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.
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 TheBoys 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.
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Above: Warren Beatty, August 14, 1965, from Hollywood
The Advocate: Reading Tom Ford's intro to Hollywood compared to Armistead Maupin's sounds as if Ford was very concerned about his appearancs.
Don Bachardy: Oh, yes, very concerned. He was tense and it made me tense. He didn't particularly like the pictures I had done of him. They were done under great pressure. It seemed to me they were largely produced by him.
Do you still get really tense while you are doing a portrait?
I've only one way of doing it. If I was tense then, I am tense now. Plus I was doing people who were world-famous. That always put on a lot of pressure. It's difficult enough doing day-to-day people. I don't do that [paint celebrities] nearly so much anymore. I feel like I have done my job in that department. As a younger portraitist you have to draw famous people -- otherwise how will the public at large be able to tell whether I can get a likeness? It has to be somebody recognizable. Also I had a lust, especially for movie people, Because I was brought up on movies.
There is an amazing picture of you as a young man (taken by brother Ted) with Marilyn Monroe, getting her autograph. It's interesting to see how that evolved into this.
Well, yes, it's all of a piece.
If you are not so focused and drawing celebrities now, what is it that you are interested in drawing?
Just looking at people. It is as simple as it gets. It is still the hardest thing that you can do that I can imagine doing. It still costs me maximum effort, concentration. And I don't know of any easy way of doing it.
Seeing the abstract paintings interspersed thoughout the book was interesting. They were like a pause in the action.
Yes, I had second thoughts about that. I called the publisher and asked if it was really a good idea, and she said, yes, indeed I do. In fact, she insisted on it.
They are lovely, like a sorbet between courses.
It is the first time they have been published. I had been doing a lot of them in the last years, it's like a reverse of my sittings. They are relaxing. I love doing them. I can stand up for six, seven, sometimes nine or 10 hours without sitting down. I'm so absorbed in what I am doing.
Above: Patrick Swayze, February 10, 1985, from Hollywood
What is a working day like now?
Oh, the last few weeks I haven't done any sittings or abstracts. It's just too distracting with this book being published.
You are self-descibed as an introvert, and yet what you have to do to arrange for famous people to pose for you, book signings and all that -- it kind of goes contrary to that.
Yes, I am, I don't think anyone ever gets over that, but I have a double nature. I have to be a masochist to force myself into these confrontations.
You are quoted as saying "I was waiting to be told who I was," before you met Chris. And yet there is this perseverance in your nature. Where does that come from?
I can't tell you. I couldn't have lived my life as I have without being driven. Part of me longs to relax with a great sigh. To forget about all that pressure and tension. I think I have found out who I am, I am somebody who identifies with other people. So doing what I do is part of my effort to identify myself.
When you started working more in color, can you say what other colorist may have inspired you?
The one artist who inspired more than anyone else was Francis Bacon. Imagine, I got to do two sittings with him! One in 1961 and one in 1970. I met him very early with Chris, because they were friends from the '40s. Chris was fascinated by him. I met him on my first trip to London when I was 21. Chris was afraid of taking me [out of the country] before I was officially an adult. He had had all that trouble getting his German boyfriend Heinz in and out of Germany. There were some snide immigration officers in England sizing up what he was doing with this young German boy, getting him into London. So Chris waited until I was 21, and even then I don't think he ever really got over that experience.
Above: Kenneth Anger, September 30, 1995, from Hollywood
In reading the diaries, Chris talks about your input on his work, titles you came up with, edits you made. It could be seen that you had a bigger influence on his work than he had directly on yours.
Yes, but I was only able to make my creations because of the support that he gave me. The belief that he proved to me was genuine. When my courage failed, he was always there to give me a pep talk. I can't give him enough credit for everything he has done. He allowed me to fashion myself according to his guidance, his standards. It was just what I needed and such a luxury. Of course, we both had to decide we were destined for each other. We were both what we wanted and what we needed.
You two were famously nonmonogamous. At the time Chris died it was also the most terrifying early years of AIDS. Do you think your open relationship enhanced your closeness? Or did it make it more difficult?
Yes, it was difficult for me, juggling. But it was worth it. I think if it hadn't been for Chris, I would have died of AIDS. But it was my relationship with him that kept me in line, as it were. It helped me avoid what otherwise would have been my excesses. But yeah, it was a tricky, demanding balancing act that the two of us did. There was so much riding on it, so much we cared about deeply, that we just had to do it as best we could.
My position with Chris was that he had had all that experience before he met me. By the time he knew me, yes, he was ready to be totally faithful [laughs]. Easy for him, because he'd had all the exploration he needed. But I hadn't and he understood that. I just insisted on it and he knew he couldn't deny me.
As they continued to roll out, did you feel exposed by the diaires? Was that difficult at all?
Oh, no, if anything, there wasn't enough about me [both laugh].
Watching your work over the years and seeing photos of you as you got older, how do you look so amazing at 80?
By working at it. I have always wanted to be as attractive as I could be. How else could I have snared Chris? [Smiles broadly.] I work out three times a week. I started going to the gym when I was 21. It's always been necessary, my physical upkeep.
You smaller guys age better -- it's really unfair, you have the genetic advantage.
I am glad I am small, I never wanted to be bigger than I am. And I do think it makes it easier being compact. I just think tall people have more, um, housekeeping.
Above: Holly Woodlawn, October 7, 1991, from Hollywood
You two had a strict no pets policy. No cats, no dogs.
We were each other's pets. We had barely been together a year, it was 1954, I got my first job working with Tony Duquette [the legendary Los Angeles designer], and his wife, Beegle, gave me a tiny little Siamese cat and Chris said "uh-uh." And he explained why. If we had an animal, so much affection between us would go to the animal. It was sensible to me, and so the very next morning I took that cat back to Beegle. And we never considered a pet again.
We slept very close together, entangled. And we believed that we communicated in the night. We often considered it and talked about it as we had had breakfast out on the deck. We always ate on the deck -- even when it was very cold we wrapped ourselves in blankets and you could see our breath. Only rain kept us off the deck. And that was one of the things we often talked about: the latest night together and what awareness we had of each other in the night.
And has there ever been a pet since?
Never. No. No. No. Even now, no.
What about any other commited relationships? Have you been involved with anyone else?
I did with Tim Hilton -- we lived here in this house for 10 years together. He is an Oregonian now.
I recall meeting him years ago when we had dinner as a group and went to the film that night.
He's a big boy, he's 6 foot 2, very fat now. But that doesn't bother me in the least. He is so much himself in that. I always knew he would be overweight, and I decided in those first days it didn't matter to me. I never encouraged him to diet or eat less in any way. He is very fat now and I have a picture he just sent to me. I think he looks adorable. He's like a big bear, I told him he's my big golden bear.
What's sex like after 80?
Let's see. Tim and I don't have sex anymore. Not by any decision. In fact, I don't have sex with anybody and haven't [since Tim]. Tim was my last. I don't miss it. Tim was just wonderful. That was exactly what I needed after Chris died. It took me a little more than a year to find him. It was great, great sex and we did everything we could think of together. Everything. I haven't missed a thing [smiling broadly]. It was just wonderful. He was as physical as I. And just as insatiable as I. And we were just at it all the time, and it was wonderful.
Laws have changed. I am legally married to my my husband now. Do you think you and Chris ever would have gotten married?
Oh no, no. We weren't against it, but what mattered to us was what was between us. We didn't need any kind of confirmation or acceptance. And he taught me that very early. In fact, he taught me anything that is of any use to me. Meeting him was just ... that's when I got born. I was just waiting for him and I didn't realize it.
Click through for more art, photography, and video on Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood>>>
The iconic early photograph of the couple
Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, David Hockney, 1968, acrylic on canvas
Don Bachardy and Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood, Chris O'Dell, 1976, archival digital print
Film still used to promote the documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story
Recommended reading and viewing: Stars in My Eyes is full of portraits of Hollywood legends as well as Don's trenchant observations of the stars. Chris & Don is a must-see video about this historic relationship and collaboration. The Animals is a touching collection of love letters between the two.Video on Don and Chris:Below: Chris & Don: A Love Story (Trailer)Below: The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don BachardyBelow: Don Bachardy With Aaron Hicklin, Editor in Chief of Out, on the Love Letters
Below: Love Letters, With Don Bachardy With Katherine BucknellDon Bachardy Speaks on Other Artists:
Below: Bachardy on Andy Warhol and David HockneyOn Don Bachardy's Work:
Below: Bachardy on Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud
Below: Bachardy on Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Gehry, Peter Alexander, and Billy Al Bengston
Below: Looking for Genius With Don Bachardy
Below: Don Bachardy at Craig Krull: Portraits of L.A. Artists: Pacific Standard Time
Below: In Studio With Don Bachardy, April 8, 2013
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Click on the image below for Don Bachardy at Craig Krull Gallery