National Commentary

Don Bachardy: Part 1 of 3

bentonmugDon Bachardy is not exactly a household word, except in certain rarefied circles, although he is, as my friend described him, a genuine “national treasure.” At 76, he’s a highly-accomplished portrait artist. His portrait of Gov. Jerry Brown of California is Brown’s official portrait hanging in the California state capital in Sacramento. He’s painted all the Hollywood stars and luminaries who’ve sat for him in person over 50 years.

bentonmugDon Bachardy is not exactly a household word, except in certain rarefied circles, although he is, as my friend described him, a genuine “national treasure.” At 76, he’s a highly-accomplished portrait artist. His portrait of Gov. Jerry Brown of California is Brown’s official portrait hanging in the California state capital in Sacramento. He’s painted all the Hollywood stars and luminaries who’ve sat for him in person over 50 years.

His long-time partner of 33 years, author Christopher Isherwood, is a more familiar name. Isherwood, who died in 1986, was a highly influential writer. His novel, “Goodbye, Berlin,” was the basis for the Broadway hit, “I Am a Camera,” and subsequently the musical and Academy Award-winning film, “Cabaret.”

This year, Isherwood’s novel, “A Single Man,” was made into a film by the same name by Tom Ford. Colin Firth, in its lead role, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

What makes Bachardy “one of a kind” is the fact that he and Isherwood were completely “out” as a gay couple in the Hollywood celebrity circles of the 1950s and thereafter, in an era when the open acceptance of homosexuality was virtually non-existent. Tolerated in intellectual and artistic circles, there were many homosexuals among those ranks. But the subject was never embraced publicly. Except in the case of “Chris and Don.”

“I remember only one time when a prominent celebrity whispered something negative, seeing Chris and I at a party,” Don told me last weekend at his remarkably beautiful small artist studio looking down on the Santa Monica canyon and the beach and coastline that extend beneath powder blue skies as far as the eye can see. “Another famous actor immediately came to our defense. Nothing else was ever said.”

He noted that Rock Hudson, whose homosexuality came to the surface for the whole world to see only when he was dying of AIDS in 1985, would not come near he and Chris at those parties. “Everyone knew he was homosexual, but he did not want to be seen with us out of fear,” and the fear was well-founded, Bachardy added.

But among their famous friends was another well-known gay couple in those circles, Tennessee Williams and his partner, Frank Merlo.

Youngish and fit for 76 with goatee and full head of snow-white hair, Bachardy’s long-time relationship with Isherwood was anachronistic even for a rare “out” gay couple in that era because of the age difference between the two. They began their long-time relationship in 1953 when Isherwood was 48 and Bachardy 18.

Isherwood detailed the ins and outs of the relationship in his diaries. He wrote prolifically on almost a daily basis. He and Bachardy went everywhere together, to Africa and Europe, to New York and Mexico and to all the celebrity parties, special events and occasions they were invited to in the Los Angeles area.

Elsa Manchester was invited in the summer of 1959 to their home for dinner, but reacted unfavorably to a jambalaya carefully prepared by Bachardy. Isherwood reported in his diary that Bachardy was upset by the development, but Manchester invited the couple to her home only a week later.

I mentioned the incident to Bachardy last weekend, and he laughed, recalling immediately that it was because Manchester disliked garlic. His incredibly sharp memory includes all the details of their move that same year to the home where I visited him, where Isherwood lived until his death and Bachardy has continued living ever since.

As it turns out, a connection between the two and myself involved the fact that in 1954 they rented a house in the Santa Monica canyon from my aunt, my father’s sister, Virginia Hoerner. Isherwood has two entries in his diary that talk about her, and her son, my cousin Griffith, by name. Yes, Bachardy too remembers my aunt clearly, both her name and her very distinctive face. I was 10 that year, living with my family in Santa Barbara, just 80 miles up the road.

A second volume of Isherwood diaries, covering from 1961 until he died, is due out in October.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]