Feb 012024
 

Author Bart McDowell (1923-2009), who later became a senior editor of National Geographic magazine, first visited Ajijic in 1952. Born in Texas on 10 September 1923, Hobart (‘Bart’) K. McDowell Jr. graduated with a degree in political science from the University of California before completing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri.

McDowell worked for the Rotarian magazine for several years, did some freelance writing and photography, served as an officer in the US Navy (1943-1946), and traveled widely in Europe and South America before marrying Martha Louise Shea (1925-2005), a fellow graduate of the University of Missouri, in March 1951.

The following year, the couple visited Ajijic, which they claimed had, at that time, “a population of some 2000 Indians, 40 American families, and one British family,” and was “the place to do some writing and relaxing.” [McDowell’s claim is broadly consistent with the findings of the 1950 Mexican census that Ajijic had a population of 2313, with 42 recorded as foreign-born.]

McDowell family, San Angelo Evening Standard, 1953 (Photo: Franklin)

McDowell family, San Angelo Evening Standard, 1953 (Photo: Franklin)

In February 1953 the McDowells, together with their three-month-old baby, Kelly, left Chicago, where they were then living and returned to Ajijic for a six month stay, during which McDowell hoped to complete a book about his travels in South America. His wife planned to do some freelance writing and improve her Spanish, and was “looking forward… to escaping that little black monster which is almost a necessity in the States-the telephone. There is only one in the entire village and it’s not in their home.”

Aside: Martha McDowell’s own writing was published in McCall’s, the Washington Post and elsewhere, and she wrote a book on American Indian jewelry. She later founded her own public relations and political consulting firm.

On their return north, Bart McDowell began working for the National Geographic, subsequently serving as one of the magazine’s senior editors for more than thirty years, during which time he traveled to dozens of countries, and met numerous world leaders.

The little we know about the McDowells’ residence in Ajijic in 1953 comes from Bart’s article about Guadalajara for National Geographic based on a visit to the city in 1966. Bart and his son Kelly revisited Ajijic, to look for María, who “figured large in our family folklore as Kelly’s first nursemaid” and who had “fed Kelly bananas from our own garden, bathed him in an earthen tub and called him ‘Baby Mío.’” After seeing a snapshot of María, a group of women sitting in the church immediately identified her as María Vásquez, who lived nearby with her mother and worked for an American family in the village. A delightful and unexpected reunion followed.

The Guadalajara article includes excellent photographs,including some of the lake, by Volkmar Wentzel.

McDowell’s own books include Theodore Roosevelt (1958); Great Adventures with National Geographic: exploring land, sea, and sky (1963); Revolutionary War (1967); Gypsies: Wanderers of the World (1970); The American Cowboy in Life and Legend (1972); Inside The Vatican (1991); and, jointly with Martha McDowell, I was a career girl’s consort (1960).

Bart McDowell died at his home in Forest Heights, Maryland, at the age of 85 on 17 January 2009, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

And Kelly, the infant in Ajijic? Stanford-educated Hobart Kelliston McDowell III (1952-2017) became a business attorney, consultant and politician, and was mayor of El Segundo, California, from 2004 to 2010.

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

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

Sources

  • San Angelo Evening Standard (San Angelo, Texas) 17 Feb 1953, 4:
  • Bart McDowell. 1967. “The Most Mexican City, Guadalajara.” National Geographic, March 1967, 412-441.
  • The Washington Times. 2009. “National Geographic writer Bart McDowell dies.” (obituary) 25 January 2009.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via the comments feature or email.

Jan 182024
 

Of the many journalists who have reported on Lake Chapala over the years, one of those with the most distinctive individual viewpoint was Mary Hampton, a long-time fashion editor based in California.

Mary Hampton. Credit: Ancestry.com

Mary Hampton. Credit: Ancestry.com

Born on 14 September 1899 in Nogales, Arizona (at a time when there was no border wall separating the town from Nogales, Sonora), Mary McDuffie Hampton traveled extensively before she began her 30-year career as a writer while still in college. Her first formal position, in about 1923, was with the San Francisco Chronicle, overseeing a children’s page using the pen name “Aunt Dolly.” It was in 1923 when Hampton married UK-born Edward L Leonard (1894-1975) in San Francisco; the couple subsequently had two daughters, Denise and Barbara, born in 1924 and 1926 respectively.

Hampton was one of the first female reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle, and quickly became the paper’s fashion reporter. She continued in that role, writing under the pseudonym Ninon, for more than a decade and established herself as California’s top fashion authority. In 1937, now divorced, she left the San Francisco Chronicle to start a daily column for The Modesto Bee. Now writing using her own name, she was an independent syndicated columnist, with her writing appearing for more than two decades in numerous California newspapers.

It was during her period writing as an independent columnist that she made several visits to Lake Chapala and other parts of Mexico. Her first report from the lake, in the first half of 1949, was titled “Mexico Loves Lake Chapala As We Do Our Lake Tahoe.”

Below the village of Chapala are fabulous homes set in huge gardens and wonderful to even look at—all along the water’s edge. Each has its own piece of private beach. And one of these—the largest with the largest grounds is now a Pension. And it here at Monte Carlo that I am luxuriating. My tall French windows open to a little balcony with a thick stone balustrade. And I look through towering palms over the garden to the lake whose gentle lapping puts me to sleep at night.”

She was taken with the fashion sense of the owner:

Señor Hermosillo, who owns this place and is a blond aristocrat from old Spain in former generations, dresses as if he were on the Riviera for supper. Last night he wore white flannels and a dark brown tweed sport jacket with bow tie and looked delightful.”

At the Villa Montecarlo, dining—year-round—was on a tiled veranda, with lunch served from 1.30 to 3.30, and supper from 8.00 to 9.00.

Hampton, noting that the area had “a growing colony of writers and artists,” met ‘Dane Chandos’ (Peter Lilley) and was invited to visit him at his home in San Antonio Tlayacapan. [Dane Chandos was the pen name used by Lilley, in partnership first with Nigel Millett and then with Anthony Stansfeld, for Village in the Sun and House in the Sun.]

She also wrote a lengthy column at this time about fashion and country club life in Guadalajara, noting that the city’s women “are noted for their beauty and it is no exaggeration,” and that she saw “young women by the dozen each more beautiful than our movie stars.”

Fresno Bee, 1949

In a separate column, Hampton described how she took a boat ride one morning to Ajijic to visit Neill James:

Ajijic is truly a Village in the Sun, a cluster of adobe houses near the lake’s edge with a little plaza and church. Since the Indians fear the air from the water at night, the land along the beach itself was conveniently left for the many writers, artists, and zestful mortals who have quietly trickled into Ajijic and built sprawly Shangri-La houses for themselves. Some are smaller like the casa of writer Neill James.”

Given her knowledge of fashion, it is no surprise that Hampton reported on how Neill James was teaching villagers how to make “beautiful little tailored blouses,” as “a hobby between herself and the Indians whom she loves.” Neill James herself was wearing “navy slacks, huaraches and a plaid cotton shirt. Her curly hair is unruly and her brown eyes warm and zestful.”

Four years later, in 1953, Hampton wrote a column titled “Mexican Resort is Scenic Spot,” in which she explained that “Chapala is bulging with Americans,” and that “it is almost impossible to rent any more,” despite the fact that “The lake’s edge has receded from the fabulous stone piers and jetties which once edged the beaches in front of the hotel-size homes surrounded by park gardens.”

Hampton also announced plans for a month-long summer vacation writers’ workshop later that year at the Villa Montecarlo. Besides herself, the instructors were Dane Chandos (“the brilliant English author who lives just beyond Chapala and whose books made nearby Ajijic famous”) and short story author A. Marshall Harbinson, a long-time instructor in English at the University of California. The workshop consisted of afternoon classes five days a week and a weekly round table discussion with Dane Chandos. An optional post-conference tour included visits to Pátzcuaro, Janitzio, Morelia, Mexico City, Taxco, Hacienda Vista Hermosa and Puebla. The workshop (or conference as it was called elsewhere) attracted writers “from many Bay area cities as well as Southern California.

Attendees were entertained at the homes of Neill James, Peter Lilley and Walter Schnaider (“the American millionaire who makes his home at Chapala”). In addition, “young Berkeley author” Willard Marsh, then living in Ajijic, gets a passing mention.

Hampton wrote two more interesting reports on Chapala during a visit in 1955. In between comments about the fashion choices of Mexican and American residents and visitors, she writes about:

the muchly advertised Ajicjic [sic] which this winter is causing something of a road congestion and human aggravation. Book in hand (they say they paid $2 for it) tourists come seeking Paradise for a dollar a day and don’t find it. Paradise is here for those who know the password but inflation has come to Mexico also—a sort of spillover from our own amazing affairs—and the pesos won’t buy quite everything.”

In a second piece, titled “Parties are an epidemic in the US Colony in Mexico,” Hampton lamented the fact that:

The Americans here are forever giving parties. They talk parties, some live for the parties; a few sigh wearily over the monotony of so much….
In the village of Chapala are all sorts of Taxco-like houses–Mexican versions of Carmel picturesqueness and many of these the Americans have now taken over. The decoration at times is daringly modern and always brilliantly interesting. As in Carmel, writers and painters gravitate this way. But it really began after Dane Chandos published “Village in the Sun”. Today the adjoining and famous village of Ajijic seethes with artists and pseudo-artists and would-be hangers-on, while a colony of well over 200 retired officers and doctors are finding a sun-drenched haven Chapala way. It is these, the members of the colony, who fill their nights with parties.”

By then, according to another US journalist, Vida Shepard (who spent several winters at Lake Chapala in the 1950s), Hampton had built herself a casita somewhere near the Capilla de Lourdes, on the hillside overlooking the Villa Montecarlo.

After retiring from journalism in January 1958, Hampton sold houses for a time in Apple Valley, gained a masters degree in English, and taught in public schools and at the University of Redlands. In the 1960s she also worked on a radio program for the elderly.

Mary Hampton lived her final years in Riverside, California, where she died at the age of 87 on 11 May 1987.

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

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the literary community in Ajijic. The history of the Villa Montecarlo is told in chapter 28 of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants (translated into Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes).

Sources

  • Berkeley Daily Gazette: 21 May 1949; 31 May 1949, 6; 30 April 1953; 22 July 1953; 26 Jan 1955.
  • Riverside Daily Press: 25 May 1949.
  • The Chico Enterprise Record: 28 Jan 1955.
  • The Fresno Bee: 28 Jan 1955.
  • The Modesto Bee: 24 Apr 1937, 9.
  • Times-Advocate (Escondido, California): 13 May 1987, 26.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via the comments feature or email.

Dec 072023
 

We have looked previously at several excerpts from the journal written by Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley (1886-1976) about his multi-day visit to Lake Chapala in October 1937.

On the morning of 15 October 1937—his final day before returning to Guadalajara—Stanley decided to take a two-hour launch trip with Alonzo, his traveling companion, to Mezcala Island, “six leagues from Chapala Village, and one of the points usually visited by tourists.”

Prior to being transformed into a penal settlement “for the captured criminals of Michoacán and Jalisco,” the island had witnessed the “first faint cry for Independence… [when] it was the theatre of many deadly conflicts between the harassed patriots and the royalists.”

Mezcala Island is the larger and more photographed of the two historically important islands in Lake Chapala. American photographer Winfield Scott took the first photos of the island that we know of, and was also responsible for the first organized tourist trips to Mezcala, advertised at the end of the nineteenth century.

Winfield Scott. c 1905. Prison Island (Mezcala Island). Credit: Fototeca Nacional INAH.

Winfield Scott. c 1900. Prison Island (Mezcala Island). Credit: Fototeca Nacional INAH.

When he visited the island in 1937, Stanley found that:

The immense prison (presidio, a name often applied to the island), which dominates the lake for miles around, is falling into decay. An old care-taker and his decrepit wife are the sole occupants of the castle-like pile – which is perched on the crest of a commanding hill. The visitor may like to bear in mind that Mezcala has an unsavory reputation for alacranes [scorpions], the bite of which is often fatal. The fishermen say there is an alacran for every stone on the rocky island, and they usually warn visitors against these venomous pests.”

Stanley hired the boat “Corona” to take them to the island, and invited three newly found friends—Ysidoro Pulido and a couple of young boys—to accompany them. At the last minute, they were joined by a photographer, Andrade, and a “another boy of about fourteen years of age. This lad carried on his back a large gourd with a hinged door. In this gourd, he carried some of his photographic supplies.”

A strong wind was blowing from the east, and waves were dashing over our boat. The captain was a fat Mexican, about forty years of age, who wore a felt hat, but his two sailors looked like brigands, and wore their sombreros. The boat was about thirty feet long, and built of metal. The seats were some which had been removed at some previous time from an abandoned street car. They were covered with plush which had been badly torn.”

Leo Stanley. Excerpt, page 75 of 1937 journal. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. Excerpt from journal, page 75. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

We arrived at the island about noon. It was a steep ascent through underbrush to the old presidio. The walls were intact but the roof had entirely disappeared, On one corner of the old jail was a modern faro, or lighthouse, which served as a beacon for the sailors on the lake. Inside the courtyard was a heavy growth of tropical vegetation, and it was difficult to work our way through…. There was much volcanic rock on the island, and in places there grew a very tough grass which was even too hard for animals to eat. It served for thatch on the building of the only inhabitants of the place, a Mexican and his wife with two young children. Inside the presidio was a small burro, the only animal, with the exception of a pig, which we saw. The old church near the northern end of the island was without a roof, and was so overgrown with vegetation that we were entirely unable to enter it.”

After returning to Chapala and partaking of an excellent lunch, Stanley caught the 4.00 pm bus to Guadalajara and reached his hotel, the Imperial, about two hours later.

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

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center. For a selection of earlier accounts of Mezcala Island and its history, see Lake Chapala Through the Ages.

Acknowledgments

My heartfelt thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, for supplying photos of Stanley’s account of his time at Lake Chapala. I am very grateful to Ms Kaplan and the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the extracts and photos used in this post.

Source

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

Nov 092023
 

We have looked previously at several excerpts from the journal written by Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley (1886-1976) about his multi-day visit to Lake Chapala in October 1937.

Stanley and Alonzo (his traveling companion) had ridden on horseback around the western end of the lake to Tuxcueca; they crossed the lake back to Chapala on Wednesday 13 October 1937 aboard a gasoline-powered boat—“about forty feet long, fairly narrow, and made of metal.” During the trip, “One Mexican woman… busied herself with searching for little animals, or piojos, in the hair of her small infant. These, she would crack between her thumb nails.”

Leo Stanley. 1937 Hotel Arzapalo, Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937 Hotel Arzapalo, Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

They checked into the Hotel Nido at about 2.30pm. “It was just around the corner from the Hotel Nido to the hot mineral baths. Here, we cleaned ourselves of the dusts of travel, and went back to the hotel, where comida, or lunch, was being served.”

After a siesta, they decided to walk to the top of Cerro San Miguel before their evening meal:

One narrow street led up a very steep incline to a table-land, and ascending this street was a small burro loaded with heavy adobe bricks. The animal was urged along by a dirty little Mexican boy, who appeared to be not more than eleven years of age, but who, in reality, was sixteen. His father was building a house on the mesa, and this lad was, with his burro, bringing up the material. On top of the level table-land, we searched the ground, and found many pieces of obsidian, or volcanic glass. It was from this material that the Ancients made their arrowheads and spears.”
. . .
We asked him about finding any idols, spearheads, or monos, as the Mexicans call the relics of the ancient Aztecs and Toltecs… We told the lad that if he could find some monos for us, we would give him money for them. Another Mexican, who came along while we were there, told us that down a little canyon at the base of the cerro, was a Mexican, named Ysidoro [Ed: correct spelling is Isidoro], who had found many of these idols.”
This night we did not go on top of the extinct volcano, which some of the natives said was haunted, or enchanted, but went clear around its base, and finally came to the hut of Ysidiro. This lad, perhaps twenty-five years of age, was a bright and intelligent Mexican, who was extremely cordial and friendly. He brought out to us a big box of heavy, stone idols, which he displayed with great joy. These idols were for the most part, figures of squatting deities, rather ugly and grotesque. Some were in the shape of turtles, horned toads, bears, and cattle.
Ysidoro was quite proud of the fact that numerous tourists had visited him and had written him letters which he displayed to me. One was from a poet, named Brynner [Bynner] Witter, a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Ed: Some years later, after Witter Bynner bought a house in Chapala, he employed Isidoro as his housekeeper”] He also had a letter from Mrs W. F. Anderson, who lived in the Carmel Valley in Monterey, California. These people had all spent happy days in Chapala, and had been entertained by Ysidoro.
Mrs. Pulida [Pulido], Ysidoro’s wife, had, several weeks previously, given birth to a new baby, the fourth in the family, but she had developed a very severe inflammation of the bladder, and was lying quite ill in the hut. I promised Ysidoro that I would examine her the following day.”

After dinner, Stanley and Alonzo walked to the plaza:

This was well filled with people, who enjoyed spending the evening in the cool air. About the plaza were several cantinas and billiard halls. We visited some of these, and found that many of the Mexicans were playing and enjoying the evening…. Upon our return, we found that Maria, the chambermaid, had turned down our beds, and that the electric lights, which were supplied to the hotel by a gasoline dynamo, had been shut off and the motor quieted. We had to go to bed by candle light.”

The following morning, Thursday 14 October 1937, Stanley and Alonzo attended Mass before breakfast:

We heard the church bell ringing for Mass, and, looking into the tower, saw a youth ringing the heavy bell. We went into the church and stayed for Mass. Numerous women were walking on their knees from the entrance up to the altar, and every woman had on her mantilla, or head-covering. The church was highly decorated, and was well lighted with candles. The music and chanting was really very impressive.”

After breakfast they walked round to Ysidoro’s to ask him to help them search for idols. When they reached his home, they found that his wife was being cared for by a nurse, and that one of his friends was busy, “boiling, in a copper kettle over the wood fire, a mixture of cane sugar and milk. He was the candy-maker, and each night vended his wares in the plaza. He gave us some of his candy, which was really quite good.”

Ysidoro led them off, out of town, to hunt for idols:

With a crow-bar, pick and shovel, we started up around the base of the cerro…. Not far from the enchanted hill is a large mound which might prove to be an Aztec pyramid. There were numerous stones which had been brought in by the Ancients. These were probably foundations for some of their Temples.”
. . .
The plain up to the foot of the mountains was furrowed by small gullies and streams, some of which had flowing water. Almost all of this plain was under cultivation, growing crops of tomatoes, onions, chili, or corn. A few of the fields were ready for planting again. We encountered quite a number of Mexicans farming in the fields. To our inquiry regarding the human bones and idols, they usua1ly replied that they were “mas alla,” which means farther on. There were quite a number of out-croppings of limestone and shale. In some of these we found petrified wood, and in others perfectly preserved fossils of small ferns.

By noontime we had walked about three miles, and decided that we would rest under a mesquite bush. Here, we made a noonday meal of green onions and raw tomatoes. Ysidoro had brought along a few tortillas in his bolsa, or knapsack. … In another field… we found a number of scattered boulders, which evidently had been the markings of a grave. Ysidoro thought this was a likely place to dig. He and Alonzo worked like Trojans, and dug a hole in which one could have buried an ox, but the search was unproductive.”

On their walk back to Chapala they took a different route, looking for more likely digging places and found a number of human bones, two dozen beads and numerous pieces of ancient pottery, concluding that, “All through the hills were places where human beings had been buried, some of them perhaps hundreds of years ago, and others more recently.”

Stanley and Alonzo got back to town at about six o’clock and enjoyed a refreshing thermal bath before dinner. Among the other guests at the Hotel Nido were a couple with their two nieces: “young ladies of about twenty years of age.”

Stanley suggested that the nieces walk with them to the band concert in the plaza:

Of course, I asked the aunt and uncle first. They approved. One of the girls had come from Mexico City and there had studied English in a private school. As we walked about the plaza, she and I agreed that she should speak with me in English, and I would talk to her in Spanish, and in that way we would both get practica, or practice, in the language we desired. This was very excellent training for both of us, and we discussed many subjects. She spoke English slowly but correctly. There were many people in the plaza on this night. There was no light in the bandstand but the musicians played their instruments in the dark and really rendered very good music. Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening. There were a few girls on the loose. The Mexican boys, with their sombreros and serapes over their shoulders, would ogle them at times, and occasionally in passing would drop a few pinches of confetti on the girls’ heads. This, they all seemed to enjoy. Promptly at ten o’clock, tío and tía, or uncle and auntie, appeared on the plaza and told us that it was time for the girls to come in. This was, of course, entirely agreeable.”

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

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Acknowledgments

My heartfelt thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, for supplying photos of Stanley’s account of his time at Lake Chapala. I am very grateful to Ms Kaplan and the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the excerpts and photo used in this post.

Source

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

Jul 132023
 

US journalist Virginia Snow spent about 15 years in Mexico, reporting for Texas newspapers on all manner of events, Mexican customs, curiosities and meetings from her base in Mexico City.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on 4 October 1908, she spent the last year of her life in a nursing home in that city, before her death there on 3 April 1959. It was little surprise that she became a journalist, given that her father was a former managing editor of the Detroit Journal. Details of her early career are disappointingly sparse, but she and her sister, Kathleen, were traveling together in Europe in 1938, when they returned to the US barely a year before the second world broke out.

Virginia Snow, 1944.

Virginia Snow, 1944.

In 1944, Snow studied Spanish for six months in Mexico City before establishing a home there. She planned to undertake feature writing, illustrated by photographs, which she took, developed and printed herself.

According to a news report about the Texas Pan American Round Table conference in Laredo in 1947, Snow was there as an ‘honored guest’ and had apparently been the originator of the city’s Parade of Flags.

One of the last meetings she attended in Mexico was the 1958 meeting of the Mexico City Association of Foreign Journalists, where she sat in a place of honor at the head table alongside Sr. Estrada and Ing Luis Poyo.

During her lengthy residence in Mexico, Snow was society columnist for the Mexico City Herald, and penned numerous columns about Mexico published in such Texas papers as the Laredo Times, Corpus Christi Times, Brownsville Herald and the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Her columns relating to George Ochoa, including interviews with the accused murderer held in Mexico in 1950 pending his return to Texas, were widely republished across the US. Her “Did You Know” columns about Mexico were full of all manner of fun facts and trivia, ranging from history and ecology to travel and cuisine. (She was clearly a woman after my own heart!)

The opening of her report about Ajijic in 1952 neatly combines historical perspective with then current trends:

I found mastodon teeth in practically every parlor of Ajijic during a recent visit to that Lake Chapala village in Jalisco state. They are a fad in the small American colony of artists, writers, weavers and escapists living in the primitive Village in the Sun.”

Snow then explains how an alarming fall in lake level (due to the diversion of Lerma River waters for dams, irrigation and the Mexico City water supply) had caused the lakeside beaches to disappear, and the white fish to become scarce. On the plus side, it revealed “relics of prehistoric animals,” collected by, among others, “Neill James, whose book Dust on My Heart helped Ajijic to fame,” and Helen Kirtland, “a former New York dress designer, who now designs Mexican sports clothes from her own handloomed fabrics.”

Snow devoted the remainder of her report to the silk business initiated by Neill James, who is “literally living with silk worms. Scores of the wriggling white creatures occupy boxes in her studio bedroom where they are feasting on mulberry leaves and spinning cocoons.”

James was reportedly convinced that the silk industry would be transformative: “Ajijic will be the richest village in Mexico within five years.” She already had “100 Venezuelan mulberry trees” in her own garden, acquired from Dr Varton K. Osigian, a noted Armenian silkworm specialist living in Mexico City, who had given a talk on Ajijic plaza offering grafted mulberry trees for two pesos each, free to anyone who could not afford that price.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

This was the beginning of one of Neill James’ more noteworthy entrepreneurial schemes in Ajijic. Sadly, the enterprise petered out about three years later, but not before it was captured for posterity in several evocative woodcuts by Rafael Greno.

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

Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offers a comprehensive account of Neill James, Helen Kirtland, the silk industry and what Ajijic was like in the past.

Sources

  • The Brownsville Herald: 17 Oct 1944, 3; 19 Nov 1947.
  • Corpus Christi Times (Texas): 6 Oct 1950; 7 Oct 1950.
  • El Espiritu Publico (Campeche): 1 July 1958, 8.
  • El Paso Times: 5 Apr 1959, Page 57.
  • Laredo Times: 3 Jul 1949, 5; 10 Jan 1950, 1; 7 Oct 1950.
  • Virginia Snow. 1952. “The Mexican Parade.” Waco Tribune-Herald 6 Jan 1952, 30.
  • ——— 1956. “The Mexican Parade: Souped-up Silk Worms and Modern Machinery Lead to New Industry.” Waco Tribune-Herald, 4 March, 1956.

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

Jun 222023
 

Helen Marie Krustev, born in the USA on 16 September 1933, and wife of Bulgarian-born artist Dimitar Krustev, is an accomplished portraitist in her own right. Helen Marie had private art training in the Middle East before studying in Des Moines, Iowa, where Dimitar was one of her teachers. She continued to develop her own art while working with Dimitar on numerous cultural tours in Europe, Mexico and elsewhere.

Helen Marie Krustev. Untitled.

Helen Marie Krustev. Untitled.

Helen and her husband moved permanently to Ajijic in the year 2000. Her love of Mexico, and enthusiasm for portraying the country’s dozens of indigenous groups, shines through in her work. In recent years she has specialized in painting portraits, usually in acrylics, of people such as the Tarahumar, Huichol, Cora and Maya, depicted in their colorful traditional clothing, and often facing away from the artist.

Helen Marie Krustev. Canoa y chinchorro.

Helen Marie Krustev. Canoa y chinchorro.

Helen’s work has been exhibited, often alongside that of her husband, in several galleries in Mexico. In 1989 the couple held a joint showing of their work at the Art Studio Galeria in San Antonio Tlayacapan. In February 2000, they held another noteworthy joint exhibit, titled Caras de México, in the lobby of the Las Hadas hotel in Manzanillo.

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

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

Source

  • Diario de Colima, 25 Feb 2000.

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 252023
 

Dimitar Iliev Krustev (1920-2013) was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 12 January 1920 and died in Ajijic on 11 February 2013. After studying at The Natioual Academy of Art for Portrait Painting in Sofia, Krustev served in the army under German rule for three years during the second world war. He moved to the US in 1947 to take a bachelor’s degree in commercial art at Kent State University, and then completed a masters degree in art history at the University of Iowa.

Dimitar Krustev. Portrait of a young man. Reproduced by kind permission of Ricardo Santana.

Dimitar Krustev. 1969. Portrait of a young man. Reproduced by kind permission of Ricardo Santana.

Krustev took US citizenship and he and his wife, Helen Marie, a former student, lived most of their married life in Des Moines, Iowa. Krustev worked as a commercial artist for the Des Moines-based magazine Better Homes and Gardens for nine years before opening the Des Moines Krustev Studio of Art. Krustev, who specialized in portraiture, loved teaching art, and many of his hundreds of students went on to enjoy considerable commercial and personal success. Krustev also enjoyed leading art study groups to Europe, Ajijic and elsewhere.

In the 1960s, as a member of The Explorer’s Club, Krustev began to travel to distant locations to document, photograph and paint the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In 1968 he became the first person known to have successfully navigated the Usumacinta River from its headwaters in Guatemala to the Gulf of México. Krustev’s fascination with people living in near isolation in what are commonly perceived as extreme environments led to his particular interest in the plight of the Lacandon Maya who live in the rain forest of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Krustev’s experiences resulted in several books, including River of the Sacred Monkey (1970), Voices in the Night (1992), The Journals of Dimitar Krustev, an Artist–Explorer (Volume One) (1996), Black Hand Over the Jungle (1997), and Lacondón Journal 1969: From the Journals of Dimitar Krustev Artist-Explorer, published by Editorial Mazatlán in December 2012, only months before the artist’s death. His books and journals, supported by exquisite portraits, provide extraordinary insights into the changing daily lifes of the people who befriended him at a time when their traditional way of life was under siege from modernizing influences. Krustev is also the subject of a film titled The Bulgarian Gaugin.

After traveling back and forth between Des Moines and Ajijic for almost thirty years, Krustev and his wife established their home and studios in Ajijic in the year 2000. Ajijic became their base for more traveling, painting, teaching, and many joint shows. Among the artists inspired by Krustev are Pauli Zmolek (who painted her own scenes of the Chapala area) and Lois Black.

Dimitar Krustev. Boats of Ajijic. (Greetings card)

Dimitar Krustev. Boats of Ajijic. (Greetings card)

This conté drawing titled Boats of Ajijic shows typical fishing boats and fishing nets on the shore of lake, with Cerro Garcia in the background.

Krustev’s first major show in Mexico was in 1972 when he presented portraits and landscapes at the Mexican-North American Cultural Institute in the Zona Rosa, Mexico City. He also exhibited in Guadalajara and throughout Europe and the USA.

His earliest recorded exhibit in Ajijic (which accompanied a showing of his film of the Lacandon Maya) was at the Posada Ajijic in August 1977. He first ran workshops in Ajijic at about this time. Four years later, in 1981, he advertised an 11-day workshop in Ajijic for $552.60 a person; the fee included air fare from Omaha, room and art instruction.

In 1989, Krustev and his wife, Helen Marie Krustev, held a joint showing of their work at the Art Studio Galeria in San Antonio Tlayacapan. They held another noteworthy joint exhibit, titled Caras de México, in the lobby of the Las Hadas hotel in Manzanillo in February 2000.

Several of their shows in Mexico were organized by Katie Goodridge Ingram, who ran two successful art galleries in Ajijic—Galería del Lago and Mi México—for many years. Ingram explained to me that “Many of his works were a combination of conté and charcoal and pastels, though he also painted in oils” and that she was enthralled by his work among the Lacandon:

partly because of their inherent beauty and their attempts to preserve their old ways and partly because of the tragedy involved in the confluence of two cultures. I admired the adventurer who went into the jungle and, fearing the imminent extinction of these people, drew the wonderful faces, garb and lifestyle of the Lacandon Indians.”

[Katie Goodridge Ingram is the author of According to Soledad: memories of a Mexican childhood, a fascinating fictionalized memoir of growing up in Ajijic in the 1940s and 1950s.]

Krustev’s work has been exhibited all over the world, and his paintings are in many prominent, private collections in Africa, USA, Europe and Mexico, where several fine examples are in the permanent collection of Ajijic Museo de Arte.

Papers and archives

The Human Studies Film Archives of the Smithsonian include two color silent film reels from Krustev’s trips (in the 1970s and 1996), as well as 180 35mm transparencies and two sound cassettes. His manuscripts and journals are archived at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.

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

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

Sources

  • Diario de Colima: 25 Feb 2000.
  • Ojo del Lago, March 1989.
  • Des Moines Register: (obituary) 3 Mar 2013.
  • Katie Goodridge Ingram, personal communication.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 20 Aug 1977, 17; 11 April 1998, 13; 5 Nov 2011; 3 Jan 2014;
  • Kent Stater: 28 Oct 1947.
  • Omaha World Herald: 7 June 1981.
  • David Bodwell and Richard Grabman (editors). 2013. Lancandon Journal—1969: From the Journals of Dimitar Krustev: Artist-Explorer. Editorial Mazatlán.

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 042021
 

A chance find in a New Mexico newspaper mentions that artist Arthur Merrill and his wife visited Phoenix, Arizona, in February 1952, with plans to continue on to Lake Chapala. Arthur (“Art”) Joseph Merrill (1885-1973) took up art later than most, but forged a successful career in commercial art and as a watercolorist.

Arthur Merrill. Painting auctioned in 2016.

Arthur Merrill. Painting. Credit: J Levine Auction, Scottsdale, 2016.

Merrill certainly completed watercolors of Guanajuato and other parts of Mexico. But, so far, no paintings have surfaced that are directly related to Lake Chapala.

Merrill was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on 11 April 1885, and graduated as a registered pharmacist, before deciding to study chemistry and geology. It was during a tour of European galleries and museums that he became determined to pursue art as a career. In 1911 he completed a Bachelor of Arts and Science degree at McGill University in Montreal, and took early color photographs for the French government during a Canadian geological survey.

Arthur Merrill. Mexican Street Scene.

Arthur Merrill. Mexican Street Scene.

He took art classes with A. J. Musgrove of Winnipeg and Franz Johnston of Toronto (a member of the Group of Seven), and then headed for New York, where he studied at the Art Students League with Edmund Yaghjian. He also took private classes with Julius Delbos. Merrill established his studio in Greenwich Village and supplemented his art income by teaching at a private school.

He traveled widely over the next several years filling his notebooks with pencil sketches.

After 18 years in New York he moved to the American west, where he fell in love with the stunning rock formations that characterize the region, and with pueblo life. Merrill settled in Taos in 1946 and proceeded to open an art gallery and a studio while volunteering to give art classes in several local educational institutions. The Merrills were very active members of the Taos artist community.

Merrill, who held several solo shows of his paintings and lithographs in the US, Canada and Mexico, died in Taos on 21 April 1973.

If you have a work by Merrill that may be of Lake Chapala, please get in touch!

Merrill was not the only artist or author that connected Taos to Lake Chapala. Other members of the Taos-Lake Chapala nexus included D. H. LawrenceWitter Bynner, “Spud” Johnson, Jorge Fick, John Brandi, Irma René Koen, Jorge Fick, Richard Frush, Lee F. Hersch, Pema Chödrön, Jim Levy, Walden Swank, and Kai Gøtzsche.

Sources

  • The New Mexican Sun, 3 Feb 1952, 16
  • The Taos News. “Arthur Merrill, artist, dead at 88.” Taos News, 25 April 1973.

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

Oct 282021
 

The Lake Chapala-Santa Fe literary-art nexus has had many distinguished members over the years:

D. H. LawrenceWitter Bynner, “Spud” Johnson, Betty Binkley , Josefa (the “mother of Mexican fashion design”), Jorge Fick, Clinton King and his (first) wife Lady Twysden, Clark Hulings, John Liggett Meigs, Alfred Rogoway, Don Shaw, photographer Ernest Walter Knee,  poet and painter John Brandi, musicologist Charles BogertBob Hunt, Arthur Davison Ficke and Gladys Brown Ficke.

Brian Boru Dunne (credit: unknown)

Brian Ború Dunne (credit: unknown)

Instrumental in fomenting the links in the 1940s was Santa Fe journalist Brian Ború Dunne who wrote a regular column for the Santa Fe New Mexican titled “Village Gossip.” There is no evidence that Dunne ever visited Lake Chapala. But in 1946 he reported that a “Rogelio M Chávez” had just returned from Ajijic and told him that the village of Ajijic was a colony of artists and writers with fourteen “white” people. These included two “rich women with palaces or castles… a fascinating Russian ballerina… [and] an Englishman who wears a Persian robe, a hat and motorcycle goggles.”

This article about Ajijic was instrumental in helping to persuade Santa Fe author John Sinclair to travel to Lake Chapala in December 1946 to write his novel Death in the Claimshack.

What else did Chávez tell Dunne about Ajijic?

Well, there were no door bells, electricity was limited to three hours daily—starting at sunset—and most people bathed “au naturel” in the lake. Ordinary mail was delivered occasionally “but air mail gets attention.” For nightlife—music, dancing and drinking—there was a bus to Chapala.

The foreign residents of Ajijic included Mrs Neill James, and Herr Heurer [sic] a refugee from Germany, who escaped World War I, and who had built “cubicles of mud, plaster and bamboo thatching for rent.” The heroine of Mrs Morton of Mexico also, according to Chávez, lived in Ajijic. In fact, Mrs Hunton, the real-life basis for the fictional Mrs Morton, lived in Villa Virginia in Chapala.

And who was Brian Ború Dunne? Relatively little is known about his education and life. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 13 July 1878 and died in Santa Fe at the age of 84 in December 1962. Dunne was an aspiring journalist when he chanced to meet English novelist George Gissing in Europe in 1897. His account of their time in Italy is the subject of a book published in 1999. Dunne was awarded a A.B. degree by St. Mary’s Benedictine College in North Carolina in 1906.

Dunne was the author of Cured! The 70 Adventures of a Dyspeptic, published in 1914, in which he tells, with great good humor, the story of his search for a cure for dyspepsia. After eight years of travails and visits to dozens of different specialists, Dunne’s odyssey culminated when he met an eye specialist who prescribed new lenses for his glasses. In his foreword to the book, H G Wells called it “ a manuscript shining with cheerfulness and telling of years of ill health” and “a real contribution to the difficult art of living!”

Dunne moved to New Mexico in about 1940, after working for a Washington D.C. newspaper and for the Baltimore Sun. He became a well-known figure in Santa Fe and his gossip column was deservedly popular. According to his obituary, Dunne wore gold-rimmed glasses, was a friend of H. L. Mencken, and lectured throughout the US on the importance of the Spanish language.

A decade ago, Rob Dean (also a Santa Fe New Mexican journalist) wrote about Dunne’s legendary status in Santa Fe:

“No one in town could fail to notice him. Hummingbirdlike with a bony frame and sharp nose, Dunne wore a showy wide-brimmed hat with a silver band — famous locally for touching off a contest among people who claimed the hat after his death. He planted himself in the middle of the Santa Fe social scene, wrote a newspaper gossip column and hung out for years in the lobby doing ambush interviews of La Fonda guests. For years, Dunne… wrote articles light in substance but heavy on sensation. Likewise, when he spoke, his dramatic delivery puffed up his empty rhetoric and made it seem profound.”

Dunne married Edith Hart Mason (1894–1974) in 1920. Their son, Brian Ború Dunne II, was the chief experimental scientist on Project Orion, the futuristic nuclear propulsion project.

And were there really only fourteen foreign residents in Ajijic in 1946? Well, no, the number is a slight undercount – but this profile, in the spirit of Dunne, is about more than just facts.

Sources

  • Brian Ború Dunne. 1914. Cured! The 70 Adventures of a Dyspeptic. Foreword by H.G. Wells. Cartoons by Hugh Doyel, cover design by Enrico Monetti. Philadelphia: The John C Winston Company.
  • Brian Ború Dunne. 1946. “Village Gossip,” Santa Fe New Mexican, 3 October 1946, 9.
  • Brian Ború Dunne. 1999. With Gissing in Italy: The Memoirs of Brian Ború Dunne. Co-edited by Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young and Pierre Coustillas. Ohio University Press.
  • Rob Dean. 2010. “Families, Fiestas and Fun” in The New Mexican, 4 December 2010.
  • Santa Fe New Mexican. “B. B. Dunne of Santa Fe dead at 84.” (obituary), Santa Fe New Mexican, 31 December 1962, 1-2.

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

Sep 232021
 

Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994), who coined the term ‘identity crisis’, spent several weeks in Ajijic in 1957 while writing Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, published the following year.

Cover of Young Man LutherErikson had been persuaded that Ajijic was a quiet place in which to write by Helen Kirtland and her husband Dr Larry Hartmus. After an exchange of letters, Erikson ended up renting the “cottage” on Calle Independencia belonging to the Sendis family, whose son, Gustavo, was a super talented painter and guitarist.

Erikson, born in Germany to Danish parents, had become a US citizen after moving across the Atlantic. He became world famous for his ideas on identity and his contributions to the field of psychoanalysis and human development. Among Erikson’s best-known books are Observations on the Yurok: Childhood and World Image (1943), Childhood and Society  (1950), Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (1969).

There are two references to Ajijic in Young Man Luther, one right at the beginning and the other at the end. In the preface, Erikson acknowledges the help of Larry Hartmus, who “read some of the medieval Latin with me in Ajijic.” In the epilogue, this paragraph serves to sum up how Erikson saw the village, and the impossible-to-ignore influence of religion:

“I wrote this book in Mexico, on a mirador overlooking a fishing village on Lake Chapala. What remains of this village’s primeval inner order goes back to pre-Christian times. But at odd times, urgent church bells call the populace to remembrance. The church is now secular property, only lent to the Cura; and the priest’s garb is legally now a uniform to be worn only in church or when engaged in such business as bringing the host to the dying. Yet, at night, with defensive affront, the cross on the church tower is the only neon light in town. The vast majority of the priest’s customers are women, indulging themselves fervently in the veneration of the diminutive local Madonna statue, which, like those in other communities, is a small idol representing little-girlishness and pure motherhood, rather that the tragic parent of the Savior, who, in fact is little seen. The men for the most part look on, willing to let the women have their religion as part of women’s world, but themselves bound on secular activity. The young ones tend toward the not too distant city of Guadalajara, where the churches and cathedrals are increasingly matched in height and quiet splendor by apartment houses and business buildings.”  [266]

Source

  • Erik Erikson. 1958. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalyses and History. New York: W.W. Norton.

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 092021
 

The following excerpts come from the detailed account written by Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley (1886-1976) after visiting Lake Chapala in October 1937. (For ease of reading, accents and italics have been added and spelling standardized.)

Note that early descriptions (in English or Spanish) of the villages on the south shore of the lake are exceedingly rare, making Stanley’s account especially valuable.

San Luis Soyatlán

Our next objective was San Luis Soyatlán, the Cathedral spires of which town we could see at a long distance. In the flat Mexican villages, the church always stands out prominently. There were a number of smaller vi11ages, at which we stopped for a few moments, and at one place we were able to get some beer. The Mexican girl who served us was a rather pretty señorita, and evidently a friend of Ramón’s. She had not seen him for several weeks, and greeted him in a very friendly manner. As Ramón was not married, Alonzo and I began to josh him a little and accused him of liking the girls. This seemed to please him very much.

Leo Stanley. 1937. Post Office on south shore of Lake Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937. Post Office on south shore of Lake Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

In going through one village, we saw the post office. On a blackboard in front of it were the names of those for whom a letter was waiting. This did not seem to be a very bad idea.

Far out in the country we came across a young Mexican who was hunting. He was looking for doves, or pa1omas. He had a muzzle-loading shotgun, and carried his powder and caps in a container made of a cow’s horn. It was an interesting old weapon, and was made in 1850. The date was on the barrel. He offered to sell it to me for ten pesos, which is about three dollars, but it would have been difficult to transport, and I had to refuse this old relic. [56-57]

At this point, Stanley realized that his original plan to ride all the way around Lake Chapala was impossible in the time he had available. He decided to stay overnight in San Luis Soyatlán and then ride on the next morning to Tuxcueca in time to catch the daily boat to Chapala, leaving Ramón to “retrace our steps with the animals.”

They reached San Luis by mid-afternoon and found somewhere to stay. While the others finished their meal in a fonda which had “large quantities of flies,” Stanley strolled down to the lake shore:

It was a very pretty afternoon, and off in the distance across the lake toward San Juan could be seen a peculiar phenomenon. By landslides and erosions in the mountains, the natural form of a spread eagle was displayed in brown against the green verdure. This marking could be seen very distinctly from the southern shore of the lake.

Because of road building activities around San Luis there are a number of new trucks being used. One of the drivers had directed his new Chevrolet truck into the water along the shallow margins of the lake, and was giving it a very thorough cleaning. He took as much care of his truck as the ordinary private chauffeur of his owner’s limousine. As he polished, he sang, and seemed to enjoy the occupation very much. [58-59]

Upon returning, I stopped at a number of the Spanish houses along the street, and there saw the women and some of the children weaving material for hats, or sombreros. A very tough reed is used. It is woven into strips about half and inch wide, the women work very deftly with their fingers, and area able to braid the reeds without even looking at them. These strips are then rolled up as much as one would roll a tape, and are then sent to a central shop where the hat maker forms them into the sombreros. This headgear is very durable, and serves the purpose of keeping off the rain as well as the tropical sun.

The following morning (13 October 1937) they rode on towards Tuxcueca:

We rode on out through the town, and toward the east… During the middle of the forenoon, we arrived at an adobe school house which overlooked the lake. We went in and found the maestra, or teacher, quite friendly and highly pleased that anyone should care to visit her school. She apologized for the appearance of the place, but it really was quite tidy and comfortable. The children were delighted to line up for their pictures. One child had absolutely no clothing on at all, but the others had enough to cover their nakedness. [63]

Leo Stanley. 1937. Shore of Lake Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937. Shore of Lake Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

When they reached Tuxcueca, Stanley was asked if he would see two girls who were quite ill:

It was about two cuadras, or blocks, away. The captain of the boat said that he would hold the launch for me. This house was a make-shift hospital, and run by a practical nurse.

There were two girls in a very dark room, one aged seventeen, and the other about eleven. Both were ill with pneumonia, and the small one’s lungs were almost entirely congested. She was comatose, and I felt that the end was not far away. There was very little that I could do under the circumstances, but I gave them some instructions, which they seemed to appreciate. They asked for a bill for my services, but of course I told them that there was no charge.

While we were waiting on the stone pier for the departure of the boar, four or five burros were driven to the eater’s edge to unload their burdens. These little animals each had four or five immense planks which they had carried from forests across the mountains. Each load must have weighed between three and four hundred pounds.

A few minutes later, Stanley and Alonzo took the gasoline boat—described as “about forty feet long, fairly narrow, and made of metal”— back to Chapala, arriving just in time to enjoy a late lunch.

Source

Acknowledgments

My heartfelt thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, for supplying photos of Stanley’s account of his time at Lake Chapala. I am very grateful to Ms Kaplan and the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the extracts and photos used in this post.

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

Aug 122021
 

The following excerpts come from the detailed account written by Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley (1886-1976) after visiting Lake Chapala in October 1937. (For ease of reading, accents and italics have been added and spelling standardized.)

On 11 October, Stanley and his two Mexican companions, José Alonzo and Ramón, rode from Chapala to Jocotepec, where they found somewhere to stay overnight and then went out for a walk:

It was only a block to the plaza, with its bandstand and garden. There was quite a crowd of people walking about, and in front of a building, evidently a show piece, the nondescript band was playing. Around the edges of the plaza were numerous small stands where oranges, bananas, and various fruit, together with soft drinks, were being vended. We went to a corner restaurant, or fonda. It was far from clean, but was the best that the town furnished, flies were in preponderance, but after our long ride of about twenty miles the first day, we were fairly hungry. Alonzo and Ramón ate the full bill of fare, but I was satisfied with some tortillas, hot beans, a little stewed meat, and plenty of water which I ordered to be boiled. The boys evidently were satisfied with their repasts.

Leo Stanley. 1937. Presidencia, Jocotepec. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937. Presidencia, Jocotepec. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

On this night there was a show in town, and on the street corner was a little Mexican who, through a megaphone, announced to the assembled groups in the plaza that this great spectacle was to take place, that in the show was a renowned professor who could read the past, present and future, that this show was one which no one could afford to miss. Its spieler advised that, instead of spending their money for fruit and sweets in the plaza, they should spend it going to this world renowned show. The little fellow really put in a great deal of effort persuading the townspeople to come. In the meantime, the band gave forth its music. [49-50]

The following morning (12 October 1937) the three men were up and about even before it got light:

We went out into the starlight toward the plaza, in order to buy some feed for the horses. A few people were already on the streets, but the feed store did not open until six—thirty. We spent the next half an hour in our room by candlelight, adjusting the stirrups and making the saddles more comfortable. Upon going to the plaza again just before daylight we met some Mexicans who told us that a man had been killed the night before, and that his body was lying in the patio of the jail.

We went over to the Presidencia, and there we met the Comandante. Alonzo told him who we were, and that we would like to see the defunto or dead man. There was a squad of about ten Mexicans in the patio, dressed in their broad sombreros, and covered by serapes. They each had a rifle and really looked quite dangerous, and none too careful with their firearms….

Leo Stanley. 1937. Jail, Jocotepec. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937. Jail, Jocotepec. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

… we went into the patio of the jail, and there found sprawled out on his back, the blood—covered body of a short, middle-aged Mexican. His large sombrero, covered with blood, lay on the flagstones near him. He wore white soiled pantaloons rolled to his knees, and a soiled shirt open at the front. He had a large cut over his left wrist which had almost disarticulated the joint. Over his breastbone and through it was a deep stab wound which had gone entirely through the breastplate and entered the heart. In addition to this, he had been shot through the head. His assailant wanted to be sure that he was dead…..

With this rather auspicious, and perhaps awe-inspiring beginning of our second day in the country, we felt it would be well to go over to the fonda and have a bite of breakfast. [51-52]

Stanley also describes the family who had been their overnight hosts:

All of the family at the home of Señora Theresa Medina at Calle Matamoros No. 6, were awake and interested in talking to us. There were three very bright and alert girls, and four or five boys of school age. I took a number of pictures of them, and talked with them for some time. Having been told that I was a doctor, almost all of them wished to have me prescribe or examine…. The three pretty girls had finished all the schooling which they could acquire, and were waiting until some village youth might claim them in marriage. One of them, a rather tall and intelligent señorita, said, however, that she was not at all interested in marriage, that she did not like children, and that she hoped to get away from Jocotepec at her first opportunity. They were all quite happy, and were greatly entertained by talking with the gringo from Los Estados Unidos. [53-54]

Source

Acknowledgments

  • My heartfelt thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, for supplying photos of Stanley’s account of his time at Lake Chapala. I am very grateful to Ms Kaplan and the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the extracts and photos used in this post.

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

Jul 292021
 

“A Gringo”—an English-speaking traveler about whom very little is known—arrived in Mexico in 1883. He was an observant and enthusiastic visitor. In the preface to his book Through The Land of the Aztecs or Life and Travel in Mexico (published in 1892), “A Gringo” states that his objective “is simply to give a plain account of several years experience in the country, to show its recent progress and to enable the reader to judge the future,” based on “prolonged periods of travel over the greater part of its territory, by rail, stagecoach and steamer, on horseback and in canoes [which] have afforded me exceptional facilities for studying the country and all classes of the people.” Contemporary adverts for the book claimed it was based on “seven years’ life and travel in Mexico.”

Who was “A Gringo”?

In a previous version of this post “A Gringo” was identified as Arthur St. Hill. This identification echoed my introductory comments to a short extract of his work published in Lake Chapala Through the Ages: an anthology of travellers’ tales (2008).

The attribution of the pen name “A Gringo” to Arthur St. Hill was based on the bibliographic details given for Through The Land of the Aztecs in the catalogue of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford (and subsequently used by several booksellers offering secondhand copies of the book).

I am now certain that this attribution is incorrect. Digging into genealogical databases reveals only two individuals named “Arthur St. Hill” living at about the right time. One was born in Barbados in the West Indies, and the other in the UK.

The Barbados-born Arthur St. Hill (Arthur Bertram St Hill) lived from 1872 to 1911. He was a cricketer and the author of a report on the Barbados health system published in 1896; he has no obvious connection to Mexico.

As an adult, the other Arthur St. Hill (1878-1969) lived in Bristol, UK, and worked as a structural engineer specializing in the use of steel. In any event, given that Through The Land of the Aztecs is a book based on several years of residence in Mexico in the 1880s, when Arthur was only a child, he clearly could not have been its author.

However, his father—Charles Manwell St Hill, born in Trinidad in 1849—does have provable connections to Mexico. At the time of the 1881 UK census, Charles, then aged 32, lived in London and worked as a commercial clerk. He had married Louisa Le Maitre de Rabodanges in March 1871 and the couple had five children. Their eldest child, Mabel, was born in Sevilla, Spain. Her siblings were Eva, born in Calais, France; Hilda and Arthur, both born in Mortlake, Surrey; and Houghton Oliver, born in Middlesex.

The 1891 UK census lists Louisa St. Hill as head of the household; she is living in Bristol with her five children and her mother. This census describes Luisa as “married” and does not mention Charles, who was presumably living in Mexico at the time. The next census, a decade later, lists Louisa as “widowed,” so Charles must have died between 1891 and 1901. The notice of Arthur’s marriage in 1911 lists his father as “the late Charles Manwell St. Hill, banker, of Mexico.” [Western Daily Press, 16 June 1911] A family tree on Ancestry.com, which states that Charles died in Mexico, provides no further details or sources.

Based on these admittedly scant details, I believe that the likely author of Through The Land of the Aztecs was Charles Manwell St. Hill. The misattribution of authorship to Arthur St. Hill in the Bodleian Library and elsewhere may have come about because Arthur registered his inherited rights to the book after his father’s death.

Through the Land of the Aztecs

One contemporary review called the work an “interesting little book descriptive of life and travel in Mexico from 1883 until a recent date,” and congratulated the author “on the felicitous manner in which he has performed his task.” The reviewer found that the book was “a pleasantly written handbook” though it lacked a map, an omission that “is really unpardonable.”

“A Gringo”‘s visit to Chapala definitely took place prior to 1889, though it was not published until a few years later (1892). The author starts by summarizing his trip to Chapala, which would have taken close to 12 hours:

Taking a carriage, which ran weekly between Guadalajara and Chapala, a town on the border of the lake of that name, I set forth one morning, and, after climbing a hill, from which a grand view of the city and surrounding countryside was obtained, I reached Chapala.”

He provides only the briefest of descriptions of the village of Chapala, commenting on the inn where he stayed and the moonlight on the lake:

Chapala lies at the foot of a hill, overlooking the lake, the waters of which lapped the little garden of the inn where I put up. After a supper, with the agreeable addition of a bottle of lager beer, I spent the evening chatting with the pleasant old people who kept the inn, and enjoying the still night as I watched the moonbeams playing on the lake, on which loomed the black shape of the paddle steamer that was to take me tomorrow across its waters.”

“A Gringo” gives us a rare description of taking a trip aboard the Libertad (“Freedom”) paddle steamer around the lake to the various lakeshore villages. The San Francisco-built Libertad had been brought to Lake Chapala in 1868 by the Compañía de Navegación por Vapor en el Lago de Chapala (Lake Chapala Steamboat Company), whose managing director was a transplanted Scotsman, Mr. Duncan Cameron.

It was a wonderful old tub, evidently built in the days when shipbuilding was “in its infancy, judging from its uncouth shape and old timbers, that creaked at every movement of the paddles. Our voyage took in several villages round the lake. At each stopping place we would land on the little mud jetties to suck a piece of sugar-cane or quaff a festive glass of tequila. At one of the villages a sad accident has since occurred; the crazy old steamer toppled over with her living freight of over two hundred passengers just as she reached the landing-stage, nearly all being drowned… One heroic American, employed on the Central Railroad, who was on board at the time, succeeded in saving the lives of sixteen by his pluck and great swimming powers.”

The tragic accident referred to by “A Gringo” occurred on Sunday 24 March 1889 when the steamship capsized at Ocotlán. Even though this took place only six meters from the shore, 28 people were drowned. The American referred to by “A Gringo” was the Railway Superintendent, Mr. C. E. Halbert.

“A Gringo” also noted that efforts had been made to exploit an underwater petroleum deposit at Lake Chapala:

At one place the captain called my attention to a spot where the water was bubbling, and told me that at the bottom of the lake there was a petroleum well. Although efforts had been made to utilize it, they had hitherto been unsuccessful.”

“A Gringo” disembarked from the Libertad at La Barca, from where he continued his wanderings around Mexico.

If anyone can supply any additional biographical details about “A Gringo”, please get in touch!

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Note

Source

  • “A Gringo.” 1892. Through The Land of the Aztecs Or Life and Travel In Mexico. London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Company.

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

Jul 152021
 

Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley (1886-1976) visited Guadalajara and Lake Chapala in October 1937 and kept a detailed diary of his trip. Stanley was the physician for the California State Prison at San Quentin from 1913 to 1951, and was a meticulous observer. Fortunately for us, his detailed typewritten account of his trip, illustrated by dozens of superb photographs, survives to this day in the archives of the California Historical Society.

Stanley was attending the annual conference of the Pacific Association of Railway Surgeons, held that year in Guadalajara. While in the city he met up with José Alonzo, a former San Quentin inmate who had worked as his medical assistant during his incarceration. The two men had exchanged letters after Alonzo’s parole in 1932. Alonzo had returned to Mexico and settled with his wife in San Juan de los Lagos. Also in 1932, Stanley had visited the newly-opened Penal de Oblatos in Guadalajara. After the 1937 conference, Alonzo accompanied Stanley on his trip to Lake Chapala.

Just getting to the lake posed its own challenges in 1937. One photograph shows part of a timetable for buses from Guadalajara to Chapala. The first truly regular bus service to Chapala had only just been established by the Cooperativa Autotransportes Guadalajara Chapala y Anexas, S.C.L. (now Autotransportes Guadalajara Chapala, S.A. de C.V.). The company ran hourly buses each way from 7.00am to 8.00pm. Passengers paid $1.50 (pesos) one-way, $2.50 return. [1]

Leo Stanley. 1937. Guadalajara-Chapala bus timetable. Photo reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937. Guadalajara-Chapala bus timetable. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

On 11 October 1937, Alonzo and Stanley caught the 9.00am bus for Chapala. The crowded, ramshackle, bus broke down part-way there and the passengers were asked to get out and push. Eventually the next bus arrived and everyone was able to get to Chapala in time for lunch.

Alonzo and Stanley hired a guide (Ramón), a horse and two mules so that they could ride west to Jocotepec and then explore part of the lake’s southern shore. Stanley quickly realized that,

“The road, or trail, around the lake was very rough and narrow, and evidently was used only for burros and oxen. It certainly could not have been used for any vehicle.” Stanley did not have time to stop in Ajijic as he rode along the track that skirted the lake, from village to village, to stay overnight in Jocotepec. He did remark, however, on the many groves of papaya, and mangoes, fields of corn, and small plots of beans and garbanzas (chickpeas) that he saw near Ajijic, and the number of campesinos who were cultivating their plots with animal-drawn wooden ploughs.” [2]

We look more closely at selected portions of Stanley’s trip in two further posts:

But just who was Leo Stanley? Born in Oregon, Stanley was raised in San Luis Obispo County, California. He was awarded his bachelor’s degree at Stanford University in 1903, and during later studies at Cooper Medical College, he served his residency at San Quentin State Prison. In 1913, he was appointed the prison’s Chief Physician and Surgeon, a position he held —with the exception of the war years— until 1951. Stanley’s experiments on prisoners at San Quentin, especially those involving testicular transplants, were highly controversial and attracted national media attention. [3]

Stanley was an inveterate traveler and saw, and wrote about, many parts of the world. In the mid-1950s he was the ship’s doctor for various luxury cruises. Wherever he went, Stanley took a keen interest in the local prisons and work camps.

Stanley wrote several books, including Men at Their Worst (1940), My Most Unforgettable Convicts (1967), and San Miguel at the Turn of the Century (1976).

He spent the final years of his life writing and working on his farm in Marin County, California.

References

  • [1] Javier Medina Loera. 1991. “Camino a Chapala: del trazo de carretas a la autopista.” El Informador, 17 March 1991, 37.
  • [2] Leo L. Stanley. “Mixing in Mexico”, 1937, two volumes. Leo L. Stanley Papers, MS 2061, California Historical Society. Vol 1, 46.
  • [3] Google “The Buck Kelly case” and see Ethan Blue, “The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913–1951″ in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 2 (May 2009), 210-241.

Acknowledgments

My heartfelt thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, for supplying photos of Stanley’s account of his time at Lake Chapala. I am very grateful to Ms Kaplan and the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the excerpts and photos used in this post.

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.

Jun 172021
 

Born on 18 January 1924 in Berlin, Germany, artist Renée George (birth name Renate Judith Georg) emigrated to the US as a stateless fifteen-year-old in August 1939, just as the second world war broke out in Europe.

George visited Ajijic during her three month trip to Mexico in the summer of 1947. When she returned to New York she was employed by the public relations magazine Modern Mexico, which published a short article she wrote and illustrated about her experiences in Mexico. The title illustration for her article is a street scene in Ajijic.

Renée George. 1947. Street scene in Ajijic. (Modern Mexico)

Renée George. 1947. Street scene in Ajijic. (Modern Mexico)

George had studied at Hunter College and taken courses in watercolor painting with William Starkweather, as well as attended night classes at the Art Students League with William McNulty, John Groth, and Howard Trafton. At the Art Students League she met her future husband Thomas O’Sullivan; they married in 1952. From 1959 onward the couple had a summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, where George was a founder member of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association.

George later undertook illustration assignments for several books, including The River Horse by Nina Ames Frey (1953); Here come the trucks by Henry B Lent (1954); Inside the Ark and other stories by Caryll Houselander (1956); and Sixty Saints for Girls by Joan Windham (1979). She also contributed humorous drawings to the New York Times Book Review and several other publications.

Her article in Modern Mexico was written as a series of letters home to her parents.

George explains that the title of her article, “Ay Naranjas!” is the same title she would use if she ever wrote a book about all her adventures in Mexico:

– “Ay Naranjas! as I was told by a helpful Mexican has a spicy double meaning. When someone calls out Ay Naranjas! at you, and he is not selling oranges at the time, you better beware, for it is the call of the Mexican wolf.”

While in Mexico City she had the good fortune to see Diego Rivera and Siqueiros at work, and also saw paintings by Tamayo, which subsequently inspired her in the use of color.

Adjusting to Mexico brought some challenges:

“I am just beginning to understand the meanings on signs and boxes. Mexico City is particularly devoid of mail boxes, and I, being used to one at every corner, have probably mailed many a letter hopefully in a garbage can.”

Two later letters in the article are written from Ajijic, where she is staying with a friend named Hanna.

In the first, she sums up her thoughts about Ajijic:

“Am writing you this from my cot by the light of a flickering candle… Ajijic seems to the hideout for authors who have written books on Mexico (“Little Villages in the Sun,” etc) and those who are in the act of doing so. Without electric light and plumbing they get the feel of the primitive, and when they get tired of that they can always slosh through the mud to somebody’s cocktail party.

Don’t ever tell anybody you are going to Ajijic, unless of course you are talking to an artist, because you will be classed as demented. Have found no cause here for such prejudiced classification. This is one of the most charming, uninhibited places, where man and beast run around loose, enjoying their life on the shores of the lake.”

In her second letter from Ajijic, George describes the rainy season and a frustrated burglary attempt:

“It has been raining quite steadily lately, and a knee-deep river is flowing in front of our door step. Am unhappy because… all the mangos around here are spoiled because of some fly that must have sneaked through.

A few robberies have been committed lately, and our neighbor was practically paralyzed when she saw a man in a black sarape jump over her wall. When he saw here he got so scared that he climbed right back over again without touching anything. No one is wearing black sarapes around town today.

The grapevine is whispering that the charming young man who escorted Hanna and me home from the costume party last night is one of the ring leaders. I guess time will tell if no one else will.”

From Ajijic, George carried on to Cordoba and then Veracruz on the Gulf Coast, where, as she was about to return home, she was serenaded at dawn by mariachis hired by two traveling Campbell’s Soup salesmen!

George died in New York on 10 October 2010. A posthumous retrospective exhibit of her art was held at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Martha’s Vineyard in 2011.

Sources

  • Renée George. 1949. “Ay Naranjos.” Modern Mexico, Vol 22, #2, Mar-Apr 1949, 16-17, 28-29.
  • Ask art. Entry for Renee George O’Sullivan.

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

Aug 312017
 

Frederick Starr (1858-1933), born in Auburn, New York, was a distinguished American anthropologist who visited Lake Chapala over the winter of 1895-1896.

Starr, whose primary scientific background was in geology, graduated from Lafayette College in 1882 and was appointed as a biology professor at Coe College.

In 1889, as his academic interests shifted towards ethnology and anthropology, he accepted a post at the American Museum of Natural History. A few years later he was asked to organize anthropological teaching at the University of Chicago. Starr was Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1892 until 1923, a decade before his death in Tokyo, Japan, on August 14, 1933.

A passionate anthropologist, with a particular enthusiasm for fieldwork, his research on several continents led to such diverse works as The Truth about the Congo (1907), In Indian Mexico, A narrative of Travel and Labor (1908) and Japanese proverbs and pictures (1910).

Frederick Starr in 1909.

Frederick Starr in 1909.

In Indian Mexico has extensive descriptions of Lake Pátzcuaro, Uruapan, Zamora and many smaller villages. A contemporary reviewer described this book as: “the work of a keen observer, whose description of the picturesque customs of the Mexican Indians has a deeper significance than a mere collection of interesting details. Combining the qualities of the trained ethnologist with a rare sense of the picturesque, he has given us an altogether admirable book.” American novelist Charles Embree (who wrote a novel set at Lake Chapala) wrote an appendix to In Indian Mexico.

Prior to In Indian Mexico, it had been assumed that traditional methods of making paper from tree bark were extinct in Mexico. Starr, however, discovered that the ancient craft was still practiced (as it is even today) in the Otomi village of San Pablito in the state of Hidalgo.

Prior to Starr’s three-month visit to Guadalajara and Lake Chapala over the winter of 1895-1896, he was quoted in The Salt Lake Herald as saying:

“I will first go to Guadalajara to study a submerged city in Lake Chapala, and ‘Mountain Idiots’ inhabiting the mountains nearby. This is a race of dwarfs which has been studied very little and my intention is to try to determine whether these people are racially small or have become so by disease. I will have the assistance of Archbishop Gillow, an authority on the dwarf races. In the interior of Guatemala the pigmies are said to live in caves and holes in the ground and speak languages not known to white men.”

This quote throws up various interesting sidebars. Rumors of a submerged city in Lake Chapala had been circulating for a while in the U.S., presumably mainly on the evidence of the large amount of pottery fragments recovered from the lake bed whenever the water level fell. Archbishop Gillow is a particularly interesting figure in Mexican history, whose story is told in chapter 22 of my Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique.

"Dog" figurine (10 cm in length). Drawing by M.K. Seralian.

“Dog” figurine (10 cm in length) from Lake Chapala. (Drawing by M.K. Seralian)

Following his short visit to Lake Chapala over the winter of 1895-1896. Starr’s research paper, The Little Pottery Objects of Lake Chapala, Mexico described (with illustrations by M. K. Seralian) ollitas and other pottery items found near Jocotepec at the western end of the lake. He collected and studied 261 individual specimens and considered several alternative possibilities before concluding that they are likely to be “offerings made to the lake itself or some spirit resident there-in?”

Starr recognized that changes in lake level might be common and more than sufficient to explain why the pieces were now found at some distance from the current shoreline:

“So far as their presence in the lake is concerned it is possible that the lake’s level may have risen, covering an original place of deposit on the dry land. The spot is almost within sight of the active volcano of Colima, and changes of level, through volcanic or other igneous agency, in the waters of the lake are not improbable. The old schoolmaster at Chapala insists that the town of Chapala has long been slowly sinking, and that half of it has already been engulfed by the lake. He also claims that the god formerly worshipped at Chapala was a little god, a child god, and that the little vessels were offerings to him.”

In December 1895, mid-way through his visit, Starr attended a performance of the Pastores (Shepherds), a Passion Play in Chapala . Starr included a detailed description of this event in an article published the following year in The Journal of American Folklore. Starr considered it to be “probably entirely foreign”, compared to Tastoanes and Conquista festivities which combined Indian and imported elements. According to Starr:

“The play is fairly recent at Chapala. Only a few years ago a young fellow from the village saw it at some other town; he learned it by heart and trained his band of actors. This illustrates the way in which dramas travel – even in Mexico – from town to town.”

Fifty years later, another anthropologist, George Barker, was to witness (and later write about) another unique aspect of Chapala’s Christmas-time celebrations.

This profile is based on an extract from chapter 40 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales.

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Sources / References:

  • The Salt Lake Herald: 16 November 1895.
  • Starr Frederick. 1896. “Celebrations in Mexico.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 9 #34 (Jul-Sep 1896), pp 161-169.
  • Starr, Frederick. 1897. “The Little Pottery Objects of Lake Chapala, Mexico.” Department of Anthropology Bulletin II. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Starr, Frederick. 1908. In Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor. Front Cover · Frederick Starr. Forbes & Company.

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 272017
 

English entrepreneur, balloon pilot and writer Arnold Eiloart (1907-1981) lived in Ajijic from either late 1948 or early 1949 until 1950, and again from 1951 to April 1952.

Arnold Beaupré Eiloart, usually known as “Bushy”, was born on 23 August 1907, at The Camp, Ditton Hill, Long Ditton, Surrey. His parents had been living at Whiteway Colony, Gloucestershire, and, according to the family, Arnold’s middle name (French for beautiful meadow) was a reference to his place of conception. Whiteway is a Socialist (Tolstoyan) experiment, started by a group of intellectuals in 1898 near Stroud in Gloucestershire, which survives to the present day. Arnold’s parents were among the six men and two women who founded the colony, which advocated barter and espoused money and property rights. Arnold’s parents left the group shortly after Arnold was born and returned to a more conventional life in Kingston, Surrey, where his father resumed his career as a university chemistry lecturer.

In 1934, Eiloart married Mary Elizabeth Stokes (born 1912, then aged 22) in Chelsea, London. She later became a doctor and dermatologist. Mary gave birth to twins – one named March and one named April: Timothy March Beaupre Eiloart and April Gail Aideen Eiloart – who had been expected to arrive in February, but came prematurely on 29 December 1936.

Eiloart gained his flying certificate on a Tiger Moth, Gypsy 130 at Brooklands Flying Club on 29 September 1939.

After the couple separated in about 1940, the children were sent out of London to live with their grandmother. When the war ended in 1945, they returned to live with their mother in London, where she was then working as a doctor.

Eiloart and his first wife divorced in about 1946. He was later briefly married to artist Juliet Boggis-Rolfe (1917-1982), better known by her maiden name of Juliet McLeod.

It is unclear how Eiloart first heard about Ajijic, and the attractions of living there, but it is possible that this was from the London literary and theater circles in which he and business partner, author Peter Elstob, moved. In his daughter’s words, “Bushy dreamed of being a writer but did not have Peter’s flare.”

In 1946, Eiloart and Elstob teamed up with actor Alec Clunes to raise £20,000 for the lease on the Arts Theatre in London. After buying the lease there was only enough money for one production: Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. Fortunately, this was a financial success, and enabled them to finance several other plays, including the first production of The Lady’s Not For Burning by Christopher Fry.

The London theater and writing set at this time would have included friends of Nigel Millett and  Peter Lilley who had teamed up as “Dane Chandos” to write Village in the Sun (first published in the U.K. in 1945), their month-by-month account of building a home in San Antonio Tlayacapan, just to the east of Ajijic.

Millett lived in Ajijic from 1937 to his death in 1946. Prior to moving to Mexico, he had written (as “Richard Oke”) a biography, and several plays and novels, including Frolic wind (1929), a satirical gay comedy novel that was turned into a West End stage production in 1935. A revived run of Frolic wind began on 10 November 1948 at Boltons Theatre, Kensington.

Eiloart flew from London to New York in November 1948 and reached Ajijic in late 1948 or early 1949. He lived there for at least eighteen months until September 1950, and returned to Ajijic to live there again from 1951 to April 1952.

In Ajijic, Eiloart partnered Elstob to form “Peter Arnold”, a joint venture that promoted Ajijic as a vacation and retirement destination. Participants were housed in the Posada Ajijic and other rental properties as needed. (Their joint real estate company in the U.K., “Peter Arnold Properties”, was active into the 1970s.)

The available evidence suggests that Eiloart arrived first in Ajijic, in either late 1948 or early 1949, with Elstob joining him there late in 1949. Eiloart’s daughter, Gail Eiloart, remembers visiting her father in Ajijic from August 1949 to September 1950. She sailed from Southampton as an unaccompanied 12-year-old on board the “Nieuw Amsterdam” to New York, where she was met by a family friend and put on a train south to be met by her father in Mexico City. She and her father left Mexico to return home the following year, taking a flight on 12 September 1950 from Monterrey to Brownsville, Texas.

Even though she was barely a teenager at the time, Gail Eiloart can still recall many of the characters she met during her twelve months in Ajijic, including violinist John Langley, artist Nick Muzenic, artist and explorer Toby Schneebaum, Herbert Johnson and Georgette Johnson and author Neill James. Helping her father at the Posada Ajijic was Dorothy (“Dolly”) Whelan, the partner of the artist Ernest Alexander.

Eiloart left Ajijic for the U.K. in April 1952, traveling with Peter Elstob, Barbara Zacheisz and their infant son, on board the Queen Elizabeth.

Eiloart with Colin and Rosemary Mudie, ca 1959. Credit: Getty Images.

Eiloart with Colin and Rosemary Mudie, ca 1959. Credit: Getty Images.

The two men’s next joint venture came in 1958, when Eiloart attempted a trans-Atlantic balloon flight from Tenerife to the West Indies.

The balloon had a four person crew – Eiloart, his son Tim, artist and sailor Colin Mudie and his wife Rosemary – with Peter Elstob keeping his feet on the ground and managing publicity. Eiloart had taken balloon training in the Netherlands, and may well have been the only British person holding a balloonist’s license at that time. The attempt ultimately failed, but set a record for a gas-powered balloon flight that stood for decades. The story of this extraordinary adventure is told in their joint book, The Flight of the Small World (1959).

Arnold Eiloart died 6 Feb 1981, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

[After his part in the balloon adventure, Eiloart’s son Timothy Eiloart (1936-2009), a chemical engineer, founded a series of companies, including Cambridge Consultants Ltd., the U.K.’s first independent contract research and development company. He later became actively involved in Green politics.]

Acknowledgments

  • Sincere thanks to Gail Eiloart for her assistance in sorting out the chronology and details of her father’s life.

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.

Jun 202016
 

American anthropologist Ralph Beals was traveling with fellow anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons (1875-1941), when they visited Chapala and Ajijic in December 1932.

The two anthropologists had been working with the Cora and Huichol Indians at Tepic, Nayarit, and were on their way south towards Oaxaca. Years later, Beals would adopt Parsons’ fieldwork methods and follow up on her pioneering work at Mitla, Oaxaca, subsequently publishing his findings as The Peasant Marketing System of Oaxaca, Mexico (1975).

Parsons and Beals arrived in Guadalajara by train from Tepic, but Parsons decided that  the city had little to offer ethnologically, so they chartered a car and drove to Chapala.

“There they settled into the inn, where Beals’s room looked out across an arm of the lake to a tree-embowered house where D. H. Lawrence had stayed a few years before.” “I have never been in such an enchanting place in my life,” Beals wrote Dorothy [his wife]. “If I had to pick just one place to go with you I’d certainly pick this.” (quoted in Deacon) They stayed in Chapala for about ten days.

beals-ralphParsons had heard that the villages around the lake performed an interesting version of the dance called La Conquista (The Conquest) in the multi-day celebrations for 12 December, Guadalupe Day. She and Beals took a boat to Ajijic on 15 December to watch events unfold, discovering that there were so few other spectators that the procession and dances were clearly held for the participants’ own pleasure.

Leaving Chapala, they took a two-hour launch ride to Ocotlán, before catching the train to Mexico City, where they arrived just in time for the social whirlwind of Christmas.

Ralph Beals, born in Pasadena, California on 19 July 1901, gained his doctorate in 1930 from the University of California at Berkeley, and after a brief stint in the National Park Service, taught at UCLA for 33 years, from 1936 to 1969. He founded the UCLA Department of Anthropology and Sociology, and served as its chairman in 1941-1948. He was later chairman of the UCLA Department of Anthropology, 1964-1965. Beals served as president of the American Anthropological Association, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Grant.

beals-cheranBeals first visited Mexico in 1918-19 when he spent time in Sonora and Sinaloa. In 1932, he worked with the Yaqui and Mayo. Later, with Elsie Clews Parsons, he studied the Cora and Huichol in Nayarit, as well as the Mixe in Oaxaca. In 1938, he was a member of the multidisciplinary team that made a comprehensive study of the Tarascan Indians in Michoacán, to help formulate government policies and programs. During this project, Beals and various collaborators and assistants carried out extensive fieldwork in the town of Cherán.

His academic writings related to Mexico include: The Comparative Ethnology of Northern Mexico before 1750 (1932); The contemporary culture of the Cáhita Indians (1943); The aboriginal culture of the Cáhita Indians (1943); Houses and House Use of the Sierra Tarascans (1944); Cheran: A Sierra Tarascan Village (1946); No Frontier to Learning; the Mexican Student in the United States (1957); Ethnology of the Western Mixe (1973); The peasant marketing system of Oaxaca, Mexico (1975).

Ralph Beals died at his Los Angeles home on 24 February 1985, having made a truly distinguished contribution to the anthropology of indigenous groups in Mexico.

His brother Carleton Beals (1893-1979) also had a deep and long-term interest in Mexico, though no direct link to Lake Chapala. Carleton Beals was a journalist, historian, social activist and author, who founded the English Preparatory Institute in Mexico City in about 1920, and taught at the American High School. Following studies in Europe, Carleton returned to Mexico City as correspondent for The Nation. After separating from his wife, Carleton became romantically involved with Mercedes, the sister of renowned photographer and model Tina Modotti. Carleton Beals wrote more than 45 books, including biographies of Porfirio Díaz and Leon Trotsky. In 1938, Time Magazine called Carleton Beals, “the best informed and the most awkward living writer on Latin America.”

Sources:

  • Desley Deacon. 1999. Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life (Univ. of Chicago Press)
  • Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt. 1992. Wealth and Rebellion: Elsie Clews Parsons, anthropologist and folklorist. 360 pages.

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.

 

  • 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.
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