The Isherwood Equation

Photo by Humphrey Spender

"Honestly, I don’t know what to say," says a distressed Don Bachardy. "Chris’ centenary was in August, and the other two volumes of the Diaries were supposed to have been published by then. I don’t know when they’re coming out, and now we have this biography!"

"Chris" is, of course, Christopher Isherwood, the great writer whom the noted portrait artist loved and lived with from 1953 until Isherwood’s death in 1986. And "this biography" is Isherwood: A Life Revealed by Peter Parker, a massive 832-page, 12-years-in-the-making tome intended as a more or less definitive study — but not likely to be so if Bachardy has anything to do with it. The British-born author, who settled in Los Angeles in 1939 not long after his The Berlin Stories won international fame (and pop-cultural perpetuity via its theatrical adaptations I Am a Camera and Cabaret), is a figure of continued fascination. And part of that fascination stems from the fact that it was in presumably uncultured L.A. that Isherwood wrote his most important works, Prater Violet, Down There on a Visit, My Guru and His Disciple, Christopher and His Kind and, above all, A Single Man. But the mainstream media, dedicated to the simplistic, have tended to reduce this signal literary figure to a footnote in the career of Liza Minnelli — an impression Isherwood’s Diaries (the first volume of which appeared in 1996) was designed to correct. Meanwhile, the literary "carriage trade" has been little better, regarding Isherwood as British rather than a fully assimilated American. And it’s this aspect of Parker that most riles Bachardy.

"Parker adheres to the ancient British line that nothing Chris wrote was as good after he came here," Bachardy complains, though he fully cooperated with Parker in the research process. "Oh, he chews over a lot of history. But he really wasn’t interested in the California years. And he lied to me. He said that he admired Isherwood so much. [The book] is condescending from beginning to end. He’s a schoolmarm shaking his finger at Chris."

While intimations of Bachardy’s displeasure cropped up in the British press when Life Revealed was published there last spring, this is the first occasion he has been so explicit about his objections — leaving Parker, in popular U.K. parlance, gobsmacked.

"Who is going to spend 12 years of their life working on someone they don’t like?" argues Parker. "When I interviewed Don about his own work, he said, ‘A lot of people look at my pictures and think that they’re cruel, that I’m deliberately trying to hurt people. All I do is I draw what I see. What else can you do?’ And that would be my response to him. We had a contract where I agreed to show him the manuscript before it went to the printers and I agreed to listen to whatever he had to say about it. We got on extremely well. I sent him the typescript in February of 2000, and that’s the last communication I’ve had with him. What I’ve tried to do is present the evidence and let people make up their own minds."

And there’s the rub.

While not designed for readers unfamiliar with Isherwood’s work, Life Revealed isn’t a dust-dry academic exercise. It’s a lively, if complex, read. One may well take issue with Parker’s emphasis on all things English, but the sheer volume of "Isherwoodiana" he provides makes this biography difficult to dismiss in the way Bachardy would like.

As Parker traces Isherwood’s career through cross-Atlantic literary circles that included W.H. Auden, E.M. Forster (who entrusted him with the manuscript of the posthumously published Maurice), W. Somerset Maugham (Isherwood was the model for the spiritually questing hero of The Razor’s Edge), Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann and Gore Vidal (who dedicated Myra Breckinridge to him), as well as the bohemia whose denizens included Jean Ross (the model for Sally Bowles) and David Hockney, Isherwood emerges as clearly the most fascinating and arguably the most important cultural figure of modern times whose importance continues to grow. And in George W. Bush’s America, whose gay community Isherwood did so much to inspire, a struggle against a powerful coven of "moral" posturers makes his living and working example more vital than ever.

"Nobody sees themselves that clearly when they look in a mirror," Parker says. But in Isherwood’s case, he’s arguably mistaken. Long before Truman Capote claimed to have invented the nonfiction novel, Isherwood’s early works All the Conspirators, The Memorial and Lions and Shadows featured a character called Christopher Isherwood recounting experiences that were clearly autobiographical. By the time The Berlin Stories appeared, he had become what Gore Vidal called "that rarest of all creatures, the objective narcissist; he sees himself altogether plain and does not hesitate to record for us the lines that the face in the mirror has accumulated, the odd shadow that flaws the character."

Isherwood was at first regarded as an adjunct to Britain’s "bright young things" of the 1920s — an entertaining sybarite. But his decamping to America at the start of World War II marked him as a betrayer of Mother England. "The literary world there has always been stifling," says Bachardy. "It’s tiny and full of backbiters. Everybody knows everybody else, and that’s not a very good atmosphere for a writer." Especially for one who wanted to deal honestly with his gayness. It was a crime in England, and an indulged vice in the Berlin to which he escaped. But then came Adolf Hitler, requiring Isherwood to escape once again.

"Isherwood came to California in a state of total panic," notes fellow émigré Gavin Lambert. "He’d lost a German lover, Heinz, who couldn’t get the papers to get out of Germany. And he was ill-at-ease with his own fame. It’s the old cliché — people come to California to reinvent themselves. Isherwood came to put the pieces of his personality together, which he did. He was a very great influence on Los Angeles, and it on him. He was a torchbearer for the ‘adjusted’ gay life."

In Los Angeles, Isherwood found work at the major studios, offering Bachardy (an inveterate movie fan) portrait subjects of all sorts. To the studios, a writer of any renown was seen as -giving class to the credits. And this is why you’ll find Isherwood attached to not only such melodramas as Rage in Heaven and The Great Sinner, but also a Shirley Temple vehicle, Bachelor Bait. His most ambitious project, Diane, a biopic of Diane de Poitiers, intended for Ingrid Bergman, ended up, disappointingly, with Lana Turner. But Isherwood voiced few regrets. His film work supported his serious writing. Moreover, Los Angeles was a key midcentury cultural way station. Thomas Mann, Arnold Schöenberg and many other notables took refuge there from the war. Some stayed on, like Aldous Huxley. Isherwood fully immersed himself in the happy chaos of L.A., which is why he was an ideal collaborator for Tony Richardson’s film of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One — not a characteristic Isherwood work, but characteristic nonetheless of his L.A.

Waugh wrote this satire of the funeral industry as a dark swipe at American vulgarity. Yet that quality is precisely what drives the wild 1965 all-star jamboree, blocked out by Isherwood and filled in (via improvised-on-the-spot dialogue) by Terry Southern. What we see onscreen, a world inhabited by Milton Berle, Margaret Leighton, Tab Hunter, Liberace, Barbara Nichols and John Gielgud, is one Isherwood had come to quite uncondescendingly adore. In one of his last works, October, a visual essay done in collaboration with Bachardy, there’s a passage in which he affords a professional dress extra and part-time porn performer named Rick Sanford the sort of serious regard he’d extended in the past to Krishnamurti.

But by that time, Isherwood, whose entire life might well be seen as a journey toward sexual honesty and spiritual awareness, had written A Single Man. Brief and seemingly simple, this day-in-the-life of a late-middle-aged college professor, grieving the loss of his longtime lover, offered the first forthright, non-neurotic, unapologetic gay character the literary world had seen since Petronius.

"What simply staggered me," says Parker, "were the sort of reviews that book got: ‘Disjointed limp-wrist saga.’ I can’t imagine anyone today, even on a provincial newspaper, beginning a review, ‘If you don’t happen to like books about queers.’" But that was 1962 — seven years before Stonewall. Isherwood was ahead of his time. And that’s why the book became an inspiration for an entire generation of gay writers — Edmund White and Michael Cunningham, in particular.

"He was always exploring, always in doubt, never hanging on to things. That’s what he said about Los Angeles," notes Parker. "What he liked about it was its impermanence. What’s going to survive? Perhaps nothing. And he found that reassuring. If you want to know what it was like to live through the 20th century, he was there. When they were burning the books in Berlin, in Hollywood, in the British movie industry, communes, mystical religions, lost a partner in the First World War, survived the Second. It’s all there."

And that thereness is the hardest thing of all to define. For while (outside of Bachardy caveats) Parker has done a reasonably good job of confecting a catalogue raisonné of Isherwood’s life, putting its multifarious events in some semblance of order, it’s the books to which one must return to read the real story, and through them, the story of gay life in Los Angeles.

ISHERWOOD: A LIFE REVEALED | By PETER PARKER | Random House| 832 pages | $40 hardcover


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