Artist Don Bachardy’s Hollywood movie career was very brief, indeed.
Having begun in January 1953 what would become a 33-year relationship with acclaimed writer Christopher Isherwood, at age 20 Bachardy came along as the guest of Isherwood’s long-time friend, playwright Tennessee Williams, to look in on the filming in November 1954 of one of Williams’ new and highly-reputed plays, “The Rose Tattoo.”
The film version was being shot on location in the city of Key West, Florida, which had become Williams’ adopted home. He’d bought a bungalow there at the intersection of Duncan and Leon streets in early 1954 that remained his primary residence until he died in 1982, four years before Isherwood. Williams loved riding his bicycle all over the small idyllic and very funky island, even while remaining dedicated to his writing on a daily basis every morning in the studio he set up behind the main house.
In the marvelous 2009 documentary film by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara about Isherwood and Bachardy’s long and open relationship, entitled, “Chris and Don, A Love Story: The Hollywood Life of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” Bachardy talked about the Key West trip.
He described getting in on one scene of the filming as an extra, and a clip shows him as one of three teenage boys riding in a car with the movie’s star, the irrepressible Anna Magnani. With the help of freeze-framing, you can catch a glimpse of him for a split second.
Of course, Bachardy’s talent was not in front of a camera, but behind a brush, becoming a legendary portrait artist of the biggest names in Hollywood, and with many, many a story to tell.
Of particular interest to me, when I visited him earlier this month at his studio in Santa Monica, were his recollections of Williams and the many opportunities he had to be in the presence of this bigger-than-life personality.
Before Bachardy was in Isherwood’s life, Isherwood met Williams in Santa Monica in 1943. Isherwood was the more accomplished writer at that time, a circumstance that would soon reverse with the opening of Williams’ first smash hit play, “The Glass Menagerie” in 1945.
It is curious to note that both Isherwood and Williams kept very detailed diaries (he did that, Bachardy told me of Isherwood, because he was a writer, and that’s what writers do). Both men’s diaries have been published as thick hardcover books, and each recorded in their respective diaries meeting the other for the first time, naturally including each’s impressions of the other. It was the beginning of a long and deep friendship of two enormously talented creative geniuses that also included each’s long-term partner, Bachardy in Isherwood’s case, and Frank Merlo in Williams’.
Bachardy’s favorite story of Williams involved his invitation to he and Isherwood to attend the opening of Williams’ new play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in Philadelphia in 1955. On the eve of the opening, in Williams’ hotel suite, Bachardy and Isherwood were included in a small gathering where Williams sat down and mesmerized everyone by reading the new play from start to finish, in a dramatic style, changing voices and intonations for each character.
“I must have seen that play eight or 10 times since then,” Bachardy told me, “And of course, I’ve seen the movie version (with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman) numerous times. And I can tell you, I have never seen any performance of it that has held a candle to the one Tennessee Williams did by himself that night.”
Following the death of Merlo and a subsequent decade-long decline, Williams reinvented himself in the early 1970s with a new play, “Small Craft Warnings,” and the authorship of his Memoirs, published in 1975, detailing openly for the first time the thorough-going role that his sexual orientation played in his life. Isherwood followed suit, publishing Christopher and His Kind in 1976, retelling many of the Berlin stories from his much earlier writings that this time removed the pseudonyms and the convenient omissions of the homosexual content of much of what led to the Broadway plays, “I Am a Camera” and “Cabaret.”
Christopher and His Kind became Isherwood’s most authentic, openly autobiographical work. He dedicated it to Don Bachardy.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]