I was a teenage Cabaret obsessive

Berlin Letter: Isherwood and his partner are being celebrated in the city’s gay museum

WH Auden (1907-1973), poet and essayist, with Christopher Isherwood (left) standing on the platform at Victoria Station, London, waiting to leave for China. Photograph: John F Stephenson/Getty Images

WH Auden (1907-1973), poet and essayist, with Christopher Isherwood (left) standing on the platform at Victoria Station, London, waiting to leave for China. Photograph: John F Stephenson/Getty Images

 

When I left Dublin for Berlin almost two decades ago, my best friend gifted me a bottle of green nail polish. It was a playful nod to my new home – and my previous life as a teenage Cabaret obsessive.

I wasn’t the first gay teenager to fall head over heels for the 1972 musical, where a young Liza Minnelli sings her way through pre-Hitler Berlin. And I’m sure my family weren’t the last to have to endure the Cabaret soundtrack, on repeat, for many a year.

I soon learned the film, which trounced The Godfather to win eight Oscars, was the visible, outer Matryoshka doll. Inside it was the Tony-winning stage musical from 1966 and inside that again were the 1955 movie and 1951 play I am a Camera, both starring Julie Harris. Right at the heart were two novels by the British writer Christopher Isherwood.

Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin were his literary reminiscences of living in the decline of Weimar Berlin, works that still colour our popular understanding of the period.

A plaque hangs on Isherwood’s former home on Berlin’s Nollendorfstrasse, thanks to my Irish Times colleague Denis Staunton. And a few years ago another journalist friend, Quentin Peel of the Financial Times, rented the same apartment where Isherwood once rented a room.

I was a regular visitor to the sprawling apartment and would occasionally pop into the author’s old room to look from the same window where he stared out, eight decades earlier, writing: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

Buoyed by the success of Cabaret, Isherwood revisited his Berlin days in his 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind, stripping away the artifice of the earlier books to admit, in the third person: “To Christopher, Berlin means boys.”

The book – and its author – was embraced by the New York gay community and a book signing on Christopher Street young men lined up around the block. Gore Vidal suggested to Isherwood, “They’re beginning to believe that Christopher Street was named after you.”

Isherwood’s public coming-out began with the 1964 novel A Single Man, filmed in 2009, and drew on Isherwood’s relationship with the painter Don Bachardy. They met on California’s Santa Monica beach in 1952, moved in together two years later and remained together – with breaks – until the writer’s death from cancer in 1986.

Their relationship challenged the social conventions of the time, not least because Isherwood was 48 when they met and Bachardy 18, but it lasted for more than 30 years. For Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin, they were “The First Couple”.

Just in time for Pride season, in the first-ever exhibition of its kind, this first couple are now being celebrated in Berlin’s Schwules (Gay) Museum.

Striking portraits

My Dearest Sweet Love is co-curated by the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and Kevin Clarke, a German-Northern Irish music historian based in Berlin. The intimate exhibition features Isherwood first editions, striking portraits by Bachardy of his partner and others, as well as iconic images of them by their friend David Hockney.

Writer Edmund White, a close friend in later years, told the opening night audience how Bachardy struggled at first with the fame of his partner, then a famous writer with Hollywood friends.

“They were extremely kind and thoughtful and sweet with each other,” said White “and it seems like they were always laughing.”

The exhibition also explains their struggle to make the relationship work. Recalling his Berlin adventures, Isherwood encouraged his younger partner to have love affairs – while worrying about losing him as a result.

‘Domestic fidelity’

Later Isherwood realised the key to his happy relationship with Bachardy was not to make it exclusive but “to make your part of it so special that nobody can interfere with it”. Katherine Bucknell, the director of the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, suggests the relationship “was about domestic fidelity rather than sexual fidelity”.

Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riot, the moment when New York City’s LGBT community pushed back against police harassment. A key moment in the fight for gay equality, it will loom large over Saturday’s Dublin Pride parade.

Even in today’s marriage equality era, though, happy homosexual relationships remain a provocation for some. Edmund White suggested in Berlin at the Isherwood exhibition it was perhaps less because of the relationship’s homosexual nature, but the couple’s happiness.

Long after he said goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood suggested the tension was inherent: “For the homosexual, as long as he lives under the heterosexual dictatorship, the act of love must be, to some extent, an act of defiance, a political act.”

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