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40 years of life and love in Los Angeles, intimately chronicled by Christopher Isherwood

Noted author Christopher Isherwood with Donald Bachardy as they sailed for Italy in 1955 for a brief vacation.
Noted author Christopher Isherwood with Donald Bachardy as they sailed for Italy in 1955 for a brief vacation.
Isherwood & Bachardy, 1955, before sailing to Italy. LAPL/Her-Ex

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Imagine a love story between two men - passionate, complex and told intimately over the span of decades.

Now add a steady barrage of homophobia., some raucous A-list Hollywood parties, and a look at Los Angeles through the keen eyes of an observational writer.

That's Volume One of the Christopher Isherwood Diaries. 

The famed novelist and screenwriter chronicled most of his life in journals. They capture his life as a writer, a celebrity, and a gay man starting in 1939. 

Volume One of Isherwood's diaries spans his first 40 years in LA as he falls in love with the city where he would leave an indelible mark.  

That's why we've included it in our summer book series, the California Canon: great books of the golden state. 

Editor and book critic David Kipen brought us this slice. 

Christopher Isherwood: a true trailblazer

Christopher Isherwood was an Englishmen, went as a young man to Berlin where he found his first great urban material. And he wrote the stories on which Cabaret was based.

Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood
Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood
Flickr Creative Commons

Isherwood has a rather pivotal role to play in history because of his role as an out gay man decades before anybody else was really that ‘far out’. He made no secret of the fact that he was living with the great Southern Californian, Don Bachardy whom he met at Santa Monica Beach and with whom became a lifelong love story in their house on Adelaide overlooking Santa Monica Canyon. 

Finding a home in Los Angeles

Isherwood came to Southern California in 1939 because Berlin was fast becoming an inhospitable place on the eve of war. And also I think, he was looking for a kind of freedom as a gay man that he couldn't count on where he grew up. There's a wonderful moment in the diary where he talks about attending the first Gay Pride parade in West Hollywood. And being acclaimed – slightly uncomfortably for him – as a hero. 

Lots of gay writers have talked about Isherwood as an inspiration, as a pathbreaker. Certainly, he's all that but he's also much more, just as a prose artist. Had he not been gay, we would certainly be reading him today just for the sheer sentence by sentence loveliness of his fiction and these diaries. 

Wild parties on Adelaide 

But of course he did travel in Hollywood circles because he was a screenwriter. Isherwood's home in Santa Monica Canyon became a kind of watering hole not just for his friends locally, but also for friends from out of town, many of them gay figures like Stephen Spender. There's a wonderful diary entry of Isherwood on his balcony watching a party he was presumably one of the hosts. But also hanging back and talking about how the writer is both a participant and an observer. And of course, as a diarist, he's the quintessential observer. And he's very, very funny. And sometimes very cutting. He will take people apart including some of his collaborators in the film business. He could say things that he was not going to say in public or anywhere else because these diaries were not published until he had died. 

Diarizing as an outlet 

Diarizing has always been a kind of refuge for people who have secrets to keep, or who are deferential professionally to other people. Somebody like Isherwood who loved the love that dared not speak its name in the middle of the century, even in Los Angeles, was writing about his life with Don Bachardy and in the Southern California scene that you could never publish in a million years. He wasn't furtive. He was proudly who he was but this was not something he was going to write about in the LA Times. 

"A camera with its shutter open for almost 40 years"

I have a particular affection for the first volume because it starts in 1939 and then runs up to 1960. And the city, of course, is changing changing quite a bit over those years. And his first impressions of the city are amazing. Isherwood looked at Southern California from the west, from the coast. He settled in Santa Monica Canyon and adored it. Isherwood spent a lot of time at the beach where he met his lifelong companion. He wrote really lovingly about the natural landscape. Not just the ocean, not just the beach, but the mountains. He is a great example of somebody who got here and with is eyes open - this was a guy who has written the story on which Cabaret is based and called it ‘I am a Camera’. Well, he is a camera and so you get really, an almost cinematic description of what the place was like. This is a camera with its shutter open for almost 40 years.

Flickr Creative Commons

Los Angeles through Isherwood's eyes

As a Southern Californian, I can't think where else you can find a description of the place that is at once factual, and lyrical, and describes a city that is still around us. Maybe you have to look a little more closely. But its the portrait of a city growing up and Isherwood growing up with it. And the two of the together is almost as great a love story as he and Don Bachardy. 

Quotes edited for brevity and clarity. 

David Kipen portrait by Don Bachardy
David Kipen portrait by Don Bachardy
Courtesy of David Kipen

To hear David Kipen discuss the work of Christopher Isherwood, click on the blue media player above.