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Christopher Isherwood at the University of Toronto
Introduction to Christopher Isherwood at the University of Toronto
Michael Lynch, Professor of English Literature at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, convinced Christopher Isherwood’s New York based publishers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, to include a day in Toronto during the U.S. promotional tour of his newly published autobiography, Christopher and His Kind. The author agreed to appear in a lecture hall on the U of T campus to engage in a dialogue with the audience and to sign copies of his ‘revisionist’ memoir. The press used this term because most of Isherwood’s past novels and autobiographical works — while certainly hinting strongly at his true sexual orientation — had not previously revealed it in such an open and honest fashion. Together with Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs, this book heralded a new era of openly gay autobiographies from some of the world’s major writers.
Michael, an open and always personable North Carolinian, had recently embarked upon his own coming out process. This was a complicated affair, not only because of his status at a Catholic administered college, but also because he was married, and his wife Gail was about to give birth to their son, Stefan. In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine how Isherwood’s confessional memoir, which lifted the heterosexual mask from his previous literary achievements, had a special resonance for Michael.
My memory cannot pinpoint exactly how and when Michael Lynch and I first met, but it was most likely during a visit to the Glad Day / Body Politic headquarters at 4 Kensington Avenue in Toronto. In 1972, Glad Day and The Body Politic shared the tiny, unheated shed behind the main house. As difficult as it may be for people to understand today, this half hidden shed, abutting an alleyway in the ramshackle Kensington Market, saw an ever increasing stream of gay visitors seeking contacts and connections with both the newly formed newspaper and the bookshop.
There is a photo of Michael at this location in the gallery ‘Canadian Movement Leaders’. He is sporting a ponytail, standing on the wooden walkway behind the shed. Just as in his portrait photo – archived in the CLGA’s National Portrait Collection – Michael’s eyes are closed and he appears deep in thought as he holds his young infant son.
The friendship between Michael and I grew stronger during those early years as he gradually came out and had to deal with the homophobia of U of T’s management. Eventually he was pushed out of St. Michael’s College and transferred to Erindale College. His coming out on campus coincided with his efforts to achieve the status of a tenured professor. I recall receiving phone calls, almost daily, from his office as he struggled to survive so as to quality for this honour. Fortunately his personal strength was such that it forced the bureaucracy to eventually grant him the status he had earned.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, were it not for Christopher Isherwood’s stature in the history of British & American letters, St. Michael’s — a Catholic administered college whose institutionalized prejudices Michael Lynch fought against — would likely not have agreed to allow a speaking engagement of such an openly gay writer. (Especially since Isherwood’s appearance was organized and officially sponsored by the membership of the recently founded Gay Academic Union).
Isherwood spoke on the night of Tuesday, February 8, 1977. The event was held in an auditorium in the Medical Sciences Building where I had worked during my first year in Canada (and from where I was dismissed following the founding of the U of T Homophile Association). I don’t recall the lecture hall being full but, from the photos I took as well as from other accounts, it appears that between 150 to 250 people attended.
The closing line from Michael Lynch’s introduction made such an impression that it is mentioned by Don Bachardy in an interview for a 2013 PhD thesis by Paul Michael McNeil:
DB: “Chris went to Toronto. And it was at a big queer event where … he was introduced as a distinguished man of letters in a speech that ended with ’and I want to introduce you to a 75-year-old faggot.’ … (it) brought the house down and delighted Chris.
PMM: Why did it delight him?
DB: Well, you know, because he thought it was audacious in the right way. Yes, he was proud to be a faggot.”
Once his appearance had been confirmed, Isherwood asked that Glad Day handle the book signing. (I wrote to Isherwood and include his postcard reply within the gallery). My assistant at the book table was a young gay boy named Bobby. During the question and answer period, he stood up and asked Isherwood about the difficulties of coming out so young. The audience was stunned. Isherwood seemed grateful for the question and spoke sympathetically and in full support of the struggles facing gay youth. After the event was over, a group of us young activists took Isherwood to a Yonge Street gay bar, The Quest, where we sat together, drank beer, and chatted with the great man. I remember sitting next to him and both of us becoming affectionate, wrapping our arms around each other and engaging in a bit of smooching.
Isherwood’s visit was my first experience with a major author and it played an important role in establishing Glad Day as a serious literary institution. The concept of a self-affirming gay literature had just begun to establish itself, both with mainstream publishing houses and within the many new, small independent presses.
At that early stage I was neither a businessman who took himself very seriously nor someone who could claim to have much knowledge of either American or British literature (gay or otherwise). I owed much of my own courage in coming out to the more scientific end of the literary spectrum: Alfred Kinsey, Wainwright Churchill and Donald Webster Cory (pseudo. For Edward Sagarin). My literary influences at the time came from Plato’s Symposium, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Jean Genet and André Gide (the gay French authors so much in vogue during the 1960s’ and early 1970s’). It was still a few years yet before I read the first classics of gay fiction: Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, John Rechy’s City of Night and Isherwood’s own masterpiece A Single Man.
Upon its publication Christopher and His Kind was met with a tidal wave of positive and enthusiastic reviews… except perhaps by the Canadian press which, by and large, ignored it. This new Isherwood memoir connected with my interest in the Pre-World War II German gay movement as it was mostly about his life in Berlin and included his memories of the important figures of the time, such as Magnus Hirschfeld as well as his companion and associate Karl Geise. Magnus met Karl when he was 52 and Karl a boy of 19; as many of you know, Chris was 48 when he met 18-year-old Don Bachardy.
Many years later when the third and final volume of Isherwood’s diaries was published, called Liberation (Diaries 1970 – 1983), we were able to read about that day in Toronto in his own words, written as part of his February 18th, 1977 entry: “My biggest emotional thrill was my reception at the Gay Academic Union meeting at the University of Toronto. This kind of thing could easily go to one’s head; it’s what happens to successful old actors.”
Emotional is the key word here — it meant that everything happened exactly as Michael Lynch and the G.A.U. organizers hoped it would.
April 14, 2015
Footnote: For anyone interested in reading Will Aitken’s two page spread in the April, 1977 Issue of The Body Politic, here is the link: