The Village Voice Volume 30, Number 16 2 July 1985
Just as much as his literary fame, Christopher Isherwood’s personal candor qualifies him splendidly for his unsolicited role as Hero Emeritus of the modern gay movement. The 80-year-old author of The Berlin Stories, which became the basis for Cabaret, writes of his homosexuality with remarkable matter-of-factness in his 1976 autobiography, Christopher and His Kind. His 1964 novel, A Single Man, more pertinent now than ever, chronicles a day in the life of a gay man whose lover has unexpectedly died.
Isherwood’s lover of 32 years is Don Bachardy, a Los Angeles native who met the English-born author when he was 18 and Isherwood was 48. Long respected as an artist, Bachardy was thrust into the spotlight two years ago when his state-commissioned portrait of former Governor Jerry Brown was vilified by members of the California General Assembly.
I have known Chris and Don since 1978, when we met at an Oscar Night party in Hollywood. For this interview I talked to them at their hillside home overlooking Santa Monica Canyon and the Pacific.
So you first met Don on the beach?
Christopher Isherwood: Yes, right down the cliff here. A whole bunch of people used to go down there. Naturally, we put our towels where the nice-looking boys were and one thing led to another. Don was young and full of life and he was a perfect darling. It was just as simple as that. You know, when you feel that the right person has come along, then all that’s required is a certain sassiness.
You told me once that you felt you had entered the gay rights fray too late, that you wished you’d gotten involved earlier. In what way?
CI: Well, I never really felt, myself, that I was leading the charge, or taking the role of some kind of leader. Never for one moment. On the other hand, I never denied that I was queer. During all those years in Hollywood I just took it for granted that they knew what I was doing. I suppose it was a kind of arrogance.
When were you first aware you were gay? What are your earliest memories of feeling homosexual?
CI: Very early. I suppose those boys in Germany.
What about you, Don? Your first sexual experience?
Don Bachardy: I really hadn’t had very much experience before I met Chris, nothing romantic or of very much interest. I never really identified with people my own age. The great liberation for me was finding somebody old enough, I suppose.
How did you feel when you first met Chris? What was your first reaction?
DB: He was just fun. I’d never met anybody like him, and he was so easy to be with. I was delighted. In fact, wasn’t it I who proposed to you?
CI: That’s not the kind of thing you ask a gentleman. You remember.
Chris, your long-term friendship with Wystan Auden is a matter of record. Did you begin that as lovers?
CI: We had lots of sex, but there wasn’t a romance at all.
What we call a fuck buddy these days.
CI: A fuck buddy, yes, that’s what we were. It would have been unthinkable under the circumstances if we hadn’t at least tried. It was an enormous convenience because, quite aside from everything else, it was somebody to screw. We both lived very imprudent lives in the sense that we were always fussing around with rough trade and so on. But with Auden there was a very deep friendship, as we had gotten to know each other so early. And then I discovered that he was one of our major poets, which he proceeded to start being at quite an early age.
And you went on to California while he stayed in New York. Do you observe any differences in the way the two coasts handle homosexuality?
DB: I do think New York is an interesting place to be because I feel it’s much more a battlefield than here. You’re confronted with the really violent forces of opposition. I do think the queers who live there are more conscious of the enemy, and in a way that makes it more exciting. There are more people dying of AIDS, too. And there’s more disapproval; it gets into print and people take stands much more openly than they do here.
Do you personally know anybody who has AIDS?
DB: Certain of our friends have died of it. That Black nude in the studio-he died about a month ago, a beautiful, charming, funny, nice man. His friend is a brilliant journalist who lives in Venice, and they were having sex just last November. He must be very worried.
CI: What one should be, of course, is very well informed on the subject, which I don’t feel I am. I don’t feel I know nearly enough about the AIDS situation. But these younger men who find they have it-some absolutely awful pressures begin to assert themselves. They’re told by their relatives that it’s a sort of punishment, that it’s dreadful and it’s God’s will and all that kind of thing. And I think they have to get very tough with themselves and really decide which side they’re on. You know, fuck God’s will. God’s will must be circumvented, if that’s what it is.
Do you still encounter the closet mentality? It seems that we have a situation today where gay people who are famous and in the closet are forced to coexist openly with those who are open about it.
DB: And they feel awkward and it makes them almost resentful of their queer friends who have been identified. We’re in that situation. Two very good friends of ours really don’t like gay liberation-they don’t want to be liberated; they liked it better before. Their attitude toward the two of us coming out in print was one of total dismay. When one of them was told that I’d given an interview to the Advocate-in fact they put my picture on the cover-he said, “Oh, no.” He thought I’d made a disastrous career move. And who knows, he may be proved right. (Laughs)
CI: Well, we have to look at the example of David Hockney. He never made any bones about it.
DB: I must say he was outspoken at a time when I thought it precarious. Ten or twelve years ago he was taking some boy magazines back to England from here, and their customs seized the magazines. Now all David was out was maybe twenty or thirty dollars that he spent on the magazines, but he went to court and challenged them. He said he used the magazines for his work, and of course it got top billing in the newspapers. And David won the case.
There must have been some serious tongue-clucking, Don, when you and Chris became a couple in Hollywood.
DB: Well, I felt sufficiently protected because I was always in the company of Chris. I think it was much more difficult for him. I mean, I was just regarded as a sort of child prostitute.
CI: You were never snubbed in public.
DB: Joseph Cotten once said within earshot that he deplored the company of these “half-men,” referring to me. And I always felt the injustice was that, by that definition, Chris was every bit as much a half-man as I, and yet, because of his age and literary distinction, all the disapproval was leveled at me. But even on that occasion with Joseph Cotten, for instance, Louis Jourdan’s wife came to my defense. She made it clear that she disapproved of that kind of baiting.
Chris involved you in his religious studies with Swami Prabhavananda about that time, didn’t he?
DB: Yes, and at the time, I wasn’t aware of what was at stake. I’m stunned, really, by the frankness of his behavior. Taking me up to Vedanta Place was much more daring than taking me to David Selznick’s. And it wasn’t Prabhavananda; it was the congregation, wondering why he didn’t take a “moral” stand.
I’ve seen the pictures; you looked fourteen when you were eighteen.
DB: This was in the early ’50s; that was a time of maximum discretion. It was a sort of demonstration of your innate arrogance.
Chris, did you and Tennessee Williams go to bed with each other?
CI: Yes, but that was actually neither here nor there.
I’m sorry to hear that. (Laughs)
CI: It was not a big deal; we just found each other very sympathetic, and we went to bed together two or three times, I imagine. In his autobiography, you know, he wrote very handsomely about me and in fact said flat out that it almost came to a romance.
DB: And Chris looked-I mean, I think it was the time of your greatest beauty.
DB: Chris at 40 was just a knockout.
Did you ever feel the pressure to get married, Chris?
CI: No, not really.
DB: Only from Erika Mann. (General laughter)
DB: I always felt it was so ingenious of Chris to wiggle out of that and to get poor Wystan to do it instead.
CI: Well, she wanted to get another nationality, and the Nazis had her on their top list; they were out to get her. She needed to marry somebody who was above suspicion.
Did you talk Auden into it, or did she?
DB: I think Wystan accepted immediately.
CI: Oh, yes. It was very characteristic of him; he liked taking bold attitudes, and there were a few by-products, of course. They got the unceasing gratitude of Thomas Mann and the entire family. It was considered a great, liberal stroke, a sort of anti-Hitler gesture. The Manns themselves were very remarkable liberal preachers, and they would never have objected to the fact that Auden was homosexual or anything of the kind.
DB: Well, they could hardly object since Erika was a lesbian.
Do either of you ever receive any anti-gay taunts?
DB: Oh, sure, . . . and the beach is a battleground between the fags and the surfers. It’s been a fag beach since I can remember, and long before that-certainly since the mid-’40s. The surfers were a very late development, and they started claiming the beach as their own. So quite often when I’m just running by myself on the beach, a group of young kids will yell out “faggot” or something. I always wonder how they know. (Laughs).
Chris, where did you come up with the idea for the man who lost his lover in A Single Man? Was that simply your own creation, or was it based on someone you knew?
CI: It was an obvious idea, you know, the widower who doesn’t present himself as one-that’s what it amounted to. No, I was never in that situation myself.
DB: I always suspected he was imagining what it would be like if we split up because I remember that period was a very rough time for us, and I was making a lot of waves. I was being very difficult and very tiresome.
How were you being tiresome?
DB: Just by being very dissatisfied. I was approaching thirty, and thirty for me was the toughest age of all. I started suffering from it around twenty-eight, and I didn’t really get over it until about thirty-two. And since then, every birthday has been a breeze. My forties were the best time of my life.
I feel a little audacious asking this one, but when you met, and you put your relationship together, was there an understanding that you could have affairs on the side? It’s what every gay couple has to deal with.
DB: We didn’t discuss it very much, but my attitude was that I had a certain priority to have experience because Chris had had all of his before I knew him, and he owed me that freedom. However unfair it may have seemed to Chris, that was my attitude.
Did it seem unfair, Chris? Did you balk at that?
CI: I don’t think so. Did I balk?
DB: No, you behaved very well. You didn’t encourage me to see people on the side, but you behaved fairly well about it. But if he thought there was any danger of my getting involved with anybody, he made it clear that he didn’t like the idea, which is really what I wanted. It was a way of testing his love.
CI: It’s terrible, though; it’s so French, that thing of not being jealous.
DB: Well, if one isn’t jealous, one is indifferent, I think. Chris occasionally had his own feelings, and I was tolerant, but just up to a point.
You hadn’t, after all, had Berlin.
CI: Those goddamned boys, all stealing.
DB: But whatever it was, it was certainly experience with a capital E, and that’s what I wanted. And that’s why I went off to London for a year and went to school. Chris came over and stayed with me for the summer, but I had to do it; I had to have some sort of independence.
Chris, why do you lie in the back seat when Don is driving?
CI: Because I believe I’m the only person who’s fit to be on the road at all; therefore, I prefer to just miss it when other people drive.
DB: For years, it was one of the real bones between us, Chris’s objection to my driving. Years ago we used to have to drive our own cars to the same destination to avoid the fights. I can’t even remember now whose idea it was, but one of us decided that Chris should not only sit in the back seat, but that he should lie down so he couldn’t see what I was doing. And once we discovered that, it was bliss.
Today I was trying to think who there is of Chris’s generation who has never made any bones about being gay, and there simply is no one. With the loss of Williams and Truman Capote, that’s it. For years, Chris, Capote, and Williams were sort of the three graces of the older generation.
DB: What about Gore Vidal? It’s funny, he’s never really declared himself, has he?
No, he hasn’t. He’s deliberately fuzzy about it.
CI: I think that’s partly because of his political aspirations. As a matter of fact, his friend Howard Austin is a model mate. Howard is absolutely devoted to Gore. And he to Howard.
DB: They’ve been together longer than we have.
Have they really?
CI: Oh, yes, at least a year or two longer. At one period, you know, when Howard was having some health problems, Gore was really concerned. They really care for each other.
He dedicated his best book to you, or at least what a lot of people consider to be his best book, Myra Breckinridge.
DB: And Chris dedicated his best book to him, A Single Man.
CI: Yes, that’s right.
DB: Which was a tough mouthful for Truman to swallow.
Do you mean that Capote felt that it should have been dedicated to him?
DB: I remember he referred to it in a sort of joking way.
Don, your success in the last three or four years must be very satisfying, since you had a period where you were the cute boy who lived with the great man.
DB: Yes, and I’ve always said that if I had choices, I would much rather have my success later in life than early. When youÕre young you can put with all sorts of rebuffs and failure because you still have your youth and vitality. A little success is very encouraging in middle age.
Do you and Chris sleep in the same bed?
DB: We always have. And not only in the same bed, but really, you know, intertwined.