Lost in the hubbub surrounding the California Supreme Court’s 2008 decision affirming gay marriage was reflection on the countless couples of decades past who had committed themselves without official sanction. The intergenerational partnership of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy was perhaps one of the most infamous of those hard-fought-for partnerships. Their lifelong relationship is affectionately documented in Chris & Don: A Love Story, which Variety‘s Robert Koehler described as “focusing on the texture and sweetness of a particularly beguiling real-life gay love saga.” At The House Next Door, Keith Ulrich—fortunate to have been one of Bachardy’s models—further discerned that the film’s “overall sense” is “of an ultimately unbreakable love’s consecration.”
Reactions to the couple were not, as one can imagine, universally positive. The otherwise enlightened Dr. Evelyn Hooker—Isherwood’s landlord at the time he met Bachardy—expressed disapproval of their relationship, and evicted them from their beloved garden cottage. (So much for her scientific praise for the social adjustment of self-identified homosexuals.) And Joseph Cotten—who the documentary suggests would never dream of confronting Isherwood directly—was fond of singling Bachardy out at parties to dispense vitriol about “half-men.”
But reviewers of Tina Mascara and Guido Santi‘s affectionate documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story have responded warmly to the remarkable relationship it reveals. The documentary is composed of an astonishing wealth of home movie footage and archival photography; interviews with Leslie Caron, John Boorman “and even Miss Liza herself” (as Rod Armstrong understated it at the film’s San Francisco International screening); and tender and insightful animated sequences where Isherwood and Bachardy’s animal alter-egos—an old horse and a young cat, respectively—reveal the complicated and nuanced dynamic of their love for one another. The film’s final animated sequence confirms the necessary belief that love conquers death.
My thanks to Karen Larsen for arranging time for me to speak with Don Bachardy by phone.
Keyframe: First and foremost, I wanted to congratulate you on the success of Chris & Don: A Love Story. It’s an engaging love story.
Don Bachardy: Well, I’m glad you like it. It’s been a great success down here in Southern California.
Keyframe: I’m curious about the texture of your participation. How did you become involved with Tina Mascara and Guido Santi? And how do you feel about the final product?
Bachardy: I was lucky to encounter these two talented filmmakers. It was Guido’s idea originally, oh, ten years ago. He was married to his first wife, Julia Alexander. She’s the youngest daughter of a close artist friend of mine, Peter Alexander and I’ve known her since she was two or three. When they married, Guido got the idea to make the movie. Then he and Julia divorced and I thought, ‘Oh well, there goes the movie idea.’ But, to my surprise, Guido came back and said he wanted to go on alone and because I felt sorry for him—he was doing badly—I said, ‘Okay!’ I never really believed anything would come of the film, you know? But I liked Guido and then—when he got involved with Tina—I liked her very much too and I thought, ‘Well, what can I lose? I’ll be spending time with these two nice, intelligent young people. Why not?’ I had seen a 40-minute film of Guido’s, which I felt was talented, but I think they’ve done a wonderful job and I’m so pleased that the film is having such a success. It’s nice to share it with the two of them because it’s their first real success.
Keyframe: How did the logistics work out? Did they visit you and rifle through your photos and journals?
Bachardy: Yes, exactly that. They came to the house here to film and I gradually shared with them all kinds of material—photographs, the journals, the little cards that Chris gave me for birthdays and anniversaries with his drawings on them—and they just got deeper into the story. We much enjoyed being together. I think that communicates itself in the film. When filmmakers and subject really like each other, it creates a pleasant aura.
Keyframe: Sharing is the exact term. What was it in you that encouraged you to open up to share your love story with them and, by extension, your audience?
Bachardy: I do feel an obligation—since I’ve had such a lucky life with so much happiness in it—I do feel an obligation to share that with others. Why horde it all and keep it all for myself? Those years with Chris were fantastically satisfying for me and I like sharing my success with others, encouraging them to believe that, yes, they can have a wonderful, happy relationship in their lives maybe.
Keyframe: When I was young and in my twenties and had first moved to San Francisco, your relationship with Chris—which was already well-publicized at the time—was an inspirational model for me. It encouraged me to become involved with an older man who helped me get going, enrolling me in college, and providing my first opportunity to work for a law firm. I trusted the intergenerational dynamic of our affection for each other and appreciate the candor with which you expressed it in the documentary. Unfortunately, my partner passed of AIDS so I wasn’t able to mature with him as you were able to do with Chris. Notwithstanding, even back in the seventies your relationship with Chris was influencing young people and I am testament to that.
Bachardy: I also feel an obligation to point out that Chris and I had our hurdles too. It wasn’t all roses and happy talk. There were periods of dissatisfaction. I wanted to counter the tendency to glorify and sentimentalize our relationship because I feel that—if people realize that it wasn’t all roses for Chris and me, that we really had to work at making our relationship last—that’s more encouraging. When young people hear that we had our struggles, they too shouldn’t be discouraged if they’re having struggles in their own relationships.
Keyframe: I understand one hundred percent. If anything should be underscored with the California Supreme Court decision to allow gay marriage, it’s that along with rights come very real responsibilities, not only of individuals to each other within their partnerships but of partnerships to the social fabric as a whole. One of the aspects that most intrigued me about your relationship with Chris was his commitment to furthering your transformation, from being a star-struck fan, to actually introducing you to many movie stars, and then—through the process of transitioning into your own creativity—your eventual portraiture of many of these personalities. Can you speak to that development?
Bachardy: It seems to me so fateful my meeting with Chris. He was really the galvanizing agent in my life. He saw my potential and helped me to see what I could accomplish. I don’t think I could have ever have done it without him. He played the role of a positive agent for me. It made everything possible.
Keyframe: But you must give yourself credit as well. There’s this curious alchemy that occurs within a young person when they—at first—admire others from a distance before they finally ‘cook’ the elements within themselves, mature, and step forward to meet others on equal standing. That, in itself, is maturation; but, as an artist, you took it further. You created significant portraits in a signature style. You’ve pretty much drawn just about everybody who’s been anybody.
Bachardy: I’ve been so fortunate to meet all the people I’ve met. It was all through Chris. It was he who allowed me, urged me, and pointed the way to my vocation. Once I discovered it, he was inexhaustible in his efforts to find the kind of acceptance for me that would encourage me and that proved so helpful in securing commissions. As a portrait artist, you’re obligated to show pictures of people who are recognizable. I can do a perfectly good likeness of my next-door neighbor but how many people are going to be able to appreciate that as a good likeness? A portrait artist has to find well-known subjects. Chris was so helpful in that pursuit.
Keyframe: When I was young and reading articles about you and Chris in gay magazines like The Advocate and Mandate, even then I was keenly aware of the socialization process particular to intergenerational male relationships. It wasn’t just about the ambition of my youth; it was about access to experience provided by my older partners; in some respects, the aesthetics of mentorship which continues to influence my interaction with younger people to this day.
Bachardy: Yes. And Chris was just so helpful in so many ways. He was such a wonderful guide and teacher. We always believed that—far from being a disadvantage—the age difference between us was really helpful because it allowed us to play a much greater range of roles with each other.
Keyframe: Since Chris’s death, you have gone ahead with your career as a portrait artist. I read with some interest your commission to paint the portrait of Angelina Jolie. Is there anyone you want to draw that you haven’t drawn?
Bachardy: I’ve been so lucky. Yes, it’s been wonderful to know and to portray someone like Angelina and Brad Pitt—that’s still very exciting for me—but, in general I feel that I have done my share in the celebrity-chasing game. It’s so much more difficult nowadays, too. Most of the people who are really icons to me are figures of the past; people I idolized when I was young. Those were the really magical people and I’ve had access to so many of them that I feel perfectly satisfied. I feel I’ve had my celebrity quotient. Angelina and Brad are just icing on the cake. They’re both very sweet people and I like them a lot.
Keyframe: Speaking of that—along with your relationship with Chris having such influence upon my imagination at a young age—there is another individual who had tremendous influence upon me: author William Goyen.
Bachardy: I knew him! He sat for me once.
Keyframe: Yes, I’m aware of that. In fact, during recent research I discovered that your portrait of him is included within the collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. Can you offer any insight into William Goyen?
Bachardy: I didn’t know him all that well. I knew more about him from Chris, who’d known him for many years. His widow Doris Roberts is still a friend and, in fact, she’s been a generous contributor to the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. Her contributions have been in Bill Goyen’s name. What to tell you about Bill? I visited the house they had in the Beechwood Canyon area. In fact, Doris still lives in it. The sitting I did with Bill was at his request. He wanted a portrait of himself for the book jacket of his latest novel. He sat very still for the drawing and—from my point of view—it was one of the very best drawings I did of that period. He praised the drawing, signed and dated it—as I ask all my sitters to do—and I never heard another word about its being put on the book jacket, which made me think that it was probably a little bit too accurate.
Keyframe: I anticipate getting to see it when I eventually go to Austin to do field research at the archives.
Bachardy: Do they have it really?
Keyframe: Yes, they have a large collection of his papers. I’m writing a monograph on Goyen and—as I was researching what they had there in the Austin collection—they listed your drawing.
Bachardy: I’d forgotten that. I’m glad they have it because it’s a very good drawing and I like my very good work to be in distinguished collections.
Keyframe: Perhaps if I can find a publisher for my monograph on Goyen, we can gain permission to put it on the cover, as was its original intention?
Bachardy: Oh good! I would very much like that. It would be a nice coda to my experience with knowing him and working with him.
Keyframe: Sir, I won’t take much more of your time. I just wanted to commend you on the sparkling example you have set the rest of us on how to authentically interact with and love someone.
Bachardy: It was really as much luck as anything. To meet that man at 18—my gosh!—and as young and inexperienced as I was, to have the sense to realize that he was not only like nobody else I’d met but really an extraordinary person. I can’t take credit for it. It just seems to me such a happy fate.
This article originally appeared (in a different version) in The Evening Class.