Today is the birthday (1904) of Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood an English author whose best-known works, The Berlin Stories (1935-39), two semi-autobiographical novellas inspired by his time in Weimar Republic Germany, were adapted first into the play I Am a Camera (1951), then the 1955 film of the same name, followed by a stage musical Cabaret (1966) which was adapted for film, in rather sanitized version, in 1972. Isherwood’s name is not exactly a household word these days, but Cabaret is well remembered.
Isherwood was born in 1904 on his family’s estate close to the Cheshire-Derbyshire border. He attended Repton School in Derbyshire where he met his lifelong friend Edward Upward with whom he wrote the extravagant “Mortmere” stories, of which only one was published during his lifetime. He deliberately failed his tripos and left Corpus Christi College, Cambridge without a degree in 1925. For the next few years he lived with violinist André Mangeot, worked as secretary to Mangeot’s string quartet and studied medicine. During this time he wrote a book of nonsense poems, People One Ought to Know, with illustrations by Mangeot’s eleven-year-old son, Sylvain. It was not published until 1982.
In 1925 A.S.T. Fisher introduced Isherwood to W. H. Auden, and he became Auden’s literary critic, as well as partner in an intermittent, casual liaison. Auden sent his poems to Isherwood for comment and approval, and then through Auden, Isherwood met Stephen Spender, with whom he later spent much time in Germany. His first novel, All the Conspirators, appeared in 1928. It was an anti-heroic story, written in a pastiche of many modernist idioms, about a young man who is overwhelmed by his mother. In 1928–29 Isherwood studied medicine at King’s College London, but gave up his studies after six months to join Auden for a few weeks in Berlin.
Rejecting his upper-class background and fully embracing his attraction to men, he remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom. Commenting on John Henry Mackay’s Der Puppenjunge (The Pansy), Isherwood wrote: “It gives a picture of the Berlin sexual underworld early in this century which I know, from my own experience, to be authentic.”
In 1931 he met Jean Ross, the inspiration for his fictional character, Sally Bowles. He also met Gerald Hamilton, the inspiration for the fictional Mr Norris. In September 1931 the poet William Plomer introduced him to E. M. Forster. They became close and Forster served as his mentor. Isherwood’s second novel, The Memorial (1932), was another story of conflict between mother and son, based closely on his own family history. During one of his return trips to London he worked with the director Berthold Viertel on the film Little Friend, an experience that became the basis of his novel Prater Violet (1945). He worked as a private tutor in Berlin and elsewhere while writing the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and a short novel called Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often published together in a collection called The Berlin Stories.
Isherwood collaborated on three plays with Auden: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1939). He wrote a lightly fictionalized autobiographical account of his childhood and youth, Lions and Shadows (1938), using the title of an abandoned novel. Auden and Isherwood traveled to China in 1938 to gather material for their book on the Sino-Japanese War called Journey to a War (1939).
In 1939, Auden and Isherwood left England for the United States on temporary visas, a controversial move, later regarded by some as a flight from danger on the eve of war in Europe. Evelyn Waugh, in his novel Put Out More Flags (1942), included a caricature of Auden and Isherwood as “two despicable poets, Parsnip and Pimpernel”, who flee to America to avoid World War II.
While living in Hollywood, California, Isherwood befriended Truman Capote, who was at the time an up-and-coming young writer who was influenced by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, especially in the themes of the story “Sally Bowles” that emerge in Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Isherwood also had a close friendship with Aldous Huxley, with whom he sometimes collaborated. Gerald Heard had introduced Huxley to Vedanta (Upanishad-centered philosophy) and meditation. Huxley became a Vedantist in the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda, and introduced Isherwood to the Swami’s Vedanta circle. Isherwood became a convinced Vedantist himself and adopted Prabhavananda as his own guru, visiting the Swami every Wednesday for the next 35 years and collaborating with him on a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The process of conversion to Vedanta was so all-consuming that Isherwood was unable to write another novel between the years 1939-1945, while he immersed himself in study of the Vedas.
Isherwood considered becoming a US 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 helped as well. At the naturalization 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 a US citizen on 8 November 1946. Soon after, he began living with the photographer William “Bill” Caskey and 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 teenaged 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, Bachardy 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.
Perhaps Isherwood’s finest achievement, although much less well known than Berlin Stories 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. During 1964 Isherwood collaborated with US writer Terry Southern on the screenplay for the Tony Richardson film adaptation of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh’s caustic satire on the US funeral industry.
Isherwood and Bachardy lived together in Santa Monica for the rest of Isherwood’s life. Bachardy became a successful artist with an independent reputation, and his portraits of the dying Isherwood became well known after Isherwood’s death. Isherwood died at age 81 in 1986 in Santa Monica, California. His body was donated to science at UCLA, and his ashes were later scattered at sea.
Because for so many people Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin is what he is remembered for, I have chosen a traditional Berlin dish, Hoppel Poppel, as a celebration. It is one way that Berliners use up Sunday leftovers, and so is not generally to be found on restaurant menus. But it is popular in home cooking.
Berliner Hoppel Poppel
1 lb leftover cooked meat, cut in thin strips
2 onions, peeled and chopped
4 tbsp butter
1½ lb boiled potatoes, chopped
6 eggs, beaten
Fry the onions in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until translucent. Add the meat, potatoes, and remaining butter, and fry until the potatoes are golden brown. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the eggs and stir gently until the eggs are set.