Don Bachardy on Christopher Isherwood, the Man He Loved
"Oh, it would never have been for us,” Don Bachardy says. “He wasn’t interested — neither of us were — in being ‘legalized.’ But we’d certainly back up anybody who did want to be.”
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“He,” of course, is Christopher Isherwood, the celebrated writer and great love of portrait artist Don Bachardy’s life. And with Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s sparkling documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story arriving in theaters just as same-sex marriage arrives in California, it seems a most auspicious moment to speak to the surviving member of one of the best-known unofficial same-sex marriages of modern times. It all began when Isherwood, the author of the famous The BerlinStories (later adapted into the musical Cabaret), met a puckish, gap-toothed teenager on the beach in Santa Monica.
“I think he had a very real sense of me,” says Bachardy proudly, as he sits in the living room of the small but spectacularly situated Santa Monica Canyon house he and Isherwood shared. “I met him when I was 16 and going down to the beach with my older brother Ted. We took the red streetcar all the way from Atwater to the end of the line and Ted always wanted to walk a mile and a half to the queer beach. He didn’t know I was queer then, but I knew all about him. There was always a cluster of men around Ted, because he was very beautiful — and Chris was one of these admirers. We knew each other well enough to wave when we saw each other in the distance.”
A few years later, Bachardy’s brother got his own car, and on their way to the ocean, the two young men would stop to have breakfast with Isherwood. “That’s when we really got to know each other,” he recalls.
“What was so extraordinary for those times,” Bachardy continues, “was here was Chris, with lots of well-known people for friends, and instead of hiding me away, he took me out. He took me everywhere. And as you can see from the film, I looked very, very young. On our trip to New York, I was 19, and there was a serious rumor ’round town that Chris had brought a 12-year-old with him from California — and people really believed it.”
Indeed, as Chris & Don shows, back then, Bachardy, who was 31 years Isherwood’s junior, could well have passed for a prepubescent minor — albeit a very knowing and sexually precocious one. As writer David Leddick reveals in his Intimate Companions, and an incident that isn’t referenced in Chris & Don, on that same New York trip, Bachardy nearly fell for the ultrasoigné photographer George Platt Lynes.
“Oh, yes, David Leddick ‘outed’ me and George Platt Lynes!” says Bachardy, now 73, laughing. “I was so eager to be photographed by this great glamour photographer. He was a very beautiful man. It just happened once with him, you know, but that was it.”
Bachardy then returned to Los Angeles with Isherwood, and to a relationship that seemed imbalanced on the outside but was far more complex underneath — often sexually “open” (Bachardy was allowed extra-Isherwood dalliances) — and always emotionally faithful.
“Chris was, in many ways, more my father than my real father,” says Bachardy, who speaks with his lover’s British accent — not an affectation but rather as natural as breathing. “I would never have done all this work without his confidence and his support. I was very, very unsure of myself back then, and he was there giving me talks, bucking me up, determined to make me believe in myself and become an artist.”
And because Isherwood (who died of prostate cancer in 1986) worked as a screenwriter (Rage in Heaven, Bachelor Bait) to supplement his more serious writing, Bachardy — an inveterate movie fan — got to know many of his screen idols up close and personal, Hollywood gays very much included.
“We met Rock Hudson at several parties,” he recalls, including several at the home of producer David O. Selznick and his wife, actress Jennifer Jones. “We would see him there and he was very standoffish. You see, Chris and I were the only queer couple. We must have scandalized people.”
Gays who weren’t in front of the camera were more welcoming, like Walter Plunkett, the greatest yet least well-known of the costume designers of Hollywood’s golden age, whose credits include King Kong, Singin’ in the Rain and Gone With the Wind.
“Oh, he was one of the sweetest men,” Bachardy says of Plunkett. “When I was doing his portrait, he said, ‘Is there anyone in Hollywood you haven’t done a sitting with yet that you would like to work with?’ And the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Oh, Barbara Stanwyck!’ When I got back to the house that afternoon, I wasn’t there for 15 minutes before the telephone rang and this deep voice at the other end said, ‘This is Barbara Stanwyck.’ Well, I nearly fainted. Wasn’t that terrific of him? I don’t think she’d ever heard of me. It was just because she was so fond of Walter.”
Bachardy’s portrait subjects range from Gloria Stuart and Teri Garr to beautiful, naked young men you’ve never heard of. But among today’s celebrities, he’s already snagged one of the biggest — Angelina Jolie — and, perhaps not coincidentally, naked as well.
“I knew her mother, Marcheline [Bertrand], when she was 18 or 19 and married to Jon Voight,” he says. “We were good friends but hadn’t seen each other for 25 years, when suddenly I got a phone call. Angelina was pregnant for the first time, and would I record her pregnancy in each of her three trimesters? A week later, Angelina was in my studio and taking her clothes off — in full view of the canyon. She wasn’t the least bit self-conscious. Three months later, she sent for me to go to Paris, and I did two more sittings with her. And then, in her final trimester, she had me flown to Namibia. I’ve already had one session of her pregnant with the twins. Oh, she’s a star!”
Still, Bachardy says, 30 and 40 years ago, celebrities made for better subjects. “It was a much more innocent world, and they were much more open. Now the paparazzi and tradition of invading privacy do make [celebrities] all very suspicious.”
As for gay Hollywood today, Bachardy doesn’t feel things have changed that much, despite the presence of “out” performers, like Neil Patrick Harris, T.R. Knight and Ellen DeGeneres. “I do think it’s still difficult for actors,” he says. “As soon as it’s known [someone is gay], they get pigeonholed. Behind the camera, it’s okay.”
But Bachardy is quick to add that the changing attitudes toward gays in mainstream society have been nothing short of revolutionary. “Had Chris and I been told what was coming back in the ’50s, we’d have been amazed at the changes,” he says. “Oh, it’s a different world from the one we knew.”
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