Still at the top of his game at 85, the eternally youthful, Los Angeles-born artist Don Bachardy, whose evocative, unstinting and visceral portraits of artists, Hollywood royalty and friends, as well as soul-defining self-portraiture, with works numbering in the thousands that comprise a virtual visual diary of his last six decades – and whose life partner of 35 years, Christopher Isherwood, proved a brilliant, aesthetic and serendipitous match – plumbs his own psychological depths only to discover what makes him love work and life.
What historical art figure would you like to have lunch with and why? John Singer Sargent, because he was a great portrait painter and painted in a wonderful period. I love that age he worked in – all of the women and lovely gowns, high hair-dos and elegance. That was a great period for him and he was also such a wonderful draftsman – his drawings are so good.
What did you purchase with the proceeds from your first sale? Oh, I can’t remember purchasing anything in particular, but the first sale was very significant and very welcomed by me, not because I could buy something or other, but it was my first signal of some kind of success. I don’t remember what it was, but it [resulted from] a pleased customer – somebody who sat for me.
What words or phrases do you overuse? There is something I say a lot and I’ve often said to myself, ‘I must get out of the habit of saying that,’ but if I haven’t already done anything about stopping my use of it, then I shouldn’t complain!
How do you know when a work is finished? That’s a very astute question and one of the hardest, if not the hardest event in a sitting. Doing a portrait of somebody is knowing when to stop and trying to keep myself from going on too long. The resistant sitters don’t have to say anything – they can show me their resistance in so many ways – by their restlessness and impatience. It’s very palpable when it’s there.
When and where were you happiest? Right here in California where I was born, in L.A. I’m so happy, so fortunate to have been born here. I’ve always loved this town and I’m not happy away from it [and] I very seldom leave it. In fact, I’d be perfectly happy never having to leave town again. The last time I left town was two years ago. I traveled a lot when I was young and I’m so glad I got it out of my system, but I do think that traveling is something, that if you’re going to do it – if you have a real taste for it – you should do it when you’re young. Now I just find it very hard work.
What is your most treasured possession? My most treasured possession is – my sanity – and it’s certainly tested regularly.
Where is your ideal escape destination? London! It’s always been my favorite city. I don’t include L.A., because I was born here and I take it for granted.
What’s the worst survival job you’ve ever had? I’ve been very lucky in that way. I never really had to support myself. I had a job as a box boy, a bag boy, in a market – and that was during my last term at high school. In the afternoon I could quit going to class and go to a market and be a box boy. That was the longest period of any kind of employment of that kind that I’ve ever served. And it was quite enough. It was something [because] it was a relief from school. I went to school in the morning and can’t think why such an arrangement was made, what purpose it served. But it was very effective for me, because I realized that I never wanted to have that kind of job and would do anything to avoid that. It was a very effective experience for me, because it showed me what the alternative to being an artist was. And I knew right away that it wasn’t for me.
What TV series from your youth best describes your approach to life? There was no TV back then. We had the radio and I listened to Lux Radio Theater, but I was a devoted movie goer – anything that had to do with Hollywood, screen actors and movie actors. But [as for] Lux, I went to some of the live broadcasts from the theater on Vine Street. Some very distinguished movie actors appeared and I even showed up one Sunday morning when I knew they were rehearsing for the show and got an autograph from Linda Darnell. I was very thrilled to meet her and have her sign my autograph book.
Alas, I gave the book away. After my schooling, I met Chris Isherwood [1904-2986] and right away I had to do away with my past. It was a big mistake. Adults didn’t have autographs from people – that was a childish fascination – and I was moving into the adult world. But the books were chock full of priceless autographs, including Marilyn Monroe’s. I still have a photo of Marilyn and me together. She was in a gown and me in my only shoes and tie. It was [taken] in the parking lot behind the Pantages Theater after the 1951 Academy Awards presentation. My brother and I went with a camera and he took all kinds of pictures. We took pictures of each other and all of them with Monroe. She wasn’t even a star yet. She’d done All About Eve, but it wasn’t until 1953 [and] Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – that was the star-making vehicle. We were fans of hers in the late 40s when she was already Marilyn Monroe, but just playing bit parts in movies. All About Eve was the effective small part that really led to her stardom.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I wanted to [get rid of] the gap between my two front teeth. I had the good luck to go to a really good man, and the dentist knew I was being silly. What he did was say, “Yes, of course, I’ll cap your teeth.” And he described the process of filing down my front teeth to nubs and then putting the caps over them and I couldn’t get out of that chair fast enough. The silly idea that I had to fill my gap in the front teeth – it became a signature. It was something that made me different and it was worth hanging onto. It was that dear dentist who scared me to death with the description.
We must all get used to ourselves and value what we’ve got, not hanker after what we don’t have, but make do with all our natural talents. That’s something I learned finally. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a kid, but I had no encouragement from my parents or anybody else. I submerged that talent – it was a genuine talent – but I didn’t have the sense of it. Instead of looking for my personality where it didn’t belong, I thought, ‘What about me could I develop? What did I have that most other people didn’t?’ It was that talent and it was Chris who made me realize that. He said, “Look, you can draw, you’ve got something you can develop if you want to.” He talked me into going to art school. I went to Chouinard [Art Institute] and my professional school began. I went four years and was in art class from 9-4 every weekday and was usually back for the 7-10 class at night. I realized that I only wanted to do pictures of people from life. And Chris said, “Stick to it.” And I did.
What is your most treasured memory? Painting Bette Davis. If you told me at 15 that one day you’ll be copying a portrait of Bette Davis in a movie magazine and then the real Bette Davis would be sitting for you in your own home – and you and she alone all day in her house – that she would cook me lunch and dinner – saying, “I can’t let you go back to New York without your dinner.” Bette Davis cooked dinner for me. It was Valhalla. What could be more exciting.
At the end of the day, I’d done three paintings of her, she fixed lunch and dinner for me, got me back on the train to New York, saying, “I’ll be out in L.A. in a month,” and she gave me the number to call – and there she was – a woman of her word. What did she say when I told her who was calling, “Oh, you gave me a stiff neck I had for three days.” But she remembered saying she would sit again. She was staying at the Beverly Wilshire and said, “I’ll give you one hour – I mean it – not a minute more.” I sat right down and we started. I had my drawing board and paints and pencils and inks with me and sat down and started working, and we both knew when the hour was approaching and she probably saw the sweat on my brow and she said, “If we’re not finished, I’m not going to throw you out.” She let me work another 15 minutes, but I did the best picture of her. What was so good about her – she was grumpy and grim – and the drawing was right on, it was so exactly like her. “Yes, that’s the old bag,” she said. None of those Hollywood actors would ever have been capable of saying such a remark about themselves.
What makes you smile? Listening to myself answering questions like you’re asking me. I remember when I first met Chris, there was a bond between us. He loved movies when he was my age – a teenager – he was 48 and I was 18, and we started going to movies together. In those early movies I remember him – instead of watching the screen – he was watching me, because I was smiling. I turned to him and we looked at each other and we were both smiling and we knew it was some profound kind of encounter. We were really recognizing each other on a deep level and I never forgot that moment. It blossomed into a 30-year relationship that changed me and my life. He was a born parent and I was a born ideal son.
What makes you cry? I’ve often cried when I thought of how I was born at that moment. It was Chris who recognized me, told me who I was, and stood beside me and helped me discover that for myself. He was a very real parent I’d been needing all my life. And there he was. It was Chris who was my maker – the man who helped me find out who I am. It was he who turned a switch in me and that’s when I became who I am. He understood and saw in me what was unusual and flicked a switch and I lit up. I was waiting all my life – my parents couldn’t do it – but he saw something unusual in me. I was only 18, and even six months later it would have been too late. He just appeared at the right moment. It was fated. I was to be a portrait artist. An artist who wanted to record people – without a machine, without a camera – just using my hands and brushes and paint. I would be an old-fashioned artist.
He really was a magician and he saw in me the perfect subject. ‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘I can make something out of that subject.’ And he was the first example of teaching me what an artist is, what it requires and why it’s worth doing. I had the greatest good fortune. We were destined for each other. There had to be something going on; we had to meet. We were just what the other wanted and needed, and it lasted until he died, 33 years later. He died with me, right in the bed that we slept in for more than 30 years.
What is your go-do drink when you toast to a sale? Champagne. I learned to drink with Chris. Everybody drank in the early 50s and because everybody did, it was fun to do. He was really quite a heavy drinker when I met him [and] he was also a heavy smoker. We took a trip together to San Francisco – a motor trip – that was our first trip. The first night on the road at dinner in a restaurant, it was his birthday [so] I gave him my birthday present, which was a cigarette lighter, engraved.
He laughed when I gave it to him. “Well,” he said, “when we started on this trip, that because you don’t smoke, I told myself I would stop smoking.” Did he laugh. I told him that he could still keep the lighter in his pocket and not use it. And he did. He really did stop smoking and then he started smoking only at night and finally within six months he’d given it up all together, using the fact that I didn’t smoke and he had. That’s very hard for a two-pack a day smoker. That was really something. I don’t have the lighter, but I have the memory.
After an all-nighter, what’s your breakfast of champions? Scrambled eggs and oatmeal. I think breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I always have breakfast and lots of coffee. It’s always so exciting to begin the morning with a good meal and feel that energy that it gives me and it gets me going. I go out to the studio and draw and paint all day long.
Who inspires you? I’ve been inspired by so many people, now it’s my turn. Chris was very conscious of passing on the torch, that’s what I’m trying to do, too. By my example, meeting young people, young artists – young people are forever looking for somebody to inspire them. I try to be that. I can still remember what inspired me – those early years with Chris. I used him to turn myself into what he was – an artist who really lived for it – who was dedicated to it. And I always have been.
I’ve got a studio that’s jam-packed with the whole diary of my life. It’s in my work with people. I have a different sitter every day. In the early days, I had two or three sometimes. I’ve got all those drawings and they’re signed and dated by the people. It’s just an endless day-to-day diary. They’re big – 29 by 23 inches – one after another in the thousands. It’s a real diary of my life and who I’ve spent my life with and looking at. It’s very intense.
A live person – somebody I don’t even know – and suddenly we’re locked together in this relationship, eye to eye. It takes two hours or three. The other day it was three hours working with one man, one sitter I’d never met before. I did a beautiful picture of him. It was something that he wanted to be drawn. He knew who I was, how I worked, and it meant something to sit for me and I gave him the very best I’m capable of and it made us both very pleased.
What’s your best quality? Keeping my word. I have to be careful what I say, though, because I mean it.
What’s your biggest flaw? Oh, god. I guess I’m a kind of positive thinker [so] of my flaws, I turn them into strengths. I’ve been functioning that way for years.
What is your current state of mind? Right now I’ve got a real appetite for going into my studio. I can’t wait. I’ve already been in there this morning and I’m going there after we talk. Just the day before yesterday [there was] a guy I never met before and it was three solid hours. I realized that he was there for as long as I wanted him and we worked for three hours without moving. That’s very unusual for me to find somebody with that kind of concentration.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? My sitting with Marlene Dietrich. For an artist who is a big movie nut – what achievement could be greater than a sitting with the real Marlene Dietrich, dressed up as Queen of the Night. That was 1963 and one of the great occasions of my life. She came to dinner. Chris and I had met her at the house of Chris’s agents through friends who invited us to lunch and didn’t tell us even that there’d be anybody else there. It was a Sunday and we arrived around 11, and there was this woman in pedal pushers and an old sun hat and sunglasses. ‘Oh my god,’ I thought, ‘it’s Marlene Dietrich.’ I just froze when I realized that. She wore lipstick and eyebrow pencil – that’s all she had on [her face], but I suppose she had eyeliner, too – and that old sunhat. When I realized it was Dietrich, I was so thrilled. We spent the day with her and I said, “Would you ever come to sit for me?” and she told me she would do it.
I said “I’ll send you some photographs of my work,” and I did. I put them in an 8 x 10 envelope – about six pictures, all real people – and stars she would recognize. I sent it to the address she gave me. A few days later, the envelope came back to me. It had been addressed to me by somebody else – she had sent it back in the same envelope without putting new postage on it. I opened it and there were the six photos. Chris was with me and I wailed. There was no note, nothing. I closed the flap of the envelope and there was a little scrawled note with a phone number – ‘Call me. Marlene.’ I called her and we made a date for a sitting. Just meeting her – she was wearing pedal pushers, and suddenly she was the Queen of the Night – who then after dinner, came out to the studio with me and we worked for several hours.
So my greatest achievements are my paintings. It’s like a journal that I kept. I can tell you with whom I spent my days – each of those days for the last nearly 60 years, because the paintings are all signed and dated and that’s really my lifetime. What better diary could I have kept? These are pictures of the very people I spent my time with and each day is recorded in my sitter.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be? More of the same, please. I’ve been taught by a master – Chris was just the perfect example. He showed me how to live and what it was all about. He helped me to make something of myself that would make me proud when I was an old man, and I achieved it. And it was he who gave me the idea and the strength to do it. I’ve kept him all my life as my idea of a perfect artist who really cared about what he did and put everything he had into it and made his life significant to himself, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in his honor. What better thing could I do to thank him for what he’d given me.
Images courtesy Don Bachardy and Craig Krull Gallery