Christopher Isherwood: A Writer and His World

An exhibition in the Library, West Hall
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
June 12 - October 3, 2004

 
Don Bachardy. Portrait of Christopher Isherwood, July 12, 1979. Copyright reserved. Reproduced by permission.

This year The Huntington Library celebrates the centenary of the birth of Christopher Isherwood. Born in England on August 26, 1904, Isherwood emigrated to the U.S. in 1939 and lived in Santa Monica until his death in 1986. He stands as one of the most distinguished authors of the twentieth century, recognized for works that transcend classification in their combination of autobiographical and imaginative elements. Perhaps best known for The Berlin Stories, adapted as the play and film
I Am a Camera and as the musical Cabaret, he also wrote novels, nonfiction books, plays and film scripts.

Isherwood was one of the first major, openly gay writers to be read extensively by a wider audience. His writings are characterized by, and widely praised for, their comic and ironic portrayal of life's often tragic events and by a transparent, unobtrusive writing style that allows the reader to see through the narrator's eyes. Literary critics and discriminating readers alike can readily agree with Gore Vidal, who called Isherwood "the best prose writer in English."

The Huntington acquired the Isherwood papers in 1999 by gift and purchase from Don Bachardy.

 
Christopher Isherwood, ca. 1932

Beginnings

Christopher Isherwood was born at Wyberslegh, Cheshire, England. His mother, Kathleen Bradshaw-Isherwood, was a gifted artist. His father, Frank, an officer in the British army, was killed at Ypres in May, 1915, in the first World War.

Following school at St. Edmund's and Repton, he began attending Cambridge University in 1923. After just one year, he left the university to try writing. While writing his first two novels, All the Conspirators and The Memorial, he also worked as a private secretary and briefly attended medical school. By 1929, he moved to Berlin.

 
Good-bye to Berlin, first edition, The Hogarth Press, 1937; and
Mr. Norris Changes Trains, first edition, The Hogarth Press, 1935

 

Berlin, 1929-1933

In Berlin Isherwood searched for direction in his life and sought escape from the sexual constriction of England to the more open lifestyle and experiences about which his friend W.H. Auden had written him. Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s was the cultural and artistic center of Europe, and Isherwood found there his sexual identity as well as raw material for his writing. The best-known result of his observations and experiences is The Berlin Stories, later adapted as the play and film I Am a Camera and as the musical Cabaret. In recording his experiences in Berlin, Isherwood began to develop the mature authorial voice that he would continue to employ and refine through all his works.

 

 

 
Christopher Isherwood. Letter to Kathleen Bradshaw-Isherwood, Dec. 2, 1936,
discussing his book Lions and Shadows, referring to it by its early title, The Northwest Passage.
 
W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood,
at RĂ¼gen Island, 1931

Isherwood, Auden and Spender

Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden met as schoolboys at St. Edmund's School near the end of Isherwood's time there. Isherwood went on to Cambridge University and Auden to Christ Church College, Oxford. They met again in 1925, and in 1929 Isherwood followed Auden to Berlin. Isherwood served as a literary mentor and adviser for Auden. Indeed, Auden often discarded words or entire lines of his poems, if Isherwood criticized them.

Auden introduced Isherwood to Spender in 1928, when Spender was an undergraduate at University College, Oxford. Isherwood became a friend and mentor, and the three achieved prominence on the 1930's literary scene.

 
Christopher Isherwood (right) and friend Heinz Neddermeyer
traveling in the Mediterranean, ca. 1934

A Wanderer in the Shadow of War

After leaving Berlin in 1933, Isherwood embarked on a period of wandering, traveling with his partner Heinz Neddermeyer through Europe, England and the Mediterranean region, often connecting with Auden and Spender. During this unsettled time, with civil war raging in Spain and Hitler's German army threatening Europe, Isherwood wrote The Berlin Stories and Lions and Shadows, a memoir of his school years in the 1920's.

In 1938, Isherwood and Auden traveled to Asia, on commission to write a travel book. They recorded their experiences and observations of the war in China in a joint diary, later published as Journey to a War.

Having witnessed the Sino-Japanese conflict first-hand, and deeply distressed at the outbreak of war in Europe, Isherwood and Auden emigrated to America in 1939. In his diaries, Isherwood writes that he emigrated, not because of the possibility of war, but because he couldn't stop traveling. He was ready now to try life as "a natural citizen of the go-getters' homeland."

 
Christopher Isherwood, Santa Monica, 1946. Photograph by William Caskey.
 
Don Bachardy. Portrait of Swami Prabhavananda, Dec. 10, 1969.
Copyright reserved. Reproduced by permission.

Finding Fulfillment

Arriving in California in the spring of 1939, Isherwood sought an environment in which he could live freely and write successfully. He also searched for deeper spiritual truths and meaning. Shaken by a world at war, disillusioned by the failures of political theories to serve the world's needs, and increasingly firm in his belief in pacifism, he found spiritual fulfillment when he met Swami Prabhavananda in July. The Swami became his mentor and Isherwood became a member of Vedanta, one of the systems of Hindu philosophy.

Isherwood also found fulfillment for the heart in his newly adopted home, for in 1953 he began a relationship with Don Bachardy, a gifted young artist. They became lifelong partners, remaining together until Isherwood's death in 1986. In Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood describes Bachardy as "the ideal companion to whom you can reveal yourself totally and yet be loved for what you are, not for what you pretend to be."

 

The Big Screen

From the early days of the film industry, Isherwood was fascinated by the new medium. His excitement only increased after he worked as a screenwriter in 1933 for the director Berthold Viertel, who was directing Little Friend. Isherwood later satirized this experience in his novel Prater Violet. When he emigrated to the U.S., the possibility of writing for one of the Hollywood studios was one of the attractions of settling in southern California.

In contrast to many other serious authors who felt that writing for film wasted and compromised their talent, Isherwood viewed screen writing as a genre equally as legitimate as any other. Indeed, he believed that it demands a far more visual approach than other literary forms. In a 1951 letter, he wrote, ". . .you can be a great writer and yet be utterly unsuited to movie work. Being a movie writer is a very special kind of talent and it involves much else besides writing; you have to have a strong visual sense. The image is still far more important than the sound; and the sound can't exist in its own right. It has to be played off the image."

Isherwood's screen credits include the 1956 film Diane, starring Lana Turner, and, in 1965, The Loved One, adapted from the Evelyn Waugh novel that satirizes the funeral industry in southern California.

 
Christopher Isherwood, ca. 1950. Photograph by William Caskey.



Life Is a Cabaret

Isherwood's book The Berlin Stories was an obvious prospect for adaptation to the stage and screen. In 1951 English playwright and novelist John Van Druten adapted Good-bye to Berlin for the stage, under the title I Am a Camera. The young actress Julie Harris originated the role of Sally Bowles on stage and repeated the role in the 1955 film version, with screenplay by John Collier.

Cabaret, a musical version of the story written by Fred Ebb and John Kander, opened on Broadway in 1969. The 1972 film of the musical was written by Jay Presson Allen and starred Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. The film earned eight Academy Awards, including best actress for Liza Minnelli, best supporting actor for Joel Grey, and best director for Bob Fosse.

 

 

A Writer Among Writers

Christopher Isherwood enjoyed friendships with many authors, beginning with Auden and Spender. Isherwood was not just a loyal and congenial friend who encouraged, and was encouraged by, his literary colleagues. He often gave generously of his time and his literary acumen in analyzing and critiquing manuscripts sent to him by his fellow writers.

The range of his literary friendships encompasses such writers as E.M. Forster, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Somerset Maugham, and Gore Vidal. The correspondence from these authors bespeaks the warm friendships they enjoyed with Isherwood.

 

Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man, second draft with corrections, Feb. 11, 1963

A Writer and His World

In the last 25 years of his life, Isherwood's writings reflect the mature views of a life spent in developing his authorial voice and message. Down There On a Visit is a novel in which he reinterprets his past from 1928 to 1953 in a series of distinct episodes linked only by the continuing and developing voice of the narrator. In Christopher and His Kind, he reassesses his life in the 1930's, writing frankly about his sexual coming of age while under enormous pressure to conform to a heterosexual society. He writes in the book, "My will is to live according to my nature, and to find a place where I can be what I am." In A Single Man, the story of one day in the life of a Los Angeles man whose long-time partner has died, Isherwood's portrayal of one gay man's life speaks to the over-all human condition. Both humorous and deeply moving, the novel is widely considered to be Isherwood's masterpiece, as well as an under-valued gem of twentieth-century literature.

Christopher Isherwood. "A Writer and His World:" notes for a lecture, 1960-1961.

A series of lectures Isherwood delivered in the 1960's at colleges and universities throughout southern California constitutes a remarkable record of the mature thoughts that inform his late books. One lecture series in particular, entitled "A Writer and His World," sums up many of the firmly-held, life-long beliefs that are central to his life and writings. The title is thus a fitting rubric, both for his final body of works and for this exhibition.

Sara S. Hodson
Curator of Literary Manuscripts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don Bachardy. Portrait of Christopher Isherwood, 1983.
Copy right reserved. Reproduced by permission

This exhibition is made possible by the
Robert F. Erburu Exhibition Endowment Fund.

Grateful thanks to

Lenders of special items for the exhibition:
Don Bachardy
Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
National Archives - Pacific Region (Laguna Niguel)

Donors of special items for the collection and the exhibition:
Romaine Ahlstrom
Dinah and Mel Smith

Those who have provided assistance for the exhibition:
Gordon Baldwin
British Broadcasting Corporation
David Fahey
Mary Ellen Mark
Marilyn Sanders
Wayne Shimabukuro
Devik Wiener
Pat York

Special thanks to Don Bachardy

 

All images copyright The Huntington Library except where noted.

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