By Chris Freeman
Christopher Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904. His was a Victorian childhood, a story he told in his 1971 memoir about his parents, Kathleen and Frank. By the end of that long book he realized that the whole thing was “chiefly about Christopher.” That childhood ended, as the Victorian era did, with World War I. Frank Isherwood was an early casualty in that global crisis, the inauguration of modernism and of the twentieth century.
In 1999, James Berg and I published the first ever collection of essays about Isherwood, which we titled The Isherwood Century. The title was in part a response to a classic study of his best literary friend Wystan Auden (Samuel Hynes’s The Auden Generation). Auden died in the early 1970s but was one of the key voices of the Thirties Generation. Significantly, Isherwood lived another dozen years, and his whole twentieth-century life was a life of engagement, one in which he always seemed to be where things were happening: in Berlin in 1930, at the crossroads of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich; in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, working with friends like Aldous Huxley in the studio system and socializing with everyone from Greta Garbo to Charlie Chaplin; in the 60s and 70s, he wrote “openly gay” material, including his great Los Angeles novel A Single Man and Christopher and His Kind, a sort of gay autobiographical retelling of his Berlin and European peregrinations from 1929-39. That memoir and its publicity—he was somewhat famous because of the success of “Cabaret,” which was based on his “Berlin Stories”—made him a pioneering hero of the nascent gay liberation movement. And he lived long enough to comment about the AIDS crisis.
His long life was one of creativity, passion, and love. In 1952, he met a young man, Don Bachardy, at the beach and the two men built a life together. Bachardy, who was thirty years younger his partner, has now outlived Isherwood’s 81 years, and it makes him uneasy. He once told me that he knew what would happen up until that age; now he has no guide, but he too flourishes, in part because of the love and lessons learned from Isherwood.
A cryptic diary comment in Isherwood’s 1981 birthday entry illustrates his often tentative self-knowledge: “I have to admit that I felt curiously scared on my birthday yesterday, to realize I was seventy-seven. Why, I don’t know. The number must have some occult significance for me.” He was superstitious about numbers and dates, and I don’t think he expected to live so long. His mentor E.M. Forster made it to his nineties; Isherwood made it to eighty-one, a fulfilled, accomplished, and much loved man.
Chris Freeman teaches English and Gender Studies at USC. He is co-editor, most recently, of The American Isherwood and is finishing work on the forthcoming “Isherwood in Transit,” both with James Berg.