From Berlin to Santa Monica Isherwood's Legacy Lives on in Don Bachardy

In 1968, David Hockney completed a portrait of one of the 20th century's most vibrant pairings: author Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. The gay couple opened their home, where the painter still lives today, to Hollywood's luminaries.

Painter Don Bachardy at the home he shared for decades with English novelist Christopher Isherwood in Los Angeles
Robert Gallagher/ DER SPIEGEL

Painter Don Bachardy at the home he shared for decades with English novelist Christopher Isherwood in Los Angeles

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Not long ago, Don Bachardy says, a team of geologists came to his house. What they found was unsettling: The hillside underneath the foundation is unstable and rain, they said, is slowly washing it away. One day the house will end up at the bottom of Santa Monica Canyon. Perhaps though, Bachardy will be lucky, the geologists added, and his home will see him through the rest of his life.

It's early one morning at the end of September and Bachardy is at a loss as he stands on one of the terraces of his Los Angeles home. Below him he can see the canyon with its soil, that cursed soil, a few other homes -- bungalows with walls of glass and generous patios -- and, behind them, the broad beach and the dark blue of the Pacific Ocean.

"I will never leave this house," Bachardy says. "I hope it will survive me." Bachardy turned 80 this year and he has spent the past 55 years in the bungalow. For 25 of them, he lived with his partner, the English novelist Christopher Isherwood, until his death in 1986. Isherwood bought the house for the two of them.

Literature and Luminaries

Even here in Los Angeles, it would be difficult to find another place that has seen as many figures of contemporary history come and go as this Santa Monica home. They've all been here: artists, novelists, directors, screenwriters, producers, actors and divas. American cultural history of the second half of the 20th century may have had its public home in the cinemas, books, gossip rags, newspapers, exhibition openings and awards shows, but one of its private places was here in the canyon in Santa Monica. It is a place where guests turned up after the cameras had been turned off, after the novels had been completed and once the opening parties had finally wound down. It was a safe haven with first-class entertainment provided by this flamboyant queer couple, the iconic novelist Christopher Isherwood and his lover Don Bachardy, 30 years his junior. People would hang out on the patio, sit at the large dining table or recline in the wicker chairs in front of the window with its light blue shutters immortalized by David Hockney in his outsized, 1968 portrait of the couple.

First there were close friends, writers like Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Aldous Huxley and Tennessee Williams, director John Boorman, actors Charles Laughton and Montgomery Clift, composer Igor Stravinski as well as painter Hockney, but also countless Hollywood legends, among them Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart as well as Warren Beatty, Henry and Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson. Across the decades, Bachardy, an artist himself, sketched or painted most of them. It is an imposing collection of portraits, many of which were published in Bachardy's new book, "Hollywood," this fall.

Photo Gallery

10  Photos
Photo Gallery: Bachardy's Portraits
Bachardy wears his hair shorter these days and he has added a small goatee, but otherwise he still looks just like the man featured in the portrait Hockney painted 46 years ago. He appears to be enjoying the fact that we are here: Three somewhat youngish men -- two photographers and one SPIEGEL journalist -- standing in his living room, wanting to know about his life with Isherwood and admiring the art hanging on the walls. On the morning we arrived, we rang the doorbell in vain. When we finally opened the unlocked wooden gate to his property, a note fell from it. Was it a message for us? Was he even there, we wondered?

It was a briefing from Bachardy's publicist -- it contained a short assessment of my journalistic style along with a few samples of my work and a picture of me. Beneath it, Bachardy's publicist wrote, "This picture I found online is, I hope, a bad one. Personally I prefer to be pleasantly surprised than to expect Cary Grant only to open the door and find Don Knobbs standing there." The visit promised to be an interesting one.

'Hockney Hall'

Bachardy leads a tour of his home. "Up front is the room that Chris and I called 'Hockney Hall'," he says, pointing down a corridor, whose walls are covered exclusively with paintings, drawings and photos by David Hockney. There are at least 30 and possibly closer to 50. In all the rooms, especially in the bedroom, there are male nudes among the artworks, some replete with erect phalluses.

Bachardy says he first met Isherwood in 1952 at the beach visible from the living room. Eighteen at the time, Bachardy had enjoyed this particular beach, a popular meeting place for gay men. His brother Ted, four years older, knew the author, if not his writings, and had had occasional sex with Isherwood.

Isherwood, from a wealthy English family, was in his late forties. He had moved to Los Angeles after spending the late 1920s living in Weimar Republic-era Berlin with his friend, the poet W. H. Auden. The two had moved there looking for a gay mecca and the city delivered. Isherwood's stories would later offer an affectionate take on the desperate personnel in cabarets, drag shows and hustler bars in Kreuzberg and around Nollendorfplatz -- characters in a collapsing city where the Nazis were already lurking. When they assumed power in 1933, Isherwood left Berlin immediately.

In 1935 and 1939, Isherwood published two semi-autobiographical novels known collectively as the "Berlin Stories." Even today, the books are considered to be among the best novels of the 20th century. They offer the definitive literary account of an early 1930s Berlin in decline and they served as the raw material for the musical "Cabaret," the film version of which would go on to win eight Oscars. A fresh translation of the second volume, "Goodbye to Berlin," was just published in Germany.

In the summer of 1952, a play based on "Berlin Stories" premiered on Broadway. Bachardy happened to see a filmed recording of it, but the peculiar protagonist -- a man named Christopher, who partied in Berlin despite the catastrophe that was taking shape around him -- didn't make much of an impression.

Meeting the Real Christopher

Suddenly, he found himself standing on the beach together with the real Christopher. Ted had no problem with his younger brother taking over his lover -- he had plenty of others. On Valentine's Day of 1953, the novelist and the young man became a couple and Bachardy left his parent's home to move in with Isherwood, a man one year older than his own father. Indeed, Bachardy's father, a mechanic from Los Angeles, refused to meet Isherwood for the next 15 years. (When they were finally introduced, they got along immediately and Don's father soon began working on Isherwood's car.)

Chris seemed to know everyone in Hollywood and they all admired the author. Isherwood was never embarrassed about having such a young boyfriend. Besides, it wasn't the first time he had been together with a much younger man. Back in his Berlin days, he had partnered with Heinz Neddermeyer, who was 17 when Isherwood first met him.

A Life Revolving Around Isherwood

After Isherwood's death in 1986, Bachardy, then in his early fifties, also had a several-year-long relationship with a man 30 years his junior. By then, he had long since begun dressing like Isherwood and even wearing his trademark hairdo, a bowl cut with shorn sides. In his new relationship, he wanted to take on Isherwood's role as the older partner.

Much of Bachardy's life still seems to revolve around Isherwood. He has established a foundation in order to look after the author's legacy and the house in Santa Monica feels like a museum, with Isherwood's study having been left almost completely unchanged since his death -- though Bachardy says he sometimes sleeps in the room on the same daybed that Christopher used to lay on to read. The wicker chairs in front of the living-room window are also still there, just as Hockney painted them 46 years before. It's almost a little spooky.

Bachardy says that they were the only high-profile couple around at the time who were openly gay, which resulted in a fair amount of whispering at their parties. Bachardy was sometimes referred to as Isherwood's little hustler. Henry Fonda, for example, spoke only to Isherwood, demonstratively turning his back on Bachardy and refusing to greet him. Joseph Cotton, who played alongside Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane," once told Bachardy he was only "half a man," even as he treated Isherwood with great respect.

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