August 26, 1904– Christopher Isherwood:
“Life is not so bad if you have plenty of luck, a good physique and not too much imagination.”
In the summer of 1971, I was doing summer stock theatre in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. Lucky me, at 17-years-old, I was enjoying my first professional theatre work, plus I was being doted on and delighting in my first hot affair with another male, a fellow actor who was much older than me. Ron was 23 years old. He was an actual college graduate! I had a hard time wrapping my teenage mind around the notion that someone could be finished with college and still have interest in me. Ron lived in San Francisco and I would visit him there several times in the next few years.
The film version of the musical Cabaret was to open the following spring and there was already lots of buzz about the Bob Fosse directed movie. Loving the Original Broadway Cast Album, I became preoccupied with the film version. My summer fling was well aware of my anticipation. Out of the blue, in a gesture of pure sweetness, Ron gave me a gift of the source material The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. He promised me that I would love this book and that in the spring we would see the film together. He kept that promise. I flew from Spokane to San Francisco for a weekend in February 1972 and saw Cabaret in its first week of release.
One month into my 18th year and I was kicking around San Francisco, delighting in the divine decadence of my new gay life. I listened to music, went to the clubs, drank, drugged and Homosexuelle Erfahrungen Genossen. This is what I think of when I think of Isherwood.
Not celebrated nearly enough, and mostly noted for all the wrong reasons, Isherwood greatly influenced the direction of fiction writing with his “I Am ACamera” approach to narration. Isherwood’s memoir Christopher And His Kind (1976) is surly one of the best gay themed books of all time, equally enthralling with literary revelations and sexual adventures. He tells the tale of his walking away from uptight, upper-class English life, and spending much of his 20s in Berlin between the wars dating young working-class Heiße Junge Männer. In Berlin, Isherwood fell in love with a young German, Heinz Neddermeyer, at a time when rooms for rent are hard to come by. He moved into Heinz’s family’s one bedroom apartment. The parents moved out of their bedroom and slept in the living room so the young men could enjoy a double bed in privacy. It is here that he introduced readers to Jean Ross, the inspiration for Sally Bowles in The Berlin Stories. A section of the book became the play I Am A Camera (1951) adapted by gay playwright John Van Druten. It was made into a film in 1955. Both play and film starred the late, great Julie Harris as Bowles. A decade later came the stage musical Cabaret, and then, of course, Liza Minnelli as Bowles in the film version.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
Isherwood described their relationship as an adoption, because Neddermeyer was so much younger and not exactly worldly. They traveled Europe and North Africa until May 1937 when Neddermeyer was expelled from Luxembourg and forced to return to Germany. The next day he was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to three and half years of hard labor. When he was freed, he married a woman and had a son.
It was not uncommon for gay men at that time to turn away from their former lives after the Nazi’s sentenced them to prison. Although Neddermeyer and Isherwood continued to correspond, they would not see each other again until November 1952 while Isherwood was visiting England and Germany promoting The Berlin Stories.
In November 1956 Isherwood received a letter from Neddermeyer writing that he had been in a political argument at the factory where he worked in East Berlin. Fearing arrest, he fled to Hamburg. Isherwood sent him money. Nothing else is mentioned about him in the Isherwood diaries except fond memories of their travels and a sympathy note from Neddermeyer when Isherwood’s mother died in 1960. Isherwood never had contact with him after the publication of the first volume of Isherwood’s diaries. Neddermeyer wrote that he was absolutely appalled by the candidness of the book.
After Berlin, Isherwood moved to NYC with his BFF, poet W.H. Auden. He found literary success and a friendship with fellow writer Truman Capote. Isherwood eventually settled in LA. When he was 48-years-old he met a teenager, Don Bachardy, on the beach in Santa Monica. They were together more than 30 years, until Isherwood left this world in 1986.
His very best novel, A Single Man (1964), is in my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Works Of Fiction. A Single Man is loosely based on the period when Isherwood and Bachardy attempted to live separate lives, although the couple had always enjoyed one of those modern “open relationships”. It was made into a gorgeous, faithful film in 2010, by first time director, openly gay designer Tom Ford. It is a stylish, stunning, skilled look at love and loss, anchored by an elegant, nuanced, sophisticated performance by Colin Firth, whose English reticence is perfect for the story of the discreetly gay English expatriate George. Firth’s handsome bespectacled English Lit college professor is withdrawn, pained, yet sensual, with whiffs of wit, irony, and self-depreciation. Firth was robbed of an Academy Award that year. Jeff Bridges won for Crazy Heart, having lost the previous year for True Grit to Firth for The King’s Speech. Got that? The right actors always win for the wrong film.
Through the decades, I would read many books by and about Isherwood, including his three volumes of diaries: Diaries: 1939-1960, Diaries: The 1960s, Liberation: 1970-1983. I even purchased a new annotated re-issue of The Berlin Stories.
I have always been in awe and fascinated by Isherwood’s long life together with artist Bachardy. That story is told in an excellent documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story (2007). Their tale is told using Bachardy’s recorded reminiscences filmed in the bungalow in Santa Monica that they shared for three decades, with artfully inserted archival footage and home movies, including glimpses of pals Auden, Igor Stravinsky and Tennessee Williams. Reenactments and whimsical animated sequences based on cartoons the couple used in their personal correspondence give the film an original touch. With a close-up look at Bachardy’s long sought artistic success away from the considerable shadow of his great love, Chris & Don: A Love Story is a special celebration of an extraordinary couple.
Also on your must-see list should be the BBC’s adaptation of Christopher And His Kind (2011), adapted from that Isherwood’s autobiography with the same title. It has Isherwood played by The Crown’s Matt Smith, along with Toby Jones, Douglas Booth, and Imogen Poots in the Sally Bowles spot. It perfectly captures the essence of Isherwood and company and the atmosphere of pre-war Berlin. All of the production elements are top drawer. It is a glorious film. Find it, and also read everything by and about Christopher and his kind; you won’t be sorry.
During Isherwood’s final illness in 1986, Bachardy drew or painted him almost every day, even after Isherwood’s death. These portraits are among Bachardy’s finest work. They are gathered together and published as Last Drawings Of Christopher Isherwood (1990). Bachardy has gone on to be as famous as an artist as Isherwood is as a writer. He has produced over 10,000 portraits. His celebrity portraits were collected along with selections from his diaries in the fabulous Stars In My Eyes (2000). His work is in collections at the Smithsonian Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in London. He oversees the posthumous publication of Isherwood’s diaries, novels and travel books. He continues to paint or draw.
From A Single Man:
“What’s so phony nowadays is all this familiarity. Pretending there isn’t any difference between people. If you and I are no different, what do we have to give each other? How can we ever be friends?”