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Monday, October 6, 2008

Twenty Days in the City of Angles: The 4th Day (The Camera)

Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood

I no longer remember to whose home we were invited for an evening which, along with a number of their gay friends, included the famed couple, author Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. The two had been important figures to gays throughout the world for years, particularly since they had publicized their relationship in the 1950s, at a time when such sexual openness was unpopular—and sometimes dangerous.

Howard and I have tended to live a life, however, different from those who sought out gay enclaves—that is groups of gay men who partied together with few, if any, heterosexuals in sight—not out of any concerted action on our part, indeed at times I believe we both enjoyed the company of individuals with whom we shared a great deal of history and sensibility, but simply because the numerous authors, artists, and collectors we befriended represented a wide-range of individuals, men and women, with whom our central connections were not sexual. We hadn’t been to a gay bar, for example, for decades, and we had never sought to live a life separated from the society at large. We he had been openly accepted by all of our heterosexual friends.

Perhaps Howard and I had just been lucky, but over the thirty-some years of our openly gay relationship, we had encountered hostility only once—on a street in New Haven, where we observed Yalies behind us mocking our personal conversation and imitating what they perceived as our gay affectations. No one had ever done that before—no one has done anything like that since!

When we first arrived in Los Angeles, it was inevitable, I suspect, that we were courted by various gay individuals who doubtlessly hoped to include us in their social gatherings, but who, perhaps because of our embracement of such a wide range of friends and interests, eventually dropped us from their more exclusive party lists.

In any event, I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet Isherwood. I had read his Berlin Stories, and highly admired them, along with the musical they generated, Cabaret. I had not, however, read his more current “gay” writings. In fact, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the very notion of a “gay” literature that, once again, represented to me a kind isolationist stance.

At the time of the party, I had recently decided that I would carry a camera with me to some social occasions. Over the years, I had known countless fascinating individuals and participated in lectures, conferences, and other gatherings of which there had been no visual documentation. And I had decided to rectify that. Although I tried to snap the pictures in an unobtrusive manner, some individuals were still quite allergic to the lens, particularly Isherwood.

When I asked if I might snap a picture, he politely agreed, but immediately turned away, and when I tried again to get another photo of him, he repeated the act. “Just one more picture,” I pleaded, hoping that he would stop the cat-and-mouse game for a least one successful snap.

“You are a camera-addict, I presume,” he hissed!

“I am a camera,” I quipped.*

“Well, I am a writer,” he snapped back, “who prefers to talk.”

During that same period, at the home of artist John Rose and his lover of the time, Ray, we met the former hustler turned novelist John Rechy and, at another time they introduced me to their next door neighbor, author of Blue Denim, James Leo Herlihy, with whom I had a long conversation. Both men seemed friendlier than Isherwood—perhaps because I’d left my camera at home.
*Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, published originally as The Last of Mr. Norris (1935) and Goodby to Berlin, was adapted as a play by John van Druten titled I Am a Camera (1951), which, in turn, became the basis for the musical Cabaret.

Solvang, California, June 28, 2008

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