Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Wednesday, January 28, 2004
Desperately Seeking Sally
Sally Bowles would still be able to find her way home without much trouble. Even today, seventy-odd years on, and after a World War which flattened much of central Berlin, the house where she lodged alongside gay English author Christopher Isherwood is still standing.

There really was a Sally Bowles, the best-remembered character from Isherwood's Berlin Novels, and whose story is at the core of the very different theatrical and movie versions of Cabaret. Only she wasn't called Sally, of course, and her surname was probably nicked from American writer and friend Paul Bowles; and she certainly didn't look anything like Liza Minnelli. And Berlin, then as now, might have been decadent, but it could never, ever, be described as divinely so. Darling.

Jean Ross, the real-life Sally, was born in the year the Great War broke out, and died as Vietnam was finally spluttering to a close. After the Nazis won power, she left Berlin and spent time as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War, before settling back in England, and having a daughter, best-selling and pipe-smoking crime novelist, Sarah Caudwell. The father was Fleet Street legend, Claud Cockburn, famous for producing what was judged by The Times of the day to be the dullest headline imaginable: Small Earthquake In Chile. Not Many Dead.It was only after Jean's death that Isherwood revealed she was the inspiration for Sally: Ross hated being associated with her fictional counterpart, and tried to forget her as best she could.

No chance. She and Isherwood are evoked constantly in the city's tourist literature, oom-pah-pah bands bash out "Cabaret" and "Wilkommen" for the tourists, and one of my favourite gay haunts bills itself as the "bar for Sally Bowles and her friends", even though most of its thirtysomething clientele are probably not even aware the girl herself used to live just one block away from them.

The Nollendorfstrasse is pretty much the same as it was when Ross and Isherwood lived there in the early thirties. Rows of trees line the massive street, branches black and bare against the pearl-grey winter sky, just as they were when Isherwood arrived here in December 1930. On either side rise tall terraces of nineteenth-century buildings, some of them still lodging-houses and pensions as in Sally's day. Their wedding-cake stuccoed façades are occasionally interrupted by an empty space, or an ugly fifties-style house, built on World War Two bomb-sites. And even though there are more cars on the cobbled street now, and you are just ten minutes' walk from the city-centre, there's a very un-21st-century hush, which makes you think that you might just be back in the thirties, and they're showing that new Blue Angel thing down the moving-picture palace.

The pretty peach-coloured façade of Number 17 is a little out of keeping with its other more genteelly-shabby neighbours. Peering through the window of the huge front-door, down the echoing and finely waxed and polished hallway and into the white-washed courtyard where Sally perhaps smoked one of her expensive cigarettes; or looking up at the windows on the fifth floor out of which Isherwood recorded the morally dodgy life down on the street, I was tempted to ring the bell of one of the top-floor flats and ask for a look.

I didn’t, of course: these are private apartments, after all, but it would have been the ultimate tapping into the whole Cabaret/ Berlin ethos. Or maybe I'm just an old Romantic nellie at heart. There's a plaque on the wall commemorating Isherwood's stay in the house, by the way: it gets the dates wrong.

Appropriately enough, we're also right in the centre of Berlin's biggest gay district, a place where rainbow flags flap from every other balcony, and almost every third establishment is queer-run, or, at the very least, gay-friendly. Surprisingly, there aren't any places of the type Isherwood and his mate W. H. Auden would have frequented on the particular street where he lived. But if you're interested, the rent-boy bars are just around the corner. And no, I won't give you a link.

However, at one end of the street, there's a cellar-shop stocking all manner of pervy gear and over-sized accessories for your big butch Berlin leather queen. And, at the other end of the block, opposite a classy homo café, there's a store called "Boyz R Us". It's an overpriced and slightly naff clothes-shop, rather than a "house of boys", as they're known round these parts, but somehow I think Isherwood, for whom, notoriously, Berlin did indeed "mean boys", would approve and see the joke.

Not too sure about Sally though. I shall have to ask her the next time I'm there.