrible mess – Forgive me for asking you to run away from the opera.” Beaton found Nast in his dining room, where, over whiskey, he told Beaton, “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.” All of this, it is to be noted, a far cry indeed, from Dior head Sidney Toledano’s tersely stated position of zero tolerance regarding Galliano.
The 1938 reaction to Beaton’s firing also differed from contemporary responses of apparent universal rejection and revulsion in Galliano’s
case. It was a time in which biographer Hugo Vickers, whose seminal CECIL BEATON (Little Brown) provided much of this article’s material,
observed was rife with anti-Semitism, with all manner of “restricted” policies in place regarding real estate and private clubs, and hypocrisy: “Mrs. Chase once told Madge Garland that while it was acceptable to lunch with Jews at a restaurant, it was not acceptable to dine with them in their homes.” Although there were definite detractors, like Clare Booth Luce, who said her husband, Henry (publisher of TIME magazine) “wouldn’t now touch him with the end of a ten-foot barge pole,” and a joke made the rounds, describing Beaton as the “Heillustrator,” many rallied around him. These included Case, actress Gertrude Lawrence, and Nast, himself, who made a point of personally taking him to a Vanderbilt cocktail party. Other support was decidedly a bit more questionable, if not inflammatory: his friend Lilia Ralli told him that Prince Paul of Yugoslavia could not get over it , as he said, “Democracy, the way it’s going in USA looks fiercer than Bolshevism and so much more of a hypocrisy,” and Jew-hating playwright Frederick Lonsdale told him he would have “countless supporters.”
This last apalled Beaton who wrote in his diary, “this is far from what I desire. I am NOT at all anti-Jewish and the last thing I wish for is to create any disturbance in an altogether upheaved world.” He claimed that he had been unaware of the full implication of the word “kike,” inferring it to mean “vulgar people.” In desperation, he even consulted a psychic who consoled him by saying that his actions were the result of being influenced by someone else, namely his anti-Semitic friend, Russian artist Pavel Tchewlitchew.
Beaton never really believed that his expulsion from VOGUE would be permanent, but Nast wrote him a letter a few months later: “Although
am ready to believe that you have no really anti-Semitic feelings and what you did had in your mind no more significance than a ‘prank’,
nevertheless you chose, most unfortunately for all of us, to play this prank in such a way that you plunged me, as a publisher, into a political and racial situation comnpletely out of character with VOGUE and entirely at variance with, and distasteful to, my own feelings.”
Beaton’s own mea culpa? He wrote in his diary “I was baffled and ejaculated [to a reporter] it was done unconsciously. I’m not anti-Jewish and violently hostile to Hitler, but if there is any possible explanation these quotes contained my subconscious momentary irritation at having seen so many bad Hollywood films. Not only was I trying to make some plausible excuse but I was trying to analyse my sentiments for having done these little scraps of lettering and now having had three days to think the matter over, feel that I felt at the time that these impertinences would only be impertinent as far as the art department where they would be deleted at any rate if not deleted there, they would be innocuous. The drawing had been done at a time when I was suffering from a bad cold. It had been finished late at night when I was sick and tired of the whole thing and irritated beyond control at the pressure put on me by the office.”
Beaton’s American career went into an eclipse which would only end with his triumphant designs for the 1956 Broadway production of MY
FAIR LADY. Although initially crushed, he regained his confidence, even writing about the incident soon after in his books CECIL BEATON’S NEW YORK (1938) and MY ROYAL PAST (1939), and going so far as saying to his friend, David Herbert, “I’m damn glad I did it!”
ADDENDUM: Along with all the other questions arising in the wake of L’Affaire Galliano, there is the question of what die-hard Galliano fans, such as this writer, are to do with all the clothes we so lovingly and avidly acquired over the years, especially those bearing his name, which the designer was never shy about splashing about. These have given me so much pleasure (and pleasant attention) over the years, but will wearing them now cause the wearer to be branded as the supporter of a notorious, presumed anti-Semite? Is it, once again, a question of having to decry the artist for his personal hatefulness, but love his inescapable art, as is the case with such as Beaton’s filigreed output, T.S. Eliot’s poetry and Wagner, whose opera performances continue to be populated by so many Jewish music lovers?