The Man Who Was a Camera: Christopher Isherwood

By Kristina McCloskey, Co-Dramaturg

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.
Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed"      
Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin

At times it's difficult to trace Cabaret back to its true roots. Did it come to life as a stage musical? A film? A play? Liza Minelli's fantastical day dream? 

There have been many iterations, interpretations, and artistic stamps made on this story. So, I propose we travel back to the start. 

Before Sam Mendes, before Alan Cumming,

before Natasha Richardson and Joel Grey and Fosse and Liza

before Kander and Ebb and Van Druten…


There was a man named Christopher Isherwood.

Who, clearly, had style from the very start. 

Christopher was a novelist, playwright, screen-writer, autobiographer, and diarist. He was also homosexual, which served as a theme in some of his writing. He was born near Manchester in the north of England in 1904 to a privileged, well-respected family. 

Over the course of his life, he befriended W.H. Auden, was asked to leave Cambridge for writing joke answers on an exam, enthusiastically explored his homosexuality in pre-WWII Berlin, became a U.S. citizen in 1946, adopted a man he was in love with, befriended Truman Capote -- and those are just mere samplings. 

But what of the connection between Christopher and Cabaret? The show stems from his collection of stories known as Goodbye to Berlin. While the show contains fictionalized versions of events and characters, there will always be the kernel of truth: Christopher Isherwood was in Berlin from the late 1920s to early 1930s, and he witnessed a special, fleeting period of time in a spectacularly unique place. Take a look at some quick facts about his life-changing stay in Germany below: 



1. W.H. Auden got Christopher to Berlin in the first place

Christopher first came to Berlin for a few weeks in March of 1929 to visit his friend, W.H. Auden. Auden and Isherwood were already close, having met at school in England when young. They collaborated on plays together, and often sent sections of writing to one another for commentary and feedback. 

Christopher visited Auden twice more, finally giving in and staying indefinitely starting November 1929. 

Isherwood (left) and Auden (right)

In his memoir, Christopher describes the Cosy Corner, a boy bar Auden took him to during his first visit...and perhaps a good reason he kept coming back...: 

"Nothing could have looked less decadent than the Cosy Corner. It was plain, homely and unpretentious. Its only decorations were a few photographs of boxers and racing cyclists, pinned up above the bar. It was heated by a big old-fashioned iron stove. Partly because of the great heat of this stove and partly because they knew it excited their clients, the boys stripped off their sweaters or leather jackets and sat around with their shirts unbuttoned to the navel and their sleeves rolled up to the armpits"  - Christopher and His Kind


2. Sally Bowles is based off English actress and cabaret singer, Jean Ross


Damn look at that head tilt she knew what was UP

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Jean Iris Ross was sent to England for her education and rebelled against the strict regulations. She hopped from school to boarding school, at times feigning pregnancy to be expelled, and even had a stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. 

She set off to Berlin on the promise of acting gigs, and got work as a cabaret singer and model when those proved slim. 


In Berlin, she also met Christopher and the two hit it off marvelously. Much like Sally, she often bragged of her many lovers and even shared lodgings with Christopher. He described her as having "a long, thin handsome face, aristocratic nose, glossy dark hair, large brown eyes,” and was “more essentially British than Sally; she grumbled like a true Englishwoman, with her grin-and-bear-it grin. And she was tougher.”  He only revealed much later in his life that she was his inspiration for Sally Bowles. 

Jean was on holiday in England when the Nazis rose to power, so she did not return to Berlin. In Chelsea, she joined the Communist party, staying a member until her death. She kept up modeling, and also worked as a political writer. 

Unlike in Goodbye to Berlin, where the protagonist loses touch with Sally Bowles, Christopher Isherwood did see Jean Ross again. In his diary entry for April 24th, 1970, while visiting England, he wrote: 

“Then I had lunch with Jean Ross and her daughter Sarah, and three of their friends at a little restaurant in Chancery Lane. Jean looks old but still rather beautiful and she is very lively and active and mentally on the spot – and as political as ever. Sarah is a barrister and, according to Jean, hasn’t cared to marry because ‘ since she took to the law, she has seen so much of what marriage lets you in for’.  ...

Seeing Jean made me happy; I think if I lived here I’d see a lot of her"


3. He loved and he lost 

In 1932, a particularly ominous year, Isherwood fell in love with a young German man named Heinz Neddermeyer. They fled Berlin together when the Nazi uprising took place in 1933. Neddermeyer was refused entry to England on his second visit in 1934, and the pair moved restlessly about Europe. In 1937, Heinz was ejected from Luxembourg as an "undesireable alien," and he and Christopher were finally separated when the Gestapo arrested Heinz in May of 1937. They charged Heinz with draft evasion and he was sentenced to three and a half years of forced labor and military service. 

After Neddermeyer's arrest, Isherwood reunited with Auden and traveled to China, then to America to settle permanently in California. 

After Heinz Neddermeyer finished his sentence, he married a woman named Gerda and had one son, following in a similar pattern as other gay men after being arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis. 

The two men kept in correspondence, with Isherwood making a visit in the 1950s and lending Neddermeyer money when he needed to flee East Berlin. Little else was mentioned in Isherwood's diaries beyond recollections of their travels together, and a note Heinz sent to him when Christopher's mother passed away. 

Check out these resources for further information on Christopher Isherwood's experiences in Berlin: 

Christopher Isherwood Foundation

Cabaret Berlin - Diary Entry

Cabaret Berlin - Sally Bowles

Heinz Neddermeyer