It is no surprise that Cecil Beaton, fashion photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 1920’s and 1930’s, portraitist of Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Windsor, should have taken several shots of Doris Duke; but it is surprising that in 1953 when he visited my parents in Kentucky, he photographed Lizzie Baker.
Lizzie Baker was an African-American woman of no known age—she was just old, to me—who had first worked as my father’s cook when he was fresh out of college, presiding over his bachelor cottage next to his father’s “Big House” in Glenview, outside of Louisville.
By the time I was born, Lizzie had long been replaced by a younger cook. Her kingdom was now the upstairs of the Big House where we were all living, especially the linen closet off the upstairs hall.
I used to think, as a child, that she actually lived in that closet, with its floor to ceiling shelves of monogrammed sheets and pillowcases, each shelf labeled in my mother’s cursive, indicating the size bed and the particular bedroom where the linens should go.
Lizzie had a chair in there, and sometimes when I visited her, she would take the time to tell me stories about my father and his brother and sister, stories I never heard from anyone else: How Uncle Robert had called her from town to tell her he’d lost one of his bedroom slippers. Lizzie spent much of that day peering under beds and chairs and into closets to find it. When Robert came home, he produced the missing slipper from his coat pocket, with roars of laughter I somehow couldn’t share.
Lizzie’s reaction to her own stories was ambiguous. A chuckle, a shake of her turbaned head—she was the last African-American I saw wear a white, wrapped turban—but with no hint of displeasure. Robert was just being Robert, as he always was and always would be.
When Cecil Beaton visited, he must have seen Lizzie rocking along the upstairs hall on her small, bent feet, humming—a sort of buzz rather than a tune—and sometimes exclaiming under her breath. Perhaps he asked to photograph her; perhaps he posed her in front of the glass-fronted cabinet in my little sister’s bedroom that had once held our grandfather’s hunting guns.
Lizzie rose to the occasion, perhaps after the dismissive giggle she accorded most white people’s suggestions. In her white uniform and apron, with a cap on her head—not the turban I remember—her left hand tucked backwards on her hip, she stares at the camera with an expression both stately and sad, seated under the white lamb and china pig in the cabinet.
She would never have heard of Cecil Beaton, or of Doris Duke, her only link the photographer’s avid eye for authority.
[For more on Cecil Beaton and Doris Duke, read my last post, “Glamour-Puss“]