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Jun 032021
 

New York-born author John Sinclair was already the successful author of a “Western cowboy” novel, published by MacMillan, when he decided to hide out in Ajijic for a few weeks in 1946-47 to write his next novel.

According to a newspaper article in December 1946, Sinclair planned to:

“write another novel in Ajijic, which is a hamlet of 2,000 Mayan-Indians and 14 white people, three of whom are from Europe. Sinclair said he was inspired to move to Ajijic for at least six months by the book “Village in the Sun.” It is by the late Dane Chandos, an English writer. Sinclair pronounced the book, which is published by Putnam, an English classic.”

We can quibble about details (“Mayan-Indians”) and ponder precisely who was included in the “14 white people, three of whom are from Europe,” but clearly Sinclair was keeping up with the latest books. Village in the Sun had been published in fall the previous year, and Nigel Millett—one half of the ”Dane Chandos” writing duo—had died unexpectedly in March 1946, only months before Sinclair announced his intention to travel to Lake Chapala.

Sinclair-Death in the Claimshack

Getting to Ajijic in 1946 was not that simple. Sinclair, who was based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, took a bus to Tucson, followed by a train to Guadalajara, bus to Chapala and finally a small launch to Ajijic, where he planned to stay several months. However, less than two months later, it was reported that Sinclair was on his way back to Santa Fe, earlier than anticipated, “because he has important mail communication with his publishers in the East and wanted to be sure of deliveries, going and coming.”

Apparently, Sinclair had already completed his next book, Death in the Claimshack, announced in February 1947, despite also writing regular “fascinating letters of the beauty and charm of the life on the edge of Lake Chapala, in the land of perpetual Indian summer.”

Sinclair had an adventurous upbringing. Born to a wealthy family in New York City in 1902, his father died when he was young and he was brought up from age 10 by a grandfather and uncle, both in Scotland. Sinclair graduated from Cambridge University and completed an apprenticeship in animal husbandry before returning to North America, where his family was prepared to finance the establishment of a family-owned ranch in British Columbia. A stop-off in New Mexico, where he fell instantly in love with saddle ponies, cowboys and the landscape, completely changed his life. When he told his family of his intention to live in New Mexico, he was disinherited.

Sinclair worked as a cowboy for fourteen years in New Mexico, before turning his hand to writing. By 1936, he was living in the growing literary community of Santa Fe. He worked for the Museum of New Mexico and established the Lincoln Historic Site in the old courthouse of Lincoln, while working on his first novel, In Time of Harvest, published in 1943. He wrote his other novels while employed as superintendent of the Coronado State Monument near Bernalillo. He described his life as “like that of Thoreau, one of simplicity and solitude.”

Sinclair’s other novels were Cousin Drewey and the Holy Twister (1980) and The Night the Bear came off the Mountain (1991). He also wrote several non-fiction works, including New Mexico, The Shining Land (1980), Cowboy Riding Country (1982), and A Cowboy Writer in New Mexico: The Memoirs of John L. Sinclair (published posthumously in 1996), as well as articles and short stories for the New Mexico Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post.

Among the many awards he won for his writing were two Western Heritage Wrangler Awards, the Western Writers’ Golden Spur Award, a New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts, and an honorary life membership in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

John Sinclair died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in December 1993.

Sources

  • Ben E. Pingenot. 1998. “Review of A Cowboy Writer in New Mexico: The Memoirs of John L. Sinclair By John Sinclair.” Great Plains Quarterly, Spring 1998 (University of Nebraska – Lincoln).
  • The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 06 Dec 1946, 11; 22 Jan 1947, 5;
  • Los Angeles Times, 20 Dec, 1993, 199.

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

May 272021
 

August Lohr was an Austrian landscape artist, born in 1842 in Hallein, near Salzburg. Lohr lived and worked in Europe, the U.S. and Mexico. After studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, Lohr initially specialized in painting Alpine scenery. He and his Austrian wife, Franziska Geuhs, had three daughters, Rosina, Elise and Elsa, all born in Munich. From 1879 to 1881 Lohr worked with the Munich art professor Ludwig Braun to paint a panoramic view of the Battle of Sedan. The two men also worked on panoramic scenes of the battles of Weissenburg and St. Privat.

By 1884, Lohr had traveled to New Orleans to supervise the installation of the panoramic painting The Battle of Sedan, displayed for the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans (1884-1885). Later in 1884, Lohr joined William Wehner in establishing the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee, where they commissioned approximately twenty German artists to paint monumental “cycloramas” depicting the Storming of Missionary Ridge, the Battle of Chattanooga and the Battle of Atlanta.

In 1887, Lohr, in association with Frederick Heine, purchased the Wells Street studio from the American Panorama Company and created the panorama Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion. Several other panoramas were also produced at the Wells Street studio.

Although his name was still listed in the 1890 Milwaukee city directory, he left Milwaukee for Mexico in December 1890.

lohr-lake-chapala-ca-1899

August Lohr : Lake Chapala, Mexico. ca 1905

Lohr established himself in Mexico City and began to take on commissions including interior decorations and murals.

In September 1898, when it was reported that “Mr August Lohr, the well known landscape painter,” had just left the city for California to paint “a grand panorama representing the battle of Manila for an American syndicate,” Lohr had only just “completed painting the interior decorations of a restaurant” with his daughter, Elsa. While Lohr was in California, Elsa was busy painting decorations for the Requiem mass about to be held “in the Profesa church in memory of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria.” That church is in downtown Mexico City. (Mexican Herald)

“The Battle of Manila Bay” was painted in 1898, after the end of the Spanish American War (1895-1898), by Lohr and several other panorama artists in San Francisco. The following year, the San Francisco Sentinel reported that he was the manager of a company that was planning to exhibit panoramas in Mexico.

The Lohr home in Mexico City was in the Santa María suburb.

Only a few months before Lohr embarked on a trip to Europe in 1909, he had designed the decorations for the Aztec parlor at the then recently opened Hotel Geneve on Calle Londres. According to a contemporary news report, the Hotel had “four public parlors, each with different decorations.” The Aztec parlor was intended to showcase “an invaluable collection of genuine Aztec relics” which “should prove of immense interest to the tourists…”

Lohr continued to reside in Mexico with his family until his death in 1920. Mexico paintings by Lohr are known with dates ranging from 1899 to 1915.

In 1891, Lohr’s painting of Chapultepec Castle was exhibited at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. In 1899, Lohr exhibited two landscape paintings (of Mt. Tamaulipas and the Santa Cruz Mountains in California) in San Francisco at the Mechanics Institute Fair.

Lohr’s oil painting “Lake Chapala, Mexico” (image) was probably painted circa 1905.

Acknowledgment

  • This is an updated version of a post first published in 2014. My sincere thanks to researcher Juan Manuel Campo for correcting various details in the original version, thereby greatly improving the content of this post.

Sources

  • German-American Artists in Early Milwaukee, A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter C. Merrill.
  • August Lohr (1842-1920) (Museum of Wisconsin Art)
  • The Mexican Herald: 23 Sep 1898, 8; 15 Oct 1899, 2; 14 February 1909.

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.

 Posted by at 5:39 am  Tagged with:
May 202021
 

American composer and conductor H. Owen Reed (1910-2014), a professor at Michigan State University, spent five months in Mexico over the winter of 1948-49. After several weeks in Mexico City and Cuernavaca, with side trips to Taxco and Acapulco, he spent a couple of months in Chapala. This trip, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, was the inspiration for his most famous composition, “La Fiesta Mexicana: a Mexican Folk Song Symphony for Band.”

H. Owen Reed

H. Owen Reed

The idea for the symphony first came to him after reading Stuart Chase’s fine book, Mexico; a study of two Americas (1946). Reed envisioned a three-movement symphony referencing folk songs and popular music that would also lend itself to choreography. And, indeed, though usually performed by dedicated wind orchestras, “La Fiesta Mexicana” has sometimes been presented in conjunction with costumed dancers and staging.

The opening movement of the symphony, Prelude and Aztec Dance, is based on a march Reed heard in Cuernavaca and Aztec dance music from central Mexico. The second and third movements—Mass and Carnival—were inspired by Reed’s time at Lake Chapala: “In a small choir loft in Chapala, I heard the chant from the Liber Usualis which I used in the second movement…. The two-against-three rhythm of the two bells used throughout “La Fiesta Mexicana” was a standard cliche of the young musicians who seemed to have little respect for my early morning sleep. Again this was in Chapala.” Part of the third movement makes use of a mariachi rendition of El Son de la Negra. [1]

The work was premiered by the US Marine Band in 1949. The first major label commercial recording, released in 1954, “burst on the classical record scene and became an overnight sensation. Music lovers were dazzled by the color and inventiveness of the score.” [2]

Score of La Fiesta MexicanaThe work marked a milestone in the “genre of long-form compositions for wind ensemble” and has been recorded dozens of times since.

The score includes the following notes on each movement:

“I. Prelude and Aztec Dance — The tumbling of the church bells at midnight officially announces the opening of the Fiesta, which has previously been unofficially announced by the setting off of fireworks, the drinking of tequila and pulque, and the migration of thousands of Mexicans and Indians to the center of activity — the high court surrounding the cathedral. After a brave effort at gaiety, the celebrators settle down to a restless night, until the early quiet of the Mexican morning is once more shattered by the church bells and fireworks. At mid-morning a band is heard in the distance. However, attention is soon focused upon the Aztec dancers, brilliantly plumed and masked, who dance in ever-increasing frenzy to a dramatic climax.”

“II. Mass — The tolling of the bells is now a reminder that the Fiesta is, after all, a religious celebration. The rich and poor slowly gather within the great stone walls of the old cathedral [for reverent] homage to their Virgin.”

“III. Carnival — Mexico is at its best on the days of the Fiesta — days on which passion governs the love, hatred and joys of the Mestizo and the Indio. There [are] entertainment and excitement for both young and old — the itinerant circus, the market, the bullfight, the town band, and always the cantinas with the ever present band of mariachi.”

Notes:

[1] Reed’s lecture notes on La Fiesta Mexicana  [6 May 2021]

[2] Phillip Nones. 2013. “H. Owen Reed at 103: The Dean of American Composers Celebrates a Birthday.” Blog post dated 19 June 2013.  [27 April 2021]

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

May 132021
 

Hari (Harry) Matthew Kidd (1899-1964) was a painter, printmaker and writer associated with Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), El Paso (Texas) and Key West (Florida). Kidd was living in Chapala in the mid-1940s when he first met his future wife Edythe Wallach, then living in Ajijic. Kidd had his paintings in a group show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala in December 1944, a month after Wallach had held her own one-person show there.

Born in Detroit to an Englishman and his Canadian wife, Hari Kidd attended high school in El Paso before enlisting as a teenager in the Royal Canadian Air Force which later sent him to England to paint a portrait of General Hugh Montague Trenchard (later 1st Viscount Trenchard). Kidd returned from Europe in 1923 and studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His first wife, Elizabeth, also an artist, was possibly a fellow student. The young couple left from Boston in May 1927 on an extended trip to Europe, returning to Philadelphia in early April of the following year.

In 1933, apparently on health grounds (Kidd had lifetime mobility issues), and seemingly without Elizabeth, he moved to El Paso. He soon acquired a reputation as a fine artist and mixed in an illustrious social circle that included sculptor Urbici Soler. He was also a good friend of the British conductor Leopold Stokowski, director of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

Hari Kidd. Men riding freight cars. undated.

Hari Kidd. Men riding freight cars. undated. Sold by Heritage Auctions, 2015.

Kidd’s work was in numerous local exhibits including a one-person show at the Crouse Galleries in El Paso in 1937. During his years in El Paso, Kidd gave art classes from his studio. Among his students was the El Paso artist Jake Erlich who stood 2.59 meters (8 feet 6 inches) tall and was widely believed at the time (even if inaccurately) to be the tallest man in the world.

Hari Kidd also turned his hand to writing, sending letters, columns and articles (often illustrated with charming drawings) to the El Paso Herald-Post. From El Paso, he made several trips into Mexico, including one to San José Purua in 1939 and another, in about 1942, further south into Oaxaca, spending close to a year in Tehuantepec and Ixtepec. These trips provided material for several illustrated articles for Mexico Magazine whose editor, Lloyd Buckingham, lived in El Paso.

The 1940 US Census lists Kidd as “divorced”, living on his own in El Paso. He had already had a painting included in the All Texas General Exhibit which opened in January 1940 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. A year later, his first major solo show, of oil paintings at the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco was warmly received by knowledgeable critics. Simultaneously he had a solo show of watercolors at Gump’s store in the same city.

That same year, further east, his work was chosen for the Texas-Oklahoma General Exhibition and he had a solo show (in October 1941) at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, where a reviewer commented (favorably) that Kidd was a “colossal egotist, sure of himself as a creative artist.”

Kidd’s social realism pictures frequently depicted Mexican people and topics, based on explorations along the Río Grande. According to several accounts, Kidd was sufficiently famous to have been visited in El Paso by Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

Harry Kidd. Date unknown. Untitled. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee

Harry Kidd. Date unknown. Untitled. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee

Back in El Paso in 1944, Kidd persuaded a local hospital for wounded Army soldiers to hang his paintings in their rooms as inspiration to speed their recuperation. He also held a show of painting at the Mexico Magazine Galleries in El Paso, which was operated by fellow artist (and Lloyd’s wife) Hilda Burlingham. That exhibition was then sent to the American Airlines office in New York City.

In late 1944, Kidd was back in Mexico and living at Lake Chapala. He is one of just three artists named in a short piece in the Guadalajara daily El Informador about the founding of a “Chapala Art Center” and its first exhibition, held at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala from 10-17 December. (Edythe Wallach, his future wife, had held a solo exhibition at the same venue a month earlier). Betty Binkley of Santa Fe and English artist Muriel Lytton-Bernard are also named in the newspaper. The show also included works by the famous American surrealist Sylvia Fein, Ann Medalie, Otto Butterlin, Ernesto Linares (Lyn Butterlin), and Jaime López Bermúdez.

Hari Kidd was friends with Tennessee Williams and it may even have been Hari Kidd who first suggested that the great writer spend the summer of 1945 in Chapala.

Hari Kidd married Edythe Wallach in Key West, Florida, in March 1946. Later that year, the Miami News reported that Mr Kidd was preparing for a solo show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in December. That show was followed by a second solo show, at the same venue, of Kidd’s “new and sensational” War Series of watercolors, which firmly established his reputation as an artist of note.

In September 1947, Kidd held another solo show of watercolors, at the Pittsburgh Water Color Society.

Hari Kidd. "Spring" (mother and child). Painted at Key-West; undated.

Hari Kidd. “Spring” (mother and child). Painted at Key West; undated. Sold by Butterscotch Auction Gallery, 2017.

Both Edythe and Hari Kidd were in a three-person show at the Miami Beach Art Center which opened in January 1948. The third artist was Eugenie Schein of New York. Edythe exhibited oil paintings “favoring Mexican themes” while Hari showed both oils and watercolors. According to the press notice, “Both artists have spent a number of years in Mexico and Spain and their work reflects this influence.” They also participated, with Elvira Reilly, in another three-person show at the Martello Towers Gallery in Key West in January 1954.

In 1964, due to her husband’s declining health, Edythe and Hari moved to Tucson, Arizona, where Hari Kidd-artist extraordinaire-died in hospital four months later.

A retrospective of Kidd’s art opened at the El Paso Museum in October 1967; his widow attended the opening. Individual works by Kidd have also appeared periodically in group shows, including two at the Harmon Gallery in Naples, Florida in 1975.

In 1990, Edythe Kidd donated 135 of her husband’s works (the largest known collection of his work, comprising oils, lithographs, water-colors, gauches and cancels) to  the University of the South, a private, coeducational liberal arts college in Sewanee, Tennessee. According to the university journal, “It is not known why the collection was donated to Sewanee, however it may have been on account of his friendship with Tennessee Williams, donor of ten million dollars to the University following his own death in 1985.”

A posthumous retrospective of his work was held in 2010 at the El Paso Museum of Art (EPMA). Examples of his work are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Atlanta Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Mary O’Neill, Visual Resources Librarian at The University of the South, for graciously providing me with copies of documents and images in the library archives.

Sources

  • Andrew Erlich and Cara Van Miriah. 2012. The Long Shadows (a fictional work about Jake Erlich; chapter 25 is entitled “Harry Kidd”). eBookIt.com.
  • El Paso Herald Post: 18 March 1946, p 6; 21 January 1937, p 8; 20 Jan 1944, p6; 4 Oct 1967, Showtime, p 14.
  • The Miami News: 8 Sep 1946, p 23: 25 Jan 1948, p 59.
  • Oakland Tribune: 19 Jan 1941, p B-7.
  • John and Deborah Powers. 1946. Texas Painters, Sculptors & Graphic Artists.
  • San Antonio Express: 5 Oct 1941.
  • San Antonio Light, 5 Oct 1941, Part Three, p 8,
  • The Sewanee Purple, 25 February 1991, p 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.

 Posted by at 5:02 am  Tagged with:
May 062021
 

Californian poet and novelist Jan Richman’s poem “Ajijic” was first published in 1994, and included in her first poetry collection, Because the Brain Can Be Talked Into Anything, which won the 1994 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Jan Richman- book cover

Born in La Jolla, Richman graduated from Torrey Pines High School before studying English and Theatre at University of California, Irvine. She then completed a BA degree in Creative Writing and English at San Francisco State University and a Masters in Creative Writing at New York University.

Richman taught at the City College of San Francisco, and lost a job at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco (following a controversy over a gratuitously violent story written by a student), before working as a freelance proof reader and copy editor. She has also been an associate editor and columnist for SFGate.com (San Francisco Chronicle).

Poems by the multi-award winning Richman have appeared in numerous magazines including The Nation, Ploughshares, Comet, Kenyon Review, The Bloomsbury Review and Luna.

Richman is also the author of the novel Thrill-Bent (2012) in which she gives her own name to the narrator, a writer for BadMouth Magazine, “NYC’s Premier Cultural Crap Detector,” who is given an assignment to report on roller coasters around the country set for demolition. Her final stop is in California.

Precisely when or why Jan Richman visited Ajijic is currently unknown. Her poem “Ajijic” first appeared in the Winter 1993-94 issue of the literary journal Ploughshares. (The journal is archived online and the poem can be read in its entirety via the link in “Sources”)

Here are a few sample lines from “Ajijic” –

I came down to the water
to escape the feuding, infallible generations.
In my grandfather’s eye is my father’s eye, and so on.

* * *

These clean girls will circle the plaza clockwise,
entwined in pairs, throbbing to be plucked from the wheel.
I’ll dance in the bar with Mexican boys
who’ll squeeze my ass and tell my white throat, You,
alone, are beautiful.

Sources

  • Jan Richman. 1994. “Ajijic.” Ploughshares, Vol. 19, No. 4, Borderlands (Winter, 1993/1994), 16.
  • Jan Richman. 1995. Because the Brain Can Be Talked into Anything: poems. Louisiana State University Press.
  • Jan Richman. 2012. Thrill-Bent. Tupelo Press.

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.

Apr 292021
 

Gerald van de Wiele was 19 years old when he visited Ajijic briefly with his good friend and fellow artist George “Jorge” Fick in 1951. Sixty-six years later, and despite never having returned to the area, van de Wiele completed an abstract painting entitled “Chapala.”

What were the circumstances of van de Wiele’s original visit, and why was it so long before he painted “Chapala”?

Born in Detroit in 1932, van de Wiele and Fick (1932-2004) visited Mexico more or less on a whim. After studying for a few months at the Art institute of Chicago on a national scholarship, van de Wiele had applied to Black Mountain College. The same day he received his acceptance letter, he also received his draft notice.

Gerald van de Wiele. 2017. Chapala (artist-made-frame). Credit: Artist Estate Studio.

Gerald van de Wiele. 2016-17. Chapala. (Acrylic on panel with artist’s handmade frame.) Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Before turning up for training, van de Wiele and his good friend Fick took a road trip out to California, where they spotted Lake Chapala while looking at a map of Mexico, and decided to catch the train to Guadalajara to see the lake for themselves.

It was November 1951. During the day or two they spent in Guadalajara, before catching the bus to Chapala, the two young men explored the city on foot. Beautiful classical piano music coming from a house they passed led them to knock on the door to thank the occupant. They were invited inside and introduced to a female pianist who was—said their host—“one of Mexico’s most famous pianists.” To this day, van de Wiele has no idea who the pianist was, but the young men were amazed by the hospitality and enthralled by the music. The magic of Mexico had struck again.

When Fick and van de Wiele got off the bus in Chapala they entered a hotel (possibly the Hotel Nido) where they met an American journalist who invited them to stay at his chalet overlooking the lake.

Even though van de Wiele stayed only two weeks at Lake Chapala, the visit was memorable and remained “every vivid” in his mind. (Fick stayed on in Chapala for a few months.)

On van de Wiele’s return to the US, he did his basic military training in San Diego. By lucky coincidence, he was then posted to join the 2nd Marine Division in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from where he was able to use a couple of weekend passes for quick visits to Fick who was now studying at Black Mountain College. Having been forced to postpone his own studies, Van de Wiele, with funding from the G.I. Bill, attended the college from 1954 to 1956.

In addition to van de Wiele and Fick, other artists and writers linking Black Mountain College to Lake Chapala include painter Nicolas Muzenic (1919-1976) and writer Elaine Gottlieb (1916-2004).

The year after leaving Black Mountain College, van de Wiele, now married, joined with several friends to open Wells Street Gallery in Chicago. This gallery was partly financed by Stanley Sourelis (1925-2006), who later lived and painted in Ajijic for many years.

Van de Wiele held his first solo show at the Wells Street Gallery in October 1957. Two years later, van de Wiele moved to the much larger and more competitive art scene in New York City, which has been his home ever since.

Van de Wiele has exhibited regularly in New York, and his works can be found in numerous major private and institutional collections.

And van de Wiele’s painting, “Chapala”? Well, it turns out—the artist told me— that it has absolutely nothing to do with Chapala apart from the title! After completing the painting in 2017, van de Wiele was pondering the best title and “Chapala” popped into his head at just the right moment. “Chapala” was first exhibited in 2018 at a major retrospective of van de Wiele’s work, covering seven decades of painting and sculpture, at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

For more about Gerald van de Wiele and his amazing art, please visit his website.

[Note: Fick’s biography, as submitted to art websites by his widow, Judy Perlman, shows Fick as attending a “Mexican Art school Ajijic, Guadalajara” in 1951. However, van de Wiele has confirmed to me that Fick had not been in Ajijic previously, that they arrived in late November or early December 1951, and that their trip did not involve any formal art classes. There are no records of any winter art classes in Ajijic at that time.]

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to the artist for sharing his memories of his trip to Mexico with me, and for allowing me to reproduce “Chapala.”

Sources

  • Jason Andrew. 2018. “Gerald van de Wiele: Ever the Dreamer.” Introduction in the catalog of “Gerald van de Wiele: Variations Seven Decades of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture”, exhibition curated by Jason Andrew at Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, 19 January to 19 May 2018.

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.

Apr 222021
 

Journalist and author Louis Henry Charbonneau (1924-2017) includes numerous passages about Ajijic in his book The Lair, first published in 1980. Presumably Charbonneau visited Ajijic in the mid-1970s. (If you can supply any details about his time in Ajijic, please get in touch)

Charbonneau cover The LairLouis Henry Charbonneau, Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan, on 20 January 1924 and died in Lomita, California, on 11 May 2017. He completed his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Detroit.

After serving in the US Army Air Force in the second world war, he taught at the University of Detroit for several years before moving to California, where he was a journalist at the Los Angeles Times from 1952 to 1971. He also wrote several radio plays and worked as an editor and copywriter.

In his prolific writing career, he published about forty novels in a variety of genres, from science fiction to thrillers and Westerns (written under the pen name Cartis Travis Young). His first novel was No Place on Earth (1958), a dystopian scifi tale which earned him a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best New Author of 1958. His scifi writing continued with Corpus Earthling (1960), The Sentinel Stars (1963), Psychedelic-40 (1965) and Antic Earth (1967). His other works include The Sensitives (1963), The Specials (1965), Down to Earth (1967), Barrier World (1970), Embryo (1976) and Intruder (1979).

Charbonneau’s The Lair, first published in 1980, was republished as an ebook in 2014. This story of a kidnapping and its ramifications begins in Los Angeles in 1972 and includes several brief period descriptions of Chapala, Ajijic and the (Old) Posada Ajijic. Here are a few sample snippets:

“They swept over a high crest and came into view of Lake Chapala, blue in the pale light of evening under an early evening quarter-moon that had just appeared over the mountains as if on cue. The small village of Chapala, now a retirement paradise for retired American admirals and colonels, with American-style golf-and-country-club developments to the east and west, grew away from the lake shore and climbed the foothills.”

+ + + + +

“There were supposed to be many Mexicos, Charmian Stewart commented, but this one didn’t seem to belong to Mexicans any more. All they had left was the Chapala pier for Sunday family promenading, and even there the music that sounded in the cafés and clubs for young people to dance to was hard rock, not soft guitar. Their chaperoning abuelas must be bewildered by it all, Charmian mused, anxiously watching their grandchildren turn into something they could not understand.”

+ + + + +

“They drove past the Chula Vista Country Club development and the huge Camino Real. The latter, a blaze of lights, was at the edge of Ajijic. The town itself was another of those picturesque Indian villages whose climate and setting on the shore of the lake, with narrow cobbled or dirt streets and tiny adobe houses behind high walls, had led to its being taken over by the horde of norteamericanos looking for a place to live on their pensions without having to scrimp-and with the luxury of a maid and gardener. Most of the houses had been or were being modernized with U.S.-style bathrooms and kitchens.”

+ + + + +

“The streets of Ajijic seemed crowded with Americans out for a stroll or Mexicans standing in open doorways. The tiny plaza at the center of the village was busy. There was a movie theater featuring Sean Connery in a James Bond rerun. On the corner opposite was a small, brightly lit and very modern supermercado, its shelves lined with American canned goods, cigarettes and magazines.

– “You’ve been here before?” Blanchard asked, as Charmian Stewart turned along a dark, one-way street leading away from the plaza.

– “I bought this skirt at one of the gift shops here. It’s a pretty little town. You should see it in daylight.”

– “Do any Mexicans still live here?”

– She laughed. “Of course, Who do you suppose the servants are?”

+ + + + +

“Charmian parked her compact car along a side street and they walked back to the Posada del Lago . . . . The crooked path brought them to the restaurant on one side and a large cocktail lounge on the right, both almost at the edge of the lake. Blanchard and Charmian Stewart paused at the entrance to the lounge, struck by the beauty of the scene outside. At the water’s edge, just a few feet away, a group of young men and women, most of them with the look and air of affluent Americans, were arranging themselves on horses for an evening ride along the beach, calling out to each other or breaking into sudden laughter.

A handsome, slender Mexican youth with the flashing smile of the Indian signaled and turned his horse along the shore of the lake, leading the riders in single file. The water lapped into their tracks in the wet sand.

The posada was the social center of the town, Charmian told Blanchard, particularly for swingers, or what passed for swingers in this part of the world. At one table a sixty-year-old red-faced American with a bull neck and a stiff back looked exactly like a retired Marine general, which he might well have been. The younger man, who acted as if he wanted to light the general’s cigar and settled for lighting their wives’ cigarettes, was his aide, Blanchard decided. And the two women, dyed blonde and dyed jet-black, respectively fifty and sixty, had the brittle, weathered smartness of career-officers’ wives.

– “Golf and bridge,” Charmian murmured. “Those are the big things around here. And good tequila or Jamaican rum at two dollars a quart. They say the party starts about ten in the morning every day. And as often as not, this is a good place to wind it up at night.”

Sources

  • Louis Henry Charbonneau. 1980. The Lair. New York : Fawcett Gold Meda; Ebook edition, 2014, Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.
  • The Detroit News & Detroit Free Press. “Louis Henry Charbonneau, Jr. (Obituary).” 17 May 2017.

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.

Apr 152021
 

Edythe Wallach (1909-2001) lived and painted for most of 1944 in Chapala and Ajijic. Her Lake Chapala paintings were exhibited in both Chapala and in New York.

Edythe (“Edie”) Gertrude Wallach (later Wallach Kidd) was born in New Rochelle, New York, on 10 August 1909 to Dr. William Wallach and his wife Anne Rosenthal. Edythe grew up in New Rochelle which appears to have remained her home at least until the death of her father in 1937. The family, which was Jewish, was clearly well-to-do since the parents were able to spend summer in Europe (with one or both children) every few years, notably in 1926, 1929 and 1933.

It is unclear where Edythe acquired her education or art training.

Edythe Wallach’s mother died in January 1944. Shortly after that, Edythe left for Lake Chapala, where she lived first in Ajijic for several months and then in Chapala. Wallach was one of several artists mentioned by Neill James in her article “I live in Ajijic”, first published in 1945.

Edythe Wallach. 1944. Plaza at Chapala. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

Edythe Wallach. 1944. Plaza at Chapala. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

Wallach moved from Ajijic to Chapala at the insistence of fellow artist Hari Kidd. After meeting at a lunch for area expatriates at a hotel in Chapala, they strolled to the plaza:

“While seated in the postage stamp plaza, Hari suggested that I move to Chapala from Ajijic where I was preparing a New York exhibition. I said no – but within two weeks I was seated beside the lake, looking through borrowed binoculars for the boatman who was to fetch me. In two days he appeared and I reached Chapala. The following morning Hari stood at my door, rigid as a Rousseau painting, a bouquet in his hand.” (document written by Edythe Wallach Kidd dated 10 June 1966)

Their romance blossomed in Chapala under the soft moonlight reflecting off the serenely beautiful lake…

Even with romantic distractions, by November 1944 Wallach had completed enough paintings to hold a solo exhibition at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala. The local El Informador newspaper in Guadalajara described this as “one of the most brilliant artistic and social events of the Fall”, saying that guests from Ajijic, Guadalajara and Chapala responded warmly to the bright color and lively designs of the paintings which were being transferred later for exhibition in New York.

Postcard of The Villa Montecarlo, Chapala, ca 1940

Postcard of The Villa Montecarlo, Chapala, ca 1940

The opening on 12 November 1944 attracted many noteworthy guests, including Mr and Mrs Jack Bennett; Nigel Stansbury Millett and his father; Neill James; Pablo García Hernández (representative of Teatro Mexicano del Arte); Otto Butterlin and his daughter Rita; Witter Bynner, the famous American poet; Charles Stigel; Dr and Mrs Charles Halmos; Ann Medalie; and Herbert and Georgette Johnson.

Shortly after this exhibition closed, Wallach took her paintings back to New York. Her New York art show opened at the Bonestell Galleries at 18 East 37th Street in November 1945. It was favorably reviewed as “Mexican in theme but not in manner” with one anonymous reviewer writing that

Miss Edythe Wallach… has just returned from a year’s travel in Mexico where she has been painting….

Walter Pach, eminent art critic, in speaking of Miss Wallach’s work, says, “Your report on Mexico is far beyond what I had hoped for when you went to that country. You have seen its light, you have seen its beauty, and your painting speaks of all these things. What impresses me in your work is that you have retained your central idiom, your own vision and, even when looking at a place so impressive (and so Mexican) as Chapala, you have not even been tempted to imitate, but have told of your impressions with complete freedom to work in a way that is personal with you.”

Edythe Wallach and Hari Kidd married in Key West, Florida in March 1946. Kidd was already a well-known artist and one account of the wedding says that, “The bride, herself an artist of note, recently held her first exhibition of Mexican oils in New York, and is planning a new group of paintings for a forthcoming show.” A similar comment about a forthcoming show appears in The Miami News in September 1946 which says that Edith Wallach, wife of Hari Kidd, “fresh from a painting sojourn in Mexico” is “preparing for a second show in New York of her Mexican interpretations in oils.” I have been unable to confirm whether or not Wallach (presumably with Hari) returned to Mexico in the summer of 1946 (as this piece suggests) or, indeed, to find any further reference to this second U.S. show.

Untitled. Date unknown. Credit: Stephanie Wallach.

Edythe Wallach Kidd. Untitled. Date unknown. Credit: Stephanie Wallach.

Both Edythe and Hari Kidd were in a three-person show at the Miami Beach Art Center which opened in January 1948. The third artist was Eugenie Schein of New York. Edythe exhibited oil paintings “favoring Mexican themes” while Hari showed both oils and watercolors. According to the press notice, “Both artists have spent a number of years in Mexico and Spain and their work reflects this influence.” They also participated, with Elvira Reilly, in another three-person show at the Martello Towers Gallery in Key West in January 1954.

The couple lived in Key West from about the time they married in 1946 to 1964. Due to Hari’s declining health, they then moved to Tucson in summer 1964, where he died in hospital barely four months later.

Edythe remained in Arizona for several years and attended the inauguration of a retrospective of her husband’s art at the El Paso Museum in October 1967.

In late 1968 or early 1969, she returned to live once again in Key West, Florida, where she held a show of her work at DePoo’s Island Gallery in 1969. Several years later, one of her paintings was chosen for the juried 13th Annual Major Florida Artists Show which opened in January 1976 at the Harmon Gallery in Naples, Florida. At that time, the artist was listed as “Edythe Wallach (Key West)” but Edythe later moved to Lake Worth, where she passed away on 17 December 2001.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Edythe Wallach Kidd’s niece, Stephanie Wallach, for helping clarify details of the artist’s life and for kindly supplying the photograph of one of her paintings, and to Mary O’Neill, Visual Resources Librarian at The University of the South, for graciously providing me with copies of documents and images in the library archives.

Note: This post, originally published in January 2018, was significantly updated in October 2018 and March 2021.

Sources:

  • The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), 19 October 1945, pp 16, 20.
  • El Paso Herald Post, Monday, 18 March 1946, p 6; 14 Oct 1967, Showtime, p14; 12 April 1969.
  • El Informador (Guadalajara): 18 November 1944; 3 December 1944, p 11.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I live in Ajijic”, in Modern Mexico, October 1945.
  • The Miami News : 7 September 1946; 25 January 1948, p 59; 31 January 1954, p 24.
  • The Naples Daily News (Naples, Florida), 11 January 1976, p 58.
  • The New Yorker : 10 November 1945.
  • Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 19 November 1964, p 7.

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

 Posted by at 5:51 am  Tagged with:
Apr 082021
 

When I first wrote about Salomón Zepeda several years ago, I confessed that my research had failed to unearth anything of substance about him, despite the fact that he published a Spanish-language novel set at Lake Chapala in 1951.

Salomón Zepeda was the author of La Ondina de Chapala (“The Water Nymph of Chapala”), a 149-page Spanish-language novel published by Imprenta Ruíz in Mexico City. The cover art appears to be by “Magallón.”

Several subsequent attempts to find out more about the author met with equally dispiriting results. Knowing nothing beyond the cover of the novel, I had always assumed, based on the cover art, that it was almost certainly a pocket romance of relatively limited artistic merit.

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapalaHowever, I was forced to revise my opinion after my able and indefatigable research assistant in Mexico, Sra. Maricruz Ibarra, managed to acquire scans of the entire book. Realizing that the novel was not simply a throw-away romance prompted me to try once again to seek more details of its elusive author.

I can finally offer a few tantalizing clues about the author’s life and work. Salomón Zepeda was born in Tala, Jalisco, on 5 May 1917. His parents were Juan Zepeda Lara (then aged 32) and Gregoria Mariscal (29). He apparently had at least two brothers: Feliciano and Jorge. A close reading of his novel strongly suggests that he had a privileged upbringing. He was certainly familiar with European literature, art and history.

Zepeda appears to have lived most of his life in Mexico City, where he died on 26 May 1985. His death certificate lists him as “single” and gives his occupation as “writer.” His home was at Privada Avena 7, Granjas Esmeralda, Tlalpan.

If you are interested in reading La Ondina de Chapala, you may be able to borrow, via inter-library loan, one of the copies held in a number of academic libraries in the U.S. These libraries include the “Southern Regional Library Facility” of the University of California Los Angeles.

While I have yet to find any evidence that he published a second book, the back page of La Ondina de Chapala refers to two works in progress: a collection of stories entitled Los Rostros Alucinados (“The Hallucinating Faces”) and a novel titled La Ciudad Doliente (“The Suffering City”). If you know anything about either of these works, please get in touch!

I take a closer look at La Ondina de Chapala in a separate post.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 12 December 2016.

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

Mar 252021
 

Sandra Scofield’s first novel, Gringa, was based on the author’s extensive travels in Mexico in the 1960s. The novel is set in the violent turbulence of 1968 when, a few weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, hundreds of students protesting in Tlatelolco Plaza were massacred by soldiers.

Scofield-cover-GringaThe “gringa” of the book’s title is Abilene “Abby” Painter, a 25-year-old Texan who is trapped in “an abusive, torrid relationship” with Antonio Velez, a famous Mexican bullfighter. In the words of Publishers Weekly, “her self-esteem is so paltry that she serves as a sexual doormat for her swaggering lover” whose “pride in his animal trophies points up the obvious analogy between his mistresses and these slain creatures.” The student protests and their aftermath finally open Abby’s eyes to what she really wants, but can she escape without losing her life? In addition to sex, violence and death, the book explores the full range of animal instincts and the dichotomy between chance and choice in individuals’ lives.

Several acclaimed novels later, Scofield’s A Chance to See Egypt is (despite its title) also set in Mexico, and was written following a trip to Lake Chapala in the early 1990s. Events in A Chance to See Egypt take place against a backdrop of two villages (Lago de Luz and Tecatitlán) on a fictionalized Lake Chapala. The novel, which won the Best Fiction award from the Texas Institute of Letters in 1996, will be considered in more detail in a separate post.

Though she spent most of her adult life in Oregon and Montana, Sandra Scofield was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1943. She attended Our Lady of Victory Academy in Fort Worth before graduating from Odessa High School in 1960. She then studied at Odessa Junior College and the University of Texas, where she completed a B.A. in Speech in 1964. She first visited Mexico shortly before graduation.

After studying theatre at Northern Illinois University (1967-68), Scofield had a one-year acting fellowship at Cornell University the following year. After divorcing her first husband in 1974, Scofield remarried and moved to Oregon, where she returned to academic life to gain a masters degree related to language education (1977)  and a doctorate (1979) from the University of Oregon.

Scofield taught in high schools and colleges before deciding to write full time in 1983. After establishing her writing career, she occasionally gave classes at writers festivals (such as the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in 1993) and as a visiting lecturer in MFA programs. Scofield later joined the faculty of the Solstice MFA low residency program at Pine Manor College in Maryland.

Her literary awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1991); the Texas Institute of Letters Fiction Award; the American Book Award; and nominations for a National Book Award (1991); the Oregon Book Award and the First Fiction Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters.

Scofield’s novels are Gringa (1989), Beyond Deserving (1991), Walking Dunes (1992), More Than Allies (1993), Opal on Dry Ground (1994), A Chance to See Egypt (1996) and Plain Seeing (1997).

More recently, Scofield published three long stories as Swim: Stories of the Sixties (2017). One of these stories, “An Easy Pass,” is set in Mexico and relates (in the author’s own words) to “an almost hysterical fascination with bullfighters (especially the young beginning ones).”

Scofield’s non-fiction works include Occasions of Sin: a Memoir (2004); The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer (2007); and The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision (2017). She has also written numerous book reviews for major regional publications such as the Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and The Boston Globe.

An archive of papers related to Sandra Scofield and her work are held in the Special Collections Library of Texas Tech University.

Acknowledgment

I am grateful to J. Weston Marshall, Archival Associate of the Special Collections Library of Texas Tech University, for kindly supplying me with a copy of Sandra Scofield’s notes describing the genesis of A Chance to See Egypt.

Sources

  • Alan Cogan. 2001. “A Chance to See Egypt by Sandra Scofield” (review). MexConnect.
  • Sandra Scofield. 1996. A Chance to See Egypt. Cliff Street Books (Harper Collins).
  • Sandra Scofield. 2005. “A Chance to See Egypt; writing history explained by Scofield,” typescript, 2005, Item 53 in Sandra Scofield Papers, 1958-2005 and undated, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.

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.

Mar 182021
 

Several photographs of Ajijic by Jacques Van Belle (ca 1924-2012) are captioned “Hotel Laguna.” They are believed to date from the late 1950s.

Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

The main hotels in Ajijic at about the time of the photos were:

  1. Casa Heuer, a rustic lakefront property run by siblings Paul and Liesel Heuer west of the pier in Ajijic. ‘Pablo’ Heuer died in 1957. The architectural style of Casa Heuer does not match the photographs.
  2. Posada Ajijic, the centrally-located hotel, had its main entrance on Calle 16 de Septiembre and extended to the lakeshore. It had been operating an an hotel for more than thirty years before the Eager family ran it from 1976 to 1990. The Eagers closed Posada Ajijic in 1990 and immediately opened their own new hotel, La Nueva Posada, a few blocks further east.
  3. Quinta Mi Retiro (aka Hotel del General). This hotel was most active in the 1950s and 1960s.
  4. Hotel Anita. This small hotel was on Calle Juárez, and is the “Hotel Laguna” shown in these photographs. In 1967 it was renamed Hotel Villa del Lago.
Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

The Hotel Villa del Lago (Hotel Laguna) was originally owned by Anita Chávez de Basulto; the business was later owned by Luis de Alba and his wife, Margaret.

Please get in touch if you can tell me any more about “Hotel Laguna” / Hotel Anita.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter, 24 June 1967; 8 July 1967.

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.

Mar 092021
 

Despite its title, Sandra Scofield’s novel A Chance to See Egypt is set at Lake Chapala in Mexico. Scofield wrote the novel—awarded the Best Fiction award from the Texas Institute of Letters in 1996—following a trip to the lake area a few years earlier.

Scofield-cover-A-Chance-to-see-Egypt

That the setting for A Chance to See Egypt is a fictionalized Lake Chapala is evident within the first few pages of the novel:

“Lago de Luz, on the altiplano far from the sea, where it is neither hot nor cold, boasts no buildings higher than two stories, and no slick discos. It is rather a sleepy place, swollen on weekends when musicians and vendors make the plaza festive for the tourists in from the nearby city. Resident Americans and Canadians make their own social life in their suburban enclaves and trailer parks, their apartments and houses, halls and meeting rooms. The Lakeside Society is the hub of activity, the place where everyone crosses, but there are many diversions: Elk Clubs, Rotarians, Veterans Clubs, Red Cross and all the interest groups, for cards and dominoes and self-improvement.” [5-6]

Two paragraphs later:

“They went on to tell tales that went with the town and the hotel, in the manner of village pundits. As if there was wisdom in remembering the bandits of another era, the old sailing boats and canoes, the movie stars, the whitefish, splendid when the lake was clean.” [6]

There are also several references in the book to a “residential school for deaf children.” The only school in Mexico with a boarding program for deaf children was the Lakeside School for the Deaf in Jocotepec (which later joined the State Education system as the Centro de Atención Multiple Gallaudet).

The New York Times called A Chance to See Egypt “A stirring and evocative new novel in which a middle-aged man discovers a world of possibilities” and “an absorbing story that allows us to delight in Tom Riley’s elation.”

The novel is centered on events in the town of Lago de Luz and the smaller nearby lakeshore village of Tecatitlán. The central character is recently widowed Thomas Riley, a pet store owner from Chicago in his mid-forties. Riley and his late wife, Eva, a tour guide, had honeymooned in Lago de Luz about eight years earlier. Eva loved traveling and the couple had planned to visit Egypt for their tenth anniversary, but never did. After losing Eva, Riley decides to revisit the lake where they had been so happy and work out what he should do next.

Riley’s return visit brings back lots of memories as he reflects on the past while pondering his future. Seeking to assuage his loss, he immerses himself in local life, quickly coming to realize that, even though Eva is no longer with him, he still loves the lake area.

Seeking activities to keep himself occupied, Riley joins a writing class at the Lakeside Society Library being given by Charlotte Amory (the narrator in A Chance to See Egypt). After publishing a novel, Amory, originally from Texas, left her husband and child three years ago to live in Mexico and write travel articles about places off the beaten track. Having previously studied art in Philadelphia, Amory has also started to paint again and has persuaded the memorably named Divina Arispe, a beautiful young girl who works at the Posada Celestial, the town’s main hotel, to sit as her model. Divina’s mother, Consolata, who also has a central role in the novel, is the owner of a small restaurant.

Amory and Riley soon strike up a friendship and Amory helps Riley wind his way through his doubts and uncertainties towards a new and different life. She tells him that if he wants to start over he must ‘change the plot’ of his life and ‘introduce new characters’.

Seemingly inevitably, Riley becomes a regular at Consolata’s restaurant and falls in love with Divina. But he needs ample time, and the help of others, to come to terms with his loss of Eva while navigating the uncharted waters of a cross-cultural relationship.

Shortly after arriving in Lago de Luz, Riley purchased a guidebook to the region in the Posada Celestial:

“In the lobby, a long table has been set up in preparation for the tour buses. At one end, a woman tidies a pile of flyers: SHOULD YOU LIVE IN LAGO? FACTS ABOUT REAL ESTATE. At the other end, a man Riley recognizes from the Lakeside Society Library is selling a guidebook to the region. A Traveler’s Treasury, it is called. Riley looks one over, then buys it.”
“Canadian fellow wrote it,” the man tells him. “He knows his stuff. He’s lived here nearly twenty years.”
“Great,” Riley says. Just flipping the pages, he can tell the book is full of information about places he’d never have heard about. “I’d like to see some villages.” He thinks of them as mysterious places, with secrets he will never know.” [52]

Not long afterwards when Riley is relaxing by a thermal pool, he thumbs through the book and reads how, in one village, “The arches support an ancient aqueduct. A few steps away is the hacienda chapel, in good condition… Near here, the scenery changes, giving way to fertile fields…”

Lake Chapala map; all rights reserved

Lake Chapala map; all rights reserved

To familiarize himself with the area, Riley “traces the highways with his finger“ on a “foldout map of the lake region.” [55] This close study of the map allows him to comment a few days later—when Divina’s mother, Consolata, tells him that she hails from a village called Saint Mary of Tears near the town of Tapalpa— that:

“I did see that on the map.” He taps the place. “Here is the village. Here is the town. The book says there is a small museum there, with rock carvings, and an old sail-canoe. Do you know the town?”
“I was in the church a few times as a girl. I saw the earthquake paintings. Sometimes we went in for market. I was born in the village, I grew up there. I have been here a long time now.” [57]

(Note that the real Tapalpa is a mountain settlement many kilometers west of Lake Chapala; the descriptions of this fictional Tapalpa match the town of Ocotlán, near the eastern end of Lake Chapala.)

Having learned about Consolata’s home village, Riley decides to see it for himself. After taking a bus to Tapalpa, he reads up about the town while waiting for a local bus to nearby Saint Mary of Tears:

“There had been an earthquake 150 years earlier. The chapel was spared damage, and the next day, as the townspeople celebrated in the plaza, a cloud appeared in the sky a vision of Christ on the cross. All of this was captured in paintings on the walls of the newer church next door.”

Riley’s trip to Tapalpa and Saint Mary of Tears is a pivotal part of the novel, causing Riley to think back to his life with Eva and ponder what she would have thought about the local miracle.

“He found a shaded bench in the square and sat down to rest.
He could not help addressing Eva; it was a habit he had never really abandoned. He leaned back against the bench and closed his eyes. “I liked the paintings. They are very fine. Do you believe there was a real vision in the sky? Or was it all an accident of condensation? You would know such a thing where you are. So tell me, Eva, do you believe in miracles now?” [65]

The miracle in this story is the miracle of love.

The basic plot of A Chance to See Egypt is quite straightforward, to some extent even predictable, but Scofield tells the story well, with keenly-observed descriptions of village life and with dialogue that flows naturally.

According to the author, “I wrote this fanciful tale of love at a time when I needed to believe that there was light at the end of the dark night. So I used that very metaphor to construct a story of a good man who thinks he is too timid to make a new life after his wife’s death. I wove spirituality, passion, affection for village life into a story in which, like a folk tale, everyone plays out fate and finds happiness.” [Quote from Amazon]

I concur with the review in Publisher’s Weekly that “Scofield draws her romantic principals together with a graceful, wry sense of humor, converting Riley’s indecision into a warm, wise exploration of the mysteries of love, and she turns an ending that could have been cliched into a genuinely profound revelation,” which only makes it all the more surprising that A Chance to See Egypt has never been optioned for an upbeat Hallmark movie.

One of the interesting aspects of A Chance to See Egypt is that it delves deeper into the cultural differences and resulting tensions between the local Mexican townsfolk and their American visitors than almost any other twentieth century novel set at Lake Chapala. The depictions of the lives and characters of local villagers and foreigners in A Chance to See Egypt are far more balanced than those in Eileen Bassing’s Where’s Annie? or Willard Marsh’s Week with No Friday, both published in the mid-1960s, which focus far more on the expat community to the near-exclusion of their Mexican hosts.

Note

Scofield acknowledges that her writing was helped by two “wonderful books,” both published in 1945: Mexican Village, by Josephina Niggli, and Village in the Sun, by Dane Chandos. She was clearly also influenced by my Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury. In A Chance to See Egypt, there are several thinly veiled but complimentary references to me and my guidebook to the region, first published in 1993 and now in its 4th edition. In the novel, the book inspired Riley to explore the local villages and the descriptions of Tapalpa in the novel lean heavily on my chapter about Ocotlán. Naturally I am sincerely flattered that Scofield sees my book in such a favorable light!

Acknowledgment

I am grateful to J. Weston Marshall, Archival Associate of the Special Collections Library of Texas Tech University, for kindly supplying me with a copy of Sandra Scofield’s notes describing the genesis of A Chance to See Egypt.

Sources

  • Publisher’s Weekly. 1996. “A Chance to See Egypt” (review).
  • Alan Cogan. 2001. “A Chance to See Egypt by Sandra Scofield” (review). MexConnect
  • Laurel Graeber. 1997. “New & Noteworthy Paperbacks.” New York Times, 21 September 1997. Section 7, p 40.
  • Sandra Scofield. 1996. A Chance to See Egypt. Cliff Street Books (Harper Collins).
  • Sandra Scofield. 2005. “A Chance to See Egypt; writing history explained by Scofield,” typescript, 2005, Item 53 in Sandra Scofield Papers, 1958-2005 and undated, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.

Other English-language novels set at Lake Chapala

English-language novels set largely or entirely at Lake Chapala include:

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.

Feb 252021
 

Of all the extraordinary individuals and groups visiting Ajijic during “hippie times”, one of the most curious was the group called The Illuminated Elephants (Los elefantes iluminados).

The Illuminated Elephants visited Ajijic in 1982. The group, a traveling theatre “family” that had once been known as The Hathi Babas, adopted elements of the hippie movement, and had about twenty members at the time it visited Lake Chapala. The group’s co-founders included Mexican activist Alberto Ruz Buenfil.

The group lived in “old, converted school buses and vans,” and shared group expenses and some communal spaces, such as an office and show preparation area. They had roved the world for more than thirteen years prior to visiting Ajijic, hoping to find “a place to settle.”

John Frost. c 1983? Elefantes iluminados visit Ajijic.

John Frost. 1982. Elefantes iluminados visit Ajijic.

Jocotepec photographer John Frost took this photo of the group during their relatively short stay in Ajijic, “camping” by the lake.

John Frost. c 1983? Elefantes iluminados visit Ajijic. (detail)

John Frost. 1982. Elefantes iluminados visit Ajijic. (detail)

Among those traveling with this “traveling gypsy theatre group” in 1982 was Nicolas Morris, who was making a return trip to the area. As a child, Morris had lived with his artist-potter parents David and Helen Morris in Chapala in the early 1950s before the family moved back to California. Nicolas recalls that the Elefantes iluminados camped at the “old gold mill of so much legend and fame.” That property, close to the lakeshore on Calle Flores Magón, was owned at the time by “La Rusa” (Zara Alexeyewa).

John Frost. c 1983? Elefantes iluminados visit Ajijic. (detail)

John Frost. 1982. Elefantes iluminados visit Ajijic. (detail)

Apparently, Ajijic did not offer exactly what they were looking for as a place to settle. From Lake Chapala, The Illuminated Elephants continued on to Tepotzlán in the central Mexico state of Morelos, which proved to be their chosen destination. There they began building La Ecoaldea Huehuecoyotl, or “Huehue,” a village that embraces sustainability and now has more than a dozen homes. Residents include a wide variety of artists, poets, craftsmen, actors and musicians who offer courses and bilingual performances for schools and adult audiences while actively supporting their local communities. Huehue is a member of the Global Ecovillage Network and visitors are welcomed.

There are several interesting connections between Lake Chapala and Tepotzlán. For example, German poet Gustav Regler established his home on a Tepoztlán farm in the 1950s and lived there to his death in 1963. Several other artists who had lived in Ajijic on Lake Chapala moved to Tepoztlán in the 1970s and 1980s. They included  sculptor and painter Adolfo Riestra; photographer Toni Beatty and her husband, Larry Walsh (who all moved there in 1976); and painter and guitarist Gustavo Sendis.

Acknowledgments

  • My sincere thanks to Richard Tingen for sharing John Frost’s photo with me, and to Nicolas Morris for sharing memories of his time with Los elefantes iluminados.

Please feel free to comment or suggest corrections or additional material related to any post, via our comments feature or via email.

Feb 182021
 

Was George Seaton the first author to include mention of Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos in an English-language guidebook to Mexico?

When I was recently re-reading George Seaton’s What to See and Do in Mexico, first published in 1939, a one-line mention of Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos jumped off the page. I can’t recall any earlier mention of Ixtlahuacán in any regular travel guide to Mexico.

George W Seaton- coverSeaton wrote that, “In the little Indian town of Ixtlahuacan [de los Membrillos], they make a famous quince wine. It is good, if you like it, but rather sweet, and more like a cordial.”

Just who was Seaton and how did he come to write about Mexico in general and the Lake Chapala area in particular? George Whiting Seaton was a New York-based author who was born in New York City on 13 January 1888 and died in his native city in August 1944. Seaton was educated in Europe, spending time in Paris, France, (1906-1907) and in Heidelberg, Germany (1909-1910) as well as some time in the UK (1911).

When the US entered the first world war, Seaton enlisted as a private in the US Army. He received rapid promotion and, after being sent back to France in 1918 with the American Expeditionary Forces, was appointed aide to Brigadier-General F LeJ. Parker, Chief of G-2-E of the General Staff. Seaton was made responsible for arranging “tours of the battlefields for correspondents, distinguished visitors, and officials of the American and Allied governments.” After his discharge from military service in 1919, Seaton returned once more to Paris, working on behalf of the American Express Travel Department. Seaton is credited as having led the first party of American tourists to Europe after the war ended.

He remained in Paris for several years, and spent several months traveling all over Russia in the summer of 1922 as a guest of that country’s Tourist Trust to offer them some suggestions about how to establish future tourist traffic.

When Seaton returned to live in the US, he became a tour manager with Raymond and Whitcomb Co., the prestigious travel company based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Seaton occasionally lectured on his experiences in Europe. In 1935, for example, he gave an illustrated lecture on his time in Russia to an audience at the International Relations Club of Colby College in Maine. The newspaper announcement of his lecture said that he would “report only what he saw” and was not a propagandist, and stressed that, in Russia, “He disliked some things he expected to admire and admired others he expected to dislike.” He would, however, try to convince attendees that, “whether one likes it or dislikes it, Russia is the most interesting country in the world today.”

By that time, Seaton was living in an apartment on Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York, and starting to focus on his writing career.

Seaton traveled widely and authored a series of travel books, including Let’s Go to the West Indies (1938); What to see and do in Mexico: How to Get the Most Out of Your Trip (1939); What to see and do in Scandinavia (1939); Cue’s Guide to what to See and Do in Florida (1940); What to see and do in the South (1941); and What to See and Do in Washington (1941). He also wrote Letters to a Soldier (1942), in which he offered his encouragement as a veteran of the first world war to his adopted son, newly inducted into the army.

When the second world war broke out in Europe, Seaton was hired to work at the US Office of War Information.

J. G. Hatton. c 1905, Juanacatlán Falls.

J. G. Hatton. c 1905, Juanacatlán Falls.

Seaton’s one-liner about Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos in What to See and Do in Mexico is preceded by a detailed description of the Juanacatlán Falls, which “are about 70 feet high and measure 524 feet from end to end.”

From Ixtlahuacán, Seaton continued on to Chapala:

“Chapala is a charming town, the sort of place where you want to linger indefinitely, doing nothing…. The lake shores for miles in either direction at Chapala are lined with villas, parks, and, in the fashionable season, bathers. The best time for bathing is in the wintertime…. Since there are no outstanding churches to see in Chapala and nothing in particular of local interest to buy there, you can devote all your energies to having a good time. Begin by tasting some of the delicious foods they prepare in Chapala. I think the best hotel in town is the Nido….”

Sources

  • The Coast Artillery Journal, vol 85 (July-August 1942).
  • Colby Echo (Waterville, Maine), 16 Jan 1935, 1.
  • George W. Seaton. 1939. What to see and do in Mexico: How to Get the Most Out of Your Trip. Prentice-Hall.

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 112021
 

Esther Henderson and her husband, Chuck Abbott, spent six weeks in Mexico taking photographs for Arizona Highways magazine in the early 1940s. They were major contributors to the magazine for decades.

They published at least three photographs related to Lake Chapala in Arizona Highways. The first two were black and white images in the September 1942 issue of a farming family’s home and a landscape view of adjoining peasant smallholdings on the lakeshore. This color Kodachrome photograph, taken from almost exactly the same vantage point as that landscape view, was included in the October 1945 issue of Arizona Highways.

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

The original caption for the following photo (from the September 1942 issue of Arizona Highways) read “A farmer’s house and his family on the shores of Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara. These farming folk are unusually industrious and self-reliant.”

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

The precise location of these smallholdings is undetermined, but appears to be somewhere on the southern shore of the lake, perhaps close to San Luis Soyatlán or Tuxcueca.

Charles “Chuck” Abbott was born in Michigan in 1894 and died in Santa Cruz, California in 1973. After high school, he joined his brother in Hawaii to work on a pineapple plantation. During the first world war, he served with the 23rd Army Engineers in Europe, where “he photographed the war-torn landscape.” On his return to the U.S., he established Chas. H. Abbott Photography business in New York to market his photographs. With the proceeds, he opened (with a German partner) a shop on Fifth Avenue selling exotic birds. Abbot married the daughter of a wealthy rug merchant and the couple moved to Florida to run a dance hall and casino, “Abbot’s Joint.” After that business was destroyed in a hurricane in 1928, his wife returned to New York.

Abbott, however, moved to California and ran a coffee shop in Carmel before relocating to Palm Springs, where he became known as the “Cowboy Host,” arranging breakfast rides and events for the wealthy patrons at the Desert Inn. He first met his second wife, Esther, when he was hired by the Tucson Sunshine Club as the “Cowboy Photographer” to take photos of all the various important celebrities visiting Tucson.

Esther Henderson was born in Illinois on 24 July 1911 and died on 22 August 2008. She was a professional dancer in New York City for several years before taking up photography. After studying at the New York Institute of Photography, she moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1935 to start her photography career. Esther specialized in landscape photography and was a frequent contributor to Arizona Highways from the 1930s onward.

Chuck and Esther met in early 1941. Esther was the chairwoman of a group of local Tucson photographers who were outraged that the Sunshine Club had chosen Chuck Abbott, an outsider, as their “Cowboy Photographer.” Chuck tried to visit her in an effort to smooth the ruffled feathers. After first refusing to meet him, Esther later agreed to join him for a drink, which led to a picnic, and then a joint camera shoot. They were married within months.

The couple, who had two sons, traveled and worked regularly together to capture images and write copy for several travel publications. During the 1950s, Esther published “Way Out West”, a weekly photographic feature column every Saturday in the Tucson Citizen.

Esther and Chuck opened The Photocenter photography studio and gallery in Tucson, where they also later established Color Classics, the first color laboratory in Arizona.

The January 1968 issue of Arizona Highways was a special edition devoted to three decades of Esther’s photography.

The couple moved to Santa Cruz, California, in 1963 where they were actively involved in community affairs. They restored a number of houses in the town and spearheaded an initiative to improve the downtown area; the name Abbott Square honors their achievements. They also replaced the town’s lighthouse as a memorial to their son, Mark, who drowned while bodysurfing at the age of 18.

Chuck died in 1973. Esther continued to live in the family home in Santa Cruz until her death in 2003.

The University of Santa Cruz is the custodian of an extensive archive of the couple’s color transparencies.

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 032021
 

Chester (“Chet”) P. Hewitt (1923-1980) lived in Ajijic for a time in the early to middle 1950s, according to Michael Hargraves in his 1992 booklet, Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey. Hewitt wrote The Gilded Hideaway, a novel set in Mexico (though not at Lakeside) published in New York by Ace Books in 1955, under the pseudonym of Peter Twist. The novel appears to be Hewitt’s only published work.

The front cover of the book proclaims that “He sought solace in the arms of a murderess!” A publicity quote says that the protagonist “longed for easy money, beautiful women and lush living. All he needed was one big haul.” The cover art is thought to be by Robert Maguire.

Chester Peter Hewitt was born in New York City on 4 November 1923 and grew up in Manhattan. After graduating from Lawrence High School, he completed only one year of college, and was still unmarried when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps on 18 March 1943.

Hewitt-Cover-Gilded-Hideaway

It seems likely that Hewitt was only in Ajijic for a relatively short time, before relocating to the US Virgin Islands. By 1967, according to a Waco-Times article, Hewitt was a “slender, mustachioed”, 43-year-old, “retired civil engineer”, who had saved enough money from working in construction in St. Thomas for many years to move to Mexico City. After nine months there, he and his wife, Lucy, moved to Acapulco, where they “took over a four bedroom house overlooking the ocean, with a swimming pool in the front yard.”

The focus of the Waco-Times article was Hewitt’s humanitarian role in assisting American and Canadian prisoners locked up in the Acapulco jail. Apparently, Hewitt had been detained overnight following a vehicle accident outside a prominent hotel, and while there compiled a list of foreign prisoners, the charges they faced, and contact details for their families. On his release, he set about contacting families and trying to arrange for some of the prisoners to have fines or other debts paid and thereby gain their release. In many cases, his efforts proved successful. Hewitt visited the prisoners regularly, twice a week, with “books, food and hope”.

Even though The Gilded Hideaway is not set at Lake Chapala, it was almost certainly written in Ajijic. Hewitt’s links to Ajijic were strengthened by his marriage to Jane Twist (1914-2011) in the early 1950s, shortly after she divorced her second husband, the “9-fingered” violinist John Langley, who also had close ties to Ajijic.

“Peter Twist”—the pseudonym used for his only novel—combined Hewitt’s middle name with his wife’s maiden name.

After Hewitt’s marriage to Jane Twist also ended in divorce, she reportedly moved to Florida.

In 1961, Hewitt married Lucy Hamilton Prendergast (1923-1980); that marriage lasted until 1974. Chester Hewitt died in the U.S. Virgin Islands on 15 December 1980 at the age of 57.

Please contact us if you are able to add any more details about the life and work of this noble novelist.

[Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 2 May 2016]

Sources

Kevin M. Kelleghan. 1967. “Brings Them Hope: He may not be a “do-gooder” but those in Acapulco jail think so.” Waco-Times, 20 July 1967, 11.

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

Jan 282021
 

Xavier Pérez Aguilar became well known in Ajijic in the 1980s and 1990s for his fine watercolor landscapes and portraits.

According to a “Profile of the Artist” in El Ojo del Lago, Pérez was born in Ocotlán (near the eastern end of Lake Chapala) but was raised and educated in Southern California. He worked in industrial design before entering Los Angeles City College to study a liberal arts program. He then attended the Art Center College of Design, and studied painting under Leon Franks, Sergei Bongart and Constance Marlow.

Xavier Perez Aguilar. Undated. Reproduced courtesy of Ricardo Santana.

Xavier Pérez Aguilar. Untitled, undated. Reproduced courtesy of Ricardo Santana.

With Marlow, he started the Valley Branch of the Art League of Los Angeles in 1968, under whose auspices he taught and gave painting demonstrations for 15 years. In August 1968 he exhibited ”Pico Adobe” in an invitational group show at the San Fernando Mission in Los Angeles. Both Sergei Bongart and Constance Marlow also had works in that show.

At the Art League, Pérez gave life and drawing classes. Elsewhere, he gave a demonstration of palette knife techniques at an art society meeting in Los Angeles, in September 1968, and conducted flower painting classes in Chino. In January 1975, Pérez, billed as a  “renowned artist and sculptor,” gave a demonstration in sculpturing at the San Fernando Valley Art Club. By that time, Pérez had founded the Xavier Pérez Studio.

According to the biographical profile in El Ojo, “Xavier’s works brought on a degree of notoriety and an accumulation of awards which ultimately led to personality conflicts within the League. He stopped showing his paintings in public.”

After this Pérez moved back into the design business and combined the restoration of antiques with designing and making reproduction furniture.

Xavier Perez Aguilar. 1979. Lake Chapala. Courtesy of Richard Tingen.

Xavier Pérez Aguilar. 1989. Lake Chapala. Reproduced courtesy of Richard Tingen.

Pérez visited Lake Chapala in 1979 and returned to live at Lake Chapala in 1984, establishing his home in Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos. He opened the Galeria P. Bonnard, at Calle 16 de Septiembre #7 in Ajijic, the building where Enrique and Belva Velázquez have their joint studio today.

Xavier Pérez was one of the large group of “Pintores de la Ribera” who held a group exhibit in May 1985 at the Club Campestre La Hacienda (km 30, Guadalajara-Chapala highway). Other artists represented in that show included Daphne Aluta, Eugenia Bolduc, Jean Caragonne, Donald Demerest, Laura Goeglein, Hubert Harmon, B. R. Kline, Jo Kreig, Carla W. Manger, Emily Meeker, Sydney Moehlman, Tiu Pessa, De Nyse Turner Pinkerton and Eleanor Smart.

In 1986, Pérez was elected the first president of the Ajijic Society of the Arts (ASA). He saw his mission as forging greater unity among all the local artists. In addition, he began a project to restore and maintain the collection of archaeological finds started by the late Dr. Betty Bell.

Pérez was also a co-founder (with Tod Jonson, Ektor Carranza, Florence Pritikin and Pat Tanaka) in 1986 of the Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic (CASA).

Acknowledgments

  • My sincere thanks to Ricardo Santana for first bringing this artist to my attention, and to Richard Tingen and Judy Eager for sharing their memories of the artist.

Sources

  • El Ojo del Lago, September 1986
  • Valley News (Van Nuys, California): 1 February 1968, 74; 27 Aug 1968, 14; 24 Sep 1968, 24; 14 June 1973, 77; 14 January 1975, 26.

Please feel free to comment or suggest corrections or additional material related to any post, via our comments feature or via email.

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Jan 212021
 

La Ondina de Chapala (“The Water Nymph of Chapala”) is a 149-page Spanish-language novel, set in the 1940s, by Salomón Zepeda. It was published in Mexico City by Imprenta Ruíz in 1951. Very little is known about the author.

Until I had the chance to read this novel, I had always assumed—based on the cover art—that it was a pocket romance of relatively limited artistic merit. I was wrong. La Ondina de Chapala is a skillfully-constructed and well-written story which, while it has romance as a central theme, reflects on such timeless considerations in relationships as trust, fidelity, communication, sacrifice and betrayal.

The author was clearly a very well-educated individual, as evidenced by the many literary and artistic references in this book to the likes of Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Gauguin, Edgar Allen Poe, Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Arnold Böcklin, as well as to a number of Hindi poets.

Charles Betts Waite. ca. 1900. Hotel Arzapalo

Charles Betts Waite. ca. 1900. Hotel Arzapalo. – By coincidence, “La Ondina” is the name of the boat in the foreground of this very early image of the Hotel Arzapalo in Chapala.

The title turns out to be particularly apt. An Ondine (also spelled Undine) is a mythological water-spirit or water-nymph that can obtain a human soul when she falls in a love with a man. However, the man is doomed to die if he is unfaithful to her.

The protagonist in Zepeda’s novel is 27-year-old Erasmo Sada, a tall, muscular, college-educated author who has borrowed a car from a friend to drive out from Mexico City (where he is a newspaper editor) to Lake Chapala for a respite from his job and the city.

Erasmo took a room at the “Hotel de Oriente” and planned to work on his first novel, “Marfil de Luna.”

— “The resort was overflowing with Yanqui tourists of both sexes…. Towards the top of a hill, one could see the country houses, the chalets, the castles, the rustic cabins, the recreational villas and the palatial residences of the nouveaux riches, summering all year round…. Erasmo was content in that tourist emporium of yesteryear, where the rancid aristocracy of the age of General Porfirio Díaz whiled away their prolonged leisure time.”

Like all good authors, Erasmo always has his notebook to hand to record random thoughts, feelings, impressions and ideas.

The morning after his arrival, he is relaxing in a deckchair on the beach amidst the multi-colored sunshades and watching the world go by, when a group of four girls arrives. They stake a place on the beach and then race into the water to swim. He cannot help but overhear their shouts as they cavort in the water and learns their names: Vera, Susana, Angelina and Adelaida.

He is instantly smitten with Adelaida who seems somehow different and more self-confident than the others. He sneaks glimpses of the stunning and shapely dark-haired girl until, at one point, she not only notices him but calmly returns his gaze.

After the girls dry off, change and leave the beach, Erasmo enjoys a lunch of whitefish at the Beer Garden and makes a journal entry—equal parts lust and curiosity—about “the Ondine of Chapala who had swum in the lake.”

The following morning, the girls are back; Erasmo watches Adelaida but does not approach her. That evening, when he goes for dinner to “Salon Chapala,” he finds that Adelaida is already there, drinking and dancing with friends, one of whom, an older-looking man, has a proprietorial air about him. After they’ve left, the bartender explains to Erasmo that the man is a Guadalajara lawyer and is Adelaida’s husband. The couple regularly visit his family’s villa in Chapala and are friends of the local mayor (presidente municipal).

In the course of the novel, as Erasmo ponders the meaning of what he feels and how he should act, his inner musings often veer off into topics that are quintessentially Mexican. For example, after sitting in a rocky field looking out over the lake, he suddenly realizes that he is uncomfortably close to a group of rattlesnakes making love. They trigger thoughts of the serpent cult in ancient Mexico, of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent), and of the founding of Mexico City. As his mind wanders to the conflict between snakes and eagles, good versus bad, he recalls the archaeological evidence related to snakes and mythology elsewhere in the world, before snapping back to Lake Chapala as the weather worsens and a culebra (“water snake” – the local word for a waterspout) forms over the lake.

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapala

Cover art by “Magallón”

Safely back in his hotel, he watches the rain from his balcony. When the storm has subsided, the fresh earthy smell emanating from the ground prompts Erasmo to take a nighttime stroll through the village. He sees someone headed in his direction. The vaguely-defined distant shape gradually becomes more feminine and as the woman draws closer he recognizes Adelaida.

In the conversation that ensues, Adelaida makes it clear that she is fully prepared to accompany him back to his hotel room, but only on condition that he asks no questions and promises to have no further contact with her thereafter.

Erasmo can’t quite believe what is happening but agrees. They have a passionate one-night stand in his hotel room. Before she leaves in the early morning, she shares some of her life story with him to explain why she was wandering the streets at night… Long story short, she had barely left university when she married a much older man, Conrado Rubiera, who turned out to be an impotent alcoholic. Her husband became abusive and on one occasion attacked her with a knife. When Adelaida asked for a divorce, Conrado threatened to kill her.

In an effort to reconcile their differences they were spending several weeks in Chapala at his parents’ villa, Villa Solariega (“Ancestral Home”). However, their first attempt in months to make love ended in abject failure. Conrado had called her a whore and thrown her out; frustrated in more ways than one, she had stormed off and was wandering the streets in anguish prior to meeting Erasmo.

As Adelaida is about to leave the hotel, Erasmo suggests she leave her husband once and for all and that they drive away together back to Mexico City. She refuses, reminds him of his promise, and walks back to Villa Solariega.

Erasmo, as he tries to make sense of events, ponders the “fragility of human destiny” and begins to reread his journal entries for the trip. The first entry, dated 15 May 1943, reflects on his feelings when he stopped at the viewpoint known as Mil Cumbres to look out over the forest towards the distant mountains.

“My life is a dream in pursuit of your footprint …”

Snapping back to the present, Erasmo composes a lengthy poem to Adelaida in which he expresses his eternal love. He fantasizes about what he calls the “Lake of Love,” which “will tell your heart of my insane anxiety until once again, in a distant world, we love each other in Eternity.”

On her way home, Adelaida’s interior monologue revolves around her feelings of guilt and remorse. She decides that she will ignore her husband’s threats and seek a divorce. However, when she arrives home, she discovers her husband dead in bed, pistol in hand. She screams for help and moves the pistol to the nightstand. After the local judge arrives, reports are filled out and Adelaida is placed in temporary custody at the house of the mayor, Ramiro Requena, while further investigations are carried out.

Adelaida’s fingerprints on the pistol, her ready admission of having had a serious argument with her husband only hours before his death, and her unexplained walk into the village at night, as well as the absence of any suicide note, all suggest she may have been implicated in her husband’s death.

Fortunately for Adelaida, her father-in-law arrives from Guadalajara. Confident that Adelaida must be completely innocent, he looks round the house and discovers a suicide note signed by his son. The note completely vindicates Adelaida who is released. Conrado’s body is taken by ambulance to Guadalajara for burial in the family crypt.

In the meantime, Erasmo Sada has arrived in Guadalajara, not knowing any of this, to stay overnight before driving back to Mexico City. At the downtown Hotel Metrópoli he is idly leafing through the newspapers lying on the table in the hotel lobby when he reads about the suicide and the funeral. His heart skips a beat. The article even includes Adelaida’s address.

For the next couple of days, unsure what he should do, he tries to distract himself by wandering the city streets to visit tourist sites such as the Museo del Estado, Los Colomos and Tlaquepaque. In the process, he muses about the origin and importance of Jalisco’s many contributions to Mexico such as mariachi music and tequila.

Eventually, he comes to a decision and enters a silver shop to purchase some earrings as a suitable gift for Adelaida. When he knocks on her door, there is no answer. Erasmo turns away dejected, wondering about love and destiny. Then, by chance, her maid arrives and explains that Adelaida is staying with her aunt Elisa in the colonial Agua Azul.

At the aunt’s house, Erasmo talks with Adelaida and they go for a walk. She loves the earrings but makes it clear that she is sticking to the “no more contact or explanation” agreement and is going to stay with a cousin in Chicago and start a new life. She agrees that Erasmo can see her off at the airport the following Saturday.

Erasmo paces the city streets trying to clear his head, desperate to work out how to convince her to change her mind and come to live with him in Mexico City. At the airport, Adelaida arrives alone, having made excuses as to why none of her friends or her aunt should see her off. She and Erasmo meet in the departure hall and start chatting. They hug and share a passionate kiss.

And… will she go to Chicago or will she marry Erasmo?…

Apology:

Sorry, but if you want to know the ending, you’ll either have to find and read a copy of this interesting book or email me a link to a rating, comment or review you have made on Goodreads, Amazon or elsewhere of any of my books.

Copies of La Ondina de Chapala are held in several libraries in Mexico City and the U.S., including the University of California Los Angeles and Southern Illinois University. Depending where you live, they may be available via inter-library loan.

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 142021
 

Herb McLaughlin was a prolific commercial photographer who began his career in Illinois before moving to Arizona. These images of the church and waterfront in Chapala were published in Arizona Highways in November 1950.

Herbert (“Herb”) McLaughlin was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 30 July 1918 and died in Phoenix on 19 February 1991. He first became fascinated by photography after receiving a gift as a teenager of a Voightlander folding camera. McLaughlin studied safety engineering at Purdue University and then completed a double major at Indiana University in business administration and journalism. Even before graduating, he had established his own business, Mercury Pictures, in Hammond, Indiana. On graduating in 1940, McLaughlin married Barbara Cartwright (1920-1996); the couple had two children, but divorced in about 1949.

While running Mercury Pictures, McLaughlin undertook commissions for several newspapers as well as for wartime factories and other companies. In 1945 he sold this company and, following medical advice, moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in the hope that his asthma would improve. The new company he began, McLaughlin and Co. did well and in 1947 he bought a rival company, McCulloch Brothers Inc., together with their extensive photographic collection.

It is unclear whether his photographs of Chapala were taken on commission for Arizona Highways, or whether the lake was where he chose to spend his honeymoon following his second marriage – to Dorothy Ann “Dot” (Jensen) Jolley (1912-2005) – in the summer of 1950. Or perhaps both reasons were true?

Herb McLaughlin. c. 1950. Chapala.

Herb McLaughlin. c. 1950. Chapala.

The photo above shows the Chapala waterfront as seen from the end of the pier. At the time of McLaughlin’s visit, the large-scale remodeling of the town center to create Avenida Francisco I. Madero and Paseo Ramón Corona was almost complete. Villa Tlalocan (built in the 1890s by George Edward King for British consul Lionel Carden) and Villa Ferrara are visible on the right hand side of the photo.

The image below, of the San Francisco church in Chapala, shows what the church looked like prior to a major (and never fully completed) renovation of its facade and bell towers (or spires) in the 1960s, which left the towers at different heights.

The clock visible above the main entrance dates from about 1897 and was a gift of Eduard Collignon, owner of the nearby Villa Ana Victoria (which was demolished during the updating of the town center). This imposing parroquia (parish church) gets several mentions in D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, and is only a short stroll from the house Lawrence rented in Chapala in 1923 while composing the first draft of his famous novel. That house, greatly expanded since Lawrence’s visit, is now a boutique hotel known as the Hotel Villa QQ.

Herb McLaughlin. c. 1950. Church at Chapala.

Herb McLaughlin. c. 1950. Church at Chapala.

McLaughlin’s second wife, Dot, had previously been married to Marion Doval Jolley, with whom she co-owned Jolley Turkey Company in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. After her first husband died, and she remarried, Jolley sold that company to become co-owner of McLaughlin & Co. She organized the company’s photographic library and began her own photographic career, specializing in portraits of children. The ownership structure of the firm was changed in 1955 in order to grant their staff a stake in the company, now relaunched as Arizona Photographic Associates.

The McLaughlins published two books of photographs: Phoenix 1870-1970 in Photographs (1972) and Arizona the Beautiful (with Don Dedera, 1974). They donated an extensive collection of their photographs to Arizona State University.

For more about the many historic buildings in Chapala, please see my recent book If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants.

Sources:

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 072021
 

It’s not often that obstetrics makes it into my random musings about the artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala. But there’s a first time for everything! Starting in the 1960s, Carol Shepherd McClain, a young California researcher, visited Ajijic several times in order to investigate “traditional” birthing practices in the village.

McClain-textMcClain’s supervisor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), suggested she undertake research in Guadalajara and/or Lake Chapala. When McClain visited Ajijic in 1965, she knew she had found an ideal place for her work.

In September 1965 the Guadalajara Reporter noted that McClain was visiting Ajijic to gather material for a PhD. Accompanying her during that first visit to Ajijic was her older brother, Spencer Owen Shepherd, who was said to be “adding the finishing touches to a book he wrote in Spain.”

A follow-up in the Guadalajara Reporter in November reminded readers that McClain still hoped that more questionnaires would be returned. Failing to collect sufficient data, McClain was forced to abandon her initial idea of a community study. Instead, on an extended return visit to Ajijic (January 1967 to June 1968) she gathered information for her PhD in Cultural Anthropology (awarded in 1975), which was entitled “Systems of medical beliefs and practices in a West Mexican community.” One of her major findings was that “Ajijicans were more than willing to incorporate modern medical practices as they could easily see that many were effective (e.g. surgery, antibiotics) but that they retained very traditional beliefs about the causes of illness (e.g. witchcraft, fright).”

McClain spent another two months of field work at Lake Chapala from August to September 1973, collecting additional data for an academic article focused specifically on childbirth and midwifery. Published in 1975, when McClain was working at Oregon State University, her ethno-obstetrics research paper looked at the indigenous or “traditional” forms of “obstetrical perceptions” and “the intersection of traditional and modern obstetrical practices,” including the roles played by mothers, grandmothers, curanderas (native healers), parteras (midwives) and espiritistas (spiritualists).

In addition to informal conversations, Carol McClain interviewed 41 mothers at some length about their beliefs and practices, and spent time getting to know four of the local parteras. Doña Carmen was “a popular curandera” who had studied under a hierbero (herbalist) for five years and had “traveled as far as Mexico City to bring patients back to Ajijic for extended treatment.” Her daughter, Josefina, had first become a partera at the age of 25. Doña Josefa, born in Ajijic in 1904, worked both as a partera and as a curandera; she had retired by the time of Shepherd’s second field visit. Doña Petra, born in San Juan Cosalá in 1900, had begun practicing as a partera in 1920 and had spent nine months working under a doctor in Guadalajara; she was the most “modern” (and expensive) of the four.

And what did McClain find out during her research into ethno-obstetrics in Ajijic?

Among other things, that local women believed that four “external factors” affected the fetus: food taboos, sibling jealousy, eclipses of the sun and the moon, and a father who drinks to excess. In the case of food taboos, it was widely believed that “cold” foods might cause illness in the newborn child. McClain quite rightly traced the belief in the potential impact of eclipses back to pre-Conquest times. In Ajijic, it was believed that, “a lunar eclipse will cause an excess of parts, such as fingers or toes, while a solar eclipse will cause incomplete development, and parts of the body which may be affected, such as the nose or the ears, are “eaten by the sun”…. Women who are pregnant will wear a metal object such as a safety pin beneath their clothing to absorb the effects of an eclipse. For protection at night a metal object will be placed beneath the bed.”

McClain’s conclusion was that “Whatever advantages traditional obstetrical care offers women and their children in Ajijic (and these may be considerable), they will be lost if it is completely displaced by modern hospital services. A partial compromise may be the alternative method of home delivery under the care of a physician.”

In 1986, McClain completed a Masters in Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. She then worked for almost twenty years in the President’s Office at the University of California, becoming the university’s administrative director of multicampus research. McClain retired from this position in 2003.

Other academic papers authored by Carol Shepherd McClain include “Adaptation in health behavior in a west Mexican pueblo,” published in Social Science and Medicine (1977); “Women’s choice of home or hospital birth” in Journal of Family Practice (1981); “Traditional midwives and family planning” in Medical Anthropology (1981); “Social network differences between women choosing home and hospital birth” in Human Organization (1987); “A new look at an old disease: smallpox and biotechnology” in Perspectives in Biology  and Medicine (1995); and “Family Stories: Black/White Marriage During the 1960s,” published in the Journal of Black Studies (2011). Shepherd was also the editor of the book Women as Healers: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, published by Rutgers University Press in 1989.

McClain has returned to Ajijic several times in the past twenty years and has conducted additional, less formally structured, research into folk medicine beliefs and practices. This was the basis for a paper she presented at the 2012 meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco entitled “The Persistence of Traditional Medicine: A Mexican Case Study.”

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Dr. Carol Shepherd McClain for sharing details of her visits to Mexico and her research findings.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 30 Sep 1965; 25 Nov 1965
  • Carol Shepherd McClain. 1975. “Ethno-obstetrics in Ajijic,” in Anthropological Quarterly, 40: 38-56.
  • San Francisco Examiner: 16 January 1965

Other artists and authors who connect Berkeley/Oakland to Lake Chapala include:

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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