Biography of Christopher Isherwood, Novelist and Essayist

Writer Christopher Isherwood
British-born writer Christopher Isherwood (1904 - 1986), October 18, 1983. New York Times Co. / Getty Images

Christopher Isherwood (August 26, 1904—January 4, 1986) was an Anglo American author who wrote novels, autobiographies, diaries, and screenplays. He is best known for his Berlin Stories, which were the basis for the musical Cabaret; A Single Man (1964), for its portrayal of an openly gay professor; and for his memoir Christopher and His Kind (1976), a testimony of the gay liberation movement.

Fast Facts: Christopher Isherwood

  • Full Name: Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood
  • Known For: Anglo-American Modernist writer who documented the life in Weimar, Berlin, and became one of the main voices in LGBTQ literature
  • Born: August 26, 1904 in Cheshire, England
  • Parents: Frank Bradshaw Isherwood, Katherine Isherwood
  • Died: January 4, 1986 in Santa Monica, California
  • Education: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University (never graduated)
  • Notable Works: Berlin Stories (1945); World in the Evening (1954); A Single Man (1964); Christopher and His Kind (1976)
  • Partners: Heinz Neddermeyer (1932–1937); Don Bachardy (1953–1986)

Early Life (1904-1924)

Christopher Isherwood was born Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood on his family’s estate in Cheshire on August 26, 1904. His father, who had studied at Cambridge University, was a professional soldier and member of the York and Lancaster Regiment, and had died in the First World War. His mother was the daughter of a successful wine merchant.

Isherwood attended Repton, a boarding school in Derbyshire. There, he met Edward Upward, a lifelong friend with whom he invented the world of Mortmere, an imaginary English village populated by weird, yet charming characters who lived through bizarre and surreal stories in an early attempt at satirical and ironical fiction. 

Christopher Isherwood
Author Christopher Isherwood photographed in February 1974. Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Path to Writing (1924-1928)

  • All The Conspirators (1928)

Isherwood enrolled at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University in 1924, where he studied history. He wrote jokes and limericks on his second-year Tripos—undergraduate examination required to obtain a bachelor's—and was asked to leave without a degree in 1925.

While at Cambridge, he was part of a generation that started taking films seriously, especially German films, which had endured a boycott from British trade after the war. He also embraced American popular culture, particularly the films by Gloria Swanson. Both his fondness for German expressionism and American pop culture were a demonstration of his rebellion against the “poshocracy.” In 1925, he also got reacquainted with a prep-school friend, W.H. Auden, who started sending him poems. Isherwood’s on-point critique greatly influenced Auden's work.

After leaving Cambridge, Isherwood started writing his first novel, All the Conspirators (1928), which deals with intergenerational conflict and self-determination between parents and children. To support himself during those years, he worked as a private tutor and as a secretary to a string quartet led by Belgian violinist André Mangeot. In 1928, he also re-enrolled in university, this time as a medical student at King’s College in London, but left after six months. 

Berlin and Traveling Years (1929-1939)

  • The Memorial (1932)
  • Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)
  • The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935, with W. H. Auden)
  • The Ascent of F6 (1937, with W. H. Auden)
  • Sally Bowles (1937; later included in Goodbye to Berlin)
  • On the Frontier (1938, with W. H. Auden)
  • Lions and Shadows (1938, autobiography)
  • Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
  • Journey to a War (1939, with W. H. Auden)

In March 1929, Isherwood joined Auden in Berlin, where his friend was spending a post-graduate year. It was just a ten-day visit, but it changed the course of his life. He explored his sexual identity freely, began an affair with a German boy he met at a cellar bar, and visited Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Sciences, which studied the spectrum of sexual identities and genders beyond the heteronormative and the binary. 

While in Berlin, Isherwood published his second novel, The Memorial (1932), about the impact of World War I on his family, and kept a diary recording his daily life. By writing in his diary, he gathered material for Mr Norris Changes Trains and for Goodbye to Berlin, perhaps his most famous literary work. His writing juxtaposes the rise of National Socialism and the squalor of a city where poverty and violence were rampant, with the superficial hedonism of the last dregs of the post-Weimar era.

In 1932, he embarked on a relationship with Heinz Neddermeyer, a young German. They fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and traveled and lived all over Europe together, as Neddermeyer was refused entry in England, Isherwood’s homeland. This itinerant lifestyle continued until 1937, when Neddermeyer was arrested by the Gestapo for draft evasion and reciprocal onanism.

Portrait of Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden
Portrait of Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, 1939. Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

In the 1930s, Isherwood also undertook some movie writing work with Viennese director Berthold Viertel, for the film Little Friend (1934). His experience working with an Austrian director was retold in his 1945 novel Prater Violet, which explores filmmaking alongside the rise of Nazism. In 1938, Isherwood travelled to China with Auden to write Journey to War, an account of the Sino-Japanese conflict. The following summer, they returned to England via the United States and, in January 1939, they emigrated to America. 

Life in America (1939-1986)

  • Vedanta for Modern Man (1945)
  • Prater Violet (1945)
  • The Berlin Stories (1945; contains Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin)
  • Vedanta for the Western World (Unwin Books, London, 1949, ed. and contributor)
  • The Condor and the Crows (1949)
  • The World in the Evening (1954)
  • Down There on a Visit (1962)
  • An Approach to Vedanta (1963)
  • A Single Man (1964)
  • Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965)
  • A Meeting by the River (1967)
  • Essentials of Vedanta (1969)
  • Kathleen and Frank (1971, about Isherwood's parents)
  • Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, with Don Bachardy; based on their 1973 film script)
  • Christopher and His Kind (1976, autobiography)
  • My Guru and His Disciple (1980)

Aldous Huxley, who had become devoted to Vedanta and meditation upon migrating to America in 1937, introduced Isherwood to the spiritual philosophy, bringing him to the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Isherwood became so immersed in the foundational texts that he produced no significant writing between 1939 and 1945, and for the rest of his life, he collaborated on translations of the scriptures.

Isherwood became an American citizen in 1946. He first considered becoming a citizen in 1945, but was hesitant about taking an oath stating he would defend the country. The following year, he replied honestly and said he would accept non-combatant duties. 

Upon settling in the United States, Isherwood befriended US-based writers. One of his new acquaintances was Truman Capote, who was influenced by Berlin Stories to the point that his character Holly Golightly is reminiscent of Isherwood's Sally Bowles. 

Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood
Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood. Book cover. Published by Methuen, 1946. Culture Club / Getty Images

Around this time, Isherwood began living with photographer Bill Caskey, and together they traveled to South America. He narrated his experiences in the book The Condor and the Crows (1949), for which Caskey supplied photographies. 

Then, on Valentine’s Day 1953, he met the then-teenage Don Bachardy. Isherwood was 48 at the time. Their pairing raised some eyebrows, and Bachardy was regarded in some circles as “a sort of child prostitute,” but they succeeded in becoming a well regarded couple in Southern California and their partnership lasted until the author's death. Bachardy eventually became a successful visual artist in his own right. In the early phases of the relationship, Bachardy typed out The World in the Evening, which was published in 1954.

Isherwood's 1964 novel, A Single Man, depicted a day in the life of George, a gay university professor who taught at a Los Angeles University, and was made into a movie by Tom Ford in 2009. 

Isherwood was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1981 and died five years later, on January 4, 1986. He was 81 years old. He donated his body to medical science at UCLA and his ashes were scattered at sea. 

Literary Style and Themes

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” is the quote that opens the novel Goodbye to Berlin. This quote is reflective of Isherwood's literary style, as it reflects his desire to be both an eminent author and a successful screenwriter—he was quite mediocre in the latter. The quote also hints at his lack of a central point of view and an authorial voice. Isherwood does little hand holding with his readers, not telling them what happens next, but rather, showing them, scene by scene. 

Queerness is one of the main themes explored in his works, as he was himself gay. His novels about Weimar, Germany, such as Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), showcased Isherwood’s style of semi autobiographical, even documentary-like fiction, which, despite being overall transgressive, were quite coy. He introduced openly queer characters in The World in the Evening (1954) and Down There on a Visit (1962), A Single Man (1964), and A Meeting by the River (1967), presenting a writing style that was more mature and self-assured than his earlier works. A Single Man, in particular, contains a matter-of-fact portrayal of a gay college professor. 

The World in the Evening is also notable in that it’s a foundational text exploring the concept of “camp,” an aesthetic style characterized by the theatrical and exaggerated.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bacardy
English novelist Christopher Isherwood with his partner artist Don Bachardy photographed in New York City in 1974. Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Legacy 

“Isherwood’s [literary] reputation seems assured,” wrote Peter Parker in his biography of Isherwood. However, the perception of his Berlin and English period still vastly differs from the reception of his American novels; the former has been widely accepted in the canon, while the position on the latter tends to devalue his work. In fact, when he settled in America, his Englishness, coupled with his sexual orientation, made him feel like an outsider. English critics dismissed him as an English novelist, while American novelists just saw him as an expatriate. Because of this, the public still maintains that Isherwood’s main contribution to literary history lies in The Berlin Stories, but we cannot overlook the fact that his 60s fiction, which patently explores gay life, was a crucial contribution to the awareness of the gay rights movements.

Isherwood’s fiction also greatly influenced Truman Capote; the character of Sally Bowles inspired Holly Golightly, the protagonist of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, while his documentary-like writing style reemerges in Capote’s In Cold Blood. 

From a pop culture perspective, Isherwood's Berlin Stories were the basis of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret musical and subsequent film adaptation, while fashion designer Tom Ford adapted A Single Man into film in 2009. In 2010, the BBC adapted his autobiography Christopher and His Kind into a television film, directed by Geoffrey Sax. 

Sources

  • Freedom, Books. “Isherwood, from Weimar Berlin to Hollywood – Freedom, Books, Flowers & the Moon – Podcast.” Podtail, https://podtail.com/podcast/tls-voices/isherwood-from-weimar-berlin-to-hollywood/.
  • Isherwood, Christopher, et al. Isherwood on Writing. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
  • Wade, Stephen. Christopher Isherwood. Macmillan, 1991.