Don Bachardy

Interview by
Adam Baran
Photography by
Matthias Vriens


Don Bachardy’s house is one of those pesky LA abodes hidden under a hill, not visible from the road, reachable only by steep stairways. I ended up having to call Don several times to guide me to the house, much to his irritation, even though I had written down the directions. I have wanted to interview Mr Bachardy for years, ever since I first started noticing his name in all the books I read about Christopher Isherwood, who was Don’s partner from 1953 (when Don was 18 and Isherwood was 49) until Isherwood’s death in 1986. Aside from his longtime work in preserving Isherwood’s legacy by publishing his diaries and introducing critical anthologies, Don is an acclaimed portrait artist whose work includes portraits of members of Isherwood’s famous gay literary circle — W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Gore Vidal — and Hollywood royalty, from Bette Davis to Angelina Jolie. Don is a fit man in his early seventies with a wide bright smile who lights up whenever speaking about Isherwood.

Adam: What have you been doing today?
Don: I’m painting today. I’m doing something very uncharacteristic of me. For the past three years I’ve been painting abstract pictures. There were a few periods before where I tried some abstract work but they didn’t last long, and this one now has lasted a few years and I’m really enjoying myself. After fifty years of relying on a sitter, it’s quite a luxury to be able to go to work whenever I feel like it.
That’s quite a reversal for you.
Yeah. I’m going to show them in February or March at the Craig Krull Gallery.
How do you relax from your work?
Just by fixing myself a drink and flopping down and maybe reading or watching a movie on TV. But I enjoy the work so much that I don’t have to recover from it. The real difficulty for me is actually stopping working. I enjoy it so much that I’m likely to go on for seven or eight hours. That’s a little extreme I think — standing up at a table for the whole period. I don’t sit down. So yeah, I am pretty tired when I get done.
When was the last time you had sex?
The last time I had sex? On Sunday.
Who was it?
An old friend of mine. We’re exactly the same age almost, I’m four months older than he, and we had an affair in New York in 1965. I was doing portraits of the principal dancers of the New York City Ballet, so I was there for several months and we had an affair, we saw each other quite a bit. And then I came back to Santa Monica and we didn’t see each other for thirty years. Actually more — forty years! I had a show at the Huntington Library in 2004 and he came to the show and wrote me a letter saying he’d seen it. I invited him to sit for me again. It was very strange to meet somebody forty years later without having seen him in between times. We were both old men, kind of laughing at each other for looking like old men. We did some sittings together and gradually started sleeping together again. Now he comes about twice a month. It’s very enjoyable.
Do you have many other partners?
No, I haven’t had a partner for several years, and really wasn’t intending to. But suddenly this old friend appeared, and I said to myself, ‘Why not?’ You know, there’s no law against two old men getting together and having fun with each other.
Are you from Los Angeles originally?
Yes. My parents were married in Cleveland, Ohio and spent their honeymoon in a T Ford driving out to Los Angeles where they settled in 1929.
Can you describe what you were like as an adolescent?
I looked very young for my age. When Chris and I went to New York for the first time, in 1953, Christmas, a serious rumor went around that Chris had brought a 12-year-old with him from California, and people believed it. As a matter of fact I was 19, but I did look young for several years.
When did you know you were not straight?
Oh, certainly around 12. I had the advantage of having an older brother who was also queer. When Ted was 15, I was 11, and he had the first of a long series of nervous breakdowns. It all spilled out, and my mother didn’t know what the word ‘homosexual’ meant, and had to have it explained to her by my father.
What was her reaction?
I don’t know. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall. His explanation must have been quite something. He was a very good looking man, and he’d been at sea — he was a longshoreman, he’d worked on ships — so he would have been exposed to all kinds of queers and I’m sure had lots of passes made at him. So what his definition to my mother was, I would love to have on record. But, anyway — I knew pretty well about myself, and certainly by the time I was in my late teens.
Had you had any early experiences?
No, I maybe had some kind of sex with three or four guys before I knew Chris. One of them was a very attractive cameraman for movies and TV. He was Mexican — Alex Quiroga. He was very, very sexy, and a sweet man. I met him through Ted. My brother was a great conduit for queer friends. He had had sex with Alex and Alex’s beautiful blond boyfriend. I was the kid brother, and Alex took a shine to me and I to him. But he wanted to fuck me. He had a huge member. It scared me. By that time I was already seeing Chris — we were friends. We’d been to bed a couple of times and he was playing the role of a kind of mentor to me, so I told him of my situation with Alex. Chris suggested, ‘Well, why didn’t you and I try it first? Why start with a huge member when you could have a perfectly well-sized one but not quite as big?’ So we went to Palm Springs for a couple of nights and it was a great success, and as soon as we got back, I made a date with Alex and he did screw me, and it was also a great success. So I came back to Chris and thanked him, and we celebrated it. We had champagne. And then we had sex again.
So you were all sort of in a very open, free circle in regards to sex?
Yes, there were lots of free circles in the fifties. Yes, indeed. A lot of queers my age lament the good old days before gay liberation. They didn’t welcome gay liberation at all.
Why do you think that is?
Because it took away the exciting illicitness.
Was it comforting to know that your brother Ted was gay as well?
Well, yeah. I mean, he was my big brother and I relied on him for all kinds of examples of behavior. Ted introduced me to Chris — Chris was crazy about Ted, he thought he had the best pair of legs he’d ever seen. My legs weren’t quite as good, but he eventually settled for me.
I have a gay little brother and when he came out to me I just teased him that I wasn’t surprised at all, because he always wanted to do everything I wanted to do.
Oh, Ted welcomed me. He was always whispering to his friends before that — ‘My little brother doesn’t know anything.’ Well, I knew way more than that! So when I did come out to him he was relieved and it was much less trouble for him. Although Ted was a little put out when Chris and I went to bed, because he considered Chris his property. But he had so many suitors he couldn’t attend to them all, and Chris certainly wasn’t number one on his list, so he realized he shouldn’t begrudge me a little poaching.
Was he ever jealous that he hadn’t tried harder to stick with Christopher?
Well, I couldn’t help or hide the glamorous life I led with Chris from Ted. I didn’t rub in all the exciting things I did and people I met, but Ted got a pretty good impression of the exciting life I led, and he must have minded. But he put a good face on. He was on the whole very good-natured, and he made some fun of me, because I’m an unconscious mimic. Just months after I started being with Chris, I started developing a British accent. I couldn’t help it, but Ted was very cruel about that.
How much of Chris’ work did you know?
None of it. My interest in movies was all about the actors, and the writers and directors were only an interest that came later. I was practically a virgin to education before I knew Chris. If education in LA is any worse today than it was in the fifties, god help young people. My early education came from the movies, and then from Chris.
What was your impression of Chris when you first met him?
He was charming and funny and he had the most amazing sparkling eyes. Yeah. He was a great charmer.
You hadn’t had any entry into the Hollywood scene prior to meeting Chris?
Well, Ted and I went to all kinds of movie premieres. We put on ties and jackets and slipped in as though we belonged to some couple the right age to be our parents. Things like that were much more easily accomplished back then. Security now would never allow such shenanigans. And we took our camera. I have all kinds of photos of us with major movie stars of the fifties. We hardly missed one.

BUTT - 2
Self-portrait by Don Bachardy, 1972

Did you worry that with Chris you would be perceived as a gold digger or a boy toy?
Of course I was. People were saying I was out for Chris’ money. But Chris and money — there was awfully little at that time. In that first year that I knew him, I think he had less than a thousand dollars in the bank. He put all the money he earned from I Am A Camera into a garden house that belonged to Evelyn Hooker. It wasn’t even his property. He spent five thousand dollars on it, which was a lot of money at that time. And barely a year later, Evelyn had to ask him to leave the garden house because, um, she and her husband were professors at UCLA. And when they invited Chris to live in their garden house, they just imagined little literary conversations over tea. They never imagined that Chris would bring his young lovers to the garden house, and especially one that looked 12. They were afraid for their jobs. And Evelyn was a great patron saint of gays: she was the one who got the psychiatric definition of homosexuality changed in all the medical books. So it was very embarrassing for her to ask him to leave just because he was queer.
I read this quote in one of your published journals: ‘The friends, familiars, guardians, all in fact who take the trouble to have a relationship with any famous artist almost always find themselves suspected, bitched, even hated, and finally ignored.’
Yeah. Yeah, it was a tough situation to be in, but it was very good for me. Because I realized that if I wanted to stay with Chris, I had to have an identity of my own. If I’d been just on the gay scene, I could have slid by on my youth and looks alone. But because I was with Chris, that made me determined to make something of myself. And that’s why I went to art school and that’s how and why I became an artist.
Was there an element of wielding power or revenge with some of the celebrities? These were people who sat with you because they were friends of Christopher.
Well, I wouldn’t want to have revenge on them because I adored them! They were gods and goddesses to me. I’d been watching them in movies since I was little. I was thrilled to meet them, and even more thrilled and terrified to do sittings with them. I did good work with them too, many of them were impressed by me. It was just so wonderful for my ego, for my confidence. I was very lacking in confidence in myself when I was young. And that just fortified me. But none of it would have been possible without Chris’ continual moral as well as financial support. He put me through art school.
I could be at peace with myself if I’d had the experience you did with Bette Davis.
I did drawings of her when I was a kid and I worshipped her! And to have that kind of praise from people as distinguished as she was, that was just wonderful.
When you were together with Chris, was your relationship exclusive?
In the beginning. But he was very frank with me about his past — he couldn’t be otherwise because…
…it was well known.

In our first year together he gave me his diaries to read; he had destroyed all of them until 1939, and started all over again when he came to this country. You know, I knew he’d had a very promiscuous life — lots of partners, lovers, one night stands — and of course I was shrewd enough to realize that I could use that as a means of wresting my freedom from him. Since he’d had all that experience, how could he deny me? So he had to. He was jealous at first. But, um, we worked it out. And when you’re the younger person in an old/young relationship, you have to be very diplomatic and very sensitive. I always let Chris know that he was number one, and his position was unassailable, from my point of view. He knew that. Even though I knew he minded my going out once or twice a week. We used to call it ‘mousing’.
I have a friend whose partner has ‘playdates’.
Oh yeah, same thing. It helps if you couch it in little cozy terms, yeah. And when I came home, Chris would ask me, ‘How was the mouse tonight?’
Were there things in the sixties like sex parties among the Hollywood set?
Oh, I’m sure there were, and I did hear of them occasionally but I didn’t go to them. You see, it was more difficult because I was known as Chris’s partner so I couldn’t go to sex parties without meeting people who’d know I was cheating on Chris. I had to be very surreptitious about it. I didn’t want to be observed by people who would know I was cheating on Chris. An awful lot of people are just instinctive troublemakers. So I was very private about it.
When Christopher took ill in the 1980s, you spent your time with him making drawings of him.
Yes, the last six months of his life I canceled all my sittings, and Chris was my exclusive subject for those last months. We were together every day, and I often did a dozen drawings a day, sometimes more. There are hundreds of them. I think it’s the best work I’d ever done. It had to be. It was my tribute to Chris. He made me an artist, so that work had to be the very best I could do, and it was.
When he finally died, you remained in the room with him?
Yes, I drew his corpse after he died — all day long. He died on a Saturday around eleven in the morning, and by the time his doctor arrived at eight o’clock I had finished eleven drawings and I was just about to start the twelfth. I was so glad when she arrived because throughout the day the corpse had gradually changed and become less and less like Chris, until finally — I was glad not to have to do that last drawing.
What kind of shape did your life begin to take after he died? Did you have other relationships?
Yes, I lived with a young man in this house for 10 years. We met in 1987, a year after Chris died. Chris always said I’d find somebody else. I was 52 when he died, and I sometimes tortured Chris by saying, ‘You’ll live just long enough for me to lose my looks completely and then I won’t be able to find anybody.’ We used to go into gales of laughter during these scenes we played! But I did find somebody, yes. Tim was 26 years younger than I, and I was 30 years younger than Chris, so it was just a perfect situation for me, because the relationship was reversed and I got to play Chris’ role. It was fascinating to me. It explained so much of my life with Chris. I was forever thinking about things as though I had an interior dialogue with Chris: ‘Oh that’s what that was all about!’ ‘Oh that’s what you were feeling.’ I kept volumes of diaries. I think 10 or 11 volumes during those ten years with Tim. I would publish them if I thought I could get away with it.
Why couldn’t you?
Tim and I are friends still, and we talk on the phone. He lives up in Oregon, where he grew up. He’d be very shocked to read my diaries — it’s full of sex. Just sex, sex, sex. And GREAT sex! But also this very interesting material about my new perception of Chris.
Can you describe at all what the sex was like with Tim?
Oh, it was wonderful because we did everything together. There wasn’t a top or a bottom. And Tim was just ready for any kind of sex. And so was I. That was our greatest bond, and even at the end when we were having all kinds of troubles, the sex was great. Now he had a huge dick. I did everything with him and loved it dearly.
Do you have a preference in terms of sex, things that excite you or turn you on more than other things?
I don’t know what the term is but, the older I get, everything seems sexual to me. The oddest parts of the body are a turn-on to me now. I think if one really is sexual you can find a sexual use for almost any part of the body. And it’s very exciting to find somebody who has that kind of attitude.
What body parts turn you on lately?
My nipples are just the absolute seat of my sexuality, and um, ears, noses, tongues, feet, hands, and a good pair of legs — I got that from Chris — are just super.
One last question: can you please describe your penis in detail?
Oh, um, let me just say that I’m absolutely delighted with it. I used to have doubts about it, but I’ve decided that it is exactly the right penis for me, and, yes, I love it dearly, and I feel so fortunate — it seems to me that my life has been incredibly lucky and I haven’t missed anything that I wanted to experience, and my penis has entered into so much of it and it’s never failed me. It’s always been just right for me. I think it’s the perfect size for my build and I haven’t a single complaint about it.
That’s a nice place to end. Thank you.
Oh wait, I do have one complaint about it, and that’s that I’m circumcised and I wish I wasn’t. But that’s it.

Originally published in BUTT 21