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 John Reed 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 the 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 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 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.

Nov 212019
 

Francisco González Rubalcaba y Cabo wrote and illustrated a short book about Lake Chapala in the 1880s. His charming naïf illustrations may not be fine art but are some of the earliest paintings known of the lake. What is more, Rubalcaba did not paint only the village of Chapala (as so many other artists have done), he also painted several places that have rarely, if ever, been painted since! These include La Palma, La Angostura and Agua Caliente, all on the southern shore.

González Rubalcaba’s book – Geografía del territorio del lago de Chapala – was published in a facsimile edition in 2002 by ITESM in Guadalajara. The text is dated 29 May 1880 but the map in the manuscript was completed in Guadalajara and is dated 28 April 1882.

Francisco González Ruvalcaba. Chapala. c 1882.

Francisco González Ruvalcaba. Chapala. c 1882.

The color illustrations in the book were drawn in tinta china (India ink) with a wash of watercolor added.The image above shows far more buildings (and larger buildings) along the shoreline beneath Cerro de San Miguel in Chapala than most historians have claimed existed there at the time. Was this wishful thinking on  González Rubalcaba’s part or was he really depicting what he saw?

I have long argued that the commonly-repeated date of 1895 for the start of holiday homes in Chapala is demonstrably inaccurate, and this drawing serves to bolster my conviction. For more details, see chapter 37 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages: an anthology of travellers’ tales.

Francisco González Ruvalcaba. Vista General, Chapala. c 1882.

Francisco González Ruvalcaba. General view of the lake at night from Chapala. c 1882.

This unusual nocturnal view of the lake, as seen from the village of Chapala, is especially interesting. It includes a typical square-sailed canoa, an island (presumably Isla de Mezcala, given its relief) and, in the distance, a steamship. Elsewhere in the book, González Ruvalcaba includes a drawing of the steamship Chapala approaching a port.

Virtually nothing is known about Francisco González Ruvalcaba. He is presumed to have been a lawyer. In 1853, as “juez de letras” (professional judge) in Sayula, he published a complaint “made by the Supreme Government of the State of Jalisco against the jefe politico of that place [Sayula], D. Claudio Gutiérrez, for the many excesses he had committed…”

If you know any more details about this interesting author-artist, please get in touch!

Source

  • Francisco González Ruvalcaba. 1882. Geografía del territorio del lago de Chapala. (edited by Ricardo Elizondo). Published in 2002 by ITESM, Guadalajara.

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.

Oct 242019
 

Marie Robinson Wright (1853-1914) was the author of two non-fiction books about Mexico, the first published in 1897 and the second in 1911. The later book includes a short description of Lake Chapala and an early photo of the shoreline villas as seen from the lake.

Born in Newnan, Georgia, on 4 May 1853 to a wealthy plantation owner and his wife, Wright grew up in privileged surroundings. She was disinherited after running away from home at age 16 to marry Hinton P. Wright, the son of a prominent lawyer.

Both her family and her husband lost everything in the Civil War and in 1886, now in her early thirties, she divorced her husband and, in order to support her two children, turned her hand to journalism and travel writing. She became a correspondent for the New York World and wrote a series of well-illustrated and keenly observed articles and books on Mexico, Central America, and South America.

In 1891, she visited Mexico and in 1892 she penned an eight-page article about the country for the New York World, supplemented by illustrations. The newspaper was paid 20,000 dollar in gold by the Mexican government for this supplement, a record price for a newspaper article at the time.

The following year, Wright was commissioned to write an illustrated booklet about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Shortly afterwards, Wright decided she could do better on her own.

Accompanied by her daughter, Ida Dent Wright, she returned to Mexico in 1895 and received official approval for a book about the country. President Porfirio Díaz and Foreign Secretary Ignacio Mariscal gave her letters of introduction to every governor in the country and arranged for her to have access to steamboats and private trains, with military escort if required, wherever she wished to travel.

The two women spent the next year traveling throughout the country, covering thousands of miles by mule, railroad and steamboat. Few women tourists had ever visited some of the remote areas that Wright and her daughter explored. (One notable exception was Englishwoman Adela Breton, who, in 1893, began her own odyssey exploring unlikely parts of Mexico on horseback, accompanied only by a local guide.)

Frontispiece of Marie Robinson Wright, Picturesque Mexico (1897).

Frontispiece of Marie Robinson Wright, Picturesque Mexico (1897).

The result of Wright’s travels was her first book on Mexico – Picturesque Mexico – published in 1897. It was “the most comprehensive and beautiful book on Mexico ever written in any language” and 8,000 copies were ordered by the Mexican government in advance for distribution to government officials and representatives at home and abroad. It included only this brief description of Lake Chapala:

Among the lakes which stud with beauty this prosperous state [Jalisco] is Lake Chapala, larger than Lake Geneva, and the largest and most beautiful in the republic. This lake, by reason of its area of eight hundred and ten square miles, is sometimes known by the name of the Chapalan Sea. Lake Chapala is a summer resort of the highest grade, and is frequented by the most prominent residents of Guadalajara and other large towns. There has recently been discovered a large deposit of petroleum discharging from the bottom of the lake.”

Wright was invited back to Mexico in 1910 and her second book, produced in 1911, commemorated Mexico’s centennial. This book, entitled Mexico – A history of its progress and development in one hundred years, includes, on page 418, this photograph of the shoreline villas at Lake Chapala.

 

Photograph of Chapala from Marie Wright (1911), p 418.

Photograph of Chapala from Marie Robinson Wright (1911), p 418.

During this trip, Wright learned about the Hotel Ribera Castellanos, on the lakeshore near Ocotlán. The hotel had opened a few years earlier, in 1906, and Wright clearly appreciated its delights:

Chapala, where they are some famous hot springs and a fine new hotel of modern equipment called the Ribera Castellanos. This resort is very convenient to Guadalajara. No more charming excursion for a lover of beautiful scenery can be found in all Mexico that around this beautiful lake. For water-fowl shooting during the fall and winter months and for sailing and bathing during the entire year, these shores are delightful. Most all the members of Mexican society find themselves there during Holy Week and other holidays. The President goes on his yearly hunting trip to these parts, accompanied by his son and some members of his cabinet and intimates. He is noted for his powers of endurance, often outstripping the others in his ardent quest for game.”

While this description is not entirely accurate (President Díaz did not actually hunt at Lake Chapala every year) the essence of her account was spot-on.

Among other books, Wright also wrote Salvador (1893); The New Brazil (1901); The Republic of Chile (1904); The Brazilian National Exposition of 1908 (1908); Bolivia, the central highway of South America (1907); and The old and the new Peru (1908).

Wright was an elected member of several learned societies and served as a special delegate to international expositions. She made her home in New York City and died there on 1 February 1914.

Sources

  • Atlanta Constitution. 1914. Marie Robinson Wright (obituary). Atlanta Constitution, 3 February 1914, 1.
  • Frances Elizabeth Willard and Mary Ashton Rice Livermore. 1893. A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life. Moulton.
  • Frances Elizabeth Willard; Helen Maria Winslow and Sallie Elizabeth Joy White. 1897. Occupations for Women: A Book of Practical Suggestions for the Material Advancement, the Mental and Physical Development, and the Moral and Spiritual Uplift of Women. Success Company.
  • Marie Robinson Wright. 1897. Picturesque Mexico. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.
  • Marie Robinson Wright. 1911. Mexico – A history of its progress and development in one hundred years. Lipincott.

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 102019
 

Hungarian-born natural living experimenter Edmond Szekely (1905-1979), founder of the International Biogenic Society, lived and wrote at Lake Chapala during the 1970s. He was the author of more than 80 books, some in Hungarian, some in English, some translated into Spanish, and sometimes using the name Edmond S. Bordeaux.

Szekely was born in Máramarossziget in what was then Hungary (now Romania) on 5 March 1905 and died in 1979 in Costa Rica.

As a young man he was sent by his parents to study in Rome. He later claimed to have discovered a document in the Vatican Archives, while studying at the Vatican in 1923, that was purportedly an obscure Aramaic text that allegedly proved the Essenes were vegetarians, and that vegetarianism was prescribed by Jesus.

He published a translation of the first part of this as The Essene Gospel of John (1937); this work was later re-titled The Essene Gospel of Peace. No one has ever been able to locate the originals of any of the documents that Szekely claimed to have discovered and translated.

Nevertheless, Szekely made his living by promoting the values – including vegetarianism, healthy living and respect for all God’s creatures – that he claimed were contained within these ancient documents. In the late 1920s, Szekely founded several communes in France to spread his ideas and in 1928 he founded the International Biogenic Society, with Nobel Prize-winning novelist Romain Rolland.

According to the publications of the International Biogenic Society, Szekely had degrees from universities in Vienna and Leipzig and held a doctorate from the University of Paris; he had been a professor of philosophy and experimental psychology at the Bolyai University in Kolozsvár, Hungary (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania).

For Biogenic living, Szekely argued that people’s daily diet should consist of 25% biogenic foods (life renewing; eg germinated cereal seeds, nuts; sprouted baby greens); 50% bioactive foods (life sustaining; eg organic, natural vegetables, fruit) and 25% biostatic (life slowing; eg cooked and “stale” foods). They should avoid biocidic foods, such as processed and irradiated foods and drinks, since these were “life destroying.” In addition to this diet, Biogenic living also includes meditation, simple living, and respect for the earth in all its forms.

Most people can agree with the basic tenets of the International Biogenic Society which includes a belief that our most precious possession is Life, that Peace is the only way of survival for mankind, that we should preserve the vegetation of our planet, and that the improvement of life and mankind on our planet must start with individual efforts, as the whole depends on the atoms composing it.

When Hitler rose to power, Szekely left Europe for the Americas, where in 1939 he married Brooklyn-born Deborah Shainman, the 17-year-old daughter of Jewish immigrants. (The couple had first met in Tahiti six years earlier). The following year, when his U.S.-issued residence papers expired, the couple settled in the Mexican town of Tecate in Baja California, where they opened a retreat – Rancho la Puerta – where they could explore and espouse their ideas.

Early visitors paid $18.75 a week for the privilege of pitching their own tent, chopping wood and milking goats, while benefiting from Szekely wisdom and beliefs. As the spa grew, the strict vegetarian diet on offer attracted those seeking to lose weight. Today the 3,000-acre property is a holistic health spa and eco-resort with 87 rooms, 11 gyms, library and extensive art collection. It is owned and managed by Szekely’s daughter, Sara Livia Brightwood.

After he divorced Deborah in 1970 and retired from Rancho La Puerta, Szekely married 30-year-old Norma Nilsson, an actress and pianist who had been his long-time assistant at the spa, and moved to Lake Chapala to focus on his writing and teaching.

While at Lake Chapala, Szekely developed his long-time interest in the pre-Columbian ball game and “reconstructed” how the Toltec version of the ball game had been played.

Szekely described the game as “a fiendishly clever and physically demanding
one, utilizing the movements of soccer, basketball and hockey” and considered it “highly symbolic and full of hidden meaning.” While Mexican archaeologists agree with that overall assessment, Szekely’s “reconstruction” of how it was played – which he claimed involved traversing 20 wooden idols placed in the form of a large X journeying from a symbol of good to a symbol of evil – does not match any of the versions postulated by academic archaeologists.

Szekely was a prolific writer, whose books include: Cosmos, Man and Society: A Paneubiotic Synthesis (1936); Cosmotherapy, the Medicine of the Future (1938); The Soul Of Ancient Mexico (1968); The Game of Gods, Archaeological Reconstruction of the Ancient Religion of the Americas (1970); Culturas Antiguas, Mexico (1971); Los Pastorcitos, la salvación del niño campesino, alimentación – higiene – cultura física (1971); The Dialectical Method of Thinking (1973); Messengers from Ancient Civilizations: The Fascinating Story of Canine Archeology (1974); Sexual Harmony (1977); The Ecological Health Garden and the Book of Survival (1978).

He and his second wife, Norma (whose photographs illustrated Culturas Antiguas), also produced a joint book of poetry: Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf (1974).

Sources

  • Iris Engstrand. 2017. “Rancho La Puerta: Where the Fitness Revolution Began” in The Journal of San Diego History. Vol 63. 2017. Pp 1-34.
  • June Nay Summers. 1972. Buenos Días, Tecate. Lakeside, California: Sunlight Press, Inc.
  • Szekely, Edmond Bordeaux. The Gospel of Peace by the Apostle John. London: C. H. Daniels, 1937. Reprinted as The Essene Gospel of Peace. San Diego: Academy of Creative Living, 1971.

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.

Sep 122019
 

American lecturer and journalist Mable F. Knight wrote two travel articles about Ajijic in the 1950s. In the first, published in the magazine of the Pemex Travel Club in 1952, Knight concluded that,

“Ajijic is not a tourist resort and never will be for many years to come, but for those who want to see the real Mexico it is adorable. It is just a narrow strip of land between mountains and lake with more mountains across the lake and burros everywhere.”

Times, of course, have changed, and Ajijic has moved on, though not necessarily for the better in the eyes of many old-timers.

So, just what did Knight report on in her first article? She mentioned the books about Ajijic by Dane Chandos and Neill James and described two hotels in Chapala: the Nido and the Montecarlo. Knight reported that there were three places to stay in Ajijic: the “private home” of the Heuers with its bungalows, the Posada Ajijic “which has recently changed hands” and the General’s House (or Quinta Mi Retiro) with its “elegant bungalows, designed for Mexican families with maids”, each of which had views of the lake.

Knight decided that one of the main attractions in Ajijic was Neill James, the American authoress who had settled there a decade earlier. Her hagiographic portrait of James suggests that perhaps Knight was visiting Ajijic at her behest. Knight described how James had 80 workers sewing blouses (and this in a village of barely 2500 residents) and was adored by her two maids: María Perales and Consuelo Gómez. The article is illustrated with several photos including one of James and her dog, Pluto. Another member of the menagerie that lived in James’ tropical gardens was Paco, a parrot that had formerly lived at Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

Mabel F. Knight, 1929.

Mabel F. Knight, 1929.

Knight’s second article about Ajijic, published in the Mexican American Review in 1955, is focused solely on James, with chapter and verse about how she had introduced silkworms to Ajijic and started a successful silk business. According to Knight, James had first tried to start a knitting business, which failed, and then cross-stitch embroidery which had become such a success that one room of James’s house was “piled with blouses, skirts, towels, and cocktail napkins.” Now she was diversifying and had a “room where more than 60,000 silk worms were at work nibbling the mulberry leaves which grow on the estate.”

Just who was Mabel F. Knight? She was a really colorful character who billed herself as Ta-de-win (“Maiden of the Winds”), the ceremonial name she was given by the Omaha tribe of Indians in Nebraska in the summer of 1923.

Knight was born in Boston on 29 November 1879 and graduated from Everett High School. She completed a degree at Tufts College and studied French and German in Europe for two years. On her return to the U.S. she gave lectures on European travel and taught modern languages in a series of high schools, including Wayland and Peterboro in New Hampshire and Augusta in Maine.

The Boston native donned traditional dress when lecturing. Attired in full Indian regalia, she kept audiences spellbound with tales and performances of the music, legends and dances of the Omaha. Knight used her extensive knowledge of the Omaha to write a two-act play Wild Rose and Swift Arrow about a young Indian, Swift Arrow, and his love for an Indian maiden, Wild Rose. Other characters in the play include Chief Wild Eagle (“an old, wise Indian Chief”), Stalwart Joe (“a World War Veteran”), Black Hawk (“An irrepressible Indian”) and a trader and his wife.

Her repertoire of lectures, all illustrated by colored lantern slides, had such titles as “In Camp with the Omahas”, “Our New England Indians”, “The Six Nations of N. Y. State” and “The Art, Life and Lore of the American Indian”.

The Special Collections Department in the library of the University of Iowa Libraries holds various papers relating to Mabel F. Knight and her lecture career.

Sources

  • Mabel F Knight. 1952. “Ajijic – The Gem of Jalisco”, Pemex Travel Club magazine, 1 Feb 1952: 2-4
  • Mabel F Knight. 1955. “The Silkworm returns to Mexico”. Mexican American Review (Mexico City: American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico), Vol XXIII #8 (August 1955) 16, 33.

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.

Aug 152019
 

Edna Mae Stark, who was a travel author and publicity agent in Mexico and elsewhere for Grace Line, described Lake Chapala in the 1930s.

Little is known about Edna Mae Stark beyond the fact that she was born in Chicago. Her date of birth is given as 10 May 1905 on some ship manifests and as the same day in 1908 on others. She worked for Grace Line from the 1930s to the late 1950s, including stints on the Santa Lucia, Santa Paula and Santa Elena, three of the four passenger and cargo ocean liners ordered by Grace Line in 1930 from the U.S. Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Kearny, N.J. In 1957 Stark was listed as “Grace Line Cruise Director”.

Stark wrote dozens of articles for popular magazines about Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America and about the joys of cruise ship travel. In her article “Discovering Mexico”, published in Modern Mexico in July 1937, she lauded Lake Chapala eighty years ago as:

the largest lake in Mexico – 70 miles long and 20 miles wide – a gem of sapphire blue, set in a crescent of emerald green formed by surrounding hills. The climate here all year round is that of Indian summer – the surrounding fields are continuously carpeted with flowers which drench the air with perfume, and woodlands are crowded with sweetly singing birds of every hue attracted to the lake in countless thousands by the warm temperature.”

The article included an image of a “Water Boy” credited to “Grace Line Photo.” The photographer responsible for this image, a colorized postcard version of which was later published by Publicaciones Fischgrund of Mexico City, was Luis Márquez.

Water Boy, Lake Chapala. (Grace Line Photo)

Water Boy, Lake Chapala. (Grace Line Photo) The original photo is by Luis Márquez.

Stark was particularly captivated by the daily rhythm of fishing:

The lake is teeming with fish which provide the natives with food for their tables and visiting sportsmen with ample material for tall tales to recount to friends back home. The natives catch the fish in nets which they weave themselves – many of them more than three hundred feet long. These native fishermen, as they follow the day’s routine, present a series of novel sights to the visitor.

Early morning unfolds a shadow picture of men hastening to the waterfront, scrambling into their battered boats and setting out for the catch. Mid-day lights up a scene in which mounds of fish appear along the shore glinting in the sun like piles of gleaming armour, and village streets are walled with nets stretched on poles like giant cobwebs hung with dew drops. And day fades out on interesting close-ups of the villagers repairing old nets, or making new, their hands flying like shuttles over the shapeless mass of cords.”

It is unclear if Stark ever visited the town of Chapala. She considered that:

The most modern town on the shores of Lake Chapala is Ribera Castellanos, which is destined for popularity as a vacation resort. With a good hotel as headquarters, guests may fish, or hunt, swim or ride horseback, go motoring or sailing.”

Among the aspects of everyday life that she described for would-be visitors was the fact that:

Women still weave and dye the fabrics from which they make the family wardrobe – using designs and color combinations handed down from mother to daughter for countless generations. In open air kitchens the housewife rolls out cornmeal tortillas on the same type of stone metate which the Aztec women used. And corn still is as popular an item of diet as it was back in prehistoric days when the planting and harvesting were attended by elaborate and very weird celebrations through which the Indians hoped to win the goodwill of the maize goddess.”

Oh… the good old days!

Sources

  • Edna Mae Stark. “Discovering Mexico”, Modern Mexico Vol 9 #2, July 1937, 19-23.

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.

Jun 202019
 

Martín Casillas de Alba, whose published works range from journalism and non-fiction to Shakespearean analysis, has published several Spanish language books related to Chapala, including two outstanding full-length novels. His family has lengthy and important connections to Chapala.

His grandfather was the architect Guillermo de Alba (1874-1935). Between 1895 and 1920, de Alba designed numerous fine buildings in Chapala, including the Hotel Arzapalo, the town’s first modern hotel, which opened its doors in 1898, a second hotel, the Palmera (part of which is now the Presidencia Municipal) in 1907, several private residences, and the iconic Chapala Railroad Station (now the Instituto Cultural González Gallo), completed in 1920. He also completed numerous commissions in Guadalajara, including the city’s first high-rise hotel, the Hotel Fenix (1912), and several fine homes for the city’s elite.

In 1900, Guillermo de Alba married Maclovia (“Cova”) Cañedo y González Hermosillo. The couple’s only daughter, Guillermina (“Mina”) de Alba y Cañedo (Martín Casillas’ mother), was born in Guadalajara on 9 January 1902. She married José Luis Casillas y Cruz in Chapala in 1933. Their civil ceremony was held aboard a boat, Bremen, in the middle of the lake.

Mina and José Luis had three children, including architect Andrés Casillas de Alba (who clearly inherited his grandfather’s genes and won the Premio Jalisco Arquitectura, 2017) and author and publisher Martín Luis Casillas de Alba, who was born in Mexico City in 1941.

Martín Casillas de Alba. Credit: El Informador.

Martín Casillas completed his high school education in Colegio Cervantes Costa Rica (despite its name, a Marist school in Guadalajara) and then studied chemical engineering at ITESO, the Jesuit university in Guadalajara. He admitted later in life that he had chosen the wrong subject for his degree and should have chosen to study English literature. He graduated in 1963 and then took postgraduate courses in applied mathematics at the University of Freiburg, Germany (1964-65).

After returning to Mexico he worked for IBM de México for 12 years as head of public relations and assistant to the company’s president. In 1974, Casillas was the founding editor of Nonotza, the in-house magazine of IBM de México. Nonotza, published until 1994, was a quarterly magazine disseminating the latest scientific, technological and cultural developments. Casillas relinquished his editorship in 1976 to pursue other interests.

In 1976, Casillas took a storytelling workshop with innovative Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) who was born in Honduras but lived most of his adult life in exile in Mexico City.

Casillas returned to the world of scientific publishing in 1978 when he was made editorial director for Ciencia y Desarrollo, the magazine of Conacyt, the National Science and Technology Council, a post he retained until 1980.

In 1980, Casillas founded his own publishing company, Martín Casillas Editores. Within the next five years he published more than 100 titles of Mexican literature. In 1986, he began publishing La Plaza and El Inversionista. La Plaza, published in Guadalajara, was a literary and cultural monthly subtitled “Crónicas de la Vida Cultural de Guadalajara.” One of the many fascinating articles in this sadly short-lived publication was a transcription by Martín Casillas of his mother’s account of her own wedding. In the previous issue, Casillas’ sister, Mina Casillas, had reviewed the Posada Ajijic.

El Inversionista was a Mexico City business publication. In 1988, Casillas was one of the founders of the national financial daily El Economista; he began a regular column, “Juego de espejos”, and remained the paper’s managing editor until May 1994.

In the next decade he focused on writing several books, starting with La Villa de Chapala (1895-1933), published in 1994, a non-fiction account of some of the personalities and stories associated with Chapala’s transformation into a tourist destination. Much of the same material was incorporated into his later work, ¡Salvemos a Chapala! (2004).

In 1995 he published his first novel, Confesiones de Maclovia (Confessions of Maclovia). Inspired by the life of his grandmother, Cova, this was planned as the first book in a trilogy related to Lake Chapala. The second volume in the proposed trilogy was released in 2002. In Las batallas del general, Casillas spins a fictionalized account of the life, loves and actions of General Ramón Corona. Corona was born in Puruagua, near Tuxcueca on the south shore of the lake, and was governor of the state of Jalisco at the time of his assassination in 1889. The final volume in the trilogy, which was never published, was provisionally entitled Los invitados de honor and was to be based on the events surrounding the gala opening of the Chapala railroad station (designed by the author’s grandfather) on 8 April 1920.

In 2008, after taking a workshop in England with Richard Olivier, the son of famous British actor Sir Laurence Olivier, about Transformational Leadership (based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), Casillas began teaching at ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México), a private university with an outstanding business school and widely regarded as one of Mexico’s top “think tanks”. Casillas taught an Executive Development course there about leadership, based on lessons from Shakespeare. He has since given dozens of similar courses, workshops and lectures looking at the leadership lessons that can be learned from studying works such as Henry V, The Tempest and Julius Caesar. Casillas has also written, edited and published more than 40 works on Shakespeare and his plays.

In 2015, the Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE), a Spanish language non-profit publishing group partly funded by the Mexican government, appointed Casillas as the head of its subsidiary in Spain.

Martín Casillas de Alba’s autobiographical Fe de erratas en la vida de un editor was published in 2017.

We will take a closer look, in later posts, at the two Spanish language novels written by Martín Casillas de Alba that are related to Lake Chapala.

Sources

  • Marcela Alejandra Duharte Solís. 2017. “Divulgación y tecnología en México: la revista Nonotza” in Reflexiones Marginales, Año 6, #41 (Oct-Nov 2017).
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1994. La Villa de Chapala (1895-1933). Mexico City: Banca Promex; Martín Casillas de Alba, 2004. ¡Salvemos a Chapala! Mexico City: Editorial Diana.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1995. Confesiones de Maclovia. Mexico City: Ediciones del Equilibrista.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2002. Las batallas del general. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2017. Fe de erratas en la vida de un editor (Mexico City: Bonilla Artigas Editores).

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 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.

Dec 132018
 

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

Franck discovered that:

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

The following day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Nov 082018
 

Garland Franklin Clifton was an American author who lived in the Chapala area in the 1960s. He wrote Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico (apparently privately printed in Washington D.C., 1971). While the book is not set at Lake Chapala, it is highly probable that parts, or all of it, were written or conceived while Clifton was living there.

Wooden Leg John is written as a series of 20 letters dated from Christmas Day 1967 to Christmas Day 1968 from Bullard A. Loney (Bull A. Loney) to his “Uncle Sam”. “The “Bull” has deserted his wife and is living it up in Mexico and on the U.S.-Mexico border. The book includes many verses and lyrics.

Back cover art of Garland Clifton's Wooden Leg John, a satire on Americans living in Mexico.

Back cover art of Garland Clifton’s “Wooden Leg John, a satire on Americans living in Mexico”.

Clifton also wrote American meccas in Mexico: Guadalajara, Chapala-Ajijic, Manzanillo: a detailed discussion of these three vacation and retirement areas of Mexico, a 27-page booklet published in Laredo, Texas, in 1966.

Clifton was born 6 December 1922 in Yardelle, Arkansas, USA, and died 29 December 2013 in Gulfport, Mississippi. In the preface to Wooden Leg John, Clifton describes himself as a “Scotch-Irish native-born Arkansas Mountaineer and the tenth of 14 children.”

He joined the U.S. military in September 1940 and retired from military service in November 1960, having served overseas in New Guinea, the Philippines, Germany, Japan and Korea, by which time he had been awarded numerous decorations and ribbons and risen to be a U.S. Air Force master sergeant.

Not long afterwards, he married a Mexican girl, María. The couple had four children, and lived for some time in Chapala, before moving, in 1967, to Douglas, Arizona. By 1971, he was living in Washington D.C. with wife Maria (then aged 26), Manuel (8), Laura (7), Carmen (5) and Armando (1).

Clifton’s quirky, sometimes piquant, sense of humor enlivens Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico. Judging by his writing, Clifton would have been a highly entertaining, if somewhat provocative, dinner party guest.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 30 May 2014.

Sources:

  • Garland Franklin Clifton. 1971. Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico. Privately printed in Washington D.C.
  • Ruby Woods-Robinson, M.S.L.S. “Garland Franklin Clifton” [accessed 4 May 2014]
Oct 252018
 

Mildred Boyd, author of several young adult non-fiction books, lived at Lake Chapala for almost 30 years, from 1983 to 2010. While living in Ajijic she contributed numerous non-fiction pieces to local newspapers and magazines. Boyd’s numerous contributions to the local arts scene included valuable long-term support for the Lake Chapala Society’s Children’s Art Program.

Mildred Bernice Worthy (Boyd) was born in Ranger, Texas on 20 April 1921 and died on 10 February 2010 in Cuenca, Ecuador.

After graduating from high school in Holdenville, Oklahoma, at age 16 Boyd joined Billy Rose’s roadshow – at Casa Mañana in Fort Worth – as a showgirl. She toured with Rose’s troupe across the country and was in his show when it opened in New York at the Diamond Horseshoe supper club on Broadway.

Boyd subsequently worked as a model (her photo adorned Coca Cola billboards nationwide) and did some acting before marrying Carney William Boyd (1920-1986) on 6 March 1940 in Denton, Texas. The couple established their home in Olney, Texas, where they raised four children.

Javier Zaragoza. 2012. Portrait of Mildred Boyd (detail).

Javier Zaragoza. 2012. Portrait of Mildred Boyd (detail).

During the second world war, Boyd designed aviation parts and undertook research into alternative materials for use in aircraft manufacturing. After the war, she earned her pilot’s license (before she could drive a car) and joined the Civil Air Patrol.

During the 1950s, Boyd worked for Convair Aviation (later General Dynamics) on the design of the B-58 bomber and studied engineering at Texas Christian University. She later patented a coaxial cable and helped design missile guidance systems for Sperry Rand, the Minute-Man missile at Hercules Power, “smart” torpedoes for Gould Systems and the first hand-held calculators for Hewlett-Packard.

Her love of writing surfaced while studying at Texas Christian University. In the 1960s, Boyd authored five non-fiction books for the young adult market, all published by Criterion Press in New York: History in harness: the story of horses (1965); Black flags and pieces of eight (1965); Rulers in petticoats (1966); The Silent Cities: Civilizations lost and found (1966) and Man, myth, and magic (1969). Boyd’s first visit to Mexico was apparently a research trip to Chichen Itza on the Yucatán Peninsula collecting material (which in the event was never used) for The Silent Cities.

After she retired, Boyd opted to escape northern winters and move to Mexico. Like many others before her, she spent a few days at the Posada Ajijic and quickly realized that Ajijic, with its growing English-speaking community and amenities, was an excellent fit. Boyd loved books and used her regular twice-yearly trips north of the border to amass a substantial private research library at her new home.

Volunteers Frank Wise and Mildred Boyd with Children’s Art Program students.

Boyd was very active in Lakeside’s community life. She volunteered at the Lake Chapala Society library and served two terms as president of the Ajijic Society of the Arts (ASA), where she regularly exhibited her own collages, watercolors and jewelry.

From the early 1990s, Boyd began to contribute articles to the local monthly El Ojo del Lago. She became a regular columnist: her “Magnificent Mexico” series occupied the magazine’s centerfold for more than a decade, covering topics from Aztec feather art and hummingbirds to Mexican weavers and mariachi music. Her writing won numerous local awards and she won several community awards for her volunteer work.

Another of her noteworthy roles in Ajijic was running the Lake Chapala Society’s Children’s Art Program for more than 20 years. This program, founded by Neill James in 1954, offers Saturday art classes to young people and also arranges art scholarships for further study.

At one point, Boyd was the only volunteer keeping the program going. When she came across a collection of works done by students who had benefited from the program decades earlier, she assembled a heritage exhibition that included early works by several children who had gone on to become successful professional artists.

Selected works from this heritage collection have been exhibited at the Lake Chapala Society, the Ajijic Cultural Center and the Centro Cultural González Gallo in Chapala, as well as at the Casa Museo Allende in San Miguel de Allende in 2006. Boyd was especially thrilled with the San Miguel show since its opening night coincided with her 85th birthday and she had always wanted the children’s art to reach a much wider audience than Lakeside.

With the help of Jesús López Vega (an alumni of the program) and others, Boyd ensured that the Children’s Art Program was revitalized following the death of its original benefactor, Neill James. Today, as many as 100 eager young artists attend the weekly Saturday classes.

Acknowledgment and photo credits

My thanks to Lizz Drummond and Judy Boyd for their help in compiling this profile of their mother and for generously allowing the use of photos from their personal collection.

Sources

Aug 302018
 

Mexican-born Virginia Downs (1914-2005) was the third wife of William (“Bill”) Colfax Miller. After their marriage in November 1969, the Millers lived in Cuernavaca, where they co-owned an art gallery, before moving first to the U.S. for a year and then, in about 1982, to Lake Chapala, where Virginia Miller was a prolific writer of articles about Mexico for local English-language publications.

Virginia Downs was born into a wealthy American family in Guadalajara on 11 March 1914 and died in that same city on 16 November 2005. Her grandfather, Alfred Ryder Downs, had been a successful miner in Alaska before moving to Mexico, where he built up a business empire as owner of the American Bank of Guadalajara, a Ford Agency and (allegedly) the first gas station in Guadalajara. He bought land on the then northern outskirts of the city that he subsequently developed at the start of the 20th century as Colonia Seattle. Modeled on an American garden city, this area initially had 57 homes and its own electric and water plants.

Virginia was only nine days old when her family fled Guadalajara for the U.S., fearing for their lives as the Mexican Revolution engulfed the city and most Americans were forced to flee. Grandfather Downs returned a few years later and resumed his business interests. Virginia’s family also returned, and she attended school in Guadalajara before completing her high school education at Grey Castle (which later became San Diego High School) in California, after which she majored in foreign languages at the University of California Los Angeles.

After graduating, Downs worked in the U.S. Civil Service. She worked 5 years in Hawaii, two years in Japan and a year in Frankfurt before spending 15 years in Paris, where she worked as a researcher and writer for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff European Command. When NATO personnel were ordered out of France in 1967 by President Charles de Gaulle, she returned to the U.S.

Failing to find suitable work in Los Angeles, she moved back to Mexico, living first in Oaxaca, then San Miguel de Allende (where she took art classes), and then to the Cortés house in Cuernavaca. It was in Cuernavaca that she met and married Bill Miller.

During their time in Cuernavaca, Virginia was a columnist for the local daily El Diario de Morelos and the couple opened the Akari Art Gallery, the city’s first major art gallery. The couple were friends of many famous Mexican artists, including Alfaro David Siqueiros who gave them a personally-inscribed heliographic copy of a drawing entitled “La Niña Madre”. This drawing was used by Excelsior, the national daily, during its campaign to get Mother’s Day officially celebrated in Mexico.

The Atari Gallery was one of the venues for a group show by Clique Ajijic in February 1976. The Clique Ajijic was comprised of eight Ajijic artists: Tom FaloonHubert Harmon, Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) PettersenAdolfo Riestra and Sidney Schwartzman.

Among the other “Ajijicans” attending the opening in Cuernavaca were Peggy Koll, Margo Thomas, and Bruce and Patricia Wightman.

In Ajijic, in addition to her regular contributions to El Ojo del Lago (The Eye of the Lake) and other local publications, Virginia Miller self-published South of Yesterday (2001), a family history, subsequently translated into Spanish as Al Sur del Ayer (2004). She described the book as “the story of my mother’s life as a bride coming to a strange land. The book flows through the charmed life of an American living in Guadalajara in the early nineteen hundreds into the violence of the Revolution, escape from and return to a much-beloved Mexico.”

Sources

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

Aug 022018
 

Anthony Ralph Wolryche Stansfeld was born in Winchester, Hampshire, on 4 March 1913.

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

It is unclear how he and Peter Lilley first met, though they were very close in age.

Continuing the pen name Dane Chandos, the duo wrote two travelogues: Journey in the Sun (a trip from Mexico to Spain) and The Trade Wind Islands (which takes the reader from Mexico to several Caribbean islands).

The two men also created the huarache-wearing Mexican detective Don Pancho and wrote two well-constructed stories about his crime-solving exploits: Boiled Alive and Three Bad Nights, for which they used the pen name (or more accurately pen name of a pen name) Bruce Buckingham.

References

  • Bruce Buckingham. 1956. Three Bad Nights. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).
  • Bruce Buckingham. 1957. Boiled Alive. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).

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