by Hugo Vickers (Hodder £25, 352 pp)

Hugo Vickers (a wet-behind the ears) was invited in 1979 to author an authorised biography on Cecil Beaton. Beaton is a fashion photographer and costume designer.

Before he’d even started, Beaton, his principal source, died, so he spent the next five years piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of his convoluted life through his vast network of friends and, even more tellingly, enemies.

Tony Rennell has rounded up a selection of the best biographies from 2021 - including Malice In Wonderland: My Adventures In The World Of Cecil Beaton by Hugo Vickers

Tony Rennell has rounded up a selection of the best biographies from 2021 – including Malice In Wonderland: My Adventures In The World Of Cecil Beaton by Hugo Vickers

Now, years after that best-selling biography was published, Vickers reproduces the diaries he kept as, Alice-like, he took himself on a grand tour in wonderland, from one chic dinner party to another, from Mayfair mansion to country house, from London to Paris to New York, indulging in that irresistible beau monde commodity — gossip.

Beaton is a bitchy and backbiting world full of camp-playboys and sharp-tooted Harridans. Few had anything to say about him.

However, his diaries revealed that he was not happy with any of the men. His character is tarnished, his sexuality scrutinized and ridiculed, and his artistic talents are questioned.

Names pour off the pages — queens (of all sorts), film stars (Hepburn, Grace Kelly), writers (Capote), grand dames galore (Lady Diana Cooper, Enid Bagnold, the Queen Mum).

Vickers enjoys their company, their pity and their humour. It’s all such wicked fun.

One question keeps them obsessively guessing: did the primarily gay Beaton really, as he claimed, bed the elusive Greta ‘I want to be alone’ Garbo?

Oder was this just one of many affectations that the poseur extraordinaire used?

Did the primarily gay Beaton really, as he claimed, bed the elusive Greta ¿I want to be alone¿ Garbo? . Pictured: Greta Garbo

Did the primarily gay Beaton really, as he claimed, bed the elusive Greta ‘I want to be alone’ Garbo? . Greta Garbo 


John Preston (Penguin £9.99, 352 pp)

When he was a lieutenant in the British Army in World War II, the Czech refugee Jan Hoch — renamed Robert Maxwell — was viewed with awe by his men because of his ruthlessness in battle but also with suspicion. He was, a fellow officer recalled, ‘a big fellow, very dark, a bit of a mystery’.

FALL: THE MYSTERY OF ROBERT MAXWELL by John Preston (Penguin £9.99, 352 pp)

FALL: THE MYSTERY OF ROBERT MAXWELL by John Preston (Penguin £9.99, 352 pp)

What they didn’t care much for was his habit of keeping for himself all the bank notes looted from German soldiers they captured and giving his men the loose change.

Maxwell started from where he wanted to go on. Forty-five years later he would die doing the same thing — stealing from those who put their trust in him.

It is an epic tale of rising and falling, told in the voice of a master storyteller. This book is, in a very crowded field of books, my biography of 2012. The book reads as a thriller, and even though you are sure of the outcome, it is still riveting.

As for that end, we are left in little doubt that Maxwell — having played his last conman’s card and knowing he faced ruin, humiliation and jail time — slipped despairingly into the Atlantic from his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, named after his now notorious daughter.

His entire existence was marked by a profound loneliness. The monster he created made it increasingly difficult for him to connect with others. Employees, his spouse and children loathed him and made fun of his family. His valet was his only friend.


Jane Ridley (Chatto £30, 576 pp)

GEORGE V: NEVER A DULL MOMENT by Jane Ridley (Chatto £30, 576 pp)

GEORGE V: NEVER A DULL MOMENT by Jane Ridley (Chatto £30, 576 pp)

Many claimed that George V, the king-emperor, was an abrasive, dull and shy man.

When he sat down to dinner he would plead: ‘We won’t talk, will we?’ When breakfasting at Buckingham Palace — 9am on the dot — he was accompanied by his pet parrot Charlotte, who walked along the table digging her beak into the boiled eggs.

She would sometimes vomit and he would shamefully cover it with a silver mustard bowl.

With Charlotte at his side, he’d take a stroll out for a smoke and then train his binoculars to see a Mayfair house one mile away.

He would make a wave from the balcony to Princess Elizabeth, his favorite grandchild.

Yet it was he, argues Jane Ridley convincingly in this sparkling biography, who saved the British crown when all around — Russia, Germany et al — were losing theirs to revolution.

This was possible by not being spectacular. He wasn’t the brightest; he was woefully uneducated; his hobbies were blasting game birds out of the sky and collecting stamps.

Yet he turned out to be a skilful politician who negotiated his way — and the country’s — through war, social unrest and economic crisis, not least by cannily changing the family’s Germanic name from Saxe-Coburg to the more people-friendly Windsor. The key was his queen. Mary first got engaged to her older brother, and when he died she changed her mind to George, the new heir.

Yet the marriage turned out to be not only solid but a love match — brought to life quite brilliantly here in their personal correspondence.


James Hanning (Corsair £25, 432 pp)

LOVE AND DECEPTION: PHILBY IN BEIRUT by James Hanning (Corsair £25, 432 pp)

LOVE AND DECEPTION: PHILBY IN BEIRUT by James Hanning (Corsair £25, 432 pp)

Treachery ran through Kim Philby like ‘Brighton’ through a stick of rock. It was his stock in trade as, working for Britain’s secret service but clandestinely spying for the Soviet Union, he passed intelligence to Moscow on an industrial scale in the crucial Cold War era.

It was also true in his private life. As a traitor of his country, he betrayed every woman he claimed to love. His first marriage was one of convenience and his wife was quickly dumped; his second wife he couldn’t wait to die, turned by him into an alcoholic mad woman.

When Eleanor became his American mistress, he celebrated with champagne. She was the wife of a close friend — a typical Philby double deception. They may have had true love, as they enjoyed a night out in Beirut together. He was an expat newspaper stringer but secretly worked for the KGB.

The London police, who have been letting him off the hook far too much, started to get closer. One step ahead of arrest, he fled to Moscow, leaving naive and bewildered Eleanor with no explanation of where he’d gone or why. He expected her to be in bed with Donald Maclean, his friend and fellow spy. She followed him eventually.


SPYMASTER: THE MAN WHO SAVED MI6 by Helen Fry (Yale £20, 360 pp)

SPYMASTER: THE MAN WHO SAVED MI6 Helen Fry (Yale £20, 360 pp)

by Helen Fry (Yale £20, 360 pp)

Tommy Kendrick was a British spymaster. He operated so secretly that historian Helen Fry has since forgotten about him. No more.

With this absorbing biography, his incredible range of hush-hush activities over decades blazes into the light — from elusive pimpernel in pre-war Vienna to de-briefer of weird Nazi leader Rudolf Hess in the Tower of London.

He was a mystery for so long because, as he saw it, that was the nature of the Secret Service job he’d signed up for. He wasn’t one for memoirs. When he retired, he destroyed all his papers. There wasn’t even an obituary in a national newspaper when he died in 1972, his lips sealed.

All that remained was a small bundle of personal letters and the sketchy memories of his grandchildren — enough for Fry to start her impressive detective work through newly de-classified files in the National Archives.

Kendrick, who was working as a cover officer in the passport department of the British embassie in Austria, ran rings around Soviet and German agents. When the Nazis annexed Austria 1938, Kendrick, Schindler-like in that role, managed to rescue thousands of Jews.

For a time, he was under the control of the Gestapo but was finally released. He was back in London and he managed an intelligence operation that was just as important as Bletchley park.

Clever systematic bugging of German prisoners-of-war disclosed Hitler’s secrets — his rocket programme, the Holocaust — keeping the Allies ahead of the game. World War II might have been ended differently without him.


TERENCE: THE MAN WHO INVENTED DESIGN by Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity (Constable £25, 336pp)

TERENCE: THE MAN WHO INVENTED DESIGN Roger Mavity, Stephen Bayley (Constable £25, 336pp)

by Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity (Constable £25, 336pp)

Terence Conran’s irony was his role as a retail visionary, who revolutionized our lifestyle and leisure activities, but was actually a hardworking, driven, unremitting workaholic, who was never satisfied and was constantly on the move.

He was indeed the design genius who transformed postwar Britain with his Habitat stores. They brought life, colour and style to dull homes and kitchens. He deserves to be included in the history of social life for that.

And, with that done, he then took his imagination and his creativity to the nation’s rather bland restaurants and, with the likes of Bibendum, spread his magic there, too, turning them into emporia of good taste, in their looks and their menus.

Yet the cigar-chewing pharaoh behind all this fun was not someone you’d want to break bread with.

He was more of a bitter-faced cumudgeon who was driven by competitiveness and hostilities. Bully who was driven to make others feel bad. His disapproval often wreaked havoc on his wives and family. An inflexible control freak, who wanted to ban Earl Grey tea and charge employees to use the lift.

All this makes for a fascinating personality, captured here — both affectionately and critically — by two colleagues who worked closely with him, suffered his snideness, saw him obsessively grab all the credit for himself, and yet still came away loving and admiring him. This is a great read filled with insight and anecdotes.


Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane £35, 784 pp)

GEORGE III: BRITAIN'S MOST MISUNDERSTOOD MONARCH by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane £35, 784 pp)

GEORGE III: BRITAIN’S MOST MISUNDERSTOOD MONARCH by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane £35, 784 pp)

George III is often abused by history. Thomas Paine, the 18th century radical, denounced him as ‘a sottish, worthless, brutish man, a common murderer, a highwayman’. Even 250 years after his death, Hamilton, the musical, portrays him in a buffoon.

Andrew Roberts argues that he wasn’t one of these things. The incompetences that led to the War of Independence and the loss of the American colonies were down to others — his ministers and his generals — rather than him.

He was not the Founding Fathers that he was fighting on the opposite side of Atlantic Atlantic. They were just as noble and pure-hearted as Americans believe.

This major revision reveals a monarch who thought carefully, was well-read and cared about doing the right thing. He also got caught up in revolutions and tried his best to find a way out.

Roberts is equally majestic in guiding the reader through the complexities of constitutional crises, international affairs, Whig/Tory politics at home and military campaigns while, with intimate details, still breathing real life into the character of a monarch whose most used phrase was a spluttering ‘What, what, what!’

As for the king’s ‘malady’ — his bouts of madness — Roberts attributes this to recurrent manic depression rather than the popular explanation of the inherited disorder porphyria.

This large book is very detailed, long and dense. However, it’s also brimming with new ideas. Its compelling nature makes the case that the author authoritatively saves the reputation of the man who was on the throne nearly 60 years. A record which the Queen has only just broken.