In the middle of 1985, it became unavoidably clear that Christopher Isherwood was dying. Almost from the time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, in 1981, the 81-year-old author had been gradually shutting down, quietly preparing himself -- and his 51-year-old lover, Don Bachardy -- for the end. He had stopped making entries in the diary he had kept for decades, went out less and less, and announced he would no longer write letters. But there remained a final task, at once marvelous and harrowing: Bachardy, who had been drawing and painting Isherwood throughout their 32-year relationship, ceased working with other subjects and turned his attention entirely to his lover.
'It's one of the most valuable gifts among many valuable gifts that Chris gave me, the experience of watching him die,' says Bachardy, sitting in the Santa Monica home he shared with Isherwood for more than 25 years. 'It helped me to accommodate myself to the idea of my own death.' Over the last six months of Isherwood's life, Bachardy made 441 drawings and paintings of his lover.
Executed with Japanese brushes, the drawings have the spare, understated power of final things. Some are difficult to look at -- in many, Isherwood is clearly in pain, and some were done in the minutes and hours after his death. Though drawing Isherwood was a way for Bachardy to be with him during his final illness, it didn't mitigate the loss. 'No amount of thinking one's prepared for it -- just because it's obviously going to happen -- means that you get through it OK,' he says. 'It's always different from what you think it will be.'
In a different kind of tribute, Bachardy began to read the writer's diary -- on the day Isherwood died -- something he had never done while he was alive. 'Almost like I was sleepwalking, I went to his desk and took that first volume, which was actually the last volume, and started reading backward,' he says. 'It was like he was having a dialogue with me.'
The dialogue between the writer and the artist has been movingly told in the recent documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story. Meanwhile, a film adaptation of Isherwood's masterly novel A Single Man -- inspired in part by his relationship with Bachardy -- has been directed by the designer Tom Ford and is scheduled for release later this year. And Bachardy's art continues to win new admirers. According to Peter Plagens, an artist and former art critic for Newsweek, 'Bachardy's portraits look satisfyingly like the person portrayed. They have a style that's unmistakably Bachardy.' New York artist Jack Pierson describes the 'Last Drawings' series as 'the peak of Bachardy's achievement. They are breathtaking. The beauty is so great, the death is transformed.' After 50 years of dedicated work, it looks like the 74-year-old Bachardy is finally getting his due.
Bachardy is no stranger to painting the rich and famous: His book Stars in My Eyes includes drawings of such grand dames of the screen as Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, and Louise Brooks, accompanied by his sharply observed accounts of his sessions with his subjects. In addition to stars, he also painted the official portrait of former California governor Jerry Brown, which hangs in the California State Capitol Museum. But it's been a long journey from being the much younger boyfriend of the world-renowned writer to being very much his own man. Both Isherwood and Bachardy seem to have been through cycles of renown, obscurity, and rediscovery. One leading scholar and critic, the late Carolyn G. Heilbrun, began her 1970 study of Isherwood by arguing that since he 'has been denied, or spared, the gifts of widespread fame or fashion, it is appropriate to begin with the pronouncement that he is the best British novelist of his generation.' For his gay fans, he is something more: While his early books obliquely hint at gay life, 1964's A Single Man was one of the earliest literary novels with an unapologetically gay protagonist. By the late '60s and '70s, Isherwood had become more outspoken about gay politics and his life as a gay man, and he and Bachardy together became heroic figures to a younger generation of gays.
When the two began dating in 1953, it was something of a local scandal in Los Angeles circles. The English-born Isherwood was 48 years old and a well-known writer, while the 18-year-old Bachardy, who looked even younger, was an L.A. native from a modest background with no clear plans for his future. Isherwood was famous for The Berlin Stories, later adapted for the stage and film musical Cabaret, which takes place just before and during the rise of Hitler. For many years Bachardy was overshadowed by Isherwood, who came to the United States in 1939 and was working as a Hollywood screenwriter by the 1940s. Though Bachardy had established his own reputation as a portraitist by the early '60s, receiving commissions in New York and London and frequently exhibiting at galleries in both cities and in California, it took a long time for their wide social circle to regard him as something other than a 'toy boy,' as Bachardy puts it.
From the start, Isherwood was aware of the situation. In a 1955 diary entry he describes 'an air of strain' at a party he and Bachardy attended. 'And afterward Don (drunk) said, 'I wish I was dead,' and, 'I hate them all,' and, 'I want them to like me for what I really am, but I don't know what I am.' '
Almost from the time they met, Isherwood encouraged his lover to develop his artistic talent. Bachardy had been drawing since he was a child, often copying pictures from movie magazines. 'We'd been together more than three years with Chris urging me, but carefully, you know, not nagging about it,' Bachardy recalls. 'I resisted. I was scared to death I didn't have the makings of an artist.' Bachardy finally enrolled for a six-week summer term at Chouinard Art Institute (which later became part of the California Institute of the Arts). 'I knew before the end of the first week I'd found it,' he says. Isherwood obviously agreed, noting at the time, 'I think that the art school may really be an answer to his vocational problem. But now he has to get to feel independent in himself and thus turn his dependence on me into a free association. This will be a great test for both of us, of course.'
Isherwood's prediction was prescient, and the scene of the great tests was the house in the Santa Monica Canyon where Bachardy has now lived for nearly 50 years. The area had long been known for its natural beauty, featuring hill and ocean views, and the mixed community of artists, writers, and bohemians who lived there. Starting in the 1930s, it became a refuge for many of the European exiles Isherwood befriended, including Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinsky (one of the couple's closest friends), and Vienna-born screenwriter and saloniste Salka Viertel. Isherwood lived above Viertel's garage in the 1940s, where he met Greta Garbo, among many others, at Viertel's legendary parties.
The Santa Monica house is steeped in souvenirs of Bachardy's years with Isherwood -- paintings, sculptures, photographs. Paintings fill the walls, sometimes three or four from floor to ceiling. The short foyer that leads from the dining room to the bedroom and studies is nicknamed 'Hockney Hall' -- half of it is filled with David Hockney paintings and drawings, many of Isherwood, Bachardy, or the two of them together.
'I've lived two thirds of my life here,' Bachardy says. 'I think I'm at nature a homebody. My home base is an important part of my stability.' Though much of the house, especially the extensive painting collection, would probably be recognizable to Isherwood, there have been some changes made to the surroundings, most of them gradual. 'It's really like aging oneself,' he says. 'One can go for a couple of decades and then suddenly look in the mirror and see that one has gotten old without really noting it.' Isherwood's former study is pretty much as he had it; on his desk is a small clock that had belonged to his Berlin landlady in the 1930s (she presented it to him when he visited her in 1953).
Bachardy and Isherwood made no pretense about being a pair in an era when the term 'gay couple' barely existed. But if their steep age difference lent itself to obvious interpretation -- shortly after they met, Isherwood wrote of his 'special kind of love for Don; I suppose I'm just another frustrated father' -- the trajectory of their relationship provides an eloquent response. Bachardy says that he wasn't intentionally seeking out an older man when he met Isherwood, 'but when one is young, one so often doesn't know oneself well enough to know what one needs.' In fact, he says, 'I was ripe for an older man to take an interest in me as I was. Not to change my nature but to use what I had to help direct me in a way that might lead me to something that would give me a life.'
As the boy came into his own, the relationship grew more complex. 'Chris would have much preferred if I'd just settled into a relationship and been satisfied with only him sexually,' Bachardy says. 'He'd been frank about his experience before he knew me, so I used it against him. I said, 'Well, you've had all this experience and you want to deny me?' Well, that's putting him on the spot, isn't it?' It was only later that 'I understood that it was very difficult for him to allow me my freedom. I knew it cost him a lot and that impressed me. That he loved me enough to suffer the jealousy and inconvenience of infidelity.' Asked to clarify what he means, Bachardy says, 'Well, I mean, if you want to spend a quiet night at home, and your lover says, 'I've got a date,' that's inconvenient. That's damned inconvenient, you know.'
But in the early 1960s, Bachardy was involved with another man and was thinking about leaving Isherwood, who took a teaching job in San Francisco in part, Bachardy says, because 'we decided maybe it would be better if we were each of us alone for a while. I think he was away for three months. There's nothing like solitude to clear one's mind, and to allow one to concentrate on a particular problem.' The result: 'It didn't take me long to realize that I didn't want to split up with him.'
Isherwood, a dedicated user of the material of his own life, eventually incorporated some of that difficult period into A Single Man, which he considered his best novel. It takes place during a single day in the life of a 58-year-old Englishman named George, who lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is mourning the recent death of his younger lover. Bachardy notes in Chris & Don that the novel grew in part from Isherwood's exploration of what his life would be like without him. 'He killed me off someplace so that he could really get into the idea,' says Bachardy.
Bachardy visited the set of the film adaptation, which stars Colin Firth as George, three times. (Ford, who's making his directorial debut, also wrote the screenplay.) Bachardy, who has a cameo in the film -- 'a speaking line' -- was impressed by Ford's set. 'I've visited many film sets in my time, and I've never been on one with such an upbeat feeling, where everybody was working in synchronicity and good cheer,' he says. For his part, Ford says, 'I adore Don. If I was not a married man I would chase after him. He is a catch, and I hope that one night, after a few vodka tonics together, he will not be upset if I give him a proper goodnight kiss.'
The year after Isherwood's death, Bachardy began what turned out to be a 10-year relationship with Tim Hilton, an architect 26 years his junior. 'I'd grown so much in years with Chris,' Bachardy says, 'I couldn't wait to share it with somebody else. And I realized I was old enough to play Chris's role and I cast Tim in my role. I should have asked his permission, I suppose. That would have helped us. But we did have some very, very good years together.' So having been the mentee, he was ready to become the mentor. And in his own extensive diaries of those years, he says, he can see how 'much of my experience with Tim echoed my experience with Chris. And for the first time I was understanding all kinds of situations between Chris and me and seeing them from his point of view and saying to him in my head, 'Oh, that's how you were feeling. Oh, that's what this misunderstanding was all about. Now I get why you were reacting as you did.' ' (Hilton and Bachardy remain on good terms and, in fact, had plans to meet for dinner the week after this interview.)
After his relationship with Hilton ended, Bachardy initially worried that he would struggle on his own. 'I'm happy to say that's not at all the case,' he says. 'The day isn't long enough to suit me. I have so many things I want to do before I die.'
He continues to paint and draw in his studio, sometimes standing at a table for six hours. 'My day is very full. I'm good by myself,' Bachardy says. 'I've got my work. It feeds me. I don't notice the time passing because I'm so engaged in what I'm doing. That's a great, great blessing: to have a vocation. And it was Chris who gave it to me.'