May 142020
 

Thomas Philip Terry (1864-1945) was born in Georgetown, Kentucky. Terry first visited Mexico in his early twenties and spent 5 years working for The Mexican Financier, a Mexico City weekly, while writing a series of short stories and news reports for U.S. newspapers and completing a popular Spanish-English phrase book. Terry then lived briefly in New York before moving to Japan for a decade.

He had a flair for languages and this inveterate traveler and reporter witnessed first-hand the China-Japanese War, the Boxer outbreak, the Russo-Japanese war, and the Spanish-American war in the Philippines. He returned to Mexico, with his wife and their two young sons, in 1905 as manager (administrator) of the Sonora News Company, a position he held until 1910.

The Sonora News Company was a prominent publishing house, founded in Nogales, Arizona, in about 1884 by W. F. Layer. Layer established the company in order to control the news business along the Sonora railroad which ran from Guaymas to Nogales. In 1888, not long after the company opened a Mexico City office, it won the contract for supplying periodicals and other items on the Mexican National Railway (linking Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo), and for running news agents on its trains. As more and more railroad lines were built, the company continued to expand; by 1891 it had contracts with the Sonora, Central, International, National, Monterrey, and Mexican Gulf railroads.

In addition to its regular news gathering and disseminating activities, the Sonora News Company published two seminal guide books about Mexico. The first was Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico, by Reau Campbell, published in 1899, and the second was Terry’s Mexico handbook for travellers, first published in 1909. This encyclopedic guide, thoroughly good reading, covers lots of ground that was, and still is, hard to find elsewhere.

Terry-map-Chapala

This map in Terry’s handbook, which helped persuade D. H. Lawrence to visit Chapala, shows the lake larger than it really was in 1909—the eastern swamps had been drained and reclaimed as farmland by that time.

Terry’s Mexico handbook was so well-received by President Díaz and his cabinet members that they ordered copies to be sent to every Mexican embassy, legation and trade office across the world. The guide quickly became the travel bible for Thomas Cook and Sons and other travel agencies and tourist organizations, and remained the tourist “bible” for decades.

Its description of Chapala is credited with convincing the English novelist D. H. Lawrence that he simply had to see the town and its eponymous lake for himself. During his residence at Lake Chapala, Lawrence wrote the first draft of The Plumed Serpent, using local settings and characters for inspiration.

Terry’s research was meticulous and his informative guide delves into the details of everything from history to hotels, and from shopping to excursions. It was expanded in numerous subsequent editions as Terry’s Guide to Mexico, with later editions revised by James Norman.

In 1914, Terry produced a second book on Mexico: Mexico: an outline sketch of the country, its people and their history from the earliest times to the present.

Thomas Philip Terry died in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1945.

In a curious twist of fate, Terry also has a much more recent connection to Lake Chapala in that Robert C. Terry (his grandson) retired with his wife, Judith, to Ajijic in 2007.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

For more about Terry and his description of Lake Chapala, see chapter 53 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales.

Sources include

  • Reau Campbell. 1899. Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico. Mexico City: Sonora News Company, 1899.
  • The Jalisco Times, 22 August 1908.
  • The Mexican Herald, 31 March 1910, 3.
  • The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), 26 Mar 1910, 4.
  • Thomas Philip Terry. 1909. Terry’s Mexico Handbook for Travellers. México City: Sonora News Company and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • James Tipton. 2011. “Peace Corps couple retire to their Mexico paradise.” Article on MexConnect.com
  • The Two Republics, 2 Sep 1888, 4; 2 Nov 1888, 4.

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

Apr 162020
 

Ajijic first bloomed into a center for art and artists in the 1940s. By the end of that decade, the village boasted at least one gallery, and several entrepreneurial artists were involved in offering seasonal art classes, initially for summer visitors from the U.S.

During the 1950s, word-of-mouth gradually spread Ajijic’s “fame” as an artistic center. One of the many attractions offered by Ajijic for artists was that it was inexpensive, especially compared to prices north of the border.

Photo by Haig Shekerjian.

Portrait by Haig Shekerjian.

Among the couples attracted in part by Ajijic’s affordability were Regina de Cormier Shekerjian (1923-2000), a well-known poet, author, translator and illustrator of children’s books, and her husband, Haig Shekerjian (1922-2002), a photographer.

They first visited Ajijic when Haig took a sabbatical over the winter of 1950-51 and they spent several months living in the village. They returned frequently thereafter, including numerous times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Regina contributed to boosting Ajijic’s popularity as an arts center by writing one of the earliest articles dedicated to extolling its virtues to the art-loving public north of the border. In 1952, when one U.S. dollar was worth 8.65 pesos, in an article entitled “You can Afford a Mexican Summer,” she explained why Ajijic was the ideal location for an inexpensive art-themed summer break:

Nine times out of ten, an artist pinches pennies. Nowhere in the world can a penny be pinched as hard as it can today in Mexico, a land intended for the artist.

Mexico is filled with color. Purples, pinks, red and orange. Color in a high key, layered through with dun-colored space and fingered with tall blue mountains. A checkerboard of tonal dissonance and silence. A strange land. Every era of civilization co-exists, side by side, Aztec temples, pyramids and medieval cities, beautifully preserved. Pre-Columbian idols can be unearthed along the lake shore or mud edge. Its rural villages are much as they were before the Conquest. Ancient superstitions tangle with Catholicism, producing a pageantry that begs to be painted.

– – –
Having lived on a strict peso budget for four months now in the tiny town of Ajijic (pronounced Ah-hee-heek) we have discovered it is possible for two people to live comfortably in a five-room-with-patio-and-garden house; buy food, ice, kerosene for the stove, gas for the car, art and photographic supplies, postage, cigarettes, have lunch once a week in Guadalajara (forty miles way) and even indulge in a bit of entertaining for about $70 a month! Ajijic, I must point out, is more expensive than many other small villages. It is perfectly possible to get both board and room for eight or twelve pesos a day. Many people do it, for there are many places still where the Mexican is as yet unaware of what the present ration means. Even the houses in Ajijic (big, cool, adobe houses with gardens of tropical flowers and all kinds of fruit trees) rent from six to twelve dollars a month. And a servant who will cook, clean, shop, and wash and iron your clothes (leaving you free to paint) can be had for the standard wage of $5 a month. We spend eight pesos a day – a trifle less than a dollar for food, ice and kerosene. And this includes meat everyday for three hearty appetites, ours and a big Airedale’s.

For companionship in our particular village you will find an assortment of writers, artists and musicians, that reminds you, naturally, of Greenwich Village. Some have been here two or three years, returning at the end of each six months to renew their tourist cards, then hurrying back to finish a project. Others are teachers on summer vacation.”

Source:

  • Regina Shekerjian. 1952. “You can Afford a Mexican Summer: Complete Details on how to Stretch your Dollars During an Art Trek South of the Border” in Design, Volume 53, 1952, Issue 8, pp 182-183, 197.

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

Mar 052020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A land bewitched

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

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

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

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

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

Regler and Hemingway

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

Note re Chapala links to the Spanish Civil War

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

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram, author of a fascinating memoir of her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic, According to Soledad, 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 Schneebaum.

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 Herbert 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 rhapsodizes 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.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

According to Soledad, Katie’s first full length published work, is available in both print and Kindle editions via Amazon. Print copies are also available at select locations (La Nueva Posada, Mi México) in Ajijic, and at Galería Diane Pearl in Riberas.

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.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Acknowledgment

My grateful thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram, author of According to Soledad: memories of a childhood in Mexico, for sharing 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 they 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?

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

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 include 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 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; was 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 mainly 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.

Notes

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. For more about the phrase’s use, past and present, see “Neill James, Anita Brenner and the origin of the popular Mexican saying about “Dust on my Heart.””

A much more detailed account of Neill James’ life can be found in chapters 13, 14, 21, 26, 34, and 39 of my Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village (2022).

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to Stephen Preston Banks, author of Kokio: A Novel Based on the Life of Neill 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, The 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.

The 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 Johnson 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. The 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 30 October 2023]
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
 

As we saw in previous posts, the two writers behind the first two Dane Chandos books related to Lake Chapala – Village in the Sun and House in the Sun  – were Nigel Millett and Peter Lilley.

Whether by coincidence or not, less than 3 weeks after Nigel Millett‘s father died in Ajijic in 1947, Anthony Stansfeld set out from the U.K. to visit Peter Lilley in Mexico. This timing makes it perfectly conceivable that he helped Lilley in the final stages of preparing the manuscript of House in the Sun for publication.

Anthony Ralph Wolryche Stansfeld was born in Sussex, UK, on 4 March 1913 and died in Macon, Georgia, on 7 March 1998. Stansfeld was at Oxford University from 1932 to about 1935. During World War II he served as a Temporary Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Service for two years from 4 March 1943 (his 30th birthday). The blond, blue-eyed Stansfeld, who spoke fluent English, French, Spanish and Italian, subsequently became a university lecturer, specializing in art history.

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Stansfeld and Peter Lilley first met at Stowe School in the UK in the 1920s. In about 1950, Stansfeld took a teaching position at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He lived the remainder of his life in Macon but became a regular visitor to Lake Chapala to collaborate with Lilley.

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.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the literary community in Ajijic.

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).

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.

Jul 192018
 

The second strand of the pen name Dane Chandos, and indeed the originator of the name, was Peter Lilley. How, when and where Lilley first met Nigel Millett is currently unknown but they became literary collaborators and good friends during their time in Ajijic.

Peter Lilley, whose birth name was James Gilbert Lilley, was the only child of James Cecil Lilley (1878-1948) and Madeline Clare Angus Thomas (1890–1979). He was born in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, on 25 July 1913.

Lilley’s father was a director of Lilley and Skinner, a famous London shoe brand (manufacturing, wholesale and retail), founded by his great grandfather.

Peter Lilley attended Stowe School (in Buckinghamshire) from 1927 to 1932 and was captain of the school tennis team in 1931. He remained an avid tennis player throughout his life and built a grass court at his home in San Antonio Tlayacapan (mid-way between Ajijic and Chapala).

Lilley is not known to have published anything under his own name, or any nom de plume, prior to the books about Ajijic.

The name Dane Chandos was conjured up by Lilley himself, since it combined his nickname at Stowe – “Dane”, on account of his blond hair and square, Danish-looking jaw – with Chandos, the name of one of the school’s boarding houses. Interestingly, though, Lilley had actually spent his own school years in a different house, Grafton.

If shipping and immigration records accurately reflect his travels to North America, Peter Lilley first visited the U.S. in 1938, at the age of 24, traveling with an older cousin, Thomas. The following year, he revisited the U.S. en route to Toronto, Canada. In 1940, he again traveled to New York, arriving on 7 July 1940. It remains unclear precisely when Lilley first visited Lake Chapala.

The first Dane Chandos book, Village in the Sun, was written by Peter Lilley and Nigel Millett and published in the U.S. in the fall of 1945. Because Nigel Millett died the following year, it is often argued that the second Dane Chandos book – House in the Sun, first published in the U.S. in 1949 – must have been the result of a different collaboration, with Millett replaced by Anthony Stansfeld as Lilley’s writing partner. For a number of reasons, including similarities of style and subject matter, I do not consider this at all likely but believe that House in the Sun, like Village in the Sun, was co-written by Lilley and Millett.

This opinion is supported by the fact that Stansfeld himself, in a letter many years ago to the house’s current owner, laid no claim to authorship of either book, writing only that he and Lilley had collaborated from 1950 onwards.

Village in the Sun tells the story of building a house (located in real life in San Antonio Tlayacapan). The house was Peter Lilley’s home in Mexico. The book is an interesting, keenly observed and reflective account of life in Ajijic in the 1940s, full of curious tidbits alongside anecdotes about local superstitions and habits. When it was finally published in the U.K. in 1948, English author and linguist Rodney Gallop, who had visited Ajijic in the 1930s, praised its use of colorful characters to paint a picture of Ajijic that was sympathetic and “penetrated to the very heart of Mexico.” Among the central characters is Candelaria, the cook, who “seemed to delight in piling up obstacles and then making an enormous fuss surmounting them and then with a pleased tired smile viewing her achievement.”

In House in the Sun the author has added extra rooms for guests and taken on the role of amateur hotelier, “held hostage by maddening servants and equally unpredictable and maddening guests.”

The two books share many of the same characters, including Candelaria and the other household help. Some of the characters are based on real residents or visitors while others stem from the authors’ imaginations. A line near the start of House in the Sun – “An Englishman had built a long, low house fronted by a superb garden, which blazed with color the year round” – is a public nod to Herbert Johnson and his wife, Georgette, and their wonderful lakefront garden in Ajijic.

The final Dane Chandos book

Peter Lilley continued to live in his beautiful “house in the sun” in San Antonio Tlayacapan until well into the 1970s. He spent his final weeks in his native England where he died at the London Clinic in Westminster on 17 April 1980. Leslie Chater and his wife, Moreen, long-time friends of Lilley, subsequently became the new owners of the house in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

A chance find there in a desk drawer by Moreen Chater caused her to revive the Dane Chandos brand in 1997, long after all three original Dane Chandos authors had died. Chater stumbled across a “scruffy folder” containing a manuscript of recipes “faintly typed and badly eaten by mice.” Providentially, these proved to be Candelaria’s original recipes, with notes and anecdotes added by Lilley. Chater used them to compile Candelaria’s Cookbook, an unusual bilingual book of more than forty recipes (and related stories) sold as a fund-raiser to support projects benefiting children in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

References

  • Dane Chandos. 1945. Village in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Dane Chandos. 1949. House in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Rodney Gallop. 1948. “Rural Mexico: Village in the Sun. By Dane Chandos.” (Review), The Spectator, 17 June 1948, 22.
  • Catherine A. MacKenzie. 2011. “Three Authors in the Sun”, Lake Chapala Review, vol 13 #1, 15 January 2011.
  • Sophie Annan Jensen. 1999. “Candelaria’s Cookbook” (review) on MexConnect.com –
    [25 May 2018]

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 282018
 

Everett Gee Jackson (1900-1995), the renowned American painter, illustrator and art educator, lived at Lake Chapala, apart from some short breaks, from 1923 to 1926 (and returned there in 1950 and 1968). Jackson loved Mexico and during his first visit to Chapala he became intimately acquainted with the artistic creativity of Mexico’s ancient pre-Columbian civilizations, later teaching and writing on the subject.

Unlike so many other early foreign visiting artists who have left very little trace of their presence, Jackson wrote entertaining accounts of his experiences in Chapala and Ajijic in his two memoirs —Burros and Paintbrushes, A Mexican Adventure (1985) and It’s a Long Road to Comondú (1987), both published by Texas A&M University Press. Both memoirs are informative and beautifully illustrated.

Given the wealth of available material on Jackson’s life and art, this post will focus on the personal and wider significance of his earliest extended trip to Lake Chapala.

Cover painting is "Street in Ajijic", ca 1924

Cover painting is “Street in Ajijic”, ca 1924

Jackson was born in Mexia, Texas, on 8 October 1900. He enrolled at Texas A&M to study architecture but was persuaded by one of his instructors that his true talents lay in art. In 1921 Jackson moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute where impressionism was in vogue. At the end of the following year he eschewed another Chicago winter in favor of completing his art studies at the San Diego Academy of Art in sunnier California. He eventually completed a B.A. degree from San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) in 1929 and a Masters degree in art history from the University of Southern California in 1934.

As an educator, Jackson taught and directed the art department at San Diego State University (1930-1963) and was a visiting professor at the University of Costa Rica (1962).

Prior to his first visit to Chapala in 1923, Jackson had already undertaken a brief foray into Mexico, traveling just across the border from Texas into Coahuila with Lowell D. Houser (1902-1971), a friend from the Art Institute of Chicago.

In summer 1923, Jackson and “Lowelito” (Houser) ventured further into Mexico, to the city of Guadalajara. As Jackson tells the story in Burros and Paintbrushes, A Mexican Adventure, they had been there about a month when they heard  about “a wonderful lake” from “an old tramp, an American.” On the spur of the moment they took a train to Chapala and loved what they saw:

“We walked from the railroad depot, which was on the edge of the great silvery lake, down into the village with its red-tile-roofed houses. All the little houses that lined the streets were painted in pale pastel colors, and most of the men we met in the streets were dressed in white and had red sashes around their waists and wide-brimmed hats on their heads. The women all wore shawls, or rebozos, over their heads and shoulders. Soon we came to the central plaza, which had a little blue bandstand in the middle. Walking east from the plaza, we found, in the very first block, a house for rent. A boy on a bicycle told us that it had just been vacated. He said an English writer had been living there, and had only recently moved away.”

Jackson and Lowelito had been renting the house for several months before they realized that the English writer was D. H. Lawrence (who left Chapala in mid-July). The two artists had few distractions in Chapala. According to Jackson, the train at that time only ran twice a week, and the main hotel was the Mólgora (formerly the Arzapalo) which faced the lake.

“We were both eager to get to work. We had come to Chapala to draw and paint what we saw, and what we were seeing around us was a visual world of magic: bright sunshine and blue shadows up and down the streets, red tile roofs and roofs made of yellow thatch, banana trees waving above the red tile roofs, bougainvillaea of brilliant color hanging over old walls, the gray expanse of the lake, and a sky in which floated mountainous clouds. Finally, there were the beautiful people, in clothes of all colors-beautiful, happy, smiling, friendly people-and donkeys, horses, cows, hogs, and dogs of all sizes, colors, and shapes.”

Jackson and Houser were among the earliest American artists to paint for any length of time at Lake Chapala and Ajijic, though they were not the first, given that the Chicago artist Richard Robbins and Donald Cecil Totten (1903-1967), among others, had painted Lake Chapala before this. So, too, had many artists of European origin. Mexico, though, exerted a much more powerful influence over Jackson’s subsequent art than it did over any of these earlier visitors.

Jackson and Houser stayed in Chapala until the summer of 1925 when they decided to move to Guanajuato to experience a different side of Mexico. En route, they stopped off in Mexico City to view some of the famous Mexican murals, by Diego Rivera and others, that they had heard so much about.

After a few months in Guanajuato, the two young artists briefly parted ways. While Jackson went back to El Paso to meet his girlfriend, Eileen Dwyer, face-to-face for the first time (following a lengthy correspondence), Lowelito returned to Chapala, where he happened to meet the well-connected young author and art critic Anita Brenner (1905-1974). (This chance encounter led to Houser being invited a couple of years later to join a trip to Mayan ruins in Yucatán as an illustrator. It also led to Jackson and his wife becoming close friends with Brenner after they moved to Mexico City in November 1926.)

Everett Gee Jackson. ca 1923. Fisherman's Shacks, Chapala. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Everett Gee Jackson. ca 1923. Fisherman’s Shacks, Chapala. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

When Jackson, newly engaged to Eileen, returned from El Paso, he discovered that Lowelito had decided to rent another house not in Chapala but in the smaller, more isolated, village of Ajijic.

Jackson is almost certainly correct in writing that they were the “first art students ever to live in Ajijic”, but there may be a hint of exaggeration in his claim that they were, “the only Americans living in Ajijic.”

In July 1926, Jackson returned to the U.S. to marry Eileen and then brought his wife to Mexico for an unconventional honeymoon, sharing a house in Chapala with Lowelito and another boyhood friend. The house the group rented, for the princely sum of $35 a month, was none other than El Manglar, the then semi-abandoned former home of Lorenzo Elizaga, a brother-in-law (via their respective wives) of President Porfirio Díaz, who had stayed in the house on several occasions in the early 1900s.

Among Jackson’s Chapala-related works from this time (and exhibited in Dallas and San Angelo, Texas, in 1927) are “The Lake Village,” which won first prize at the Texas State Fair in Dallas (October 1926) and “Straw Shacks in Chapala.” These two paintings were glowingly described by art critic Dorcas Davis: “Here the art lover finds a blending of beauty and almost startling truth. These two pictures catch the glaring yet softening influence of the light of the sun upon the sand and adobe that is typically Mexican. The very blending of pastels and light and shadow create the illusion of southern atmosphere.”

Also exhibited in 1927 were “The Mariache” (aka “The Mexican Orchestra”), painted in 1923, and several portraits including “Eileen”, “Aztec Boy” and “Ajijic Girl.” In addition, Jackson showed a painting of “The Church of Muscala” (sic), The village of Mezcala had clearly made an indelible impression on Jackson (as it has on many later visitors), with one reporter writing: “The painter has told many interesting stories of Muscala where these isolated and primitive Indians, who have never heard of socialism and Utopia, have formed a government where everything is owned in common.”

After numerous adventures in Chapala, in November 1926 the group moved to Mexico City, where the connection to Anita Brenner ensured they were welcomed by an elite circle of young artists and intellectuals that included Jean Charlot (1898–1979). They were also visited by the great muralist José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949). Early the following year, at Brenner’s insistence, Jackson and his wife visited the Zapotec Indian area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec before returning home to San Diego.

Everett Gee Jackson. 1926. Lake Chapala. (Hirshl & Adler Galleries, New York)

Everett Gee Jackson. 1926. Lake Chapala. (Hirshl & Adler Galleries, New York)

Even before their return, fifty of Jackson’s Mexican paintings had been exhibited at the “The Little Gallery” in San Diego. The exhibit was warmly received by critics and art lovers and further showings of his “ultra-modern canvasses” were planned for venues in Dallas and New York. Among the paintings that attracted most attention in The San Diego exhibition were “The Lake Village,” (Chapala), which had won first prize at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in October 1926, and “Straw Shacks in Chapala”.

There is no question that Jackson’s subsequent artistic trajectory owed much to his time in Chapala at the start of his career. His encounter with Mexican art — from pre-Columbian figurines to modern murals — transformed him from an impressionist to a post-impressionist painter. He was one of the first American artists to be so heavily influenced by Mexican modernism, with its stylized forms, blocks of color and hints of ancient motifs. Jackson’s work remained realist rather than abstract.

Jackson’s work was widely exhibited and won numerous awards. His major exhibitions included Art Institute of Chicago (1927); Corcoran Gallery (1928); Whitney Museum of American Art; School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1928; 1946); Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1929-30); San Francisco Art Association; San Diego Fine Arts Society; and the Laguna Beach Art Association (1934). Retrospectives of his work included a 1979 show at the Museo del Carmen in Mexico City, jointly organized by INBA (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia); and an exhibit at San Diego Modern in 2007-2008.

Jackson’s wonderful illustrations enliven several books, including Max Miller’s Mexico Around Me (1937); The Wonderful Adventures of Paul Bunyon (1945); The book of the people = Popol vuh : the national book of the ancient Quiché Maya (1954); the Heritage Press edition of Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru (1957); Ramona and other novels by Helen Hunt Jackson (1959); and American Indian Legends (1968) edited by Allan Macfarlan.

Everett Gee Jackson, Drying Nets, ca 1924., pen and ink. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Everett Gee Jackson, Drying Nets, ca 1924., pen and ink. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

In addition to his two volumes of memoirs, Jackson also wrote and illustrated Goat tails and doodlebugs: a journey toward art (1993).

Jackson’s time in Mexico led to a lifelong interest in pre-Columbian art, as evidenced by his short paper, “The Pre-Columbian Figurines from Western Mexico”, published in 1941, and his book, Four Trips to Antiquity: Adventures of an Artist in Maya Ruined Cities (1991). In his 1941 paper, which included images of two figurines found at Lake Chapala, Jackson considered the varying degree of abstraction or expressionism in different figurines.

In 1950, Jackson (without Eileen) and Lowelito returned to Chapala for the first time since they had lived there. During their trip, the purpose of which was to find materials for teaching the history of Middle American art, they met up with various old friends, among them Isidoro Pulido:

“Isidoro had become a maker of candy and a dealer in pre-Columbian art in the patio of his house on Los Niños Héroes Street. I did not teach him to make candy, but when he was just a boy I had shown him how he could reproduce those figurines he and Eileen used to dig up back of Chapala. Now he not only made them well, but he would also take them out into the fields and gullies, bury them, and then dig them up in the company of American tourists, who were beginning to come to Chapala in increasing numbers. Isidoro did not feel guilty when the tourists bought his works; he believed his creations were just as good as the pre-Columbian ones.”

Jackson also revisited Chapala, this time accompanied by Eileen and their younger grandson, in summer 1968, when they rented the charming old Witter Bynner house, then owned by Peter Hurd, in the center of Chapala:

“We always called the house “the Witter Bynner house” because that American poet made it so beautiful and so full of surprises while he was living in it.”

Everett Gee Jackson, author, pioneering artist, illustrator and much more besides, died in San Diego on 4 March 1995.

[Jackson’s wife Eileen Jackson, who had studied journalism, was published in The London Studio and became the society columnist for the San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune for more than fifty years.]

Acknowledgment

  • My thanks to Texas art historian James Baker for his interest in this project and for sharing his research about Everett Gee Jackson.

Sources

  • Anon. 1927. “Talented Artist Of Mexia To Have Dallas Exhibition”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 29 Jan 1927, p 13.
  • Archives of American Art. 1964. Oral history interview (by Betty Hoag) with Everett Gee Jackson, 1964 July 31. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • D. Scott Atkinson. 2007. Everett Gee Jackson: San Diego Modern, 1920-1955. San Diego Museum of Art.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1941. “The Pre-Columbian Ceramic Figurines from Western Mexico”, in Parnassus, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1941), pp. 17-20.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1985. Burros and Paintbrushes, A Mexican Adventure. Texas A&M University Press.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1987. It’s a Long Road to Comondú. Texas A&M University Press.
  • Jerry Williamson. 2000. Eileen: The Story Of Eileen Jackson As Told By Her Daughter. San Diego Historical Society.

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

May 292018
 

John Russell Clift wrote, and illustrated with original serigraphs, “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-La”, published in Ford Times, the monthly magazine of the Ford Motor Company in October 1953. The article was published in Ford Times,. Volume 45 # 10 (October 1953) pp 34-39. The article, with illustrations, was reprinted on Mexconnect.com in its October 2003 edition, to mark the 50th anniversary of the original publication date.

John Russell Clift: Chapala Market

John Russell Clift: Chapala Market (1953)

John Russell Clift: Lake Chapala (1953)

John Russell Clift: Lake Chapala (1953)

  • The full text of “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-la“, with accompanying illustrations, reprinted on Mexconnect.com by kind permission of Ford Motor Company.

John Russell Clift, American author and illustrator, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1925 and at the peak of his career in the 1950s when he wrote this piece, one of the earliest to promote the attractions of the Chapala area as a retirement haven. His thoughtful prose and fine silkscreens paint a vivid picture of what life was like at Lakeside in the early 1950s.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy (1944-46), Clift studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and became an accomplished illustrator, painter, teacher, graphic artist, and successful commercial artist. Clift won his first fellowship at the Boston Museum School in 1952-53, which enabled him to spend six months painting in Chapala. He taught drawing and illustration at the institution for many years and was awarded a second fellowship in 1958-59.

John Russell Clift: Weaver's House in Jocotepec (1953)

John Russell Clift: Weaver’s House in Jocotepec (1953)

His commercial art career included spells working for Ford Motor Company, Alcan Aluminum Co. of Cleveland, the Lamp-Standard Oil Co. and the Bethlehem Steel Co. of Pennsylvania. In 1965, The Bridgeport Post lauded him as “an artist admired by the professionals for his technique in encaustic and by businessmen for his illustrations in business magazines.” (10 Oct 1965). Among Clift’s contributions to Ford Times, was “Riverside, Rhode Island”, a story illustrated by his paintings, in the July 1955 issue.

Clift held numerous exhibitions of his work in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1955-1965 period. His work was also exhibited at print shows throughout the U.S., including the Museum of Modern Art and the DeCordova & Dana Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He held a solo show in 1963 in the Mirski Gallery, Boston.

In 1967, Clift was a member of the three-person jury for The Boston Printmakers 19th Annual Print Exhibition, held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from 28 February to 2 April 1967. The exhibition featured more than 120 prints from the U.S. and Canada.

John Russell Clift passed away in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 16 July 1999.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 22 March 2012.

Exhibits/collections:

  • A screenprint entitled “Long Wharf” is in the collection of the US National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C..
  • A painting, oil on canvas, entitled “Couple in the Park” (1961) is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  • A color lithograph entitled “Market at Chapala” was sold at auction in 2007.

Sources/References:

  • John Russell Clift. 1953. “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-la”, Ford Times, Volume 45 # 10 (October 1953), 34-39.

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

Mar 152018
 

Canadian artist John Russell Richmond (1926–2013) began drawing and painting as a child, “around the time that he was learning to hold a crayon without eating it.” He was still producing highly original work at Lake Chapala well into his eighties.

John Richmond

John Richmond

Richmond was a painter, illustrator, muralist, educator and author. He was born in Toronto on 25 October 1926 and died in Lindsay, Ontario, on 17 January 2013.

He retired from his position at the Ontario College of Art & Design in 1991 to divide his time between Ontario and Ajijic. Richmond was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, the Ontario Society of Artists and the Arts and Letters Club.

Richmond wrote and/or illustrated numerous publications, including Gambit (1958); Around Toronto (1969); Discover Toronto (1976); and the “Discover Ontario” series of whimsical maps and columns, published in Toronto Calendar Magazine in the 1970s. Together with his partner, Lorraine Surcouf, he also published A Tearful Tour of Toronto’s Riviera of Yesteryear (1961).

John Richmond also undertook mural commissions and was responsible for several works in Toronto, including in the original Maple Leaf Gardens, the former Air Canada Centre, and the Knob Hill Farms supermarket, the largest supermarket of its time in Greater Toronto. Richmond also completed a mural in the public library of Uxbridge, the township where he had his home and studio. Richmond was a founding member of the Uxbridge Celebration of the Arts.

Richmond’s art was exhibited widely during his lifetime in Canada, and later in Mexico, where he adopted the art name Juan Compo.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Tree Goddess.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Tree Goddess.

As Juan Compo, in Ajijic, he produced an impressive series of mixed-media images of imaginary ancient American goddesses as well as more traditional paintings.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Moon Goddess.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Moon Goddess.

This 5-minute YouTube video is a good introduction to his project.

Like many artists before and since, living at Lake Chapala jolted this artist of talent into an entirely fresh, creative phase of his career. His stated ambition was “to raise awareness of The Ancient American Goddess among all inhabitants of both American continents, North and South.”

Sources

  • Anon. 2013. John Russell Richmond (obituary). The Globe and Mail, 22 January 2013.
  • Anon. “Focus on Art.” Ojo del Lago, February 2003.
  • Anon. 2013. John Russell Richmond – Obituary. Toronto Star, 22 January 2013.
  • Juan Compo. “Ancient American Goddess Art by Juan Compo“, MexConnect. 1 August 2008.
  • Juan Compo. “Ancient American Imaginary Goddesses.” (artist’s former website)
  • Shelagh Damus. 2013. “Artist John Richmond dies at 86.” The Uxbridge Cosmos, 31 January 2013, p12.

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

Mar 012018
 

Ixca Farías was a key figure in the artistic, literary and cultural circles of Guadalajara of the early twentieth century. He was a frequent visitor to Lake Chapala and the lake inspired some of his best artwork. He also wrote a newspaper article about Chapala recalling his early visits to the lake in the 1880s and 1890s.

Farías (whose birth name was Juan Farías y Álvarez del Castillo) was born in Guadalajara on 16 March 1873. He adopted the name Ixca, which comes from a Nahuatl word for “roasting in embers”, a technique used to make traditional pottery.

Isca Farías.Paisaje de Guadalajara. (Guadalajara landscape).

Ixca Farías.Paisaje de Guadalajara. (Guadalajara landscape).

Farías studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later took art classes in Paris. He subsequently taught art in a variety of educational institutions in Guadalajara, influencing an entire generation of young aspiring artists. Perhaps the most famous of all his students was Raúl Anguiano (1915-2006) one of Mexico’s best-known muralists, who studied art from the age of 12 with Farías at the Regional Museum’s Escuela Libre de Pintura.

In art circles, Farías is primarily known as a landscape painter. His work apparently included some outstanding images of Lake Chapala, which were exhibited north of the border and helped widen the appeal of some of Mexico’s finest scenery. If anyone has photos of any of his Lake Chapala paintings and is willing to share them, then please get in touch!

Ixca Farías is best known in Guadalajara as one of the two co-founders (alongside Jorge Enciso who also painted Lake Chapala) of the city’s Regional Museum. The museum opened its doors in 1918 and Farías was its director for almost thirty years, until his death in 1947.

As an author, Farías’s most useful work from our perspective is his Biografía de pintores jaliscienses, 1882-1940 (1939) in which he sketched the influences and careers of artists who worked in Jalisco. Several of these painters, muralists and sculptors were closely associated with Lake Chapala, including José Guadalupe Zuno and José Othón de Aguinaga.

Farías also wrote El cultivo del dibujo en la escuela primaria de Guadalajara (1923) and Artes populares (1938). A selection of his newspaper articles was collected posthumously and republished as Casos y cosas de mis tiempos: artículos costumbristas sobre Guadalajara (1963).

Farías’s newspaper article “Casos y cosas de mis tiempos: Chapala” was first published in El Informador in 1937. It is by-lined December 1936 at “Villa Perico, Chapala”. If anyone knows where this building was, and whether or not it still exists, please get in touch!

In the piece, Farías recalled that his first visit to Lake Chapala was in the 1880s, when he traveled to Chapala on horseback in the company of Manuel Rivera Basauri, owner of Hacienda de la Concepción, and of brothers Modesto and Gonzalo Ancira, owners of a lithography business in Guadalajara.

At that time the beach in Chapala had piles of wood stacked up to refuel the Ramón Corona steamboat which traveled regularly between Ocotlán and Chapala, and occasionally other ports of call. (That boat sank in 1889, so we know for sure which decade is being described.)

Looking back on these early visits, Farías wrote, disparagingly, in 1936 that,

“The Chapala of that time was very different to the Chapala of today, because it has lost its natural charm and become a grotesque copy of a gringo spa. The Chapala of that time did not have the plague of hyacinths and of “beer gardens”, the first with their vermin and the second with their drunks.” (My translation)

In the same newspaper, El Informador, but much more recently, José Manuel Gómez Vázquez Aldana claims that Farías was at the forefront of a movement to drain Lake Chapala during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río in the late 1930s. This is hard to reconcile with Farías’s obvious love of the lake, at least of the lake as he first saw it in his youth.

Sources

  • Ixca Farías. 1937. “Casos y cosas de mis tiempos: Chapala”, El Informador, 17 January 1937, 6, 12; reprinted in Informador 22 December 1963, 2, 12.
  • Ixca Farías. 1939. Biografia de pintores Jaliscienses, 1882-1940. Guadalajara: Ricardo Delgado.
  • José Manuel Gómez Vázquez Aldana. 2008. “Chapala: Patrimonio de la Humanidad nacional”, El Informador, 27 July 2008.

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 082018
 

In a previous post, we offered an outline biography of Canadian writer Ross Parmenter, who first visited Mexico in 1946 and subsequently wrote several books related to Mexico.

One of these book, Stages in a Journey (1983), includes accounts of two trips from Chapala to Ajijic – the first by car, the second by boat – made on two consecutive days in March 1946. The following extracts come from chapter 3 of Stages in a Journey:

The author was traveling with Miss Thyrza Cohen (“T”), a spirited, retired school teacher who owned “Aggie”, their vehicle. They met up with Miss Nadeyne Montgomery (aka The General), who lived in Guadalajara; Mrs Kay Beyer, who lived in Chapala; and two tourists: Mrs. Lola Kirkland and her traveling companion, Mary Alice Naden.

On 22 March 1946, the party returned to Ajijic, this time by boat, to collect a hat left the day before at Neill James‘ home. They collected the hat, walked around the village, and then returned to the pier to set off back to Chapala. Part way back,

as Colombina rounded a point we saw a little fishing settlement in the bay beyond. We asked the boatman if he could take us near the shore for a closer look. Without a word, he turned the prow towards the land.

Near the water’s edge there were many small willows, with feathery showers of foliage and contorted trunks. Fishing nets, stretched to dry on posts, made diaphanous tents a little way back. A man was standing knee-deep in the water casting a circular net. And as we drew closer we saw other men were drawing water to irrigate the fields.

– – –

The water near the shore was shallow, but the fishermen had created artificial spits of land by setting out stones that made little walls to separate fishing areas. By bringing the bow to one of these the boatman apparently thought it would be possible for the women to cross to land without getting their feet wet. But a rasping sound before we reached the stones showed his miscalculation. But the ladies didn’t mind. Thyrza was in her seventies and Mrs. K. in her fifties, but wading was nothing in their young lives. So off came their shoes and stockings and they paddled to shore.

First we watched the fisherman casting his net. Its outer edges were weighted so that the net spread like a disk as it flew through the air. A cord was attached to the center of the net like the stem to the leaf of a waterlily, and as the disk plopped on the water the man let the cord fall slack. When the net had settled, he started to draw it slowly towards him. The cord pulled the net to a peak and one would have thought he was dragging a sack to the shore.

Once the weights were drawn together to close the bottom of the net, he lifted the whole thing up and emptied a slew of minnows into a round basket.

The tiny fish were silver with eyes like black buttons on disks of bright aluminum. Each fresh lot was lively as it was dumped into the basket. But mass activity soon ceased and then a few would flop a bit and some shivered before lying still.

Because of her fondness for fish, T was particularly fascinated by the minnows. Having seen their counterparts dried and piled on fibre mats in the market of Chapala, she asked the fisherman what they were called.

Her question, being in English, was incomprehensible to him. But I could help, because trying to find out about other things had led me to learn that nombre was the word for name..

El nombre?” I asked, pointing to the minnows.

Charales,” the man replied.

One of the reasons T liked our hotel in Chapala so well was because every lunch and dinner it served delicious pescado blanco. The fish were always cooked the same way, presenting a similar flat appearance with the structural outlines obscured by the batter in which they were fried a delicate brown. Having the attention of a man who knew something about the fish of the lake, she asked him if he had any pescado blanco.

He understood and went over to some moist sacking. Lifting back a flap, he exposed some small, but plump fish of conventional shape. T was surprised. Not realizing the hotel split them open to cook them, she had expected a sort of flounder.

Ross Parmenter: Canoa. . . [When the engine failed] I looked back on the shore. Being a short way out, we could see a wider stretch than when we had been right on the land. In addition to the people we had seen close up — the fisherman throwing his net, the woman cooking and the men working the hoist — we could see others on either side. At one little point there were women on their knees washing clothes. In the age-old grace of their activity, they were beautifully grouped and the bright garments they had laundered were lying around drying ¡n the sun. Near the women were brown children playing on a narrow beach and dashing calf-deep into the water from time to time. Further along some fishermen were pushing out one of their high-peaked canoas to fish where the water was deeper.

The animals were picturesque too. At the mouth of the inlet a chestnut horse and a gray burro were drinking, their muzzles almost touching. Different species though they were, they suggested a father and son. A black and white cow had waded right into the water to do her drinking. A few small ducks swam near her, tame as could be. On the shore a piglet rooted around near the woman with the charcoal fire. Some puppies frisked about and chickens were pecking.

Source:

  • Ross Parmenter. 1983. Stages in a Journey. New York: Profile Press.

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

Jan 012018
 

Several Lake Chapala websites boast that the talented and multifaceted American author Norman Kingsley Mailer (1923-2007) is among those writers who found inspiration at the lake. But is their pride in his visits to the area misplaced? Mailer’s biography has been exhaustively documented in dozens of books and there is no doubt he is a great writer. However, this post concentrates on the less savory side of his visits to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. Is he really someone local residents should be proud of?

According to normally reliable sources, Mailer visited the area more than once in the course of his illustrious career. Mailer’s first visit to Lake Chapala was in the late 1940s with his first wife, Beatrice Silverman. Journalist Pete Hamill referred to this visit in his “In Memoriam” piece about Mailer:

“Moulded by Brooklyn and Harvard and the Army (he served as an infantryman in the Philippines in World War 2), he erupted onto the literary scene in 1948 with “The Naked and the Dead”, the first great American novel about the war. For the first time, he had money to travel and hide from his fame. He went to Paris where he succumbed to the spell of Jean Malaquais, the critic and novelist. He went to Lake Chapala, where he did not succumb to the charms of the American expatriates.”

This is presumably the occasion referred to by Michael Hargraves when he wrote dismissively that Mailer “only passed through Ajijic back in the late 1940s to have lunch”.

While Mailer may not have fallen immediately in love with Lake Chapala and its American expatriates, he certainly grew to love Mexico and spent several summers in Mexico City during the 1950s. In July 1953, and now with painter Adele Morales (who became his second wife the following year) in tow, Mailer was renting a “crazy round little house” a short distance outside Mexico City, in the Turf Club (later the Mexico City College). Mailer described the house in a letter that month to close friend Francis Irby Gwaltney :

“At the moment we’re living at a place called the Turf Club which is a couple of miles out of the city limits of Mexico City in a pretty little canyon. We got a weird house. It’s got a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room shaped like a semicircle with half the wall of glass, and a balcony bedroom. It looks out over a beautiful view and is furnished in modern. This is for fifty-five bucks a month.”

In another letter (dated 24 July 1953) from the Turf Club, Mailer was clearly referring to Ajijic when he wrote that “There are towns (Vance was in one) where you can rent a pretty good house for $25 a month and under.” Mailer was referring to novelist Vance Bourjaily, a long-time friend who lived and wrote in Ajijic in 1951.

In October 1953, Mailer was guest speaker at the Mexico City College (then in its Colonia Roma location) at the fall session opening of its Writing Center, along with Broadway producer Lewis Allen. Bourjaily also gave lectures at the Mexico City College.

Norman Mailer book cover

Norman Mailer book cover

By a not-entirely-surprising coincidence, one of the owners of Turf Club property at that time was John Langley, a former concert violinist living on insurance payouts following a shooting accident that had cost him the index finger of his left hand. During the 1950s, Langley spent most of his time at his lakefront home in Ajijic. (The 1957 Life Magazine article about the village includes a photograph of Langley, at his Ajijic home, relaxing with Jeonora Bartlet, who later became the partner of American artist Richard Reagan). Langley and Mailer definitely knew each other and more than likely shared the odd joint.

Struggling to complete a worthy follow-up novel to The Naked and the Dead, Mailer found that smoking pot gave him a sense of liberation. Biographer Mary V. Dearborn quotes Mailer as writing that, “In Mexico… pot gave me a sense of something new about the time I was convinced I had seen it all”.

She then connects this to Mailer’s cravings for sexual experimentation:

“But it was also bringing out a destructive, event violent side to his nature. Friends have recalled some ugly scenes in Mexico and hinted at sexual adventures that pressed the limits of convention as well as sanity.”

In 1955, Mailer co-founded The Village Voice (the Greenwich Village newspaper in New York on which long-time Lake Chapala literary icon and newspaper editor Allyn Hunt later worked) and in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, Mailer and Adele were back in Mexico, living for some months in Ajijic.

In his obituary column, Hunt described how Mailer “discovered weed when he lived in Greenwich Village” and then “began using marijuana seriously”, before asserting that when Mailer and Adele “landed in Ajijic, their consumption of grass and their sexual games continued.” This is supported by Mack Reynolds, another journalist and author living in Ajijic at about that time. In The Expatriates, Reynolds, who eventually settled in San Miguel de Allende, recounts a more-than-somewhat disturbing story told him by the aforementioned John Langley:

“A prominent young American writer, who produced possibly the best novel to come out of the Second World War, had moved to Ajijic with his wife. His intention was stretching out the some $20,000 he had netted from his best seller for a period of as much as ten years, during which time he expected to produce the Great American Novel. However, he ran into a challenge which greatly intrigued him. Their maid was an extremely pretty mestizo girl whose parents were afraid of her working for gringos. They had heard stories of pretty girls who worked for Americans, especially Americans in the prime of life, and our writer was still in his thirties. Still, the family needed the money she earned and couldn’t resist the job. After the first week or two, the maid revealed to the author’s hedonistically inclined wife that each night when she returned home her parents examined her to discover whether or not she remained a virgin.

To this point the author hadn’t particularly noticed the girl, but now he was piqued. The problem was how to seduce her without discovery and having the authorities put on him by the watchful Mexican parents. He and his wife consulted with friends and over many a rum and coke at long last came up with a solution.

The girl, evidently a nubile, sensuous little thing, which probably accounted for her parents’ fear, was all too willing to participate in any shenanigans, especially after she’d been induced to smoke a cigarette or two well-laced with marijuana. The American author and his wife procured an electrical massage outfit of the type used by the obese to massage extra pounds off their bodies. They then stretched the girl out on a table, nude, and used the device on her until she was brought to orgasm over and over again.”

These brief descriptions of Mailer’s visits to Lake Chapala suggest that websites may like to rethink his inclusion on their list of the great writers inspired by the lake and its friendly communities. Mailer clearly pushed the bounds of friendship well beyond the reasonable. (Perhaps a Mailer biographer reading this can pinpoint precise dates for Mailer’s visits, and suggest some of his more positive contributions to the area?)

Mailer does have at least one additional connection to Ajijic via the Scottish Beat novelist Alexander Trocchi (1925-1984), who worked on his controversial novel Cain’s Book (1960) in Ajijic in the late 1950s. Shortly after its publication, and live on camera in New York, Trocchi shot himself up with heroin during a television debate on drug abuse. Already on bail (for having supplied heroin to a minor), and with a jail term seemingly inevitable, Trocchi was smuggled across the border into Canada by a group of friends (Norman Mailer included), where he took refuge in Montreal with poet Irving Layton.

Mailer’s novels include The Naked and the Dead (1948); Barbary Shore (1951); The Deer Park (1955); An American Dream (1965); Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967); The Executioner’s Song (1979); Of Women and Their Elegance (1980); Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984); Harlot’s Ghost (1991). He also wrote screenplays, short stories, poetry, letters (more than 40,000 in total), non-fiction works and several collections of essays, including The Prisoner of Sex (1971).

Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction with The Armies of the Night (1969) and a Pulitzer for Fiction with his novel The Executioner’s Song (1980).

Sources:

  • Anon. 1953. “Writers hear Mailer speak”, in Mexico City Collegian, Vol 7 #1, p1, 15 October 1953.
  • Mary V. Dearborn. 2001. Mailer: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Pete Hamill. 2007. In Memoriam: Mailer y Norman. (Published, translated into Spanish in Letras Libres, December 2007, pp 42-44.
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A literary survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • Allyn Hunt. 2007. “Norman Mailer, Contentious Author And Provocateur Who Died A Death He’d Have Scoffed At…”, Guadalajara Reporter 23 November 2007
  • J. Michael Lennon (editor) 2014. Selected Letters of Norman Mailer. Random House.
  • Mack Reynolds. 1963. The Expatriates. (Regency Books, 1963)

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

Nov 232017
 

Eduardo A. Gibbon y Cárdenas (full name Eduardo Anacleto Jesus Maria Antonio Gibbon) was born in Mexico City on 13 July 1845 and was a 19th century Mexican art critic, journalist, writer and diplomat. His father was born in England, his mother was Mexican.

As a young man Gibbon was one of the private secretaries of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian (who was Emperor of Mexico from 1864 to 1867).

In the 1870s, he made various contributions to El Artista, a Mexico City-based  “monthly review of literature, science and the aesthetical arts.” After the magazine ceased publication (due to lack of financial support) Gibbon resuscitated the title, with the first of the new series of El Artista appearing in October 1891. By all accounts, this was a well-produced magazine, the first issue of which included a translation of part of Hopkinson Smith’s White Umbrella in Mexico. Gibbon’s main contribution as a writer to the first issue of the new series was “a description of the Luray grottoes of Virginia in sprightly and unhackneyed phrase.”

In 1874, Gibbon was elected a Member of the Mexican Society for Geography and Statistics.

gibbon-title-pageHe wrote several books, including La catedral de México (1874) and Reflexiones sobre arte nacional (1892), and a Spanish translation of Felix Salm-Salm’s memoirs about the final days of Emperor Maximilian. Gibbon also translated Father John S. Vaughan’s work, “Life after Death”. According to the brief obituary of Gibbon in The Sun (published in New York), he was also “the author of various novels”.

While holding a diplomatic position in London, England, in the 1880s, Gibbon took the opportunity to write Nocturnal London, published by S. E. Stanley in 1890. He later also served as a diplomat in the United States.

In 1893, Gibbon published Guadalajara, (La Florencia Mexicana). This is essentially a popular guide to the author’s chosen trilogy of major attractions in Jalisco: Guadalajara, Juanacatlán Falls (the “Niagara of Mexico”) and Lake Chapala. Gibbon’s writing is poetic, verging on the flowery, but despite that many of his descriptions make for interesting reading.

Gibbon’s romantic, poetic prose about his trips to Lake Chapala, in 1893 or earlier, includes one of the earliest detailed accounts of a boat trip on the lake. He also mentions the fact that deposits of petroleum have been located under the lake, and that studies are being undertaken to see if the deposits are large enough to be worth exploiting.

Gibbon stayed in a simple hotel; this was at least five years before the famous Arzapalo hotel opened. The author also described the chalet built on the shore by an Englishman (possibly Septimus Crowe), and clearly recognized the tourist potential of the area. This is how he described the then-village of Chapala:

We entered along a straight and long road, like those that form the main street of every village. The houses were of a single story, with white or colored facades. The doors and windows of wood; the latter without bars or glass, showing that in the honored home of the fisherman, they are safe even without these luxuries. So it is just as easy to enter one of the homes here, through the windows, often obstructed by the pots full of flowers or the large cages of melodious birds, as it is through the doorway. A soporific silence, that in this village of fishermen! So quiet that, at mid-day, only the buzz of the clouds of gnats, and the beating wings of the gulls crossing the sky can be heard.

But the great luminous place was at the end of this street: Lake Chapala. A fishing boat, with its lateen sail, was approaching the port. Apart from that, nothing was in sight on the immense surface of the water, on which the afternoon sun shone, producing lights and shadows like those made by marcasite….

The bells of the poetic parish church that rang on the shores of the lake-sea, brought all the village’s inhabitants to their feet. On the rustic wharf, very close to the hotel, one of those regular-sized vessels, called here canoes, but which are really flat-bottomed launches, was already anchored. The unloading of the domestic merchandise that had been brought for sale, had begun; later these would be sold in the Sunday tianguis, [street market] so common in these villages. With a slight following wind, three canoes came through the small waves, which, with sails slightly filled, came towards the beach. The rowers were working to propel the slow advance of these such primitive vessels, which, in rough waters would tip over very easily, and which only progress in their race when the wind is really strong and favorable….”

Eduardo A. Gibbon, who was unmarried, died at the age of 51 in Mexico City on 19 May 1897 following a lengthy illness.

Note

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Source

  • The Sun (New York, New York), 21 May 1897, p 5.

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