Artist David Holbrook Kennedy was the youngest brother of food-writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. David Kennedy was born 19 May 1919, and educated at Whittier Union High School, Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, and Princeton University, before graduating from Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
In 1941, when David was 22 and his sister Norah 24, “Norah and David decided to go to Mexico for an extended stay. David had received a small grant to paint murals at Lake Chapala in west-central Mexico, and Norah intended to join him, and write about her experiences in Lanikai, Honolulu, and Molakai the previous year. On June 20  they left Whittier [California] with only a forwarding address of Wells Fargo in Mexico City… What Mary Frances and the family did not know was that David intended to invite his girlfriend, Sarah Shearer, to join him in Mexico, and that they planned to marry there in late September” (Reardon, 134).
In October 1941, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher visited David, Sarah and Norah in Chapala. David and Sarah, “a petite, blond, affable girl,” married on 11 October 1941 in Casa Casimiro Ramírez in Ajijic, described in one newspaper as the residence of author Nigel Stansbury-Millett and his father, Harry Millett; this must be one of the first all-American marriages in Ajijic. Guests at the wedding, and reception which followed, included Sarah’s mother—artist Inez Rogers Shearer; David’s two sisters; Swedish artist Nils Dardel and his partner Edita Morris; Mr and Mrs Francisco Nicolau of Guadalajara and their son Sergio; Mr and Mrs Casimiro Ramírez and two children; and the Honorable Mr Maurice Stafford (US Consul).
At Lake Chapala, the young couple lived in a “small house, where the whitewashed walls, tile floors, serapes, and minimal furnishings were enhanced by David’s pictures on the walls”. (Reardon, 140)
“The little house in the fishing village was fairly new, built to rent to summer-people who came for the lake and the quiet. It has a bathroom upstairs, fed from a tank on the roof which a man came every night to fill by the hand-pump in the tiny patio.” (Fisher, 545)
David, who had discovered and found he loved mariachi music, was infatuated with the falsetto voice of “Juanito”, the lead singer of a mariachi band – but Juanito turned out to be a girl! Fisher devotes an entire chapter to this rather confusing story about a girl from the hills who becomes, as a boy, the lead singer in an all-male mariachi band, before (perhaps on account of giving singing lessons to David) deciding to re-assume her female identity and leave the band. However, when David and Sarah married, the girl readopted her male persona and rejoined the mariachi band! The story, in all its colorful detail, is related by Fisher in the chapter entitled “Feminine Ending” in The Gastronomic Me.
David’s murals in the municipal baths in Chapala must have been among the earliest, if not the earliest, murals in the Lake Chapala region. Sadly, neither the murals nor the building that housed them still exist.
The murals were painted by the entire group (David, Sarah, Norah and Mary Frances) under David’s direction. The group worked on them every day for several weeks: “Norah and Sarah and I were helping David paint murals in the municipal baths, and spent several hours every day neck-deep in the clear running water of the pools, walking cautiously on the sandy bottoms with pie-plates full of tempera held up, and paint-brushes stuck in our hair.” (Fisher, 545)
The murals were finished toward the end of November 1941. Fisher and Norah flew back to Los Angeles, with David and Sarah following by car.
David credited Fisher’s second husband Dillwyn with encouraging him to pursue a career in art. The fact that Dillwyn took his own life [Dillwyn “was in the advanced stages of an incredibly painful and invariably fatal disease with nothing in his future but more amputations and constant, intransigent pain for which no medication was available in the USA.” – see comment below] shortly before Fisher’s visit to Chapala appears to have had a profound effect on David, who took his own life less than a year later in 1942. David was just 23 years old at the time, and he left his wife Sarah a widow while pregnant with their first child. David and Sarah’s daughter, Sarah Holbrook Kennedy, was born in August 1942.
- This post, first published on 4 December 2014, was updated and expanded in July 2022.
- Joan Reardon, 2005. Poet of the Appetites: The Lives And Loves of M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press)
- M. F. K. Fisher, 1943. The Gastronomical Me (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York), reprinted in The Art of Eating (Macmillan 1979).
- Buffalo Evening News (New York): 15 Oct 1941, 38; 24 December 1941, 3.
- The Whittier News: 21 Oct 1941, 2.
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.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).
were any photos taken of the bath house murals?
Not that I know of. I’m still hoping that bringing attention to some of these cases of “lost” art and forgotten artists may one day result in more information and/or photos emerging. That would be wonderful!!
It seems unfair to Dillwyn Parrish not to note that he was in the advanced stages of an incredibly painful and invariably fatal disease with nothing in his future but more amputations and constant, intransigent pain for which no medication was available in the USA.
Agreed; the post has been modified. Thanks for the input.
I am constantly fascinated with the saga of the Kennedy family (MFK et al). I cannot imagine a more “feeling” family, thanks to the works of Mary Frances. Any further notes on why David took his life?
Thanks for your comment. Sorry, but I don’t know anything more about David’s untimely death. Best wishes, TB