Sue Young Histories

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood 1904 – 1986

June 28, 2009

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood 1904 – 1986 was an Anglo American novelist.

Isherwood knew many homeopaths as he was growing up because his parents were enthusiasts about homeopathy, as he explains in his novel Kathleen and Frank.

Isherwood was a friend of Aldous Huxley, John Egerton Christmas Piper, Igor Stravinsky,

Born at Wyberslegh Hall, High Lane, Cheshire in the North West England, Isherwood spent his childhood in various towns where his father, a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, was stationed. After his father was killed in the First World War, he settled with his mother in London and at Wyberslegh.

Isherwood attended preparatory school St. Edmund’s, Surrey, where he first met W H Auden. At Repton School he met his lifelong friend Edward Upward, with whom he wrote the extravagant Mortmere stories, only one of which was published during his lifetime (a few others appeared after his death, and others were summarised in his Lions and Shadows).

He deliberately failed his tripos and left Corpus Christi College, Cambridge without a degree in 1925. For the next few years he lived with violinist Andre Mangeot, working as secretary to Andre Mangeot’s string quartet and studying medicine; during this time he wrote a book of nonsense poems, People One Ought to Know (published 1982), with illustrations by Andre Mangeot’s eleven year old son, Sylvain.

In 1925 he was reintroduced to W H Auden, and became W H Auden’s literary mentor and partner in an intermittent, casual liaison, as W H Auden sent his poems to Isherwood for comment and approval.

Through W H Auden, Isherwood met Stephen Spender, with whom he later spent much time in Germany. His first novel, All the Conspirators, appeared in 1928; it is an anti heroic story, written in a pastiche of many modernist novelists, about a young man who is defeated by his mother. In 1928-29 Isherwood studied medicine at King’s College London, but gave it up after six months to join W H Auden for a few weeks in Berlin.

Rejecting his upper class background and attracted to males, he remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its deserved reputation for sexual freedom. There, he “fully indulged his taste for pretty youths. He went to Berlin in search of boys and found one called Heinz, who became his first great love.”

Isherwood commented on the Berlin sex underground, and his own participation in it, in a note to the American publisher of John Henry Mackay’s Der Puppenjunge (The Hustler), “a classic boy love novel set in the contemporary milieu of boy prostitutes in Berlin.” “It gives a picture of the Berlin sexual underworld early in this century,” wrote Isherwood, “which I know, from my own experience, to be authentic.”

In 1931 he met Jean Ross, the inspiration of his fictional character Sally Bowles; he also met Gerald Hamilton, the inspiration for the fictional Mr. Norris. In September 1931 the poet William Plomer introduced him to E M Forster; they became close and E M Forster served as a mentor to the young writer. Isherwood’s second novel, The Memorial (1932), was another of his stories of conflict between mother and son, based closely on his own family history.

During one of his returns to London he worked with the director Berthold Viertel on the film Little Friend, an experience that became the basis of his novel Prater Violet (1945). He worked as a private tutor in Berlin and elsewhere while writing the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and a series of short stories collected under the title Goodbye to Berlin (1939). These provided the inspiration for the play I Am a Camera, the subsequent musical Cabaret and the film of the same name. A memorial plaque to Isherwood has been erected on the house in Schöneberg, Berlin, where he lived.

During these years he moved around Europe, living in Copenhagen, Sintra and elsewhere, and collaborated on three plays with W H Auden, The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1939). Isherwood wrote a lightly fictionalized autobiographical account of his childhood and youth, Lions and Shadows (1938), using the title of an abandoned novel. W H Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938 to gather material for their book on the Sino Japanese War called Journey to a War (1939).

Having visited New York on their way back to the UK, W H Auden and Isherwood decided to emigrate to the United States in January 1939. (The timing of this move, coming just months before Britain was engulfed in the Second World War, placed them under a cloud in the eyes of the “patriotic” crowd later engaged in the total war against global fascism.) After a few months with W H Auden in New York, Isherwood settled in Hollywood, California.

He met Gerald Heard, the mystic historian who founded his own monastery at Trabuco Canyon that was eventually gifted to the Vedanta Society of Southern California.

Through Gerald Heard, who was the first to discover Swami Prabhavananda and Vedanta, Isherwood joined an extraordinary band of mystic explorers that included Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Chris Wood (Gerald Heard’s lifelong friend), John Yale and J Krishnamurti.

He embraced Vedanta, and, together with Swami Prabhavananda, he produced several Hindu scriptural translations, Vedanta essays, the biography Ramakrishna and His Disciples, novels, plays and screenplays, all imbued with the themes and character of Vedanta and the Upanishadic quest.

Through Aldous Huxley, Isherwood befriended the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the fantasy writer Ray Bradbury led to a favorable review of The Martian Chronicles, which boosted Ray Bradbury’s career and helped to form a friendship between the two.

Isherwood became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1946; he immediately became liable for military service, but having already done volunteer work in 1941-42, at a Quaker hostel for European refugees in Pennsylvania, he had no difficulty establishing himself as a conscientious objector. He began living with the photographer William (Bill) Caskey.

In 1947 the two traveled to South America; Isherwood wrote the prose and William (Bill) Caskey provided the photographs for a 1949 book about their journey, The Condor and the Cows.

On Valentine’s Day 1953, at the age of 48, he met teenaged Don Bachardy among a group of friends on the beach at Santa Monica. Although one can find Don Bachardy’s age at the time variously reported, in the biographical film Chris & Don: A Love Story, Don Bachardy himself recalls that, “at the time I was, probably, 16.”

Despite the age difference, this meeting began a partnership that, though interrupted by affairs and separations, continued until the end of Isherwood’s life. During the early months of their affair, Isherwood finished (and Don Bachardy typed) the novel he had been working on for some years, The World in the Evening (1954). Isherwood also taught a creative writing course at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) for several years during the 1950s and early ’60s.

The more than 30 year age difference between Isherwood and Don Bachardy raised eyebrows at the time, with Don Bachardy (as he recalled) “regarded as a sort of child prostitute”, but the two became a well known and well established couple in Southern Californian society, with many Hollywood friends.

Down There on a Visit, a novel published in 1962, comprises four related stories that overlap the period covered in his Berlin stories. In the opinion of many reviewers, Isherwood’s finest achievement was his 1964 novel A Single Man. During 1964 Isherwood collaborated with American writer Terry Southern on the screenplay for the Tony Richardson film adaptation of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh’s caustic satire on the American funeral industry.

Isherwood and Don Bachardy lived together in Santa Monica for the rest of Isherwood’s life. Don Bachardy became a successful draughtsman with an independent reputation, and his portraits of the dying Isherwood became well known after Isherwood’s death.

At the age of 81, Isherwood died in 1986 at Santa Monica, California from prostate cancer. Their lifelong relationship is chronicled in the film Chris & Don: A Love Story.