Sex, Gossip, and Spirituality: Christopher Isherwood Through the Ages
Author: Christopher Bram
June 11, 2020
The following essay, “A Fan’s Notes” is from Isherwood in Transit edited by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman.
I belong to the generation of gay men who discovered Christopher Isherwood through a movie musical. The movie, of course, was Cabaret, and there are many of us, the most notable being Armistead Maupin. For people who were just coming out and looking for stories about homosexuals who were neither evil nor pathetic, the 1972 Bob Fosse film was a revelation. The key scene came when Michael York and Liza Minnelli, as two kids in Weimar Berlin (and they really are kids), confront each other over their mutual friend, the Baron. “Screw Maximilian!” snarls York. “I do!” declares Minnelli. York smiles sheepishly. “So do I.”
Home from college, I first saw the movie in Virginia Beach with my sister, Nancy. She was bummed that handsome Brian, the Michael York character, turned out to be a “fag.” (Her word, not said meanly but factually. She didn’t know about me yet.) But I was overjoyed. If someone like Brian—affable, human, bookish—could be queer, then maybe gay life wouldn’t be so difficult after all. I promptly began to hunt down Isherwood books. But I didn’t immediately find what I wanted.
Goodbye to Berlin, the source material, confused me when I read it and found nothing resembling the “Screw Maximilian” exchange. I already knew the Broadway musical. (I didn’t know I was gay in high school, but I did know I loved musicals.) The stage show had been loosely based on the John Van Druten 1951 play I Am a Camera, which was even more loosely based on Isherwood’s stories. Herr Issyvoo became straighter in each version. (He also changed his name and became American instead of British.) But by the time a movie was made of the musical, screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, with the encouragement of the producer, Cy Feuer, incorporated some of Isherwood’s sexuality into the protagonist.
Ironically, Isherwood himself hated the movie, although not as much as he hated the stage musical. He later came around, but at the time he felt the movie presented Brian’s homosexuality “as a kind of indecent but ridiculous weakness to be snickered at, like bed-wetting”
I remember flipping through a friend’s New Directions paperback of the stories, looking for sex scenes. There weren’t any. Isherwood is the protagonist of these tales, but he carefully left his sexuality a mystery. He didn’t lie about it, didn’t make himself straight as the first adapters did. I recognized how beautifully written the stories were, sharp and well observed. But I was looking for sex scenes. I had been to bed with a couple of women at this point, but no men. I needed to feed my imagination with a literary rehearsal of the real thing.
The next book I read was A Single Man. There is no mystery about George’s homosexuality, but the closest he comes to sex is a drunken skinny-dip with his student Kenny. That was more like it, yet too much like the clumsy encounters I had already had. Again, I recognized how smart and well crafted the book was. But I wanted sex. I would have been better off reading gay porn, but it was difficult to find in my Virginia college town, and I was too much a literary snob even to look. I told myself I would go back to Isherwood later, when I was older and wiser.
And I did, in 1976 with Christopher and His Kind. This was Isherwood’s revised account of his Berlin years: he included his gay life. There was nothing pornographic, but I didn’t need sex scenes anymore—I was finally having sex with men. I just needed to know what my future would be like. I had returned to Virginia after six months in Europe and moved in with my straight best friend (whom I was in love with). The public library was across the street. I found the Isherwood on the New Books shelf, checked it out, and wolfed it down in two days. It was so real, so direct, so necessary, like a glass of ice water on a hot day. Being gay was treated as an important piece of his life, but only slightly more important than writing or politics. He presented love and sex as plain facts of nature. I tried to get my best friend to read it—“Hey, it’s the guy from Cabaret,” I said—but he knew not to bite.
When Avon Books issued the memoir in mass-market paperback, they republished many of Isherwood’s other titles, too, all illustrated with Don Bachardy’s portraits of Isherwood on the covers. I explored further, liked some books, was disappointed by others, then moved on to new writers.
By the time Isherwood died in January 1986, I was living in New York with my boyfriend, Draper, writing a novel, and working in a bookstore. I cannot remember how I heard the news. But I was sad without feeling devastated. He had lived a full, rich life. I thought I was finished with him.
In 1993, now a published author, I began to research a new novel, Father of Frankenstein, about movie director James Whale. He had lived in Los Angeles at the same time as Isherwood, another displaced Englishman among the swimming pools and palm trees. I heard that the two men had actually met. Isherwood’s diaries were not yet published, but my agents represented the estate. They had photocopies of the manuscript in boxes at the office. They let me take the box with the relevant dates home one weekend, after I promised not to quote from it. The loose pages turned out to be not the diary but a rough memoir in which Isherwood had reconstructed his lost diaries, later published as Lost Years: 1945–1951. This was a copy of Isherwood’s actual typescript, not yet edited by Katherine Bucknell. It was absolutely fascinating. I became Christopher Isherwood for a whole weekend. It was mostly sex and gossip, but high-class gossip—Greta Garbo, Igor Stravinsky, W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten—and lots of real-life sex. I felt like a total innocent in comparison. Then it struck me that this was the least productive time of this highly productive writer’s life. He had just left the Vedanta Center after deciding not to be a monk. He was with a new lover, Bill Caskey, which meant endless fights. He was going through draft after draft of The World in the Evening, unable to make the novel work. A period that is wild fun for the reader had been hell for him. (I found a single paragraph about his meeting with James Whale. The two Brits were brought together by a mutual gay friend, Curtis Harrington, who later became a film director—he inspired the character of the pesky fan, Edmund Kay, in my novel. Also present was Kenneth Anger, who showed them his movie Fireworks. Everyone got drunk on martinis, and many mean things were said.)
Continuing my research, I reread Down There on a Visit. Part of it is set in Los Angeles after the war, but I fell in love with the entire book. This might be my favorite single Isherwood title. A continuation of Goodbye to Berlin on a larger scale, it consists of four long short stories representing different periods of his life. Here too he left his sexuality a mystery—it was published in 1962 when homosexuality was still a forbidden topic. We cannot forget how hard it was, until well into the 1970s, for gay writers to write about being gay and still be taken seriously. One of the hardest things about researching my project was the endless acid rain of contemptuous, sneering reviews for any book that dared to discuss homosexuality. But now readers of Down There can easily fill in what Isherwood left blank. My favorite section was the last, “Paul,” based on Isherwood’s friendship with the notorious beauty, Denny Fouts, the comic tale of two sybarites trying to achieve spiritual enlightenment by being “good.” I liked it so much that Draper and I talked about turning it into a low-budget feature film. Nothing ever happened, but I still think it would make a terrific movie.
Ten years later, when I wrote a proposal for my literary history Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, I did not include Isherwood. I am still shocked and bewildered by this fact. But I did not want to write an index-card style history and tried to keep it down to a half-dozen names. I think the real reason was that I knew his work too well; he was so much a part of the air I breathed that I took him for granted. All that changed once I started blocking out the book. When Gore Vidal went to Hollywood, I realized, Oh, here I can say a few words about Isherwood. And as soon as I started writing about him I couldn’t stop. He became the hero of the book, for several reasons. First, his work holds up beautifully—I read or reread every one as I wrote. Second, he connects the pre- and post-Stonewall generations. Unlike Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, who ignored the younger writers, Isherwood took them seriously and they liked him in return. Last but not least, he was the only figure of his generation to survive decades of antigay abuse and alcohol with both his sanity and writing abilities intact.
His survival fascinates me. Critics attacked him as viciously as they did Williams, Capote, and Vidal. And he sometimes indulged in alcohol as much as they did. But unlike them, he endured. I believe his strength came from two sources. One was his spiritual side, the aspect of himself that he explored and developed through Vedanta, the Hindu philosophy he studied for half of his life. I don’t understand that school of knowledge myself, even after reading his detailed discussions in My Guru and His Disciple and A Meeting by the River. But his fascination with it showed a strong spiritual side that held him together, in much the same way his friend Auden used the Church of England for structure. (Recently, in a conversation with my friend Patrick Merla, an editor and lifelong reader of Isherwood, he pointed out that one of the appeals of Vedanta is that it presents worldly matters as transitory, fleeting, temporary—which makes life on earth more bearable.)
The other source of strength was his thirty-three years with Don Bachardy. This was not always an easy relationship. It can be embarrassing to read the diaries with their endless accounts of arguments and anger, especially if you’re in a long-term relationship. It is painfully recognizable. A married friend said that after reading the diaries, he was glad he didn’t keep a diary himself or he’d have to burn it. But Isherwood never burned his pages, and Barchardy published them, making clear to the world how important they were to each other in bad times as well as good ones.
Isherwood endured not only as a person but as a writer. His sexuality gave him a solid rock to stand on, even at a time when he could not yet frankly describe his rock. He tried different subjects, even different voices, but in his best work he was artfully artless, writing deceptively clear, seemingly simple prose. It might be called mirror prose: the more the reader knows, the more the prose will give back. As a result Isherwood is one of those rare writers whose works grow wiser as the reader grows older. I’ve been reading him steadily since college and continue to find fresh meanings in his best books each time I return to them. A Single Man, in particular, became better and better, especially after I passed the age of its protagonist.
I have had a long, meandering, intimate history with Isherwood. I began by dancing around the man, not yet ready for him. His mirror prose is so deceptive that I often had to visit a book a second time before it made its full impact. Then I entered his world so deeply that he sometimes became invisible to me. I would actually forget his existence only to happily remember it again, like a close yet easy friend.
This is the third collection of essays on this fine writer compiled by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman. They continue to share new discoveries, make new connections. I am delighted to read whatever they find. Even my occasional disagreement with a contributor leads me to fresh ideas. The critics here all ask excellent questions. As the title Isherwood in Transit suggests, Christopher Isherwood is a rich, complex, changing figure replete with different meanings and shifting virtues. As we change, he changes with us. This timelessness is the mark of a true artist.
Christopher Bram’s “Foreword: A Fan’s Notes” from Isherwood in Transit edited by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman appears here by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.
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