Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reminiscences of a boy in blue

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 Piteous, I know, and it's an admission deplorable enough to require my gay card to be rescinded or, at least, be withheld until I've been re-gayed.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.


  1. Great post. Ever seen Chris and Don: A Love Story? One of the best documentaries I've seen in the last five years... it so perfectly sums up what was beautiful, complicated and ultimately timeless about the relationship between Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood.

  2. This is a really great post, Blue, mostly for the usual reasons, but especially for the ending.

    (Not that I'm encouraging you to pick on your grandmother. We all had grandmothers, after all.)

  3. Hello:
    A fascinating post. We know something of the life of Isherwood through a great friend of ours, Peter Parker, whose book 'Isherwood' was published after 10 years of research and spending time with Isherwood and Bachardy.

    Most recently, as you are probably aware, 'World of Interiors' featured the house which Bachardy shared with Isherwood and where he continues to live. They built up over the years an amazing art collection, to include Hockney of course, mostly of the work of friends.

  4. Thank you for such a wonderful post Blue! I met Don Bachardy years ago when I worked in a Santa Monica gallery and he was the sweetest gentleman with a portfolio of beautiful your story about Grandma and the stash of magazines....that brought back some similar memories! Yikes.

  5. John, thank you. I have not seen the documentary but would like to.(At least I might have seen a small part of it - some vague memory. I notice that their house is in The World of Interiors, April issue.

  6. The Ancient, thank you very much. It was a hideously embarrassing moment! It took me many years (far too many) to realize my grandmother suffered very badly from depression. I'm glad I now know as it allows me to look back and have a better appreciation of her.

  7. Jane and Lance Hattatt, thank you. I saw this morning in our local Borders that there is a biography of Isherwood (maybe I should have known this) and that his and Bachardy's house, as you say is featured in the World of Interiors. My copy has not yet been delivered.

  8. W.E. thank you. I suspect we all have similar memories and I wonder if the reaction might have been different if the magazines had been Playboy. As you say, Yikes!

  9. Blue
    I enlarged the photo of Mrs Littman and the Hockney of Isherwood and Bacardy and realized that the painting must have hung in her Hicks decorated dining room in Chester Square! Is the picture now in the National Portrait Gallery in London? It certainly should be!
    Note: Hockney's arrangement of the fruit and the dried corn on the cob, in the foreground, is Hockney trying to tell us something or maybe just joking about?


  10. Anonymous, thank you.

    As far as I can tell there is a lithograph, not the painting, from 1976 in the NPG London in which the corn cob is also visible but the bowl of fruit is replaced with a cactus. I had not given the bowl of fruit and corn cob any thought but now ...

  11. Really, Blue? No soft spot for poor Judy? Not even when she's
    doing something as affecting as this?
    It was James Mason who said at her funeral that Judy Garland's gift
    was her ability "to wring tears from men with hearts of stone". He was referring to the LB Mayers and Sam Goldwyns of this world, and not
    to lads who were connoisseurs of Physiqe Pictorial, but still....

  12. Toby Worthington, thank you. I tried the link but it did not take me to a Judy Garland video. Nonetheless, this heart of stone remains unwrung.

  13. Serves me right for being cheeky, but I pasted entirely the
    wrong link in my recent comment!
    It was meant to be this:
    Judy Garland - A Cottage For Sale (The Judy Garland Show) 

  14. Oh I don't think you're in any danger of ostracism from anything, in this delicious ramble. Are we voting? Yes to Cabaret when the diva isn't present, yes to Isherwood, a kindly no to Hockney, yes to filthy pictures and curious family (no to depression), yes to Marguerite, and amiable yes's and no's to your reading list, which did not influence me in my youth, but was distinctly wonderful to discover, and generally speaking, encouraging of course. I urge you to hold more such plebiscites, they're deliriously invigorating.

    I admire also the latest Cameron installment, following, but I've subscribed to that publication before. :)

  15. Laurent, thank you! Keep up your subscription.

  16. I'll pardon your "splash" pun, but I must tell you I winced at "...seminal influence in my youth" following hard on "nude drawings and...swimming pools of David Hockney."

    I'm enjoying the hell out of your Rory Cameron posts.