I Am a Diary
This excerpt was originally published in L.A. Weekly on February 21, 1997, and reposted here on July 3, 2008.
House hunting brought us into direct contact with the splendors and miseries of Hollywood architecture . . . Up Laurel Canyon, nearly buried in undergrowth, we found a Japanese bungalow, which appeared to have been fortified. The doors and shutters were several inches thick and studded with huge marine bolts. The furniture was made of heavy beams of wood, screwed together with enormous screws. The table could hardly have been lifted by four men. The bed looked like an instrument of torture: lying on it, you were enclosed as if within an open coffin. The house agent had to admit that the gentleman who designed it had been "peculiar." He had kept his stockade shutters closed all day.
It is not only the houses of Hollywood that have this theatrical, temporary air; the entire landscape is provisional . . . This was one of Gerald [Heard]'s favorite themes. Walking with us along the firebreak road, he loved to point out how recently this country had been desert, and how quickly it would lapse back into desert again, if the Japanese gardeners were to stop drenching it every evening with water. The houses are built, the pipes are connected up, the hoses start to spray -- and, within six months, the devil grass is growing, the porch is heavy under vines, the big garish flowers burst from their buds, the eucalyptus sapling begins to shoot up into a great shade-giving tree. "These hills won't last long, either," said Gerald gleefully, picking up a handful of what looked like rock and crumbling it in his fingers, "decomposed granite. In five hundred years, most of it'll have washed down into Culver City." At different points along the ridge, there were building sites, flattened out by the bulldozer. We watched a steam shovel cut slices from the soft hillside, like cake, unearthing several rattlesnakes, which the men killed and threw into a bucket. Every winter, the rains would wash a few dollars' worth of your property down into the valley. But the course of nature wasn't quick enough for Gerald. He enjoyed kicking big chunks out of the shoulder of the road, giggling wildly. It disconcerted me, to see him in this mood. He seemed quite fiendish. But it was funny, too, and I laughed and forgot it.
Sometime during July, Berthold Viertel returned from New York to his home in Santa Monica Canyon, full of schemes. He had a movie story which he wanted us to write together . . . So now, every morning, Vernon drove me down to 165 Mabery Road -- that address which had become so familiar to me, years before, in London, when we were working together on Little Friend. Every morning was like every other morning. The barking of the two frisky Irish setters and the old Alsatian at the gate. The German cook opening the front door, admitting me to the big, pleasant living room, with the piano and the books and the blue Picasso boy over the fireplace. "Herr Doktor Viertel kommt gleich." And here he was, in his dressing gown and slippers, snorting through his nose, drawing grim-lipped on his first cigarette, shaking my hand: "Servus." At this hour of the morning, he was always preoccupied, moody, stern, like a general before a battle. We would sit down on the porch to our coffee, and Berthold would scowl his way across the newspaper headlines. Our first talk was always about Europe. I forget what his particular predictions were, at that time. They were always startling and occasionally accurate. Anyhow, the future was double dyed in gloom. We shook our heads over it, almost suicidally. But, beyond the porch, the sunshine poured down through the leaves of the fig tree, the little garden was full of roses, the new morning, brilliant with possibility, opened over a sky-blue, milk-edged ocean, without hope and without despair. Our mood brightened, a little. We rose. We started to pace the lawn. Berthold plucked figs and gave me some. He lit another cigarette. He snorted. Slowly, subtly, inimitably, he began to develop an idea.
At twelve o'clock, we put on our swimming suits and went down to the beach. As we walked past the gardens of the little houses, Berthold was fond of saying: "One does not wander without punishment under palms." This was how he expressed his feeling of guilt at being here, in this improbably remote paradise, while in England the people he loved were threatened by the oncoming war. Together, we strolled along the beach. Berthold, his hands folded behind his back, wore his bathrobe as though it were a toga, with a sort of Roman majesty. Two aliens from doomed Europe, we carried our twisted, pain-ridden psyches amongst the statuesque, unselfconscious bodies of California, basking in the frank sunshine.
November 5, 1939
[Greta] Garbo had been lured to the picnic under false pretences. They had told her it would be a very quiet affair -- just the [Aldous] Huxleys and Krishnamurti. Garbo was anxious to meet Krishnamurti. She was naturally drawn to prophets -- genuine and otherwise. Salka [Viertel] said that she was very unhappy, restless and frightened. She wanted to be told the secret of eternal youth, the meaning of life -- but quickly, in one lesson, before her butterfly attention wandered away again . . .
We picnicked on the stony riverbed, high up the canyon, where the road ends. It was a beautiful place, with forest precipices towering above us, not unlike a scene in the lower Alps. Garbo, of course, had her special diet with her in a basket. She and Krishnamurti were put next to each other, but they didn't speak much. I think they were both scared.
Krishnamurti was a slight, sallow little man with a scrubby chin and rather bloodshot eyes, whose face bore only faint traces of the extraordinary beauty he must have had as a boy. He was very quiet and modest, and never talked in ordinary company about philosophy or religion. He seemed fondest of animals and most at ease with children. Gerald complained that he got violently upset about trifles -- like catching a train -- and showed little sign of inward calm. Certainly, he didn't impress me as Prabhavananda did; but he had a kind of simple dignity which was very touching. And -- there was no getting away from it -- he had done what no other man alive today has done: he had refused to become a god.
After lunch, most of our party wandered a little further up the canyon, to a place where the forest rangers had built a high wire fence, right across the riverbed, with notices warning against trespass. (I think this was because a dam was under construction, to control the annual floods of the Los Angeles River.) Somebody said it looked like a barricade around a concentration camp. Anita Loos suggested that we should burrow under it, like escaping refugees. It was a rather sinister joke, and the laughter was a bit forced, as several people began to dig, with their hands or pieces of rock. I remember Bertrand Russell holding forth to Aldous on some philosophical topic and digging as he talked, with the air of a father joining in a game to amuse the children. Only, in this case, he was both parent and child.
Inside a few minutes, there was quite a large, shallow pit. Most of us got into it and wriggled under the wire. It was funny to watch how, having done this, people became grown-ups again and strolled off in twos and threes, talking about the war . . .
I held back to the end of the procession, because I wanted to walk with Garbo. I had drunk a lot of beer at lunch, and knew no shame. I only wished my friends could see me. As we started out, Garbo said: "As long as we're on this side of the fence, let's pretend we're two other people -- quite, quite different." "You know," I announced solemnly, "I really wish you weren't Garbo. I like you. I think we could have been great friends." At this, Garbo let out a mocking, Mata Hari laugh: "But we are friends! You are my dear little brother. All of you are my dear little brothers." "Oh, shut up!" I exclaimed, enormously flattered.
I suppose everybody who meets Garbo dreams of saving her -- either from herself, or from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or from some friend or lover. And she always eludes them by going into an act. This is what has made her a universal figure. She is the woman whose life everyone wants to interfere with.
January 4, 1940
Lectured to an English class at the Beverly Hills High, on expressionist drama. The teachers were rather depressing -- hanging on to Culture by their eyelids. The pupils, in their casual, friendly way, were quite responsive. You could catch their attention for about a quarter of a minute at a time. The girls are powdered and painted, elaborately dolled up. The boys dress like tramps -- in a gaudy, ragbag assortment of sweatshirts, lumberjackets, jeans and cords. There is no discipline whatsoever, in the European sense. The lecturer is merely allowed, by courtesy, to speak a little louder than the class. But -- having seen the beautifully planned classrooms, the wonderfully equipped theater, the swimming baths, the gymnasium and the library -- one can't help wondering; how long will this strange homage to education continue at all? The barbarian students are so much more vital than the culture they are supposed to be acquiring. This place is simply a temple to a dead religion. Study has become a cult, fossilized in ritual. Most of the questions they asked me were basically economic in interest. For example: "Can the theater compete with the movies?" When the bell rang, they stopped me instantly, by clapping.
Through the Huxleys, I had met a lady named Claire Stuart, a teacher of hatha yoga. She was a pupil of the somewhat dubious Theos Bernard, who had just gotten himself mixed up in some kind of sex scandal in New York. There was nothing dubious about Miss Stuart, however. She was eminently respectable, and had many pupils who were being taught, on a merely athletic basis, to improve their health and their figures. Miss Stuart was herself, perhaps, a more complicated human being than these youth-and-beauty-seekers. Denny [Fouts] and I felt sure she was a lot older than she looked and we thought we could detect unhappiness and strain beneath the sleek disguise of her suppleness and charm. She had a really amazing body which she could twist and stretch in every direction with the utmost ease.
She taught us bastrika, hollow tank, air swallowing and many other exercises and postures . . .
I must admit that the exercises, which we practiced daily for about three weeks, made me feel wonderful. My insides felt like a well-packed suitcase . . .
The Swami, when he heard of it, was highly disapproving. He told me that the breathing exercises produce hallucinations, and that he had seen people in India who retain a boyish physique up to the age of sixty, but are complete idiots in consequence. "What is the matter with you, Mr. Isherwood," he asked severely, "surely you do not want Etarnal Youth?" I was silent and hung my head -- because, of course, I did.
December 14, 1949
I think there is no doubt about it, I'm going through the "change of life." Gerald Heard put that idea into my head the other day, and I take it on as a sort of reassurance -- for I'm really alarmed at the state I'm in. (This despite what I told Gerald: that one of the chief benefits that remain to me from the Ivar Avenue [monastery] days is that I have learned not to be alarmed by any mental symptoms, however violent and odd.)
Certainly, my mind is softening, weakening. I have so little coordination that I putter around like a dotard. I'll go upstairs to find a book, forget all about it, pick up something else, start to bring it downstairs, leave it in the kitchen and then hunt for it for hours.
Then there is this constant sexual itch, which never seems to be satisfied -- or very seldom -- because it is accompanied by a certain degree of impotence. And there is a hyper-tension, worse, I think, than I have ever experienced.
And so I fail to write. I put it off, and put it off, and I do nothing about getting a job, and I drift toward complete pauperism, with nothing in sight. I am lazy and dreamy and lecherous. I hate being alone. I don't exactly want Billy [Caskey] back -- at least, I certainly don't want him the way he was when he left. And I am fundamentally unserious in my approach to other people. I don't believe in myself or my future, and all my "reputation" is just a delayed-action mechanism which only impresses the very young.
Well -- there is only one answer to all this. I've repeated it a thousand times already, and I'll repeat it till I die: just keep right on trying and struggling. The situation is very bad but not hopeless. After all, you did get that thing about Klaus Mann written. That was something. Don't be scared.
June 30, 1950
Troops have been sent to Korea . . .
Party at Salka's for two Peruvian dancers and a guitarist -- Yma Sumac, her husband and a cousin. Their bird cries and slight, arresting, mock serious gestures. As a group, they were incredibly beautiful. The slant-eyed Yma and her cousin, balancing so lightly on their little feet, and uttering sudden wails of mimic despair. And the boy behind them, very close, and thrusting forward with his guitar; so that they seemed to be continually advancing upon us with the compactness and drive of a little military formation. The boy had a soft waxy skin and wet-black eyes that had the quality of introversion; they didn't bulge or roll. The dances had an airy uncanny birdlike authority: you got the feeling of the uncanny jungle and the discontinuous, abrupt movements of the birds. And also the sense of tradition. They appeared to listen for it, pick it up like a wavelength and then relay it, quite impersonally, without comment.
Chaplin, [his wife] Oona, Iris Tree in a converted sari, Friedrich Ledebur with a bored, tennis-playing maharajah, Hedy Lamarr very pretty and ungrand, John Huston, Ivan Moffat serious, or rather poker-faced, appalled by all the imitations he would have to give, Natasha [Moffat] verging on insanity, very beautiful, John Houseman, Ella Winter etc. etc. etc.
I have written all this and said nothing, really. But I must go on writing this record. Things will emerge.
From Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960, by Christopher Isherwood, copyright © 1996 by Don Bachardy. Reprinted by arrangement with Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins Publishers.
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.