Christopher Isherwood’s 1946 Berlin Stories led to the stage musical of Cabaret, which spawned the 1972 movie version with Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, and that was pretty much the high watermark of the modern gay movement. That’s all the background you need to know for the new documentary called Chris & Don: A Love Story, about the late Isherwood’s longtime relationship with the much younger Don Bachardy, once in a lullaby.
Bachardy was 18 and Isherwood was 48 when they met in the 1950s and scandalized the masses, though the couple had no more problem with their age difference than Liza later had in marrying men with eye makeup. “It was actually a help,” Bachardy told me by phone last week, “because it gave us so many more roles to play with each other. We avoided that jealousy that so often develops between two men of the same age who live together. Chris wasn’t my rival, he was my cheerleader. He flourished in any success that I had.” And he had a lot; Bachardy became a world-class artist and a major creative force all his own.
But back to being Isherwood’s younger boyfriend:
Bachardy said the disparity was also a plus because in Europe, everyone assumed they were father and son! “But the hardest thing,” he added, “was Hollywood parties. The ’50s and ’60s were very proper, repressed times. It was unusual for two grown men to go to a big party. We were often the only queers in the room—or certainly the only declared queers!” (Of course, that would be completely different today. They’d be joined by Ian McKellen.)
The documentary is a sort of party in itself—it flows and floats and instructs, dominated by Bachardy’s loving reminiscences. The project, he told me, was “the fulfillment of a life’s dream as a kid. I always wanted to be a movie star. I’ve seen it at least 10 times and I still cry.”
Me, too—especially when Bachardy says Isherwood thought Liza sucked in Cabaret! Not because she wasn’t good, mind you, but because she was too good! “Chris felt her performance destroyed Sally’s character,” he told me, sounding pained. “If Sally wasn’t an amateur, she’s not Sally Bowles!” Of course, she shouldn’t be too amateur either: “Poor Jill Haworth,” Bachardy agreed, remembering the original Broadway Sally. “She was a true vacuum onstage.” But it was all in the direction, he conceded—and besides, thanks to Haworth’s lack of oomph, they got Liza for the movie, and gay rights moved that much forward!
Another sexual pioneer, rocker/ promoter Dean Johnson, was recently celebrated with a Don Hill’s concert where life was a cabernet, my friend. (Oh, God. I’m stealing old Post headlines now. Stop me!) At the event, downtown icons sang Dean’s culty anthems in between remembering his gregariousness, button-pushing, and irrepressible stage chants (“Fuck thermonuclear war/Fuck Mary Tyler Moore!”). He was the opposite of a vacuum, and in fact he didn’t even own one. And the crowd he drew in death mainly consisted of colorful survivors, like the lady who barreled up to me to say: “Hi, I’m Angela. I used to be Joshua. You used to give me piggy-back rides around the Roxy.” I’ll take your word for it, darling. For me, the ’90s never actually happened any more than the repressed ’50s and ’60s did!
Also there, Dean’s lesbian sister Beth Johnson told me about her brother’s manically creative behavior as a kid, when he’d choreograph elaborate Gladys Knight and the Pips–style routines for them to perform in the house. “His sixth-grade teacher told my parents he was gay,” Beth recalled—but they were a little late, apparently. Way back in third grade, Dean had made a homemade wig and brought it in for show-and-tell!
You can show it—but don’t tell—in today’s public gay-sex scene, which may be even more repressed than what went on in Isherwood’s time, thanks to germophobia, homophobia, and a morbid fear of health-department crackdowns. To wit: My friend and I recently sauntered into the Blue Store, an adult emporium in Chelsea, to price some strap-ons—a long story—and found a back area with a few rows of booths, each one of which has a large hole exposing the occupant to the adjacent booth. The signs swear that “illiciting” [sic] sex on the premises is a no-no—I guess so is good grammar—but the patrons know better; the holes, which are big enough to accommodate a UPS package, are used for sliding in your business for the ultimate in impersonal, anonymous gratification. (For extra fun, close your eyes and pretend it’s Shia LaBeouf on the other side, even if it feels like your toothless great-grandmother.)
Anyway, guys stand awkwardly around the booths—mostly Chelsea types, including a few hotties, several grotesques, and one or two “working” guys—and occasionally someone will bravely go into one of them while eyeing you, the signal that they want you to be their neighbor. (Only one person is allowed per booth. Strangely, glory-hole action is apparently enforced by law.) Adding to the nervous-making situation, two security guys wearing orange-and-yellow vests work the area nonstop, furiously banging on the door of anyone who hasn’t put a dollar in the slot for the three-and-a-half-minute porn movie you’re required to have on while you’re in there. (You’ll be tested later.) After you vacate—with a pounding headache and bite marks—one of them rushes in to spray a big can of Air Wick, as if making the world safe from a nuclear spooge attack. Sexy, huh?
Maybe you’d be better off at a similar place called the Rainbow Station right across the street, where the $10 admission to the downstairs area will usually nab you just two half-asleep guys sitting on folding chairs—but at least there doesn’t seem to be that much banging and spraying!
I de-loused my gay friends Adam and Steve and brought them to see ’70s orgasm queen Donna Summer‘s comeback concert at Mansion, which turned out to be a total lovefest, especially when the creamy-voiced disco star belted her oldies, like the compellingly weird “MacArthur Park” (written way before Martha Stewart‘s rise; she never would have allowed a cake to be left out in the rain) and “Bad Girls,” which defies you not to boogie down to the sadness of prostitution. The whole scene was like Studio 54 all over again—with a lot of the same people! In the crowd, a woman commented on the audacity of the guy rushing towards the stage while trying to look like one of the Village People. But he was one of the Village People! And we will have that recipe again.
But it’s time for my annual dose of straight gossip, beep-beep, toot-toot: At his Paley Center birthday salute last week, 80-year-old Broadway songwriter Charles Strouse told me he’s the one who insisted that nine-year-old Sarah Jessica Parker be in the smash show Annie way back in 1977 (as I mentioned in my world-famous blog). “I take credit for that,” he said. “I don’t split that with [collaborators] Martin Charnin or Tom Meehan. They thought she was too serious and gloomy. I said: ‘She’s an actor. She can do anything!’ ” Including making us believe she wants to settle down with the creepy Mr. Big! Maybe in Europe they can pass for father and son.