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The Nasty Prose Behind the Pose

When celebrities were sketched by Don Bachardy, little did they know he was drawing tawdry conclusions about their appearances and their lives.


Everyone knows he can draw, but who knew Don Bachardy had such a wicked way with words? The portrait artist has spent his life sketching legends of our time--film stars, authors, artists, politicians. It turns out that what he wrote about them in his diaries is as intriguing as the drawings.

Ginger Rogers' hair was a "wig of thatch," her false lashes like little "rows of spiders' legs." Henry Fonda's home decor was like a "a fancy Mexican restaurant." And Mia Farrow, with "one of her endless array of children" in tow, was "obsessed with the image of herself as Mother," Bachardy confided to his journal.

And poor ailing, reclusive Louise Brooks, who reluctantly welcomed the artist into her digs. Her thanks is Bachardy's written record of what he saw and heard when she excused herself and forgot to close the bathroom door.

Of course, Farrow, Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Maggie Smith, Nancy Reagan and the hundreds of others who sat for him for two hours at a tilt--and got nothing but a thank you in return--had not the slightest clue that sitting for Bachardy meant they were also sitting ducks. They had no idea that after each session, he rushed to his diary to disgorge uncensored thoughts on how each behaved and looked.

"My goodness, it all sounds very mean," Bachardy, 65, says in a conversation at his Santa Monica house, sounding almost as if he hadn't written all those nasty words himself. Relaxing, cross-legged on a well-worn sofa, he is a slight, unimposing, middle-aged man with a kindly, almost elfin presence. It is his voice that defines him: an unusual simulated British stammer, delivered in an oddly resonant tenor.

"You must understand," he says "that those words were lifted . . . ahh . . . directly from my . . . ahh . . . diaries. And when writing a diary . . . ahh . . . one allows oneself brutal frankness. One tries to be completely observant, to leave nothing out." Besides, he says, "it never occurred to me that I would ever consider publishing them."

Well, now he has. Bachardy's new book, "Stars in My Eyes," (University of Wisconsin Press) features portraits of mostly Hollywood types, along with the diary jottings made after he drew them. An exhibition of his work opened Thursday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.

The book and show represent only the tiniest sliver of the artist's extraordinary life--a life in which diaries have played a crucial role.

Bachardy's journals, the house in which he lives, in fact the author-artist himself, have all become a part of the cultural history of Los Angeles. He will always be remembered as one-half of a socially pioneering pair--as the companion of author Christopher Isherwood, who loved and lived with Bachardy for more than three decades.

Isherwood had kept diaries for years before they met. The importance of doing so was one of the first things the author taught Bachardy when the two met, fell in love and moved in together in 1953. Bachardy was 18, Isherwood 48.

It was an unlikely match in ways other than age. Isherwood was a distinguished English author who had come to L.A. to write screenplays. Most famous for his Berlin stories (which formed the basis for the stage and film versions of "Cabaret,"), his closest chums were other great English writers such as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, whom he had known since Cambridge University days, and European writers who had settled here, such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Aldous Huxley.

Hollywood moguls were eager to mingle with a literary light like Isherwood, and they invited him everywhere. And Bachardy, a handsome Southern California beach kid, tagged along.

In those years, the word gay meant happy. The word "homosexual" was whispered as if it were profane. So when the revered Isherwood began turning up with the baby-faced Bachardy in tow, pillars of the community were not amused.

"Many who revered Christopher as a distinguished author didn't want to face the fact that he was homosexual. So they tried to put responsibility for his queerness onto me. Of course, neither of us really cared."

With Isherwood's encouragement (and his funds), Bachardy, who had been drawing since he was 4, went to art school and began to do portraits of their large and growing group of famous friends.

The couple partied at the homes of George Cukor and Jennifer and David Selznick, where "often it seemed like every major star in Hollywood was there. Of course I was goggle-eyed most of the time."

Slowly, Bachardy's work became respected in the art community. His drawings (in pencil, ink or acrylic wash) are now in permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

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