Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy

The distinguished English-born writer Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), shown at right, and American painter Don Bachardy (b. 1934) were open about their homosexual relationship, regardless of the controversies their life together caused. Mid-twentieth-century America was a time when gay relationships were not acceptable, and their 30-year age difference brought on additional problems that had to be addressed when they settled into Isherwood’s home in Santa Monica, California.

They became a high profile, openly gay couple during the age of McCarthyism, when homosexuals were being driven out of the government and Hollywood. Young Don often felt disregarded by Chris's famous friends, who thought of him as a “child prostitute” (Bachardy’s own words).

Nevertheless, Bachardy stuck around and pursued a career as a portrait artist, painting and drawing every day. His first one-man exhibition was held in 1961 in London. Finding a vocation gave Don a sense of fulfillment and independence. He began to realize that he could function independently, which made him question whether he wanted to stay with Isherwood. Don toyed with leaving the relationship and striking out on his own, but decided not to, as he realized his love for Chris was too important. Their relationship lasted for thirty-two years, until Isherwood’s death.

From 1930 to 1933 Isherwood had lived in Berlin, where he felt released from the social and sexual inhibitions that stifled his development in England. Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) was subsequently adapted as the musical Cabaret, which was produced in both Broadway (1966) and film (1972) versions. This movie, starring Liza Minelli, put Isherwood on the map, expanding his celebrity beyond literary circles.

In 1939, Isherwood emigrated to the United States with W. H. Auden. Auden stayed in NYC, but Isherwood settled in Los Angeles, where he began writing film scripts; in 1946, he became a U.S. citizen. He loved California and never regretted leaving England. Seven years later, he met college student Don Bachardy on the gay portion of beach at Santa Monica on Valentine’s Day, 1953. Don was 18, and Chris was 48, but Don’s boyish appearance actually made him look even younger (see photo at left). When they moved in together, their neighbors were aghast. Don’s father, who was younger than Isherwood, was so taken aback by the age disparity, that he didn’t speak to Isherwood for 15 years. He was ultimately won over, and eventually Don’s father, a skilled mechanic, was working under the hood of Isherwood’s car.

Isherwood took Bachardy under wing and educated him personally. “Chris was completely responsible for my becoming an artist,” says Don. In addition to supporting him through art school, “financially and emotionally,” Isherwood also introduced Bachardy to great literature. “He gave me Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises,' Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby,' and Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' to start, and I just went from there.” Don has said that Isherwood “never gave me bad advice.” The influence on Don by Chris cannot be overstated. Don even affected Isherwood’s English accent to the point that friends could not tell them apart on the telephone.

Chris & Don – A Love Story (2007): This documentary film (available on DVD and on-line streaming) depicts the remarkable life of Don Bachardy and his relationship with Isherwood. They call each other Dobbin and Kitty, and the movie includes footage shot by Chris and Don in the 1950s as well as interviews with Leslie Caron, John Boorman and Liza Minnelli.
In the opinion of important literary critics, Isherwood's finest achievement was his 1964 novel, A Single Man, which depicted a day in the life of George, a middle-aged, gay Englishman who is a professor at a Los Angeles university, mourning the loss of his lover, Jim, who had died in a car crash. This book was made into a film of the same name in 2009; Colin Firth, its star, earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and the movie was the directorial debut of Tom Ford.. Don Bachardy had a cameo in the film and is credited as a creative consultant; he portrayed a professor in the teacher’s lounge, to whom Firth says "Hello, Don". A Single Man was Isherwood’s personal favorite of his nine novels. The book is a meditation on the temporality of life, but is also filled with humor, compassion and intelligence. Chris also enjoyed praise from his peers. Gore Vidal called Isherwood “the best English prose writer of the 20th century.”

During the 1970s, Chris and Don began to collaborate on various writing projects, such as “Frankenstein: The True Story”, an unusual take on Mary Shelley's famous novel. In 1981, Isherwood was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and Bachardy nursed him throughout the course of the disease. For the last six months of Isherwood’s life, Don gave up painting any one else but Chris (see photo). What began as way to spend more time together quickly became the project of a lifetime, lasting until the very end. Don still lives in the Santa Monica home on Adelaide Drive that they shared for decades.

After Chris’s death, Don engaged in painting a series of portraits of Angelina Jolie. Bachardy's career has continued to flourish, and a number of books about Bachardy's art have been published, the latest of which is Stars in My Eyes. Bachardy's work resides in important permanent collections around the world, including the National Portrait Gallery (London), the Smithsonian Institution, and The Norton Simon Museum.

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