Nov 152018

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

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

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

At the time of the 1930 census, taken only weeks after his father died, Mort, working as an instructor in a gymnasium, was still living with his mother and brother. Two years later, Carl married Theresa (“Terry”) Roth in New York City.

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

Even though Carl was a writer, I have identified only one single work by him: Natural Man, copyrighted in the “Dramatic Composition and Motion Pictures” category on 14 March 1941. Prior to visiting Mexico, his artwork had apparently been shown in several exhibits in the U.S., though the only one I have so far confirmed was the 26th Annual Show of Woodstock Art Gallery in August 1945, which included his painting entitled Ballerina.

When Carl first arrived in Ajijic in 1946, he initially stayed, like so many before him, at the small lakeside inn belonging to the Heuer siblings. This is also when he met Helen Kirtland for the first time. (The following year, Kirtland and her three young children moved to Ajijic from Mexico City, after the break-down of her relationship with the children’s father, Ezra Read Goodridge, a dealer in rare books.)

When Mort Carl returned to Woodstock in September 1947 for several months, the local newspaper reported that he had “been in Mexico for the past year, where he was working on a book.”

It is probably his next trip to Mexico that was recounted to me so vividly by Helen Kirtland’s daughter Katie Goodridge Ingram, then a young girl. Ingram recalls that Carl drove down to Ajijic in a “giant black Packard”, “stayed at the Heuers where he said the mattresses were filled with softballs,” and often invited her mother to dine at the Heuers. Ingram and her two siblings were also invited, but ate in a separate room for children; the food was simple, but she still remembers the healthy, hearty soups and the pastry desserts.

Carl Mort. ca 1981. Antiphon.

Carl Mort. Antiphon. c 1981 (installed Chester Public Library. NJ, 1983).

Carl had arrived in Ajijic with a “full-on passion to be the next great novelist, the next great discovery in painting, and passionate to play tennis [and] to teach boxing.” After marrying Helen Kirtland in about 1949, Carl set up his art studio in the family home (today the Mi México store) but continued to rent a “small two-room house with a patio and kitchen area” as a writing studio a couple of blocks away, at the intersection of Calle Constitución and Ramón Corona. From about 1950 to 1952, that building was the always-hopping Club Alacrán (Scorpion Club), run by adventurous Black American artist Ernest Alexander and his Canadian partner Dorothy (“Dolly”) Whelan.

Ingram, who ran an art gallery in Ajijic in the 1970s, saw a lot of Carl’s paintings and says that many of the canvases he completed in Mexico, “had broad, dense strokes that screamed for more real estate,” but that. later, after divorcing Helen Kirtland, remarrying and moving to New Jersey, “he did large murals for banks and other commercial entities and so began to flex into the right kind of space.” Carl also became known for sculptures and “so-called monumental art.”

Soon after their marriage, Kirtland and Carl saw an opportunity to start a weaving business. Kirtland (who had changed her name to Helen Carl) had studied fashion and worked as a dress designer in New York prior to moving to Mexico. She provided the creative genius behind the project. The Carls found some small dusty handlooms sitting in a forgotten corner of the Posada Ajijic and bought them from the inn’s owner, Josefina Ramirez. Helen Carl tracked down José Mercado, the man who had originally made and operated the looms, and persuaded him to move from Guadalajara to Ajijic, teach the art of weaving and make them some much larger looms, suitable for dresses, tablecloths and “yardage”.

The weaving business quickly became a success story, so much so that poor imitations of several of Helen’s original designs are still being made in Ajijic today!. The Carls paid a brief visit to Woodstock in 1952 so that Mort Carl, who was said to be considering returning to live in Woodstock at some point, could “make a survey on weaving in this village.”

By 1955, the looms in Ajijic were sufficiently well-known to be included as a side-trip from Guadalajara: “For handloomed fabrics you can drive to quaint little Ajijic (Ahheehic) on the edge of Lake Chapala, pick your own cloth from the looms of Helen and Mort Carl and then drive on to Jocotepec for the best selection of handwoven serapes in Western Mexico…” The quote comes from a travel article written by Bob Lamont (later the long-time editor of the Lloyd’s Mexico Economic Report and founding president of ARETUR, the Association of Tourism Writers and Editors) and his wife Margaret.

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

Carl Mort in 1955 (Credit: El Informador)

Carl Mort in 1955 (Credit: El Informador)

Coincidentally, 1955 was also the year when Mort Carl held an exhibition of his latest artwork in Guadalajara. The two-week exhibit of twenty modernist abstracts opened at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco (Galeana 158, Guadalajara) on 20 October. The works had such uninspiring names as “Construcción en negro y blanco”, “Construcción vertical” and “Composición en color.” The artist was quoted as claiming that his paintings needed to be seen and felt, not understood. Carl had previously held a show of his paintings at Galeria San Angel (Dr. Galvez #23) in Mexico City, which opened on 17 March 1954.

Besides his writing and his art, Mort Carl was also an active sportsman, enjoying golf and tennis. In the late 1940s, he even built his own clay court (possibly the earliest such court at Lake Chapala) on a lot rented for the purpose behind the family home. The white lines for the court were made by Helen Kirtland out of bleached canvas and stapled (later nailed) in; they were “re-colored with whitewash every week.” The net was an old fishing net, complete with weights, bought from a local fisherman and adapted for its new purpose with the addition of a double-stitched canvas band, precisely in line with the sport’s official regulations “as per Encyclopaedia Brittanica.” Carl hosted regular tennis parties to which he invited friends from Guadalajara.

Unfortunately, life in Ajijic was not all a bed of roses for Mort and Helen Carl. For all his artistic sensitivity, Mort Carl was prone to violent outbursts, sometimes threatening even those he held nearest and dearest. The couple remained together until about 1960 when Mort left Ajijic and moved to Mexico City, where he set up a similar hand-loom weaving business.

After his attempts at reconciliation with Helen proved futile, Carl was undergoing treatment for elbow bursitis in a local hospital when he met a woman who had just given birth. Instantly smitten, he allegedly told her that if she sent her child to an orphanage for adoption, he would marry her and take her to the States: she did, he did and they did. Mort Carl and his new wife lived for some time in San Francisco before settling in Chester, New Jersey.

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

In New Jersey, Carl became a moderately successful artist, specializing in large metal sculptures. The example in the image, which comes from the Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog, is entitled Antiphon. The 2-meter high sculpture was acquired and installed in 1983 by Chester Public Library in New Jersey.

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


My heartfelt thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her personal knowledge and memories of Mort Carl, and to Sally Brander, Local History Librarian at Chester Public Library, NJ, for pinpointing the date of installation of Antiphon.


  • El Informador: 19 October 1955, 7; 20 October 1955; 22 October 1955.
  • Katie Goodridge Ingram. 2011. “Helen Kirtland Goodridge”, chapter in Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers. Mexico: Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR, 91-100.
  • The Jewish Independent: 29 April 1932, 2.
  • Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston, New York): 12 September 1947; 8 October 1952, p 15
  • Bob Lamont and Margaret Lamont. 1955. “Guadalajara One Of Picturesque Places In New World”, Phoenix Arizona Republic, 3 April 1955, 65.
  • Oakland Tribune, 25 Feb 1973, 128.
  • Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog.

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

Feb 152018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Degollado Theater program, 1936.

Zara and Holger. Degollado Theater program, 1936.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A much more detailed account of Zara’s life can be found in chapters 4, 5, 22, 33 and 44 of my Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village (2022).

This post is a lightly edited version of my article about Zara, originally published in The Chapala Riviera Guide in 1990. It is no coincidence that a photo of the Villa Reynera, where Zara first stayed in 1924, appears on the front cover of my Lake Chapala through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales.

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