May 18, 1934– As I consider Don Bachardy on his birthday, three films come to mind: Cabaret (1972), A Single Man (2009), and the unexpectedly uncommon documentary, Chris & Don: A Love Story (2007).
Christopher Isherwood has been one of my favorite writers since high school when I first learned the Cabaret connection. The Berlin Stories (1945) was a revelatory book to read just as the Gay Liberation movement was beginning in the early 1970s. There was a sort of parallel with the USA in the 1970s and that era when Isherwood left his home in England and traveled to Berlin at the end of 1920s to meet boys. Isherwood’s enthusiasm for the gay bars and cabarets shows the allure of a bankrupt Germany entertaining itself during Hitler’s rise to power. As a gay man, Isherwood identified with the crushed, the criminal and the cast-offs. Yet, he still was forced to hide aspects of his personal life to find love.
One of the stories, Goodbye To Berlin, was the basis for the play I Am A Camera (1951) by gay writer John Van Druten and, of course, the book for the musical and the screenplay of Cabaret. By the time of I Am A Camera, Isherwood was already living in the USA. But, as early as 1939, Isherwood had already published four novels, three plays, a memoir and a travel book when he landed in NYC in the company of his lifelong friend, gay poet W. H. Auden. Auden settled in Manhattan. Isherwood went west to LA. Isherwood had been a film fan since childhood and he soon became a well-paid screenwriter.
Isherwood had many friends and lovers in his new country, many of them famous. He met 18 year old Don Bachardy at Will Rogers State Beach, near Santa Monica, in October 1952. Bachardy began visiting the spot in the late 1940s in the company of his older brother, Ted. Bachardy:
“At first Chris was attracted to Ted. But Ted was a manic-depressive schizophrenic. During his third breakdown, I was distressed to realize I could no longer rely on him. Chris felt sorry for me and he was so successful in cheering me up that we formed a special bond.”
Within a few months the two beach bunnies had initiated an intimate relationship that lasted until Isherwood’s death in 1986. They were an actual high-profile openly gay couple during the era of McCarthyism, when gay people were being drummed out of the government and the film world.
Isherwood and Bachardy seemed to live an enviably enchanted existence at their hillside Santa Monica home. They entertained the leading players in the worlds of art and literature, plus many movie stars that Bachardy once sought out for autographs. Yet, the documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story points out that the couple worked hard for years to achieve their shared happiness.
From the very beginning, the couple’s relationship was challenging: Bachardy was 30 years younger than Isherwood. He was also so boyishly attractive that he appeared to be underage. Majoring in Theatre at UCLA when they met, Bachardy was overwhelmed by Isherwood’s vast array of famous friends. Isherwood encouraged Bachardy’s talent for drawing and eventually Bachardy became an internationally acclaimed visual artist.
“I was 18 years old, Chris was 48. He had to move out of his home because the owners, close friends, were very uncomfortable about our age gap, blatantly accentuated by my callow appearance. Chris had other friends who disapproved too, and he broke with them because of me”
Schooling Bachardy gave Isherwood sizable satisfaction. Bachardy:
“We were intensely close while I went to college and then art school. I decided I wanted to be a painter, and Chris encouraged me right from the beginning.”
In his diary, Isherwood wrote this 1960 entree:
“Don matters more than any of the others. He imposes himself more, demands more, cares more, about everything he does and encounters. He is so desperately alive.”
Isherwood’s success and his series of affairs with Igor Stravinsky, Tennessee Williams, Stephen Rutledge, Truman Capote, among others, his sexual experience and his demanding nature made their relationship difficult for his young boyfriend. Bachardy:
“I needed to establish my own identity. Some of Chris’s friends were kind, but mostly they treated me as just a bit of fluff.”
To gain his own sense of self-worth, Bachardy moved to London and studied painting. His first shows in London and NYC attracted admirers of all sorts, plus good reviews, and he was truly talented, together, and temptingly hot. Bachardy:
“Chris had always had sex friends outside our relationship, and he had been frank with me about his sexual adventures in the years before he knew me. Since I had very little sex experience before Chris, I began to feel deprived. I told him it was unfair to deny me the freedom he had enjoyed. I was usually discreet about my adventures, but I know he was tormented. We had a couple of really difficult years and in 1963 I considered leaving him. We did split up for a few months.”
Without his young lover, a very sad Isherwood wrote the novel A Single Man (1964). The thin book’s theme is the barely disguised emotional loss that came with Isherwood’s fear that Bachardy would leave him and that he would die alone. Ironically, Bachardy came up the title A Single Man. He has a cameo in the 2009 film version, and is credited as a creative consultant.
They had a remarkable symbiotic artistic partnership. When working on a book, Isherwood would ask Bachardy’s advice about physical descriptions of characters. The two men used each other as sounding-boards of authenticity. They often collaborated on writing projects, including a stage version of Isherwood’s novel A Meeting By The River (1967) and the television film Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), and a joint memoir October (1980) illustrated by Bachardy.
Bachardy and Isherwood survived a break-up in 1963 when Bachardy was still in his 20s. Bachardy:
“Chris allowed me the freedom to have sex with other men, and the comparison favored Chris. I saw more clearly what a great treasure I had in him.”
They remained a couple for 33 years. Chris & Don: A Love Story ends with a several scenes of Isherwood, at the end of a battle with that damn cancer, sitting for a series of portraits by his partner. Bachardy:
“Chris was in a lot of pain towards the end. But he had sat for me so often over the years, and I knew this was something we could still do together. Each day, I could be with him intensely for hours on end.”
The last of the series of drawings was completed when Isherwood was already dead. Bachardy remained alone with the body, producing some of his most moving drawings and paintings made when he himself was the newly single man.
“I must be heartless, because I can do it. The focus I use when I’m working is relentless, and when I get into it, I can’t be taken out. Sometimes I see those drawings now and I can hardly bear them. I think, ‘How did I manage to do that without breaking up?’”
Bachardy still lives in that Santa Monica house. It has been his residence for 55 years. Bachardy learned to draw as a kid by sketching movies stars from their photographs in magazines. He did, indeed, become an esteemed artist in his own right. He has painted portraits of the most famous folks of the past half century including: Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, and Montgomery Clift. I love to look through my copy of Bachardy’s book Stars In My Eyes (2000), about the celebrated people whom he has painted.
He continues to paint portraits, working every day, for hours at a time. He’s one of the only portrait artists in the world who only paints literally from life. He never uses photographs or even works from memory. A subject like Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson or Julie Andrews will actually sit still for three or four hours as Bachardy works. Once the model has left the room, he puts down his brush.
“I can’t cheat. The whole point of drawing from life is to draw what I see, and the truth of what I’m looking at is always far more interesting to me than any fantasy I may have in my head about a particular personality.”
One of Bachardy’s most famous works is the official portrait of Governor Jerry Brown which hangs in the California State Capitol. The California State official biography page for Brown features the painting.
Still strikingly handsome, fit and trim at 82 years old, Bachardy has been spotted riding his bicycle around LA. He claims that he is completely Isherwood’s creation, but Isherwood’s writing also was shaped through the openness of their relationship. I am sort of in love with him.