Jun 032021
 

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

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

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

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

Sinclair-Death in the Claimshack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Apr 222021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + +

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

+ + + + +

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

+ + + + +

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

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

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

– “Do any Mexicans still live here?”

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

+ + + + +

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Apr 082021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 252021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgment

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

Sources

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

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

Mar 092021
 

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

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

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

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

Two paragraphs later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Chapala map; all rights reserved

Lake Chapala map; all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The miracle in this story is the miracle of love.

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

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

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

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

Note

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

Acknowledgment

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

Sources

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

Other English-language novels set at Lake Chapala

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

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

Feb 032021
 

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

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

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

Hewitt-Cover-Gilded-Hideaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Jan 212021
 

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

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

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

Charles Betts Waite. ca. 1900. Hotel Arzapalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapala

Cover art by “Magallón”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apology:

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

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

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

Sep 032020
 

Gina Hildreth (who wrote under her maiden name Gina Dessart) and her husband, Phillip, lived in Ajijic in the mid-1960s. Gina wrote at least three suspense novels: A Man Died Here (1947), The Last House (1950) and Cry For The Lost (1959). All three works were published in New York by Harper & Brothers. The first two novels were set in New England, whereas her third novel was set in and around Tucson, Arizona. She also completed a fourth novel, Spiral, in about 1970. It is unclear if this was ever published.

Gina Hildreth. Credit: John Lee (Ajijic-Artists of 50 years ago)

Gina Hildreth. Credit: John Lee (Ajijic-Artists of 50 years ago)

Gina Hildreth also wrote a stage play – By any other name, a comedy in three acts (1948) – and had a short story, “Counterpoint”, published in the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine issue of November 1965. She also had stories published in The Literary Review, New Mexico Quarterly, Arizona Quarterly and The Virginia Quarterly.

Gina Dessart Hildreth (born Georgine Belle Dessart in Chicago, Illinois, on 16 March 1912) died in Nyack, New York, on 1 April 1979. Her husband, Phillip Nelson Hildreth, was born in East Hampton, New York, on 8 November 1898 and died in Guadalajara on 11 June 1968.

Gina Hildreth had grown up in New York and Europe, and gained a Masters degree in English, prior to marrying Phillip. Phillip had two failed marriages behind him. The first, when he was living in Manhattan and working in advertising, was to Lila Samantha Loper (1887–1958), a divorcee and mother of three. Phillip had a daughter with his second wife, Hilda Stone Tuzo (1902-1976), but that union did not last long. Phillip married Gina Dessart in about 1935. Five years later, the couple were still living in New York where they both gave their occupation in 1940 as working in “screen printing” for “display advertisements.”

In 1950, Gina and Phillip moved to Tucson, Arizona, following a two month vacation there. Tucson remained their US home for the remainder of their lives. Gina worked in real estate and was quoted in an advertisement in Tucson for Hammond organs in the late 1950s as saying that, “As a writer, a member of a real estate firm and housewife, I lead a busy life. Yet when things begin to overwhelm me, I can always find new stimulation and inspiration at the Hammond.”The precise timing, duration and motives for the couple’s decision to live in Mexico for a time in the mid-1960s—from about 1964 to 1968—are unclear.

Long-time Chapala resident Bill Atkinson recalled that Phillip, while not himself a writer, certainly moved in literary circles and was active in Ajijic social circles. In July 1964, the Guadalajara Reporter told its readers that Phillip Hildreth “hosted a supper for Martha and Volney Hildreth and their children who have taken a house here for the summer.” Six months later, the newspaper described how Philip Hildreth and his wife were in the middle of a 12-week-long competition organized by the “Ajijic chess club,” competing against John Mersereau, Dick Bishop, Larry Hartmus, Lou Wertheimer and Bob Somerlott.

The Hildreths were especially close to Dick (Dickinson) Bishop and his wife, Nina. When Nina passed away, Gina Hildreth penned a moving tribute to her friend, describing how Nina and Dick had moved to Ajijic “scarcely more than three years ago,” and how Nina, “an artist of great talent,” maintained a stable of fine horses.

Gina and Phillip still had a home in Ajijic—at Calle Zaragoza 19—at the time of Phillip’s death in June 1968 in a Guadalajara hospital, at the age of 69.

Gina returned to live in Tucson and was a lecturer in English, teaching creative writing at the University of Arizona in the early and mid-1970s, at the same time that another Ajijic resident, John Lee, taught there.

hildreth-dessart-gina-Ajijic - Artists of 50 Years Ago-3According to a Kirkus review, A Man Died Here (1947) tells the story of the Macklin family’s “attempts to piece out the happenings in the Williams family  when as the new owners of the Williams house, their curiosity is first aroused by the house itself, later by the hints of gossip, hatred, evasion, in the town. Bob and Liz fit together each small fact, each tiny segment of character, and write finis to a story of bondage, cruelty, dishonesty, lifting the shadow from the house.”

In The Last House (1950), according to one reviewer, a Connecticut gal “gets herself shot in village kitchen. Suspicion falls on various neighbors, male and female.” The reviewer, William C. Weber found the book to be an “absorbing and capitally written mystery-suspense tale with interesting psychological overtones.”

A review of Cry for the Lost describes it as “a murder story that poses no problem of who committed the crime. The interest and excitement in this suspense story lies in following the effect of the murder upon the characters and lives of the people who had been closely associated with the man who is killed. Miss Dessart reveals with considerable understanding and a searching sympathy the inner probings that torment both the guilty and the innocent when faced with the bitter knowledge that one among them has been driven to taking a human life.”

Note: this is an updated and expanded version of a post first published on 3 November 2014.

Sources:

  • Arizona Daily Star (Tucson): June 8, 1958, 18.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 1 Jul 1964; 10 Dec 1964; 14 Jan 1965; 23 Sep 1965.
  • Mecheline Keating, “Cry for the Lost – review”, Tucson Daily Citizen, 3 October 1959, p 13.
  • William C. Weber, “The Last House, by Gina Dessart” in Tucson Daily Citizen, August 28, 1950, p 12.
Nov 282019
 

William Bentz Plagemann was a prolific American author, who was born in Springield, Ohio, in 1913 and died in New York in 1991. He wrote both fiction and non-fiction and his career as an author spanned half a century from 1941 to 1990.

Plagemann spent a year in Mexico in the mid-1960s, shortly before writing a young adult novel The heart of silence, published by William Morrow & Company in 1967. Ajijic and Chapala are mentioned in the novel which also refers to the Hotel Nido (a popular hotel in Chapala from 1930 to 1994). Plagemann takes some poetic license in the book by giving the Hotel Nido some “cottages.”

Cover of a Plagemann book

Cover of a Plagemann book

Plagemann was educated in Cleveland and worked as a bookseller prior to the outbreak of the second world war. He graduated from the U.S. Navy Hospital School in 1942 and served as a pharmacist’s mate. In 1944 he contracted polio while serving in the Mediterranean, an experience that was the basis for My Place to Stand, an account of his recovery. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1945. Much of his early writing was based on his experiences in the U.S. Navy during the second world war.

Plagemann’s published works include: William Walter (1941); All for the best (1946); Into the labyrinth (1948); Each night a black desire (1949); My Place to Stand (1949); This Is Goggle: Or The Education of a Father (1955); The steel cocoon (1958); Half the Fun (1961); Father to the man (1964); The Best is Yet to Be (1966); A World of Difference (1969); How to write a story (1971); The boxwood maze (1972); Wolfe’s cloister (1974); An American Past (1990).

Plagemann also published a story entitled “The Child’s Garden of Mexico”

An extensive collection of papers and documents relating to Plagemann is held at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

Sources

  • New York Times. 1991. “William Bentz Plagemann, Writer, 77” (obituary). New York Times, 13 Feb 1991.
  • Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. “Plagemann, Bentz (1913-1991)”.

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.

May 092019
 

Leonora Baccante had published two novels prior to living in Ajijic in the 1950s, at the same time as Eileen and Robert (Bob) Bassing.

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Baccante’s novels are not set in Ajijic, but Baccante herself was the basis for the character of novelist Victoria Beacon, the central character in Eileen Bassing‘s novel, Where’s Annie?

Little is known about Baccante, who is reported to have hated publicity, children and pets.

According to a short profile of her by Selma Robinson in the New York Evening Post (7 March 1931),  “Mrs Baccante,” who was born in London, England, “has lived for the past few years in New York, part of the time in Woodstock, part of the time with her sister in Manhattan.” Robinson added that even Baccante’s publishers “know nothing about her. She is a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who looks Latin, although her Italian name is hers only by marriage.” Baccante was born in about 1905.

A 1928 Kingston, New York, newspaper account describes Baccante as a “former New York World staff writer” (The New York World ceased publication three years later.)

Baccante’s two novels are

  • Johnny Bogan: A Realistic Novel Of Violent Young Love (New York: Vanguard, 1931) and
  • Women Must Love (New York: Vanguard, 1932).

Baccante-JohnnyBoganJohnny Brogan is set in a small town and is a character study and love story rolled into one. The striking cover art by Puerto Rican artist Raphael Desoto shows a young brunette undressing in front of a handsome guy in a bedroom. The novel is about a ladies’ man Johnny Brogan, the son of a murderer, who falls in love with Cathy Willis, a girl who initiated their relationship at school. According to Baccante’s friends, the character of Cathy is autobiographical.

A short piece by Baccante, “Can’t we be Friends?”, with illustrations by Ty Mahon, was published in the October 1931 issue of the College Humor magazine. Baccante also wrote an unpublished play, Making the man; a play in 3 acts, recorded as written in 1929 when she was living in New York City.

Baccante renewed the copyrights of her two novels in 1958 and 1960 respectively.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published in 2014.

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

Apr 182019
 

Novelist Joan Van Every Frost, born 28 Feb 1929 in Los Angeles, California, lived in Jocotepec from 1966 to 2012. She died at age 83 on 6 June 2012 in Santa Barbara, California. Her father, Dale Van Every, was a famous writer and screenwriter most active in the 1920s and 1930s.

Joan gained an undergraduate degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1951 and a librarian certificate from the University of California at Berkeley. She served as a librarian after the second world war on US military bases in France and Germany, and was later the Head Librarian of the Santa Monica Public Library for several years.

Joan Van Every (then 35) married artist and photographer John Frost (41) on 26 September 1964 in San Bernadino, California. In 1966, the couple relocated to Mexico, living for a short time in Uruapan in Michoacán, before establishing their permanent home and John’s photographic studio in Jocotepec on Lake Chapala. John maintained his commercial photography studio (specializing in aerial photography) in their home for more than 40 years.

Prior to finding their home in the village, the couple spent 6 weeks at the historic La Quinta inn in Jocotepec. Sadly, La Quinta, which had been an inn ever since 1824 and was one of a small number of truly historic buildings in the town, was wantonly destroyed in the 1990s.

frost-joan-ca-2008
Joan was an indefatigable supporter of numerous charitable organizations at Lakeside, including the pioneering Centro de Salud in Jocotepec, the Lakeside School for the Deaf. For many years, she helped coordinate medical consultations and surgeries for Chapala-area children via the Shriners organization. Joan  was also the co-founder in the 1970s of Amigos de Salud (which in 1993 became the Programa Pro Niños Incapacitados del Lago), and was a co-founder of the Lakeside region’s major annual fund-raising event: the Ajijic Chili Cook-off.

Using her married name of Joan Van Every Frost, Joan wrote six novels, several of them set in Mexico.

frost-joan-van-every-covers
Her first novel, This Fiery Promise (Leisure Books, 1978), dedicated to Tam, is a historical romance set at the start of the Mexican Revolution. It tells the fiery adventures of a horse-loving American girl who marries a rich, much older Mexican hacienda-owner. Their lives become entangled in the Revolution, and she eventually flees by joining a circus. The novel covers lots of territory from Santa Barbara (California) to Nayarit, Guadalajara, Colima and the port of Manzanillo.

Lisa (New York: Leisure Books, 1979) is dedicated “For John, with all my love”. This historical romance, set in 1880s Britain, unravels the complex relationships of a dysfunctional family, in the midst of scenes involving horses, fires, medical doctors, and class differences.

Her third novel includes scenes set in Guadalajara and at Lake Chapala. A Masque of Chameleons (Fawcett 1981) looks at the adventures and misadventures befalling a troupe of traveling actors in mid-nineteenth century Mexico. The theater troupe withstands lots of internal intrigue and external pressures as it tours Mexico, from Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City and Cuernavaca to Morelia, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara and Lake Chapala. This novel displays a sound background knowledge of Mexican history and is engagingly written.

This is how Frost first describes the troupe’s arrival at Lake Chapala: “They finally came to a large body of water that stretched as far as they could see to the west, like an inland sea the color of a silver coin. Across the lake were green, brush-covered mountains, ancient dead volcanoes that had thrust themselves up when the world was still young to form this pocket cradling the endless lake.” ( p 228)

In Kings of the Sea (Fawcett, 1982), the publisher’s blurb claims that Gideon Hand is determined to endure all hardships as he struggles to forge a shipbuilding dynasty and to possess the woman he loves but cannot marry. Genius and passion hold sway in this sweeping saga of a shipbuilding dynasty.

Frost’s fifth novel, Portrait in Black (Fawcett 1985) has a Santa Barbara portrait painter Crystal Perry as its main protagonist. Perry not only paints portraits of Santa Barbara’s upper crust, but also paints horses, and she is quickly dragged into a web of extortion and murder.

Silvershine (Fawcett 1987) is set in Mexico, and looks at the drugs scene in the glittering Los Dorados hotel in Manzanillo, where swimwear designer Blaise Cory has opened a new boutique. A minor part of the action is set in Oaxaca (at Mitla). This is a tale of smuggling, money and corruption. The Los Dorados hotel is clearly based on Manzanillo’s famed Las Hadas hotel complex.

All of Joan Van Every Frost’s novels are well-crafted, and enjoyable light reading. While long out-of-print, copies are readily available via used books sites such as http://abebooks.com.

Joan was an active correspondent for the Guadalajara Reporter for many years. She wrote her first column for the paper in August 1975 and ended a column the following year by writing that, “There may be many irritations to living in a foreign country, but they dwindle to insignificance when we can revel in golden days, sunsets blazing red on towering thunderheads, and the comforting splash of rain as we lie warm in our beds at night.”

This profile was originally published on 22 December 2014.

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

Dec 272018
 

According to American writer Oakley Hall, the novelist Christopher Veiel (born in 1925) was living at Lake Chapala at the same time he was in 1952. A New York Times reviewer described Veiel as looking “a little like a British F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

veiel-hearts-and-heads-coverIt is not known what Veiel was working on, if anything, during his time in Mexico, but his first (and apparently only) novel was published two years later, in 1954, in the U.K. as Intrigue (London: H. Hamilton), and in the U.S. as Hearts and Heads (Boston, U.S.: Little, Brown and Company).

Michael Hargraves says that at the time of its publication Veiel was living in Connecticut, having settled there after some extensive traveling.

Veiel was also the translator (from French) of Francois Clement’s book, The Disobedient Son (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956) in which “Juan, an ignorant but proud and ambitious Indian, learns the ways of power in Veracruz and Mexico City, and returns to his village to lead the fight against those attempting to become the village bosses.”

The Kirkus Review of Hearts and Heads, describes it as “A frivolous entertainment” and “saucy and skittish”. The novel “follows the emotional escapades of Edward Wallingford and Constance, his young wife, as their first months of marriage take them to Geneva where Edward does not find with Constance the sexual incentive he has had with other girls… Constance, on the other hand, while appreciative that Edward is “such a rock” finds something softer in Pierre – the brother of the housekeeper of their neighbor Carlos, and now their chauffeur. Constance decides to marry Pierre but postponing the admission to Edward, the three leave for England where Pierre, in a moment of petulant pride, bares the past and turns on Edward – with a poker. Edward almost dies, and both Constance and Pierre are tried but cleared when Edward comes to their defense…”

“A. Christopher Veiel” (it is unclear what name the initial A stood for) was born in Switzerland and educated at Chillon College and the University of Geneva. He became a teacher of French, German and Latin and retained his Swiss passport after moving to the U.S. in about 1949 to work at Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut.

Choate alumni, according to Wikipedia, include President John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, playwright Edward Albee, novelist John Dos Passos, investor Brett Icahn, philanthropist Paul Mellon, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, actors Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Paul Giamatti, and businesswoman Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 7 July 2014.

Sources

  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • New York Times, 24 July 1955, 89.

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.

Nov 292018
 

Dorothy Garlock (1919-2018), the best-selling American author of romantic novels, used Lake Chapala as a setting for parts of Amber-eyed Man, first published in 1982.

Garlock, who also used the pen names Johanna Phillips, Dorothy Phillips and Dorothy Glenn, wrote more than 50 novels in total. She was born in Grand Saline, Texas, on 22 June 1919 and died in Clear Lake, Iowa, on 6 April 2018.

It is unclear how much personal knowledge the author had of Chapala but she had the reputation throughout her writing career of being a meticulous fact checker.

In Amber-eyed Man, originally written under the nom de plume Johanna Phillips, “When chance forces Meredith Moore to seek refuge at Ward Sanderson’s Mexican estate, she thinks the worst is behind her. But her host, magnetic and mysterious, is alternately cold, then kind. Winning the trust of Ward’s small daughter and invalid bother, Meredith discovers the warmth that she, a foster child, never knew. Yet is it Ward’s love she craves, and the passion smoldering in the depths of his amber eyes …”

Early in the novel, Ward explains to his young daughter that, “There’s an American colony in Chapala. They bring in American movies occasionally.” His right-hand man, Luis Calderón, later asks Meredith if “Perhaps you would be interested in joining me to see the surrounding countryside. Lake Chapala is very beautiful, you know.”

Subsequently it emerges that “the estate there at Chapala was a lettuce ranch that employed a large number of people.” This sounds like pure invention; I have never come across any other reference to a lettuce farm in the Lake Chapala area, certainly not one large enough to employ a large number of workers.

Returning to the novel, Ward was immensely wealthy and “divided his time between the Rancho de Margarieta (sic!), the lettuce ranch at Chapala, Tulsa, and the plant in Guadalajara.” The latter is an electronics plant. Bearing in mind that the book was written in 1982, this signaled the start of the Guadalajara region’s reputation as Mexico’s Silicon Valley.

Much later in the story, Ward and Meredith returned to “the hacienda in Chapala.”

In combination with a second novel – The Planting Season (1984) – Amber-eyed Man was reprinted in 2008 as Promisegivers.

Garlock’s books were incredibly popular. Translated into 18 languages, she sold an estimated 20 million print copies in total. Seven of her books made the New York Times best seller list and Garlock was named one of the ten most popular writers of women’s fiction for four consecutive years from 1985 to 1988.

Like Barbara Bickmore, Garlock did not set out to have a writing career at a young age. She worked as a reporter and bookkeeper for the Clear Lake Mirror Reporter for 14 years and only began her writing career when she and her husband traveled to the southern U.S. in 1976 to escape the northern winter.

She later recalled that she became so bored on the trip that she bought a second-hand manual typewriter for $50 and drafted an entire book before she returned home. She had completed three more before entering one in a local contest. She won the contest, after which one of the judges, an agent, sold the rights to it and her other completed manuscripts to a New York publisher. Garlock never looked back.

Garlock’s books include: Love and Cherish (1980); The Searching Hearts (1982); Glorious Dawn (1982); A Love for All Time (1983); Homeplace (1991); A Gentle Giving (1993); Tenderness (1993); Forever Victoria (1993); She Wanted Red Velvet (1996); This Loving Land (1996); More Than Memory (2001); Train from Marietta (2006); On Tall Pine Lake (2007); Will You Still Be Mine? (2007); The moon looked down (2009).

Sources

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 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.

Dec 112017
 

English novelist and playwright Raymond “Ray” Rigby was born in Rochford, England, in 1916 and died in Guadalajara aged 78 on 19 May 1995.

Ray Rigby, ca 1970

Ray Rigby, ca 1970

In 1972, Rigby turned his back on a successful Hollywood career to move to Mexico. He lived initially in Jocotepec and for a short time in San Antonio Tlayacapan. He married María Cristina Quintero in Guadalajara in 1975. The couple lived  in Jocotepec for several years before moving to the outskirts of Guadalajara in about 1980.

Rigby, who claimed to be a descendant of Saint John Rigby, one of 40 English martyrs canonized in 1970, had a troubled early life, doted on by his mother but abandoned by his father. It led to him finding it a challenge to form lasting partnerships, as evidenced by his five marriages, the last of which was by far the most successful. Rigby had five daughters, all born prior to his move to Mexico.

During the second world war, Rigby served as a private with the British Eighth Army in North Africa, but got into trouble due to various nefarious activities, and spent two spells in British field punishment centers. His experiences there would later form the basis for his award-winning novel The Hill, which he later turned into the famous anti-war movie of that name starring Sean Connery.

Rigby’s writing career began in 1948, when he began to write for television series, documentaries, radio and theatre. His greatest success came in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was employed as a screenwriter by MGM, 7 Arts, Warner Brothers, David Wolper Productions, Nat Cohen, 20th Century Fox, John Kohn Productions and Associated British Productions.

The screenplays and adaptations for numerous TV series and movies that Rigby worked on included: The End Begins (1956); Shut Out the Night (1958); Armchair Mystery Theatre (1960); The Avengers (1961); The Night of the Apes (1961); Operation Crossbow (1965) and his own masterpiece, The Hill (1965).

The-Hill-1965

The Hill won the 1966 BAFTA Film Award for Best British Screenplay, the 1965 Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and the 1966 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for the Best British Dramatic Screenplay. It was translated into 13 languages and enjoyed a resurgence of interest following the break-up of the former Soviet Union.

jacksons-peaceRigby’s novels, several of which are largely autobiographical, were The Hill (1965); Where Have All The Soldiers Gone? (1966); Jackson’s War (1967); Jackson’s Peace (1974); Jackson’s England (1979); and Hill Of Sand (1981) (written as a sequel to The Hill).

As can be seen from their publication dates, several of these novels were completed after Rigby moved to Mexico.

Rigby was always positive and cheerful and led a very disciplined life. He would “exercise” by walking round and round the small patio of his home on the outskirts of Guadalajara every morning for at least an hour, a habit possibly instilled during his spells in detention. He also had specific times set aside for writing and for socializing. He loved cooking and would watch and re-watch classic old Mexican movies. At the same time, he was one of the most gracious hosts imaginable, with a never-ending treasure chest of amazing experiences and stories. I first met him in about 1987 and we quickly became good friends. Indeed, it was Rigby who urged me to start writing and who provided moral support during my first struggling attempts, provided I visited him at a time when he wasn’t exercising or writing.

Rigby was a born raconteur, with keen street-smarts and a ready wit. Author Alex Grattan was not exaggerating when he described Ray in a memorial piece as a “world class wit and a fabulous story teller”.

While living in Jocotepec, Rigby had numerous run-ins with the local postmaster who was apparently accustomed at that time to check all incoming mail personally for any cash or valuables.

In 1973, Rigby and Wendell Phillips of Ajijic sold their joint script Ringer, written at Lakeside, to Universal Studios for a 90-minute pilot TV film. The two authors traveled to Hollywood to make the sale. This is almost certainly the last direct contact Rigby had with Hollywood.

Ray Rigby died in Guadalajara in 1995; his papers are in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

Note:

This post was first published in April 2015 and was revised in 2018. I owe a massive personal debt to Ray for having encouraged me to begin writing non-fiction articles about Mexico. Without his initial enthusiasm, none of my books (or this series of posts about artists and writers associated with Lake Chapala) would ever have seen the light of day.

Sources:

  • Alex Gratton. Remembering Ray Rigby, El Ojo del Lago, July 1995
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 16 Dec 1978, 23.
  • Informador 6 August 1982, p 20-C

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.

Oct 052017
 

Author, playwright and lecturer Vance Bourjaily (1922-2010) lived in Ajijic during the summer of 1951.

Bourjaily was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 17 September 1922. Writing was in his blood: his father was a journalist and his mother wrote feature articles and romance novels.  By the time he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1947, he had already been commissioned to write a novel about a young man coping with the experiences of war. This first novel, The End of My Life (1947), established Bourjaily’s reputation as a fine writer. Bourjaily’s later novels explored other great American themes, though none of them garnered the same degree of praise as his debut novel.

Owing to the unauthorized and uncredited use of material from this post on a third-party website, the remainder of this article has been removed from public view.

If you have a genuine interest in the subject matter, please contact us via the comments section and we can discuss terms and conditions.

Vance Bourjaily in the 1960s. Credit: patricktreardon.com

Vance Bourjaily in the 1960s. Credit: patricktreardon.com

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.

Sep 212017
 

Jack Vance was a successful mystery, fantasy and science fiction author who wrote more than a dozen books and also wrote TV screenplays.

He and his wife Norma spent several months in Mexico traveling with Frank Herbert (author of Dune) and his wife Beverly and their two young sons in the second half of 1953.

Vance had met the then less successful Herbert a year earlier in California, and the two had become friends and writing companions, sometimes working on joint projects. They decided to visit Mexico in search of new experiences and stimulation. The Vance-Herbert friendship was the start of one of the greatest literary bromances related to Lake Chapala.

Many aspects of the families’ joint trip to Mexico in the Vances’ new blue Jeep station wagon are endearingly told by Herbert’s elder son, Brian, in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert.

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

Vance and his wife Norma bought a new blue Jeep station wagon for the trip and the families shared driving, expenses and domestic tasks. After stopping briefly at a roadside monument marking the Tropic of Cancer, Norma accidentally left her purse on the car as they drove away. By the time they made a quick U-turn to recover the purse, which contained Jack’s favorite fountain pen (Vance was accustomed to writing long-hand whereas Herbert used a typewriter), it had been run over by another vehicle and the pen squashed.

A few days later they reached Chapala and rented a large house in the village. Brian Herbert describes the lake and surrounding farmland before writing that,

“A fishing and artists’ colony, Chapala was much favored by tourists, especially Americans. The town, while small, boasted one of the world’s great beer gardens – a large tavern by the lake that had outdoor seating under a shady, striped canvas roof. On hot days, my parents and the Vances could be found there, cooling themselves in the shade. Sunsets on the lake were spectacular.”

The “two-story adobe and white stucco house, which had been converted to a duplex” rental property was on the hillside a block from the lake. Strict silence was enforced during the mid-morning to mid-afternoon “writing hours”, so that both men could concentrate on developing plots and characters.

While the writers did cooperate on some “joint ventures” while in Chapala, they each also wrote short stories, hoping to sell some to magazines north of the border and thereby extend their stay in Mexico.

According to San Francisco book and art dealer Tim Underwood who edited a work about Vance, the origins of his futuristic novel To Live Forever (1956) date back to 1953 at Lake Chapala:

“One night Frank and Jack tossed around an idea for a novel and afterward flipped a coin to see who would write it. Jack won the toss and the book became To Live Forever.” 

It should be noted that To Live Forever was Betty Ballantine’s choice for the title, not the author’s. Well received by critics, it was later renamed Clarges.

After two months in Chapala, with funds running low, the Vances and Herberts decided to move to the larger, lower-cost city of Ciudad Guzmán in southern Jalisco. After about a month in Ciudad Guzmán, with funds running low, the group returned to the U.S. and then shared the Vances’ farmhouse in Kenwood, California, for several weeks.

John Holbrook Vance was born in San Francisco on 28 August 1916 and died in Oakland on 26 May 2013. He wrote more than 60 books. In addition to work published under “Jack Vance”, he published 11 mystery stories as John Holbrook Vance and 3 as Ellery Queen as well as single titles using various different pen names, including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John van See and Jay Kavanse.

Vance, educated at the University of California Berkeley, held a variety of jobs prior to serving in the Merchant Marine and becoming an established writer.

Described by Carlo Rotella (in a 2009 profile for the New York Times Magazine) as “one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices”, Vance won numerous awards, including the Edgar Award (1960), the Hugo Award (1963, 1967), the Nebula Award (1966), the Jupiter Award (1975), the Achievement Award (1984), the Gilgam’s Award (1988), the World Fantasy Award (1990) and the Grand Master Award (1997).

Sources:

  • Brian Herbert. 2003. Dreamer of Dune: the biography of Frank Herbert. (New York: Tom Doherty Associates).
  • Erik Jorgensen. 2014. “‘The Spice’ Flows From Santa Rosa“, Oak Leaf (SRJC’s Student Newspaper), 8 December 2014.
  • Carlo Rotella. 2009. “The Genre Artist“, The New York Times Magazine, 15 July 2009.
  • Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds). 1980. Jack Vance. (Taplinger Publishing Company).
  • Jack Vance. 2009. This Is Me, Jack Vance! Or, More Properly, This Is “I” (Subterranean Press).
  • David B Williams. “Vance Museum – Miscellany – Biographical Sketch“.

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.

 

Sep 042017
 

Near the start of his writing career, an impecunious Frank Herbert, the genius behind the epic science fiction novel Dune, lived in the town of Chapala for several months. It was September 1953 and Herbert was 32 years old and struggling to make a living as a writer.

Herbert would not have been in Chapala at all had he not met fantasy writer Jack Vance for the first time a year earlier. The two men were about the same age, but Vance was already a successful writer known for his science fiction “pulps” and was making decent money writing scripts for Captain Video, a popular TV show. Herbert was a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, had not yet found much success as a writer, and was struggling to pay the family bills.

As the two men got to know each other they talked of joint writing projects and of the two families traveling together to Mexico in search of new experiences and stimulation for their work.

This joint trip to Mexico, endearingly told by Herbert’s elder son, Brian, in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, was the start of one of the greatest literary bromances related to Lake Chapala. Brian was only six years old at the time so much of what he writes is presumably based on notes written by his father and recollections shared by his mother, Beverly.

Vance and his wife Norma bought a new blue Jeep station wagon for the trip and the families shared driving, expenses and domestic tasks. After stopping briefly at a roadside monument marking the Tropic of Cancer, Norma accidentally left her purse on the car as they drove away. By the time they made a quick U-turn to recover the purse, which contained Jack’s favorite fountain pen (Vance was accustomed to writing long-hand whereas Herbert used a typewriter), it had been run over by another vehicle and the pen squashed.

A few days later they reached Chapala and rented a large house in the village. Brian Herbert describes the lake and surrounding farmland before writing that,

“A fishing and artists’ colony, Chapala was much favored by tourists, especially Americans. The town, while small, boasted one of the world’s great beer gardens – a large tavern by the lake that had outdoor seating under a shady, striped canvas roof. On hot days, my parents and the Vances could be found there, cooling themselves in the shade. Sunsets on the lake were spectacular.”

The “two-story adobe and white stucco house, which had been converted to a duplex” rental property was on the hillside a block from the lake. Strict silence was enforced during the mid-morning to mid-afternoon “writing hours”, so that both men could concentrate on developing plots and characters.

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance.

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance (used in Jorgensen 2014 by courtesy of Jack Vance estate)

While the writers did cooperate on some “joint ventures” while in Chapala, each of them also wrote short stories, hoping to sell some to magazines north of the border and thereby extend their stay in Mexico. Herbert was also working on a psychological thriller set in a submarine, serialized in Astounding magazine as “Under Pressure”, and later turned into the book The Dragon in the Sea (1956).

Herbert also completed a humorous short piece entitled “Life with Animalitos”, submitted to Reader’s Digest but never published.

After two months in Chapala, with funds running low, the Vances and Herberts decided to move to the larger, lower-cost city of Ciudad Guzmán in southern Jalisco. Shortly after arriving in the city, Herbert was invited to the home of a retired Mexican Army general. When sweet cookies were brought round, Herbert hungrily consumed two before discovering they were laced “with the most expensive North African hashish in the world” and experiencing hallucinations.

This was the initial experience that gave Herbert the idea for melange, the fictional spice found only on the planet Dune that was “the most important substance in the universe”. According to Herbert’s son, “Paul Atreides’s experiences with that drug [in the novel] mirror the author’s personal experiences.”

After about a month in Ciudad Guzmán, and almost out of funds, the group returned to the U.S. and then shared the Vances’ farmhouse in Kenwood, California, for several weeks.

Herbert eventually found his financial footing, in part by writing speeches for Republican senator Guy Cordon. In 1959 he began work on Dune (published as a hardback in 1965) which opened all kinds of literary doors and enabled him to achieve the success he had previously only dreamed about.

Dune, one of the most popular science fiction novels ever written, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965 and was the first major ecological science fiction novel. The movie version of Dune in 1984, screenplay by David Lynch, was shot entirely in Mexico: at Churubusco Studios, Mexico City;  Samalayuca sand dunes in Chihuahua; and at Puerto Peñasco  and the nearby El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar in Sonora.

Many elements from Dune – including warring noble houses, “aura” spice and “moisture farming” – are evident in the later Star Wars movies. Herbert was the first to recognize this and formed, with a number of like-minded colleagues a lighthearted club called the “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society”.

Herbert wrote more than twenty other novels, including The Green Brain (1966), The Santaroga Barrier (1968), Hellstrom’s Hive (1973), The Dosadi Experiment(1977) and The White Plague (1982).

Science fiction fans everywhere should be eternally grateful that Frank Herbert accompanied his friend Jack Vance to Chapala, and that he then ate those two cookies at the General’s house in Ciudad Guzmán.

Frank Patrick Herbert, Jr., was born on 8 October 1920 in Tacoma, Washington, and died on 11 February 1986 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Sources:

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.

 

Aug 032017
 

American novelist Barbara Bickmore was born in Freeport, New York, on 10 June 1927 and died in Anacortes, Washington, on 23 February 2015 at the age of 87. She lived and wrote in Ajijic from 1990 to 1997 and often described these seven years in later interviews as the happiest years of her life.

Bickmore grew up in a middle class family in the New York City suburb of Freeport on Long Island. She wrote her first short story at seven and saw her first Broadway theater play a few years later, beginning a life-long love affair with both literature and theater. At thirteen years of age, while attending Freeport High School, she won second place for oratory for her presentation of “Selections from President Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address”.

She completed an undergraduate degree in drama and then married a fellow teacher, Frank Clapp. Her husband taught in Morris, the town where they lived, in upstate New York and Barbara began to teach English and French at the high school in the nearby town of Laurens. Five years later, in about 1955, Barbara gave up this job in order to stay home and start a family. Three children – Debra, Lisa and Mark – arrived in quick succession. By then the family was living in Irondequoit, a suburb of Rochester, on the edge of Lake Ontario in upstate New York.

Barbara returned to teaching in about 1961, gaining a position teaching American literature and creative writing at Webster High School, a position she held for twelve years. During that time she also directed a musical “even though I have no musical ability whatsoever and can’t even carry a tune”.

After 16 years of marriage, Barbara and Frank Clapp divorced. Not long afterwards, in 1968, Barbara, who continued to live in Rochester, took a sabbatical from Thomas High School in Webster to do her masters degree at the State University of New York at Brockport. She turned down an offer to teach at that university because it paid less than her high school position.

Seeking a change of pace, Bickmore moved with her children to Eugene in Oregon in 1973 to teach writing at the University of Oregon and try her hand at farming. Whatever romantic notions the family had entertained about their life on the land quickly evaporated: “Here we went totally broke after our well dried up and coyotes ate the sheep and our cows proved sterile and even our rabbits didn’t breed.”

Three years later, forced to give up the farm, Bickmore opened a shop for knitting and crochet supplies. The family scraped by for several years but that venture also ended badly, mired in the economic downturn and banking crisis that led to many downtown stores in Eugene being boarded up.

Making things even more difficult for the family, Bickmore’s short-term teaching job at the University of Oregon was not renewed because she lacked a doctorate degree.

In 1985, Bickmore’s elder daughter, Debra, was working in China, teaching English to Chinese doctors at a university in Xian. Debra invited her mother to join her on a six-week trip, during which they got to know a South African couple who were both doctors. Bickmore was enthralled and, even before the trip ended, had started writing a novel about life in South Africa. (She would later write a novel set in China while living in Ajijic, Mexico!)

Back in Eugene, she completed her first novel and submitted it to an agent recommended by one of her former creative writing teachers. The agent was successful; the novel – East of the Sun – was published in 1988, and Bickmore never looked back. Within a few years, her financial future was secure and royalty payments were sufficient to allow her to live the rest of her life however and wherever she chose.

Shortly after the publication of her second novel – The Moon Below (1990), set partly in Australia – Bickmore visited Ajijic where she planned to stay for a couple of months to start writing her third novel: Distant Star (1993), set in China.

She liked the village so much she moved there in September 1990 and it became her home for the next seven years. These seven years were easily the most productive period of Bickmore’s writing career. During her time in Ajijijc, she completed Distant Star and four additional books: The Back of Beyond (1994), set in Australia; Homecoming (1995), set in Houston, Texas, and reissued in 2012 as Oberon; Deep in the Heart (1996); and Beyond the Promise (1997), set in Oregon. Despite writing so many books while living in Ajijic, Bickmore never set any of her books in Mexico.Bickmore also wrote a sequel to East of the Sun, entitled West of the Moon (2003) and a book set in the U.K.: Stairway to the Stars (2007).

Interestingly, Bickmore found far more success with European publishers than with U.S. publishers. Her nine novels were translated into 16 languages and sold in 23 countries. Note that the titles used for translations often differed significantly from the original English language titles. Bickmore lamented the fact that U.S. publishers claimed many of her books were too long and lacked sufficient violence and action. Even so, at least two of her books made the New York Times bestseller lists.

In her later years events conspired to prevent Bickmore from completing her tenth novel. She lost her only son in a traffic accident in 2006, when a truck driver ran a red light, and, later that same year, was sidelined for months after breaking her arm.

Bickmore’s novels are light reading, aimed at a predominantly female audience. Their main characters are invariably women whose socially unconventional behavior enables them to overcome challenging situations while proving their humanity.

After she had become a successful novelist, Bickmore liked to tell interviewers that they were not interviewing her but Cinderella because from the time she had started to write she had lived a fairy tale existence. Ajijic’s very own Cinderella!

Sources:

  • Barbara Bickmore. Website.
  • Barbara Bickmore. 1992. “They Changed My Life”. Ojo del Lago (Chapala), July 1992.
  • The Nassau Daily Review-Star (Nassau County [Freeport], New York), 21 Feb 1941
  • Eugene Register-Guard. 2015. Barbara Bickmore Obituary. Eugene Register-Guard, 28 February 2015.

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

Jul 202017
 

Novelist Oakley Hall was a professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, and directed its creative writing program.

Hall and his wife Barbara Edinger Hall, a photographer, lived at Lake Chapala for about six months in 1952, during which time, according to Michael Hargraves in A literary Survey of Lake Chapala, Hall was working on his third novel, Corpus of Joe Bailey, published by Viking in New York the following year. Hall visited Mexico several times over the years and more than one of his novels is set in Mexico.

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

Oakley Maxwell Hall was born on 1 July 1920 in La Jolla (near San Diego), and died in Nevada City, California, on 12 May 2008.

After his parents divorced, Hall lived with his mother in Honolulu, Hawaii, but later returned to California to complete his high school education at San Diego’s Hoover High School. Hall then attended the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating from Berkeley in 1943, he served in the Marines during the second world war.

He married Barbara Edinger in 1944. The couple moved to New York so that Hall could study writing at Columbia University but Hall left as soon as he sold his first novel, Murder City, which he claimed to have written in only two weeks. They then spent 18 months in Europe where Hall studied in England, Switzerland, and at the University of Paris, aided by the G.I. Bill. In 1950 he earned a Masters degree in Fine Arts (creative writing) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Hargraves writes that Hall was at Lake Chapala for six months in 1952 and quotes him as saying that the British novelist Christopher Veiel was also living at Lake Chapala at that time. Little is known about Hall’s (or for that matter Veiel’s) time at Chapala beyond these scant details.

Hall’s distinguished teaching career included a spell at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop before he joined the University of California, Irvine, in 1968. In 1969 he co-founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a summer program linking published and unpublished writers. Hall and his wife divided their time each year between San Francisco and Squaw Valley.

Hall retired from UC Irvine in 1990. Through his teaching, Hall had a profound influence on California literature. His students included Michael Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan. Amy Tan, in particular, credits Hall with having given her the necessary support to become a well-known writer: “Oakley was the reason that I found my confidence as a writer… the Halls are a remarkable family. They are deep-hearted and stalwart, generous and kind and giving.”

Oakley Hall’s two best-known works are Warlock (1958) and The Downhill Racers (1963). Warlock, a western tale set in the fictional 19th century town of Warlock, was a finalist for the 1958 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for a film of the same name, released in 1959. The Downhill Racers was the basis for the movie Downhill Racer (1969) starring Robert Redford.

Hall received numerous awards including lifetime achievement awards from the PEN Center USA and the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

California poet Al Young (who lived in Ajijic for several years in the 1960s and whose novel Who is Angelina? includes several scenes set at Lake Chapala) was a friend of Oakley Hall for more than thirty years. Following Hall’s death, Young was quoted as saying that, “Oakley Hall was a master storyteller who loved the West…. His novels and stories reflect the landscapes that he inhabited most of his life: the Pacific islands of his youth, the foothills and ski slopes of the Sierra and the streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco.”

Early in his career, Hall wrote several mystery novels using the pen name Jason Manor: Too Dead to Run (1953); The Red Jaguar (1954); The Pawns of Fear (1955); The Tramplers (1956).

Hall’s nonfiction books included The Art and Craft of Novel Writing (1994); Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West (with Jack Schaefer, 1987); and How Fiction Works (2000). He also had short stories published in numerous magazines, including Playboy, Tri-Quarterly, The Hawaii Review, and The Antioch Review.

Hall’s major works of fiction included Murder City (1949); So Many Doors (1950); Corpus of Joe Bailey (1953); Mardios Beach (1955); Warlock (1958); The Downhill Racers (1963); The Pleasure Garden (1966); A Game for Eagles (1970); Report from Beau Harbor (1971); The Adelita (1975); The Bad Lands (1978); The Children of the Sun (1983); The Coming of the Kid (1985); Apaches (1986); Separations (1997), about the discovery of the Colorado River; Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998); Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings (2001); Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks (2003); Ambrose Bierce and the Trey of Pearls (2004); Ambrose Bierce and the Ace of Shoots (2005); and Love and War in California (2007).

Several of these books have links to Mexico. These include his Ambrose Bierce series of mysteries which had the legendary San Francisco newsman and satirist Ambrose Bierce as main protagonist. Bierce (author of The Devil’s Dictionary) had significant ties to Mexico. In December 1913, when he was in his seventies, Bierce disappeared in Mexico in mysterious circumstances. After allegedly joining Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, he was never seen again.

In his review of The Adelita (1975), blogger Steven Zoraster writes that:

“The narrator in this novel is Michael MacBean Palacio, son of an American father and a Mexican mother… a child of privilege, graduate of Andover, graduate of Harvard, and leader of a band of guerrilla cavalry during the war to overthrow the Mexican dictator Huerta. He is also the lover of Adelita, the woman of the title, the living symbol of the revolution, whose name is also that of the Mexican soldier’s wife in a famous and very real ballad of the Mexican Revolution.”
. . .
“Oakley Hall is unparalleled in the portrayal of the American frontier, where the law is distance and tenuous. Here it is up to the protagonists to establish their own law. To establish it with great difficulty and often with bloodshed, and always with uncertainty about the cost that must be paid. In “The Adelita” the necessity of establishing the rule of law is extended to an entire country, Mexico, a country Mr. Hall seems to have understood very well.”
. . .
“In 1968, witnessed by MacBean, the Mexican government, in which his son has an important role, orders the pre-Olympic massacre of protesting students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. And thus MacBean is drawn back into the unfinished struggle for some sort of justice or righteousness or legality in Mexico.”

In Children of the Sun, Hall spins a story based on “The famous journey of Cabeza de Vaca through northern Mexico (1535-36), and its treasure-seeking aftermath–in an intelligently fictionalized version that turns the story into a morality play involving greed, religion, racism, and ambition.” (Kirkus Review). [That story is part of chapter 11 of my Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique]

After these two books on Mexico – The Adelita and Children of the Sun – Hall had begun a third book, provisionally entitled Independencial, an historical novel set during Mexico’s 1810-1821 War of Independence. In an interview late in life Hall recalled that his publishers had not displayed any enthusiasm for further books relating to Mexico since, “Books about Mexico don’t make enough money.”

Sadly, some things clearly haven’t changed!

Sources:

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.

error: Alert: Content is protected !!