Not celebrated nearly enough, and mostly noted for all the wrong reasons, Christopher Isherwood (1904 – 1986) greatly influenced the direction of fiction writing with his “I am a camera” approach to narration. His 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 an uptight, upper-class English life, and spending much of his 20s in Berlin between the wars hooking up with young working-class guys.
In Berlin, Isherwood fell in love with a young man, 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 1972 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
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 New York City with his best friend, the poet W.H. Auden. He found literary success and a friendship with fellow writer Truman Capote. Isherwood eventually settled in Los Angeles. 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, handsome 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.