Documentary Celebrates 'Chris And Don' The documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story chronicles the relationship of the late writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. Bachardy joined Fresh Air in July 2008 to talk about their life together.
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Documentary Celebrates 'Chris And Don'

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Documentary Celebrates 'Chris And Don'

Documentary Celebrates 'Chris And Don'

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Apparently, few people took the relationship seriously when the esteemed writer, Christopher Isherwood, became involved with Don Bachardy, who was still a teenager, about 30 years younger than Isherwood.

But the relationship lasted over 30 years, until Isherwood's death in 1986. Their story is the subject of the documentary, "Chris and Don," which is now out on DVD.

Our guest is Don Bachardy. His life with Christopher Isherwood reveals something of what it was like to openly gay in Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. Isherwood was a British writer who became and American citizen in 1946.

He's best known for his short story collection, "The Berlin Stories," based on his experiences living in Berlin just before World War II.

The Broadway show and movie musical "Cabaret" were adapted from those stories. So were the play and film, "I Am a Camera." Isherwood also co-wrote several screenplays, including "Rage in Heaven" and "The Loved One."

With Isherwood's encouragement, Don Bachardy became a portrait painter. His work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Terry spoke with Don Bachardy last summer, when "Chris and Don" was released.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Don Bachardy, welcome to FRESH AIR. It must have been a real emotional experience for you, being in this documentary, immersing yourself in an earlier part of your life and your relationship with the late Christopher Isherwood.

Mr. DAN BACHARDY (Artist): Yes it was, and it still is. Every time I see it, I can't help being moved by it. That early footage of Chris and me seems very touching to me now.

GROSS: You're so young.

Mr. BACHARDY: Yes, indeed I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BACHARDY: And looked even younger than I was.

GROSS: Yeah, right. How old were you?

Mr. BACHARDY: Eighteen. And that same year, I went with Chris to New York for the first time, and the serious rumor went around town that Christopher had brought a 12-year-old with him from California.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BACHARDY: And people believed it, and I looked the part.

GROSS: Okay, so you were 18 when you started seeing each other, and he was 30 years older. Did you think of yourself as gay at that point? Had you had gay relationships before? Were you certain of your sexual orientation?

Mr. BACHARDY: Oh, I was certain. I'd had a few encounters, but I was still relatively green in my experience, but I certainly knew without a doubt that I was queer.

GROSS: What was your first reaction to the 30-year age difference between you and Christopher Isherwood? Did that seem like a lot to you? Did he seem way older than you?

Mr. BACHARDY: He was actually a year older than my father, but he didn't seem so. He seemed ages younger, and he seemed really out of the category - anybody that I might consider for a sexual relationship. But he was so boyish in his look, and so witty and charming, and I felt at ease with him almost immediately.

And it wasn't until many years later that I realized that in many respects, Chris was much younger than I. He was much more curious. He was still capable of being awed by his experience, like a young man, and that was really quite sobering for me to realize.

GROSS: What were some of the difficulties of being in a relationship when you were young, still a teenager, and unformed, and your partner was an older, established writer with a circle of friends and colleagues, many of them celebrities? Did it make you insecure at all? Did you have an identity crisis?

Mr. BACHARDY: Social situations were sometimes difficult, but then Chris was always there to shore me up, and I felt his support. He never let me flounder, and the fact that I was in his company meant that I didn't have to worry about making conversation because he was a wonderful conversationalist, and that allowed me to drink in everybody that I met.

And that was very exciting, because often, they were the very movie stars that I'd idolized since I was a child.

GROSS: Because you were so much younger, did some of his friends think that you were just a toy for him?

Mr. BACHARDY: Oh yes. I looked like a toy boy. And while I enjoyed their interest in me for my looks, yes of course, all young people want to be taken seriously as mature personalities.

So - but I was quite pleased to be admired physically. But as I got older, I wanted more, and that was good because it made me think seriously about how I could make something of myself.

GROSS: One of the interviewees in the movie, "Chris and Don," says about you, it was as if Chris had cloned himself because you'd picked up some of his mannerisms and some of his British accent. Were you aware of that at the time?

Mr. BACHARDY: Well, I gradually realized that I was and still am, an unconscious mimic - that I instinctively took on the sounds of people I was around with a lot.

And that happened very early with Chris. Within a year, I believe, I was already beginning to sound a bit like him. But I wasn't aware of it and got a big shock when I first heard my voice recorded.

And there were several people in the room, and I looked around and said I don't sound like that, do I? And they all agreed yes, yes. That sounds exactly like you.

And I was horrified, because I knew that people who'd known me before I knew Chris, would think I'd become wildly affected. But since I couldn't hear it myself, there was little I could do about it.

GROSS: Do you think he saw things in you that you didn't yet see in yourself?

Mr. BACHARDY: Yes, I know he did, and he tried to help me to see them and to believe in myself. Like many young people, I was lacking in confidence. I was shy. Well, my mother was extremely shy, and I think I'd been mimicking her for years.

And my instinctive mimicry, it was only years later that I realized that that was a very important aspect of my work as an artist. I always drew pictures of people, and only people, and I began to realize that I was mimicking them, my idols, when I was working with them because I had the wonderful experience of being able to draw from life. Many of the people I'd drawn from magazine pictures when I was a child.

GROSS: Christopher Isherwood sent you to art school when he realized that you had talent. And you loved art school, and you developed into, you know, a painter and sketch artist doing, you know, portraits of people.

Did it change your relationship with Christopher Isherwood when you became an artist in your own right?

Mr. BACHARDY: Oh, it was very important change from my point of view because I'd found my vocation. And once I got to art school, I worked at it day and night.

I went all day long, and I was often back for the evening class. And it was of great importance to me to establish my own identity, and I knew that I had to do that if the relationship between us was to be preserved.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Don Bachardy, and the new movie, "Chris and Don," is about his 33-year relationship with the writer Christopher Isherwood.

You were both always out as a couple. I mean, you never pretended that you were heterosexual. You showed up at parties together. What was it like to be out in Hollywood - and Christopher Isherwood was writing for Hollywood - what was it like to be out in Hollywood in the '50s and '60s before Stonewall, before the gay liberation movement?

Mr. BACHARDY: Well, I suppose without realizing it, we were early pioneers, but we had really very little choice. First of all, Chris was a distinguished writer who was fairly well known to be homosexual. So anybody that he appeared with frequently was assumed - especially if he were youthful and presentable -was presumed to be a boyfriend.

And we weren't going to pretend that we weren't living together. So it would have been unnatural for Chris to leave me at home, and he wouldn't dream of doing that anyway, because he was an above-board personality. He wasn't about to cringe just because he was engaged in a relationship that was frowned on by society. He was, in his heart, a genuine rebel.

GROSS: Now, you and Christopher Isherwood were friends with the actor Tony Perkins, and my understanding is that he was trying hard not to be gay. He was married, had a child. Was he in therapy, trying to, you know, like overcome gayness, and did you watch him go through difficult periods?

Mr. BACHARDY: Oh, I think he spent years on therapy and hoping that he could transform himself into a heterosexual. Thank goodness, that was never a problem for either Chris or me.

And in fact, everything that I value in my life has come to me through my queerness, and I've had an extremely lucky life. So, we understood Perkins and sympathized with him, but that was certainly not a feeling that we suffered from.

We - both Chris and I were very, very pleased to be queer.

DAVIES: Don Bachardy, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with artist Dan Bachardy. His relationship with British writer Christopher Isherwood is the subject of the documentary "Chris and Don," which is now out on DVD.

GROSS: The movie "Cabaret" and the Broadway show "Cabaret" are both based on a short story that Christopher Isherwood wrote, based on somebody who he met in the 1930s when he was living in Berlin.

And in the movie, you say that Isherwood didn't really like the show that much because Liza Minnelli was just such a terrific singer in "Cabaret," and the character of Sally Bowles is supposed to be a real amateur - so it was hard to square those two things. But what did you both think of the whole idea of turning the short story about Sally Bowles into a musical?

Mr. BACHARDY: Well, it's so easy to lose the character of Sally Bowles because as soon as she's played by a very talented professional actress and singer, as Liza Minnelli is, you lose an essential quality of Sally Bowles because she was nothing if she wasn't an amateur.

And Liza Minnelli would have been the toast of Europe, belting those songs out. How could she possibly also be little, no-talent, Sally Bowles - however charming she is?

And of course, Chris couldn't help being aware of that. Before he saw the movie, he actually thought Liza Minnelli might be very good casting. We'd seen her in two films, "The Sterile Cuckoo" and "Junie Moon," and she was clearly very talented.

He thought she might be just wonderful. But as soon as she comes on belting those songs, he said she's not Sally Bowles.

GROSS: You went through a period in your relationship with Christopher Isherwood, and this is described in the documentary about your relationship, "Chris and Don." You went through a period when you insisted that you needed to see other men, that Isherwood had had a period of his life before he met you when he had other relationships, and you needed to go through that period, too.

So how did you both deal with jealousy and possessiveness? Was that - was that easy or difficult to…?

Mr. BACHARDY: Very difficult, because it required the maximum of tact and consideration and delicacy. And always I felt a responsibility, and I know Chris did too, to whomever we were seeing on the side to always make it clear to the other that he was and always would be number one.

If one keeps that in mind - I do think one could do - miracle turns around jealousy and resentment. But I, myself, was always very careful to let Chris know there was no question that anybody would ever mean to me what he did.

GROSS: When Christopher Isherwood was dying of prostate cancer, you took care of him. You also sketched him. You did a series of, I think it was pen and ink drawings, on his deathbed. Why did you want to spend those last few days of his life at his side, drawing him?

Mr. BACHARDY: Well, I always intended to look after him and keep him home, keep him out of a hospital. That was his idea of a horrible death, a death in a hospital.

So for many, many years, that was my intention. And then when he got sick and began to fail, we were often in the house alone together, and yes, I - there were things I did for him, but what about the rest of my day?

So I canceled all my sittings, the last six months of his life, I only worked with him. And I worked with him almost every day and often did as many as a dozen drawings a day - fast ones, slow ones, the best I could manage.

GROSS: Did that kind of provide a structure for you both to be together, and yet not have to talk, and…?

Mr. BACHARDY: Well exactly. And you see, when I work with anybody, as I was speaking earlier, the mimicry, the identification with my sitter that is instinctive and a very necessary part of my working technique - I was identifying with Chris, even after 33 years.

And I was with him more intensely than I could be doing anything else. And so it began to seem like dying was something that we were doing together. I was with him. I was looking into his eyes and feeling him, as well as looking at him, and that was so important to me.

There was no other way I could have been so intimate with him. And that was wonderful for me. I was there in a way that was much more intense than if I just stood by the bed looking at him. I was copying him. So I was with him the whole time.

GROSS: In some of the sketches that you did of him when he was dying, he looks like he's in pain, and I was wondering if you let him…

Mr. BACHARDY: He was.

GROSS: Yeah, I was wondering if you let him see those drawings, or if you wanted to protect him from looking at how pained he appeared to be. I mean, obviously he knew he was in pain, but sometimes it's not helpful to see how you look when you feel that way.

Mr. BACHARDY: Well you see, it's my habit to have my - ask my sitters to sign and date my pictures of them, because I feel the way I work is a perfect collaboration. And the better my sitter is - the stiller, the more concentrated my sitter - the better the work I do is likely to turn out.

And when I began to concentrate only on Chris, those last six months, he signed and dated the pictures I did for the first three or four months, and then he got beyond it. He couldn't sign and date anymore.

So one day, he was in bed, and I'd done six or seven pictures. And they were all black acrylic, and the paint was still wet. So I'd spread some of the pictures on the bed and some of them on the floor. And I was used, by that time, to his not being able to sign and date the pictures.

So I hadn't even suggested it, and in fact as I was picking up the pictures, being sure that they were dry, holding them up to the light - I thought he was asleep. And when I got the pictures together and was on my way out of the bedroom with them under my arm, he said to me from his bed, I like the ones of him dying.

And that absolutely threw me. I thought, my goodness, he's with me still. He's still urging me on, praising me, for drawings of him dying. Now I don't know - I've never heard of anybody else capable of that kind of consideration in the state that he was in.

DAVIES: Don Bachardy, speaking with Terry Gross. Bachardy's relationship with writer Christopher Isherwood is the subject of the documentary, "Chris and Don," now out on DVD. Bachardy will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with Don Bachardy, whose relationship with writer Christopher Ishwerwood is the subject of the documentary "Chris and Don," which is now out on DVD. When they fell in love, Isherwood was in his late 40s, Bachardy was 18. Terry spoke with Don Bachardy last summer.

GROSS: Marriage wasn't close to being legal for gay people when you and Christopher Isherwood were a couple but correct me if I'm wrong here, he - I think this is when he was sick - he adopted you so that you could make medical and legal decisions on his behalf because that was your only way of having some kind of legal relationship that would be recognized for things like medical decisions. How strange was that - that he had to like adopt you in order for you to have a legal family connection to you?

Mr. BACHARDY: But even though I was determined to keep him home when he got sick, there was a chance that he would have to go into hospital for some reason or other and we were both worried that I wouldn't be given access. That was the only reason we adopted each other.

GROSS: Did it work? Was it recognized in the way that you wanted it to be? Did it accomplish what you needed it to accomplish?

Mr. BACHARDY: Well, it didn't really come into it. He did have to spend a few days in hospital during those last six months, and I just had a cot put in the room and I slept beside his bed, but it didn't really enter into it. I never got anyone saying you can't go into his room. But I know Chris would've cheered when gays were given the right to marry, we would both consider that a huge time but it wouldn't have changed our attitude. We - both of us agreed early on that any kind of legalization of our relationship was just not necessary for either of us.

GROSS: I was reading an article from 1997 in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review. And in that 1997 article about you it described you as having a partner who was 26 years younger than you, an age difference that was similar to the difference between you and Christopher Isherwood. And you were quoted as saying, I couldn't find anybody to replace Chris so I thought I'd try and find somebody who could play my role, so now I'm playing Chris. Are you still in that relationship?

Mr. BACHARDY: No, it lasted for 10 years and many of those 10 years were blissful years for me. And, yes he was 26 years younger than I and so I got this extraordinary experience of playing Chris's role with a much younger man and it was so illuminating of all my years with Chris. And I was so often saying to myself when my young friend did not - he's asked me not to name him, that's why I'm being coy about his name. But when he and I would have quarrels or disagreements or when we'd come together blissfully, I was always saying -addressing Chris in my mind - saying, oh that's what that situation was about, that's how you were feeling. Now I understand. And that was just - I believe it's called epiphany. Well if that's what it's called, then epiphany is great.

GROSS: Are you in a relationship now?

Mr. BACHARDY: I'm for the first time in my life I'm having a very satisfactory relationship with somebody my own age. We were born the same year, in 1934, and he's actually three months my junior. And he was somebody that I met on one of my trips to New York more than 40 years ago. And, of course, I was always frank with the people I had sex with in those years. And how could I not be because Chris was well known and I, as his friend, I couldn't not be frank. So when the job that I was doing in New York was over, I came back to California and I never saw this friend again until about three and half, four years ago.

I had a show at the Huntington and he went to see it and wrote me a letter telling me how much he'd enjoyed it. So I wrote him back and said why don't you come and sit for me again. I'd done drawings of him more than 40 years before, both portraits and nudes, and he did come to sit for me. And he rang the buzzer up at the gate. And I went out the house and down the stairs - came this man of my own age. Now that was quite a surprise. And then I thought, well what do you suppose he's seeing. He's seeing a man of his age too. It was a charming reunion and we did several sittings together and now we spend a lot of time together and very much enjoy each others company. So, that's a pretty good development from my point of view.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. BACHARDY: Well, thank you.

DAVIES: Don Bachardy speaking with Terry Gross. Bachardy's relationship with writer Christopher Isherwood is the subject of the documentary "Chris And Don" which is now out on DVD. Coming up the writer and director of "Rachel Getting Married." This is FRESH AIR.

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