Christopher Isherwood – A Twentieth Century Life.


For our November ’21 meeting we were joined by Peter Parker. During his authoritative and enthralling talk, Peter Parker, distinguished biographer, historian, journalist and associate editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, identified key moments in the life of Christopher Isherwood whilst also providing considerable insight to the process of biographical writing. Isherwood is now mainly remembered for texts written during his period of stay in Berlin (1929 – 1933), charting the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism. These include a fictional novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and his semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which inspired the musical Cabaret. However, he also played a prominent part in the fight for the acceptance, social justice and visibility of same-sex attracted men and women in the post-war decades leading up to his death in 1986. As such, he may prefer to be remembered as the author of his fictional love story A Single Man (1964) and his autobiography Christopher and His Kind (1976).

One attraction for Parker, as biographer of Isherwood and J.R.Ackerley, was that, from an early age, both men came to distrust authority and rebel against the prevailing values of their time. Isherwood was born into the landed gentry, with his mother related, through her mother, to the wealthy Greene brewing family of Greene King. However, he began to question the values associated with his social class, whilst at Repton (Public) School, in Derbyshire, during the First World War, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in the early 1920s.

In many ways, Isherwood’s writing is thought to encapsulate many significant events during twentieth century Western history. Isherwood moved to Berlin, in 1929, partly as an escape from perceived English repressiveness, living with W.H. Auden, for a short while, who he had first met at Prep School. Here, Isherwood was “brought face to face with his tribe” at the Institute for Sexual Science, founded by sexologist and gay activist, Magnus Hirschfield and in the many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (L.G.B.T.) bars in the Schoneberg district, Berlin having a long-standing reputation, at that time, as the “Homosexual Capital of Europe.” Isherwood later charted Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in “Goodbye to Berlin” – enabled by poverty, unemployment, increasing attacks on communists and Jewish people, yet ignored by the defiant hedonism of the cafes, bars and night clubs. In this semi-autobiography, Isherwood introduced his most famous character Sally Bowles, based on a young Englishwoman, Jean Ross, with whom he briefly shared a flat.

In 1933, Isherwood began a relationship with a young German, Heinz Neddermeyer. In the same year, the two fled Nazi Germany, having witnessed the burning of books and the sacking of Hirschfield’s Institute for Sexual Science.  Their search for a sexual homeland where they could settle together involved living in various places including the Canary Islands, Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam and Sintra, Portugal, before Heinz was arrested by the Gestapo for draft evasion, in 1937. In the next two years, Isherwood would briefly work in London, with Auden, as a scriptwriter and travel to China, to write Journey to a War (1939) about the Sino-Japanese conflict, before emigrating to America in 1939, where he settled for the rest of his life.

Many writers have regarded Isherwood as a “grand old man of Gay Liberation.” In 1950s anti-communist America, a strict image of normalcy was expected from members of the American public and a fear of anything different prevailed, including same-sex attraction. Despite this social stigmatisation, Isherwood met his partner, Don Bacardy, thirty years his junior, in 1953 and the two men lived openly together, in Santa Monica, California, until Isherwood’s death, in 1986.Both publicly and through his writing, Isherwood played an important part in changing social attitudes, in the post-war years leading up to the New York Stonewall Riots (1969), widely regarded as a turning point in LGBT liberation and the de-classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the American Psychological Association, in 1974, in their Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Psychiatric Disorders.

Research for Peter Parker’s biography, Isherwood: A Life Revealed, entailed extensive reading of diaries, letters and reports over a twelve-year period, during which time he felt as if we were “married” to Isherwood; in contrast, the research for his biography of J.R. Acklerley took him four years. He felt a particular challenge in striking the right balance between positive and negative aspects of Isherwood’s life, seeking to acknowledge the human flaws as well as virtues, thereby seeking to avoid the trap of writing a hagiography of Isherwood. At the end of this fascinating talk, there were many questions, calling further on Mr Parker’s erudition and scholarly dedication, indicating a deep level of audience engagement.

Roger Jones