In my book, I explore not only the life of the impresario Serge Diaghilev and his dream of bringing Russian culture to the West by creating Ballets Russes, but also those who carried the flame long after he died. One of these was Richard Buckle, commonly known as Dickie.

Buckle had the sort of wilfully eccentric character that 20th-century British people loved. Reckless, stylishly camp, cultured, deeply clever, he had more than a touch of Oscar Wilde’s insouciant genius. His personal life was chaotic, vitiated by alcoholism, money troubles, and disastrous infatuations with unsavory young men. In the postwar decades, he was also a public figure of substantial influence and originality.

Born in 1916 into the upper-middle class, Buckle briefly studied at Oxford, then joined the Scots Guards, a regiment of the British Army. While he earned mentions in dispatches for his bravery during the Italian campaign of 1944, he didn’t want to be a soldier. Like so many young gay men he was obsessed with the legend of Diaghilev, who had died in 1929, and dreamed of imitating him.

The fact that he was chronically disorganized and cantankerous quickly put an end to this fantasy. Instead, he set up and edited a delightful but short-lived ballet magazine and worked as a witty and iconoclastic ballet critic for The Observer and The Sunday Times.

After getting sacked from the latter, he went on to write voluminous biographies of Diaghilev and his star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. While the books are unwieldy and biased, they remain invaluable for their interviews with surviving friends and colleagues. Two volumes of amusing autobiography followed, but his third was rejected by the publishers on grounds of its sexual candor.

Later, Buckle worked as an exhibition designer. He was responsible for a sensational 1954 show of sets, costumes, and memorabilia from the Ballets Russes. He sprayed the galleries with perfume, lit it theatrically, and provided a musical soundtrack.

He died in 2001, after masterminding a lavish ballet gala in a large London opera house that disastrously failed to deliver on its promise of being “the greatest show on Earth’.

Richard Buckle’s personal life was chaotic, vitiated by alcoholism, money troubles, and disastrous infatuations with unsavory young men.

I met him once, in January 1988. I was sent by a magazine to his beautiful house, in rural Wiltshire, to interview him prior to the publication of his rather half-hearted biography of the choreographer George Balanchine.

I came away feeling that the visit had been a disaster. Buckle seemed inexplicably tense, grumpy, and generally suspicious. He appeared to sneer at my admiration of his beautiful art collection (by Matisse and Picasso, among others). He toyed moodily with the pub lunch that I bought him, and most of my questions received one-word answers. His subsequent insistence on copy approval was a journalist’s nightmare, and the article that emerged was written just as much by him as by me. I felt vindicated when his book flopped.

Thirty years later, I was researching at the Harry Ransom Center, in Austin, Texas, where all Buckle’s papers had ended up. I was hoping to find a manuscript with the 70,000 words that he had been forced to cut from his biography of Diaghilev, but it wasn’t there. What I did stumble on, however, was a diary he had kept in 1988, and I soon tracked down the day of my visit.

His account of our interview gave me a melancholy shock. I had completely misinterpreted him and his attitude toward me. He had felt very shy, inadequate, and anxious. He had liked me and wished I had stayed longer. I realized that the ball had been in my court, and that he was a broken old man who felt his life had been a failure.

In my new book, I had an opportunity to make amends.

Rupert Christiansen is a critic and the author of several books. His latest, Diaghilev’s Empire, is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux