Christopher Isherwood (26 August 1904 – 4 January 1986) was an Anglo-American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, autobiographer, and diarist. His best-known works include Goodbye to Berlin (1939), a semi-autobiographical novel which inspired the musical Cabaret, A Single Man (1964) adapted as a film by Tom Ford in 2009, and Christopher and His Kind (1976), a memoir which “carried him into the heart of the Gay Liberation movement”.
Early Life and Work
Isherwood was born in 1904 on his family’s estate in Cheshire near Manchester in the north of England. He was the elder son of Francis Edward Bradshaw Isherwood (1869–1915), known as Frank, a professional soldier in the York and Lancaster Regiment, and Kathleen Bradshaw Isherwood, nee Machell Smith (1868–1960), the only daughter of a successful wine merchant. He was the grandson of John Henry Isherwood, squire of Marple Hall and Wyberslegh Hall, Cheshire, and he included among his ancestors the Puritan judge John Bradshaw, who signed the death warrant of King Charles I. Isherwood’s father Frank was educated at the University of Cambridge and Sandhurst Military Academy, fought in the Boer War and was killed in the First World War; his mother Kathleen was a member through her mother of the wealthy Greene brewing family of Greene King, and Isherwood was a cousin of the novelist Graham Greene. Frank and Kathleen christened their first son Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood, which Isherwood streamlined on becoming a US citizen in 1946. At Repton, his boarding school in Derbyshire, Isherwood met his lifelong friend Edward Upward, with whom he invented an imaginary English village, “Mortmere,” populated by eccentrics and lunatics. They wrote macabre, surrealistic stories about Mortmere to entertain each other, as Isherwood made legendary in his early autobiography, Lions and Shadows (1938). He went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as a history scholar, wrote jokes and limericks on his second year Tripos and was asked to leave without a degree in 1925.
At Christmas 1925, he was reintroduced to a prep school friend, W. H. Auden. Auden began to send Isherwood his poems, and Isherwood’s enthusiastic but harsh critiques greatly influenced Auden’s earliest published work. Through Auden, Isherwood met the younger poet, Stephen Spender, who printed Auden’s first collection, Poems (1928). Upward, Isherwood, Auden, and Spender were identified as the most exciting new literary group in England in the 1930s. Auden dubbed Isherwood the novelist in what came to be known as the Auden Group or Auden Generation. With Cecil Day-Lewis and Louis MacNeice, Auden and Spender later attracted the name the MacSpaunday Poets, with which Isherwood is also associated.
After leaving Cambridge, Isherwood worked as a private tutor and later as secretary to a string quartet led by Belgian violinist André Mangeot while he completed his first novel. This was All the Conspirators, published in 1928, about the struggle for self-determination between children and their parents. In October 1928, Isherwood enrolled as a medical student at King’s College London, but he left after six months.
In March 1929, Isherwood joined Auden in Berlin, where Auden was spending a post-graduate year. The ten-day visit changed Isherwood’s life, beginning his liberation as a homosexual. He began an affair with a German boy met at a cellar bar called The Cosy Corner, and he was “brought face to face with his tribe” at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. He visited Berlin again in July, and moved there in November.
In Berlin, Isherwood completed his second novel, The Memorial (1932), about the impact of the First World War on his family and his generation. He also continued his habit of keeping a diary. In his diary, he gathered raw material for Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), inspired by his real-life friendship with Gerald Hamilton, and for Goodbye to Berlin (1939), his portrait of the city in which Adolf Hitler was rising to power—enabled by poverty, unemployment, increasing attacks on Jews and Communists, and ignored by the defiant hedonism of night life in the cafés, bars and brothels. Goodbye to Berlin included stories published in the leftist magazine, New Writing, and it included Isherwood’s 1937 novella Sally Bowles, in which he created his most famous character, based on a young Englishwoman, Jean Ross, with whom he briefly shared a flat.
In America, the Berlin novels were published together as The Berlin Stories in 1945. In 1951, Goodbye to Berlin was adapted for the New York stage by John van Druten using the title I Am a Camera, taken from Isherwood’s opening paragraphs. Julie Harris became a star as Sally Bowles, winning the Best Actress Tony Award, and reprising her role in the 1955 film I Am a Camera. The play inspired the hit Broadway musical Cabaret (1966), winner of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Director. Liza Minnelli starred in the film adaptation of Cabaret in 1972, and became an international superstar. Dressed as Sally Bowles, she was the first person ever to appear on the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. Cabaret won eight Academy Awards including Best Actress and Best Director.
In 1932, Isherwood started a relationship with a young German, Heinz Neddermeyer. They fled Nazi Germany together in May 1933, traveling initially to Greece. Neddermeyer was refused entry to England in January 1934, launching an odyssey in search of a sexual homeland where they could settle together. They lived in the Canary Islands, Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam and Sintra, Portugal, while trying to obtain a new nationality and passport for Neddermeyer. In May 1937, Neddermeyer was arrested by the Gestapo for draft evasion and reciprocal onanism.
During this period, Isherwood returned often to London where he took his first movie-writing job, working with Viennese director Berthold Viertel on the film Little Friend (1934). He collaborated with Auden on three plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1938) – all produced by Robert Medley and Rupert Doone’s Group Theatre. He also worked on Lions and Shadows (1938), a fictionalized autobiography of his education — both in and out of school — in the 1920s.
In January 1938, Isherwood and Auden traveled to China to write Journey to a War (1939) about the Sino-Japanese conflict. They returned to England the following summer via the United States and decided to emigrate there in January 1939.
Life in the United States
While living in Hollywood, California, Isherwood befriended Truman Capote, an up-and-coming young writer who would be influenced by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, most specifically in the traces of the story “Sally Bowles” that surface in Capote’s famed novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Isherwood also befriended Dodie Smith, a British novelist and playwright who had also moved to California, and who became one of the few people to whom Isherwood showed his work in progress.
Isherwood considered becoming an American citizen in 1945 but balked at taking an oath that included the statement that he would defend the country. The next year he applied for citizenship and answered questions honestly, saying he would accept non-combatant duties like loading ships with food. The fact that he had volunteered for service with the Medical Corps also helped. At the naturalisation ceremony, he found he was required to swear to defend the nation and decided to take the oath since he had already stated his objections and reservations. He became an American citizen on 8 November 1946.
He began living with the photographer William “Bill” Caskey. In 1947, the two traveled to South America. Isherwood wrote the prose and Caskey took the photographs for a 1949 book about their journey entitled The Condor and the Cows.
On Valentine’s Day 1953, at the age of 48, he met the teenager Don Bachardy among a group of friends on the beach at Santa Monica. Reports of Bachardy’s age at the time vary, but Bachardy later said, “At the time I was probably 16.” In fact, he was 18. Despite the age difference, this meeting began a partnership that, though interrupted by affairs and separations, continued until the end of Isherwood’s life.
During the early months of their affair, Isherwood finished—and Bachardy typed—the novel on which he had worked for some years, The World in the Evening (1954). Isherwood also taught a course on modern English literature at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) for several years during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The 30-year age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy raised eyebrows at the time, with Bachardy, in his own words, “regarded as a sort of child prostitute,” but the two became a well-known and well-established couple in Southern Californian society with many Hollywood friends.Down There on a Visit, a novel published in 1962, comprised four related stories that overlap the period covered in his Berlin stories. In the opinion of many reviewers, Isherwood’s finest achievement was his 1964 novel A Single Man, that depicted a day in the life of George, a middle-aged, gay Englishman who is a professor at a Los Angeles university. The novel was adapted into the film, A Single Man, in 2009. During 1964 Isherwood collaborated with American writer Terry Southern on the screenplay for the Tony Richardson film adaptation of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh’s caustic satire on the American funeral industry.
Isherwood and Bachardy lived together in Santa Monica for the rest of Isherwood’s life. Isherwood was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1981, and died of the disease on 4 January 1986 at his Santa Monica home, aged 81. His body was donated to medical science at UCLA, and his ashes were later scattered at sea. Bachardy became a successful artist with an independent reputation, and his portraits of the dying Isherwood became well known after Isherwood’s death.
The house in the Schöneberg district of Berlin where Isherwood lived bears a memorial plaque to mark his stay there between 1929 and 1933.
The 2008 film Chris & Don: A Love Story chronicled Isherwood and Bachardy’s lifelong relationship.
A Single Man was adapted into a film A Single Man in 2009.
In 2010 Isherwood’s autobiography, Christopher and His Kind, was adapted into a television film by the BBC, starring Matt Smith as Isherwood and directed by Geoffrey Sax. It was broadcast in France and Germany on the Arte channel in February 2011, and in Britain on BBC 2 the following month.
Work on Vedanta and the West
Gerald Heard had introduced British writer Aldous Huxley to Vedanta (Hindu-centered philosophy) and meditation. After migrating to America in 1937, Heard and Huxley became Vedantists attending functions at the Vedanta Society of Southern California, under the guidance of founder Swami Prabhavananda, a monk of the Ramakrishna Order of India. Both were initiated by the Swami. Isherwood had a close friendship with Huxley, with whom he sometimes collaborated. Huxley introduced Isherwood to the Swami’s Vedanta Society. Isherwood became a dedicated Vedantist himself and was initiated by Prabhavananda, his guru.
The process of conversion to Vedanta was so intense that Isherwood was unable to write another novel between the years 1939–1945, while he immersed himself in study of the Vedanta Scriptures, even becoming a monk for a time at the Society. For the next 35 years Isherwood collaborated with the Swami on translations of various Vedanta scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita, writing articles for the Society’s journal, and occasionally lecturing at the Hollywood and Santa Barbara temples. For many years he would come to the Hollywood temple on Wednesday nights to read the Gospel of Ramakrishna for a half an hour, then the Swami would take questions from the devotees.
|Vivekananda and Sarah Bernhardt – 1943On Translating the Gita – 1944
Hypothesis and Belief – 1944
The Gita and War – 1944
What is Vedanta? – 1944
Ramakrishna and Vivekananda – 1945
The Problem of the Religious Novel – 1946
Religion Without Prayers – 1946
Foreword to a Man of Boys – 1950
An Introduction – 1951
What Vedanta Means to Me – 1951
Who Is Ramakrishna? – 1957
Ramakrishna and the Future – 1958
The Home of Ramakrishna – 1958
Ramakrishna: A First Chapter – 1959
The Birth of Ramakrishna – 1959
The Boyhood of Ramakrishna – 1959
How Ramakrishna Came to Dakshineswar – 1959
Early Days at Dakshineswar – 1959
The Vision of Kali – 1960
|The Marriage of Ramakrishna – 1960The Coming of the Bhariravi – 1960
Some Visitors to Dakshineswar – 1960
Tota Puri – 1960
The Writer and Vedanta – 1961
Mathur – 1961
Sarada and Chandra – 1962
Keshab Sen – 1962
The Coming of the Disciples – 1962
Introduction to Vivekananda – 1962
Naren – 1963
The Training of Naren – 1963
An Approach to Vedanta – 1963
The Young Monks – 1963
Some Great Devotees – 1963
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna – 1963
The Last Year – 1964
The Story Continues – 1964
Letters of Swami Vivekananda – 1968
Essentials of Vedanta – 1969
List of Works
|All the Conspirators (1928; new edition 1957 with new foreword)The Memorial (1932)
Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935; U.S. edition titled The Last of Mr. Norris)
The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935, with W. H. Auden)
The Ascent of F6 (1937, with W.H. Auden)
Sally Bowles (1937; later included in Goodbye to Berlin)
On the Frontier (1938, with W.H. Auden)
Lions and Shadows (1938, autobiography)
Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
Journey to a War (1939, with W.H. Auden)
Prater Violet (1945)
The Berlin Stories (1945; contains Mr. Norris Changes
Trains and Goodbye to Berlin; reissued as The Berlin of Sally Bowles, 1975)
The Condor and the Cows (1949, South-American travel diary)
What Vedanta Means to Me (1951, pamphlet)
The World in the Evening (1954)
Down There on a Visit (1962)
An Approach to Vedanta (1963)
A Single Man (1964)
Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965)
Exhumations (1966; journalism and stories)
A Meeting by the River (1967)
Essentials of Vedanta (1969)
Kathleen and Frank (1971, about Isherwood’s parents)
Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, with Don Bachardy; based on their 1973 filmscript)
Christopher and His Kind (1976, autobiography)
My Guru and His Disciple (1980)
|October (1980, with Don Bachardy)The Mortmere Stories (with Edward Upward) (1994)
Where Joy Resides: An Isherwood Reader (1989; Don Bachardy and James P. White, eds.)
Diaries: 1939–1960, Katherine Bucknell, ed. (1996)
Jacob’s Hands: A Fable (1997) originally co-written with Aldous Huxley
A Meeting by the River (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
Down There on a Visit (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press], 1999)
The Memorial (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
The World in the Evening (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
Lost Years: A Memoir 1945–1951, Katherine Bucknell, ed. (2000)
Lions and Shadows (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000)
Christopher and His Kind (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001)
My Guru and His Disciple (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001)
Prater Violet (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001)
A Single Man (New edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001)
The Condor and the Cows (New edition with foreword by Jeffrey Meyers, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003)
Where Joy Resides (New edition with introduction by Gore Vidal, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003)
Kathleen and Christopher, Lisa Colletta, ed. (Letters to his mother, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press], 2005)
Isherwood on Writing University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
Charles Baudelaire, Intimate Journals (1930; revised edition 1947)
The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita (with Swami Prabhavananda, 1944)
Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (with Swami Prabhavananda, 1947)
How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali (with Swami Prabhavananda, 1953)
- Christopher and His Kind
- “Biography”. Isherwoodfoundation.org. Retrieved 3 April 2020.
- Berg, James J., ed. (2007). Isherwood on Writing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 19. ISBN9781452912936.
- “Variety Obituaries: 1905-1928”. Variety. Obituary. 15 January 1986. ISBN9780824008444.
- Katherine Bucknell and Kevin Clarke, exhibition text, “My Dearest Sweet Love: Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy”, Schwules Museum, Berlin, 15 June – 26 August 2019
- Parker, Peter. Isherwood, 2004, Picador, p. 6.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Kathleen and Frank, 2013, Vintage, p. 3.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Kathleen and Frank, 2013, Vintage, pp. 306, 309.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Kathleen and Frank, 2013, Vintage, p. 471.
- Parker, Peter. Isherwood, 2004, Picador, p. 54.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Lost Years, 2001, Vintage, p. 78.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Lions and Shadows, 2013, Vintage, p. 71-82.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Lions and Shadows, 2013, Vintage, p. 93-98.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Lions and Shadows, 2013, Vintage, p. 136.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Lions and Shadows, 2013, Vintage, p. 142-143.
- Sutherland, John, Stephen Spender: A Literary Life, 2004, Oxford University Press, p. 84.
- Spender, Stephen, World Within World, 1966, University of California Press, p. 101
- Isherwood, Christopher, Lions and Shadows, 2013, Vintage, p. 235.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 3-4.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 16.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 16. See also Auden’s 1929 Berlin Journal which makes clear that he and Isherwood visited Hirschfeld together and went around the museum in March / April.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 12.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 76.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 61.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Diaries: Volume One: 1939-1960, 2011, Vintage, p. 910.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Diaries: Volume One: 1939-1960, 2011, Vintage, p. 912.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 63.
- Watts, Stephen, ‘On Shooting a ‘Camera’’, New York Times, January 23, 1955.
- Garebian, Keith, The Making of Cabaret, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 203.
- Bucknell, Katherine, Introduction, in Christopher Isherwood, The Sixties: Diaries, Volume Two: 1960-1969, 2010, Chatto & Windus, p. xxxiv.
- Time, February 28, 1972, and Newsweek, February 28, 1972.
- Garebian, Keith, The Making of Cabaret, 2011, Oxford University Press, p. 206.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 92-94.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 164-166.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 296.
- Parker, Peter. Isherwood, 2004, Picador, p. 271.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, pp. 304, 310.
- Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind, 2012, Vintage, p. 326.
- Norton, Ingrid (1 July 2010). “Year with Short Novels: Breakfast at Sally Bowles‘“. Open Letters Monthly. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- “Smith [married name Beesley], Dorothy Gladys [Dodie] (1896–1990)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 3 March 2014
- Bucknell (ed.), pp.40, 77–8
- The biographical film Chris & Don: A Love Story
- Bachardy was born in May 1934, meaning that in February 1953 he was 18
- Peter Parker, Isherwood, 2004
- “The First Couple: Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood”, by Armistead Maupin, The Village Voice, Volume 30, Number 16, 2 July 1985.
- “The Britons who made their mark on LA”. The Telegraph. 11 September 2011. ISSN0307-1235. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
- Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 23105). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
- Bachardy, Don, Christopher Isherwood: Last Drawings, Faber and Faber: 1990, ISBN978-0571140756
- Aldous Huxley: A Biography, Dana Sawyer, 2002, page 101
- Aldous Huxley: A Biography, Dana Sawyer, 2002, page 111
- Braubach, Mary Ann. “Huxley on Huxley”. Cinedigm, 2010. DVD. Archived from the original on 8 November 2014. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
- My Guru and His Disciple, Isherwood
- Izzo, David Garrett (2001). Christopher Isherwood: His Era, His Gang, and the Legacy of the Truly Strong Man. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 163–64. ISBN978-1570034039. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
- “Christopher Isherwood 1904–1986; Vedantist Writer/Seeker, An Inner Man of Wit, Warmth and Depth”. Hinduism Today. Himalayan Academy. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
- “New BBC Two drama, Christopher And His Kind” (Press release). BBC. 19 May 2010. Retrieved 28 September 2019.
- CD produced by mondayMEDIA, distributed on the GemsTone label
- Lecture given in the Santa Barbara Vedanta Temple
- “Review in”. AllMusic. Retrieved 4 December 2013.