At the outbreak of World War 2, Isherwood moved to the United States, where he befriended young writers like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Some have compared Capote’s Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, the main character in Berlin Stories and wondered if Capote borrowed some of Sally Bowles to create Holly Golightly.
Isherwood became a devout hindu and follower of Swami Prabhavananda. He wrote about his conversion and his funny and touching relationship with his swami in “My Guru and His Disciple” in 1980. Later in life, Isherwood settled in Southern California with his longtime partner, Don Bachardy.
Isherwood died at age 81 in 1986 in Santa Monica, California from prostate cancer. His body was donated to the UCLA Medical School.
Isherwood had a profound effect on literature of the late 20th century as well as on the gay rights movement, mysticism, and the popular concept of masculinity. Isherwood’s male characters, who he called, collectively, “The Truly Strong Man,” were nothing like the traditional heroes of other American writers. They opened the door to male role models who were sensitive, sexually ambiguous, and self-aware.
First published in the 1930s, The Berlin Stories contains two astonishing related novels, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, which are recognized today as classics of modern fiction. Isherwood magnificently captures 1931 Berlin: charming, with its avenues and cafés; marvelously grotesque, with its nightlife and dreamers; dangerous, with its vice and intrigue; powerful and seedy, with its mobs and millionaires—this is the period when Hitler was beginning his move to power. The Berlin Stories is inhabited by a wealth of characters: the unforgettable Sally Bowles, whose misadventures in the demimonde were popularized on the American stage and screen by Julie Harris in I Am A Camera and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret; Mr. Norris, the improbable old debauchee mysteriously caught between the Nazis and the Communists; plump Fräulein Schroeder, who thinks an operation to reduce the scale of her Büste might relieve her heart palpitations; and the distinguished and doomed Jewish family, the Landauers.
Prater Violet concerns the filming of an unashamedly romantic and commercial musical about old Vienna. It is a stinging satirical novel about the film industry, trifling studio feuds, and the fatuous movie Prater Violet, which, ironically, counterpoints the tragic events on the world stage as Hitler’s lengthening shadow falls over the real Vienna of the thirties. At its center are vivid portraits of the mocking genius Friedrich Bergmann, the imperious, dazzlingly witty Austrian director, and his disciple, a genial young screenwriter-the fictionalized Christopher Isherwood. When it first appeared in 1945, Prater Violet caused a fury of critical speculation and acclaim.
When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life; the course of A Single Man spans twenty-four hours in an ordinary day. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself. Anthony Burgess called it “A testimony to Isherwood’s undiminished brilliance as a novelist.”
Further Reading on Christopher Isherwood, Mid-century literature, Weimar literature and LGBT literature of the 20th Century:
Scene from Cabaret, 1970, starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Gray and Michael York with choreography by Bob Fosse
Trailer for A Single Man, 2009, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore and directed by Tom Ford