Portrait Of The Artist (As An Old Man)

3.26.2009

By Bruce Shenitz

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.'

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