Portrait Of The Artist (As An Old Man)

3.26.2009

By Bruce Shenitz

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.'

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