Aug 092018
 

Chapala-born Jorge Seimandi Ramírez was a highly-respected art educator at the University of Guadalajara for more than 40 years. He was not interested in the commercial side of art and his own work was rarely sold or exhibited.

Seimandi was born in Chapala on 2 February 1929, the son of Italian-born businessman Juan Seimandi and his wife, Refugio Ramírez, a local Chapala girl. Jorge Seimandi studied art at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Guadalajara from 1947 to 1950. His teachers included Ixca Farías, Leopoldo Bancalari and Rubén Mora Gálvez.

Recognized for his proficiency in both oils and watercolors, Seimandi painted still lifes, figurative studies, portraits and landscapes, some of which were exhibited in the 1950s.

Jorge Seimandi. Undated still life. Photo credit: A. Hinojosa/Informador.

Jorge Seimandi. Undated still life. Photo credit: A. Hinojosa/Informador.

His work was exhibited at the Exhibition of the School of Fine Arts (Exposición Anual de la Escuela de Bellas Artes) in Guadalajara in 1949 (where he won a “diploma of recognition”); in two shows at the city’s Galerías Degollado, in 1957 and 1958;and at at the Mexican-North American Cultural Institute (Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano de Jalisco). Seimandi  held solo shows at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas (1970; 1994) and at the Galería Jorge Martínez (1998).

Along with Alfonso de Lara Gallardo, Jorge Navarro Hernández and others, Seimandi was an active member of Grupo Integración, a loose collective of modernistic artists founded in 1966.

Seimandi was never a full-time professional painter but pursued art in his spare time while earning a qualification in law. He was appointed head of the Jalisco State Tourism Office in 1957. He taught art and art history at the University of Guadalajara’s Escuela de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts School) from 1953 to 1981, where he inspired the next generation of artists. He directed the school from 1978-1981. He was also appointed Professor of Drawing for the Jalisco State Primary Schools, a position that enabled him to research basic education in drawing.

Following his death in Guadalajara on 2 October 2013, at the age of 84, his family announced their intention to compile a complete catalog his works, many of which he gave to friends, and to arrange a retrospective exhibition at the University of Guadalajara’s Museo de las Artes. If they are successful, this will be a show worth seeing!

Sources:

  • El Informador: 25 April 1970; 26 June 1994; 25 Nov 1998; 28 Nov 1998.
  • Thamara Villaseñor. 2013. “Seimandi y su pasión por la pintura.” El Informador, 1 Dec 2013, 11-B.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Aug 022018
 

As we saw in previous posts, the two writers behind the first two Dane Chandos books related to Lake Chapala – Village in the Sun and House in the Sun  – were Nigel Millett and Peter Lilley.

Whether by coincidence or not, less than 3 weeks after Nigel Millett‘s father died in Ajijic in 1947, Anthony Stansfeld set out from the U.K. to visit Peter Lilley in Mexico. This timing makes it perfectly conceivable that he helped Lilley in the final stages of preparing the manuscript of House in the Sun for publication.

Anthony Ralph Wolryche Stansfeld was born in Winchester, Hampshire, on 4 March 1913 and died in Macon, Georgia, on 7 March 1998. Stansfeld was at Oxford University from 1932 to about 1935. During World War II he served as a Temporary Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Service for two years from 4 March 1943 (his 30th birthday). The blond, blue-eyed Stansfeld, who spoke fluent English, French, Spanish and Italian, subsequently became a university lecturer, specializing in art history.

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

It is unclear how he and Peter Lilley first met, though they were very close in age. In about 1950, Stansfeld took a teaching position at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He lived the remainder of his life in Macon but became a regular visitor to Lake Chapala to collaborate with Lilley.

Continuing the pen name Dane Chandos, the duo wrote two travelogues: Journey in the Sun (a trip from Mexico to Spain) and The Trade Wind Islands (which takes the reader from Mexico to several Caribbean islands). The two men also created the huarache-wearing Mexican detective Don Pancho and wrote two well-constructed stories about his crime-solving exploits: Boiled Alive and Three Bad Nights, for which they used the pen name (or more accurately pen name of a pen name) Bruce Buckingham.

References

  • Bruce Buckingham. 1956. Three Bad Nights. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).
  • Bruce Buckingham. 1957. Boiled Alive. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 192018
 

The second strand of the pen name Dane Chandos, and indeed the originator of the name, was Peter Lilley. How, when and where Lilley first met Nigel Millett is currently unknown but they became literary collaborators and good friends during their time in Ajijic.

Peter Lilley, whose birth name was James Gilbert Lilley, was the only child of James Cecil Lilley (1878-1948) and Madeline Clare Angus Thomas (1890–1979). He was born in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, on 25 July 1913.

Lilley’s father was a director of Lilley and Skinner, a famous London shoe brand (manufacturing, wholesale and retail), founded by his great grandfather.

Peter Lilley attended Stowe School (in Buckinghamshire) from 1927 to 1932 and was captain of the school tennis team in 1931. He remained an avid tennis player throughout his life and built a grass court at his home in San Antonio Tlayacapan (mid-way between Ajijic and Chapala).

Lilley is not known to have published anything under his own name, or any nom de plume, prior to the books about Ajijic.

The name Dane Chandos was conjured up by Lilley himself, since it combined his nickname at Stowe – “Dane”, on account of his blond hair and square, Danish-looking jaw – with Chandos, the name of one of the school’s boarding houses. Interestingly, though, Lilley had actually spent his own school years in a different house, Grafton.

If shipping and immigration records accurately reflect his travels to North America, Peter Lilley first visited the U.S. in 1938, at the age of 24, traveling with an older cousin, Thomas. The following year, he revisited the U.S. en route to Toronto, Canada. In 1940, he again traveled to New York, arriving on 7 July 1940. It remains unclear precisely when Lilley first visited Lake Chapala.

The first Dane Chandos book, Village in the Sun, was written by Peter Lilley and Nigel Millett and published in the U.S. in the fall of 1945. Because Nigel Millett died the following year, it is often argued that the second Dane Chandos book – House in the Sun, first published in the U.S. in 1949 – must have been the result of a different collaboration, with Millett replaced by Anthony Stansfeld as Lilley’s writing partner. For a number of reasons, including similarities of style and subject matter, I do not consider this at all likely but believe that House in the Sun, like Village in the Sun, was co-written by Lilley and Millett.

This opinion is supported by the fact that Stansfeld himself, in a letter many years ago to the house’s current owner, laid no claim to authorship of either book, writing only that he and Lilley had collaborated from 1950 onwards.

Village in the Sun tells the story of building a house (located in real life in San Antonio Tlayacapan). The house was Peter Lilley’s home in Mexico. The book is an interesting, keenly observed and reflective account of life in Ajijic in the 1940s, full of curious tidbits alongside anecdotes about local superstitions and habits. When it was finally published in the U.K. in 1948, English author and linguist Rodney Gallop, who had visited Ajijic in the 1930s, praised its use of colorful characters to paint a picture of Ajijic that was sympathetic and “penetrated to the very heart of Mexico.” Among the central characters is Candelaria, the cook, who “seemed to delight in piling up obstacles and then making an enormous fuss surmounting them and then with a pleased tired smile viewing her achievement.”

In House in the Sun the author has added extra rooms for guests and taken on the role of amateur hotelier, “held hostage by maddening servants and equally unpredictable and maddening guests.”

The two books share many of the same characters, including Candelaria and the other household help. Some of the characters are based on real residents or visitors while others stem from the authors’ imaginations. A line near the start of House in the Sun – “An Englishman had built a long, low house fronted by a superb garden, which blazed with color the year round” – is a public nod to Herbert Johnson and his wife, Georgette, and their wonderful lakefront garden in Ajijic.

The final Dane Chandos book

Peter Lilley continued to live in his beautiful “house in the sun” in San Antonio Tlayacapan until well into the 1970s. He spent his final weeks in his native England where he died at the London Clinic in Westminster on 17 April 1980. Leslie Chater and his wife, Moreen, long-time friends of Lilley, subsequently became the new owners of the house in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

A chance find there in a desk drawer by Moreen Chater caused her to revive the Dane Chandos brand in 1997, long after all three original Dane Chandos authors had died. Chater stumbled across a “scruffy folder” containing a manuscript of recipes “faintly typed and badly eaten by mice.” Providentially, these proved to be Candelaria’s original recipes, with notes and anecdotes added by Lilley. Chater used them to compile Candelaria’s Cookbook, an unusual bilingual book of more than forty recipes (and related stories) sold as a fund-raiser to support projects benefiting children in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

References

  • Dane Chandos. 1945. Village in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Dane Chandos. 1949. House in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Rodney Gallop. 1948. “Rural Mexico: Village in the Sun. By Dane Chandos.” (Review), The Spectator, 17 June 1948, 22.
  • Catherine A. MacKenzie. 2011. “Three Authors in the Sun”, Lake Chapala Review, vol 13 #1, 15 January 2011.
  • Sophie Annan Jensen. 1999. “Candelaria’s Cookbook” (review) on MexConnect.com –
    [25 May 2018]

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 282018
 

Everett Gee Jackson (1900-1995), the renowned American painter, illustrator and art educator, lived at Lake Chapala, apart from some short breaks, from 1923 to 1926 (and returned there in 1950 and 1968). Jackson loved Mexico and during his first visit to Chapala he became intimately acquainted with the artistic creativity of Mexico’s ancient pre-Columbian civilizations, later teaching and writing on the subject.

Unlike so many other early foreign visiting artists who have left very little trace of their presence, Jackson wrote entertaining accounts of his experiences in Chapala and Ajijic in his two memoirs —Burros and Paintbrushes, A Mexican Adventure (1985) and It’s a Long Road to Comondú (1987), both published by Texas A&M University Press. Both memoirs are informative and beautifully illustrated.

Given the wealth of available material on Jackson’s life and art, this post will focus on the personal and wider significance of his earliest extended trip to Lake Chapala.

Cover painting is "Street in Ajijic", ca 1924

Cover painting is “Street in Ajijic”, ca 1924

Jackson was born in Mexia, Texas, on 8 October 1900. He enrolled at Texas A&M to study architecture but was persuaded by one of his instructors that his true talents lay in art. In 1921 Jackson moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute where impressionism was in vogue. At the end of the following year he eschewed another Chicago winter in favor of completing his art studies at the San Diego Academy of Art in sunnier California. He eventually completed a B.A. degree from San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) in 1929 and a Masters degree in art history from the University of Southern California in 1934.

As an educator, Jackson taught and directed the art department at San Diego State University (1930-1963) and was a visiting professor at the University of Costa Rica (1962).

Prior to his first visit to Chapala in 1923, Jackson had already undertaken a brief foray into Mexico, traveling just across the border from Texas into Coahuila with Lowell D. Houser (1902-1971), a friend from the Art Institute of Chicago. In summer 1923, the pair of artists decided to venture further into Mexico, to the city of Guadalajara. After a month in the city, they rented a house in Chapala and were among the earliest American artists to paint at Lake Chapala and Ajijic, though they were not the first, given that the Chicago artist Richard Robbins and Donald Cecil Totten (1903-1967), among others, had painted Lake Chapala much earlier, as had many artists of European origin.

Mexico, though, exerted a much more powerful influence over Houser’s and Jackson’s subsequent art than it did over any of these earlier visitors.

Jackson and Houser stayed in Chapala until the summer of 1925 when they decided to move to Guanajuato to experience a different side of Mexico. En route, they stopped off in Mexico City to view some of the famous Mexican murals, by Diego Rivera and others, that they had heard so much about.

After a few months in Guanajuato, the two young artists briefly parted ways when Jackson went back to El Paso to meet his girlfriend, Eileen Dwyer.

Everett Gee Jackson. ca 1923. Fisherman's Shacks, Chapala. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Everett Gee Jackson. ca 1923. Fisherman’s Shacks, Chapala. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Jackson returned to Mexico, newly engaged to Eileen, and discovered that Lowelito had decided to rent another house, not in Chapala but in the smaller, more isolated, village of Ajijic. Jackson is almost certainly correct in writing that they were the “first art students ever to live in Ajijic”, but there may be a hint of exaggeration in his claim that they were, “the only Americans living in Ajijic.”

After Jackson married Eileen in July 1926, the couple had an unconventional honeymoon, sharing a house in Chapala with Lowelito and a friend. In November the group moved to Mexico City, where they were welcomed by Anita Brenner and an elite circle of young artists and intellectuals that included Jean Charlot (1898–1979). They were also visited by the great muralist José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949). Early the following year, at Brenner’s insistence, Jackson and his wife visited the Zapotec Indian area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec before returning home to San Diego.

Everett Gee Jackson. 1926. Lake Chapala. (Hirshl & Adler Galleries, New York)

Everett Gee Jackson. 1926. Lake Chapala. (Hirshl & Adler Galleries, New York)

Even before their return, fifty of Jackson’s Mexican paintings had been exhibited at the “The Little Gallery” in San Diego. The exhibit was warmly received by critics and art lovers and further showings of his “ultra-modern canvasses” were arranged for venues in Dallas and New York. Among the paintings that attracted most attention in The San Diego exhibition were “The Lake Village,” (Chapala), which had won first prize at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in October 1926, and “Straw Shacks in Chapala”.

There is no question that Jackson’s subsequent artistic trajectory owed much to his time in Chapala at the start of his career. His encounter with Mexican art — from pre-Columbian figurines to modern murals — transformed him from an impressionist to a post-impressionist painter. He was one of the first American artists to be so heavily influenced by Mexican modernism, with its stylized forms, blocks of color and hints of ancient motifs. Jackson’s work remained realist rather than abstract.

Jackson’s work was widely exhibited and won numerous awards. His major exhibitions included Art Institute of Chicago (1927); Corcoran Gallery (1928); Whitney Museum of American Art; School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1928; 1946); Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1929-30); San Francisco Art Association; San Diego Fine Arts Society; and the Laguna Beach Art Association (1934). Retrospectives of his work included a 1979 show at the Museo del Carmen in Mexico City, jointly organized by INBA (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia); and an exhibit at San Diego Modern in 2007-2008.

Jackson’s wonderful illustrations enliven several books, including Max Miller’s Mexico Around Me (1937) and The Wonderful Adventures of Paul Bunyon (1945).

Everett Gee Jackson, Drying Nets, ca 1924., pen and ink. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Everett Gee Jackson, Drying Nets, ca 1924., pen and ink. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

In addition to his two volumes of memoirs, Jackson also wrote and illustrated Goat tails and doodlebugs: a journey toward art (1993).

Jackson’s time in Mexico led to a lifelong interest in pre-Columbian art, as evidenced by his short paper, “The Pre-Columbian Figurines from Western Mexico”, published in 1941, and his book, Four Trips to Antiquity: Adventures of an Artist in Maya Ruined Cities (1991). In his 1941 paper, which included images of two figurines found at Lake Chapala, Jackson considered the varying degree of abstraction or expressionism in different figurines.

Everett Gee Jackson, author, pioneering artist, illustrator and much more besides, died in San Diego on 4 March 1995.

Acknowledgment

  • My thanks to Texas art historian James Baker for his interest in this project and for sharing his research about Everett Gee Jackson.

This is an outline profile. Contact us if you would like to learn more about this particular artist or have information to share.

Sources

  • Anon. 1927. “Talented Artist Of Mexia To Have Dallas Exhibition”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 29 Jan 1927, p 13.
  • Archives of American Art. 1964. Oral history interview (by Betty Hoag) with Everett Gee Jackson, 1964 July 31. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • D. Scott Atkinson. 2007. Everett Gee Jackson: San Diego Modern, 1920-1955. San Diego Museum of Art.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1941. “The Pre-Columbian Ceramic Figurines from Western Mexico”, in Parnassus, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1941), pp. 17-20.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1985. Burros and Paintbrushes, A Mexican Adventure. Texas A&M University Press.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1987. It’s a Long Road to Comondú. Texas A&M University Press.
  • Jerry Williamson. 2000. Eileen: The Story Of Eileen Jackson As Told By Her Daughter. San Diego Historical Society.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 

May 292018
 

John Russell Clift wrote, and illustrated with original serigraphs, “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-La”, published in Ford Times, the monthly magazine of the Ford Motor Company in October 1953. The article was published in Ford Times,. Volume 45 # 10 (October 1953) pp 34-39. The article, with illustrations, was reprinted on Mexconnect.com in its October 2003 edition, to mark the 50th anniversary of the original publication date.

John Russell Clift: Chapala Market

John Russell Clift: Chapala Market (1953)

John Russell Clift: Lake Chapala (1953)

John Russell Clift: Lake Chapala (1953)

  • The full text of “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-la“, with accompanying illustrations, reprinted on Mexconnect.com by kind permission of Ford Motor Company.

John Russell Clift, American author and illustrator, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1925 and at the peak of his career in the 1950s when he wrote this piece, one of the earliest to promote the attractions of the Chapala area as a retirement haven. His thoughtful prose and fine silkscreens paint a vivid picture of what life was like at Lakeside in the early 1950s.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy (1944-46), Clift studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and became an accomplished illustrator, painter, teacher, graphic artist, and successful commercial artist. Clift won his first fellowship at the Boston Museum School in 1952-53, which enabled him to spend six months painting in Chapala. He taught drawing and illustration at the institution for many years and was awarded a second fellowship in 1958-59.

John Russell Clift: Weaver's House in Jocotepec (1953)

John Russell Clift: Weaver’s House in Jocotepec (1953)

His commercial art career included spells working for Ford Motor Company, Alcan Aluminum Co. of Cleveland, the Lamp-Standard Oil Co. and the Bethlehem Steel Co. of Pennsylvania. In 1965, The Bridgeport Post lauded him as “an artist admired by the professionals for his technique in encaustic and by businessmen for his illustrations in business magazines.” (10 Oct 1965). Among Clift’s contributions to Ford Times, was “Riverside, Rhode Island”, a story illustrated by his paintings, in the July 1955 issue.

Clift held numerous exhibitions of his work in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1955-1965 period. His work was also exhibited at print shows throughout the U.S., including the Museum of Modern Art and the DeCordova & Dana Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He held a solo show in 1963 in the Mirski Gallery, Boston.

In 1967, Clift was a member of the three-person jury for The Boston Printmakers 19th Annual Print Exhibition, held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from 28 February to 2 April 1967. The exhibition featured more than 120 prints from the U.S. and Canada.

John Russell Clift passed away in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 16 July 1999.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 22 March 2012.

Exhibits/collections:

  • A screenprint entitled “Long Wharf” is in the collection of the US National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C..
  • A painting, oil on canvas, entitled “Couple in the Park” (1961) is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  • A color lithograph entitled “Market at Chapala” was sold at auction in 2007.

Sources/References:

  • John Russell Clift. 1953. “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-la”, Ford Times, Volume 45 # 10 (October 1953), 34-39.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Feb 152018
 

Newcomers to the village of Ajijic will not necessarily have heard of Zara Alexeyewa, (known popularly as “La Rusa” – “The Russian”), one of the village’s most distinguished long-term foreign residents, and one still remembered affectionately by the entire community, Mexican and non-Mexican. Everyone who knew her has their favorite anecdote about this iron-willed lady who would gallop her horse through the narrow streets, hooves clattering on the cobblestones, cloak billowing in the wind.

When La Nueva Posada opened in 1990, its dining room was named “La Rusa” in honor of Zara, who had passed away the previous year at the age of 92. Zara’s incomparable contribution to Ajijic life over more than sixty years was focused on the welfare of children and the conservation of Lake Chapala.

Zara Alexeyewa Khyva St. Albans (her formal name in Mexico) lived out a very full and dramatic life – from the moment she set foot on the stage on Broadway as a teenager, until her eventual death in Ajijic in 1989. Objectivity was not, however, always one of her strong points, and piecing together the truth behind the legend can be difficult. In her enthralling autobiographical book, Quilocho and the Dancing Stars, which certainly contains fiction alongside fact, Zara weaves some wonderful tales about her ballet career interspersed with an account of the life of a Mexican friend and supporter, Enrique Retolaza, who (according to the book) had been the youngest officer of Pancho Villa.

In reality, Zara was no more Russian than most native New Yorkers, having been born in that city in 1896. After making an early impression as an actress on the New York stage, twice being featured on the cover of the Dramatic Mirror, and playing lead roles in several Shakespearean productions (as Juliet, Portia, and Ophelia among others), she decided, in the wake of the Great War, to go to Europe. She had attended dancing classes from age six, and in Europe she began a new career as a ballerina. She performed her own ballet, “The Red Terror”, based on a poem by Leonid Andreyev, with a musical arrangement which had been worked on by her mother, organist Charlotte Welles.

"Khyva St. Albans". White Studios. 1915.

“Khyva St. Albans”. White Studios. 1915.

While in Europe, Zara met a young Danish dancer, Holger Mehmer, and the two remained inseparable dancing partners until his untimely death in Guadalajara in 1944. Zara and Holger gave numerous performances of “The Red Terror” around the world, playing to packed houses in Europe, South America, the U.S., and in Mexico.

In 1926-27, they were engaged by the Philadelphia Opera Company as directors of ballet, and presented an unusual Egyptian ballet, called AIDA. They also choreographed and performed “The Black Swan and the White Lilly”.

While contemporary newspaper accounts speak of “the two geniuses of Dance of the ex-Court of Russia”, “dancers of the imperial court of Nicolas II and of King Constantine of Greece”, and the like, it is probable that the nearest either dancer got to those places was Budapest in Hungary, where they gave one of their many standing-room-only performances.

They first performed in the Degollado Theatre in Guadalajara in January 1925, by which time they had decided to take a prolonged vacation at Lake Chapala, living initially at the Villa Reynera in Chapala. In about 1940, they moved to Ajijic.

Degollado Theater program, 1936.

Zara and Holger. Degollado Theater program, 1936.

Zara seems always to have had the knack of leaving indelible first impressions on people she met.

The American artist Everett Gee Jackson, who resided in Chapala for several years in the 1920s, in Burros and Paintbrushes, his entertaining account of his time in Mexico wrote that, when he and his friend Lowelito first arrived in Chapala, they “did not see any other Americans. The two Russians who lived in the house with the bats were the only other non-Mexicans in the village, as far as we knew.” These two “Russians” were, of course, Zara and Holger.

Not long afterwards, Jackson had a much closer encounter with Zara:

“I set up my easel… because the place was… mysterious and magical… with the lazy hogs asleep in the shadows. I was lost in what I was doing, but, suddenly, to my surprise, all the hogs began to shuffle to their feet and move off the road… grunting ferociously. Then I heard a sound like thunder behind me. But it was not thunder. It was that Russian woman riding at full gallop on a dark horse, and she was coming right at me. She knocked my easel over but missed me… She never slowed down but kept galloping at full speed down the road.”

Another of Ajijic’s marvelous characters, Iona Kupiec, who lived for decades in the village, also remembered her first meeting with Zara. Iona was staying in the Posada Ajijic in 1962, having only just arrived in the village. The next morning, she met Zara:

“While I was standing there entranced with the loveliness of everything, what should I see suddenly appearing in front of me from around a bend in the road but a beautiful woman wearing a big red velvet, gold-embroidered charro sombrero with a red, satin, high-necked Russian blouse with a gold dragon embroidered on it from the belt up to the collar, black culottes, with red leather boots, riding a black satin horse which reared up on its hind legs when she suddenly tightened the reins. I was stunned!”

Iona agreed to rent a cottage from Zara. In order to sign the contract, she followed Zara (still on her horse) “through more than a thousand square feet of garden, with glorious eucalyptus trees standing like stately monarchs, countless other fruit and flowering trees, and vast blooms from all kinds of bushes and shrubs – so much color and beauty, and even cool perfumed air!”

Zara’s house was full of mementos from her theater and ballet days, full length oils portraying her and her “brother”, Holger, in their dancing costumes, gilded-framed portraits from her New York theater appearances, photographs, figurines, books, “a veritable art museum in one, very large, elegantly furnished, parlor”.

Zara’s energies were undiminished as she approached her eighties and she insisted on reviving her ballet career for several performances, including a memorable farewell show in the Degollado Theater in Guadalajara.

She also continued to ride daily until well into her eighties, and was a popular and much-loved figure as, astride her horse, she rode through the streets of Ajijic. This remarkable woman, perhaps the only person ever to reach stardom as an actress under one name (Khyva St. Albans) and as a dancer under another (Ayenara Zara Alexeyewa) is one of the more extraordinary characters ever to have lived in Ajijic.

Note:

This is a lightly edited version of my first article about Zara, originally published in The Chapala Riviera Guide in 1990. It is not a coincidence that a photo of the Villa Reynera, where Zara first stayed in 1924, appears on the front cover of my Lake Chapala through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales.

Acknowledgment:

This article could never have been written (back in 1990) without the help of long-time Ajijic residents Laura Bateman and Iona Kupiec, both of whom have since passed on to a higher world.

Jan 012018
 

Several Lake Chapala websites boast that the talented and multifaceted American author Norman Kingsley Mailer (1923-2007) is among those writers who found inspiration at the lake. But is their pride in his visits to the area misplaced? Mailer’s biography has been exhaustively documented in dozens of books and there is no doubt he is a great writer. However, this post concentrates on the less savory side of his visits to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. Is he really someone local residents should be proud of?

According to normally reliable sources, Mailer visited the area more than once in the course of his illustrious career. Mailer’s first visit to Lake Chapala was in the late 1940s with his first wife, Beatrice Silverman. Journalist Pete Hamill referred to this visit in his “In Memoriam” piece about Mailer:

“Moulded by Brooklyn and Harvard and the Army (he served as an infantryman in the Philippines in World War 2), he erupted onto the literary scene in 1948 with “The Naked and the Dead”, the first great American novel about the war. For the first time, he had money to travel and hide from his fame. He went to Paris where he succumbed to the spell of Jean Malaquais, the critic and novelist. He went to Lake Chapala, where he did not succumb to the charms of the American expatriates.”

This is presumably the occasion referred to by Michael Hargraves when he wrote dismissively that Mailer “only passed through Ajijic back in the late 1940s to have lunch”.

While Mailer may not have fallen immediately in love with Lake Chapala and its American expatriates, he certainly grew to love Mexico and spent several summers in Mexico City during the 1950s. In July 1953, and now with painter Adele Morales (who became his second wife the following year) in tow, Mailer was renting a “crazy round little house” a short distance outside Mexico City, in the Turf Club (later the Mexico City College). Mailer described the house in a letter that month to close friend Francis Irby Gwaltney :

“At the moment we’re living at a place called the Turf Club which is a couple of miles out of the city limits of Mexico City in a pretty little canyon. We got a weird house. It’s got a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room shaped like a semicircle with half the wall of glass, and a balcony bedroom. It looks out over a beautiful view and is furnished in modern. This is for fifty-five bucks a month.”

In another letter (dated 24 July 1953) from the Turf Club, Mailer was clearly referring to Ajijic when he wrote that “There are towns (Vance was in one) where you can rent a pretty good house for $25 a month and under.” Mailer was referring to novelist Vance Bourjaily, a long-time friend who lived and wrote in Ajijic in 1951.

In October 1953, Mailer was guest speaker at the Mexico City College (then in its Colonia Roma location) at the fall session opening of its Writing Center, along with Broadway producer Lewis Allen. Bourjaily also gave lectures at the Mexico City College.

Norman Mailer book cover

Norman Mailer book cover

By a not-entirely-surprising coincidence, one of the owners of Turf Club property at that time was John Langley, a former concert violinist living on insurance payouts following a shooting accident that had cost him the index finger of his left hand. During the 1950s, Langley spent most of his time at his lakefront home in Ajijic. (The 1957 Life Magazine article about the village includes a photograph of Langley, at his Ajijic home, relaxing with Jeonora Bartlet, who later became the partner of American artist Richard Reagan). Langley and Mailer definitely knew each other and more than likely shared the odd joint.

Struggling to complete a worthy follow-up novel to The Naked and the Dead, Mailer found that smoking pot gave him a sense of liberation. Biographer Mary V. Dearborn quotes Mailer as writing that, “In Mexico… pot gave me a sense of something new about the time I was convinced I had seen it all”.

She then connects this to Mailer’s cravings for sexual experimentation:

“But it was also bringing out a destructive, event violent side to his nature. Friends have recalled some ugly scenes in Mexico and hinted at sexual adventures that pressed the limits of convention as well as sanity.”

In 1955, Mailer co-founded The Village Voice (the Greenwich Village newspaper in New York on which long-time Lake Chapala literary icon and newspaper editor Allyn Hunt later worked) and in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, Mailer and Adele were back in Mexico, living for some months in Ajijic.

In his obituary column, Hunt described how Mailer “discovered weed when he lived in Greenwich Village” and then “began using marijuana seriously”, before asserting that when Mailer and Adele “landed in Ajijic, their consumption of grass and their sexual games continued.” This is supported by Mack Reynolds, another journalist and author living in Ajijic at about that time. In The Expatriates, Reynolds, who eventually settled in San Miguel de Allende, recounts a more-than-somewhat disturbing story told him by the aforementioned John Langley:

“A prominent young American writer, who produced possibly the best novel to come out of the Second World War, had moved to Ajijic with his wife. His intention was stretching out the some $20,000 he had netted from his best seller for a period of as much as ten years, during which time he expected to produce the Great American Novel. However, he ran into a challenge which greatly intrigued him. Their maid was an extremely pretty mestizo girl whose parents were afraid of her working for gringos. They had heard stories of pretty girls who worked for Americans, especially Americans in the prime of life, and our writer was still in his thirties. Still, the family needed the money she earned and couldn’t resist the job. After the first week or two, the maid revealed to the author’s hedonistically inclined wife that each night when she returned home her parents examined her to discover whether or not she remained a virgin.

To this point the author hadn’t particularly noticed the girl, but now he was piqued. The problem was how to seduce her without discovery and having the authorities put on him by the watchful Mexican parents. He and his wife consulted with friends and over many a rum and coke at long last came up with a solution.

The girl, evidently a nubile, sensuous little thing, which probably accounted for her parents’ fear, was all too willing to participate in any shenanigans, especially after she’d been induced to smoke a cigarette or two well-laced with marijuana. The American author and his wife procured an electrical massage outfit of the type used by the obese to massage extra pounds off their bodies. They then stretched the girl out on a table, nude, and used the device on her until she was brought to orgasm over and over again.”

These brief descriptions of Mailer’s visits to Lake Chapala suggest that websites may like to rethink his inclusion on their list of the great writers inspired by the lake and its friendly communities. Mailer clearly pushed the bounds of friendship well beyond the reasonable. (Perhaps a Mailer biographer reading this can pinpoint precise dates for Mailer’s visits, and suggest some of his more positive contributions to the area?)

Mailer does have at least one additional connection to Ajijic via the Scottish Beat novelist Alexander Trocchi (1925-1984), who worked on his controversial novel Cain’s Book (1960) in Ajijic in the late 1950s. Shortly after its publication, and live on camera in New York, Trocchi shot himself up with heroin during a television debate on drug abuse. Already on bail (for having supplied heroin to a minor), and with a jail term seemingly inevitable, Trocchi was smuggled across the border into Canada by a group of friends (Norman Mailer included), where he took refuge in Montreal with poet Irving Layton.

Mailer’s novels include The Naked and the Dead (1948); Barbary Shore (1951); The Deer Park (1955); An American Dream (1965); Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967); The Executioner’s Song (1979); Of Women and Their Elegance (1980); Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984); Harlot’s Ghost (1991). He also wrote screenplays, short stories, poetry, letters (more than 40,000 in total), non-fiction works and several collections of essays, including The Prisoner of Sex (1971).

Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction with The Armies of the Night (1969) and a Pulitzer for Fiction with his novel The Executioner’s Song (1980).

Sources:

  • Anon. 1953. “Writers hear Mailer speak”, in Mexico City Collegian, Vol 7 #1, p1, 15 October 1953.
  • Mary V. Dearborn. 2001. Mailer: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Pete Hamill. 2007. In Memoriam: Mailer y Norman. (Published, translated into Spanish in Letras Libres, December 2007, pp 42-44.
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A literary survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • Allyn Hunt. 2007. “Norman Mailer, Contentious Author And Provocateur Who Died A Death He’d Have Scoffed At…”, Guadalajara Reporter 23 November 2007
  • J. Michael Lennon (editor) 2014. Selected Letters of Norman Mailer. Random House.
  • Mack Reynolds. 1963. The Expatriates. (Regency Books, 1963)

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Dec 142017
 

The American poet Witter Bynner, who first visited Chapala in the company of D.H. Lawrence in 1923, purchased a house in the town in 1940. The original address of the house, close to the plaza on the main street down to the pier, was 441 Galeana, but the current name of the street is Francisco I. Madero.

Bynner’s home had previously belonged to the famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902-1988). It had apparently belonged to the Barragán family since the end of the 19th century and had been remodeled – by Luis Barragán himself, with the assistance of Juan Palomar – in 1931-32. (We will consider Barragán’s connections to Lake Chapala in a future post).

The Bynner House, Chapala, 2016. Photo: Tony Burton.

The Witter Bynner House, Chapala, 2016. Photo: Tony Burton.

Bynner and his companion Robert “Bob” Hunt became regular visitors to Chapala for several decades. Their mutual friend, artist John Liggett Meigs, is quoted as saying that, “Bynner’s house was on the town’s plaza, a short distance from the lake. Hunt restored the home and, in 1943, added an extensive rooftop terrace, which had clear views of Lake Chapala and nearby mountains. It became Bynner and Hunt’s winter home.” (Mark S. Fuller, Never a Dull Moment: The Life of John Liggett Meigs, 2015). It is worth noting that, while the house was on the plaza when Bynner bought it, the center was remodeled (and the plaza moved) in the 1950s (see comment by Juan Palomar below) so that the house is now a short distance south of the plaza, though it is very close.

According to some sources, Bynner lent his home in Chapala to the then almost-unknown playwright Tennessee Williams in the summer of 1945. During his time at Lake Chapala, Williams wrote the first draft of A Street Car Named Desire.

At some point after Hunt’s death in 1964 and Bynner’s serious stroke in 1965, or upon Bynner’s death in 1968, the house in Chapala (and its contents) was purchased, jointly, by Meigs and another well-known artist Peter Hurd.

Meigs was particularly taken with the fact that the house had once been belonged to Barragán, whose architectural work had been an inspiration for his own architectural designs. Mark Fuller writes that,

“the house had two floors, the rooftop terrace that Hunt had added, and a “tower” overlooking Lake Chapala. The other buildings on the block included a “wonderful cantina“, which became a supermarket; another two-story house next door, with a high wall between that house and Bynner’s courtyard; and a two-story hotel on the corner. However, after John [Meigs] and Hurd bought Bynner’s house, they discovered that the owners of the hotel had sold the airspace over the hotel, and, one time, when John arrived, he discovered a twenty foot by forty foot “Presidente Brandy” [sic] advertisement sign on top of the hotel, blocking his view of the lake. John said that that was when he and Hurd decided to sell the place. While he had use of it, though, he very much enjoyed it.”

In 1968, Hurd rented the house out to another artist Everett Gee Jackson. By a strange coincidence, Jackson had rented D.H. Lawrence‘s former residence in Chapala way back in 1923, immediately after the great English author left the town!

For a time, the Barragán-Bynner-Hurt/Meigs house was temporarily converted into warehouse space for a local supermarket, but is now once again a private residence.

Sources:

  • Mark S. Fuller. 2015. Never a Dull Moment: The Life of John Liggett Meigs. Sunstone Press.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 202017
 

Internationally renowned sculptor Felipe Castañeda was born on the shores of Lake Chapala. He was born on 16 December 1933 in La Palma (in the municipality then called San Pedro Caro, now Venustiano Carranza) at the south-east corner of Lake Chapala, where pre-Columbian artifacts are common. Castañeda’s lifetime in art shows the influence of millennia of sculptural techniques and creativity.

Felipe Castañeda. Kneeling Woman. date unknown

Felipe Castañeda. 1982. Untitled (Kneeling Woman).

Castañeda moved to Mexico City as a young man. In 1958, he entered La Esmeralda Painting and Sculpture Academy of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City where he took classes in drawing, modeling, carving and constructive drawing. He quickly became especially proficient at carving and sculpting.

In 1962, after he married his wife Martha, Castañeda began working for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. He also became assistant to the Costa Rican-born Mexican artist Francisco Zúñiga (1912-1998), a world renowned sculptor and the single greatest influence on Castañeda’s artistic career.

By 1966, Castañeda was already molding incredibly detailed plaster and clay sculptures when he turned his hand to working in stone. He now works mainly in marble, onyx and bronze. Many of his sculptures depict the female form, whether wife, mother, lover or friend. Castaneda’s harem of perfectly proportioned women are simultaneously both mysterious and provocative.

Castañeda held his first one-man show in 1970 at the Sala de Arte (Gobierno del Estado de Nuevo León) in Monterrey, México.

Felipe Castañeda. Gracia. date unknown

Felipe Castañeda. 1986. “Gracia”.

His major solo exhibitions include Galería Mer-Kup, Mexico City (1977); Mexican Art International, La joya, California (1978); Princes Hotel, Acapulco, Guerrero (1988); Hotel Pierre Marqués, Acapulco, Guerrero, (1980); Art Expo, New York (1983, 1984, 1985); Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City (1988); 30 Años Galería de Arte Misrachi, Mexico City (1990); Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Morelia, Michoacán (1991); Club Britania, Morelia, Michoacán (1991); the B. Lewin Galleries, Palm Springs, California (1982, 1983, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1994); Le Kae Galleries, Scottsdale, Arizona (1995); Instituto Cultural Mexicano Israel-IbereoAmerica, Mexico (1996); Galeria Lourdes, Chumacero, Mexico (1997); Museo de la Isla de Cozumel, Mexico (1997); Mexican Cultural Institute, Los Angeles, California (1998); Whitney Gallery, Laguna Beach, California (1999); Alvarez Gallery, Laguna Beach, California (1999); “New Gallery Artist Exhibition,” Eleonore Austerer Gallery, San Francisco, California (1999); and the Anderson Art Gallery, Sunset Beach, California (2000).

Among Castañeda’s group exhibitions are numerous shows in Morelia (Michoacán), Zacatecas, San Salvador (El Salvador), San Francisco (California); and Palm Springs (California).

Castañeda, who has received awards for his work from UNICEF (1980), Israel (1996) and from the International Academy of Modern Art in Rome (1998), currently lives and works in Morelia, Michoacán. This 4-minute YouTube video (in Spanish) shows the artist at work in his studio:

Commissioned public sculptures by Castañeda can be seen in a number of Mexican cities, as well as in Palm Springs, California. Examples of his work are in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Art History in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, among many others.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Oct 052017
 

Author, playwright and lecturer Vance Bourjaily (1922-2010) lived in Ajijic during the summer of 1951. We know from Michael Hargraves that Bourjaily completed a play there, entitled The Quick Years that was performed off-Broadway two years later. But the most interesting of Bourjaily’s works from a Lake Chapala perspective is one that was never published. The Lions and the Tigers is a verse play about the Ajijic literary and artistic colony, written after he had left the area. This play, a copy of which is preserved in the library of Bourjaily’s alma mater – Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine – will be the subject of a future post.

Vance Nye Bourjaily was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 17 September 1922. Writing was in his blood: his father was a journalist and his mother wrote feature articles and romance novels. After high school Bourjaily attended Bowdoin College in Maine, but his studies were interrupted by the second world war. Bourjaily enlisted in 1942 and served as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Syria, Egypt and Italy (1942-1944) and then as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in Japan (1944-1946).

He completed his B.A. degree and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1947. He had already been commissioned to write a novel about a young man coping with the experiences of war. This first novel, The End of My Life (1947), established Bourjaily’s reputation as a fine writer. In his influential book, After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars, John Aldridge compared Bourjaily to Fitzgerald and Hemingway:

“No book since ‘This Side of Paradise’ has caught so well the flavor of youth in wartime, and no book since ‘A Farewell to Arms’ has contained so complete a record of the loss of that youth in war.”

Bourjaily’s later novels explored other great American themes, though none of them garnered the same degree of praise as his debut novel.

During the summer of 1951, Bourjaily stayed at “the now defunct Posada Navarro, run by Doña Feliz” in Ajijic (Hargraves). He also spent part of the summer in Mexico City. Bourjaily was a close friend of novelist and creative writing teacher Willard Marsh, who lived at Lake Chapala, on and off, for two decades.

Katie Goodridge Ingram, whose family lived in Ajijic at the time, remembers Bourjaily as an accomplished jazz musician who played his cornet alongside professional trumpet player Harry Cook. (The protagonist in his novel The Great Fake Book (1986) is an amateur jazz cornetist).

Vance Bourjaily in the 1960s. Credit: patricktreardon.com

Vance Bourjaily in the 1960s. Credit: patricktreardon.com

Immediately after Ajijic, Bourjaily and John W. Aldridge co-founded (and co-edited) Discovery, an anthology of “Outstanding Short Stories, Poems & Essays” published from 1952 to 1955. The first issue included a piece by Norman Mailer, as well as a story entitled “Confessions of an American Marijuana Smoker” by “U.S.D. Quincy” (Ulysses Snow Davids Quincy), a pen name adopted by Bourjaily after the name he had given the story’s protagonist. Bourjaily later wrote several stories under his own name about Quincy for The New Yorker, including “The Fractional Man: A Confession of U.S.D. Quincy” (August 1960) and “Quincy At Yale; A Confession” (October 1960).

An article by Allyn Hunt alerted me to the fact that the fourth issue (1954) of Discovery included “The only beast: an essay”, a story about Jocotepec by poet and translator Lysander Kemp, who had moved to that Lake Chapala town the previous year and lived there until the mid-1960s.

Front cover of Girl in the Abstract Bed

Front cover of Girl in the Abstract Bed

It was also in 1954 when a curious limited edition children’s book by Bourjaily entitled The Girl in the Abstract Bed (New York: Tiber Press) was published. Tobias Schneebaum (an artist-explorer who had been in Ajijic at the same time as Bourjaily) contributed the illustrations, which were real silkscreen prints of watercolors that were tipped in to the unbound book.The book’s title came from the name of an abstract painting that Schneebaum had done for Vance and his first wife, Tina, to beautify the headboard of their daughter Anna’s crib.

Bourjaily’s text is delightfully whimsical. The book opens as follows:

“There once was a girl
named Nicole Pennsylvania Snow
who, when she was ten months old,
slept in an abstract bed
designed and decorated for her by a famous artist.”

Double-page spread from Girl in the Abstract Bed

Double-page spread from Girl in the Abstract Bed

The book ends when “Reactionary Grandmother” (above, right) drags Nicole away from the Danish tableware, Mother Proust stories, and Lait au lait and into the sunshine, where “DADA” and “jane” learn that “our baby is primitive, after all.”

Bourjaily’s summer in Ajijic was not the only time he was in Mexico. He returned several years later to work on archaeological digs in Mexico City and Oaxaca with Ignacio Bernal and John Paddock. This experience became the backdrop for his novel Brill Among the Ruins (1970), which is about how Vietnam-era turmoil affects a middle-aged Midwestern lawyer.

When he lived in San Francisco, Bourjaily was a feature writer for The San Francisco Chronicle. When he moved to New York, he wrote stage reviews for The Village Voice.

He left New York in 1957 to become an instructor at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He was an associate professor at that institution 1960-1964, 1966-1967, 1971-1972. He was also on the faculty of the University of Arizona in Tucson, as a visiting professor, 1977-78, and then as a full professor, 1980-85. Bourjaily was also the founding director of the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Louisiana State University.

Bourjaily’s works of fiction, mostly published by Dial Press in New York, include: The End of My Life (1947); The Hound of the Earth (1955); The Violated (1958); Confessions of a Spent Youth (I960); The Man Who Knew Kennedy (1967); Now Playing at Canterbury (1976); A Game Men Play (1980); The Great Fake Book (1986) and Old Soldier (1990).

His non-fiction books include The Unnatural Enemy (1963) and Country Matters: Collected Reports from the Fields and Streams of Iowa and Other Places (1973).

Bourjaily’s first marriage, in 1947 to Bettina Yensen, with whom he had three children, ended in divorce. In 1985, he married Yasmin Mogul, a former student, with whom he had a son.

Bourjaily died in Greenbrae, California, on 31 August 2010 at the age of 87.

Acknowledgments

  • My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her memories of Vance Bourjaily.

Sources:

  • John W. Aldridge. 1951. After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars.
  • Vance Bourkaily. 1954. The Girl in the Abstract Bed. (New York: Tiber Press) Illustrations by Tobias Schneebaum.
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A literary survey; plus an historical overview with some personal observations and reflections of this lakeside area of Jalisco, Mexico. (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • Allyn Hunt. 2008. “Writers On The Lam In Mexico: For Many, Ken Kesey Came Late And A Bit Too Noisily, But For Totally U.” Guadalajara Reporter, 29 March 2008.
  • Tobias Schneebaum. 2000. Secret Places. My life in New York and New Guinea. University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Bruce Weber. 2010. “Vance Bourjaily, Novelist Exploring Postwar America, Dies at 87” New York Times, 3 September 2010.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Sep 212017
 

Jack Vance was a successful mystery, fantasy and science fiction author who wrote more than a dozen books and also wrote TV screenplays.

He and his wife Norma spent several months in Mexico traveling with Frank Herbert (author of Dune) and his wife Beverly and their two young sons in the second half of 1953.

Vance had met the then less successful Herbert a year earlier in California, and the two had become friends and writing companions, sometimes working on joint projects. They decided to visit Mexico in search of new experiences and stimulation. The Vance-Herbert friendship was the start of one of the greatest literary bromances related to Lake Chapala.

Many aspects of the families’ joint trip to Mexico in the Vances’ new blue Jeep station wagon are endearingly told by Herbert’s elder son, Brian, in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert.

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

Vance and his wife Norma bought a new blue Jeep station wagon for the trip and the families shared driving, expenses and domestic tasks. After stopping briefly at a roadside monument marking the Tropic of Cancer, Norma accidentally left her purse on the car as they drove away. By the time they made a quick U-turn to recover the purse, which contained Jack’s favorite fountain pen (Vance was accustomed to writing long-hand whereas Herbert used a typewriter), it had been run over by another vehicle and the pen squashed.

A few days later they reached Chapala and rented a large house in the village. Brian Herbert describes the lake and surrounding farmland before writing that,

“A fishing and artists’ colony, Chapala was much favored by tourists, especially Americans. The town, while small, boasted one of the world’s great beer gardens – a large tavern by the lake that had outdoor seating under a shady, striped canvas roof. On hot days, my parents and the Vances could be found there, cooling themselves in the shade. Sunsets on the lake were spectacular.”

The “two-story adobe and white stucco house, which had been converted to a duplex” rental property was on the hillside a block from the lake. Strict silence was enforced during the mid-morning to mid-afternoon “writing hours”, so that both men could concentrate on developing plots and characters.

While the writers did cooperate on some “joint ventures” while in Chapala, they each also wrote short stories, hoping to sell some to magazines north of the border and thereby extend their stay in Mexico.

According to San Francisco book and art dealer Tim Underwood who edited a work about Vance, the origins of his futuristic novel To Live Forever (1956) date back to 1953 at Lake Chapala:

“One night Frank and Jack tossed around an idea for a novel and afterward flipped a coin to see who would write it. Jack won the toss and the book became To Live Forever.” 

It should be noted that To Live Forever was Betty Ballantine’s choice for the title, not the author’s. Well received by critics, it was later renamed Clarges.

After two months in Chapala, with funds running low, the Vances and Herberts decided to move to the larger, lower-cost city of Ciudad Guzmán in southern Jalisco. After about a month in Ciudad Guzmán, with funds running low, the group returned to the U.S. and then shared the Vances’ farmhouse in Kenwood, California, for several weeks.

John Holbrook Vance was born in San Francisco on 28 August 1916 and died in Oakland on 26 May 2013. He wrote more than 60 books. In addition to work published under “Jack Vance”, he published 11 mystery stories as John Holbrook Vance and 3 as Ellery Queen as well as single titles using various different pen names, including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John van See and Jay Kavanse.

Vance, educated at the University of California Berkeley, held a variety of jobs prior to serving in the Merchant Marine and becoming an established writer.

Described by Carlo Rotella (in a 2009 profile for the New York Times Magazine) as “one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices”, Vance won numerous awards, including the Edgar Award (1960), the Hugo Award (1963, 1967), the Nebula Award (1966), the Jupiter Award (1975), the Achievement Award (1984), the Gilgam’s Award (1988), the World Fantasy Award (1990) and the Grand Master Award (1997).

Sources:

  • Brian Herbert. 2003. Dreamer of Dune: the biography of Frank Herbert. (New York: Tom Doherty Associates).
  • Erik Jorgensen. 2014. “‘The Spice’ Flows From Santa Rosa“, Oak Leaf (SRJC’s Student Newspaper), 8 December 2014.
  • Carlo Rotella. 2009. “The Genre Artist“, The New York Times Magazine, 15 July 2009.
  • Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds). 1980. Jack Vance. (Taplinger Publishing Company).
  • Jack Vance. 2009. This Is Me, Jack Vance! Or, More Properly, This Is “I” (Subterranean Press).
  • David B Williams. “Vance Museum – Miscellany – Biographical Sketch“.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

 

Sep 042017
 

Near the start of his writing career, an impecunious Frank Herbert, the genius behind the epic science fiction novel Dune, lived in the town of Chapala for several months. It was September 1953 and Herbert was 32 years old and struggling to make a living as a writer.

Herbert would not have been in Chapala at all had he not met fantasy writer Jack Vance for the first time a year earlier. The two men were about the same age, but Vance was already a successful writer known for his science fiction “pulps” and was making decent money writing scripts for Captain Video, a popular TV show. Herbert was a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, had not yet found much success as a writer, and was struggling to pay the family bills.

As the two men got to know each other they talked of joint writing projects and of the two families traveling together to Mexico in search of new experiences and stimulation for their work.

This joint trip to Mexico, endearingly told by Herbert’s elder son, Brian, in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, was the start of one of the greatest literary bromances related to Lake Chapala. Brian was only six years old at the time so much of what he writes is presumably based on notes written by his father and recollections shared by his mother, Beverly.

Vance and his wife Norma bought a new blue Jeep station wagon for the trip and the families shared driving, expenses and domestic tasks. After stopping briefly at a roadside monument marking the Tropic of Cancer, Norma accidentally left her purse on the car as they drove away. By the time they made a quick U-turn to recover the purse, which contained Jack’s favorite fountain pen (Vance was accustomed to writing long-hand whereas Herbert used a typewriter), it had been run over by another vehicle and the pen squashed.

A few days later they reached Chapala and rented a large house in the village. Brian Herbert describes the lake and surrounding farmland before writing that,

“A fishing and artists’ colony, Chapala was much favored by tourists, especially Americans. The town, while small, boasted one of the world’s great beer gardens – a large tavern by the lake that had outdoor seating under a shady, striped canvas roof. On hot days, my parents and the Vances could be found there, cooling themselves in the shade. Sunsets on the lake were spectacular.”

The “two-story adobe and white stucco house, which had been converted to a duplex” rental property was on the hillside a block from the lake. Strict silence was enforced during the mid-morning to mid-afternoon “writing hours”, so that both men could concentrate on developing plots and characters.

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance.

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance (used in Jorgensen 2014 by courtesy of Jack Vance estate)

While the writers did cooperate on some “joint ventures” while in Chapala, each of them also wrote short stories, hoping to sell some to magazines north of the border and thereby extend their stay in Mexico. Herbert was also working on a psychological thriller set in a submarine, serialized in Astounding magazine as “Under Pressure”, and later turned into the book The Dragon in the Sea (1956).

Herbert also completed a humorous short piece entitled “Life with Animalitos”, submitted to Reader’s Digest but never published.

After two months in Chapala, with funds running low, the Vances and Herberts decided to move to the larger, lower-cost city of Ciudad Guzmán in southern Jalisco. Shortly after arriving in the city, Herbert was invited to the home of a retired Mexican Army general. When sweet cookies were brought round, Herbert hungrily consumed two before discovering they were laced “with the most expensive North African hashish in the world” and experiencing hallucinations.

This was the initial experience that gave Herbert the idea for melange, the fictional spice found only on the planet Dune that was “the most important substance in the universe”. According to Herbert’s son, “Paul Atreides’s experiences with that drug [in the novel] mirror the author’s personal experiences.”

After about a month in Ciudad Guzmán, and almost out of funds, the group returned to the U.S. and then shared the Vances’ farmhouse in Kenwood, California, for several weeks.

Herbert eventually found his financial footing, in part by writing speeches for Republican senator Guy Cordon. In 1959 he began work on Dune (published as a hardback in 1965) which opened all kinds of literary doors and enabled him to achieve the success he had previously only dreamed about.

Dune, one of the most popular science fiction novels ever written, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965 and was the first major ecological science fiction novel. The movie version of Dune in 1984, screenplay by David Lynch, was shot entirely in Mexico: at Churubusco Studios, Mexico City;  Samalayuca sand dunes in Chihuahua; and at Puerto Peñasco  and the nearby El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar in Sonora.

Many elements from Dune – including warring noble houses, “aura” spice and “moisture farming” – are evident in the later Star Wars movies. Herbert was the first to recognize this and formed, with a number of like-minded colleagues a lighthearted club called the “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society”.

Herbert wrote more than twenty other novels, including The Green Brain (1966), The Santaroga Barrier (1968), Hellstrom’s Hive (1973), The Dosadi Experiment(1977) and The White Plague (1982).

Science fiction fans everywhere should be eternally grateful that Frank Herbert accompanied his friend Jack Vance to Chapala, and that he then ate those two cookies at the General’s house in Ciudad Guzmán.

Frank Patrick Herbert, Jr., was born on 8 October 1920 in Tacoma, Washington, and died on 11 February 1986 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

 

Aug 242017
 

Bet Lamoureux was a writer and artist with close links to Los Angeles and to Desert Hot Springs in California. A short news item in the Palm Springs-based Desert Sun newspaper in 1951 says that Lamoureux was flying to Mexico City and Guadalajara in order to spend several months in Ajijic, where “Once settled in her Mexican paradise, she will write the book for which she has been gathering bright and humorous material for the past four years.”

Audrey Bernice (sometimes “Bettina”, usually known as “Bet”) Martin (her maiden name) was born in Riverside, California on 14 May 1909. She married Howard Lamoureux; the couple’s only son, Albert Howard Lamoureux, was born in 1939.

In the early 1940s, Howard Lamoureux was among the first to purchase lots when the new town of Desert Hot Springs was founded. According to a later newspaper report, Lamoureux “had enough faith In Desert Hot Springs to purchase the first two lots.” By 1949, Bet and Howard Lamoureux were hosts at Miracle Isle in Desert Hot Springs, but tragedy struck in April of that year when Howard became critically ill and passed away shortly afterwards.

In November of 1949, Bet is mentioned as being the owner of the Village Store but the family’s run of bad luck continued and she decided to sell the store the following year in order to spend more time with her son Albert who had fallen ill. During Bet’s ownership of the Village Store, it occasionally held art exhibits, including one in November 1949 of paintings by Marie Ropp, a “Grande Dame of Art” in California and the West.

As a writer, Bet Lamoureux had contributed a “very clever and refreshing column” about Desert Hot Springs to The Palm Springs News “for over two years”, coining the phrase “the friendly village on the sunny slope” as the most appropriate epithet for her home town.

In February 1951, now working on a book, Bet flew from California to Mexico intending to spend several months in Ajijic. Things did not work out quite as planned. While she had originally planned to return to the U.S. in June, she remained in Mexico a little longer and married John Addington in Mexico City on 11 August 1951. Addington was an electrician in Desert Hot Springs. The couple apparently met at the Writing Center of the Mexico City College.

Over the next few years, Bet Addington as she was now known, featured prominently in numerous arts and crafts fairs in Desert hot Springs, turning her hand to flower arrangements and opening, with her husband, a restaurant-gallery named Addington’s. The gallery held weekly shows during the winter season and the restaurant gained an enviable reputation for fine food. Details are sketchy but it appears that Bet Addington visited Mexico again in the summer of 1953.

In 1956, Bet Addington was instrumental in founding an artists’ group known as The Sand Witches. According to a local newspaper, the group was founded after Addington remarked that, “We are famous for our water and our wind. Let’s get in and feature our desert sand!” The sand paintings by members of the group were exhibited in clubs and art galleries all over California, sometimes as fund raisers for local charities. The other members of the group, active until at least 1960, included Dorothy Chester, Kay Farnum, Enola Hulbert, Betty Lukomski, Sally Sweet, Karen Thompson, Ginna Walker, Lillian Woods, Helen Young and Rae Taylor.

Grave marker for Bet Lamoureux. Photo courtesy of CRob (findagrave.com)

Grave marker for Bet Lamoureux. Photo courtesy of CRob (findagrave.com)

Bet Addington died in Orange County, California, on 29 March 1989. Sadly, we may never know whether or not this pioneering writer and artist of Desert Hot Springs ever completed the book she was working on when she visited Ajijic in 1951.

Sources:

  • Desert Sentinel (Desert Hot Springs, California): 10 February 1949, p4; 1 April 1949; 8 April 1949; 17 November 1949, p6; December 8, 1949, p6; 30 November 1950, p5; 14 December 1950, p9; 22 February 1951, p2; 23 August 1951, p1; 26 February 1953: p4; 16 April 1953, p1; 28 May 1953: p2; 13 August 1953, p5; 21 October 1954, p6; 20 November 1958, p 15.
  • Desert Sun: Number 30, 23 February 1951 p 8; Number 78, 19 May 1955; Number 234, 4 May 1967.
  • Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach), 17 April 1960, p 87.
  • Mexico City Collegian, 14 Jan 1954 – vol7 #6.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Aug 212017
 

Orley Allen Pendergraft was born in Arizona on 12 May 1918. He worked as a school teacher for many years and was ordained as a minister prior to deciding to dedicate himself to art.

Even before he completed college, Pendergraft had made several visits to Mexico, usually to Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco) on the Sea of Cortés. He painted in Mexico for the first time in 1940 and spent part of 1951 in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. After 1959 he became a regular visitor to the town of Álamos in Sonora, establishing his permanent home there in the mid-1970s and living there for more than thirty years until his death on 22 November 2005.

His first one-person show was apparently in “the Guadalajara area”, but it is unclear whether this refers to a show in Tlaquepaque, for example, or to a location on Lake Chapala.

Pendergraft, “a native Arizonan of Cherokee and Anglo descent”, was born on his father’s dairy farm near Mesa and displayed artistic talent from a young age, winning an Arizona Republic art contest at the age of twelve. He also picked up street Spanish from the farm’s Mexican workers. He graduated from Phoenix Union High School and won an art scholarship to Carnegie Institute, but chose to remain in Arizona and, in 1938, entered the Arizona State Teachers College (now Northern Arizona University) at Flagstaff.

His mother insisted that he postpone his intended career as an art teacher and instead study for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, so Pendergraft next attended a seminary in Arkansas from which he graduated with a Doctor of Divinity degree. He was ordained as an Episcopal minister on 21 December 1943 by Bishop Block of California in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

By 1949, Pendergraft had been assigned to, and was teaching in, the diocese of New Jersey. In March of that year, he married a French nurse, Eleanor Madeleine Langpoop. This was also the year when he joined the Graphic Sketch Club in Philadelphia and decided to renew his art education by enrolling in the Fleisher Memorial Art School in Philadelphia. At some point in his career, Pendergraft also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia) and at the Art Students League in New York, where he had worked as a free-lance commercial artist for Young and Rubicam Advertising. Pendergraft had also spent a year in Europe, mainly in Paris and Spain.

By 1951, Pendergraft and his wife were living in Mount Hermon, California. The Santa Cruz Sentinel for 28 September 1951 reports that one of Pendergraft’s landscape paintings – Ajijic on Lake Chapala, Mexico – has taken the “coveted silver bowl” at the county fair for gaining first place in the watercolors landscape class, and that one of his oil paintings – a still life – had also won a first place award.

Allen Pendergraft. Ajijic. 1951

Allen Pendergraft. “La Esquina del Carrisal – Ajijic”. 1951. Credit: Figureworks.

This Ajijic painting (above) dates from that time and is currently listed for sale at Figureworks, a gallery in Brooklyn, New York.

From 1953-63, Pendergraft exhibited exclusively with the Artists Guild of America, Inc., both in Carmel and in their traveling exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Pendergraft was also invited to participate in an exhibit entitled “Sixty Living Americans”, held in New York and Miami. Pendergraft’s agent was art patron Joanne Goldwater. [By coincidence, Joanna Goldman used to reside at least part-time in Ajijic, and her father – former U.S. senator Barry Goldwater – exhibited photos of American southwest landscapes at the Centro Ajijic de Bellas Artes (CABA) in January 1998.]

Sadly, in 1959, Eleanor contracted an antibiotic-resistant form of tuberculosis and died shortly afterwards. The church granted Pendergraft early retirement and a pension, giving him the freedom to focus on his art. For many years, he divided his time between studios in Sedona, Arizona, and Álamos, Sonora.

According to the post “Allen Pendergraft” in the Álamos Interviews series published on the Álamos History Association website,

“Immediately after his wife’s death, though, and in a state of depression, he went to Mexico intent on drinking himself to death. Fortunately for him, the drinking only made his sick! He was out of money at a hotel in Southern Mexico, so the owner gave him a job tending the cash register at the hotel bar. While at work he met the playwright Tennessee Williams, who was looking for a location for a play he intended to write. Allen took Williams to Puerto Vallarta, then a small, sleepy fishing village, and Williams proceeded to write “The Night of the Iguana,” putting Allen in the play as the alcoholic priest. Allen was not pleased with the characterization!”

This wonderful story may have some truth to it. Williams completed the play, based on his 1948 short story of the same name, in 1961, and the famous movie version, starring Richard Burton, was released in 1964, so the time frame is about right. However, the Wikipedia entry about the play claims that, “The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon was partly based on Williams’ cousin and close friend, the Reverend Sidney Lanier, the iconoclastic Rector of St Clement’s Episcopal Church, New York.” It is of course perfectly possible that the character of the drunken defrocked priest is based on both men. [Note that Williams himself had spent the summer of 1945 in Chapala working on a play provisionally called The Poker Night,.]

Pendergraft’s religious training and art education came together in the mid-1950s. From 1956 to 1967, he worked, in association with his cousin Peter Carroll, on the liturgical arts commission in California, designing stained glass windows, murals and church furnishings in glass, mosaics and wrought iron for churches in many communities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Orinda, Sacramento, Portola Valley, Santa Clara, Pebble Beach, Carmel, Pasadena, Laguna Beach and San Diego.

In addition, Pendergraft was commissioned to paint the portraits of various senior ecclesiastical figures, including Bishop Banyard (whose portrait hangs in the cathedral in Trenton); Bishop Torres (whose portrait is in the cathedral of Ciudad Obregón, Mexico) and Bishop Block (San Francisco).

According to a newspaper piece in 1972, by which time he was becoming very well known as a painter of western landscapes, Pendergraft’s work was being exhibited “in La Posada and the Wesley Gallery in Sedona, Scottsdale’s Blue Flute and Saddleback Inn in Phoenix”.

Pendergraft was a member of the Artists Guild of America and his work won numerous awards in regional shows and fairs in California, as well as a first place in the New Jersey Summer Art Festival (Cape May). His oils and watercolors can be found in museums in New Jersey, Arizona and Massachusetts, and in private collections throughout the U.S.

Pendergraft wrote a family history entitled Pendergrass of Virginia and the Carolinas: 1669-1919, published in Sedona in 1977, and contributed the pen and ink drawings used to illustrate Ida Luisa Franklin’s Ghosts of Alamos, first published in 1973.

Pendergraft sold his Sedona house and moved full-time to Álamos in the mid-1970s. Most of Pendergraft’s paintings in Álamos were small enough to fit in a suitcase, and inexpensive enough ($25) to appeal to the tourists he met on the plaza. He did also paint some large canvasses, one of which is in the town’s Museo Costumbrista de Sonora.

When his failing eyesight brought an end to his painting career in the mid-1990s, Pendergraft was cared for by a local couple. After the husband’s death, and concerned about the financial future of his widow, Pendergraft married her not long before his own death in order that she could benefit from his social security, pensions and estate.

Sources:

  • Álamos History Association. Álamos Interviews: Allen Pendergraft. 21 June 2011.
  • Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona). 1939. “Valley Students Placed On Roll” in Arizona Republic, 10 January 1939, p 15; 14 June 1972, p 89.
  • Nancy Dustin Moure. Santa Cruz Art League Statewide Art Exhibition Index, First through Twenty-seventh, 1928-1957. (Publications in California Art, No. 12).
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, (California), 28 September 1951, p 5; 7 October 1951.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 5:53 am  Tagged with:
Aug 072017
 

Marcella Crump (ca 1926-2017) was a photographer born in Estonia who emigrated to the U.S. and was  active in Ajijic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her story is similar in some ways to that of Beverly Johnson who arrived slightly later.

Crump’s husband – Capt. David O. Crump, a B-47 pilot with the Air Force Strategic Air Command and stationed for a while at Lake Charles, Louisiana – was killed in January 1955 when two B-47s collided during refueling, leaving her to bring up their six young children. Marcella later took the family to Mexico and settled in Ajijic. In her limited spare time, she painted and, after a couple of years in Mexico, sent a selection of her completed works for exhibition in Lake Charles.

Crump initially rented Zara’s “beach house”, a small cottage positioned on the lakefront a couple of blocks west of the pier. This cottage had some very interesting renters over the years, including Lona Isoard, Mimi Fariña (the younger sister of singer Joan Baez), and Iona Kupiec, drama teacher and world traveler.

Gustel Foust. 2000. Painting of former Mallie Crump residence.

Gustel Foust. 2000. Painting of former Mallie Crump residence.

Later, the Crump family remodeled a home (see painting above by Gustel Foust) near the church with the assistance of architect Jack Bateman.

This photograph is of Raymond’s younger sister Hilda and other children, with the obligatory piñata, enjoying a posada, sponsored by the church, at the Escuela Marcos Castellanos (a Primary School for girls) in Ajijic.

Malle Crump. Hilda Crump striking piñata, ca 1960. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Hilda Crump striking piñata, ca 1960. {reproduced courtesy of Hilda and Raymond Crump)

Raymond Crump remembers many of the people who were living in Ajijic during his childhood and adolescence, including Curtis Foust (son of Gustel Foust), Alice Bateman (eldest daughter of Laura and Jack Bateman), John Bruce, Eugene Quesada, and Alice Sendis and her two children: Gustavo and Milagro.

Ajijic has quite a long tradition of holding an annual globo (balloon) competition in which contestants vie to make a balloon that flies the furthest. Watching the event in about 1962 (below) were (left to right): Laura Bateman, Neill James, unknown, Alicia Sendis and Hilda Crump.

Malle Crump. Watching globos. From l to r: Laura Bateman, Neill James, unknown, Alice Sendis, Hilda Crump. ca 1962 {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Watching globos. From l to r: Laura Bateman, Neill James, unknown, Alicia Sendis, Hilda Crump. ca 1962 {reproduced courtesy of Hilda and Raymond Crump)

The balloon made by the Bateman family dwarfed all others in this particular year, with the author-artist Jack Bateman proving his abilities in terms of design and construction.

Malle Crump. Bateman family's balloon dwarfs all others. ca 1962. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Bateman family’s balloon dwarfs all others. ca 1962. {reproduced courtesy of Hilda and Raymond Crump)

As one example of the many photographs that Marcella Crump took of the village of Ajijic, here is one of what was then Serna’s store, near the plaza, in the early 1960s.

Malle Crump. Serna's store, Ajijic. early 1960s. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Serna’s store, Ajijic. early 1960s. (reproduced courtesy of Hilda and Raymond Crump)

When some of Crump’s children returned to the U.S. to attend school in California, Marcella herself started taking courses at Costa Mesa Community College and became an archaeologist. She later worked for the Forestry Service and on digs in Costa Rica (in 1976) and Panama.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Raymond and Hilda Crump for graciously sharing information about their mother and the family’s life in Mexico.

Want to learn more? (Sources):

  • Lake Chapala Society Oral History Project: Marcella Crump.
  • The B-47 Stratojet Association. Webpage [29 July 2017].
  • Lake Charles American Press (Lake Charles, Louisiana). 1955. “Four Crewmen Still Missing after 2 Stratojets Collide”. Lake Charles American Press, 6 January 1955, p 1. [and succeeding days]

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 202017
 

Novelist Oakley Hall was a professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, and directed its creative writing program.

Hall and his wife Barbara Edinger Hall, a photographer, lived at Lake Chapala for about six months in 1952, during which time, according to Michael Hargraves in A literary Survey of Lake Chapala, Hall was working on his third novel, Corpus of Joe Bailey, published by Viking in New York the following year. Hall visited Mexico several times over the years and more than one of his novels is set in Mexico.

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

Oakley Maxwell Hall was born on 1 July 1920 in La Jolla (near San Diego), and died in Nevada City, California, on 12 May 2008.

After his parents divorced, Hall lived with his mother in Honolulu, Hawaii, but later returned to California to complete his high school education at San Diego’s Hoover High School. Hall then attended the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating from Berkeley in 1943, he served in the Marines during the second world war.

He married Barbara Edinger in 1944. The couple moved to New York so that Hall could study writing at Columbia University but Hall left as soon as he sold his first novel, Murder City, which he claimed to have written in only two weeks. They then spent 18 months in Europe where Hall studied in England, Switzerland, and at the University of Paris, aided by the G.I. Bill. In 1950 he earned a Masters degree in Fine Arts (creative writing) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Hargraves writes that Hall was at Lake Chapala for six months in 1952 and quotes him as saying that the British novelist Christopher Veiel was also living at Lake Chapala at that time. Little is known about Hall’s (or for that matter Veiel’s) time at Chapala beyond these scant details.

Hall’s distinguished teaching career included a spell at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop before he joined the University of California, Irvine, in 1968. In 1969 he co-founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a summer program linking published and unpublished writers. Hall and his wife divided their time each year between San Francisco and Squaw Valley.

Hall retired from UC Irvine in 1990. Through his teaching, Hall had a profound influence on California literature. His students included Michael Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan. Amy Tan, in particular, credits Hall with having given her the necessary support to become a well-known writer: “Oakley was the reason that I found my confidence as a writer… the Halls are a remarkable family. They are deep-hearted and stalwart, generous and kind and giving.”

Oakley Hall’s two best-known works are Warlock (1958) and The Downhill Racers (1963). Warlock, a western tale set in the fictional 19th century town of Warlock, was a finalist for the 1958 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for a film of the same name, released in 1959. The Downhill Racers was the basis for the movie Downhill Racer (1969) starring Robert Redford.

Hall received numerous awards including lifetime achievement awards from the PEN Center USA and the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

California poet Al Young (who lived in Ajijic for several years in the 1960s and whose novel Who is Angelina? includes several scenes set at Lake Chapala) was a friend of Oakley Hall for more than thirty years. Following Hall’s death, Young was quoted as saying that, “Oakley Hall was a master storyteller who loved the West…. His novels and stories reflect the landscapes that he inhabited most of his life: the Pacific islands of his youth, the foothills and ski slopes of the Sierra and the streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco.”

Early in his career, Hall wrote several mystery novels using the pen name Jason Manor: Too Dead to Run (1953); The Red Jaguar (1954); The Pawns of Fear (1955); The Tramplers (1956).

Hall’s nonfiction books included The Art and Craft of Novel Writing (1994); Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West (with Jack Schaefer, 1987); and How Fiction Works (2000). He also had short stories published in numerous magazines, including Playboy, Tri-Quarterly, The Hawaii Review, and The Antioch Review.

Hall’s major works of fiction included Murder City (1949); So Many Doors (1950); Corpus of Joe Bailey (1953); Mardios Beach (1955); Warlock (1958); The Downhill Racers (1963); The Pleasure Garden (1966); A Game for Eagles (1970); Report from Beau Harbor (1971); The Adelita (1975); The Bad Lands (1978); The Children of the Sun (1983); The Coming of the Kid (1985); Apaches (1986); Separations (1997), about the discovery of the Colorado River; Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998); Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings (2001); Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks (2003); Ambrose Bierce and the Trey of Pearls (2004); Ambrose Bierce and the Ace of Shoots (2005); and Love and War in California (2007).

Several of these books have links to Mexico. These include his Ambrose Bierce series of mysteries which had the legendary San Francisco newsman and satirist Ambrose Bierce as main protagonist. Bierce (author of The Devil’s Dictionary) had significant ties to Mexico. In December 1913, when he was in his seventies, Bierce disappeared in Mexico in mysterious circumstances. After allegedly joining Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, he was never seen again.

In his review of The Adelita (1975), blogger Steven Zoraster writes that:

“The narrator in this novel is Michael MacBean Palacio, son of an American father and a Mexican mother… a child of privilege, graduate of Andover, graduate of Harvard, and leader of a band of guerrilla cavalry during the war to overthrow the Mexican dictator Huerta. He is also the lover of Adelita, the woman of the title, the living symbol of the revolution, whose name is also that of the Mexican soldier’s wife in a famous and very real ballad of the Mexican Revolution.”
. . .
“Oakley Hall is unparalleled in the portrayal of the American frontier, where the law is distance and tenuous. Here it is up to the protagonists to establish their own law. To establish it with great difficulty and often with bloodshed, and always with uncertainty about the cost that must be paid. In “The Adelita” the necessity of establishing the rule of law is extended to an entire country, Mexico, a country Mr. Hall seems to have understood very well.”
. . .
“In 1968, witnessed by MacBean, the Mexican government, in which his son has an important role, orders the pre-Olympic massacre of protesting students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. And thus MacBean is drawn back into the unfinished struggle for some sort of justice or righteousness or legality in Mexico.”

In Children of the Sun, Hall spins a story based on “The famous journey of Cabeza de Vaca through northern Mexico (1535-36), and its treasure-seeking aftermath–in an intelligently fictionalized version that turns the story into a morality play involving greed, religion, racism, and ambition.” (Kirkus Review). [That story is part of chapter 11 of my Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique]

After these two books on Mexico – The Adelita and Children of the Sun – Hall had begun a third book, provisionally entitled Independencial, an historical novel set during Mexico’s 1810-1821 War of Independence. In an interview late in life Hall recalled that his publishers had not displayed any enthusiasm for further books relating to Mexico since, “Books about Mexico don’t make enough money.”

Sadly, some things clearly haven’t changed!

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 172017
 

Painter, sculptor and print-maker James Steg, who was Professor of Art at Newcomb College, Tulane University, in New Orleans for more than forty years, worked in Ajijic during the summer of 1958.

James Louis Steg (“Jim”) was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1922 and died in New Orleans in 2001. He gained his M.A. degree in Fine Arts degree from the State University of Iowa. He served in the U.S. Army during the second world war and was in a camouflage unit during the D-Day landings.

James Steg. The Picninc Scene. Etching and aquatint. Undated.

James Steg. “The Picnic Scene”. Etching and aquatint. Undated.

James Steg was art professor at Newcomb College for 43 years. Among his students in an etching class was Frances Swigart, who later became his wife.

Throughout his career, Steg was constantly exploring new printmaking techniques and he developed many innovative methods such as altering Xeerox prints with paint and chemicals. According to Doug MacCash, art critic for The Times-Picayune, age did nothing to diminish Steg’s boundless creativity or artistic output.

Steg spent the summer of 1958 in Ajijic, as evidenced by this brief entry in The Times-Picayune drawing readers’ attention to the opening of his latest art show in New Orleans:

“James Steg recently sold an etching “Bird of Prey” to the New York Public Library collection. This is the 23rd public institution to have purchased one of the artist’s works. Steg is back at the Newcomb art school after a summer stay in Ajijic.”

By lucky coincidence, one of his rare works from this time came up for auction in 2015. The etching, a studio print from the estate of artist and educator George C. Wolfe of New Orleans, is titled “The Goat Herder (Mexico)”.

James Steg. "The Goat Herder (Mexico)". Etching. 1958.

James Steg. “The Goat Herder (Mexico)”. Etching. 1958.

In addition to participating in dozens of group shows, Steg held many solo exhibitions. In New Orleans, these included shows at the IH Gallery at International House, the H. Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University, World’s Fair Expo ’84, and at Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts Gallery. He also had one-person shows in New York (the Weyhe Gallery; Associated American Artists), Philadelphia (Philadelphia Art Alliance), Dalls (Dallas Museum of Art; Cushing Gallery), Columbus (Ohio State University), Coral Gables (University of South Florida) and Oxford (University of Mississippi). His only recorded international solo show was at the USIA Exhibition in Ankara, Turkey.

James Steg. The work of five men. Etching. Undated.

James Steg. “The work of five men”. Etching. Undated.

A retrospective exhibition of his work, entitled “Thirty Years of J. L. Steg: 1948-78”, was held at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1978.

Among the many awards he received for his art were the Charles Lea Prize from Philadelphia Print Club, and an award from Lugano, Switzerland. Steg was named a Printmaker Emeritus by the Southern Graphic Arts Council.Steg’s works can be found in the permanent collections of numerous venerable institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the New Orleans Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum in New York, Dallas Museum of Art. Minnesota Museum of American Art and the Seattle Museum, as well as in 30 university collections and many private collections in the New Orleans area. Overseas, pieces by Steg are in the Museum of Modem Art in Sao Paulo, Brazil and in the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 222017
 

George Abend (1922-1976), a jazz musician and prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area abstract expressionism movement, studied in Guadalajara in the mid-1950s, at which time he was a frequent visitor to Ajijic.

Born in New York City in 1922, Abend studied at the University of California, Berkeley (1946-47); the 1948–1950 California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco (1948-50); and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, France (1951-52), before moving to Mexico to study at the University of Guadalajara (1953-54).

George Abend. Untitled (1950).

George Abend. Untitled (1950).

A decade later, he taught art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Cedar Educational Center in Pittsburgh (1962-66) before moving to California and becoming a visiting artist at California State College (Los Angeles) and a film consultant at the University of Southern California from 1966 to 1969.

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

Abend was a close friend of Don Martin, a painter who established his studio in Ajijic in 1954, and of the Beat poet and photographer Anne McKeever who also had links to Ajijic. Don’s widow Joan Martin kindly drew my attention to the photograph (above) used for the cover of the second (Summer 1956) number of Climax, a small-circulation Beat magazine from that time, published by Bob Cass in New Orleans and printed in Guadalajara. The photo, taken by Anne McKeever, shows Abend playing the piano in Don Martin‘s studio in Ajijic, with Don’s then girlfriend, Lori Fair, on drums. Abend, an accomplished musician, also played drums, percussion and the clarinet.

Abend’s striking abstract works earned him the honor of having numerous solo shows, including Howard Gallery, San Francisco (1949); Metart Galleries (1950); Lucien Labaudt Gallery (1950, 1952); Galerie de France, Paris (1951); Olivetti Art Gallery, Guadalajara (1954); Batman Gallery, San Francisco (1961); Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania (1963); Howard Wise Gallery, New York (annually from 1963 to 1966); New York Six Gallery (1964); Hewlett Gallery, Pittsburgh (1965); Coast Gallery, Big Sur (1970); Fulton Gallery, New York (1973); and the University of California (1976).

George Abend, 1948. Photo by Harry Bowden.

George Abend, 1948. Photo by Harry Bowden.

His work was also chosen for inclusion in many group shows, including the Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association (later the San Francisco Art Institute) at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1949, 1950, 1960, 1961); Third Annual Exhibition of Painting, California Palace of The Legion of Honor (1949); and the Winter Invitational, California Palace of The Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1960).

Among the institutions in California holding works by George Abend in their permanent collections are The Oakland Museum and the Monterey Museum of Art.

Abend died in Santa Cruz, California in 1976.

Sources:

  • Thomas Albright. 1985. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945 to 1980, Univ. California Press.
  • Susan Landauer. 1996. The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionists, Univ. California Press.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Apr 202017
 

Anne McKeever (1928-2002) was an artist, model, photographer and Beat poet who spent some time in Ajijic during the 1950s and was a close friend of the painter Don Martin and folksinger Lori Fair. Another of McKeever’s closest friends was Jeanora Bartlet, who lived in Ajijic in 1956-7 and later became the partner of American pop artist Rick Reagan. Many years later, McKeever and her husband, a former bullfighter, started an English-language school in Tapachula, Chiapas, and invited Bartlet to teach there.

Anne McKeever modeling Embassy Shoes. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

Anne McKeever modeling Embassy Shoes. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

McKeever was born in Middletown, Ohio, on 4 September 1928 and was interested in all manner of artistic activities from an early age. She was a bright student and took extracurricular classes in classical ballet, acting, painting and photography, before attending Teacher’s College in Greeley, Colorado.

In her youth she had been a member of a Chicago dance troupe, “The June Taylor Dancers”, and had done some modeling for advertisements. From Colorado, she went to New Zealand, where she studied in Auckland College and modeled for Christian Dior, Embassy Shoes and other firms. The photographer Clifton Firth (1904-1980) shot many of these campaigns. Sixty years later, ten images of McKeever, all taken by Firth in the 1940s, were included in a major 2003-2004 exhibit in Auckland, entitled “A Certain Style: Glimpses of Fashion in New Zealand”.

Anne McKeever modeling pyjamas. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

Anne McKeever modeling pyjamas. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

McKeever returned to the U.S. in 1950 to complete her university studies. She became associate professor in the history department at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, and also taught at Newberg High School. After she graduated from Linfield College in 1951, she moved to New Orleans, where she worked as a teacher and in the photographic labs of Greer Studios.

It was in New Orleans that McKeever first met artist Don Martin, artist and folk singer Lori Fair, and artist and jazz musician George Abend. They would meet up again a few years later in Ajijic. Joan Gilbert Martin alerted me to the photograph (below) used for the cover of the second (Summer 1956) issue of Climax, a Beat magazine published by Bob Cass in New Orleans and printed in Guadalajara. The photo, taken by Anne McKeever, shows Don Martin’s studio in Ajijic in 1955/56 with one of his paintings hanging on the far wall. Lori Fair is sitting by the drums and George Abend is at the piano. This image neatly conveys the close friendship of these artistically-talented individuals before their paths, and lives, diverged.

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

McKeever had left New Orleans for Mexico in 1953 at the invitation of the Instituto Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales to give English classes in Guadalajara, where she taught at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco until January 1955. Newspaper articles describe her jovial personality and list her hobbies at this time as painting (watercolors and pastels) and photography.

Early in 1954, Don Martin and Lori Fair also left New Orleans, to live together in Ajijic. Martin had several very productive months and his first solo show in Mexico opened at the Casa del Art in Guadalajara on 2 August 1954. Both McKeever and Lori Fair attended the gala opening, as did Archie Mayo, the Hollywood movie director; Nicole Vaia Langley, daughter of violinist John Langley; Peter and Elaine Huntington of Ajijic; artists Jose Maria Servin, César Zazueta and Thomas Coffeen Suhl; and Nayarit-born painter Melquiades Sanchez Orozco, who later became a legendary scocer commentator.

In January 1955, Anne McKeever left Guadalajara to oversee English teaching in the smaller neighboring state of Nayarit, as Director of the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Nayarit. She spent six months there, during which time she arranged two art shows featuring the works of Don Martin. The opening night for the first show, at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano in Tepic, in April, included a concert of folksongs sung by Lori Fair. The second show, in May in Santiago Ixcuintla and billed as the “Third Painting Exhibition, Mexican and International Artists”, included a painting by Anne McKeever entitled “The Women”.

Ad for New Orleans show, 1956

Ad for New Orleans show, 1956

McKeever returned to Guadalajara in the summer of 1955. In September, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco presented an exhibition of her photographs, described in the local newspaper, El Informador, as a “magnificent collection”. The reviewer praised McKeever an an “American who loves Mexico and its customs” and a “very original photographer”. The photos, taken in Guadalajara and Tepic with a simple camera in natural light, included portraits of people engaged in everyday activities: rotalistas (sign painters), street sellers, children and bricklayers.

A similar exhibition, entitled “Ojos sobre Mexico” (“Eyes on Mexico”) was held in New Orleans the following year at the Climax Jazz, Art and Pleasure Society. A portrait of McKeever on the flyer for her “Eyes on Mexico” series shows her wearing bullfighters’ watches while cradling her camera.

This chronology of McKeever’s life throws some doubt on the very precise time frame claimed by Penelope Rosemont in Surrealist Women: an international anthology that, “A fascinating surrealist-orientated group – including Carol St. Julian (aka Beavy LeNora, the Nevermore Girl) and photographer Anne McKeever – burst onto the scene in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1955.” Though McKeever retained links to the city, and had poems and photographs published there until 1960, she had left the New Orleans scene two years prior to 1955. Perhaps Rosemont is equating McKeever’s presence in New Orleans with the start of the journal Semina, which ran from 1955 to 1964?

Anne McKeever. 1955. "Terminal de Autobusses" - Guadalajara.

Anne McKeever. 1955. “Terminal de Autobusses” – Guadalajara.

After Guadalajara, McKeever moved to Mexico City where she taught English and renewed her friendships with Lori Fair (now married and calling herself Bhavani Escalante), Jeanora Bartlet and Rick Reagan. McKeever was an integral part of the then-vibrant Beat scene in Mexico City which included surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. McKeever and Lamantia were visited in Mexico City in 1959 by jazz poet ruth weiss, near the end of her lengthy trip through Mexico:

“In 1959, ruth returned from traveling the length of Mexico with her first husband, having completed her journal COMPASS, which includes an excerpt of her memorable meeting with two close San Francisco friends in Mexico City -poet and photographer Anne McKeever and poet Philip Lamantia. After talking all night in a café, they decided to climb the Pyramid of the Sun in the Mayan ruins outside Mexico City and catch the sunrise. Neither guides nor other tourists were there in the predawn chill. The climb to the top of the pyramid was easy, but ruth, paralyzed by fear of heights, had to be carried all the way down.” (Brenda Knight, 2009).

In that same year, 1959, weiss included several short poems about “Ana” (McKeever) in her Gallery of Women, a book comprised of poem-portraits of more than a dozen women poets whom she most admired and respected. Other poets whose portraits were painted in verse by ruth weiss included Aya Tarlow and Laura Ulewicz, the partner of Jack Gilbert.

Weiss also refers briefly to McKeever in her poem “Post-Card 1995”, writing “ANNE McKEEVER vanished in Mexico” and later, “ANNE McKEEVER your poems, your voice, your toreador’s baby where are they”. (This poem also describes Ernest Alexander, another artist closely associated with Ajijic.)

McKeever’s own work featured in the 5th issue of the Beat magazine Semina, published in 1959. Her photographic collage, “Musicians”, appeared in the same issue as an extract from “Compass” by ruth weiss, and a poem and translation by Philip Lamantia.

Anne McKeever. 1955. "Parting the Plaza". Eyes on Mexico series.

Anne McKeever. 1955. “Parting the Plaza”. Eyes on Mexico series. Guadalajara.

McKeever’s interest in photography continued unabated in Mexico City and led her to document bullfighters and the many activities occurring near the bull ring. She lived with bullfighters, took their photos, and even fought a young bull herself. This is how she first met matador Humberto Javier, the love of her life, the start of an entirely new chapter. Anne had an infant son (Felipe) and, after the couple married, they left Mexico City by train in 1960 to start a new life as a family in Tapachula, Chiapas. Their daughter Ana Andrea was born a couple of years later.

The newly married couple started an English-language school in Tapachula which is still in operation today. The Instituto Cultural de Inglés Javier McKeever was the first English language school in Chiapas and is now run by McKeever’s grandsons: Oliver and Lester Trujillo Javier, who have English teaching degrees. McKeever taught English there for more than forty years, becoming known locally as “Teacher McKeever”.

In about 1970, McKeever invited Jeanora Bartlet, then living in California, to teach at the school. Bartlet moved to Chiapas and lived there with her partner Rick Reagan for more than a decade, teaching English part-time. Reagan’s artwork was regularly displayed in the school.

McKeever’s daughter, Ana Andrea Javier McKeever, trained as a teacher of classical ballet before starting a school in 1979 for classical ballet, jazz and tap. It is now called the Royal Ballet Center, and is run by Ana Andrea’s own daughter, Andrea Trujillo Javier. The family has also opened a language center for Spanish courses: The Anne McKeever Language Center.

Anne McKeever, “Teacher McKeever”, died in Tapachula, Chiapas, on 14 July 2002, but the family’s numerous contributions to enriching the cultural life of Tapachula will live on for many years to come.

Acknowledgments

  • My sincere thanks to Jeanora Bartlet, Joan Gilbert Martin and Ana Andrea Javier McKeever for their help in piecing together this profile of a truly remarkable and inspirational woman.

Sources and references:

  • Climax magazine, #2, Summer 1956
  • Miguel Angel González. 2017. “En Memoria: Anne McKeever de Javier (1928-2002)” in Revista Morada Chiapas, March 2017.
  • Informador (Guadalajara) 5 Feb 1955; 15 Sep 1955; 12 Dec 1955; 5 Jan 1956.
  • Brenda Knight. 2009. “Return of the prodigal poet – ruth weiss in San Francisco Poetry Festival July 24“.
  • Anne McKeever. 1959. Photographic Collage (musicians) – in Issue 5 of Semina (1959)
  • Prensa Libre (Tepic), 24 April 1855:
  • Penelope Rosemont, 2000. Surrealist Women: an international anthology.
  • ruth weiss. 1959. Gallery of Women.
  • ruth weiss. 2011. can’t stop the beat: the life and words of a Beat poet. This includes “Compass” and “Post-Card 1995”.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Mar 302017
 

One of my more maddening failures in trying to piece together the history of the artistic and literary community at Lake Chapala has been my inability to corroborate the existence of the “Peter Arnold Art Studios” in Ajijic in the early 1950s.

The term appears in the obituary of author and serial adventurer Peter Elstob in The Independent (a now-defunct UK newspaper), written by his grandson, Ben West, but I have so far failed to find the exact same phrase used anywhere else. The Guardian obituary for Elstob refers to “Peter Arnold Studios”, omitting any mention of art. As we will see later, this may make more sense, though that writer’s claim that Peter Arnold began in 1951 is definitely false. Alex Bateman, in her valuable contribution to Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (2011), also refers to “Peter Arnold Studios”.

“Peter Arnold” was not a real person, but a business name used in Ajijic by Peter Elstob and his associate, Arnold “Bushy” Eiloart. In their various joint ventures, which lasted well into the 1970s, these two long-time friends got up to all manner of creative enterprises. This particular joint venture promoted Ajijic as an artistic vacation and retirement destination. Participants were housed in the Posada Ajijic and other rental properties as needed.

Elstob lived in Ajijic from late 1949 to April 1952. Eiloart lived there from either late 1948, or early 1949 until April 1952. Both men (with Elstob accompanied by his future wife – artist Barbara Zacheisz – and their infant son) returned together to the U.K. from New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that this marked the end of their involvement in the “Peter Arnold” enterprise in Ajijic.

Peter Elstob did not return to Ajijic for more than a decade. Eiloart may also have returned; he is recorded as traveling from New York to the U.K. in March 1955, though it is unclear whether or not he had revisited Mexico.

Even after their departure from Mexico in 1952, the business name “Peter Arnold” continued to appear in adverts promoting Ajijic. Either Elstob and/or Eiloart continued to be partners in the enterprise, without taking any active role, or they passed the business on. The most likely recipient would be Bob Thayer, who took over as manager of Posada Ajijic, the small hotel where “Peter Arnold” had been based, at about the time they left.

The earliest “Peter Arnold” ads appeared in 1949; I have also seen ads from publications in 1950, 1954 and 1956. I have yet to find any ads for “Peter Arnold” in non-U.S. publications.

The earliest ads (1949-1950), claim it is more than possible to live in Ajijic on $80 a month. For example, the Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona (16 August 1950) reprints an ad from the New Yorker magazine:

“Mexico $80 a month per person includes food, liquor, cigarets, your own three bedroom furnished house and patio, maid, and 17 foot sloop on magnificent Lake Chapala. English American artist colony in fishing village. Winter temp. 75, summer 85. Write Peter Arnold, Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico.”

These adverts certainly attracted attention. Among those who saw this ad and decided to try his luck in Mexico was Jack Bateman who moved from New York to Ajijic with his wife Laura Woodruff Bateman and their three young children in 1952. The couple quickly became pillars of the local community, making exemplary contributions to the local social, cultural and artistic scene. Laura Bateman ran one of the village’s premier art galleries for many years in the late 1960s.

"Hacienda Garden". This real photo postcard, with logo "Peter Arnold", shows the gardens of Posada Ajijic and was mailed in 1951.

“Hacienda Garden”. This real photo postcard, with “Peter Arnold” logo, shows the Posada Ajijic gardens and was mailed in 1951.

No similar adverts by “Peter Arnold” appear in 1952 or 1953. When they reappear in 1954, the costs of retiring to Mexico have been revised upwards: the quoted monthly figure has risen to $90 a month. Very similar ads, also quoting $90 a month, appear in 1956. For example, the one placed in Elk Magazine (July 1956) reads as follows:

RETIRE ON $90 A MONTH or less in a resort area, 365 days of sun a year, dry temp. 65-85°. Or maintain lux. villa, servants, ALL expenses $l50-250 a mo. Am.-Eng. colony on lake 60 mi. long. 50 min. to city of 1/2 million, medical center. Schools, arts, sports. Few hours by air. Train, bus, PAVED roads all the way. Full-time servants, maids, cooks, $6 to $l5 a mo., filet mignon 35¢ lb., coffee 40¢, gas 15¢ gal. Gin, rum, brandy 65¢-85¢ fifth, whiskey $1.50 qt. Houses $lO mo. up. No fog, smog, confusion, jitters. Serene living among world’s most considerate people. For EXACTLY how Americans are living on $50—$90—$150—$250 a mo., Airmail $2.00 for 110 Pages current info., prices, roads, hotels, hunting, fishing and living conditions from Am. viewpoint (Personal check OK) to Peter Arnold, Box 12, Ajijic, Lake Chapala, Jal., Mexico.

The ads appeared in a wide range of national and local newspapers. Several distinct P.O. Box numbers appear in these adverts. By using different boxes for responses from different newspapers or groups of papers, the advertiser could gauge the success of different media.

An almost-identical version of this ad appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and was used as an example of good copywriting in John Caples’ Making Ads Pay: Timeless Tips for Successful Copywriting, first published in 1957. Caples wrote, “I read the copy and found that it packed more sales punch into a small space than any ad I had read in a very long time.”

Anyone responding to these adverts was sent an information booklet giving more details about Ajijic and the costs of living there.

Interestingly, none of the adverts mentioning “Peter Arnold” (even in its earliest iteration in 1949) mention art workshops. The ads claim only that it is possible to live or vacation inexpensively in this Mexican village which has an art colony. The lack of any specific reference to art workshops suggests that this enterprise was a purely hotel management or real estate venture. The term “Peter Arnold Art Studios” used in Peter Elstob’s obituary in his native U.K. was perhaps a vanity expression, putting a bohemian spin on what seems to have been a straightforward capitalist enterprise embedded in tourism, not art.

Despite its lack of any clear link to art workshops, this advertising campaign is worthy of further study. It is the earliest prolonged campaign I have found so far that aimed to persuade readers in the U.S. (and indeed elsewhere) that Ajijic was an attractive and inexpensive place to live.

In succeeding years, many similar claims have been made. It was not to be many more years before the publication of the first book actively promoting Ajijic as the ideal place in which to live cheaply “in paradise”.

How did Arnold Eiloart and Peter Elstob first hear about Ajijic?

This is the big, as-yet-unanswered question. Perhaps Eiloart and Elstob first heard about Ajijic, and the attractions of living there, from the London theater circles in which they moved? In 1946, the two men teamed up with actor Alec Clunes to raise £20,000 for the lease on the Arts Theatre in London. After buying the lease there was only enough money for one production: Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. Fortunately, this was a financial success, and enabled them to finance several other plays, including the first production of The Lady’s Not For Burning by Christopher Fry.

The London theater and writing set at this time would have included friends of Nigel Millett and  Peter Lilley who had teamed up as “Dane Chandos” to write Village in the Sun (first published in the U.K. in 1945), their month-by-month account of building a home in San Antonio Tlayacapan, just to the east of Ajijic. It seems perfectly possible that Eiloart and Elstob would have known this book.

Millett lived in Ajijic from 1937 to his death in 1946. Prior to moving to Mexico, he had written (as “Richard Oke”) a biography, and several plays and novels, including Frolic wind (1929), a satirical gay comedy novel that was turned into a West End stage production in 1935. A revived run began on 10 November 1948 at Boltons Theatre, Kensington.

Almost certainly, Eiloart and Elstob would have met Peter Lilley in Ajijic at some time, but it remains unclear whether or not they knew one another prior to the creation of “Peter Arnold”.

Acknowledgment:

  • Sincere thanks to Gail Eiloart for help in working out the timeline of her father’s visits to Ajijic.

Sources:

  • The American Legion Magazine, October, November and December 1954  [eg Volume 57, No. 6 (December 1954)
  • Anon. 2002. Peter Elstob. Obituary in The Telegraph, 31 July 2002.
  • Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) August 16, 1950, page 16
  • Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR)
  • The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) October 10, 1954, p 130
  • Elk Magazine, July 1956
  • Long Beach Independent (Long Beach, California), 5 Oct 1953, p 12
  • Los Angeles Times, 31 October 1954; 14 November 1954
  • New Yorker : 6 May, 13 May, 20 May, 22 Apr – all in 1950
  • Josephine Pullein-Thompson, 2002. “Peter Elstob. Writer with a passion for adventure and a flair for entrepreneurship“, The Guardian, 25 July 2002.
  • The Rotarian, October 1954, p62:
  • The Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio) Tuesday, December 14, 1954
  • Ben West. “Obituary: Peter Elstob; Writer and Activist for International Pen”, The Independent (London, England), 9 August 2002.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

error: Alert: Content is protected !!