Isherwood Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The gay characters and the character of free-spirited Sally Bowles of Goodbye to Berlin were an inspiration to gay men and others, as was Christopher Isherwood himself. Isherwood was one of the early prominent gays to come out and live openly with his partner, artist Don Bachardy.

Summary of Event

Beginning in 1928, Christopher Isherwood’s books all alluded to gay themes or had gay characters. Goodbye to Berlin (1939) was Isherwood’s first to place gay characters and a homosexual affair in the larger context of world politics, thus departing from the usual practice of writing a “gay” novel as a problem novel. [kw]Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin (1939) [kw]Publishes Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood (1939) [kw]Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood Publishes (1939) Goodbye to Berlin (Isherwood) Literature;gay [c]Literature;1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin[0350] [c]Publications;1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin[0350] Isherwood, Christopher Bachardy, Don

Goodbye to Berlin also was Isherwood’s first novel to use “Christopher Isherwood” as the first-person narrator. At the story’s beginning, a young English writer sits in Berlin Berlin, Germany and writes in his diary, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” In the novel Christopher moves from this objective stance, increasingly identifying with Berlin and understanding its citizens as they adapt to the Nazis. Nazi Germany;gay literature and

The cover of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939).


The novel is composed of two diaries and four story segments. “Sally Bowles,” the most famous segment, depicts a young expatriate Englishwoman who paints her fingernails green, eats prairie oysters for breakfast, and sings, not too well, in an arty bar. Her mishaps in choosing lovers form her story as the significance of the political events going on around her elude her understanding.

The segment “On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)” depicts the young gay Englishman Peter Wilkinson’s attraction to the young bisexual Berliner Otto Nowak. Christopher observes the affair during a vacation they all share away from Berlin. In this story, as in the others, individual conflicts mirror the larger clash of social forces in German politics and in the world just before World War II. World War II[World War 02];in gay literature[gay literature] The book’s focus on ordinary people and not the larger political scene mark it as one of the most sophisticated works of political fiction of the twentieth century.

Christopher Isherwood, left, and W. H. Auden.

(Library of Congress)

A scene late in the novel occurs in a gay bar called the Salomé. Gawking American tourists suspect that the place is “queer” and direct hostile questions at Christopher and his heterosexual companion, who replies using the broader sense of the term “queer,” saying, “Eventually we’re all queer.” Christopher states that he is “very queer indeed.” This was a bold acknowledgment at the time.

Isherwood’s greatest gay-themed work is A Single Man Single Man, A (Isherwood) (1964), published five years before the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City. A Single Man delineates a loving relationship between two men—George, an expatriate from England and an English professor—and takes place during one day in Los Angeles in 1962. The story is even more moving because the younger man had died prior to the action of the novel. The novel embodies the nascent thinking that homosexuals are a political minority who deserve civil rights. George rails at the “annihilation by blandness” that homosexuals suffer at the hands of even well-meaning liberals who pity homosexuals but would not want to know details of their love lives.

If, in A Single Man, George is preoccupied with daily and political concerns, the novelist Isherwood places him in the context of beliefs learned from Isherwood’s study of Vedanta, a religion based on Hinduism. Isherwood’s thought is a precursor of what has been termed “gay spirit” by writer Mark Thompson and others.


Goodbye to Berlin was adapted as the drama and the film I Am a Camera I Am a Camera (film) (1951; 1955) I Am a Camera (drama) and as the musical play and Academy Award-winning film Cabaret Cabaret (play) Cabaret (film) (1966; 1972). The musical used the sexual license of Weimar Berlin and its cabaret culture to create metaphors for the blur of traditional sexual identities, in turn signaling other breakdowns that paved the way for the Nazi rise to power. Isherwood thought aspects of the popular film to be “antigay,” and critic Linda Mizejewski has termed it “homophobic.”

Isherwood was part of a group of Los Angeles researchers and thinkers that included fellow gay British expatriate Gerald Heard and Evelyn Hooker a research psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. They all were at times connected with Los Angeles’s ONE Institute. ONE was founded and incorporated in 1952 and was loosely modeled on Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, which Isherwood knew in the 1930’s. At great personal danger, Hirschfeld had lobbied for a change in the laws on homosexuality.

Isherwood pioneered in rewriting his already very autobiographical work to include more details about his gay life. In 1971 he used letters and diaries of his mother and father to form a work that was named for them, Kathleen and Frank: The Autobiography of a Family, Kathleen and Frank (Isherwood) although he admitted that the book was “chiefly about Christopher.” In this work he became one of the first writers of his stature to come out in print. As early as 1973, in an interview in the gay liberation journal Gay Sunshine, Isherwood began to tell the “truth” about the stories in Goodbye to Berlin and revealed that he, and not the fictional Peter Wilkinson, was the lover of “Otto.” Isherwood collected more true stories about his Berlin period, including details about Hirschfeld and the destruction of his library and institute by the Nazis in May of 1933, in Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939 Christopher and His Kind (Isherwood) (1976).

In 1948, Isherwood had written that successful homosexual relationships “raise our collective morale.” Perhaps as early as 1951, Isherwood met Don Bachardy, then a teenager, and they lived together from 1953 until Isherwood’s death in 1986. Bachardy, benefiting from Isherwood’s mentoring and sensitive attention to their relationship, became a noted artist and famous portraitist. Even before the 1970’s, Isherwood and Bachardy appeared in public together, thus providing an early and rare visible example of a committed and enduring gay couple. They are depicted together in their Santa Monica Canyon (Los Angeles area) living room in an iconic portrait painted by their friend, British artist David Hockney, Hockney, David in 1968.

In his literary production, his political and religious thought and work, and his sexual politics and daily life, Christopher Isherwood was a pioneer gay figure for a great part of the twentieth century. He remains an iconic figure into the twenty-first century as well. Goodbye to Berlin (Isherwood) Literature;gay

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berg, James J., and Chris Freeman, eds. The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1945.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Christopher Isherwood Interviewed by (I) Winston Leyland (II) Roger Austen.” In Gay Sunshine Interviews. Vol. 1, edited by Winston Leyland. San Francisco, Calif.: Gay Sunshine Press, 1978.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Kathleen and Frank: The Autobiography of a Family. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. A Single Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mizejewski, Linda. Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectacle, and the Makings of Sally Bowles. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summers, Claude J. Christopher Isherwood. New York: Ungar, 1980.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Gay Fictions, Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York: Continuum, 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Mark. “Double Reflections: Isherwood and Bachardy on Art, Love, and Faith.” In Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, edited by Mark Thompson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

1924: Gide Publishes the Signed Edition of Corydon

1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature

1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room

1963: Rechy Publishes City of Night

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1974: The Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List

1975: First Novel About Coming Out to Parents Is Published

1980-1981: Gay Writers Form the Violet Quill

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

1993: Monette Wins the National Book Award for Becoming a Man

Categories: History