The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

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The love story between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy—in their own words

The English novelist and screenwriter Christopher Isherwood was already famous as the author of Goodbye to Berlin when he met Don Bachardy, a California teenager, on the beach in Santa Monica in 1952. Within a year, they began to live together as an openly gay couple, defying convention in the closeted world of Hollywood. Isherwood was forty-eight; Bachardy was eighteen. The Animals is the testimony...

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The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

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The love story between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy—in their own words

The English novelist and screenwriter Christopher Isherwood was already famous as the author of Goodbye to Berlin when he met Don Bachardy, a California teenager, on the beach in Santa Monica in 1952. Within a year, they began to live together as an openly gay couple, defying convention in the closeted world of Hollywood. Isherwood was forty-eight; Bachardy was eighteen. The Animals is the testimony in letters to their extraordinary partnership, which lasted until Isherwood’s death in 1986—despite the thirty year age gap, affairs and jealousy (on both sides), the pressures of increasing celebrity, and the disdain of twentieth-century America for love between two men.

     The letters reveal the private world of the Animals: Isherwood was "Dobbin," a stubborn old workhorse; Bachardy was the rash, playful "Kitty." Isherwood had a gift for creating a safe and separate domestic milieu, necessary for a gay man in midtwentieth-century America. He drew Bachardy into his semi-secret realm, nourished Bachardy’s talent as a painter, and launched him into the artistic career that was first to threaten and eventually to secure their life together.

     The letters also tell of public achievements—the critical acclaim for A Single Man, the commercial success of Cabaret—and the bohemian whirl of friendships in Los Angeles, London, and New York with such stars as Truman Capote, Julie Harris, David Hockney, Vanessa Redgrave, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams. Bold, transgressive, and playful, The Animals articulates the devotion, in tenderness and in storms, between two uniquely original spirits.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This collection of letters between famed writer Christopher Isherwood (1902–1986, author of Goodbye to Berlin), and his partner of over three decades, Don Bachardy, a 30-years younger portrait painter, offers considerable insight into the life of this extraordinary couple. An astute introduction by Bucknell (editor of Isherwood’s Diaries) sets up the correspondence, which spans February 1956 to April 1970. Throughout the chatty exchanges, the lovers drop names, discuss projects, shows, and collaborations, dish, commiserate, and even bitch. What emerges is a remarkable portrait of love in exile. Bachardy often wrote to Isherwood to discuss insecurities, doubts, and despair; both men gave each other much-needed support. The book’s title comes from their imaginary identities as “the Animals”: Don being the cat to Chris’s horse, which prompts the lovers to open and close their letters with romantic mushiness and cutesy terms of endearment—for example, “Dearest Silkmuzzle Adored Pinktongue” and “Most Treasured Plug.” A little of this affection, however, goes a long way. The copious—and perhaps too comprehensive notes—detail everything and everyone, including affairs. Most of the correspondence is chaste; the raunchiest entry concerns “an intravenous of horse essence.” This worthwhile volume may be best suited for Isherwood completists. 52 b&w illus. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Wylie Agency. (May)
From the Publisher
"Theirs is an enormous love, but it also clearly came with an enormous amount of work and care . . . One of the best surprises of the collection is what an excellent writer Bachardy is—wry, sharp and funny . . . These are tender, sweet, campy love letters we are given the privilege of reading, if we so choose." —Annalisa Quinn, NPR Books

“It is a fascinating sociological document while, like most exchanges between two people wrapped up in the tantalizing subject of themselves and each other, lacking very much real interest in the wider world.”  —DJ Taylor, The Spectator (London)

“In her excellent introduction to The Animals, Bucknell does a skillful job of trying to interpret the lovers’ talk for the reader. Apparently Bachardy reminded Isherwood of his younger self—and indeed there was a strong physical similarity. The letters end in 1970 and Isherwood died in 1986, survived by Bachardy. But thanks to The Animals Isherwood’s devotion lives on. As a typical sign-off from Dobbin put it: ‘Love from a devoted old horse who is waiting day and night with his saddle on, ready for his Kitty’s commands.’” —Mark Simpson, The Independent (London)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374105174
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/13/2014
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 224,054
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Isherwood (1902–1986) was born outside Manchester, England. He lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933 and emigrated from Europe to the United States in 1939. A major figure in twentieth-century fiction and the gay rights movement, he wrote more than twenty books. Don Bachardy was born in Los Angeles in 1934. His artwork, which parallels David Hockney’s and anticipates Elizabeth Peyton’s, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University; and the National Portrait Gallery, London, among others. He lives in Santa Monica, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Wednesday [February 1, 1956]

High Lane, Cheshire1

Dearest Donny,

I wonder so much what you are doing, and I hope so much that you’re having fun and interesting adventures. Wednesday! And when you get this it will be Thursday—and then there will only be Friday, Saturday, Sunday … But I mustn’t get rattled. I keep looking out anxiously at the snow which fell last night and wondering if more will fall and block the roads. But I’ll get through somehow—like in that Courbet at the National Gallery.2 This house is as damp as a sponge, and cold—you can see your breath even when standing by the fire—and the sheets are damp like graveclothes and the books on the shelves smell of corpses. And in the kitchen and scullery there are very old smells of dried fat in skillets and old old black rags that are quite frighteningly filthy in a 19th century way, like something out of Oliver Twist.

I don’t say all this just in complaint. A lot of it is hilariously funny, or very touching, and I’m glad I came alone because it’s really easier to take. I spend a lot of time scrubbing things. If only the pipes don’t freeze!

My mother3 is absolutely marvellous—sharp as a needle, sees well, hears perfectly, remembers everything, talks all day long. Poor Richard4 is turning rapidly in[to] a prematurely aged freak—his face around the nose is dark purple (bad circulation, I guess) and he has lost several of his teeth in front and he walks with a stoop and keeps his head down. But he is so kind and gentle and anxious to help. He fills my bed with hot water bottles, leaving marks on the sheets because his poor hands are chronically covered with coal dust. He is forever building fires or making tea which is pure liquid brass. They have two white cats. The female has a black smudge over one eye and she is fat with kittens, fathered by the other cat, her son. She is one of the best-looking cats I have ever seen, and she doesn’t give a shit about any of us.

If I didn’t hate the cold so, I’d admit that this place is marvellously beautiful. Cobden Edge, the first ridge of moorland behind the house, is all white and there is a strange orange light on the snow; the bare trees are so black against it. Cheerful stamping men in mufflers bring milk and newspapers—from which I see that Emlyn Williams and Charlie Chaplin were both at Korda’s funeral. Maybe Molly will fix for you to meet him—and/or Lady Olivier, who was there too?!5

Unless I send a telegram to the contrary, I will arrive at Euston Station Monday afternoon at 1:55. No need to meet me if you have something else to do. I just tell you so you’ll know approximately when I’ll be at the hotel—about 2:30. Leave word for me there if you’re not coming to the station. (But I hope you do!)

Imagine—this is the first letter I ever wrote you! I think about you all the time, and about times I might have been kinder and more understanding, and I make many resolutions for the future—some of which I hope I’ll keep.

In any case,

all my love,


[Autograph letter on printed letterhead of Wyberslegh Hall, High Lane, Stockport, Cheshire]

February 1, 1956 [London]

Dear Chris,

It is freezing here. It snowed most of yesterday, and even began to lay on the iron steps outside the window. But today it is all gone, and though clear & sunny, it is much colder. I am still in bed (it’s past 12) because it’s the only warm place. I have been reading, and working on my play! I am amazed—I worked three and a half hours yesterday morning and three hours this morning, and now I have eight pages of solid notes and, I think, a very good outline for the first two acts! I’ve managed to think up a surprisingly well-constructed plot (although there is not much of a story) and already I know roughly what the third act will consist of. I feel quite silly, especially in the afternoon and early morning, when I think of writing this play, but nevertheless it is going well and it is fun. It’s a very heavy drama—I hope this isn’t a mistake—and not very original, but with a few surprises. As of yet, you have not appeared. It may very well be a thing of the past by next Monday—I really haven’t written more than just a few snatches of dialogue yet.1

John (I don’t even know his last name yet—Cuthbert’s friend2) called yesterday morning and took me to Fresh Airs last night. I thought it was dull and trivial, and very poorly organized and produced. Too much really amazingly trashy sentiment. I thought a revue was essentially based on gags and laughs, but right in the middle of supposedly funny skits were very serious, straight-faced sentimental numbers with nothing but the corniest lyrics. There were endless sets and costumes, all ugly, and the most amateurish dancing and pantomiming I’ve seen out of high school. Here and there were a few amusing gags, all very proper except for a terribly shocking skit about a Paris pissoir and some “asides” from Max Adrian (who got in drag, too), but the funniest thing was a political skit making fun of America doing her all to make Germany happy.3

John and I got along well—he’s really very nice and has a lot of the same difficulties that I’ve got, so there’s quite a bit for us to talk about. I took him to dinner at the Comedy and we had drinks at the hotel before dinner. He even invited me to spend a few days with him and Cuthbert, but I firmly refused—for various reasons. I think he is interested in me, but I most definitely don’t reciprocate any kind of similar interest. No one else has called and I haven’t made any calls myself.

Yesterday I saw The Constant Husband with Rex Harrison and Margaret Leighton (it was very boring) and A Life at Stake with Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes, a quickie thriller made on location in L.A. with a weak, silly story but still interesting. She was good. You don’t have to bother with either film, though.4 The day before I saw White Cargo, which was mild fun, and Moulin Rouge, which was still beautiful but unbelievably trashy and pompous and self-consciously chic, and in places really foul. Huston gives himself away in this.5 I saw The Boyfriend in the evening. It’s not nearly as good as in New York and seemed very “joke’s over” this time after one act. But I had a seat in the front row and flirted unmercifully with the chorus boys all through it.6

But I miss rides through London on old Dobbin (especially in the snow yesterday) and think a lot about him, sleeping in a strange stable, eating cold oats out of an ill-fitting feed bag and having no cat fur to keep him warm. And don’t let them put any frozen bits in his mouth. And tell him an anxious Tabby is at the mercy of the RSPCA and counting the days till his return.

P. S. Don’t forget about the movies.7

[Autograph letter]

Copyright © 2013 by Don Bachardy

Introduction and notes copyright © 2013 by Katherine Bucknell

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  • Posted May 23, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    An intriguing look into the lives of two men and their world. Gr

    An intriguing look into the lives of two men and their world. Great historical insight on art, literature, film and their 33 year romance.

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