As I wrote last week, one of the more gratifying aspects of blogging - and, believe me, there are many - is the way that people over the last two years have been generous with sources, suggestions, reminiscences and even images of my subjects. And so it was with with this photograph of Marguerite Littman, but what excited me, and here I don't wish to be ungentlemanly, was what was on the wall behind Mrs Littman - a double portrait of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Seeing that painting again was one of those moments when, wordless and blind, I traipsed through memories long buried.
I need to tell you, and this will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me well, is that I did not enjoy Cabaret. Piteous, I know, and it's an admission deplorable enough to require my gay card to be rescinded or, at least, be withheld until I've been re-gayed. Whilst I'm being a confessin' queen I might as well just get it all out and admit I couldn't stand listening to Judy Garland or her daughter. I know, I know!
What you might think, has that got to do with Marguerite Littman? Well, actually, not a lot. But what is germane is that Christopher Isherwood wrote I Am a Camera, the book on which Cabaret was based - a book that, together Jean Genet's Querelle of Brest, Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, James Baldwin's Another Country, John Rechy's City of Night, and the nude drawings and blue swimming pools of David Hockney, was a seminal influence in my youth. You could say, if you'll pardon the pun, they all made a bigger splash, and were emblematic of youth yearning to be misspent.
I say above the connection with Marguerite Littman is tenous - a background to a photograph and nothing more - but if truth be told, she was one of the first people to organize a response to the spread of AIDS, and continues to be involved, a fact that should be again noted here. The connection, then, is with the younger me and my admiration of David Hockney. In his autobiography he talks about meeting Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, how they took him up and introduced him to his new life - much as happened to me in a different circle all those years ago.
"By this time I had met Christopher Isherwood and we instantly got on. He was the first author I'd met that I really admired. I got to know him and Don Bachardy, whom he lives with, very well; they woud invite me out, take me around to dinner; we had marvellous evenings together. Christopher was always interesting to talk to about anything and I loved it, really loved it. I don't know how it was that we hit it off, but we did. It wasn't only that we were English, but we were both from Northern England. I remember Christopher later said Oh David, we've so much in common; we love California, we love American boys, and we're from the north of England. Of course, Christopher's from the opposite side of the north of England: his family was quite rich, mine is working class."
A scant five years before I first read of a new and rapidly aging, aggressively wasting, ultimately fatal disease affecting gay men, I'd bought Hockney's autobiography - a book I still own and in which the light of California still glances off the glittering pools, the hissing lawns and the bronzed bodies. It had been an all too brief time of recognition, liberaton and great fun - certainly not a time of innocence as the past tends to be - and without, as is always the way, any hint of the catastrophe to come.
I'll let David Hockney himself finish this post with a paragraph that has such savour of those years:
"I went to visit the place where Physique Pictorial was published in a very seedy area of downtown Los Angeles. It's run by a wonderful complete madman and he has this tacky swimming pool surrounded by Hollywood Greek plaster statues. It was marvellous! To me it had the air of Cafavy in the tackiness of things. Even Los Angeles reminded me of Cafavy; the hot climate's near enough to Alexandria, sensual; and this downtown area was sleazy, a bitt dusty, very masculine - men always; women are just not part of that kind of life. I love downtown Los Angeles - marvellous gay bars full of mad Mexican queens, all tacky and everything. The Physical Pictorial people get men, boys, when they've just come out of the city gaol: Do you want to earn ten dollars? Take your clothes off, jump in the pool, that sort of thing. They're all a bit rough-looking, but the bodies are quite good. The faces are terrible, not pretty boys, really. I must admit, I have a weakness for pretty boys: I prefer them to the big butch scabby ones. I was quite thrilled by the place, and I told the guy. I bought a lot of still photographs from him, which I still have."
Whilst I'm, or Hockney is, on the subject of Physique Pictorial: if you've ever seen the painting When Did You Last See Your Father you know exactly how I felt when my grandmother demanded of me, then aged fourteen or so, an explanation of why I had a stash of the magazines in my nightstand! Like the young man in the painting, it took me a long time to find my voice in these matters.
Odd how pictures can have so many consequences and memories.
Image of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968, from David Hockney by David Hockney, edited by Nick Stangos, Thames and Hudson, London 1976.
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