Indeed, the appeal of a visit to the Huxley home -- first in the Palisades, then in a Neutra house on Kings Road and later on Mulholland Drive -- was talk. Isherwood "was so amazed by his erudition," Bachardy says, remembering how the two of them would watch Huxley and Heard discuss politics and world events for hours at a time.
In his diaries, Isherwood describes the Huxley home in Pacific Palisades: "The walls are hung with semierotic, fetishistic pictures of 'cruel' ladies in boots, and with romantic photographs or nudes. The lighting is dim and sexually inviting -- like an old-fashioned Berlin night spot."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Isherwood -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about writer Christopher Isherwood incorrectly said that Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck starred in the film "Diane," for which Isherwood wrote the screenplay. "Diane" starred Lana Turner and Roger Moore. Gardner and Peck appeared in "The Great Sinner," which Isherwood also wrote.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 18, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Isherwood screenplay -- An article in last Sunday's Calendar about writer Christopher Isherwood incorrectly said that Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck starred in the film "Diane," for which Isherwood wrote the screenplay. "Diane" starred Lana Turner and Roger Moore. Gardner and Peck appeared in "The Great Sinner," which Isherwood also wrote.
Huxley himself, the author wrote, was "modest, gentle and kind" and swam across the room "like a great, blind deep-sea fish."
Many of the exiles attended the legendary Sunday afternoon gatherings of screenwriter Salka Viertel, among them Thomas Mann. Isherwood described the "Death in Venice" author as looking "wonderfully young for his age -- perhaps because, as a boy, he was elderly and staid.... He would be magnificent at his own trial."
The mix was so rich in Los Angeles in those years that Isherwood sometimes showed up at parties attended by both Garbo and philosopher Bertrand Russell. (Walking with Garbo was like "going around with someone who is wanted for murder," the writer noted in his diary.)
Bachardy enjoys telling stories about being asked to pick up "a young actress in Westwood named Audrey Hepburn" on their way to a party at the Huxleys' Kings Road house, or of the ghostly Auden, who hated the sun, frowning on a Santa Monica beach in bright "swim trunks."
Isherwood also became a famous host, entertaining visitors like Capote, who told Bachardy he'd be happy to fill in if the young artist fell out of favor; Britten; and of course Auden, who once wrote that heaven must have an English climate and who could never quite accommodate himself to California.
UnLIKE the Huntington show, the new biography challenges the memories of many who knew Isherwood here.
Published last month in Britain and due in November in the States, Peter Parker's 914-page "Isherwood: A Life" captures the novelist from many angles. Most British reviewers have praised the book -- the Spectator's Philip Hensher called the author's long life "the story of the 20th century" -- though some have assailed its length.
But there is a disconnect. Angelenos acquainted with Isherwood unfailingly talk about his charm and warmth. Carolyn See, the Westside novelist and critic, recalls bringing a UCLA student to interview the author for the Daily Bruin. "He almost changed sexual preference before my eyes," she says of the young man. "He just fell under his spell. Isherwood was so seductive and charming."
Similarly, James P. White, a writer and former USC professor who moved to Los Angeles to be near Isherwood and calls him a mentor, says every conversation he had with the writer was "witty and bright and interesting. Whenever he was at a dinner party or something, it sparkled.
"It wasn't casual, meeting Chris," says White, now executive director of the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, which offers grants to writers and will launch a journal this fall. "If you knew him, he affected you."
But the biography shows an egotistical man who could be kind but also mocked his friends behind their backs. (Parker notes, for instance, that the author knocked acolyte White for his "incessant chattering.")
"Prickly, solitary, self-sufficient, hard to handle and difficult to love," John Sutherland concluded in the London Review of Books, referring to poet Stephen Spender's description of the writer as "a cactus."
Bachardy, who authorized the book and Parker's access to Isherwood's papers, has received a copy but doesn't want to talk about it. White says the biographer "has strangled Chris."
Parker, who first read "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" as an impressionable gay teenager, says he came into the project a longtime fan and aimed to render the truth as he found it.
"There's some dismay over how Isherwood, who seemed charming and sunny in person, made a lot of vicious, even brutal, remarks in private," he says from London. He judged the man "genuinely charming, but also strategically charming" and "a professional seducer."
Still, those thrown by the biography can find vanity, bigotry and bitterness in Isherwood's diaries or in "A Single Man," a thinly veiled memoir with wonderful but eviscerating passages of comic cruelty. "His diaries were partly therapeutic," Parker points out. "He was such good fun at parties because he got the bile out of his system in writing.
"I do think that among the Isherwood cultists, there are some who want to canonize him. He had a lot of good qualities, but he wasn't a saint. And not everything he wrote was equally strong. If you're a gay writer and you say that about a gay writer, there's a sense that you're letting down your side."
A SOCIAL CIRCLE