CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD, English writer, born (d. 1986) In 1925 he was reintroduced to W. H. Auden, whom he had known slightly at school, and became Auden’s literary mentor and partner in an intermittent, casual liaison, as Auden sent his poems to Isherwood for comment and approval. Through Auden, Isherwood met Stephen Spender, with whom he later spent much time in Germany. His first novel, All the Conspirators, appeared in 1928; it is an anti-heroic story, written in a pastiche of many modernist novelists, about a young man who is defeated by his mother. In 1928-29 Isherwood studied medicine in London, but gave it up after a few months to join Auden for a few weeks in Berlin.
Rejecting his upper-class background and attracted to men, he remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its deserved reputation for sexual freedom. There, he “fully indulged his taste for pretty youths. He went to Berlin in search of boys and found one called Heinz, who became his first great love.” Isherwood commented on the Berlin sex underground, and his own participation in it, in a note to the American publisher of Der Puppenjunge (The Hustler), “a classic boy-love novel set in the contemporary milieu of boy prostitutes in Berlin.” “It gives a picture of the Berlin sexual underworld early in this century,” wrote Isherwood, “which I know, from my own experience, to be authentic.”
In 1931 he met Jean Ross, the inspiration of his fictional character Sally Bowles; he also met Gerald Hamilton the inspiration for the fictional Mr. Norris. In September 1931 the poet William Plomer introduced him to E.M. Forster; they became close and Forster served as a mentor to the young writer. His second novel, The Memorial (1932), was another of his stories of intergenerational conflict between mother and son, based closely on his own family history.
During one of his returns to London he worked with the director Berthold Viertel on the film Little Friend, an experience that later became the basis of his novel Prater Violet (1945). He worked as a private tutor in Berlin and elsewhere while writing the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and a series of short stories collected under the title Goodbye to Berlin (1939). These provided the inspiration for the play I Am a Camera, the subsequent musical Cabaret and the film of the same name. A memorial plaque to Isherwood has been erected on the house in Schöneberg, Berlin, where he lived.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1939, he first met Gerald Heard, the mystic-historian who founded his own monastery at Trabuco Canyon that was eventually gifted to the Vedanta Society. Through Heard, who was the first to discover Swami Prabhavananda and Vedanta, Isherwood joined an extraordinary band of mystic explorers that included Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Chris Wood (Heard’s lifelong amor), John Yale and J. Krishnamurti. Through Huxley, Isherwood befriended the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the fantasy writer Ray Bradbury led to a favorable review of The Martian Chronicles, which boosted Bradbury’s career and helped to form a friendship between the two.
On Valentine’s Day, 1953, at the age of forty-nine, he met the eighteen-year old Don Bachardy among a group of friends on the beach at Santa Monica. This began a partnership which continued until the end of Isherwood’s life. During the early months of their affair, Isherwood finished (and Bachardy typed) the novel he had been working on for some years, The World in the Evening (1954). Isherwood also taught a creative writing course at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) for several years during the 1950s and early ’60s. The more than thirty years age difference between the two of them raised the usual eyebrows at the time, with Bachardy (as he recalled) “regarded as a sort of child prostitute.”
Nevertheless, the two became a well-known and well-established couple in Southern Californian society, with many Hollywood friends. Isherwood and Bachardy lived together in Santa Monica for the rest of Isherwood’s life. Bachardy became a successful portraitist and draughtsman with an independent reputation (See White Crane Issue #710. In addition to portraits of numerous Hollywood celebrities, the official portrait of Governor Jerry Brown (and of White Crane publisher, Bo Young), Bachardy’s haunting portraits of the dying Isherwood became widely known after Isherwood’s death in Santa Monica, California in 1986.
For more on Isherwood and Bachardy, please see White Crane #71 for an in-depth interview with artist Don Bachardy and some beautiful examples of his artwork. There is also a marvelous documentary film out now entitled Chris and Don.