Don Bachardy, one
of America's most respected portraitists, has
captured the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Natalie
Wood, and Bette Davis on paper and canvas. Yet
Bachardy's most persistent identification remains his
partnership of over 33 years with legendary British novelist
Christopher Isherwood, who died in January 1986.
Bachardy's considerable talent and his enduring
bond with Isherwood each get pride of place in a powerful
new documentary, Chris and Don: A Love Story, from
filmmakers Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, which
premieres June 13 in New York City. What's
more, Bachardy just enjoyed exhibitions of his male nudes,
portraits, and abstracts at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa
Monica, Calif., and New York City's White
Pride month is a
fitting time to catch up with the artist at his home --
a bungalow tucked into the rugged hillside of a Santa Monica
canyon, with a pristine view of the Pacific on one
side and the Santa Monica Mountains on the other. At
74, Bachardy appears not just fit but indefatigable,
like a silver-haired bantamweight fighter. He knows time has
been kind to him. "I believe that good luck can
become habit-forming," he observes. "It
seems I've had a great deal of luck, and hopefully it
will see me through to my end."
now, it's easy to imagine the beautiful young man
whose life, in 1952, became forever and irrevocably
intertwined with Isherwood's. Bachardy was
still in his teens, a grocery-store bag boy from
workaday Glendale, Calif., when he met the then-48-year-old
upper-crust British writer and intellectual on Will Rogers
As he serves me
coffee, Bachardy recalls that clandestine first meeting.
"I used to accompany my older brother, Ted, to the
beach, sort of just tagging along," he says.
"Ted was exceptionally beautiful, and there was
always a coterie of men gathered around him. Chris was among
the many. Ted had pointed him out to me, and on
occasion he'd wave to us from his nearby
spot." In the documentary, Bachardy makes a casual
reference to the fact that Ted had "gone to bed
with Chris...once or twice." Despite all
that, Bachardy and Isherwood became sexually involved.
Several months later they moved in together.
The Berlin Stories -- Isherwood's
semiautobiographical tales of early 1930s Weimar
Berlin, with its unprecedented sexual freedom and
simultaneous totalitarian leanings -- inspired the classic
Broadway and film musical Cabaret. Throughout
his long life, which he recorded in his voluminous
diaries, Isherwood continued to expound on many of the
themes found in his Berlin work, including sexual
exploration and spiritual seeking.
From the start,
Bachardy and Isherwood lived openly as a couple, a brave
and hazardous choice in the homophobic 1950s. The enmity of
the age may have drawn them closer, although the
disparity in their ages sometimes chafed. Bachardy
remembers that as an 18-year-old who looked 16, he was
dismissed by Chris's friends as a "sort of
male prostitute." A July 1955 entry from
Isherwood's diary reveals his sense of responsibility
toward his partner: "I've taken on this
project, and I obviously have to do my best. And I do
want to do my best. I'm not being noble about that.
It is a genuine vocation. Don is by far the most
interesting person I've ever lived with. Why?
Because he minds the most about things."
During the years
when his young lover wrestled with career choices,
Isherwood stuck with his project. "Chris was a
mentor, a guide," Bachardy tells me. "He
taught me what it means to be an artist and what steps
were necessary to become one." When Bachardy began to
attend Chouinard School of Art, Isherwood offered
unflagging encouragement. "Chris took a genuine
interest in every drawing I brought home from class.
He always pointed out the quality of animation and sense of
life he saw in my drawings. For a young person
starting out, that was enormously encouraging."
During the second
week they lived together, Bachardy began drawing and
painting his partner. He would go on to make repeated
portraits of Isherwood till death separated them. In
the last six months of Isherwood's life,
Bachardy painted only him. Tina Mascara points out that
these portraits -- so many that
them "countless" -- would not exist if
Isherwood had not wanted to show his love.
"Chris was a highly disciplined writer, yet he
regularly gave up large portions of his time to sit for Don.
What other reason would there be?" she asks
rhetorically. Together with Isherwood's
diaries, Bachardy's portraits add up to one of the
most moving tributes ever created to an evolving gay
Isherwood's affinity for films and film people also
struck a chord with Bachardy -- one that went back to
his childhood with his mother, a shy woman who was a
lifelong movie buff. "My mother took me with her to
see films at the downtown L.A. movie palaces,"
Bachardy remembers. "I loved seeing the
beautiful faces of men and women projected 40 feet high. It
was the beginning of my interest in faces. By the time I was
5, I began drawing fairly precise reproductions of
film stars' faces from images in fan
Bachardy's luck to progress from a teenage movie fan
to the confidant of a partner who regularly brought
movie stars home to dinner. The celebrated faces
agreed, usually with Isherwood's prodding, to sit
for the fledgling artist, and in time these faces became not
just subjects but friends. "With the financial
and emotional support of Chris, I've come to
earn a livelihood doing something I love," says
Bachardy, "something I can do for the rest of
still works nearly every day in his sun-drenched studio,
where he logs six- to eight-hour days engaged in recording
the faces of celebrities, friends, and strangers. Like
his great love, Chris, he continues to seek new
knowledge. "I've spent hours studying people
during their sittings," Bachardy tells me.
"This occupation allows me to glean detailed
insights into people's behavior and
motivations." During these long sessions, he
remains on his feet. When I inquire how he manages
this, he answers, "I never flag. I'm
constantly challenging myself."