Photo courtesy of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
When I was 25, I moved to Berlin with a beat-up copy of Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories tucked in my bag. Like many hobosexuals and fagabonds before me, I considered the book a lodestone, a guide to transmuting aimless searching and polymorphous desire into meaningful experiences. So when I heard that Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was releasing The Animals, a collection of the letters of Isherwood and his longtime lover, artist Don Bachardy, I knew I had to read it.
Bachardy met Isherwood when he was 18 and Isherwood was 48 (a year older than Bachardy’s own father). Despite the age difference, the couple spent the next 33 years together. Though love affairs and artistic exploits frequently sent them ricocheting around the world, they maintained a deep and unbreakable connection. They expressed this affection (and frustration) through “the Animals,” personae the two adopted in their letters. Bachardy acted as Kitty and Isherwood called himself Dobbin, Kitty's faithful horse.
Bachardy, now 80, still lives in the house the couple shared in Santa Monica. Shaking with faggoty fan boy excitement, I called Bachardy to discuss The Animals and what it's like dating a famous old man who was older than his dad.
VICE: How did your letters become a book?
Don Bachardy: It was my idea. I'd saved all of Chris's letters, and after his death, I found that he’d saved all of mine. Reading through them just made me think the material was too good not to share it with others. There's almost nothing, no letter in the book, that is missing, except one, though I can't remember now where in the sequence it is.
Did you ever discuss publishing something like this with Chris before he died?
No, no, no. And the animals at the time would have been horrified at the suggestion that they would ever be revealed and their letters [would be] published in a book. They would have been quite shocked by such an idea.
What changed your thinking?
I came across both sets of letters and it was very strange reading them again, but interesting too. There were even some laughs in the material, our attempts to entertain each other. There were things I would have liked to have changed – would have changed if I could – but then it's always a mistake to tamper with any mementos of the past.
How did you meet Isherwood? Had you read his books?
I'd seen a production of I Am a Camera [the play adaptation of The Berlin Stories which was later turned into the musical Cabaret]. It was the road company, here in LA, at the Biltmore Theatre downtown. I'd actually already met Chris on the beach with my brother on summer weekends – he was one of the many people my brother introduced me to – but it wasn't until February of 1953 that Chris and I started seeing a lot of each other. It hadn't occurred to me that the “Herr Issy-voo” of I Am a Camera was actually the man I was getting to know. He had to tell me himself, and of course, I remembered the play, and eventually I got to meet Julie Harris [who played Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera] because he and Julie had become good friends because of the play.
How did people react to the age difference between the two of you when you started your relationship?
They freaked out about it at the time, all those years ago, because Chris wasn't in the closet. He couldn't very well pretend to be anything but queer. And everybody knew this very young looking friend he was going around with – they knew he wasn't his son. It was considered quite shocking by people who guessed this relationship with a 30-year age difference. That was not at all usual in those days and certainly not at all usual that neither party was hiding. No beards required! We just brazened it out. Also, we were both artists, so that made it easier. If we had nine-to-five jobs in a clerk's office, it would have been much tougher because different standards apply.
How was your life as an artist affected by dating Isherwood?
I would never have become an artist except for Isherwood. It was he who constantly urged me to consider being an artist. When we met I showed him drawings that I was doing as an 18-year-old. They were copied from magazine pictures, mostly of movie actors. I did them freehand. Chris saw that I had a real flair for drawing and kept after me: “Why don't you go to art school?”
Well, it took me three years before I dared to make the jump. I was frightened of failing, but his continual support and interest in the work I was doing in art school, once I got started, was invaluable to me. I could never believe in myself as an artist without his support at the time. That was essential to me.
Was it difficult to get people to take you seriously as first?
Yes, because I looked so young and presentable, and most of Chris's friends were around his age or older, so it wasn't so easy for me to be taken seriously by anybody – especially since I hadn't established myself yet as an artist. That's why being an artist was so important! I had to have an identity of my own that was more than just Chris's boyfriend.
Did the age difference concern either of you?
No. I naturally gravitated to people older than I was. It was just instinctive. I knew I could learn so much more from them, and for some reason or another, I had few friends my own age in my school years. So I was ripe to meet an older distinguished man who could give me very, very good advice, which Chris always did.
My favorite paintings you’ve done are the portraits you did of Chris in the last six months of his life.
I was doing close-ups, these close-ups of what Chris was going through at the time. He was lying in bed, and I was hovering over him, just a few feet away. I don't know of any other artist who has ever done close-up drawings of someone dying day after day, week after week. It seemed so appropriate to me because Chris had urged me to be an artist. And here I was with a model who I knew very well, who I'd drawn and painted through our 33 years together. And here he was dying, and it was a way of being with him intensely for much more of the day because I was drawing him. I was with him and looking at him in a way that I only looked at somebody when [I was] drawing or painting that person, so I could be with him intimately. It felt like dying was something he and I were doing together.
Follow Hugh Ryan on Twitter.