This is the foreword Armistead wrote for The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood edited by James J. Berg and Chris Freedman. The best authority on Isherwood was the man himself so if you haven’t read him, do yourself a favor and pick up any one of his novels, autobiographis, diaries. A good first Isherwood is hia 1964 novel, A SINGLE MAN. You’ll be amazed by its timeliness and relevance today. To learn more about him, www.isherwoodcentury.com.
Foreword to “The Isherwood Centrury”
By Armistead Maupin
The title of this volume fits its subject to a tee. There was so much about Christopher Isherwood that felt centurial in scope: from his pre-modernist concern for the enjoyment of his readers to his trailblazing commitment to telling the truth, even when it proved unflattering. On a personal level, this union of charm and candor made him a treasure to his friends: a sort of social alchemist whose very presence in a room could bridge the generations. Certainly no other figure in my life made me feel more connected to a past I had never known and a future I had yet to realize. He accomplished this remaining solidly in the present, while never presuming that his celebrated history was a matter of common knowledge. “My friend Wystan was a poet,” he once explained to a friend I brought to his house. And he provided this footnote without a trace of condescension.
Chris’s comfort around people of all ages was gloriously present at a dinner party he and Don Bachardy threw in the early eighties. An unknown friend of a friend of theirs was performing in a jazz club in the San Fernando Valley-a cabaret, if you please-so the couple suggested we retire there for drinks, while warning us that they could promise nothing. The senior member of our gang, Chris, reclined in the back seat of the car, not because he was infirm but because he couldn’t bare to watch Don’s driving, and the couple had settled upon this peculiar method of travel as the best way to avoid conflict. (Chris once explained it to me this way: believe I’m the only person who’s fit to be on the road at all; therefore, I prefer to just miss it when other people drive.”)
We were all rather giggly by then and speculating wildly about our destination, which, to judge from our suburban surroundings, threatened to be relentlessly hetero. To aid in our deliberations Chris would read aloud from the signs that flickered past his limited low-level vantage point. “Midas Muffler,” he would mutter with exaggerated alarm. “That’s very bad news indeed.” But when we finally arrived at the nightclub, tucked primly into a prosaic mini-mall, he read the last sign he saw with a note of unexpected relief in his voice. “Pioneer Chicken,” he crowed. “It is a gay place, after all!”
It wasn’t-in any sense of the word-but we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. (It helped that the chanteuse was a touchingly plump Valley Girl version of Sally Bowles.) There were six men at the table that night, each representing a different decade of adult gay life, and it was exhilarating to see the journey laid out before me so attractively Chris had his arm around a twenty-eight-year-old, whose nipple he would occasionally tweak in a friendly way, much to the honor of the tweakee. I remember catching Don’s eye and seeing the twinkle there that I would learn to read so much into in the years to come. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he seemed to be saying. “This happy little band of queers in the midst of this ordinariness.” Or maybe that’s just how I felt at that moment: proud and free and blessedly special because of the company I was keeping.
I first met Chris and Don at an Oscar Night party in the home of one of the producers of Saturday Night Fever. (There was, I remember a distinct note of protest in the air, since all those catchy Bee Gees songs had been officially excluded from consideration by the Academy) I established the author’s identity by the piercing blue eyes that had recently mesmerized me on a PBS interview. He was very much in his cups that night, but he was gracious when I expressed my fandom and even more so when I told him I was writing a fictional serial for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Oh, yes,” he said. “That marvelous, funny thing.” At which point I lost all sense of proportion and asked if he might consider reviewing Tales of the City for the Los Angeles Times. Chris countered with an offer to write me a blurb, explaining that he never wrote reviews because they sometimes required one to be critical of other writers. He would rather just celebrate the good, he said. (This policy made so much sense to me that I promptly adopted it as my own–and adhere to it faithfully still.)
Chris’s blurb arrived in a letter that likened me to Dickens and declared-even more shockingly-that he had read Tales three times and would probably read it again before long. Rereading that letter recently, I was struck by his unfailing graciousness to a young writer. He actually apologized for being late with the blurb, explaining that “writing a blurb sometimes comes as hard to me as writing a sonnet — I mean, there’s same necessity to be brief.” The other thing that letter made clear was impoverished state at the time. “I tried phoning you,” Chris wrote, “but the operator told me the number has been disconnected. If there’s another, please let me know” When I was able to thank him in person, Chris deflected my gratitude by citing the generosity that Forster and Maugham had shown him as a young writer. He knew full well what effect this would have–linking a callow newspaper serialist to the noble lineage of English literature–and drew great pleasure from it, I think. And his support didn’t stop there. When I came to L.A. for my very first out-of-town gig there were six people who showed up for my autographing at the Unicorn Bookshop in West Hollywood: three friends from back home, the guy picked up the night before at a sex club called Basic Plumbing, and that famous pair from Adelaide Drive.
In the years that followed I cherished a relationship with Chris and Don–then with Don alone–that continued to illuminate my life in ways both personal and professional. Chris was the first writer to tell me that art and entertainment were not mutually exclusive, that I should never apologize for my impulse to keep readers interested. He was also the first to warn me about literary labeling. “Don’t let them call it a gay book,” he told me emphatically in reference to Tales of the City. “You’re writing for everyone and about everyone.” Though Chris has been understandably embraced by the new queer theorists, the man who popularized the Q-word in public interviews had a horror of being restricted to a sub-genre for his honesty. His aim, it seemed to me, was the aim of a true revolutionary: to change literature from the inside and remain squarely under the nose of what he called “the heterosexual dictatorship.” I can’t help wondering what he would make of the current marketing scheme that keeps gay thought restricted-at least in this country-to a cubbyhole in the back of the bookstore.
Which is not to imply that Chris was in any way cautious about discussing his homosexuality. He spoke out more fearlessly-and more often-than any of his queer contemporaries; certainly more than Truman Capote, who once equated his gayness to his alcoholism, or even Gore Vidal, who wrote brilliantly about our oppression but remained cagey about his own life while he still had a shot at the Senate. Chris was deliciously blunt and remained that way to the end. In 1985, when I talked to him for the Village Voice in what proved to be his last interview, he even offered some blasphemous advice to young men who had been ostracized because of AIDS: “They’re told by their relatives that it’s a sort of punishment, that it’s . . . God’s will and all that kind of thing. And I think they have to get very tough with themselves and really decide which side they’re on. You know, fuck God’s will. God’s will must be circumvented, if that’s what it is.”
There were other lessons I learned from Chris: subtler ones that came from observing a successful gay couple in action. The longevity of his partnership with Don was widely celebrated, but it should be noted that they never used it to feel superior to others or to propagandize for some grim replica of conventional marriage. I well remember Don remarking to the Advocate that his decades with Chris were no more inherently valid than a lifetime of one-night stands. It wasn’t the numbers that counted, he seemed to be saying, but the quality of the love that was shared. And, as Chris’s and Don’s diaries begin to unfurl before the world, it becomes increasingly clear that the couple achieved a fidelity far deeper and more rewarding than simple monogamy could ever be.
The thirty-year difference in their ages lent a Socratic quality to the union that was fascinating to witness. Chris had early on recognized Don’s gift as an artist and supported his education, so that over the years the younger man began to develop an impressive visual counterpoint to his partner’s greatest contribution: a sharp but generous eye on the human condition. They were twin lights, separate but together, each feasting off the other’s talents and perceptions. And anyone who knew them will tell you how eerie and wonderful it was that a kid from the beaches of Southern California came to adopt the stammer of a well-bred Englishman.
Even after years of knowing them, I found it a challenge to guess which of the two was answering the phone at Adelaide Drive. So I had a reference point already when I met a feisty young man in Atlanta who was fifteen years my junior and reportedly sounded exactly like me on the phone. Terry Anderson worked part-time at a book store called Christopher’s Kind and came into my life just as Chris was leaving, so it felt like a pilgrimage of sorts when I took my newfound soul mate to Santa Monica to meet Don. (I remember the guilty thrill I experienced when Don left the room and Terry and I scrambled to take each other’s pictures in the straw chairs that Chris and Don had posed in for David Hockney.) Several years later Don would fall in love with Tim Hilton, a young architect as far from him in age as Don had been from Chris, and they would spend their honeymoon with Terry and me on the isle of Lesbos. Both partnerships would flourish for almost a decade, dissolv-ing-or at least reconfiguring themselves-at roughly the same time. And the wisdom that Don had accrued from both sides of the generation gap once again offered me a source of strength and validation.
When Don visited me in San Francisco last month, I told him it didn’t seem possible that Chris had been gone for nearly fifteen years. He felt the same way, he said, acknowledging the potency of the words and memories that Chris had left behind. But there was something else that induced that feeling of my mentor’s constant presence, something I noticed as we stood on the porch waiting for a cab to arrive. Don bounced on his heels in a way that seemed utterly familiar, and the set of his jaw in profile made me gasp in recognition of the man he was becoming at sixty-five. “Oh, my God, Don,” I murmured, and he read my mind on the spot. “I know,” he said with an impish smile. “And the haircut doesn’t help either.”
San Francisco 29 September 1999