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Coming to America

This excerpt was originally published in L.A. Weekly on February 21, 1997, and reposted here on July 3, 2008.

Early on the morning of September 30, 1973, in his home in Santa Monica Canyon, the 69-year-old English novelist Christopher Isherwood received a phone call from the Reuters news service informing him that his old friend, the poet W.H. Auden, had died the night before in Vienna. After a respectful pause of 10 seconds or so, just long enough for the news to sink in, the caller got down to business: Could Isherwood "place" Auden as a writer? Could he provide a "comment"?

Isherwood could not: Angered by the reporter's insensitivity, he slammed down the phone. Overcome first by shock, then by grief, he spent the next few days reading and re-reading his old friend's work and no doubt thinking a great deal about the life the two of them had -- and had not -- shared. The story of Isherwood and Auden's friendship during the 1930s, when, as lovers, friends and literary collaborators, they were the stars of a highly politicized generation of leftist English writers, has been exhaustively documented, as has been their mutual decision in 1939 to emigrate to New York. What has been much less documented is their subsequent separation. Pick up an article or book about either man and you will find their names and lives and writings closely entwined until, on May 6, 1939, the partnership suddenly dissolves. Not violently, not angrily, not dramatically; not with a pistol shot -- as in the case of Rimbaud and Verlaine -- but with a Greyhound bus, departing from New York, headed for Los Angeles, and with only Isherwood on board.