At 79, British-born novelist Christopher Isherwood is one of the last survivors of the elite circle of rebellious, left-leaning writers and poets who dominated Britain’s literary scene in the 1930s and ’40s. His close pals have included boyhood chum—and occasional bedmate—W.H. Auden, as well as poet Stephen Spender, critic Cyril Connolly and novelist Aldous Huxley. Renowned in his day and an acknowledged homosexual, Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin—a collection of stories detailing his lusty romps through the boy bars of prewar Berlin—inspired the play and movie Cabaret. So it seemed unlikely to those who swarmed around the gifted writer after he moved to the U.S. in 1939 that love and companionship would take the form of Don Bachardy, a boyish-looking, altogether unworldly 18-year-old UCLA freshman. When they met in early 1953, Isherwood was 48. “It was scandalous how young he looked,” he recalls of Bachardy. “People said, ‘This time Chris has gone too far. Really now, the next one will be in a pram.’ ”
But there has been no “next one.” They consummated their relationship on Valentine’s Day in 1953. Later Bachardy moved into Isherwood’s one-bedroom, white clapboard, ocean-view house in Santa Monica, where they have lived for 25 years.
Passion for their work is one reason the two have remained together. “It’s a great blessing to live with someone who has an appetite for what he does,” says Bachardy, now 49 and a successful portrait artist with a vast celebrity clientele. His pen-and-ink drawings start at $2,000, and his customers have included Joan Rivers, Fred Astaire, Tennessee Williams, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Jacqueline Bisset and Nancy Reagan. Most recently his bold, color-splashed official portrait of former California Gov. Jerry Brown drew so many snide comments from state legislators (some thought it looked like soy sauce and ketchup) that it was banished to a third-floor landing in the state capitol. Bachardy, who had expected “some controversy,” took the snub in stride. “If you saw some of the paintings hanging in the capitol, you’d see why I am not at all insulted that my portrait of Brown is not among them,” he cracks. Nobody is happier over the flap than Jerry Brown. “He is delighted with the publicity,” reports Bachardy, who earned $13,000 for the painting. “He is thrilled he can still command all that attention.”
Isherwood, with more than 25 books and plays, including many autobiographical works to his credit (W. Somerset Maugham once said of him: “He holds the key to the English novel in his hands”), continues meanwhile to tap his early years for another memoir. His last book, 1979’s My Guru and His Disciple, described his relationship with Swami Prabhavananda, a Hindu monk he met in 1939, who remained his spiritual adviser until his death in 1976. The Swami (“Swami has such a foul connotation in this sphere—it sounds like fortune-teller or something”) converted Isherwood to the philosophy of Vedanta, a form of Hinduism, which he still practices today. “He made such a tremendous impression on me,” says Isherwood. “If I hadn’t met him, I would have become a Catholic, which also appealed to me.”
Bachardy met Isherwood through Bachardy’s older brother, Ted, an acquaintance of the writer. After a day spent frolicking on the beach below Isherwood’s house, their mutual attraction was undeniable. “The thing that impressed me most was how his eyes sparkled,” says Bachardy. “Yet 48 seemed to be old. I mean, he was older than my father. But I did think he was extraordinary, and he took such an interest in me.”
Isherwood found Bachardy’s youth only part of his charm. “He was a boy, but an extraordinarily kindred spirit,” he says. “There was a feeling we could communicate in a very intimate way—very readily. Of course, when you meet someone who knows what you mean when you say something peculiar, you are dazzled by such insight.” Neither denies that their relationship has father-son overtones. “Because I was never on good terms with my father, I think Chris has definitely been a father figure to me,” says Bachardy.
By the time they met, each had long since come to terms with his homosexuality; both had been gay for years. Isherwood’s only fling with heterosexuality was a one-time encounter with a woman in Berlin in the 1930s. He has never regretted his lifelong preference for males. “Homosexuality suited me, and I have always felt at home with it,” he says. “I don’t doubt that I have a certain streak of heterosexuality in my nature, but it hasn’t been my particular wish to pursue that.”
Bachardy was 11 when he realized that he was gay. “I would have been perfectly happy to have been like everybody else, but it just occurred to me very early on that I was different, and I adjusted to it,” he says. Both seem resilient to any antigay sentiment they encounter. “I suppose there are many people who have quietly disliked me for being homosexual,” observes Isherwood. “But if I object to that kind of thing, then I have to be able to say I don’t have any prejudices either, which in my case is wholly untrue.”
Bachardy’s father, Jess, who was an airplane tool planner at Lockheed Corporation, was adamant in his refusal to meet Isherwood until 12 years after the pair started living together. Once they did meet, the two coexisted peaceably, with Jess acting as a handyman around Isherwood’s house until his death in 1977. (Bachardy’s mother, Glade, had earlier accepted the homosexuality of both her sons.) Isherwood was sympathetic to Jess’ resistance, explaining, “It is really a problem having gay children. It is something you have to face up to, but some people just find it very embarrassing.”
A bigger problem to them was that Isherwood’s close friends refused to take Bachardy seriously. “Chris had all sorts of friends who regarded me as his bauble,” he says. “People who had known Chris for a long time would talk to him as though I wasn’t there.” When it became clear that Bachardy was no passing fancy, Isherwood’s friends gradually accepted him. Now their good pals include Gore Vidal, Truman Capote and artist David Hockney, whose works dot the walls of their house.
Like other twosomes, each has grudgingly adjusted to the other’s small idiosyncracies. Isherwood, once described by Auden as a “strict little landlady,” is the planner, worrier, thinker of the two. Bachardy is more excitable and keeps little inside. “Chris always sees the difficulties ahead,” says Bachardy. “I used to call it his ‘foresight saga.’ ” Isherwood says Bachardy is “very hasty, an emotional, quick-reacting person, and that is both charming and tiresome.”
The symbolic vehicle for this contrast is Bachardy’s 1984 Datsun station wagon. Isherwood, long rattled by Bachardy’s speedy (to him, anyway) driving, now lies prone in the back seat of the car whenever they take to the road. “My view of my own driving is that I am the almost perfect driver,” explains Isherwood, “but it bothers Don so much when I drive [Bachardy complains he’s too “cautious”] that it’s just easier now to lie down in the back seat and not watch.”
Bachardy must also put up with Isherwood’s countless retelling of the rich stories of his glory days. “I know all the ways he can tell them,” says Bachardy. In fact, he has taken to rating a story each time he hears it again and reports, “He has his good nights and bad nights.” Bachardy has also picked up Isherwood’s clipped British accent to the point that “most people can’t tell us apart on the phone.”
Their typical day includes rising at 8 a.m. with a breakfast—prepared daily by Bachardy—of kippers, boiled eggs, fresh orange juice and toast. “I told Don very firmly early on in the relationship that he should do the cooking,” reports Isherwood. “There is something about artists—I don’t know what it is—that makes them exceptionally good cooks.” By 10:30 each has retreated to his private creative arena: Bachardy to their born-again garage, which he uses as his studio, and Isherwood to his book-lined study, where he spends most of the day writing.
Like their driving, their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Isherwood was born in Cheshire to upper-middle-class parents. His father, Francis, a career officer in the British Army, was killed in World War I when Christopher was 10. He remembers his father fondly. “He had a bohemian side to him,” Isherwood says. “He liked to do unmacho things like watercolor.” Isherwood went to St. Edmund’s School (where he met Auden), then spent two years at Cambridge before attending the University of London as a medical student. By 24, he had already published his first novel, the well-received All the Conspirators. In 1929 he traveled to Berlin to visit Auden, where they sampled the city’s bizarre nightlife and observed the rise of Nazism firsthand. After settling in L.A. (he became a U.S. citizen in 1946), he pursued screen-writing, teaching, lecturing and civil-rights causes. In 1968 he and Bachardy co-wrote the Broadway play, A Meeting by the River, about two brothers, one of whom becomes a Hindu monk.
Bachardy grew up in a middle-class L.A. neighborhood. His parents separated when he was 16. His mother was a housewife who wrapped packages in department stores during the holidays. “Mother took over at a very early age,” says Bachardy. His father discouraged his “interest in the movies and would rather I had gone into sports and been like the other boys.” After high school he enrolled at UCLA but hated it. “I was going only to please my father,” something he tried to do with great regularity. “He was always at me to get security,” Bachardy adds. “He made ‘the future’ sound like the most horrendous thing that could ever happen.”
It wasn’t until he met Isherwood that his artistic talents bloomed. That summer he enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute in L.A. and later studied for one year at the University of London. “Before, I had never taken my drawing seriously because I enjoyed it,” he says. “I thought if I enjoyed something it must be trivial.”
As it turned out, despite an unconventional life-style, the future yielded both professional and personal satisfaction. But the two men are annoyed when gay friends hold them up as a sort of “shrine” with all of the answers to “living happily ever after.” Says Bachardy: “A lot of people torture themselves about not having found their ideal mate when they’re not really built for a long-term relationship. Even though I began one early in life, I don’t see why one can’t lead a perfectly satisfactory life on a one-night-stand basis.” Adds the characteristically philosophical Isherwood: “There is nothing so wonderful about a long-term relationship, unless it happens to be wonderful.”