Camp David


By • Sep 5th, 2009 • Pages: 1 2

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One of the marvels of cable television is how quickly a new film or documentary can make the transition from “just released” to “already there for your viewing pleasure,” or in my case to take it all in before committing it to review. Such was the case with CHRIS AND DON: A LOVE STORY, the documentary about the three-decade-plus relationship between the celebrated writer Christopher Isherwood and portrait artist Don Bachardy. The past couple of years have been quite remarkable in the outpouring of documentaries on Gay celebrities of course. With Gay Pride celebrations across the country, coupled with the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it certainly makes sense to take inventory on who inspired a generation and who did not.

Earlier this year I watched documentaries on both Jack Wrangler and Peter Berlin, two iconic gay porn stars that could not have led more diverse lifestyles, which made a chronicle of their personalities that much more entertaining to discover. I had heard for months that Don Bachardy was preparing a number of things regarding his life with Isherwood, with a major biography coming out, not to mention the centenary celebration for Isherwood himself.

The most eagerly awaited of all the Isherwood projects is the film currently in production with Colin Firth, based on what many believe to be Isherwood’s masterpiece, A SINGLE MAN. This was Christopher’s personal favorite of his nine novels, not to mention a cornerstone of gay literature of the 20th century. Isherwood painfully placed himself in a literary situation where he has lost his younger lover and now, at 59, must cope with being a single man. The novel then becomes a day in the life…

What makes this novel unique is Isherwood’s abilty to make the central character of George a three-dimensional human being where his sexuality is not the focal point, nor is it the white elephant in the room . Those that were with more familiar with Isherwood’s private life knew only too well that the role model for the younger lover was Don Bachardy. Isherwood has said before that he could never leave Don unless he felt Don no longer needed him, and that was never to be the case. After completing the novel, Isherwood knew even more profoundly how much he had come to love Don, thus making the whole imaginary situation of losing him, even in a novel, almost unbearable. I have been told that Don has visited the set of A SINGLE MAN at least once since the filming began and felt very excited about the results.

This was to have been a review of CHRIS AND DON until I actually sat down and watched it. The documentary itself opened a floodgate of memories I had long thought devoured by time and loss, as I sat in front of my television watching beautiful color home movies I never knew existed of a hopelessly young Don Bachardy. When I first ventured into the murky waters of the Hollywood social scene in 1977 there were countless cocktail parties and art openings where I would first see Christopher Isherwood, the world-famous author of THE BERLIN STORIES, usually in the company of Don Bachardy, looking very much a couple. What struck me at first was how friendly and open they both were to meeting new people. I have to admit it was Don I spoke to first, and almost at once he introduced me to Chris. After a few encounters like this I felt like a bond could be made if one wanted to make an effort, and bring these amazing men into one’s life.

However this was not the way it worked, as meeting them in the social circuit that was Beverly Hill at that time was not really their style. Don and I both shared a love of movies and movie stars that would never have interested Isherwood to the same degree. It would take the combined efforts of two other men to place Don Bachardy and I on friendlier terms.

I think it was one of my agency clients, a would-be actor named William Franklin whom we all called “little Willie” (a name he did not deserve, but there you are) …anyway, for whatever ambition Willie may have had for acting, he was at that time a journalist for the trades and more importantly a close friend of Don’s. I know I was in the company of “little Willie” the first time I actually set foot in the home Chris and Don would share for the rest of Chris’s life on Adelaide Drive in Santa Monica.

While the likes of “little Willie” set the stage that evening–allowing me my first opportunity to see the house Chris and Don lived, loved and worked in–it would take more than one gentlemen caller to bring me full circle into the inner sanctum of this dynamic duo. The house itself rested on the side of a narrow road above the ocean of Santa Monica. It was a split-level affair, large enough for two but modest, allowing Don an upstairs studio in which to store his paints and paper. It was in this space, terraced with a view of the ocean (as well as the other homes).

That first visit we spent most of the evening standing around in the kitchen, always the center of these gatherings. Chris stood near the refrigerator cradling a drink, staring at his feet a good deal of the time. The house was filled from top to bottom with art and photos of two lifetimes…. David Hockney was well represented throughout the house and at that time the hallway was all Hockney. I think it was one of the most comfortable dwellings I had been in at that time in LA. It was not about furnishings and bookcases, it was more about ideas and personalities; everything was geared for conversations. The ticket into this world, as with most of Hollywood, would always be fame and beauty. The house, when in party mode, would always have its share of good-looking boys; or the opposite would take place and it would be a theme night of a celebrity with guests that wanted to meet said personality or those that would create the right mix. Thinking things through was the motto of this dynamic duo.

I would continue to run into Chris and Don, especially at some of Gloria Stuart’s art openings as Don had drawn her at least once and was a fan of her films (as was I). However it would be the presence of another young man that would bring Don into my life as a friend. Since I never kept a proper diary it is hard for me to recall just where or when I first met Rick Sandford, but once you met him he was difficult to forget. Rick was not only good-looking and witty but like both Don and myself, loved movies with a passion that made him an instant soul-mate. Rick read every book he could get his hands on. Already armed with a sharp mind coupled with a desire to learn, he soon surpassed many of his peers in knowledge and understanding of his fellow creatures. At this point he had not begun to write, outside of keeping a diary. Don was smitten and so was I; fortunately Rick was an equal opportunity date and soon we both were on his dance card, somewhat unaware, which was I believe for the best. Rick wanted to be an actor (naturally) and was doing a lot of walk-ons and voiceovers when we met. He confided in me that his alter-ego, Ben Barker, made the scene in a dozen or so gay porno films in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Rick became my all-time favorite person to take to screenings because he wanted to see it all and since our tastes were so alike it was great fun to talk film with him late into the night. It was after one of these screenings that Rick told me Don was going to draw him au natural for a book he was doing on male nudes. I was at that time writing for John Russell Taylor’s ‘Films and Filming’ with my own byline, and Rick had this brainwave that instead of me using a photo of myself to introduce each column, why not a drawing by a well-known personality like Don Bachardy?

I rang Don up a few days later with this concept in hand. Within days after that I was sitting in his studio above the garage awaiting my close-up, minus Mr. De Mille.

Before discussing the actual sitting with Don I need to elaborate on Rick Sandford for a moment, since this sitting really started with him. Rick died from complications from AIDS in 1995 without really seeing the success of his one-and-only published book, THE BOYS ACROSS THE STREET. This was indeed tragic since the reviews reveal the makings of an artist not unlike his idol, Christopher Isherwood, with Isherwood’s masterpiece of gay fiction, A SINGLE MAN. Rick lived across the street from a Jewish boys’ school and loved to sit shirtless on his front steps observing the passing parade with a painter’s eye for detail. The book is uncompromising in its openly-gay perspective in dealing with his obsession with Jewish boys, and his issues with faith made this book unique in every way. I am convinced that had he lived we would have witnessed the rise of a major writer in Rick Sandford, so it is important to me to keep his memory alive, and I know Don feels the same way I do.

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4 Responses »

  1. Well written!! Anytime you share with us all here, it is a treat!!!

  2. Aww. No. That ending makes me want to produce a giant hug.

    Man. You write with such a focused detail. I can barely remember what happened last week, let alone many years ago. Anyways, I joined facebook because you said to and I found everybody I know EXCEPT you. I searched “David Del Valle” and 342 results came up, none including you… find me by my e-mail, SUCCESS!

    peace, Joe.

  3. Oh, David,
    Your writing is just gorgeous–so fluid, so clear, so intimate. I feel like I’m having a conversation with you. The image of the writer on his porch, shirtless, watching the boys, is one of the most poignant things I’ve read in ages (and I read a lot). Speaking of which, I’d love to get you a copy of the book. It sounds like such an analytical book but it’s really a memoir, brimming with heartache and hope.
    Big hugs to you and please keep up your valuable work.

  4. Really wonderful…you just never know when you meet someone the profound effect they may have on your life in the long run…time marches on even when we don’t.

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