Don Bachardy was just 18 years old when he met Christopher Isherwood, the author best known for A Single Man and The Berlin Stories, the latter of which was turned into the musical Cabaret. Isherwood was 48, yet despite the age difference, despite how rare it was to be an openly queer couple in the 1950s, the two remained together for the next 33 years, until Isherwood's death.
"We were both extraordinary," Bachardy says. "Looking back over those years with Chris, I was extraordinary. And the better I knew him, the more extraordinary I became."
Now in his 80s, Bachardy has gone on to become of the most respected portrait artists of our time.
He joined the LGBTQ&A podcast at his home studio in Calfornia to talk about how radical his relationship with Isherwood was considered, HIV, his art, and the experience of being an out gay couple in the 1950s and '60s.
You can listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or read excerpts below.
JM: The age difference aside, what I find so fascinating is that you and Christopher were an openly gay couple in the '50s.
DB: Yes. Look, there was no way we could hide it. There was such an age difference and everybody knew he wasn't my father. Everybody knew he was queer. So I had to be that unspeakable teenage boyfriend.
JM: But I think it would have been easy for him to just hide your relationship.
DB: Many queer men did that at the time, especially if they were in jobs that depended on their reputation. There was secrecy. I was not only 18, but I looked years younger.
That first year we were together, Chris and I went to New York. My very first time on an airplane. Imagine, in 1953, I hadn’t been on an airplane. But as soon as we arrived in New York, we were told that a rumor had gone around town that Christopher had brought a 12-year-old with him from California just because I looked much younger.
JM: Had you heard of Christopher before you met him?
DB: Yes, I had met him through my brother who was four years older. I used to go to the queer beach here in Santa Monica with my brother, Ted, and Chris was one of the first people I met there.
JM: Your brother was queer too.
DB: Very queer, yes. I followed him in every respect. He was a famous, sought-after beauty. In fact, Chris had an affair with him before me. No, I wouldn't call it an affair, but they had nights together. Maybe three of them.
JM: What did your brother say about you ending up with Chris?
DB: I think he was surprised and a little put out. And why begrudge me having an affair with a man he slept with? Being a great beauty, he had bowls and bowls. He once said when he was mad at me, “Everybody knows you live with an old man, and I think it's disgusting.” So, and that gives you an idea.
JM: You met Chris as a teenager. These are the most formative years of your life. There was this massive age difference. All these things on paper make it seem that the relationship shouldn't have worked, and yet it did. I wonder what you think made it work?
DB: We were both extraordinary people. There is no other answer. And though I would have hesitated to call myself extraordinary at 18 and for many years I would never have used such a word to describe myself, looking back over those years with Chris, I was extraordinary. And the better I knew him, the more extraordinary I became.
He was the best mentor in the world for me. He was just Mr. Magic in every way possible. It was such a dramatic connection that we both felt we must have been fated to meet.
JM: Was that instantaneous?
DB: No, but over the years, the longer it lasted, the closer we got, yes. We realized how so extraordinarily lucky we were.
I'm a kind of a chameleon person. I take on the colors and sounds of people I'm around for long enough. Within just a few months, people who'd known me before I met Chris were mocking on how affected I'd become because I was speaking with a British accent.
JM: Like Chris.
DB: I couldn't hear it and I was horrified. I thought, My God, but how could I get rid of it? I couldn't hear it myself, except when I heard my voice recorded for the first time. I thought, This cannot be the way I sound. Because I could hear the British accent in the recording and that meant I must be the most affected creature imaginable.
JM: And so you were picking up his voice and mannerisms?
DB: Yes, it's a basic part of what makes me an artist. A portrait artist. I instinctively identify with people just by looking at them and listening to them. I'm a natural mimic.
JM: Did that not freak you out?
DB: Oh yes. Incredibly freaky and I was ashamed and horrified. I knew it sounded affected, but what could I do? I couldn't hear it myself and I didn't want to leave Chris just because I was mimicking him, to my own horror. And then finally I realized I couldn't do anything about it, so I just started relaxing towards it.
JM: Did you know other couples that had relationships with other people as well?
DB: Yes, we knew a few. It was unusual at the time. It wasn't the norm, and those queer couples who did live openly didn't talk about it.
JM: It feels pretty radical that you were open about it.
DB: We were considered revolutionary in our public fronting of it.
JM: You were together during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Since you were sleeping with other people, did you worry about AIDS?
DB: Worried, yes. I did sleep with other people. If I'd had bad luck, I could so easily have brought it home and given it to Chris. God, how dangerous it was. I wasn't reckless, except going to bed with any other man was reckless. Some were lucky and others not.
JM: And you were.
DB: I'm happy to be one of the lucky ones. I know it worried Chris for me and certainly, he was aware of the possibility I might bring it home to him, but we took that chance.
JM: It wasn't related to AIDS, but you drew Chris during the last moments of his life.
DB: After he was dead, I did 11 drawings of his corpse.
JM: Was that a conscious decision you made or just purely instinctual?
DB: Drawing a dead lover I'd lived with for more than 30 years? It sounds kind of creepy to me, but there was no question in my mind. In the last six months of his life, I gave up all my other sittings. I didn't work with anybody but Chris, and in those six months, I did 47 or 48 drawings of Chris.
JM: Do you still paint him?
DB: Oh, I can't. The only time I've drawn anybody not from life was when I drew Chris's corpse, and as I said, I did 11 drawings. Every portrait of mine since I met Chris has been done from a living sitter.
JM: One of Chris's most famous books is A Single Man, where a man is grieving the loss of his longtime partner. After that happened to you, and you lost your longtime partner, did you return to that book at all?
DB: No, because I mean I know it by heart. I have lived it. I'm a walking version of it.
JM: I didn't know if you, in seeking comfort, would have turned to it.
DB: I read him, certainly, yes. And it's such a lovely read. To have that man who I knew so well and slept with. We always slept together, Chris and I, always and not just in the same bed, but usually entangled with each other, really intimate.
We always believed that was how we managed the longevity of our relationship. And we often believed that we had communicated all night long. That our nights together were pieces of our lives in the waking hours.
I think of him every day. I don't even have to think of him. He is part of me. If I'm breathing, I'm in fact thinking about him.
You can listen to the full interview with Don Bachardy on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay.
New episodes come out every Tuesday.