Oct 082020
 

Roy Vincent MacNicol (1889-1970), “Paintbrush Ambassador of Goodwill”, had an extraordinary artistic career, even if his personal life was sometimes confrontational.

The American painter, designer, writer and lecturer had close ties to Chapala for many years: in 1954, he bought and remodeled the house in Chapala that had been rented in 1923 by English author D. H. Lawrence, and then, according to artist Everett Gee Jackson, by himself and Lowell Houser.

After MacNicol and his fourth wife Mary Blanche Starr bought the house, they divided their time between Chapala and New York, with occasional trips elsewhere, including Europe. Their New York home, from 1956 (possibly earlier) was at 100 Sullivan Street.

Roy MacNicol: Mood, Mexico (1936)

Roy MacNicol: Mood, Mexico (1936)

Roy MacNicol was a prolific painter and numerous MacNicol paintings of Lake Chapala are known. Romantically and artistically, he lived an especially colorful life and was involved in several high profile scandals and lawsuits.

Born in New York City on 27 November 1889, MacNicol left home as a teenager to take acting classes and work on the stage, appearing in the farces Twin Beds and Where’s Your Wife? on Broadway in 1919.

MacNicol’s first marriage lasted less than four years. In 1920, MacNicol took vaudeville singer and performer Fay Courtney as his second wife. With the backing of his new wife, MacNicol left the stage to concentrate on his painting career.

Best known for his watercolors and elaborate decorative screens, MacNicol’s work embraced a number of different styles over the years before he developed (in the 1940s) a unique style he termed “geo-segmatic.”

MacNicol’s first solo exhibit was in November 1921 at the Anderson Galleries, New York. His bird and animal motifs on large screens were admired on opening night by more than 800 guests. However, this led to a serious professional clash with a fellow artist, Robert W. Chanler, who called him a “copyist” who had stolen his designs. MacNicol was outraged and took Chanler to court, seeking $50,000 for the alleged libel.

His second solo show was in Palm Beach, Florida, the start of the artist’s long connection with the Palm Beach area.

After visiting France and Spain, MacNicol held a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in April 1926, which included many abstract paintings of fauna such as cranes, herons, Australian squirrels and penguins. In the program notes, A. G. Warshawsky praised the abstract compositions that “still hold a human and essentially humorous effect, which adds both to the charm and naiveté of the subject”.

Roy MacNicol: Untitled (1961)

Roy MacNicol: Untitled (1961)

In the 1930s, his wife’s singing career took the couple to Europe, Asia and South America. Between these trips MacNicol held many more solo shows, including one at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach (1931) and at the A Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago (1933–34).

In about 1937, the MacNicols, on an impulse, decided to drive down to Mexico to seek more of the “Spanish flavor” that had inspired some of MacNicol’s best work to date. In Mexico City, Thomas Gore, the owner-manager of the Hotel Geneve in the Zona Rosa, commissioned MacNicol to paint two Xochimilco-related murals for the dining room.

Tragically, Fay became ill on their tour of South America and died, at home in New York, in February 1941.

MacNicol’s frequent travels had inspired him to compile a “good-neighbor” show of Mexican-inspired works as a means of improving the ties between Mexico and the U.S. He returned to Mexico City and devoted nine months to painting a series of large (22 x 30″) watercolors, which were the basis of numerous “Good Neighbor Exhibits” shown in galleries across Mexico and the U.S. and in coast-to-coast television coverage.

MacNicol was dismissive of critics who argues his work was influenced by Diego Rivera, though he admitted that perhaps he had been influenced by the “entire Mexican school of art.” In particular, he admired the work of Siqueiros and of Rufino Tamayo, “the most charming, imaginative, and amusing painter in Mexico.”

Eleanor Roosevelt visited the artist’s 33rd solo show in March 1943 at the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C. and eagerly recommended it to others:

“On leaving the club, I went to the Pan American Building to see an exhibition of paintings done in Mexico by Mr. Roy MacNicol. They were perfectly charming, and I was particularly interested in the Indian types. Some showed the hardships of the life they and their forefathers had lived. Others had a gentleness and sweetness which seemed to draw you to them through the canvas. The color in every picture was fascinating and I feel sure that this is the predominant note in Mexico which attracts everyone in this country who goes there.”

Mrs. Roosevelt sponsored subsequent “Good Neighbor” exhibits, as did several prominent Mexican officials, including Mexican president Miguel Alemán.

MacNicol divided his time over the next few years between Mexico and the U.S. with solo shows in Los Angeles and at the Galería de Arte Decoración (1943) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes (1945), both in Mexico City.

In what MacNicol terms “My great folly” in his autobiography, he married Mrs. Helen Stevick, “wealthy publisher of the Champaign, Illinois, News Gazette,” in Chicago in September 1945. Newly-married, the couple went to Mexico City for their honeymoon, where Stevick’s daughter joined them. This marriage quickly became a complete disaster, leading to ample fodder for the newspapers of the time, who had a field day describing the plight (and possible motives) of the prominent painter. The Steviks accused MacNicol of fraud and had him (briefly) imprisoned in a Mexican jail. In retaliation, MacNicol sued the daughter for $500,000 for her part in wrecking his marriage.

MacNicol may have wanted $500,000, but he certainly did not get it; the case was dismissed on technical grounds. The divorce was finalized in July 1946.

Roy MacNicol. The Lily Vendor. c. 1946.

Roy MacNicol. The Lily Vendor. c. 1946.

That winter, MacNicol returned to Palm Beach for the first time in 15 years, and made arrangements to hold his 50th solo show there in the State Suite of the Biltmore Hotel. When Mrs Bassett Mitchell (the former Mary Blanche Starr) walked in the room he was instantly smitten. It turned out that Mary was the widow of a Florida financier and was equally enthralled. She bought “The Lily Vendor,” and then they had dinner together. They married in Palm Beach on 27 March 1947, and honeymooned in Nassau. Their love for each other never diminished.

In 1948, MacNiol held the first major exhibition of his “geo-segmatic” paintings in Paris, France. The following year, after a successful show at Penthouse Galleries in New York City, the MacNicols decided to move from Palm Beach to Mexico City. They drove down in their Lincoln convertible (with four truck loads of furniture following behind) and bought a 3,000-square-meter property in Coyoacan. It took them two years to convert it into a house, studio and gallery.

Health issues forced them to sell their Mexico City home and seek a home at a lower elevation.

“We took three months motoring around before we discovered the enchanting little fishing village of Chapala, tucked on the banks of a sparkling lake, set among emerald mountains and violet haze. There was a blessed tranquillity in the low rooftops and the plaza overshadowed by giant laurel trees. But it also had the advantage of a modem four-lane highway leading through rolling green hills from Guadalajara, the second largest, and the cleanest, city in Mexico, a drive of only thirty-five minutes. (Paintbrush Ambassador, 226-7)

They drove into Chapala in January 1954 and, within days, bought the house, at Zaragoza #307, which British novelist D. H. Lawrence had rented in 1923.

The MacNicols restored the house and added a swimming pool. They also added a memorial plaque on the street wall to Lawrence: “In this house D. H. Lawrence lived and wrote ‘The Plumed Serpent’ in the year 1923.” A second wall plaque had a quote from another of MacNicol’s boyhood heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson.

A “list of foreign residents in Chapala” from June 1955, and now in the archive of the Lake Chapala Society (LCS), includes Roy and Mary MacNicol among the 55 total foreign residents in the town at that time, though they were not LCS members. According to MacNicol, “Chapala has its retired American naval and military brass, business men, delightful English, some good writers and myself as the only painter.”

Roy MacNicol. 1956. Poolroom, Chapala, Mexico. B/W photo of oil in tones of red and green. (Plate 11 of Paintbrush Ambassador)

Roy MacNicol. 1956. Poolroom, Chapala, Mexico. B/W photo of oil in tones of red and green. (Plate 11 of Paintbrush Ambassador)

In 1956, MacNicol was persuaded to hold an exhibit in Copenhagen, Denmark. He and Mary flew from Mexico City to New York, carrying 52 paintings and then sailed on the MS Kungsholm across the Atlantic. The show was an unmitigated disaster, largely owing (according to MacNicol) to the complete absence of any help or support from the local U.S. Embassy. The MacNicols returned home to Chapala in November.

It is unclear precisely when the MacNicols sold their house in Chapala, but according to columnist Kenneth McCaleb, MacNicol was disposing of the contents of his Chapala home in the early 1960s, prior to selling it and moving to New York.

The exhibition catalog dating from late 1968 or early 1969 for MacNicol’s “Faces and Places of Nations” exhibit says it was the artist’s 59th (and last) solo exhibit. The catalog describes the “Paintbrush Ambassador of Goodwill”:

“He believes in the universal diplomacy of art as a means to world understanding. His “Faces and Places of Nations” series was begun in 1943. The exhibit has been shown in Mexico City, Spain, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, British West Indies, Cuba, South America, as well as in key cities in U.S.A. The 1949 exhibition was televised coast-to-coast by NBC.”

Of the sixteen works listed in the catalog, six are from Mexico, including two directly linked to Lake Chapala: “Old Fisherman & Boy (Lake Chapala)” and “Mary & Duke, Casa MacNicol (Lake Chapala).” Duke was MacNicol’s Dalmation.

In addition to painting, MacNicol frequently lectured on art and his formal jobs as a young man included a spell as associate editor at the American Historical Company in New York City. He was a contributor to several newspapers including the Christian Science Monitor, Atlanta Journal, The Times Herald, Mexico City News and The Havana Post.

His autobiography – Paintbrush Ambassador – mentions dozens of notable personalities including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jack Warner, Danny Kaye, Gloria Swanson and Mr. and Mrs. Nelson D. Rockefeller.

MacNicol died in New York in November 1970.

Examples of his artwork are in the permanent collections of the University of Illinois; Randolph-Macon Woman’s College; University of Havana, Cuba, and the Reporter’s Club, Havana.

Despite enjoying considerable success (and some notoriety) during his lifetime, Roy MacNicol is among the many larger-than-life artists to have lived and worked at Lake Chapala whose artistic contributions to the area’s cultural heritage have, sadly, been largely forgotten.

Sources

  • Irving Johnson. 1946. “Honeymoon for Three.” San Antonio Light, 24 November 1946, 59.
  • Roy MacNicol. 1957. Paintbrush Ambassador. New York: Vantage Press.
  • Kenneth McCaleb. 1968. “Conversation Piece: How To Be an Art Collector,” The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 15 February 1968, 17.
  • New York Times, 26 May 1925.
  • The Palm Beach Post, 20 March 1947.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt. “My Day,” Kansas City Star, 5 March 1943, 23.

Note: This is an expanded version of a post first published on 18 February 2016.

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 6:34 am  Tagged with:
Oct 012020
 

A lakefront home in Ajijic was the setting in 1949 for the marriage of a Canadian author and an English nurse. The story of how they met and fell in love is one of the most endearing tales to emerge from my research into the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala.

The venue for the wedding was Quinta Johnson, the home built by Herbert and Georgette Johnson, a British couple who had left France just as the second world war broke out and who first arrived in Mexico in 1939. The magnificent garden they created separating their residence from the lake was sufficiently famous that it featured, years later, in Elizabeth Schuler’s Gardens of the World (1962).

The groom at the ceremony in Ajijic was Harold Walter Masson, who was born in St. Raphael’s in South Glengarry County, Ontario, Canada, on 29 June 1915 and died in Hawaii at age 95 on 26 March 2011.

Prior to joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1939 at the outbreak of the second world war, Masson had lived in Toronto and worked for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1945, at the end of the war, “Hal” Masson, as he was known, joined the staff of Maclean’s magazine as the magazine’s assignments editor, with special responsibility for short fiction.

Over the next eighteen months the magazine published several of his short stories, starting with “These thy gifts” in November 1945 which has the memorable opening, “Black Joe and Little Joe sat at the worn kitchen table, elbows resting on the scrubbed pine boards, their faces shining in the uncertain light of the flickering kerosene lamp.”

By 1947, tired of the extreme winters in Ontario, Masson decided to emigrate to sunnier climes in the US. He crossed the border at Niagara Falls in June 1947 and, after a brief stay in California in September that year, continued driving south in pursuit of a warm winter.

Masson eventually landed in Ajijic where, in 1949, he rented the guest bungalow at Quinta Johnson and continued to write. A short story entitled “He knew what was wrong with her, and how to cure it” appeared in Collier’s Weekly in 1948, and another story—”The Worm’s Eye View”—was published in Argosy.

+ + +

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Herbert Johnson’s 29-year-old niece was making plans to visit her uncle in Ajijic. Helen Eunice Riggall (pronounced “Regal”), born in Langton, Spilsby, Lincolnshire, on 24 April 1919, was the daughter of Herbert’s younger sister. During the war, Helen studied for three years at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, where she passed her exams to become a registered nurse in 1942. By the time the war ended, like many of her contemporaries, she longed to forget the worst of her war-time nursing experiences and begin a new chapter in her life in new surroundings.

She left Southampton for New York on 20 January 1949 aboard the SS America of the United States Lines. According to her US immigration form, Helen was unaccompanied and named the US as her country of “intended future permanent residence,” indicating that she had little or no intention of returning to the UK. However, before settling in the US, she wanted to visit her uncle and his wife in Ajijic.

While some details remain unclear, it appears most likely that from New York she traveled first by train across to California and then took a steamer south, to disembark in Mexico at either Manzanillo or (less likely) Mazatlán.

At this point, it is best if Helen’s daughter takes up her mother’s story:

Her uncle and his chiropractic friend met her… and planned to drive her to Lake Chapala. Unfortunately, the sun was setting and uncle Herbert was not able to see the road well and ended up driving over a cliff. My mother’s back was broken to the point the doctors fused it. Poor thing, she spoke no Spanish [and] was in a Mexican hospital [presumably in Guadalajara] sharing a room with a woman bullfighter! It was there that my father met her and began spending time with her while she recovered. As he had been there awhile he had picked up some Spanish, while she had none. The day she was released from the hospital, he proposed.”

Ann Medalie. Ajijic Landscape (oil). ca 1945

Ann Medalie. c. 1945. Ajijic Landscape (oil). The Quinta Johnson garden.

Harold Walter Masson and Helen Eunice Riggall were married in the Quinta Johnson garden on 31 August 1949. Guests at their wedding included the Langley, Riggall, Masson, Butterlin, Johnson, Bauer and Stephens families, as well as Mrs Grace Wilcox, Miss Neill James and Miss Madeline Miedema. The witnesses to their union were Herbert B. Johnson and Guillermo Gonzalez Hermosillo (owner of the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala) for the bride and, for the groom, German businessman Kurt Weinmann and Peter Lilley, the English writer behind the “Dane Chandos” books.

Interestingly, the formal registration of the wedding states that Hal was in Mexico as a tourist (normally valid for no longer than six months) while Helen was in possession of a “tarjeta especial para turistas forma 5B.” Never having heard of this category previously, I assume that her regular tourist card had expired while she was in hospital and that this was an “exceptional case” extension for a period of time—perhaps three months—which would have been about to expire by the time the newlyweds left Mexico for California in November.

When the couple crossed the border at Laredo, Helen stated her intention to become a permanent resident. Her entry paper lists a large scar on her left palm as a distinguishing feature.

The Massons revisited Mexico briefly in 1951.

While residing in Laguna Beach, Masson joined the staff of the Indian Valley Record in Greenville. When he contributed “The Sea Raiders” to that paper in 1951, it reported proudly that their new contributor had “recently crashed the American “big time” with a story in the Saturday Evening Post.” That story was entitled “Trouble Below the Border.”

Masson published several more short stories over the next few years, including “Fat Man’s Doom” in Cavalier (June 1953), “Señor, It Is a Pump”, in Bluebook Magazine (November 1953), which appeared alongside stories by John D. MacDonald, Leslie Charteris, Philip Ketchum and similarly famous writers; “The Last Quarrel” in Cosmopolitan, and “The Love Trap” in Canadian magazine Liberty.

Harold became a naturalized US citizen in April 1953; a few years later, Helen also took US citizenship. In 1958, they visited relatives in the UK to show off their young daughter. The family subsequently settled in Hawaii, where Helen died in May 1986 and Hal in 2011.

The Masson-Riggall wedding was not the first marriage between two foreign tourists in Ajijic, and certainly not the last. That between David Holbrook Kennedy and Sarah Shearer—who had married in Ajijic in 1941—sadly ended in tragedy within months.

The stars were better aligned for the union of Hal and Helen, who shared their lives and their happiness for more than 36 years. The romance of Lake Chapala and “The Love Trap” of Ajijic had struck again.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Colette Hirata for helping me piece together this profile of her parents, and to Katie Goodridge Ingram for an email sharing her memories of Hal and Helen, and of the Johnsons.

Sources

  • El Informador, 9 September 1949.
  • The Glengarry News. 1939. “Other Enlistments”, The Glengarry News, 6 October 1939, 1.
  • The Glengarry News. 1945. “On Editorial Staff of Maclean’s”, reprinted in The Glengarry News, 23 November 1955, 1.
  • Indian Valley Record (Greenville, California), 30 August 1951, 10.
  • Hal Masson, 1951. “For Sale Cheap – One Snow Shovel” Oakdale Leader (Oakdale, California), 27 September 1951, 21.

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.

Jul 232020
 

The great food writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is one of the many well-known non-fiction writers to have spent time in Chapala.

Fisher wrote more than 20 food-related works and was considered by contemporaries as “the greatest food writer of our time”. The revered English poet W. H. Auden extolled the quality of her writing, saying “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”

fisher-mary-frances-kennedyFisher was born on 3 July 1908 in Albion, Michigan. Her first book, Serve it Forth, was published in 1937. Her books, with titles such as How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, and An Alphabet for Gourmets, consider food from multiple perspectives, including preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy.

Fisher spent three weeks in Chapala from mid-October into November 1941, shortly after her second husband Dillwyn had taken his own life. [Dillwyn “was dying from a horribly painful and invariably fatal disease (and could not obtain the only medication that had any effect on the pain in the USA)” – see comments below.] Fisher visited Chapala to stay with her sister Norah and her brother David Holbrook Kennedy and his wife Sarah, who had rented a house there over the summer. David and Sarah were honeymooning in Chapala where David had a contract to paint murals in the municipal baths of Chapala, a task with which the others helped. The entire group (David, Sarah, Norah, and Mary Frances) helped paint the murals, working on them every day for several weeks. After the murals were finished toward the end of November 1941, Fisher and Norah flew back to Los Angeles, with David and Sarah following by car.

Many details and stories relating to Fisher’s visit are told in Reardon’s Poet of the Appetites and Fisher’s The Gastronomical  Me. According to Joan Reardon, her biographer, Fisher drafted some of The Gastronomical Me while staying in Chapala: “No doubt Mary Frances drafted those two chapters [of The Gastronomical Me] during the three weeks she stayed with Norah, David, and Sarah in their little rented house in the fishing village along the shore of Lake Chapala.” (Reardon, 141)

In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher describes what living in Chapala was like in 1941:

“Our house was about thirty steps from the little square, which was very correct, with a wooden bandstand in the middle and a double promenade around it under the thick green trees, so that the boys could walk one way to the music and the girls the other… until the boys found courage or centavos enough to buy flowers and join their loves.

The flower-women sat at one end of the plaza on concert nights, the dark end, and candles or little lamps shone like magic on the blossoms lying on clean cloths in front of them. There were camelias and tiny gardenias, and sometime spidery jewel-like orchids, and plainer garden flowers, all glowing in the soft light on the earth while the women crouched darkly behind, deep in their shawls, and the band wheezed bravely for the innocent concupiscent strollers on the paths.

There were two or three bars, with juke-boxes when the orchestra got tired, and a little kiosk sold bright pink and yellow ices and Coca-Cola.

In the other direction from our house, and around the corner was the market. It was a sprawling wandering collection of stands, some of them elaborate, with counters for eating and stoves in the center, and some of them a piece of cloth on the ground with two little heaps of dried peppers and a bruised yam or a pot of stew waiting to be bought. Of course there were serape merchants and sandal-makers on Sundays, and piles of thin pottery everywhere and always because it broke easily after it was bought.

There were hungry dogs and cats near the one meat-stand, where flies buzzed so thickly over the strange strips of hanging bony flesh that we could hear them before we even turned the corner.

Some days, and perhaps for a week at a time, there would be almost nothing to buy except one thing, like tomatoes, at every stand… little pungent tomatoes no bigger than pigeon eggs. It was the wrong season for avocados when I was there, but now and then we found string beans, or a rotting papaya.” (Fisher, 546)

In general, Fisher was not overly impressed with the quality of the food in Mexico, though she praised a meal in Mazatlán (where she had to overnight between flights on her way south to Guadalajara), brought from the “country” (non-American) kitchen where the waiters ate.

She was far less impressed with the culinary delights of Chapala where  “the meats were repulsive and poorly cooked; there were no salads and almost no vegetables; none of us liked the violently colored stiff sweet pastes that were called desserts.”

Even breakfast was an ordeal. She cooked scrambled eggs a few times, “but it was hard to find more than two or three at once, and there was no cream or cheese in the village.”

The family ate out most nights:

“At night we usually went to one of the little restaurants. They were very plain, and it was best to stop by in the afternoon and ask what there would be for four people. Most of the people ate in them or ordered food to be cooked there and taken home, even if they were quite poor. It was because the kitchens were so bad, I suppose, and charcoal and water and food so scarce. Always at meal times boys would be walking through the streets with food on their heads, from the little eating-places… pots of stew and beans, piles of tacos, sometimes a boiled chicken steaming naked on a platter if it was for a family feast-day.” (Fisher, 549)

Elsewhere, Fisher describes an evening spent in a bar run by a “fat widow”, “a white-faced woman with a shy flashing smile”. This description is almost certainly of the famous bar owned at that time by the Viuda Sánchez (Widow Sánchez), who popularized the tequila chaser known as sangrita.

Sources:

  • Joan Reardon, 2005. Poet of the Appetites: The Lives And Loves of M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press)
  • M. F. K. Fisher, 1943. The Gastronomical Me (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York), reprinted in The Art of Eating (Macmillan 1979).

Note: This post was first published Oct 13, 2014.

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

Jul 022020
 

After visiting Ajijic in the mid-1940s, Irma René Koen spent the remaining three decades of her life living and painting in Mexico.

Koen, whose birth name was Irma Julia Köhn, was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on 8 October 1883. She graduated from Rock Island High School before briefly attending Augustana College. Despite being an accomplished cellist, she opted to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) in 1903; she was a regular exhibitor in its exhibitions from 1907 to 1917.

Koen completed her studies at the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, and also studied under C. F. Brown, W.L. Lathrop and John Johansen in Vermont before taking a trip to Europe in 1914, where she was studying with Henry B. Snell at St. Ives in England when the first world war erupted. Koen returned to the US After the war, Koen painted in southern France and North Africa.

Market scene (possibly Oaxaca) painted by Irma Koen

Market scene in Central America painted by Irma Koen

Koen, who never married, traveled very widely during her working life, studying and painting in numerous art colonies, including St. Ives, Cornwall, England (1914); Monterey/Carmel, California (1915); East Gloucester, Massachusetts (1917); New Hope, Pennsylvania (1928); Boothbay Harbor, Maine (1927, 1928); Taos, New Mexico (1929). She also visited Asia, including Nepal. Prior to 1923, she signed her paintings as “Irma Köhn.” Sometime after a trip to France and North Africa in 1923-24, she changed her professional name to “Irma René Koen”.

She was already an artist of considerable renown before visiting Mexico. For example, the Christian Science Monitor noted in 1927 that Koen was “often designated as America’s leading woman artist.”

Photo of Irma Koen from “The News,” Mexico D.F. , 1956

Photo of Koen from “The News,” Mexico D.F. , 1956

After the second world war, she spent the remainder of her life based in Mexico. Art historian and biographer Cynthia Wiedemann Empen writes that Koen traveled to Mexico in the early 1940s for two months, moved to San Miguel de Allende circa 1944, and resided briefly in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, Pátzcuaro and Mazatlán before establishing a permanent home and studio in Cuernavaca, in the central Mexican state of Morelos, near Mexico City.

Neill James, writing about Ajijic in 1945, described how a recent visitor “Irma René Koen, an impressionist painter from Chicago, found a rich source of material in the local landscape”, so presumably Koen most likely visited Ajijic in late 1944 or early in 1945.

A “Mrs Sam Shloss” of Des Moines visited Ajijic a few years later. Interviewed on her return home in February 1949, she reported how she had visited Neill James in “primitive Ajijic” and purchased “a blouse of Indian handiwork” from James’ small shop. Schloss claimed that the blouse had been designed by “Irma Rene Koen, whose work will be exhibited in March at the Des Moines Art Center” and that the blouses were “marketed by Miss James in an attempt to help the native Mexican women earn pesos with their embroidery.” (Sylvia Fein, the famous American surrealist artist who lived for several years in Ajijic in the mid-1940s, also contributed designs to Neill James, and helped market the blouses in Mexico City and beyond.)

According to a report in 1946 in The Dispatch, an Illinois daily, Koen had already spent two and a half years in Mexico, having spent “the first summer” in “the Indian village of Ajijic which is a mecca for artists and writers.” The report quoted Koen as explaining how she generally “stayed from 3 to 5 months in a town and then moved on.” At that time, Koen relied on her memory and impressions to complete all her paintings in her studio, having found that “painting on the scene was impossible as the natives would practically mob artists who attempted it.”

Her first major exhibition in Mexico was held in 1947 at the Circulo de Bellas Artes de México; this exhibit, of (25 oils and 18 watercolors) was later shown in Chicago. The following year, art critic Guillermo Rivas extolled the virtues of Koen for readers of Mexican Life, describing how her painting had “changed completely” since arriving in Mexico: “Her image of Mexico is that of people and landscape fused within a rhythmic movement of incandescent color…. Putting aside her brushes she works with a palette-knife, arranging her undiluted pigments over the canvas in heavy strokes…. It is very seldom indeed that a foreign painter working in Mexico does not yield to its influence and there are occasions when such influence is sufficiently powerful as to define a turning point in their creative course.”

Irma Rene Koen. c 1945. "Street in Ajijic."

Irma Rene Koen. c 1945. “Street in Ajijic.”

Koen sold almost all her paintings to collectors. The only image I have ever seen of any of her Lake Chapala paintings is of one entitled “Street in Ajijic,” which she presented to the Rock Island YMCA in 1948. (left) If you own, or have access to, any of her other Lake Chapala paintings, please get in touch!

During her thirty years in Mexico, Koen traveled and painted throughout the country, with extensive trips also to Central America (Guatemala), Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Kashmir, Nepal, and Iran.

Her vivid oil paintings, watercolors and plein-air landscape scenes were widely exhibited during her lifetime, at galleries and museums in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Paris (1923) and Mexico.

Koen was a prolific exhibitor throughout her life. In addition to dozens of shows in the US, her paintings were displayed in the Galeria de Arte Mexicano (Gallery of Mexican Art) in Mexico City in 1956, and, in 1968, a selection of her Mexican landscapes and markets was hung at the Galeria de Edith Quijano, also in Mexico City. The following year, an exhibit of her oil paintings was held in the Palacio de Cortés, the main museum in her adopted home of Cuernavaca.

Koen died in Cuernavaca in 1975.

A major retrospective of her work, entitled “Irma René Koen: An Artist Rediscovered,” was held in 2017 at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

Note: This is an updated and expanded version of a post originally published on 14 July 2014.

Main sources:

 Posted by at 6:35 am  Tagged with:
Jun 042020
 

German-Mexican artist Hans Otto Butterlin (born Cologne, Germany, 26 December 1900) was only six years of age when the family emigrated from Europe to Mexico, living first in Mexico City and then Guadalajara.

During the Mexican Revolution, Otto and his younger brother, Friedrich, were sent back to live with relatives in Germany. Otto attended high school (Gymnasium) in Siegburg, but left school in about 1916 (mid-way through World War I) to join the German military as a one-year volunteer. After military service, Otto entered the University of Bonn in 1919 to study chemistry. The following year he continued his studies at Marburg University, before transferring to the University of Munich, where he was able to develop his passion for art.

Otto studied briefly at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1920 before moving to Berlin, where he was a member of the group of artists mentored by George Grosz, an influential artist and art educator, best known for his caricatures of Berlin life in the 1920s.

Otto returned to Mexico at the end of 1921 and began a career as an industrial chemist, working at several sugar mills in Jalisco, Sinaloa and the US. In about 1934, Otto moved to Mexico City, and joined the Mexican subsidiary of the German chemical company Bayer AG. While living in Mexico City, Otto was able to indulge his creative passion—painting—which led to him becoming close friends with a number of prominent Mexico City artists.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monica Señoret.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monique Señoret.

Otto and his family made their home in Mexico City in a second floor studio built by Mexican architect-artist Juan O’Gorman in the San Ángel Inn area, next door to the studio-home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. This connection to such dedicated and talented artists undoubtedly fueled Otto’s desire to take his own art more seriously.

In Mexico City, Otto developed his skills in engraving and the production of woodblocks. He also taught art. From 1944 to 1949, Otto taught courses on the materials and techniques of painting at the San Carlos National Academy of Fine Arts, where his students included José Chávez Morado, Luis Nishizawa, Ricardo Martínez and Gunther Gerzso. He also taught techniques of restoration and conservation at the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, ENAH).

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monica Señoret.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monique Señoret.

The first major article drawing public attention to Otto’s art appeared in 1939 on the eve of World War II in Mexican Life, where Albert Helman outlined Otto’s background and critiqued his portraits of indigenous women. Helman rightly concluded that Otto had “become a Mexican not only in nationality but also in his way of thinking and feeling,” and was “the one painter among us to mainly preoccupy himself with the depiction of Mexican folk-types and to pursue in such a depiction a deeper, a psychological as well as physical characterization of the native Indian face.”

Otto held three major solo shows in Mexico City—at the Galería de Arte Mexicano in November 1942, November 1946 and January 1951— all of which were widely praised by critics. A review of the first show called it a “transcendent exhibition” by an artist who had assimilated “all the magical expressionist thrust of modern German art…. makes his own colors, like any conscientious European, and then applies them, with feverish creative passion and haste, on his splendid canvases.” (Mada Ontañón in Hoy). An anonymous reviewer of the third show told readers that “The specialized technique of Butterlin, a king of impressionism with a tremendous strength… is absolutely unmistakable.”

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, 1930. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson; photo by Xill Fessenden.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, 1930. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson; photo by Xill Fessenden.

Otto and his family lived in Mexico City until the mid-1940s when they moved to Ajijic on Lake Chapala. At that time Ajijic had no art supplies, no galleries, limited electricity, and only one phone line; it was as easy to reach by boat as by road.

Otto died in Ajijic on 2 April 1956, at the age of 55.

Otto’s legacy

Binational and bicultural, Otto Butterlin had a significant influence on Mexican art in the mid-20th century. Yet his life and work have been largely ignored by art historians. German by birth, he became Mexican by choice. Though he lived most of his adult life in Mexico, Mexican writers have ignored his achievements because he was not native-born; Germans have forgotten him because Butterlin, after training as an artist in Germany, left that country in his mid-twenties and never returned.

Otto’s significant contributions to the development of modern Mexican art have been undervalued. For example, his series of powerful portraits—several of them intimate—of indigenous girls and women reveal how Otto was at the forefront of the post-Revolution art movement, one that was finally concerning itself with the nation’s indigenous peoples, landscapes and cultural traditions. This movement, which spawned new artistic techniques and styles, while often linking back to ancient pre-Columbian motifs and designs, also revived modern muralism, which made Mexico world famous as a cradle of artistic creativity.

Otto Butterlin showed a generation of Mexican artists how old-world artistic styles could be applied to new-world subject matter, and how a deep knowledge of chemical processes, paints and materials enhanced an artist’s ability to portray ideas and emotions. Otto’s own art focused more on feelings and emotions than on calculated representational portrayals. His influence helped nudge Mexican art away from realism and towards abstract expressionism.

Otto was generous and perceptive, more interested in art for art’s sake than for remuneration, profit or fame. He worked alongside—and his work was admired by—the greatest artists of his time. Artist, chemist and much more besides, Otto Butterlin left Mexico an extraordinary artistic legacy, one to be treasured, admired and enjoyed.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Otto Butterlin’s granddaughter, Monique Señoret, for her hospitality and for giving me the opportunity to see her extensive private collection of his original works.

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 5:25 am  Tagged with:
Apr 302020
 

Given its underlying theme, it seems eerily appropriate—given the current Covid-19 lockdown at Lake Chapala—to take a quick look at William S. Stone’s short story entitled “La Soñadora” (“The Dreamer), published in Mexican Life in 1947.

Stone-story

The illustration is by Valentín Vidaurreta, better known as one of the greatest silver designers in 20th century Mexico

The protagonist is a young doctor who has arrived with a group of American miners looking for gold in the hills behind the village:

It was in the year 1918 that a group of Americans came to the Mexican village of Ajijic to mine gold in the mountains a bare two kilometers away. A truly white face had rarely before been seen and now, all at once, there was a score of them. It came nearer to stirring the village from its apathy than any other event of the last half century. But, after a brief period of mutely staring inspection, the foreigners would have been forgotten, would have aroused no more interest that the lizards which swarmed the adobe walls or the porkers wandering the muddy lanes, had it not been for the young doctor who came with them.

Dr Mason had a way of going into their hovels where he could not be entirely ignored. For that was the year of the plague. Dog-tired after ministering to those who were sick among his own party at the mine, he would stumble down the trail to the village. There, without being told, he seemed to know in which houses were the stricken and without a word he would stalk almost as though sleep-walking to the mat-side, with his medicine case in hand.

During the early days of the epidemic, before fatigue had dulled his faculties, he had been surprised and curious at the reception that his visit met. The circle of silent watchers about the afflicted one would part reluctantly. Eyes which had been fixed in sodden helplessness on the victim would turn upon him, burning dully with hostility. And, so he thought, with fear.”

As the epidemic rages around him, Mason continues trying to help the local people but becomes more and more pulled in to the villagers’ world of intrigue, sorcery, and witchcraft. Mason repeatedly overhears them repeating three names in particular:

Carlota, the bruja, the ancient village witch and healer. María, the young cantinera, the operator of a small saloon—she who was literate, her head raised nearly free above the others, but her feet still enmeshed in rank weeds of superstition. Finally Juan, the medico, the outsider who had laughed at witches’ spells and cured with white man’s magic.”

Before long, Mason is drawn back into events that happened eighteen years earlier, in 1900, and his imagination works overtime as the present becomes blurred with the past.

Stone had an enviable talent with words and wrote dozens of short stories and, in a lengthy career, several books, mostly set in Hawaii. These include Teri Taro from Bora Bora (1940); Thunder island (1942); Pépé was the saddest bird (1944); The ship of flame, a saga of the South seas (1945); Tahiti landfall (1948); Two came by sea (1953); Castles in the sand (1955); The coral tower (1959) and Idylls of the South Seas (1970).

William Standish Stone was born to Captain Arthur W. Stone, a US naval officer, and his wife in Santa Barbara, California, in 1905 and died in Hawaii on 13 January 1970.

While completing a liberal arts degree at Harvard, Stone became very familiar with Mexico, making numerous trips into the interior during vacations before living and traveling there for several years, learning Spanish and “nursing an ambition to write.” When he returned to the US, Stone settled in Tucson and completed a law degree at the University of Arizona. He continued his writing career alongside learning to fly and running a legal practice in Tucson for many years. Stone married Virginia Moss Haydon (1909-1972) in May 1931.

If you know more about William Standish Stone’s time in Mexico, please get in touch!

I’m sure that Dr. Mason’s dreamy spirit lives on in Ajijic and fully expect to see him sitting on his bench in the plaza next time I visit…

Sources

  • Arizona Daily Star, 24 Dec 1935.
  • Honolulu Advertiser, 16 Jan 1970, 49.
  • William S. Stone. “La Soñadora,” Mexican Life, March 1947, p 13-14, 74-84.
  • Vanity Fair, January 1936.

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 052020
 

German poet, author and journalist Gustav Regler lived for almost a year in Ajijic from late 1947 or early 1948. Regler had lived several years in Mexico City where he was a close friend of Ezra Read Goodridge, a rare book dealer, and his wife Helen Kirtland (who moved to Ajijic shortly before Regler’s visit and later founded the hand looms business, Telares Ajijic). Helen’s daughter, Katie Goodridge Ingram, a child at the time, has fond memories of Regler who encouraged her early efforts at writing. (Ingram’s fascinating memoir of her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic, According to Soledad, has just been published.)

Regler was born on 25 May 1898 in Merzig (now in Saarland, Germany) and died in India in 1963.

After sustaining serious injuries served his native country in the first world war, he joined the Communist party and lived for a time in the Soviet Union. While working with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War he became friends with Ernest Hemingway. He was seriously injured and spent several months in hospital before leaving Spain.

Back in Germany, he gained a reputation as a vocal critic of the Third Reich which banned his books and led to him having to leave the country and move to Mexico.

After living in Ajijic at the end of the 1940s, Regler returned to Mexico City and then established his home on a farm in the small village of Tepoztlán in the state of Morelos. He was traveling in India to receive an award when he died in 1963. (Several other artists associated with Lake Chapala had homes inTepoztlán in the 1970s and 1980s, including painter and guitarist Gustavo Sendis, sculptor and painter Adolfo Riestra and photographer Toni Beatty.)

Regler wrote several books, including one about the Spanish Civil War: Das große Beispiel (“The great example”), translated, with an introduction by Hemingway, as The Great Crusade (1940).

In Mexico, Regler composed Jungle Hut: a ballad, a 37-page booklet of poetry (in English), published in Mexico City by Ediciones “Fraile” in May 1946 in a limited edition of 2500 copies.

Various documents relating to Regler and Jungle Hut are held in the The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division in their collection “Mary Maverick Lloyd Papers Gustav Regler Letters, 1939-1959”. They include a typescript manuscript entitled “Gandhi” and several pen and ink illustrations. Mary Maverick Lloyd helped Regler evade arrest by Nazi authorities and leave Germany for North America where he settled in Mexico.

In addition Regler authored Wolfgang Paalen (1946), a 69-page book about the German artist, his fellow German exile, also living in Mexico.

A land bewitched

Regler also wrote two books in German about Mexico: Vulkanisches Land (1947) and Verwunschenes Land Mexiko (1954). The latter was translated into English as A land bewitched; Mexico in the shadow of the centuries (1955). The English translation (which mistakenly states that the original title in German was “Verwunsches Land, Mexico”) was by Constantine Fitzgibbon. This error by the editor or publisher is pretty much in keeping with the strange use of Spanish throughout the book, with some very non-conventional Spanish spelling, the most glaring example of which is Kazike for cacique. In the book’s Spanish-English glossary, all Spanish words are capitalized and some words given in the singular form in Spanish are translated into plural forms in English and vice versa.

A Spanish edition of A land bewitched was released, as País volcánico, país hechizado, in Barcelona and Mexico City in 2003.

A land bewitched is an interesting read. Its five chapters look at Mexican attitudes (as evidenced by a mix of facts, Regler’s personal experiences and second-hand anecdotes) about water; death; beliefs and religion; love; and crime and punishment. It offers some excellent insights into the Mexican psyche, even if the quality of writing and level of analysis are inconsistent.

The book, dedicated to Tania and John Midgley does have one tangential link to Lake Chapala. Tania Midgley (1916-2000) was a British photographer who sometimes used her maiden name Tania Stanham professionally. Several of the photographs in Regler’s book are credited to her, as are two photos of Lake Chapala in the Folio Society edition of Sybille Bedford‘s classic A Visit to Don Otavio.

Regler also wrote his memoirs, published as The Owl of Minerva in 1959.

Regler and Hemingway

I have never found any evidence for the claim that Hemingway visited Chapala, a claim made, besides other places in International Living. Certainly, Lake Chapala never gets a mention in any of the many exhaustive biographies of the great writer. It appears that the only significant time Hemingway ventured into Mexico was a visit to Mexico City (from Cuba) in March 1942. This visit later came to the attention of the FBI because he apparently checked into the Reforma Hotel under an assumed name and then met up with Gustav Regler, a friend from his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Note re Chapala links to the Spanish Civil War

Several other authors and artists associated with Chapala were active in the Spanish Civil War. Members of the International Brigade, besides Regler, included Theodore Rose Cogswell, the second husband of George Marsh; Albert Helman (who wrote the first detailed account of Otto Butterlin’s paintings); and Conlon Nancarrow (the husband of artist Annette Nancarrow, whose previous husband, Louis Stephens had a vacation home in Ajijic). Mexican writer Ramón Rubín, author of a novel about Lake Chapala, was not formally a member of the International Brigade, but accompanied a shipment of arms to Spain in 1938. Cinematographer William Colfax Miller was a member of the 3,000-strong Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers, and Peter Elstob (who lived in Ajijic in the early 1950s) was a volunteer fighter pilot for the Republicans.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her knowledge and memories of Gustav Regler.

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 272020
 

Artists Michael Baxte (1900-1972) and his wife, Violette Mège (1889-1968), lived in Mexico City for decades and visited Ajijic several times during the 1940s.

Baxte and his wife were near neighbors in Mexico City of Helen Kirtland and her family. After her marriage ended, Kirtland moved to Ajijic with her three young children and founded Telares Ajijic. Her only daughter, Katie Goodridge Ingram, author of According to Soledad, a memoir about her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic, has clear memories of Baxte and Mège visiting Ajijic over the winters of 1945 and 1946, where they shared a “cottage” owned by Louis Stephens, a mutual Mexico City friend.

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Lake Chapala. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Lake Chapala. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Michael Posner Baxte was born in Staroselje, Belarus. His family emigrated by parts to the US at the start of the 20th century. Michael and his mother joined his older brothers there in 1907. Michael later went to stay with an uncle, an accomplished violinist who lived in Mississippi. Recognizing his musical talents, the uncle sent Michael to violin classes in New Orleans. Michael then took master classes in Paris and later Berlin, where he was a student of the famed Hungarian violinist Joseph Joaquim.

After Europe, Baxte settled in New York City in 1914 to compose, perform and teach. His musical compositions were performed at the Tokyo Imperial Theater, and he was a prominent member of the American Jewish community.

It was in New York that he fell in love with painter Violette Mège. The couple briefly visited Mège’s homeland of Algeria before settling in Manhattan, New York, where they married in 1920.

Inspired by his wife, Baxte began to paint. Mège was his only teacher, and he was her only student. Her classes and encouragement paid off a decade later when Baxte was chosen as one of the two winners in the Dudensing National Competition for American Painters. Baxte also exhibited with the Society of Independent Artists, Salons of America and at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Village in Jalisco. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Village in Jalisco. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Lloyd Goodrich, a New York Times critic, wrote in 1929 that “Mr. Baxte… is an artist of considerable subtlety, not too strong perhaps, and sometimes a little uncertain, but always sensitive and interesting. One feels in each of his pictures an absorption in his subject and an individual manner of looking at it. He has a very attractive color sense, warm, sensuous, and unexpected, which seems natural and unforced.”

For the next decade, Mège devoted herself to teaching her husband to paint and helping him refine his techniques. According to a 1930 newspaper account, she rarely painted during this time.

During the 1930s, the couple lived in Paris, France, where Baxte exhibited his artwork at the government-sponsored Salon d’ Automme.

They left France when the second world war began and, by 1941, had moved to Mexico, where Mège and her husband had a home (later owned by Rufino Tamayo) in Coyoacán. They traveled to various parts of Mexico and many of Baxte’s paintings are of landscapes and people in Michoacán and elsewhere in western Mexico. For example the December 1942 issue of Mexican Life included images by Baxte entitled “Village in Michoacan”, “First communion (portrait)”, “Portrait of an Indian girl”, and “Pueblos Street”.

Michael Baxte. Portrait of a lady.

Michael Baxte. Redhead in plaid. (Auctioned by Treadway Tooney in 2015)

In 1946, Baxte’s oil painting “Paisaje de Tenancingo” was included in a major exhibition of paintings of flowers at Mexico’s 5th National Floriculture Exhibition and 4th Flower Show (“Salón de la Flor”). Also showing on that occasion was Otto Butterlin, who had moved that year with his family from Mexico City to Ajijic.

Another article in Mexican Life, in 1952, when Baxte was showing at Galeria de Arte Mexicano, included images entitled “Uruapan”, “Charo”, “Village in Jalisco”, “Valley of Mexico”, “Oaxaca landscape” and “Lake Chapala”. His paintings have been described as modernist-leaning landscapes and portraits.

In 1954, Baxte and Mège both had paintings included in an exhibition of 20 non-Mexican artists from 12 regions of Mexico at the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana in Mexico City. The El Nacional’s art critic was less than generous in his appreciation of the couple’s work, writing that though “the works of Mège and her husband display some well-observed Mexican aspects,” neither “had a strong sense of color.”

None of this deterred Baxte from describing himself as an “artist of international renown when announcing, via a display ad in Mexican Life,  “the opening of his new studios at Calzada Mexico-Tacuba No 16 (corner of Melchor Ocampo) where he will be pleased to accept a limited number of endowed pupils for guidance and technical reconstruction.”

In 1957, Baxte had a solo show, mainly of landscape paintings, at the Salon of International Friendship of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Baxte died in Mexico City in 1972.

Acknowledgment

  • My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing with me her memories of the artist.

Sources

  • American Art News. 1916. “Paris Letter.” American Art News, Vol. 14, #33 (10 May 1916).
  • Battle Creek Enquirer (Michigan). 1930. Battle Creek Enquirer, 4 May 1930, 26.
  • Michael Baxte. 1942. “Mostly about myself.” Mexican Life, vol 18, Dec 1942, 27-30.
  • Michael Baxte. 1942. “Violette Mége.” Mexican Life, v 18 (October 1942).
  • Dorothy Dayton. 1929. “Musician Wins Painting Prize,” The New York Sun, 9 January 1929.
  • Howard Devree. 1941. “A Reviewer’s Notebook,” The New York Times, 30 March 1941.
  • The Evening World (New York), 2 December 1918, 11.
  • Lloyd Goodrich. 1929. “Reviewer’s Notebook,” The New York Times, 5 May 1929.
  • The International Studio: an Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art. 1918. (November 1917-February 1918).
  • Andrew Langston. 1952. “Michael Baxte”, Mexican Life, June 1952, 27-30.
  • Mexican Life. Feb 1954, 43. (Advert)
  • P. Fernandez Marquez. 1954. “La Exposicón de Artistas Huéspedes.” El Nacional,
    1954; Suplemento Dominical, 6.
  • Guillermo Rivas. 1957. “Michael Baxte.” Mexican Life, Vol 33 #3 (March 1957), 30-32.

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 202020
 

What was Ajijic like 70 years ago? Well, a recently-found article by Zoe Kernick  in Mexican Life gives us some tantalizing glimpses into life in the village back then.

A single overly-long sentence sets the scene and hints at some of the conflicts and contradictions that life in the village, even then, entailed:

For the pamphlet department, Ajijic is a quaint primitive village, full of fisherfolk; for Neill James, noted Petticoat Vagabond, it possesses the placidity of Paradise; for the tourist, it can be sometimes drab, though, if he becomes acquainted with certain of the residents, it can become an exultant drunken town; for the clergy of Guadalajara, an evil village, a place that Sunday parishioners must be warned against in scarlet words; for lovers, flowers trumpet against the patina of night-pink walls, remnants of rainfall glitter in the darkness, and from the Miradores, stately stars travel in ancient and tranquil paths over the lake; for some of us, who are formed by our own particular village vision, into a triple entente, Ajijic is a place of humor, a humor without logic, a witchcraft humor, where lights go on and off, where church bells ring for no apparent reason, where definitions can suddenly fly apart like a giant castillo with all its figures shooting off into the air.

Kernick lists several noted foreign residents, such as Pablo Heuer and his sister Louisa (“who run a pension which continues its primitive existence as though electricity and showers had never come to the village”), the ballerina La Russe, writer Neill James and the English couple, Herbert Johnson (“the village squire”) and his wife, Georgette.

She also writes a great deal about Mexican artist “Ernesto Linares” (real name Ernesto Butterlin) who, she informs readers,

“has known Ajijic since he was a small boy, week-ending with his family from Guadalajara…. A great deal of the spirit which guides the carnival gaiety of nightly fiestas, is due to Mr. Linares, for his competent hands are as deft with bottles as with brushes.”

Kernick offers a description of his recently opened store which “resembles a modern art gallery” and “sells hand-painted materials, pottery, leather goods” as well as paintings by village artists, including Linares, Nicolas Muzenic and Tobias Scheebaum.

The three artists are all involved in summer art classes for visitors from the US, and,

“As the bus with its twenty students and New York director, Mrs irma Jonas, rolled into Ajijic on the morning of July 10, 1949, it was met by the town lads in charro costume, pivoting about on their horses like Indians circling a caravan. The students were conducted to the Posada, rented for their stay, and then taken to a reception at the home of Mr. Linares. Everyone came to welcome them: the conglomerate foreign colonies of Ajijic and Chapala, the villagers, the charro lads. Martinis made music and mariachis made noise.”

Two oil paintings by Ann Medalie, the most striking of which is this unusual view across the lake (with the garden of Hubert and Georgette Johnson in the foreground) are used to illustrate Kernick’s article.

Ann Medalie. Ajijic Landscape (oil). ca 1945

Ann Medalie. Ajijic Landscape (oil). ca 1945

Kernick rhapsodises about the “spontaneous carnival spirit” of Ajijic, especially at fiesta time at the end of November when “castillos blaze at night in the plaza, spitting with great revolving wheels of silver sparks, golden fire; and dark Madonnas of parchment sail into the air.”

She is less enchanted with the local celebration of “Carnival,” when

“tired street oxen are herded into an arena where tequila-reeling men bite their tails to goad them into attitudes of fury; the whole town cheers on flimsy stands so crowded that both orchestra and audience are liable to imminent collapse. The Hero of each day is He Who Gets Gored, and each citizen contributes money to pay for the hero’s hospital bills, or for his funeral.”

On the other hand, she loves the Day of the Blessing of the Animals, when

“Every animal in the village, from bulls to pet doves, from pigs to cats to burros, to goats, are bathed and sprayed with perfume. Some of the animals are lovingly painted with color and always they are bowed in great satin pink and red ribbons. The animals are then led under the wall of the church where the priest stands, reading to them an imposing text, and scattering over their sweet heads his liquid dispensation. Things often get a trifle out of hand, as bulls start bellowing, armadillos run away, and spoiled cats climb up the priest’s robe.”

Things quietened down during the winter season, when

“Most of the entertaining is done en casa; supper parties on terraces beautiful with an arrangement of white flowers, white candles, women in long white gowns, silver sandals, and unfashionably long hair. The manner of living, graciously casual, inexpensive, yet fastidious, creates a fine fashion of its own.”

To avoid creating the wrong impression among her readers, Kernick takes pains to conclude that “All of this might be called a seed thrust of civilization; but Ajijic is not an art colony, and it is not a resort.”

Source

  • Zoe Kernick. 1951. “Ajijic.” Mexican Life, April 1951, 13-14, 58, 60, 62-63.

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 132020
 

Artists Violette Mège (1889-1968) and her husband, Michael Baxte (1900-1972), lived in Mexico City for decades and visited Ajijic several times during the 1940s.

Mège and her husband were near neighbors in Mexico City of Helen Kirtland and her family. After her marriage ended, Kirtland moved to Ajijic with her three young children and founded Telares Ajijic. Her only daughter, Katie Goodridge Ingram, author of According to Soledad, a memoir about her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic, has clear memories of Mège and Baxte visiting Ajijic over the winters of 1945 and 1946, where they shared a “cottage” owned by Louis Stephens, a mutual Mexico City friend.

Violette Mege. Lavandera de Ajijic (El Nacional, 1954)

Violette Mege. Lavandera de Ajijic (El Nacional, 1954)

Violette Clarisse Mège (or variants Mege and Mége) was born in Algeria in 1889. When she became the first woman to win a prestigious Beaux Art competition in Algeria in 1914, the organizers only awarded her the scholarship after the French government intervened on her behalf.

Mège had work exhibited in a group show in Paris in 1916 at the Latin Quarter Association. After winning the Beaux Art scholarship for a second time, she decided to broaden her horizons and used the prize money to travel to New York with her younger sister, Emma, in 1916.

Her New York trip proved to be a pivotal moment in her life. She fell in love with Michael Posner Baxte, an up-and-coming violinist and composer. The couple briefly visited Mège’s homeland before settling in Manhattan, New York, where they married in 1920.

Mège held a solo show of her paintings at The Touchstone galleries in New York in 1917. A critic described this as “an exhibition of singular attraction by a very bold student of color, Violet Mege, an Algerian who paints her native land, showing rich color effects where light is not toned by shadow, her shadows being almost negligible in values. Her figure work is good, especially in the portrait of a woman and a violinist.” The violinist was, presumably, Michael Baxte.

Violette Mege. Still life. (Auctioned by Black Rock Galleries in 2013)

Violette Mège. Still life. (Auctioned by Black Rock Galleries in 2013)

Her work was also praised in a group show the following year at the Macdowell Club: “The spirit of the manners and customs, as well as the costumes of the strange people pictured by her is quaintly and withal pleasingly worked out. Sometimes her work halts before it should, but is particularly noteworthy in its freshness and excellent coloring. Miss Mege is not always so good in her rendering of flowers.”

Mège had paintings of Algeria and of a Cypress tree in New York included in the Third Annual Exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1919.

Inspired by his wife, Baxte began to paint. Mège was his only teacher, and he was her only student. Her classes and encouragement paid off a decade later when Baxte was chosen as one of the two winners in the Dudensing National Competition for American Painters.

For the next decade, Mège devoted herself to teaching her husband to paint and helping him refine his techniques. According to a 1930 newspaper account, she rarely painted during this time, and it was only after her husband’s work was widely acclaimed that she “she picked up her palette and brushes where she had laid them down on marriage.”

In 1930 she held a solo exhibit at the Delphic Studios in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The couple lived in France during the 1930s. They left when the second world war began and, by 1941, had moved to Mexico, where Mège exhibited her paintings at “Decoración Gallieres” the following year. Mège and her husband had a home (later owned by Rufino Tamayo) in Coyoacán and traveled to various parts of Mexico. Many of their paintings show landscapes and people in Michoacán and western Mexico.

As in the case of her painting “Lavandera de Ajijic”, exhibited in Mexico City in 1954 and reproduced in El Nacional, Mège often signed paintings using only her surname. This painting was shown, alongside work of her husband, in an exhibition of 20 non-Mexican artists from 12 regions of Mexico at the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana in Mexico City. The El Nacional’s art critic was less than generous in his appreciation of the couple’s work, writing that though “the works of Mège and her husband display some well-observed Mexican aspects,” neither “had a strong sense of color.”

Mège died in Mexico City on 11 May 1968 at the age of 69.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her memories of the artist with me.

Sources

  • American Art News. 1916. “Paris Letter.” American Art News, Vol. 14, #33 (10 May 1916).
  • Battle Creek Enquirer (Michigan). 1930. Battle Creek Enquirer 4 May 1930, 26.
  • Michael Baxte. 1942. “Violette Mége.” Mexican Life, v 18 (October 1942).
  • P. Fernandez Marquez. 1954. “La Exposicón de Artistas Huéspedes.” El Nacional,
    1954; Suplemento Dominical, 6.
  • The International Studio: an Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art. 1918. (November 1917-February 1918).
  • The Evening World (New York), 2 December 1918, 11.

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 062020
 

Language educator and writer Katharine (“Katie”) Goodridge Ingram was born in Mexico City on 23 June 1938 to American parents. Her father, Ezra Read Goodridge, was a rare book dealer and her mother, Helen Kirtland, a fashion designer.

Katie spent her early childhood in Mexico City. In the mid-1940s, when her parents’ marriage came to an end, her mother took Katie (then eight) and her two brothers (two- and ten-years-old, respectively) to live in Ajijic on the shores of Lake Chapala. Her very determined mother began this new phase of her life by becoming an entrepreneur, starting a weaving business and using her design skills to create fashionable clothes and accessories.

Katie’s creative non-fiction memoir of her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic – According to Soledad: memories of a Mexican childhood – has just been published. It is a compelling read. Advance readers have described According to Soledad as a literary equivalent of the award-winning movie Roma (2018), written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. However, whereas Roma was set in 1970-71, According to Soledad is set earlier, in 1947-52.

Katie was born to write. At the urging of German poet Gustav Regler, a friend of the family, she began to write her autobiography at the age of 9! She still treasures the wonderful response she received after writing about this at the time to another family friend at the University of Michigan. In part, the reply reads: “I am delighted that you haven’t yet finished either your book or your life… the latter at any rate really ought to be a fascinating subject. You go ahead and finish the book, anyhow, and I’ll bet you can get it published. Certainly you can if your letter is any indication of your auctorial prowess!”

In Ajijic, Katie was educated by a series of private tutors. At the age of 14, after her mother remarried and her father died in a Mexico City nightclub fire, Katie was sent north to The Putney School, an independent high school in Vermont, to complete high school. A bright and precocious student, Katie subsequently graduated from Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California, in 1959.

After Pomona, Katie taught at Hamlin School in San Francisco (1959–1961) and Wesley School, Cape Coast, Ghana (1963–1965).

While living in the US, Katie returned to Ajijic every summer. In 1973 she settled in the village full-time with her two children and managed the Galería del Lago art gallery from 1973 to 1978. She then opened her own Mi México gallery in Ajijic which she continued to own until 1992. During her time in Mexico, Katie co-founded the bilingual Oak Hill School at Lake Chapala in 1974. She was also the area’s regional correspondent for the Mexico City News, writing a regular weekly column covering local art, culture and current events.

In 1981, Katie moved back to California, where she ran Gallery Bazar El Paseo in Santa Barbara for the next eight years. Katie co-founded the Santa Barbara Poetry Festival in 1990 and was a scholar at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2002 and 2003.

She returned to teaching in the 1990s. While working at Ojai Valley School (1992–1994), she gained a certificate in teaching English as a Second Language from the University California, Santa Barbara. Katie then moved to the Crane School in Santa Barbara, where she chaired the Spanish department from 1997 to 2002.

Katie has regularly contributed poems and stories to collections and anthologies, such as A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens, edited by Enid Osborn and Cynthia Anderson in 2011, and Solo Novo: Psalms of Cinder and Silt (2019).

Her short story “Swimming Under Salvador”, the basis for chapter 14 of According to Soledad, won the nonfiction prize in the New Millennium Awards 26 in 2008. It was summarized on that occasion as “the account of a torrid love affair in Central America from the perspective of a small child whose loyalties are torn when she is rescued from drowning by her mother’s lover, a famous sculptor.”

Katie lives with her husband, Jim, an artist and retired architect, in Ojai, California.

According to Soledad, Katie’s first full length published work, is available in both print and Kindle editions via Amazon. Print copies will also be available at select locations (Diane Pearl, La Nueva Posada, Mi México) in Ajijic by the end of February.

Buy your copy today: According to Soledad

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Katie for sharing her memories with me and for entrusting me with helping her publish According to Soledad.

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 232020
 

American journalist, poet and author Clifford Gessler included a chapter about Chapala in Pattern of Mexico, published in 1941. The chapter was reproduced, as “The Haunted Lake,” in Mexican Life the following year.

Relatively little is known about Gessler. He was born in Milton Junction, Wisconsin, on 9 November 1893 and died in Berkeley, California, in June 1979. He was raised in Bangor, Wisconsin, and educated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which he left in 1917 (with an M.A. and LittD) to take a teaching job in Elkhard, Indiana. He asked for (and apparently gained) exemption from the military in 1917 on the grounds that he was the sole supporter of his wife, Margaret Hull Gessler (1890-1986), and a parent.

Gessler book cover

The Gesslers’s son, named after his father, was born in 1920, and the family moved to Hawaii the following year. Sadly, Clifford Jr. died only five years later back in Wisconsin.

Clifford Gessler and his wife remained in Hawaii, where Clifford worked for the  Honolulu Star-Bulletin until well into the late 1930s.

By 1938, they had moved to Oakland, California, where Clifford worked for the Oakland Tribune.

Gessler’s works of poetry include Slants: Poems (1924) and Tropic Earth (1944). His non-fiction books include Kanaka Moon (1927), Road My Body Goes (1937), Hawaii: Isles of enchantment (1937), The Dangerous Islands (1937), Tropic Landfall: The port of Honolulu (1942), The Leaning Wind (1943) and The Reasonable Life: Some aspects of Polynesian life; what we may learn from it in developing in our own lives the strength of quietness (1950).

Gessler wrote numerous letters to Witter Bynner prior to the latter’s purchase of a house in Chapala in 1940. Bynner’s replies are held in the special collections of the University of Iowa Libraries.

Gessler was presumably also on good terms with Bynner’s friend and fellow poet Arthur Davison Ficke. Gessler reviewed Ficke’s Chapala-based novel, Mrs Morton of Mexico, very favorably for the Oakland Tribune, summarizing it as,

a pageant of Mexico: the past the present and hints of the future of that strange and beautiful and terrible land march across the neat black-lined page. It is a beautiful book, a poets book, revealing with infinite tenderness the beauty and sorrow and dignity of human life. The drawings by Gladys Brown reflect the varying facets of the Chapala scene.”

In “Haunted Lake”, Gessler describes how Chapala retains “the atmosphere of a world remote from the fevered haste of mechanized civilization,” but is changing:

The shining motor-cars and buses from Guadalajara looked out of place in the simple village clustered around a treeshaded plaza. Indeed, it is but a few years since an automobile was a rarity in Chapala, and the town itself is much as it was then. It is a famous resort for all the surrounding cities, and increasingly for all Mexico: a vacation retreat, a place of honeymoons.

There, as in other towns, we saw life dividing itself sharply. Smartly dressed men and women strolled in the gardens of modern villas along the lake shore to right and left of the village, while the humbler crowd milled around the beer-booths and roast-corn stands fronting the public beach. The foreign tourists at the hotels where a candle was set beside each bed at night for the hours when electric current was off—were, as in any land, a class apart from either.”

At that time, Chapala had no municipal water system:

All day shawled women, with earthen jars on their shoulders and one arm curved up in classic pose, passed to and fro from the well, and, professional watercarriers trotted under shoulder poles from each end of which hung a five-gallon can.”

And why did Gessler decide that Lake Chapala was a Haunted Lake?

For Chapala, residents told me, is haunted—all that valley, and the islands in the many-colored lake. “See that island?” said one. “It is the home of spirits of slain conquistadores.”

Spanish ghosts, and Indian… He told me, too, that the souls of the Aztecs lingered there when their god Méxitl bade the tribe move on in the migration that led them to the central valley of Mexico. “Those spirits glow by night in the form of fireflies in the marshes where the white egrets nest.” Their sacred images, it is said, are still fished from the water of the lake.”

Sources

  • Clifford F. Gessler. 1941. Pattern of Mexico. Appleton.
  • Clifford F. Gesler. 1942. “The Haunted Lake.” Mexican Life, June 1932, 13-14.

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 092020
 

Among the amorous beauties who enlivened the party scene in Ajijic in the early 1950s is one who is particularly noteworthy: Zoe Kernick (1915-2006).

Born on 21 May 1915 in Oakland, California, Dorothy Zoe Kernick was raised by her mother, Dorothy E Copeland, and stepfather, George Arthur Kernick. Zoe attended Occidental College, a private liberal arts college in Los Angeles.

Hoping to become a writer, Zoe had several poems and at least one story published in El Palenque, magazine produced by the Associated Students of the San Diego State College. Her short story, Interpretation, appeared in the Fall 1935 issue of El Palenque, followed in Spring 1936 by a poem, of which this is the opening stanza:

“What do you know of me
Whose lips meet mine,
Between the cool grass, in the dew?
I drink the wine
Of all this ecstasy
And still evade you.”

In 1939, and after spending some time in Hawaii, Zoe was one of four Chula Vista, California, poets whose work was chosen for “major poetry anthologies” issued by Henry Harrison, a New York poetry publisher.

By 1942, she had married, divorced, and was about to remarry. On 12 June 1942 she married Claude E. Smithers (a native of New York) in Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Zoe described herself as a journalist and resident of Chula Vista, California but spent much of the following year in Mexico, with a prolonged stay in Acapulco; it is unclear whether or not her husband accompanied her.

Early in 1948 Zoe was the Social Editor of the Carmel Pine Cone in California.

Late in 1948 or 1949, following an affair with Henry Miller, Zoe arrived in Ajijic looking for a good time. She quickly found it, becoming the glamorous female companion of three artists—Ernesto Butterlin, Toby Schneebaum and Nicolas Muzenic—entwined in their own complex love triangle. When Butterlin ran a summer art school (on behalf of Irma Jonas) in Ajijic in 1949, he employed the other two artists to help him.

According to Schneebaum, the ill-fated love triangle that developed between the three artists was greatly complicated by the arrival of “haughty and radiantly beautiful” Zoe, the “fourth member of our group”, who had previously been living with Henry Miller in Big Sur, when she heard about Lynn [Butterlin] and decided to visit Ajijic.

Katie Goodridge Ingram, who grew up in Ajijic at this time and later ran an art gallery in the village, recalls that ” Zoe was one of the stunningly beautiful woman you could ever see. She slathered coconut oil all over and then went down to the (then) wonderful old stone pier and tanned herself generously for hours.”

Zoe continued to write and her account of life in Ajijic at this time (which we will look at in a separate post) was published in Mexican Life in April 1951.

Leaving Ajijic, Zoe returned to California, where she lived in Sausalito and worked as “Marin Shopping Guide columnist.” She attended a cocktail opening of works by Jean Varda at the Tin Angel on the Embarcadero in San Francisco in June 1953 at which fellow guests included the “Ernie Alexanders.” Zoe would likely have known this couple—Black American artist Ernest Alexander and his Canadian wife, Dolly—very well from numerous prior raucous evenings in Alex’s Scorpion Club in Ajijic.

A couple of years later, on 18 May 1955, Zoe married a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, George Draper (son of designer Dorothy Draper). The couple made their home in Sausalito, but had parted company by the time George died in 1992.

According to author Carol Sklenicka, Zoe’s history included modelling for Salvador Dalí, and giving very poor suntanning advice to a friend – to use “baby oil mixed with iodine as skin lotion.”

Zoe Kernick, who had enjoyed a fuller and more exciting life than most, died in Salinas, California, on 14 March 2006.

Acknowledgment

My grateful thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram, author of According to Soledad: memories of a childhood in Mexico, for her recollections about Zoe Kernick and Ajijic.

Sources

  • Carmel Pine Cone, 30 January 1948.
  • The Chula Vista Star (Chula Vista, California): 2 February 1934, 3; 16 June 1939, 4; 20 August 1943, 3;
  • Zoe Kernick. 1951. “Ajijic.” Mexican Life, April 1951, 13-14, 58, 60, 62-63.
  • Sausalito News: 25 June 1953, 3; 27 May 1955, 3.
  • Carol Sklenicka. 2019. Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer. Scribner.

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

Dec 122019
 

Bethel Young extolled the virtues of Chapala in 1941 in an article entitled “In Mexico”, published in Mexican Life.

In the article, she claimed to have fallen in love three times in the 37 days that she and her husband, Lafayette Young III, had spent in Mexico: first with the inscrutable Indian housemaid employed by a friend in Mexico City; then with José, “a slight little lad who… languorously sells coca colas, orange and lemonade on the beach at Lake Chapala”; and thirdly with Lake Chapala itself.

She struck up a friendship with José shortly after they first met on the beach:

During my first day on the beach, stretched luxuriously like a cat before the hearth, in my reclining chair in the sun, this boy in his big straw hat came trudging by, carrying a bucket filled with bottles, water, and an infinitesimal piece of ice… Toward sundown I was on the sand again lazily watching the mountains around the rim of the lake settle in to the shadows, when lo! from nowhere, apparently, José appeared.”

The Youngs were staying at the Hotel Arzapalo and José quickly became a frequent visitor to their room, to inspect some of their possessions—typewriter, sunglasses, letter knife, “scuffed house shoes that have fur trimming”, a cigarette case and a lighter—and to look at pictures and books. Before long, José was emptying their ashtray and taking their letters to the post office, in exchange for insignificant hand-outs and the occasional ice cream cone.

Lake Chapala, ca 1941. (Photo from Johnsons' photo album, in collection of author); all rights reserved.

Lake Chapala, ca 1941. (Photo believed to be by Herbert Johnson); all rights reserved.

As for her love affair with Lake Chapala, it’s probably best if Ms. Young speaks for herself:

My third love is a poem, a painting and a symphony, sometimes animated, sometimes quiet, always beautiful. I am in love with the Lago de Chapala, its picture frame of mountains to the south and roof of cobalt blue and snow-white cotton puff clouds. The lake’s milky blue-grey water smoothness is cut by ponderously moving launches, antedated, clumsy crafts that ply between our own Chapala village dock and other, more inaccessible Indian villages. Large rowboats with rigged up white awnings, and the small single oar lock boats, bob at the water’s edge tethered to a crude plank dock. Once or twice each day a graceful sailing canoa quietly slides past, quite far out from shore, The brown-black hulls, with high proud prows and the aged white sails, might well have sail ed right out of Greek mythology, or at least out of Columbus’s venturesome fleet. The canoas are fishing boats from which the fishermen throw their huge circular handwoven nets, to snare small schools of charales—edible fish only four or five inches long. Or they are used to transport “freight”, wood, melons and vegetables.”

Difficult to imagine a better description!

At that time, Chapala still had no municipal water supply:

Native women carry drinking water from a spring that has been piped, in red earthenware jars balanced on the right shoulder and lightly steadied by the right hand—a water-carrying pose that has gone unchanged for centuries.”

After doing the family laundry at “a small rocky cove,” these same Indian women took time for a leisurely bath:

The women set aside their dark petticoats and dresses and emerge in a modest white cotton camisole which reaches to the knees. With black braids swinging long, they wade slowly in the shallow water and at the desired depth, sit down, lather and rub as if the rockbound cove were a luxurious bath tub filled to the brim with warm water. With crude wooden dippers or dented tin pans they lift quantities of water above their heads and spill it like a shower.”

After washing themselves, they scrubbed and bathed their children.

Lake Chapala, ca 1941. (Photo from Johnsons' photo album, in collection of author); all rights reserved.

Lake Chapala, ca 1941. (Photo believed to be by Herbert Johnson); all rights reserved.

Ms Young ended her piece with a word of caution as regards the future.

Chapala is a new frontier. The single asphalt pavement ribbon that connects the village to civilization has only been completed for three years. For only one year has electricity been available. There is still no water system, no paving in the town other than the cobbles. However, I fear, Chapala’s pristine beauty will soon be tarnished by modernity, and her lovely slow life-tempo will be accelerated to accommodate American tourists.”

Just who was Bethel Young?

Bethel L. Young (née Johnson) was a former student of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She married Lafayette Young III in 1939. “Lafe” Young III (1914-1981) owned the Bargain Bookstore, a hub for paintings, poets and artists of all kinds, in San Diego. Young was a close associate of Henry Miller, responsible for delivering books to him. The two men regularly corresponded and much of their correspondence from the period 1951–1976 is now held in the Jane Nelson and Lafayette Young Collection in the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California.

Following the trip with his wife to Chapala, Young produced two typescript 174-page copies of “Letters from Chapala” (1941). One, dedicated to Henry Miller— “These letters are written and dedicated with highest esteem to Henry Miller, a great writer, a greater man,”— now resides in the Henry Miller archives at UCLA; the other was given to the author’s mother.

Miller himself included “Letter to Lafayette” as a chapter in his The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. In the chapter, he recalled meeting “Young Lafe” just before he (Lafe) was about to depart for Mexico:

In a short while Lafe will pack his bag and go to Mexico, there to write a book on Norman Douglas or Henry Miller, of which he will publish just two copies, one for this subject and one for his family – just to prove that he is not altogether worthless.”

Writing genes were passed down in the Young family. Daughter Nicole is the author of “Child Caring” (2011) and her own daughter, Molly Young, is the author of “Charles Bukowski, Family Guy,” a fascinating essay about the famous German-American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

Sources

  • Kappa Alpha Theta Journal, Vol. 53 no. 3.
  • Henry Miller. 1945. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New York: New Directions.
  • Bethel Young. 1941. “In Mexico.” Mexican Life, Sept 1941, p 15-17; reprinted in The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa), 19 October 1941, 37; and in Zlexiran Life magazine
  • Molly Young. 2010. “Charles Bukowski, Family Guy.” Essay on poetryfoundation.org

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.

Oct 032019
 

Sylvia Fein, one of America’s foremost surrealist painters, lived and painted in Ajijic from 1943 to 1946 and is celebrating her 100th birthday this year. Fein has been  an enthusiastic supporter of my efforts to document the history of the artistic community of Lake Chapala, and her encouragement for this project is very much appreciated.

Beginning in November, in celebration of her birthday, and in honor of her amazing artistic career, the Berkeley Museum of Art & Pacific Film Archive in California is holding a major retrospective of her work.

The exhibition opens on 13 November 2013 and will run to 1 March 2020.

It affords a rare opportunity to see a wide selection of works by this super-talented and visionary surrealist painter whose first major solo exhibition – in New York in 1946 – was comprised of works completed while she was living in Ajijic on Lake Chapala between 1943 and 1946 (years when her husband was serving overseas with the U.S. military).

Sylvia Fein: Muchacha de Ajijic (1945). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Sylvia Fein: Muchacha de Ajijic (1945). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Like many others before and since, Fein fell in love with Mexico. Interviewed by the press in Mexico City more than sixty years after she left Ajijic, Fein said that ever since then, “I have loved Mexico and could cry on my return because I have the dust of Mexico on my heart”. Her sentiment precisely echoes that of American travel writer Neill James who recuperated in Ajijic in 1943 to complete her final book, “Dust on my Heart.”

The two women knew each other. In her book, James describes how Sylvia Fein “worked out some original designs” for embroidery as her role in one of the first village enterprises that allowed local women and girls to earn some money at home during their spare time. In addition, Fein played a key role in marketing the embroidered blouses in Mexico City.

For more about Sylvia Fein, especially her time in Mexico, please see:

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 072019
 

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

Ellis Credle Townsend

Ellis Credle Townsend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Feb 072019
 

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

Cover of Dust on my Heart (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neill James' store label

Neill James’ store label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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

Acknowledgments

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

Sources

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

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

Jan 172019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

Jan 102019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgment

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

Sources

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

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

Nov 222018
 

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

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

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

James’ description of her is engagingly brief:

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

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

Source

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

Other Art Mysteries

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

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