MAY 29, 2014
WHEN I WAS RECENTLY asked to review a book of letters between Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) and Don Bachardy (b. 1934), Isherwood’s romantic partner for the last 35 years of his life, I quickly agreed, wanting to do my part to keep a hero of mine in the public eye. But after the book arrived, I gave it a quick skim and, without really thinking too much about why — beyond the fact that I was “busy” playing games on my phone — buried it on my bookshelves, telling myself that I would get around to it “at some point.” (Usually a death sentence, as we all know.) As the weeks passed, however, I felt guilty; the book seemed to be staring at me from its purgatory, and while I wasn’t quite ready to commit, I knew that I owed it to myself to at least figure out the real reasons for my reluctance.
For starters, I worried about wading through 400 pages of love letters; to be immersed in the minutiae — the offhand observations, the in-jokes, the unfiltered opinions, the unedited prose — of an actual (versus fictional), long-running affair struck me as not just voyeuristic, but tedious. In short, I didn’t want to be a third wheel. I was also leery about learning too much about an artist whose work I admired so much. One of the worst things about the internet and the publicity machine that helps drive it is how easily it exposes artists for the seriously flawed human beings they (like everyone) so often are. Sometimes I think I would rather just not know than learn that someone is casually racist or homophobic or likes to torture small animals or whatever else can make a person seem despicable, notwithstanding the high caliber of his or her art. I didn’t really consider this a serious objection, though: if I could set aside my feelings about, say, Richard Wagner (is there anyone worse who wrote more beautiful music?), then it seemed unlikely that I would learn anything nearly as damning about Isherwood.
Most problematically, I was worried about the “animals” aspect of the book, which was hard to ignore, given the title and how the device jumped out at me during a first perusal of the letters. Sappy love letters are bad enough for those not writing or receiving them, but did I really need to read hundreds of pages of Isherwood and Bachardy calling each other Beatrix Potter–inspired variations of “horse” and “kitten,” usually in the third person? Isherwood: “It was wonderful hearing Kitty’s voice on the phone this morning […]” Bachardy: “Kitty longs so to lay his head against that long mane and feel that knobbly foreleg around him again.” And on and on ad nauseam. I also noticed the book contained many reproductions of kitten photographs, paw prints, and Hallmark-y horse cards that the two men had sent to each other. In short, barf.
Still, I decided that I owed it to Isherwood’s spirit to endure at least 100 pages, and so I started again, this time in earnest. As expected, the horse-and-kitty act got old quickly, but as Katherine Bucknell, the editor of the book, astutely points out in an excellent introduction, there’s something more at work here than two lovers calling each other pet names. Isherwood and Bachardy were living openly in a society that was hostile to their relationship on several fronts — besides being gay, Isherwood was also more than 30 years older than Bachardy, who was only 18 when they met — and so they needed to create an imaginary world, one that (in Bucknell’s words) was “safe” and “entertaining” to the two men, when so many others in their situation succumbed to bitterness and self-loathing.
The animal device also allowed them to address issues of infidelity or — since they weren’t really cheating — “sexual freedom” that might otherwise have pulled them apart. With Isherwood’s blessing, Bachardy spent many months away from their home in Santa Monica — in London, in New York, in continental Europe — in order to develop his artistic career and to see the world; Isherwood understood that to constrain the much-younger Bachardy would almost certainly have resulted in a breakup. That said, Isherwood was also not shy about inviting others he found attractive into his bed. Both men enjoyed many different lovers during the course of their relationship, but the letters are never graphic. The language they used helped them to navigate waters that are always dangerous, even — or especially — where both parties are being honest, and we see how it can perhaps soften the blow to Isherwood when Bachardy refers to other men as “bowls of cream” he may or may not reject during the course of his travels. To witness a couple, under this twee façade, balancing such obligations of commitment and desire feels very contemporary and somehow important, given how the conformity of marriage so often means that such things — even in the gay world — are still discussed in disapproving whispers, if at all.
Isherwood, probably aware that his letters would be viewed by more than one person in the future, works to justify the infantile language of the animals: “Our relationship is really so very strange,” he writes at one point, early on. “No wonder it gives us trouble. I mean, I often feel that the Animals are far more than just a nursery joke or a cuteness. They exist. […] They express a kind of freedom and truth which we otherwise wouldn’t have.” If a bit overstated, the idea is worth acknowledging, even if it ultimately (to me, anyway) has more conceptual interest than practical appeal, and it didn’t take long before I found myself skimming these sections — which tend to fall at the beginning and end of each letter — to get to the heart of them. It’s there that the letters really gather momentum, and they will be of interest to anyone fascinated with the era in which they correspond, namely the late 1950s through the early 1970s. To me it felt like an alternate universe from the one depicted in Mad Men: still socially revolutionary, but much more honest about the gay artists who were quietly driving many of these changes.
On a prose level, Isherwood’s letters are filled with descriptions that remind you why his fiction can be so exhilarating: he’s often witty, such as when he describes the house of some rich, homosexual friends as not “so bad […] just well-carpeted and dead, with huge bored-to-death plants [… where] you can wander around naked and fart at the paintings, and mutter” or the way he describes Southern California as a “joke in bad taste.” At other times, his writing is lyrical, as when he visits a film set (after moving to Los Angeles, he did a lot of screenwriting work): “It was a glorious day and the black limousines of the wicked producer looked wonderfully sinister against the Japanese blue ocean with cumulous clouds behind over the hills.” Throughout the book, he writes with a kind of poetic nonchalance that made me nostalgic for the days before text messaging.
It’s also a revelation to see how Isherwood, even after achieving a level of success that would be the envy of 99.8 percent of aspiring writers, continued to suffer through the many travails of the business. Finances are always a concern, and there’s very little work he turns down — usually in the form of lectures, which he doesn’t enjoy giving — if it means some extra money. Several times the annual tax bill turns out to be higher than anticipated, and he’s constantly dealing with a cast of agents and producers to whom he’s pitching projects (and vice versa), many of which, despite lots of enthusiasm from all parties, whether feigned or not, go nowhere. At one point he volunteers to write an encyclopedia article about Vedanta (a school of Hinduism to which he was very devoted) and later struggles to complete it. “This motherfucking Vedanta article,” he says as he lists everything he’s working on, which is only one among a litany of complaints about everything from blurbing (both giving and getting) to his publisher’s choice of cover art to their losing a manuscript to an inexplicable hysteria to get things done at the last minute. This is all very entertaining material, and perhaps comforting to those of us who have experienced similar problems in the never-ending struggle to get our own work out the door, to hear someone of Isherwood’s stature work through his doubts, and to do so with such pragmatic optimism. In one episode, after he submits a manuscript (co-written with Bachardy) to an agent and hears nothing in return, he tells Bachardy,
I called him and he didn’t call back so I suspect he hasn’t read the play and is guilty. Fuck him. But really, love, I now am certain that it is good, not only intrinsically but even as it stands, and I don’t care […] somebody will like it and it will be performed somehow. So let us risk a little disapproval.
(Note: two pages later, the agent finally calls back and “carried on wildly about the play,” which shows that Isherwood was in a different league than most of us.)
Isherwood also displays a remarkable lack of pretension for someone of his ability. Describing one of his classes at UCLA, he says, “It [was] just awful, and dull […]. Yesterday we bogged down in the most futile argument of what Jung really means by a myth. I was so discouraged that I talked to them quite brutally and said that if we couldn’t manage to get along better I would close the class…. The trouble is simply, as always, that I am not an intellectual” (emphasis mine), a treat for those of us who have never felt comfortable associating with a certain kind of “mansplain-y” intellectual who has always populated literary circles. In these letters, instead, his concerns are chiefly related to love (and sex), beauty, wit, psychological insight, and a bit of gossip and scandal.
Neither Isherwood nor Bachardy is a saint, and there are quite a few passages that read as less than politically correct, if not outright anti-Semitic or misogynistic (or neurotic about weight). Isherwood, for example, notes that he feels embarrassed by a friend’s “Jewish patriotism” with the implication that the friend can’t be Jewish and American — while Bachardy uses expressions such as “Jew down” and describes Hannah Arendt as a “very serious-grand Jewish bitch of the Upper West Side.”
On a more positive note, Bachardy — who clearly emulates Isherwood but craves an independence characteristic of his youth — can be as insightful as his more literary partner. About New York City, he writes: “I hate this propaganda spread around by people who live here about its being the only city really, the only place one can live and work and ‘be stimulated.’ It is all nothing but desperate self-hypnosis.” He can also be funny, such as when he describes an old British woman “float[ing] stiffly into the hall like a great pale blowfish, with small, watery, unseeing eyes and wisps of white hair like fins at the sides of her head.” The book is filled with enough of these gems to always make the pages worth turning.
Bachardy is also obsessed with the celebrities of the era, and — lucky for those of us looking back — was in a position to meet many of them, thanks both to his connection to Isherwood and as a result of his own career as a portraitist. There are interesting anecdotes about seemingly all of the gay white male luminaries of the time, including W. H. Auden, Charles Laughton, David Hockney, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, along with an incredible list of important artists ranging from Joan Sutherland to Marlon Brando to Julie Harris to “the Paul Newmans” to the Stravinskys to Dennis Hopper, among many, many others. (There’s a very helpful glossary, because Isherwood and Bachardy often refer to these people on a first-name basis; Katherine Bucknell also provides exhaustive footnotes throughout the book.)
Isherwood and Bachardy are also great consumers of art: they read books, they attend plays and operas and musicals (and critique all of the above with often hilariously brutal honesty), they go to openings and readings and lectures; television is still, for the most part, a novelty, although they don’t ignore it, either. In the end, they are both artists, and if these letters document what feels like something of a lost empire, it’s one in which the overall disposition or alignment of its citizens, especially in terms of the relation of artists to non-artists, feels very similar to our own, and thus continues to feel very timely, despite its passing.