Who was Christopher Isherwood?

Liz Highleyman | September 18, 2006

British author Christopher Isherwood is widely considered a queer cultural icon, and his frank portrayals of homosexuality secured his position as one of the earliest literary voices of the gay liberation era.

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood was born August 26, 1904, to a family of landed gentry in Cheshire, England. Isherwood later recalled that he knew he was gay from an early age. His passion for writing also arose early, and he began keeping detailed diaries in 1917.

Isherwood attended Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, but left without a degree in 1925. Soon after, he renewed his friendship with poet W.H. Auden, whom he had known at boarding school; the two men enjoyed a sexual friendship, though they were not romantically involved. Isherwood moved to Berlin in 1929, drawn by the heady atmosphere of liberation preceding the Nazi rise to power. His semi-autobiographical short story collection about his experiences there, The Berlin Stories (1939), inspired the Broadway musical and film Cabaret (1972).

Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. He spent the remainder of the decade traveling around Europe, making the acquaintance of literary lights such as E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Aldous Huxley. In 1938, Isherwood and Auden journeyed to China to report on the Sino-Japanese War. The following year, at the dawn of World War II, the two men – both pacifists – emigrated to the United States, which led some of their countrymen to brand them cowards and traitors.

Soon after arriving in the United States, Isherwood left New York City and embarked on a cross-country bus trip to Southern California. There, he embraced Vedanta, a branch of Hinduism, and became a devotee of Swami Prabhavananda, with whom he produced several translations of Sanskrit scriptures.

Over the next two decades, Isherwood worked as a movie screenwriter (largely adapting works by other authors) and participated in the local underground gay scene. His social circles included Hollywood luminaries such as Ava Gardner and Charlie Chaplin, and fellow gay literary celebrities Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams.

In his late 40s, Isherwood began an enduring relationship with Don Bachardy, then an 18-year-old student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In the 1960s, Isherwood taught at Los Angeles State College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and UCLA, while Bachardy attended art school and gained renown as a portrait painter. After more than six decades as a diarist, Isherwood logged his final journal entry in 1983; he died of prostate cancer on January 4, 1986.

Over the course of his career, Isherwood's work became increasingly open in its depictions of homosexuality. The World in the Evening (1954) featured perhaps the first fictional depiction of a gay activist. His 1964 novel, A Single Man, describes one day in the life of a lonely college professor; author Edmund White called it "the founding text of modern gay fiction."

Though Isherwood's work had always been semi-autobiographical, the advent of the gay liberation era in the 1970s finally allowed him to publish memoirs offering explicit details about his sexual exploits, most notably Christopher and His Kind (1976). Asked by an interviewer in 1974 what he thought of the tactics of the gay movement, he replied, "I think it's a necessary way of doing things. It's part of an enormous uncoordinated army that is advancing on various fronts toward recognition, toleration, and the acquisition of very simple rights."

For further reading:

  • Berg, James, and Chris Freeman (eds). 2001. Conversations with Christopher Isherwood (University of Mississippi).
  • Isherwood, Christopher (ed. Katherine Brucknell). 2000. Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951 (Harper Collins).
  • Parker, Peter. 2004. Isherwood: A Life Revealed (Random House).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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