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With two recent gallery shows and a new film about his life with Christopher Isherwood, the artist enjoys the rewards of a gay life well lived.

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 Columns gallery.

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."

Watching Bachardy 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 State Beach.

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

Bachardy numbers 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 relationship.

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 magazines."

It was 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 my life."

Don Bachardy 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."

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