The Enduring Love and Exquisite Observations of Don Bachardy

The Enduring Love and Exquisite Observations of Don Bachardy

Don Bachardy is an artist. More specifically, a portrait artist, which is a more prickly profession and life calling. He is also, incidentally, a writer of clear, intelligent text. And, if you read between the lines of his life partner's staggeringly beautiful diaries, a wise editor.

To be able to spend some time with Bachardy in the home he shared with British author, screenwriter, and diarist Christopher Isherwood for decades is an honor. I first learned of Isherwood and Bachardy's relationship in After Dark magazine in the early 1970s when I was a teenager. The release of the film Cabaret, based loosely on Isherwood's Berlin Stories, also opened their completely uncloseted relationship up to the world on a new level. Bachardy and Isherwood moved the needle forward for acceptance and understanding of same-sex relationships by simply living their lives openly and continuing to create works of art, both individually and collaboratively. To understand the bravery of these acts may only be recognizable in the context of the extremely homophobic atmosphere of the times.

The iconic visual images are like the stations of the gay cross for men of my generation: The almost shocking dual photographic portrait of Bachardy and Isherwood early in their relationship when the 30-year age difference was most apparent; the serenely beautiful dual portrait painting of the couple in their home by close friend David Hockney; Bachardy's final portraits of Isherwood as he lay dying, and then the drawings of his devoted partner moments after his death.

They are the most famous gay couple who has ever lived. One might put up an argument for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but theirs was an understood arrangement, not spoken about at length to the gay press during their lives together. Indeed, there was virtually no gay press for Stein and Toklas to speak to.

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At left: Bachardy on an autograph quest with Marilyn Monroe in a photo taken by his brother Ted

Don Bachardy started sketching film stars from movie magazines long before he met Isherwood. He and his brother Ted collected autographs of the stars and took pictures of each other collecting them. Calligraphy and autographs are still a part of Bachardy's work, as he traditionally asks the person sitting for him to autograph and date the drawing or painting. And Bachardy's work often has a strong calligraphic texture to it, bold confident strokes of paint or black India ink like a chisel on the canvas, the paper.

The occasion of this interview is the publication of his latest book, Hollywood (available on Amazon November 1). This much-anticipated monograph includes over 300 works, from his subtle pencil on paper explorations to his bold-stroked, fauvist color paintings. Included is a galaxy of stars and cultural icons from the last century as well as some new millennium personalities. Interspersed like palate cleansers are his delightful abstracts which come as a zen-like surprise. The sheer number of famous people Bachardy has painted is hard to believe. And he has been gathering these portraits and autographs for 50 years.

In the book, both author Armistead Maupin and Tom Ford (fashion designer and director of the film version of Isherwood's novel A Single Man) write about the experience of being drawn by Bachardy. Maupin luxuriates in the experience of sitting perfectly still and cat-like, and being observed in silence. Ford describes an experience more fraught and challenging. Bachardy has been described as a psychological portraitist. Perhaps the feelings and sensations of sitting for him are part of the examination and the collaboration.

On a beautiful last Saturday morning in September, I made my way to the house that, for me, is like a cultural gay mecca. To be sitting in the large, art-filled living room with Don Bachardy, sitting in the rattan chair that he sat in for Hockney's famous portrait of the pair, is for me an ultimate moment.

I reminded him that we had met once over 20 years ago. There was a dinner and movie excursion we had been on as a small group of men to see Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train at UCLA. The ensemble that evening was gay English author and screenwriter Gavin Lambert; Tim Hilton — Don's partner at the time; and Mart Crowley, playwright of the groundbreaking The Boys in the Band. It was a vivid memory for me. Alas, for Don, less significant. He nodded politely.

"It was very perverse of Mart to move to New York —  I miss him very much," Don says in the halting British accent he absorbed from being with Isherwood for over 30 years.

Click through for more of the interview and for images from Don Bachardy's Hollywood. >>>

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