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Mar 282019
 

Ven a cantar conmigo was filmed in Jalisco two years after the making of Verano en Guadalajara (1965). Both movies are musical romances that incorporate lots of tourist-alluring footage of markets, ancient buildings and cultural events in Guadalajara and at Lake Chapala. The two movies also share the same lead actor – Robert Conrad – but this is where the similarities end.

The storyline of Ven a cantar conmigo is much stronger than the uni-dimensional plot of its predecessor. The central romantic plot line in Ven a cantar conmigo is more nuanced and complex, giving viewers a much more satisfying experience. A splash of adventure in the middle of this film serves as a counterpoint to too much romantic gushiness. The central romance does not unfold without some melodrama towards the end.

Ven a cantar conmigo was produced by Miguel Zacarías and written and directed by Alfredo Zacarías. The company behind the movie was Producciones Zacarías S.A. The cinematography was by Raúl Martínez Solares. The film was first released in Mexico on 19 October 1967.

The three major stars in this movie are Robert Conrad, playing an American artist named Bob Seaman, Alicia Bonet playing Aurora, the nurse he falls in love with, and the talented young singer “Evita” (Eva Luisa Aguirre Muñíz), who was eleven years old at the time and plays the role of a precocious orphan, living at the Hospicio Cabañas, who is a show-stopping, not-to-be-ignored matchmaker. This was the Guadalajara-born youngster’s first movie. She subsequently enjoyed a stellar, though short-lived, career as a singer, actress and T.V. presenter before retiring from show business in her early twenties.

Given that the opening credits thank the Jalisco state governor, Francisco Medina Ascencio, for his support, it is not surprising that many of Guadalajara’s most important tourist attractions form the backdrop to scenes in the story. The photographs of the Hospicio Cabañas (now Instituto Cultural Cabañas) and its murals (explained by Evita to a visiting group of tourists) are among the highlights.

As a young, charismatic minx, Evita steals the early scenes of the movie. She is quite determined to find a suitable beau for her friend Aurora, a young nurse who grew up in the orphanage and works in a local hospital.

Evita and Aurora are shopping in the San Juan market for fruit and vegetables when they bump into a handsome American artist. A misunderstanding leads Aurora to believe that Bob is poor and hungry. In reality he drives a sports car, is staying at a top hotel and is clearly wealthy. He visited the market to purchase single vegetables to compose a still life. When he returns to his hotel to paint, he can’t help drawing a portrait of Aurora instead.

Minor misunderstandings continue as he seeks to get to know more about Aurora and to ask her on a date. The process includes, in true Tapatío fashion, Bob hiring mariachis to serenade her at dawn.

Before long, accompanied by Evita and one of Bob’s friends, they are all on their way to Lake Chapala for the afternoon. The short section of the movie shot at Chapala shows the beach, the Beer Garden restaurant, the main church and nearby Braniff mansion. The proceedings are enlivened by buying balloons and a game of hopscotch.

There are many worse ways to spend your time than watching Ven a cantar conmigo!

The entire 87-minute movie is available via Youtube, as is a clip of the short section showing Lake Chapala. Enjoy!

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.

 Posted by at 5:58 am  Tagged with:
Mar 212019
 

Canadian poet Al Purdy visited Lake Chapala more than once in the late 1970s. Purdy spent more than a month in Ajijic over the winter of 1978-79 and later had a short travel piece entitled “Let There Be Light – Perhaps” accepted by Leisureways.

The quotes incorporated in the following summary of that piece come from the manuscript version of the article in the Purdy archives at Queen’s University in London, Ontario.

Statue of Purdy in Queen's Park, Toronto. Photo: Marisa Burton.

Statue of Purdy in Queen’s Park, Toronto. Photo: Marisa Burton.

Purdy thought that Chapala was “a sprawling untidy settlement,” where “a real estate boom, perhaps twenty years ago,” followed by a bust had left “half—built houses on the outskirts and red brick streets running nowhere.” Purdy summed the town up as “half ghost town and half a hive of geriatric tourists and the native Mexicans.”

As for the tourists, they were “mostly very old” and had “made their pile in New York or wherever when they were younger, and now come here to play bridge, soak up the sun and live the good life, wading thru sunshine instead of snow.”

Purdy wanted to soak his “arthritic knee in hot springs at San Juan Cosala then take off for places the tourists haven’t found yet.” They had trouble finding living quarters for a month “in an area that is completely jammed.”

Hank Edwards, a painter friend who had built a house in Ajijic, suggested they visit “La Russe” (Zara) because he had heard that her lakeside cottage was unoccupied. However, a meeting to “Save the Lake” was in progress on Zara’s patio, preparing the text of a telegram to send to the state governor protesting the dire situation of the lake. The following day, Purdy and his wife viewed the cottage only to discover that it was “a pretty crummy joint.” They were eventually able to “rent a small apartment on the mountain slope above Ajijic.”

During their time in Ajijic, Purdy viewed the D. H. Lawrence house in Chapala – “a sprawl of brick and stucco mansion, complete with falling plaster” – on the market at that time for $75,000.

Not surprisingly, given that it was more than fifty years since Lawrence had been there, Purdy was unable to find any trace of Lawrence in the building, but enjoyed letting his imagination picture the author in the building: “… there is a wrought iron spiral staircase, ending at upstairs bedrooms, that I’m sure Lawrence must have climbed; and an immense glass chandelier glittering its thousand suns in the living room, and which at one time must have reflected Lawrence’s own blue eyes.”

Actually, the house had only a single story when Lawrence rented it and the deficient electricity supply at the time would have necessitated candles in the chandelier.

Lunching at the Posada Ajijic, Purdy and his wife chatted to a pair of elderly American ladies who knew La Russe and recounted stories of her dance career (in Europe and elsewhere), her “brother”, and Zara’s attempt to star in a ballet she had written.

Purdy commented on the great Mexican muralists, Orozco and Rivera, and how the “cultured English novelists, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley” who had visited Mexico, all “hated the place”, before turning his attention to how “D.H. Lawrence was alternately fascinated and repelled by Mexico with its basically Indian population, whose tradition of blood stretches back to the Aztecs and long before. Mayan and Aztec gods were deities of violence and death, the dark side of life.”

Despite the roads, roadkill, police, and the sketchy electricity supply, Purdy loved Mexico.

Prefacing a conversation he overheard while soaking in the mineral baths of San Juan Cosalá, Purdy described the scene in lively prose: “The white Aztec sun blazed down; brilliant red and purple flowers trembled on the fringes of vision; the blue lake was incandescent in its multiple reflections. Human bodies of all sizes, sexes and degrees of fatness lounged in and around the several pools, their temperatures graduated according to personal inclination.”

The hills were dormant in the winter dry season but on the “luxuriant green” lakeshore, “Mexican kids play their game in the dust, gabbing together; fat mothers feed their babies, thin mothers feed their babies; old men totter thru the cobbled streets, a flash of their eyes responding to friends’ flash of their eyes in greeting.”

Purdy was an astute, sensitive observer of Mexico and it is Lake Chapala’s gain that this great Canadian poet chose to follow in the footsteps of D. H. Lawrence and spend some time here.

Note

All quotes come from the manuscript version of “Let There Be Light – Perhaps” in the Queen’s University Purdy Archive (CA ON00239 F02017-S06-f0003 – “Article on Chapala, Mexico accepted for Leisureways Magazine”). I have so far failed to locate any published version of this article, accepted by Leisureways (according to Purdy’s notes) in about 1979-1980. The first edition of Leisureways was published by the Ontario Motor League in 1981. It is likely that Purdy’s article actually appeared in the final (1980-81) volume of Canadian Motorist, the publication’s name prior to its rebranding.

Acknowledgment

I am very grateful to Queen’s University archivist Heather Home and her administrative assistant, Lisa Gervais, for their help in supplying copies of materials from the university’s Purdy Archive.

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

Mar 142019
 

Wes Penn, a highly creative visual artist, lived in Ajijic from 1967 to his death in a vehicle accident three years later. Penn was the fourth husband of Jan Dunlap (“Big Mama”).

William Wesley Penn Jr. was born 11 February 1935 in Big Spring, Howard, Texas. He was the son of the Reverend and Mrs. William W. Penn. Reverend Penn (1913-1988) was a Methodist minister who served in the Navy and was the pastor for a time in Renner, Texas, where, coincidentally, Jan Dunlap spent most of her childhood.

Wes Penn. Mixed media abstract. Untitled. Undated. Collection: Rico Semple.

Wes Penn. Mixed media abstract. Untitled. Undated. (image courtesy of Rico Semple)

Penn attended high school in Commerce, Texas, and gained his first degree from East Texas State College (now known as Texas A&M University–Commerce) in 1959, and had married while living in El Paso, where he was studying for a Masters in Education at the University of El Paso. His younger brother, Paul, an engineer also studied at the University of El Paso. Paul later fell foul of the law in Mexico and was sentenced to a multi-year term in Puente Grande, the penitentiary just outside Guadalajara.

Dunlap met Wes Penn when they were both studying at the University of Texas. They lived in El Paso and New Mexico before deciding to try their luck in Mexico where Penn had friends who lived at Lake Chapala. In the run-up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, language teachers were in demand and Dunlap, who had four young children in tow, and Penn hoped to support themselves by teaching English.

The family lived for a time in the Mill House at the western extremity of the village. It was difficult to make ends meet and, like many others living in Ajijic at the time, Penn and Dunlap decided to risk driving a stash of weed across the border in order to raise some much-needed funds. They made it back to Ajijic without incident but when Penn went to collect their dog from a friend’s house in Chapala, the timing turned out to be disastrous.

No sooner had he arrived than the police raided the house looking for drugs; everyone present, including Penn, was arrested and locked up overnight in the local jail. Dunlap, meanwhile, had sent son Ricardo to look for her husband. Ricardo returned saying he’s found Penn’s car and that it was still parked in Chapala.

When Dunlap went to collect her husband the following day, she was told that the federales had taken over the case and had moved Penn and the others to Guadalajara. It turned out that they were being held in the same jail as Penn’s brother. Dunlap called in a favor from a friend who had the ear of the state governor and was able to get Penn and the others released in exchange for a substantial contribution of pesos.

Wes Penn. 1966. Collection: Rico Semple.

Wes Penn. 1966. (image courtesy of Rico Semple)

Tragically, Penn was killed on 25 March 1970 when the car he was driving was hit by a bus on the Chapala-Guadalajara highway. Jan and her children remained in Ajijic where she ran a succession of restaurant-bars, boutiques and galleries during the 1970s and 1980s, one of which was named the Wes Penn Gallery in his honor.

Wes Penn worked in a variety of media. As a painter, he specialized in abstracts, many of which leaned towards surrealism.

Penn’s parents were not very appreciative or supportive of their son’s art. Dunlap told me how her father-in-law had once offered her husband $100 for a painting on the grounds that it represented the cost of the materials!

Fortunately, Penn’s fellow artists held him in much higher esteem. For example, his works were exhibited at least once in the renowned Udinotti Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, run by Greek-born poet and painter Agnese Udinotti.

Sources

I am deeply indebted to the late Jan Dunlap for sharing her knowledge and memories of Wes Penn, and to Rico Semple for sharing photos of examples of his work.

  • Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas, 13 February 1935, p8
  • Henrietta Clay County Leader, Henrietta, Texas – 11 June 1970

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

Mar 072019
 

Writer and illustrator Ellis Credle Townsend moved from Guadalajara to Ajijic in about 1974 and lived and worked at Lake Chapala for more than a decade. She was the author and illustrator of more than twenty children’s books over a long career.

Ellis Credle Townsend

Ellis Credle Townsend

Ellis Credle (she used her maiden name on all her books) was born and raised in North Carolina. Born in 1902, she studied at Louisberg College and taught high school in the Blue Ridge Mountains before moving in 1926 to New York City, where she studied interior design and took painting classes at the Art Students League. She worked as a governess for two children before landing a commission to draw reptiles for the American Museum of Natural History. While continuing to write in her spare time, she was also asked to paint a series of murals for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

She had several rejections from publishers before one finally accepted Down Down the Mountain (1934), the first ever illustrated children’s book set in the Blue Ridge country. Helped by her deep familiarity with the area’s folk tales and life styles, it was an immediate success and quickly became a classic; it sold more than 4 million copies.

Credle visited Mexico in the early 1930s and another of her early books, Pepe and the Parrot (1937), a story about a dog and a parrot, was set in a traditional Mexican village. Other books Credle published before moving to Mexico include Across the Cotton Patch (1935), based on her childhood days on a grandfather’s farm; Little Jeems Henry (1936); That Goat That Went to School (1940) and Janey’s Shoes (1944).

Credle married Charles de Kay Townsend; the couple had one son. Born in Rhode Island, her husband was a Harvard graduate and served in the Navy during the second world war. He was a photographic technologist with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for many years, and it was after he retired that the couple left for Mexico with their young son, Richard, in 1947. Her husband’s photographs were used in some of Credle’s later books.

Richard grew to love Mexico and became an eminent authority on pre-Columbian cultures. He gained a masters degree in anthropology form the University of the Americas and a doctorate from Harvard for work on the art of Tenochtitlán. He was curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Art Institute of Chicago, and edited numerous exhibition catalogs including The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes and Ancient West Mexico (which has many close links to the Lake Chapala area).

The family arrived in Mexico planning to stay only six months so that Credle could write without distraction, perhaps to put the finishing touches to My Pet Peepelo (1948), a story set in Mexico. Here Comes the Showboat was published the following year. By then, the Townsends had settled in Zapopan, Guadalajara, where their stay kept being extended by other book commissions; Credle ended up living in Mexico for more than 40 years.

Even in so-called retirement, Credle continued to write and based several more stories in Mexico, though none ever received the same high praise as her tales of the Blue Ridge country. In 1964, she and her husband were commissioned by Nelson to write a school book about Mexico, aimed at young teenagers. This was published in 1968 as Mexico, land of hidden treasure in Nelson’s World neighbors series.

Following the death of her husband in 1974, she moved to La Floresta in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. Late in life she also wrote “Dog Ignacio Lives On“, a short piece published in El Ojo del Lago, November 1994.

Ellis Credle Townsend was often asked to lecture in the U.S. on account of her knowledge of authentic folklore and was a regular at the Ajijic Writers’ Group.

Interviewed for El Ojo del Lago late in her life, Credle said, “I have never regretted coming to Mexico. I have always felt happy, at home, and strangely safe here.” She did not travel very far apart from occasional trips to Chicago to visit her son. She was in Chicago at the time of her death on 21 February 1998.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 2 April 1964: 1 Oct 1964.
  • Shep Lenchek. “Ellis Townsend —A Lakeside Literary Treasure.” El Ojo del Lago,
    1996; reproduced March 2015 issue.
  • Richard Walser. 1960. Entry for Ellis Credle in Picturebook of Tar Heel Authors. Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History.

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 282019
 

For a sense of what Guadalajara and Lake Chapala were like in the early 1960s, the movie Guadalajara en verano is a great starting point. To watch the 95-minute film, released in 1965, via Youtube, click the link.

Guadalajara en verano is an enjoyable mix of a simple, cross-cultural romantic storyline in the city of roses and a documentary highlighting some of Jalisco’s tourist sights and infrastructure.

Written by Adolfo Torres Portillo, and co-produced by José Luis Bueno and Xavier Torres Ladrón de Guevara, the movie was filmed in the summer of 1964 in Guadalajara, at Lake Chapala and at the Pacific coast beach town of Melaque.

The plot revolves around a group of students who arrive in Guadalajara to attend summer school classes. This allowed the producer to open the movie with shots illustrating Guadalajara’s excellent links to the outside world via buses, trains and its international airport, and its varied accommodation offerings, from a casa de huespedes to the Hotel Fenix and Camino Real. In those days, the city streets were not clogged with traffic, the roses bloomed in profusion and the parks were well-maintained gardens..

Having foreign students visit Guadalajara also provides the excuse, if one were needed, to film the city’s newly-opened Hilton hotel and follow the students around as they explore the city’s markets, parks and buildings, with time spent admiring some of the many murals that grace its public buildings, including the Hospicio Cabañas (then an orphanage, now the Cabañas Cultural Institute) and the Government Palace. The movie’s director, Julio Bracho, later made a film about the New York experiences of Jalisco muralist José Clemente Orozco: En busca de un muro (1974).

The part of Guadalajara en verano made at Lake Chapala includes footage of the highway, the Beer Garden in Chapala and a luxurious private residence.

Needless to say, the movie does not miss the opportunity to showcase a girls’ choir, mariachi singers and musicians, and the Ballet Folklórico de Jalisco (performing the Jarabe Tapatío) along the way.

The short Melaque section, near the end of the movie, served to underscore the tourist potential of the Jalisco coast and promote the then relatively unknown attractions of the Pacific coast of Jalisco, coincidentally at about the same time as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor helped put Puerto Vallarta on the map.

Actors in Guadalajara en verano include Elizabeth Campbell, Xavier Loyá, Alicia Bonet, Claudio Brook, Emma Roldán and Andrea Palma. The movie’s main male protagonist, Robert Douglas, was played by U.S. singer and actor Dean Reed who went on to enjoy a stellar career in Latin America and Eastern Europe, regions where the audiences appreciated his lyrics, which protested U.S. foreign policy, war and nuclear tests.

It is a sobering thought that the movie was made at a time when the population of Guadalajara had barely reached one million (compared to around 5 million for the metropolitan area today). On the other hand, 1964 was the year when Walt Disney visited the city for the “De Pueblo a Pueblo” meeting, Bing Crosby promoted golf at Guadalajara Country Club, Tequila Sauza started sponsoring “Noches Tapatías” on national TV, and when the  Chapala Society officially  changed its name to become  The Lake Chapala Society.

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.

 Posted by at 5:46 am  Tagged with:
Feb 212019
 

Alice Janice (“Jan”) Dunlap, who lived in Ajijic from 1967-1998, was born on 15 June 1927 in Addison, Texas, and died in Los Angeles, California, on 19 October 2018. Jan was one of eleven children born to Clinton Adolphus Dunlap and his wife Janice Blackburn and was suitably thrilled later in life when she discovered that she was a descendant of an aide to U.S. President George Washington.

Jan studied to be sociologist and was a member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She had a son, Michael, from her first marriage (when only a teenager), and four children with Ramón Rivas Jr. from her third marriage. She met Rivas, from Puerto Rico, when both were studying at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas in the early 1950s. The couple lived for a decade in Puerto Rico, where on one occasion Jan met Fidel Castro.

Later, when Jan was studying at the University of Texas at El Paso, she met and married artist Wesley Penn. Penn had friends who lived at Lake Chapala and suggested that they live in Mexico. Jan quickly agreed when she learned that Mexico wanted more English teachers ahead of hosting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The couple decamped to Ajijic, with Jan’s four children. Tragically, Penn was killed in 1970 when the car he was driving was hit by a bus on the Chapala-Guadalajara highway. Jan and her children remained in Ajijic where she became one of the village’s more colorful and warm-hearted characters of the 1970s and 1980s. Jan felt as though nobody was a stranger and believed that anyone in need was worthy of help and assistance.

Known to everyone in Ajijic as “Big Mama”, Jan ran a succession of restaurant-bars, boutiques and galleries, including El Tejabán, the Blackfoot Contessa Boutique, the Wes Penn Gallery, Big Mama’s (on 16 de Septiembre) and El Tapanco. Jan was especially proud of having arranged an exhibit of Ruth Anaya paintings in El Tejabán that got the gallery (and Ajijic) listed in Who’s Who in American Art. Jan was the “Grand Dame” of the “Rowdy Bunch” which contributed its positive energy to many Ajijic events.

Declining health forced Jan and her husband, Michael Shapiro, to move back to the States in 1998. Shortly afterwards, Jan founded Grandmothers Against Smoking, a campaign to help persuade young people not to smoke.

Jan finally realized one of her long-term dreams in 2017 when she published, shortly after her 90th birthday (and with a little help from me) her debut novel, Dilemma, an exciting tale about a drug-dealing cartel capo and a beautiful, youthful female DEA agent. The novel is loosely based on Ajijic gossip and her personal experiences in Mexico.

The novel, set mainly at Lake Chapala in Mexico, takes us back to the 1970s. Natalie, a beautiful young DEA agent, is sent to investigate an alleged king-pin in the drugs world who lives in Ajijic. Her life soon becomes far more complicated than she bargained for. The positive reviews on Amazon for this tale of international romance, drugs and intrigue speak for themselves.

The striking artwork used for the cover is by B.C.-based artist Oliver Rivas, one of Jan’s grandsons.

Jan also completed several other works including a novel entitled With Money Dances the Dog, and associated screenplay, based on an infamous series of murders in Ajijic in the mid-1970s.

Jan was predeceased by two of her five children: Janina Rivas died in Mexico following a dog bite in 1973; Ricardo Rivas died in 2015. She leaves behind her husband, Michael, and three sons – Michael, Ramón and Roberto – as well as many grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Sources

  • Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas: 13 February 1935, 8.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 13 Dec 1975; 17 Jan 1976; 31 Jan 1976; 28 Feb 1976; 10 Sep 1977, 19; 15 Oct 1983.
  • Henrietta Clay County Leader, Henrietta, Texas: 11 June 1970.

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

Feb 142019
 

English visual artist Eleanor Mason, a cousin of the British writer E. A. W. Mason, was born in the U.K. in about 1895 and studied art in France, Germany and Italy. Eleanor, variously known as Eleanore, Leonore, Evylin or Evelyn, lived in Ajijic for a short time in the 1930s, as the wife of German cellist Alex von Mauch, one of the earliest long-term foreign residents of Ajijic.

Eleanor Armstrong-Mauch, 1935

Leonore (Eleanor) von Mauch, 1935

Mason lived in Pasadena, California, from 1917 to 1931 and briefly ran an art school there. She was a co-founder of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918 and a member of the Pasadena Society of Women Painters & Sculptors, serving as its president in 1928. Her work was exhibited at the Laguna Beach Art Association (1921, 1924), West Coast Arts, Incorporated (1923), the Pasadena Women Painters & Sculptors (1928) and the Santa Cruz Art League (1929). She was also a member of the British Water Color Society.

The precise circumstances surrounding her decision to move to Mexico and marry Alex von Mauch are unclear.

Sadly, Alex died only a few months later. After her husband’s death, Eleanor appears to have divided her time between Pasadena and Mexico. In January 1937, for example, her participation in the Pasadena New Year’s Day parade was noted in the Los Angeles Times because she was dressed as a giant butterfly, alongside a giant 20-foot rose, on the “Roses of Romance” float. The “body of the butterfly was Eleanor Mason of Pasadena, dressed in green and gold brocade, gold coronet on her head and a floral train.”

Romance must certainly have been in the air;  later that year, in Guadalajara, Eleanor married Leif Clausen, a Danish-born and educated artist and writer based in New York. The notice of her marriage in the Los Angeles Times described her as “Mme Eleanor Mason von Mauch” of Laguna [Beach], and said that she was a member of both the Laguna Beach Art Association and the British Water Color Society.

After her marriage to Clausen, Eleanor’s trail goes cold and nothing further has come to light about her life and legacy.

Sources:

  • Edan Hughes. 1989. Artists in California, 1786-1940. Hughes Pub. Co.
  • El Informador, 3 May 1936, 4; 8 May 1936, 4.
  • Los Angeles Times, 25 Dec 1921, 36; 31 July 1935, 30; 26 Sep 1937, 66.
  • Santa Ana Register, 10 Mar 1923, 14; 12 January 1924, 5.

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 072019
 

Neill James’ book Dust on my Heart is many visitors’ first introduction to the extensive English-language literature related to Lake Chapala. In the book, the self-styled “Petticoat Vagabond” tells of her adventures in Mexico and of two terrible accidents she suffered, the first on Popocatepetl Volcano and the second at Paricutín Volcano.

Cover of Dust on my Heart (1946)

Cover of Dust on my Heart (1946) (Painting by Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo)

After two lengthy stays in hospital, James’ recuperation eventually brought her, in 1943, to the small village of Ajijic, which would be her home for the remainder of her long life. The final two chapters of Dust on my Heart describe her first impressions of Ajijic and of how she learned to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of pueblo life.

As with several other noteworthy Lake Chapala residents, separating fact from fiction in trying to sort out James’ story is tricky, and made more complex by hagiographic portrayals that simply repeat identical misinformation with no attempt to check sources or provide independent corroboration for claims made.

For example, we are led to believe that James was born on a cotton plantation in Grenada, Mississippi, a woman of means who graduated from the University of Chicago, met Amelia Earhart, was visited in Ajijic by D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw, and pioneered the looms industry in Ajijic, before founding the Lake Chapala Society.

Unfortunately, not a single one of these claims is true. James was born in Gore Springs, Mississippi. While Gore Springs is near Grenada, James was not born on any plantation and her family was far from wealthy. She never attended the University of Chicago and almost certainly never met Amelia Earhart. The claims about Lawrence, Hemingway and Shaw are especially ludicrous. D. H. Lawrence was long dead by the time James first visited Mexico. Neither Hemingway (whom James may conceivably have met in 1941 in Hong Kong) nor Shaw ever visited Ajijic. James did not pioneer the looms industry in Ajijic and was never a member of the Lake Chapala Society prior to being accorded Honorary Membership a few years before she died!

After studying stenography at the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls (later Mississippi State College for Women) in 1918 James became a secretary at the War Department in Washington, D.C. Over the next decade, she traveled widely: from Hawaii to Japan, China, Korea, India, Germany, France, Costa Rica and New Zealand. In 1931, she settled on Hawaii to work at the Institute of Pacific Relations. Three years later, she left to travel again in Asia, returning to the U.S. via the Trans-Siberian railroad and Europe.

She then began travel writing and joined the stable of writers managed by Maxwell Perkins (who edited Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Erskine Caldwell, among others) at leading New York publishers Charles Scribner’s Sons. Prior to visiting Mexico, James had published three travel books: Petticoat Vagabond: Up and Down the World, (1937); Petticoat Vagabond: Among the Nomads (1939) and Petticoat Vagabond in Ainu Land: Up and Down Eastern Asia (1942).

Her early travels in Mexico in 1942, including a few weeks spent with the indigenous Otomi people, are entertainingly told, in rich, keenly-observed detail, in Dust on my Heart. During her first few months, James traveled to many very different parts of the country, from the capital city to impoverished rural mountain villages, from Acapulco to Chiapas.

It was only after two serious accidents, the first on Popocatepetl Volcano, the 17,899-foot peak near Mexico City, and the second on the slopes of the brand-new Paricutin Volcano in Michoacán, both recounted in gory detail in her book, and both requiring months in a Mexico City hospital, that James decided to recuperate at Lake Chapala.

It was August 1943 when James first arrived at Ajijic. She eventually built her own house there. In order to complete the manuscript of her next Petticoat Vagabond book, James penned a couple of chapters about the village. This was the last book she ever wrote. As suddenly as she had started writing travel books, she stopped.

James had no independent wealth and needed to generate some income for herself. She began to buy plain white cotton blouses and pay local women piecemeal rates to embroider them. Many of the designs were created by American artist Sylvia Fein who was living in Ajijic at the time.

From the late 1940s on, James started three new tourist-related ventures – renting and flipping village homes; clothing (including weaving and silk production); and running her own tourist store – all of which remained active until well into the 1970s. Over the years, she also tried all manner of other potentially lucrative but ultimately short-lived ventures, ranging from keeping bees and selling honey to looking for buried treasure.

The short-term promise of her “revival” of embroidered blouses had fizzled out when marketing problems reduced its appeal. Meantime, Helen Goodridge, with her husband, Mort Carl, had started a commercial looms business in 1950 which was attracting attention. While James could not compete directly with their venture, she could, and did, begin to teach local women how to use smaller hand looms to weave small cotton and wool items such as women’s blouses and scarves. Whereas Goodridge employed only men as weavers (very much the tradition in this part of Mexico), James’s workforce was entirely female, in line with indigenous practice in southern Mexico.

Neill James' store label

Neill James’ store label

James also started a silk industry in Ajijic. She brought in hundreds of white mulberry trees, from Uruapan in Michoacán, and planted as many as she could in her own garden, offering others to families around the village. James also bought silkworm eggs and before long, Ajijic had a thriving silk production industry. James employed local women to weave the delicate silk thread into fine silk cloth. Precisely when James introduced the silk industry into Ajijic is unclear, though it was certainly in full flow by 1962.

The third strand of her business activity was to open a small store out of her own home, selling items made in Ajijic as well as handicrafts from elsewhere. The store closed in 1974, when James announced her retirement.

James is best remembered today for her many positive contributions to the health and education of her adopted community.

Having helped educate the children of her domestic helpers from the very beginning, James broadened her scope in about 1954 to open the area’s first public library (biblioteca pública), principally aimed at serving the needs of the local children.

The first library in Ajijic was a room, donated for the purpose, on Ocampo near Serna’s grocery store. James persuaded the municipio to part with funds for books and arranged for Angelita Aldana Padilla to oversee its activities. As their reward for reading and studying, students were offered the incentive of free art supplies and classes. This humble beginning led, after many twists and turns, to the justly-praised Children’s Art Program, now run by the Lake Chapala Society, that has helped nurture the talents of so many fine local artists.

At some point, a second library was opened, with its own supervisor, in a building James owned near Seis Esquinas, to help children living in the west end of the village. After the supervisor left, the running of La Colmena (The Beehive), as it was known, was turned over to some well-meaning teenagers. When the library was badly vandalized, the remaining books and supplies were moved to the original library, which James later moved to a building on her own property at Quinta Tzintzuntzan.

In 1977, James donated a property at Seis Esquinas (Ocampo #90) to be used as the village’s first Health Center (Centro de Salud).

Leonard McCombe. 1957. Neill James (hammock) and Zara in the gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan. (Life)

Neill James (hammock) and Zara (on horseback) in the gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan. Photo by Leonard McCombe for Life, 1957.

After her retirement in 1974, the wonderful gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan were no longer normally open to the public. However, in 1977, James agreed that the grounds could be open every Sunday afternoon as an art garden (jardín del arte) for a new artists’ group, the Young Painters of Ajijic (Jovenes Pintores de Ajijic).

In 1983, James offered to let the Lake Chapala Society use part of her Quinta Tzintzuntzan property rent-free for five years, provided it took over running the Ajijic children’s library located there. The Lake Chapala Society subsequently (1990) acquired legal title to the property in exchange for looking after Neill James in her final years. James died on Saturday 8 October 1994, only three months shy of her 100th birthday. Her ashes were interred at the base of a favorite tree in her beloved garden.

Given her early career as a travel writer, it is only fitting that the Mississippi University for Women now awards at least five Neill James Memorial Scholarships each year (worth up to $4000 each) to Creative Writing students. First offered in 2007, these scholarships are funded with the proceeds from a charitable trust established by her sister Jane.

It was James’ generosity that enabled the Lake Chapala Society to move from Chapala to Ajijic at a time when it was struggling and desperately needed new premises. Given her amazing accomplishments and legacy she left Lake Chapala, there is no possible need to embellish the story of Neill James, one of Lakeside’s most truly colorful, memorable and enterprising characters of all time.

Note

James was not the creator of the saying, “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.” What she actually wrote (on the first page of Dust on My Heart) was “There is a saying, “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.”” James was merely quoting an old saying; it was not her creation. An earlier version of the saying appears on the first page of Your Mexican Holiday: A Modern Guide, Anita Brenner’s book published in 1932.

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to Stephen Preston Banks, author of Kokio (a fictional biography of James), and to Michael Eager and Judy King for sharing with me their insights into Neill James’ life and contributions to Ajijic.

Sources

  • Anon. 1945. “Neill James in Mexico.” Modern Mexico (New York: Mexican Chamber of Commerce of the United States), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 23, 28.
  • Stephen Preston Banks. 2016. Kokio: A novel based on the life of Neill James. Valley, Washington: Tellectual Press.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 17 September 1983, 18.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I Live in Ajijic.” Modern Mexico (New York: Mexican Chamber of Commerce of the United States), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 23-28. [Reprinted in El Ojo de Lago. Vol 17, #7 (March 1999].
  • Neill James. 1946. Dust on My Heart. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Leonard McCombe (photos). “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.” Life Magazine, 23 December 1957, 159-164.

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.

Jan 312019
 

From way back when, visiting artists such as surrealist painter Sylvia Fein in the 1940s offered students in Ajijic art materials and encouragement. In 1954, authoress Neill James, almost a decade after she had moved to Ajijic to recuperate from a serious climbing accident, started a tutoring program for local youngsters. Children who worked hard were given art materials to paint and draw. This was the beginning of Ajijic’s famous Children’s Art Program (CAP).

Early classes combined reading and writing with art. James became so committed to the project that the following year she opened a public library, donating the building to the village. She later opened a second library. She was sufficiently impressed by the efforts and creativity of several young artists that she arranged for them to continue their art education by attending classes in San Miguel de Allende.

To its eternal credit, the Children’s Art Program provided (and continues to provide) one of the stronger bridges between the expatriate “colony” and the local community. Almost all families in Ajijic have benefited from the program at one time or another. As the program expanded, greater organizational skills were required and the Lake Chapala Society stepped in to offer its support to help run the libraries and the art classes.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children's Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children’s Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

For most of the first three decades of the Children’s Art Program, James was ably assisted by Angelita Aldana Padilla. One of Aldana’s nephews, Florentino Padilla (who lived from about 1943 to 2010) was one of the first students to be given a scholarship by James to study in San Miguel de Allende from 1960 to 1962.

On his return to Ajijic, Padilla gave back by teaching the next generation of CAP students. He helped promote the sale of the children’s “bright, charming paintings” to raise funds for materials and supplies. In 1964, for example, Padilla and Paul Carson (the then president of the Lake Chapala Society) arranged an exhibition-sale at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-NorteAmericano in Guadalajara of over 50 paintings by youngsters who had been taught at the Biblioteca. Nearly all the paintings sold. Padilla’s niece, Lucia Padilla Gutierrez, is also a gifted artist who attended CAP classes, and her own son became the third generation of this particular family to benefit from the program.

Many other later CAP alumni, including Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega, have also given back to the program by teaching classes.

Every time CAP artwork was sold, a healthy percentage went to the individual student artist, as it still does today. In the 1970s, regular shows of CAP art were held in Ajijic. For example, in 1973, an exhibition of student work was held at the Tejabán Restaurant in Ajijic (then run by Jan Dunlap and Manuel Urzua). The acclaimed American photographer Sylvia Salmi (who had retired to Ajijic a decade earlier) and Peggy Duffield helped promote and organize the show.

The following year, Betty Lou and John Rip, who were frequent visitors to Lake Chapala, purchased CAP paintings to decorate all 44 rooms of their Mayan Motor Inn in Laredo, Texas.

For a variety of reasons, including Neill James’ advancing age and ill health, the CAP ran out of steam in the late 1970s and there were no regular art classes for children from 1979 to 1984. Classes were revived – initially during summer vacation and shortly thereafter year-round – thanks to the joint efforts of the Lake Chapala Society and the Ajijic Society of the Arts and the tireless endeavors of Mildred Boyd, an American writer and volunteer, who stepped forward at just the right time. Boyd, who died in 2010, dedicated thousands of hours of selfless service to the cause of CAP.

When Boyd came across a stash of long-forgotten works done by students who had been in the program decades earlier, she (with the help of one of her daughters, Judy) assembled a heritage exhibition that included early works by several children who had gone on to become successful professional artists.

The Legacy Art Collection (paintings and other works, some dating back to the 1950s, by children in the Children’s Art Program), the patrimony of all the people of Ajijic, is now in the care of the Lake Chapala Society. The collection is being catalogued and around 400 individual items can be viewed online via this online database.

Boyd’s two daughters are supporting LCS attempts to digitize, catalog and preserve hundreds of the better paintings and hope that regular exhibits in the future will showcase the extraordinary artistic talents of so many local families.

The first major retrospective, spanning more than 50 years of paintings from the program, was held at the Centro Cultural Ajijic in October 2014. The 60th Anniversary exhibit featured 130 works by CAP alumni. The “legacy artists” included José Abarca, Antonio Cardenas, Efren Gonzalez, Ricardo Gonzalez, Antonio Lopéz Vega, Jesús Lopéz Vega, Bruno Mariscal, Juan Navarro, Juan Olivarez, Lucia Padilla, Daniel Palma, Lucia Padilla, Javier Ramos, Victor Romero and Javier Zaragoza.

Frank Wise and Mildred Boyd with Children’s Art Program students. Credit: Lizz/Judy Boyd.

The Children’s Art Program is commemorated in a colorful mural at the Lake Chapala Society entitled “Six Decades of Children’s Art” (“Seis décadas de arte infantil.” The mural, financed by the Ajijic Society of the Arts (ASA) and painted by program alumni Jesús López Vega and Javier Zaragoza, was unveiled in March 2012 and pays special homage to the three remarkable women who ensured the program’s success: Neill James, Angelita Aldana Padilla and Mildred Boyd.

Today, between 50 and 70 local children participate each week in art classes given by CAP. Both CAP and the children’s library remain integral parts of the links between the Lake Chapala Society and the local community. Ironically, in spite of her contributions, and the fact that she gifted her own home to the Lake Chapala Society, Neill James was never a member of that organization, preferring to support Mexican causes rather than expatriate ones.

Artists of note who began their art careers by taking classes in the Children’s Art Program include José Abarca; Armando Aguilar; Luis Anselmo Avalos Rochín; Antonio Cardenas Perales; José Manuel Castañeda; Efren González; Ricardo Gonzalez; Antonio López Vega; Jesús López Vega; Bruno Mariscal; Luis Enrique Martínez Hernández; Dionicio Morales López; Juan Navarro; Juan Olivarez; Florentino Padilla; Lucia Padilla Gutierrez; Daniel Palma; Javier Ramos; Victor Romero; Javier Zaragoza.

The Children’s Art Program can always use additional help. To donate time, funds or resources, contact the organizers.

Sources

  • Mildred Boyd. 2001. “Children’s Art Alive and Well in Ajijic!”, El Ojo del Lago, Vol 17, #10 (June 2001).
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 24 Sep 1964, 10; 1 Oct 1964; 10 Nov 1973; 16 March 1974.

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.

Jan 242019
 

While living in Ajijic in the early 1970s, Wendell Phillips Jr. and his good friend Ray Rigby co-wrote a screenplay, Ringer, that they subsequently sold to Hollywood.

Richard Wendell Phillips Jr., the son of a New York stage actor, Wendell K. Phillips (1907-1991), and his first wife, Odielein Pearce, was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1929 and died on 2 October 2010. After graduating from Staunton Military Academy in Virginia in 1948, he planned to enter the U. S. Military academy at West Point. He later became an actor and played an uncredited part as a patient in Lilith (1964), written and directed by Robert Rossen.

By the early 1970s he was living in Ajijic. Announcements of his marriage to Mercedes Boon of Ajijic in 1972 described Phillips as “of Los Angeles and Ajijic.” The marriage ceremony was held in Chapala, and the newlyweds planned to divide their time between their homes in Mexico and Los Angeles.

Mercedes Boon came from a wealthy family in Cincinnati. She attended Hillsdale School in Cincinnati, graduated from Stephens College, studied photography in Los Angeles and briefly served the armed forces as an American Red Cross staff assistant in Europe before she first visited Ajijic in her early 20s, in about 1950. She subsequently became a resident of the village for almost 20 years and ran various businesses there, including a gift and handicrafts store called Decoraciones del Hogar on the main highway. Boon died on 7 February 1976, leaving her husband, mother (Mrs Dorothy Boon Early) and a cousin (Reni Rice).

Writer Jerry Murray, who was living in Ajijic in the 1970s, working for Earl Kemp and his Greenleaf Press, later recalled both Phillips and Mercedes Boon as belonging to the cast of colorful characters that helped enliven life in Ajijic. Other names appearing in Murray’s fond memoir of those lusty times, published many years later, included Pete Peterson, Trudy Campbell, Peggy Neal, Stogie, Jan [Dunlap], Margo [Thomas], Neill James, “Madame Zara”, [Don] Hogan and Susie Nissen.

Wendell Phillips Jr. was friends with British author Ray Rigby (then living in San Antonio Tlayacapan) and the two collaborated to write a TV script entitled Ringer. In 1973, the two men traveled to Universal Studios in Hollywood to complete the sale of their full length pilot TV film.

Phillips was also co-author of another work earlier that year. Working with Burton Brinckerhoff, Phillips copyrighted a screenplay entitled The red-roof odyssey in February 1973. Sadly, there is no evidence that either Ringer or The red-roof odyssey ever actually made it into production.

Sources

  • The Cincinnati Enquirer, 31 August 1943, 8; 21 Oct 1945, 18; 22 Dec 1950 13; 12 September 1972; 17; 12 February 1976.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 14 Feb 1976.
  • The Kablegram, Staunton, Virginia, 28 May 1948, 4.
  • Jerry Murray. “The Devil’s Weed, Orgasmic Days, y Laguna Lust”, published in Earl Kemp’s Efanzine, Vol. 1 No. 3 (July 2002).

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

Jan 172019
 

Sir Peter Smithers (1913-2006), a real-life James Bond, was the British Acting naval attache for Mexico, Central America and Panama from 1942 to 1946. He spent much of this time in Mexico. An avid amateur photographer (among many other things) he took thousands of transparencies (slides) of Mexico. In 1999, several years before he died, he donated more than 3,000 transparencies taken with his trusty Leica cameras to Mexico’s National Photo Library (Fototeca Nacional).

Smithers’ photos of Mexico include some great shots of Paricutín Volcano during its early eruptions (it first burst into life in 1943) and many archaeological and historical sites. They also include a handful of interesting early color photos of Ajijic and Chapala.

Sir Peter Henry Berry Otway Smithers was born in England on 9 December 1913. He attended Harrow and was awarded a Masters degree from Magdalen College, Oxford in 1937. He was a barrister in London for several years and an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1937 to 1958. In the early part of the second world war he was interviewed for a position in the Naval Intelligence Division by none other than Commander Ian Fleming. The two men became close friends and it was Fleming who later recommended Smithers to his friends in the diplomatic corps.

Smithers is one of several real-life spies alleged to have been the inspiration for Fleming’s James Bond. Fleming gave Smithers a pistol disguised as a pen and used Smithers’s wife’s gold typewriter in Goldfinger.

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1945. Credit: INAH/Fototeca

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1944. Credit: INAH/Fototeca Nacional.

In 1940, Smithers was appointed to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. where his tasks including liaising with the U.S. Navy Department and spreading disinformation via the cocktail circuit.

In 1942 he was made the British Acting naval attache for Mexico, Central America and Panama. Smithers spent much of his time as naval attache in Mexico, where in 1943 he met Dojean Sayman, originally from St. Louis, Missouri; the couple married a few weeks later and had two daughters.

While in Mexico, Smithers pursued another of his lifelong passions – gardening – to create his own garden in Cuernavaca. He was a respected botanist and collected numerous plant specimens in Mexico for British Museum herbarium. He massed a collection of some 2,000 species of cactus at his home in Winchester, England and they accompanied him when he moved to Strasbourg.

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1945. Credit: INAH/Fototeca

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1944. Credit: INAH/Fototeca Nacional.

His interest in photography began as a means of documenting plants but quickly expanded into other subjects. He was encouraged by Claudine Laabs, a leading bird photographer, to exhibit his photos of plants and Smithers held numerous one-person shows of his work in the U.S. and elsewhere. He won many photo awards and was the recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Gold Medal for his plant photography.

These two photos of Ajijic were taken in about 1944, well before the village spread into the surrounding hills. The upper photo shows a typical local chinchorro (seine net) drying on the beach.

Later in life Smithers made series of TV programs on foreign affairs for the BBC, gained a doctorate in history from Oxford (1954) and a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Zurich (1970). He was a British parliamentarian for many years and served as Secretary General on the Council of Europe in Strasbourg from 1964 to 1969.

Smithers lived the latter part of his life in Switzerland and died on 8 June 2006 in Vico Morcote, Ticino, at the age of 92.

Sources

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

Jan 102019
 

The most elegant prose related to Lake Chapala ever written is almost certainly that by Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) in her first published work, A Sudden View, a book that New Yorker journalist Joan Acocella quite rightly thought should be read by everyone, whether or not they planned to visit Mexico.

Sybille (she disliked being called “Bedford”) was a dedicated if not especially prolific author. By the time of her death, at the age of 94 in 2006, she had completed several semi-autobiographical novels and a handful of non-fiction works including a landmark biography of her early mentor and good friend Aldous Huxley.

A Sudden View was first published in 1953 and later re-issued as A Visit to Don Otavio, the title by which it is now generally known. The book was based on a trip to Mexico in 1946-47. The book opens in New York as the author and her traveling companion, Esther Murphy Arthur (“E” in the book), start their train journey south. After exploring Mexico City and its environs, they then traveled to Guadalajara via Lake Pátzcuaro and Morelia. The remainder of the book is set almost entirely at Lake Chapala, with several relatively short and adventurous forays to other parts of the country.

Sybille was born on 16 March 1911 in Charlottenburg, near Berlin, Germany. Her German father and English mother named her Freiin Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck. Sybille had a peripatetic childhood that precluded formal schooling, though she did pick up several languages. After her father died, she lived with her mother in Sanary-sur-mer in southern France. In the 1930s, Sanary was a magnet for a wave of intellectuals fleeing from other parts of Europe, particularly from Germany. These cerebral refugees, many of them fun-loving bohemians, included Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, and – most importantly for Sybille – Aldous and Maria Huxley who became her mentors and inspiration. Occasional visitors also included D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

Sybille spent the war years in the United States where she met (and fell in love with) Esther Murphy Arthur, her traveling companion in Mexico.

A Visit to Don Otavio is best characterized as a “fictionalized travelogue.” There is no doubting the essential authenticity of Sybille’s descriptions of many of the places she and Esther visited in Mexico during their trip. Her accounts of Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Morelia, Mazatlán, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Acapulco, Taxco, Oaxaca and Puebla are convincing.

However, Sybille’s descriptions of the various villages at Lake Chapala are as much fantasy as fact. For example, the name of the fictional village San Pedro Tlayacán (where Don Otavio’s hacienda is located) may have been derived from the real-life villages of San Pedro Tesistán and San Antonio Tlayacapan.

When I first read A Visit to Don Otavio, more years ago than I care to remember, I thought that Sybille must have stayed at the Hacienda San Martín, located at the western end of the lake, near Jocotepec, but I now accept that her fictional hacienda was based on the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

On their first visit to Don Otavio’s hacienda, Sybille and Esther had to abandon their borrowed car when the road beyond Chapala gave way to a “rutted trail” that passed “some stucco villas decaying behind tall enclosures. Sixty years ago, during the heydays of the dictatorship, Chapala had been a modish resort.” The trail “consisted of two not always parallel ruts of varying depth and gauge, caked hard, strewn with boulders, cut by holes and traversed by ditches.” [107-108] This is a very similar description to that given by Ross Parmenter when he drove from Chapala to Ajijic in March 1946.

Sybille Bedford moves her locations and characters around to suit her purposes. Several of the characters said to be living in Jocotepec in the book were people who actually lived in Ajijic. The novel’s Richard Middleton and his much younger wife, Blanche, for example, were based on an English couple, Herbert and Georgette Johnson.

Val Biro. Illustration for A Visit to Don Otavio, Folio Society edition, 1990.

Val Biro. Illustration for A Visit to Don Otavio, Folio Society edition, 1990.

The lake itself is the ever-present backdrop to A Visit to Don Otavio. Sybille found the views across it and its changes of color enthralling. Early in her stay with Don Otavio, she remarks how “In the late afternoon it is smooth like gelatine and shot through with unexpected reverberated colours, ruby and amethyst, cornelian and reseda.” [117] Some weeks later, it is dark by the time they return from Mazatlán but the lake is equally beautiful: “On the lake, the night was very clear, and filled with shooting stars. The mild water sparkled, phosphorescent, around our prow. Fish leaped, shone, and fell again. The shore lay softly, half-divined.” [179]

By spring 1947, Sybille and Esther were readying themselves to return north. Looking back in her memoirs (Quicksands), Sybille reflected that leaving Mexico was something of a wrench: “Foreigners are apt to get stuck – oh those Anglo-American enclaves: it’s the climate, the cheapness of living, the throngs of servants (rumour had got through about people now doing their own washing-up in England).” [Quicksands, 12-13]

By the summer of 1947, Sybille was back in Europe where she began writing her Mexico book in July 1949 while living in Rome. When A Visit to Don Otavio was published in 1953 it was a revelation and established Sybille as a serious writer with an individual style and viewpoint. In many ways it is a stunningly insightful work, penetrating the psyche of Mexicans of diverse backgrounds in a manner that is essentially timeless.

A Visit to Don Otavio marked the beginning of an impressive career, in which periods of self-doubt and introspection were punctuated by lengthy stints of powerful writing. A Visit to Don Otavio was followed in 1956 by Sybille’s best-known novel, A Legacy, and a series of other books before she reached her peak with her brilliant work, Jigsaw, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1989.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Fernando Partida-Rocha for helping explain the links between Sybille Bedford and the Villa Montecarlo via an exchange of emails.

Sources

  • Joan Acocella. 2005. “Piecework: The writings of Sybille Bedford.” New Yorker, 18 April 2005.
  • Sybille Bedford. 1953. A Sudden View (London: Victor Gollancz); reissued as A Visit to Don Otavio (William Collins, 1960). Page numbers for quotations are from the Folio Society edition, 1990.
  • Selina Hastings. Undated. “Sybille Bedford remembered.” The Royal Society of Literature website.  [30 December 2018]
  • Fernando Partida-Rocha. 2017. “Sybille Bedford, genial autora de “A visit to Don Otavio””. El Informador, 19 June 2017.

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

Jan 032019
 

This post features one of the more evocative photographic images of Lake Chapala taken in the 1930s. Depicting a “dug-out canoe” and fisherman against an evening sky, this carefully staged photo was used to illustrate an article about central Mexico that reached a worldwide audience because it appeared in the The American Foreign Service Journal.

Anon. October 1935. "Native Fisherman on Lake Chapala"

Anon. October 1935. Original caption: “Native Fisherman in his dug-out canoe on Lake Chapala”

The article, by Josephus Daniels – then American Ambassador to Mexico – describes a get-to-know-Mexico junket offered in 1935 to the diplomatic corps by President Lázaro Cárdenas the year after he took office. The President offered the use of his private train for the ten-day trip that, in mid-October, took Mexico City-based diplomats and their partners to various locations in Michoacán (the President’s home state) and Jalisco.

After a brief stay in Guadalajara, where the diplomats “watched from the Governor’s Palace a review of some fifteen thousand school children, lasting one hour or more,” they were driven to Lake Chapala for a splendid lunch at the “Quinta Monte Carlo” (Villa Montecarlo), where they enjoyed caldo michi while listening to music played by a local band.

The photo of the fisherman and his boat is uncredited. Does anyone know who the photographer was?

Source

  • Josephus Daniels. (American Ambassador to Mexico). 1936. “The Diplomatic Corps Tours Central Mexico in the Presidential Train.” The American Foreign Service Journal. Vol XIII, #2 (February 1936), 70-73, 110, 112, 114.

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.

Dec 272018
 

According to American writer Oakley Hall, the novelist Christopher Veiel (born in 1925) was living at Lake Chapala at the same time he was in 1952. A New York Times reviewer described Veiel as looking “a little like a British F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

veiel-hearts-and-heads-coverIt is not known what Veiel was working on, if anything, during his time in Mexico, but his first (and apparently only) novel was published two years later, in 1954, in the U.K. as Intrigue (London: H. Hamilton), and in the U.S. as Hearts and Heads (Boston, U.S.: Little, Brown and Company).

Michael Hargraves says that at the time of its publication Veiel was living in Connecticut, having settled there after some extensive traveling.

Veiel was also the translator (from French) of Francois Clement’s book, The Disobedient Son (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956) in which “Juan, an ignorant but proud and ambitious Indian, learns the ways of power in Veracruz and Mexico City, and returns to his village to lead the fight against those attempting to become the village bosses.”

The Kirkus Review of Hearts and Heads, describes it as “A frivolous entertainment” and “saucy and skittish”. The novel “follows the emotional escapades of Edward Wallingford and Constance, his young wife, as their first months of marriage take them to Geneva where Edward does not find with Constance the sexual incentive he has had with other girls… Constance, on the other hand, while appreciative that Edward is “such a rock” finds something softer in Pierre – the brother of the housekeeper of their neighbor Carlos, and now their chauffeur. Constance decides to marry Pierre but postponing the admission to Edward, the three leave for England where Pierre, in a moment of petulant pride, bares the past and turns on Edward – with a poker. Edward almost dies, and both Constance and Pierre are tried but cleared when Edward comes to their defense…”

“A. Christopher Veiel” (it is unclear what name the initial A stood for) was born in Switzerland and educated at Chillon College and the University of Geneva. He became a teacher of French, German and Latin and retained his Swiss passport after moving to the U.S. in about 1949 to work at Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut.

Choate alumni, according to Wikipedia, include President John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, playwright Edward Albee, novelist John Dos Passos, investor Brett Icahn, philanthropist Paul Mellon, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, actors Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Paul Giamatti, and businesswoman Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 7 July 2014.

Sources

  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • New York Times, 24 July 1955, 89.

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.

Dec 202018
 

After 1974, when Neill James, the Grande Dame of Ajijic, closed her store and retired, the wonderful gardens of her home – Quinta Tzintzuntzan – were no longer normally open to the public.

However, in 1977, James agreed to open her grounds every Sunday afternoon as an art garden (jardín del arte) for a new artists’ group, the Young Painters of Ajijic (Jovenes Pintores de Ajijic). Most of these young artists had started out by taking the free weekly classes at the children’s libraries James had started. Those classes were the very beginning of the very successful Children’s Art Program, now run by the Lake Chapala Society.

Pintores Jovenes de Ajijic. Credit: Dionicio Morales.

Pintores Jovenes de Ajijic. Standing (l to r): Javier Garabito Tovar, ?, ?, Dionicio Morales López, José Manuel Castañeda; seated: Félix Vargas. Credit: Dionicio Morales.

The members of Young Artists of Ajijic included organizer Dionicio Morales López, Antonio López Vega, Daniel Palma Pérez, Julián Pulido Pedrosa, José Manuel Castañeda, Alejandro Martínez and Victoria Corona.

The first show by the Young Painters of Ajijic was held from 11.30am to 4.30pm on Sunday 28 August 1977. The show included oils, acrylics, watercolors, charcoal drawings and prints, and the artists had combined sales totaling over $12,000 pesos ($550). Exhibitors at the event, besides those named above, included Antonio Cárdenas Perales and Victor Romero. Entertainment was provided by the Folkloric Dance Group of Ajijic and the wind music group of Luis López.

Poster for inaugural event [Handwritten year should be 1977]

Poster for inaugural event [Handwritten year should be ’77]

The Sunday “garden of art” shows were a regular weekly event for some time. The first non-Mexicans to exhibit with the group were Diana Powell and Sid Schwartzman.

The following year, in mid-March, the artists held what was billed as Ajijic’s “first annual cultural week” in the gardens, with art exhibits, guitar concerts and ballet recitals, among other attractions. On this occasion, the entertainment included the Folkloric Dance Group of the University of Guadalajara (directed by Rafael Zamarripa), concerts performed by the U. de G.’s School of Music and a group conducted by Javier Garabito Tovar (standing on the left of the photo), as well as a stage play – “El Demonio Azul” (The Blue Devil) – directed by Félix Vargas (seated in the wheelchair in the photo).

Despite hopes for a repeat event the following year, sadly the 1978 week-long show was the only “Ajijic cultural week” ever held.

The Young Artists Group was the forerunner of the Asociación de Artistas de Ajijic (AAA).

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Dionicio Morales and Antonio López Vega for generously sharing their memories of the Ajijic Young Artists Group.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter, 13 August 1977, 10 September 1977, 8 April 1978.

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.

Dec 132018
 

When American travel writer Harry Franck hiked from Atequiza station to Chapala in 1912, he finally arrived just as night was falling. The Mexican Revolution was underway and some of the local hotels had been closed for several months; others had already shuttered their doors.

Franck discovered that:

“once in the cobble-paved village I must pay high in the “Hotel Victor”— the larger ones being closed since anarchy had confined the wealthy to their cities — for a billowy bed and a chicken centuries old served by waiters in evening dress and trained-monkey manners. The free and easy old casa de asistencia of Guadalajara was far more to my liking. But at least the landlord loaned me a pair of trunks for a moonlight swim in Lake Chapala, whispering some secret to its sandy beaches in the silence of the silver-flooded night.”

The following day:

“Waves were dashing high at the foot of the town in the morning. Its fishermen are ever fearful of its fury and go to pray for a safe return from every trip before their patron St. Peter in the twin-spired village church up toward which the lake was surging this morning as if in anger that this place of refuge should be granted its legitimate victims.”

Harry Franck. 1912. Photo of view from Ribera Castellanos.

Harry Franck. 1912. Photo of view from Ribera Castellanos (from Franck, 1916).

Because of the stormy conditions, Franck decided it was wiser to hike back to Atequiza, rather than risk taking an open boat to the Ribera Castellanos hotel near Ocotlán. From Atequiza, he took a train to Ocotlán:

“From Ocotlan station a broad level highway, from which a glimpse is had of the sharp, double peak of Colima volcano, runs out to Ribera Castellanos. Sam Rogers was building a tourist hotel there. Its broad lawn sloped down to the edge of Lake Chapala, lapping at the shores like some smaller ocean; from its verandas spread a view of sixty miles across the Mexican Titicaca, with all vacation sports, a perennial summer without undue heat, and such sunsets as none can describe. The hacienda San Andres, also American owned, embraced thousands of acres of rich bottom land on which already many varieties of fruit were producing marvelously, as well as several mountain peaks and a long stretch of lake front. The estate headquarters was like some modern railway office, with its staff of employees.”

After a couple of nights at Ribera Castellanos, Franck took the hotel launch across the lake to La Palma, from where he hiked towards Sahuayo and into Michoacán.

Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was one of the foremost travel writers of the first half of the twentieth century, often taking temporary employment to help finance the next stage of his trip. Franck was a prolific writer, turning out some thirty travel books in a very productive life, including volumes on Mexico, Spain, Andes, Germany, Patagonia, the West Indies, China, Japan, Siam (Thailand), the Moslem World, Greece, Scandinavia, British Isles, Soviet Union, Hawaii and Alaska.

Franck served his country in both world wars. In the first world war, he was a Second Lieutenant with the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris. When the second world war began, Franck was urged by his friends to rejoin the army, “to teach geography to generals.” Franck signed up on June 15, 1942, and was made a General.

During the latter stages of his life, Franck lectured on board cruise ships touring the Caribbean, South America and the Mediterranean.

Tramping through Mexico, Guatemala & Honduras: Being the Random notes of an Incurable Vagabond was Franck’s fourth book. It was dedicated to the “Mexican peon – for emancipation”. Franck entered the country in 1912 armed with a “vest pocket automatic so much in vogue in advertising pages that season”, and with the clear intention of trying to see and experience everything possible within a short time, by foot and by horseback, from schools to jails, from cemeteries to mines.

Because of his direct contact with ordinary people, Franck’s descriptions of their customs, dress and personalities usually carry some authority. For instance, he provides a detailed account of a mine in Guanajuato, and its workers, based on when he worked there as an overseer. But, as one contemporary reviewer pointed out, “Franck is always too hurried. We are very conscious of the forced marches, of the early risings, of the day-long, perspiring tramps. He is fond of calling himself a vagabond, an idler, a tramp, but that is just what he is not.”

Sources

  • Anon. Tramping through Mexico (review), The Nation, Vol 104 (Feb 1, 1917) p 138.
  • Harry A. Franck. 1916 Tramping through Mexico, Guatemala & Honduras: Being the Random notes of an Incurable Vagabond. New York: The Century Co.
  • Katharine Franck Huettner. Undated. “Harry A. Franck: A Brief Biography” [April 3, 2005]

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.

Dec 062018
 

There was a wave of positive energy for the arts in Ajijic either side of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and its related cultural activities in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Perhaps the largest single art fair held in Ajijic during these years was the Fiesta de Arte held at Calle 16 de Septiembre #33, the home and garden of art patrons Frances and Ned Windham.

Invitation card for Fiesta de Arte

Invitation card for 1971 Fiesta de Arte

The Fiesta de Arte was held on Saturday 15 May 1971. Planning for the show, originally called the “First Lakeside Artists Fair” was well underway by April. The organizers were John K. Peterson and Peter Huf, who enlisted the help of Beth Avery, Donald Hogan (who as murdered a few months later) and several other artists. They expected about 20 artists to take part.

A week before the show, the advance publicity in the Guadalajara Reporter named 29 artists whose work – paintings, photography, block prints, serigraphs and sculptures – would be on show and said that more than 500 people were expected to attend the one-day event.

Reports after the Fair show that the projected numbers were surpassed. While almost all the exhibitors were foreign artists, there was one especially interesting local artist: Fernando García, a self-taught carver.

García was an employee of Robert de Boton, husband of internationally-acclaimed painter Alice de Boton. When French-born Robert retired from biochemistry, the couple moved to Mexico where Robert began to dabble in carving and sculpture. When García expressed an interest in carving, Robert encouraged him to see what he could do. García worked by candlelight late into the night for several weeks and completed several “small primitives of extraordinary beauty and sensitivity”, all of which sold instantly.

The list of exhibitors at the Fiesta del Art included Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; Tom Faloon; John Frost; Fernando García; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice Hunt; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; John Maybra Kilpatrick; Gail Michel; Bert Miller; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Walt Shou; Frances Showalter; Sloane; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass; and Agustín Velarde.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 3 April 1971; 24 April 1971; 8 May 1971; 22 May 1971; 5 June 1971.

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.

Nov 292018
 

Dorothy Garlock (1919-2018), the best-selling American author of romantic novels, used Lake Chapala as a setting for parts of Amber-eyed Man, first published in 1982.

Garlock, who also used the pen names Johanna Phillips, Dorothy Phillips and Dorothy Glenn, wrote more than 50 novels in total. She was born in Grand Saline, Texas, on 22 June 1919 and died in Clear Lake, Iowa, on 6 April 2018.

It is unclear how much personal knowledge the author had of Chapala but she had the reputation throughout her writing career of being a meticulous fact checker.

In Amber-eyed Man, originally written under the nom de plume Johanna Phillips, “When chance forces Meredith Moore to seek refuge at Ward Sanderson’s Mexican estate, she thinks the worst is behind her. But her host, magnetic and mysterious, is alternately cold, then kind. Winning the trust of Ward’s small daughter and invalid bother, Meredith discovers the warmth that she, a foster child, never knew. Yet is it Ward’s love she craves, and the passion smoldering in the depths of his amber eyes …”

Early in the novel, Ward explains to his young daughter that, “There’s an American colony in Chapala. They bring in American movies occasionally.” His right-hand man, Luis Calderón, later asks Meredith if “Perhaps you would be interested in joining me to see the surrounding countryside. Lake Chapala is very beautiful, you know.”

Subsequently it emerges that “the estate there at Chapala was a lettuce ranch that employed a large number of people.” This sounds like pure invention; I have never come across any other reference to a lettuce farm in the Lake Chapala area, certainly not one large enough to employ a large number of workers.

Returning to the novel, Ward was immensely wealthy and “divided his time between the Rancho de Margarieta (sic!), the lettuce ranch at Chapala, Tulsa, and the plant in Guadalajara.” The latter is an electronics plant. Bearing in mind that the book was written in 1982, this signaled the start of the Guadalajara region’s reputation as Mexico’s Silicon Valley.

Much later in the story, Ward and Meredith returned to “the hacienda in Chapala.”

In combination with a second novel – The Planting Season (1984) – Amber-eyed Man was reprinted in 2008 as Promisegivers.

Garlock’s books were incredibly popular. Translated into 18 languages, she sold an estimated 20 million print copies in total. Seven of her books made the New York Times best seller list and Garlock was named one of the ten most popular writers of women’s fiction for four consecutive years from 1985 to 1988.

Like Barbara Bickmore, Garlock did not set out to have a writing career at a young age. She worked as a reporter and bookkeeper for the Clear Lake Mirror Reporter for 14 years and only began her writing career when she and her husband traveled to the southern U.S. in 1976 to escape the northern winter.

She later recalled that she became so bored on the trip that she bought a second-hand manual typewriter for $50 and drafted an entire book before she returned home. She had completed three more before entering one in a local contest. She won the contest, after which one of the judges, an agent, sold the rights to it and her other completed manuscripts to a New York publisher. Garlock never looked back.

Garlock’s books include: Love and Cherish (1980); The Searching Hearts (1982); Glorious Dawn (1982); A Love for All Time (1983); Homeplace (1991); A Gentle Giving (1993); Tenderness (1993); Forever Victoria (1993); She Wanted Red Velvet (1996); This Loving Land (1996); More Than Memory (2001); Train from Marietta (2006); On Tall Pine Lake (2007); Will You Still Be Mine? (2007); The moon looked down (2009).

Sources

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.

Nov 222018
 

Ajijic author (or as she preferred “authoress”) Neill James included several paragraphs about artists in her article “I Live in Ajijic”, first published in October 1945.

These names were a useful starting point for me when I began researching the artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala. Over the past decade, I have looked into the lives and works of all of the artists named by James and have now published short profiles of all but one of them.

The standout, and noteworthy exception, is “Lillian Bruner.” The reason I haven’t yet written about her is very simple: despite intensive searches, and trying a variety of alternative spellings, I have turned up absolutely nothing of value about her or her art!

James’ description of her is engagingly brief:

  • “Pretty blonde Lillian Bruner, a Greek muralist, tarried for a brief visit.”

Your help is needed, please. I’ve had a soft spot for pretty blondes ~ and have been hoping to find this particular pretty blonde – for a long time. Can anyone offer any clues as to the real identity, life or work of “Lillian Bruner”?

Source

  • Neill James. 1945. “I Live in Ajijic.” Modern Mexico (Washington D.C.), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 26-27.

Other Art Mysteries

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.

Nov 152018
 

The charismatic writer and artist Mort Carl, no doubt wearing his accustomed bandana tied in front of his neck, first arrived in Ajijic in the mid-1940s. Not long afterwards he married Helen Kirtland Goodridge; together they established the first weaving business in Ajijic, an enterprise that became known as Telares Ajijic.

Mortimer R. Carl was born into a Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio, on 26 June 1905. His father, Benjamin Edward Carl (1877-1930), had been born in Ohio and (in 1910) owned or managed a brass company. Mort Carl’s mother, Minnie Rosenblum (1884-1965) had been born in Austro-Hungary and taken by her family to the U.S. as an infant.

The family was presumably fairly well-off since Mort and his mother spent the summer of 1908 in the country. Mort’s brother Norman was born in about 1915.

Little is known about Mort’s early life as a writer and artist except that he spent time in Woodstock, New York. He started his creative career as an artist and then tried his hand at writing, before rededicating himself to painting and sculpture.

When Carl first arrived in Ajijic in 1946, he initially stayed, like so many before him, at the small lakeside inn belonging to the Heuer siblings. This is also when he met Helen Kirtland for the first time.

Carl Mort. ca 1981. Antiphon.

Carl Mort. ca 1981. Antiphon.

After marrying Helen Kirtland, Carl set up his art studio in the family home (today the Mi México store) but continued to rent a “small two-room house with a patio and kitchen area” as a writing studio a couple of blocks away, at the intersection of Calle Constitución and Ramón Corona. From about 1950 to 1952, that building was the always-hopping Club Alacrán (Scorpion Club), run by adventurous Black American artist Ernest Alexander and his Canadian partner Dorothy (“Dolly”) Whelan.

Soon after their marriage, Kirtland and Carl saw an opportunity to start a weaving business. Kirtland (who had changed her name to Helen Carl) had studied fashion and worked as a dress designer in New York prior to moving to Mexico. She provided the creative genius behind the project. The Carls found some small dusty handlooms sitting in a forgotten corner of the Posada Ajijic and bought them from the inn’s owner, Josefina Ramirez.

The weaving business quickly became a success story, so much so that poor imitations of several of Helen’s original designs are still being made in Ajijic today!

Carl Mort in 1955 (Credit: El Informador)

Carl Mort in 1955 (Credit: El Informador)

In 1955 Mort Carl held an exhibition of his latest artwork in Guadalajara. The two-week exhibit of twenty modernist abstracts opened at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco (Galeana 158, Guadalajara) on 20 October. The works had such uninspiring names as “Construcción en negro y blanco”, “Construcción vertical” and “Composición en color.” The artist was quoted as claiming that his paintings needed to be seen and felt, not understood. Carl had previously (March 1954) held a show of his paintings at Galeria San Angel (Dr. Galvez #23) in Mexico City.

Unfortunately, life in Ajijic was not all a bed of roses for Mort and Helen Carl. When their marriage broke down, Mort left Ajijic and moved to Mexico City, where he set up a new weaving business.

He subsequently remarried and lived for some time in San Francisco before settling in Chester, New Jersey.

Paintings by Mort Carl were exhibited alongside woodblocks by Blance Small at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery in San Francisco from February to May 1973.

In New Jersey, Carl became a moderately successful artist, specializing in large metal sculptures. The example in the image, which comes from the Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog, is entitled Antiphon. The 2-meter high sculpture was acquired and installed in about 1981 by Chester Public Library in New Jersey.

Mort Carl died in New Jersey in November 1985 and left his body to Columbia University Medical Center.

Acknowledgment

My heartfelt thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her personal knowledge and memories of Mort Carl.

Sources

  • El Informador: 19 October 1955, 7; 20 October 1955; 22 October 1955.
  • Katie Goodridge Ingram. 2011. “Helen Kirtland Goodridge”, chapter in Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers. Mexico: Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR, 91-100.
  • Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston, New York): 12 September 1947; 8 October 1952, p 15
  • Oakland Tribune, 25 Feb 1973, 128.
  • Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog.

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.

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