Now only use four-letter words
These lyrics from the opening of Cole Porter's wonderful 1934 musical "Anything Goes" could well have been written with the writer and novelist Christopher Isherwood in mind. Although there is no record of Porter and Isherwood actually having met, both were gay. While Porter married in part to mask his sexuality (the fact that his wife was rich no doubt also helped!), the English-born Isherwood was one of the 20th century's most openly gay men. Exposed to homosexuality at his boarding school in England, he had already met and become best friends with another famously gay Englishman, the poet W. H. Auden, with whom he occasionally shared his bed.
When Auden moved to Berlin in 1928, Isherwood followed a few months later. The capital of the Weimar Republic had earned a thoroughly deserved reputation for sexual freedom and debauchery. The words of Cole Porter were never more true: sexually, in Berlin everything happened! As his lover of many decades, Don Bachardy, later made clear, "To Christopher, Berlin was boys!" (Isherwood did not meet Bachardy until 1952 when he was 48 and Bachardy 18 - they remained together until his death in 1986).
An early photo of Isherwood with the young Don Bachardy
Christopher revelled in Berlin's thriving gay scene. He was later to say he had had sex with at least 400 boys. In staid old England, 400 would have seemed an outrageous number. Then in 1932 he met his first real love, a handsome 17-year old German named Heinz Neddermayer. To his non-gay friends, Christopher explained the relationship as an adoption. But storm clouds in the form of the Nazi Party were on the horizon. In 1933 the pair escaped to England, but Neddermeyer was denied a long-term visa. After a second visit in 1934, they gave up trying and started four-years of wandering around Europe. The relationship had to end when Heinz was forced to return to Germany in 1937.The following day he was captured by the Gestapo and interned in labour camps. After he regained his freedom, he maintained only occasional links with Christopher
Still wandering, in 1938 Christopher and his old pal Auden visited the Paris of the East, the very permissive Shanghai Their commission was to write a travel book on Asia. Here, everything also happened, as Christopher notes in his diary.
“The tired or lustful businessman will find here everything to gratify his desires . . . If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath houses and the brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray like afternoon tea.”
As war broke out Christopher moved to California’s Santa Monica where he wrote and worked on various movie scripts. After meeting Bachardy on the beach – but only after a few sexual encounters with his older brother - for many years he and Don were to become California’s only high-profile openly gay couple. He soon became one of the celebrated European émigré set, mixing regularly with the likes of Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht, Greta Garbo and David Hockney. They also entertained a galaxy of regular American friends from Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote to Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda. Only a few, including Fonda, were dismissive of Christopher’s “toy boy”. Don took solace in painting and has for some decades been a noted artist.
Hockney visited them many times and both feature in several of his paintings. In their house where Bachardy still lives there is one room nicknamed ‘Hockney Hall’ with at least 30 Hockney paintings and drawings. One of the most famous dating from 1968 was painted at a time when the relationship was undergoing some strain as it obvious from their faces.
Of his novels written after the move to the USA, “A Single Man” is recognised as a masterpiece. Set in 1962 and dedicated to Gore Vidal it is about a day in the life of a professor teaching at the University of Los Angeles who has just lost his gay lover in a car crash. In placing it #83 on its list of the 100 best novels of all time, The Guardian described it as “unique, brilliant, and deeply moving.” In 2009 Tom Ford made it into a movie with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.
Before leaving for the USA Christopher had written a novel based partly on his experiences, "Goodbye to Berlin". In 1951 one of his friends persuaded the playwright John Van Druten to adapt the novel into a Broadway play, "I am a Camera". Eventually it was fashioned into the musical "Cabaret". With its haunting music, provocative story and lyrics, all set against the backdrop of emerging Nazi Germany, "Cabaret" became a huge Broadway hit. Soon the movie version was to make it into an even bigger worldwide sensation. Liza Minnelli instantly became one of the world's top stars (and a gay icon in her own right) and the first person ever to appear on the cover of TIME and Newsweek magazines in the same week.
In one scene, Minelli as Sally Bowles is confronted by her erstwhile English lover about another man she has been seeing -
Brian: "Oh! Fuck Maximilian!"
Sally: "I already did!"
Brian (sheepishly): "So did I!"
Even for 1972 that was close to pushing the limits of public acceptability! Isherwood continued to write and Bachardy continued to paint. Their partnership had its ups and downs, especially when Bachardy started on a series of affairs. Yet their open relationship survived and in recent years Bachardy has overseen the publication of Christopher's voluminous diaries and the re-publication of his novels.
If only “A Single Man” and his Berlin stories are to survive into the future, they will surely be a fitting tribute to Christopher Isherwood, one of the true gay icons of the last century.