It has been suggested that Southern California does not produce great novelists because the will to write (or at least to write well enough) is sapped by the sun and the beers-by-the-pool life.
An exception was Christopher Isherwood, who died Jan. 4--an Englishman who settled in Southern California and became an American citizen. He gave some fine novels a Southern California setting, and his earlier novels about Berlin, in the dramatized version by John van Druten, were turned into the Hollywood musical "Cabaret."
I read of Isherwood's death with a pang that was something more personal than regret for the world's loss of a great writer. When I came to California, also from England, two years ago, I felt sure I would meet him before long. I even armed myself with a first edition of his 1932 novel, "The Memorial," for him to autograph. (Signed copies of books by writers whom I know are the only things I collect with any systematic zeal.) Last year, artist David Hockney and Bill Allyn, producer of the movie "Rich and Famous," each suggested holding a dinner party for me to meet Isherwood; but I did not leap at those chances eagerly enough. Isherwood looked so perennially youthful in photographs that I felt there was no need to rush. So my copy of "The Memorial" remains unsigned, and I never experienced the famous Isherwood charm.
Though I failed to meet Isherwood, I did meet Gerald Hamilton, the extraordinary man on whom the "Mr. Norris" of the Berlin novels was based. I was introduced to him at a London lunch party held in 1968 by artist James Reeve, who was painting Hamilton's portrait. Hamilton, who was 80 that year, was the most theatrically sinister looking person I have ever met. He radiated evil, as I imagine Aleister Crowley, the magician, must have done. His face was grotesque, a canvas of debauch; someone remarked that his lower lip looked like Charles Laughton's caught in a door. He talked in a smooth confidence man's patter, thickened by age. He was snobbish, racist and close to fascist.
What, you might wonder, would make me want to meet this monster twice--or even once? Well, first, there was the frisson of encountering a figure out of fiction. I would have been just as interested to meet Alice Liddell, the original of Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books. Hamilton had abandoned the wig that he wore when Isherwood met him in 1930s Berlin--the wig that Norris adjusts in a railway carriage in the first scene of "Mr. Norris Changes Trains." But Hamilton bridled when a journalist described him (admittedly without vast originality) as "bald as an egg." Hamilton retorted: "You would not enjoy eating an egg with as much hair on it as I have on my head."
Second, there was Hamilton's seemingly limitless fund of anecdotes. Born in 1888, he inherited a large sum of money at the age of 21. When his father asked him what he proposed to do with it, he replied, "I propose to squander it." He traveled. He was presented to the Russian royal family just before the revolution. He saw Rasputin "cure" a youth of epilepsy.
His friendship with the Irish patriot Sir Roger Casement landed him in trouble in World War I, during which he was held in a London prison as a potential threat to England's war effort. After the war, he swanned round the courts of Europe, receiving solid-gold decorations from some. (He later sold all of the decorations.)
Hamilton used up many of his anecdotes in three autobiographies, which were published with discreet intervals between them but were virtually word for word the same. It was always difficult to know which of his stories to believe. But after his death, two correctives to the Hamilton legend appeared--the memoirs of his friend Robin (Lord) Maugham (Somerset Maugham's nephew and author of "The Servant," the novel adapted for the screen with Dirk Bogarde in the title role)and a book called "Conversations With Gerald" by John Symonds. Symonds visited Hamilton from 1958 onward and probed him about his more extravagant stories, perhaps getting a little nearer to the truth than Hamilton himself ever managed.
One of Hamilton's most bizarre tales was verifiable: the story of his vengeance on Winston Churchill. In 1941, Churchill approved of the incarceration of Hamilton--a known Nazi sympathizer--in Brixton prison, London. After the war, Hamilton achieved his revenge with a masterstroke of cunning. He had heard that sculptor Oscar Nemon had been commissioned to sculpt a statue of the seated Churchill to go in the London Guildhall, and that Nemon was looking for someone about Churchill's size to sit for the body, as Churchill had time to pose only for the face. Hamilton volunteered. Immediately after the statue was unveiled with great pomp, he held a press conference to reveal that from the neck down the statue was of himself, a criminal imprisoned by Churchill for anti-British activities.
When I met Hamilton, he had long since exhausted his money and was living something less than the dolce vita in a single room above the Good Earth Restaurant in London. ("Better above the Good Earth than below it," he joked.) He died in June, 1970.
One reason I regret not having met Christopher Isherwood is that I would have enjoyed hearing what he had to say about Hamilton. He said some of it in the preface he wrote to Hamilton's second autobiography, "Mr. Norris and I"--but what you can say in print and what you can say at a dinner party are two different things.
Gerald Hamilton once told John Symonds: "I made Christopher Isherwood. Without me, he would be nothing ." In fact, of course, exactly the opposite was true.