Mar 212016
 

Author and filmmaker Richard Zdenko Moravec is known to have visited Ajijic in about 1945, where he met Barbara Keppel-Compton who later wrote To The Isthmus, a novel which includes fact-based passages about their time there. The pair, both of whom had previous marriages, became husband and wife in 1951.

Artist Sylvia Fein remembers Moravec as a friendly, interesting “darling man”, who walked up and down the beach with her when she was revisiting Ajijic with her husband Bill, who had just returned from military service. Fein recalls that Moravec was a friend of Salvador Dali, and talked a lot about Dali’s piano.

Richard Zdenko Moravec was born 24 November 1894 in Zagreb, Croatia, Yugoslavia. He appears to have lived in Paris during the first world war and shortly after the war ended, wrote a short book about Italian-Yugoslav relations. The 47-page work, published by Lang, Blanchong et Cie. in 1919, was entitled L’Italie et les Yougoslaves, avec un exposé des relations italo-yougoslaves pendant la guerre et des documents à l’appui texte imprimé (“Italy and the Yugoslavs, with a statement of the Italian-Yugoslav relations during the war and documents to support the printed text”).

Moravec left France in 1919 and emigrated to the U.S., arriving there on the SS Chicago from Bordeaux, France, on 29 July. Moravec’s first wife, Selma, was born in Dallas, Texas on 26 February 1906. They were already married by the time Selma gained her A.B. degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1929. The couple remained in the San Francisco area, and are recorded as living in Oakland, California in 1934. In 1940 the couple was still definitely together since they are listed as disembarking on U.S. soil (in New York on 18 July), having crossed the Atlantic aboard the SS Manhattan.

Moravec appears to have been a chemical engineer and is credited or co-credited for several U.S. patents, most in the 1930s on behalf of the Shell Development Company of San Francisco.

On 17 October 1951, Moravec, described as an “engineer” and “divorced”, married Barbara Joan Keppel-Compton (“writer”) in Charlottesville, Virginia. They left almost immediately for Mexico, to make a motion picture film about Paricutin Volcano. The Story of A Volcano, relating the Tarascan Indian legend of Paricutin Volcano and the volcanic activity since its birth in 1943, was copyrighted in 1952. The credits include:

  • Producer and director: Richard Z Moravec
  • Narration: Anita Brenner
  • Narrator: Homer Gayne
  • Music: Tarascan Indian band and ballad singers
  • Film Editor: Alberto E Valenzuela

In 1955, Richard Moravec and Barbara Moravec, both of Yellow Springs, Ohio, filed for joint copyright of the motion picture With Malice Toward None.

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 142016
 

I was surprised when I first read Barbara Compton‘s To The Isthmus (1964). The only review I had seen made it sound like a lightweight romantic novel in which the inclusion of scenes at Lake Chapala was largely incidental to the main plot. In fact, the chapter set at the lake plays a key role in both the geography behind this novel and in the new direction the plot takes thereafter. Perhaps not a “great novel” but certainly engagingly written and an interesting, if introspective, account of one woman’s search for fulfillment.

The dust jacket describes it thus:

To The Isthmus is a serious novel about the shaping of a modern woman’s life: a brilliant delineation of the conflict between the force of circumstance-which dictates whom we shall meet and how-and the forec of our inner vision, which demands an absolute fulfillment of desires.

The protagonist is an Englishwoman, an intelligent, educated, emotionally alive young woman. She is seen in many roles and in many places-as a dutiful daughter who cares for her invalid mother in an English suburb before World War II; as an imaginative and loving mistress to her psychiatrist lover, Paul, in London; after the war as a good wife who cares enough for Paul to “love and hold, love and let go” as they live in separate apartments in Manhattan; and finally, as the companion of a new man on a trip to Mexico, to the isthmus of the title.

Life and death have pulled Peg Walter from city to city, from country to country, from person to person-through a world of complex and forceful people with whom she has tried to live in honesty and love and with some degree of happiness. This is the story of her failure and her success.”

There is absolutely no doubt that the novel is largely autobiographical, and one in which the events and characters are only thinly disguised. The main characters (with real-life names in parentheses) include:

  • The protagonist, Margaret, or Peg (Barbara Keppel-Compton)
  • Her husband, psychoanalyst Dr. Paul Walter (Barbara’s first husband, Dr Gerhard E. Witt)
  • Her friend Anne who lives in New York (Barbara’s sister Ursula Niebuhr)
  • Anne’s husband Oliver (Ursula’s husband Reinhold Niebuhr)
  • Robert Radich, guest at Casa Heuer (Barbara’s second husband, Richard Z. Moravec, to whom the book is dedicated)

compton-to-the-isthmusOther characters, too, are almost certainly based on real-life friends and acquaintances of the author.

The timing of events and many of the descriptions of character traits ring true as well. For example, we quickly learn that Dr. Paul Walter is German, and his work focuses on the relationship between medicine and psychology. During the war, Peg, on account of her language skills, works at a British intelligence agency in Cambridge. Future husband Paul writes poems and also sculpts and paints. He had wanted to become an artist but switched to medicine. This closely mirrors the lives of Barbara Keppel-Compton and her first husband Dr. Gerhard Witt.

The book is equally interesting from the perspective of reconnecting novels to their geographic settings. To The Isthmus has eight chapters. The fifth chapter, “To Mexico”, is the fulcrum around which this novel pivots. It includes lots of details and descriptions relating to Ajijic in the late 1940s.

Traveling to Ajijic in those days was an adventure in itself. Peg arrived from Mexico City by bus, via Guadalajara, after a thirty-hour trip:

“After Chapala the road lost its surface and two villages away petered out into an unpaved lane between thorn trees. The bus driver told me when to get out along this village street.” [141]

Casa Heuer, where Peg stayed, was a simple establishment on the lake shore run by a German brother and sister, Enrico Schmidt (Pablo Heuer) and Gertruda Schmidt (Leisel Heuer).

In To The Isthmus, Enrico is described as “a tall emaciated figure” who wears a dressing gown most of the day, has huaraches on his feet and smokes cigars.

“By daylight his skin is like deeply tooled leather. He has a gaunt John the Baptist look about him, as if he lived on locusts. When he smiles, one notices several teeth are missing.”

Gertruda Schmidt is portrayed as aloof and distant. She

“remains remote, and perhaps needs to, since out of that calm, wide-eyed contemplation of hers she sometimes writes articles on the country and people here which she sends to German-language newspapers in the States. She gave me some to read. The stress was on the rhythms of blood and soil, but without mentioning sex and violence, and so rendering only half the picture.” [167]

Casa Heuer is located “at the end of a rutted lane”, which “looks like the end of nowhere.” “Only a low stone fence below separates this place from the slowly shelving shore and the sheet of light that is the lake.” [146]

The main building is “like a long shack”, with a sunken kitchen. Bedrooms, with shuttered windows that lack glass, are lit by hurricane lamps and candles; the bed “is tolerable, even if the pillow seems stuffed with cement.” [142]

“By day my room is pleasant, with its writing table under the window on the yard. Through the opposite one, on the porch, the light from the lake comes in, reflected.” [149-150]

The dining room has “a refectory table running the length of it with a few hard chairs at either side.”

“And the yard behind is not just a chicken run with privy in one corner discreetly concealed by shrubs—as I thought in the dark last night. There’s some sort of one-room abode built against the wall on the lane on one side of the gate, and on the other some little whitewashed cells. There is also an arbor of bougainvillaea in front of them, where one can sit at a bench and table; also a mango tree.”

A rival hostelry, Posada Ajijic, gets a passing slight when Radich informs Peg that,

“it’s just as well you didn’t go to the Posada down the road, you wouldn’t have survived a day. All the tourists go there. But the second day they all come here, where at least the water is safe, and the food.”

The village has a small foreign colony, mainly Americans. Peg takes a walk through the village and finds the pool where women are doing their washing:

“Behind the two long streets there is a plaza, deserted and bare, with two rows of dwarf trees down the middle for a minimum of shade, and a large church behind tall palings at one end. There is no one about here or in the streets. The children must all be at school, the women all busy in their houses, the men presumably away working. There being nothing immediate to take hold of, I follow a stony path up and out toward the mountain slope which crowds the village to the flat strip along the lake. Perhaps a view of the village from above will take from it that blind impression which the empty streets and shuttered windows have given. As the path winds up, the few dry stunted thorn trees give way to a tall and slender growth clinging to the hillside. The path dips, and there is a rich shining grove of eucalyptus trees, and the sound of water and voices. It is a deep emerald pool set in a basin of rock, round which some half dozen women are doing their washing. It is my first encounter of the morning, but the women are far too immersed in their gossip to pay any attention to me as I pass, even to turn and stare at a stranger. So I climb on.” [148-149]

This is precisely the scene painted only a few years earlier by Ann Sonia Medalie.

It is the rainy season, and Peg’s Spanish teacher, Lola, tells her about,

“the fearsome storms that sometimes sweep over the village at the height of the rainy season. This story was rather beyond my Spanish, so she acted it out until I gathered that what they most dread is a waterspout that can sweep everything, houses, people, cattle into the lake. Apparently this thing forms itself out over the lake from among the clouds, and slowly winds itself into the form of a snake overhead. When this happens, all the women go out from the village in a solid phalanx to pray that the snake remain in the cloud above and not point its head down to strike.”

Violence is not confined to the skies. One morning, Peg arrives for a Spanish lesson and finds Lola distraught because “a man was killed last night” in the street outside her house. [165-166]

For his part, Radich, sharing his extensive knowledge of Ajijic, asks Peg if she has noticed one of the local celebrities (Zara Alexeyewa, the “Russian” dancer):

“Ever seen a woman riding through the village, draped in some sort of white Cossack outfit, and doing her shopping from horseback? Having been a dancer, she gave herself a Russian name. Well, when she couldn’t make the grade any longer, she came out here-—lives in that house by the shore, hidden behind the eucalyptus grove at the end of this lane…” [170]

It is also worth recalling that only a few months later, that same year (1946), it was precisely at Casa Heuer where novelist Elaine Gottlieb had her precipitous romantic fling with Elliot Chase, the basis of Gottlieb’s short story, “Passage Through Stars”. It seems like there must have been both “writing in the air” and “love in the air” on Lake Chapala at Casa Heuer in 1946!

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

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.

Mar 072016
 

Barbara Joan Keppel-Compton (1902-1999), also later known as Barbara Keppel-Compton Witt, and Barbara Moravec, used the name Barbara Compton for her novel To The Isthmus (1964), partially set at Lake Chapala in the 1940s. The novel is largely autobiographical, and events and characters are only thinly disguised. (We look more closely at the novel’s links to Ajijic in a separate post).

Who, exactly, was the author? Keppel-Compton was born in Southampton, U.K., the middle of five children of John Herbert Keppel-Compton (1869-1940), a medical doctor, and his wife Anne Sylvester Webb. Prior to 1940, the family had also lived in Hampshire, Surrey, London, Bexhill-on-Sea, and Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

The Keppel-Compton’s youngest child, Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton (1907-1997) became better known as Ursula Niebuhr. After studying at Oxford, and being awarded double firsts in history and theology, she became the first woman to win a fellowship to the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Within a year, she married Reinhold Niebuhr, one of her former teachers, in 1931 in Winchester, UK. The couple made their home in New York City where Ursula completed her studies and went on to found the Department of Religion at Barnard College in New York City. She remained head of the department until her retirement in 1965.

As we shall see, Barbara Keppel-Compton was to join her sister in New York in the middle of the second world war.

Much of what we know about Barbara Keppel-Compton comes from the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which includes the The Barbara Compton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence, and other material. Additional details can be gleaned from a close reading of To The Isthmus.

Barbara Compton (photo from back cover of To The Isthmus)

Barbara Compton (photo from back cover of To The Isthmus)

It is apparent that Barbara spent some time, as a relatively young woman, in both Prague (1924-1927) and Africa (1928-1929). She spoke several languages, including German and Czech.

Keppel-Compton was co-translator of two works by German psychologist Fritz Kuenkel: Jugend-Charakterkunde (“What it Means to Grow Up”), with Hulda Niebuhr (older sister of Reinhold Niebuhr) in 1936, and Charakter, Wachstum und Erziehung (“Character, Growth, Education”) with Basil Druitt in 1938.

During the mid-1930s, Keppel-Compton was living with her parents in Surrey, and then London (1938-1939).

In September 1937, two years prior to the start of the second world war, Keppel Compton met German clinical psychologist Gerhard E. Witt, described in her novel as rather tall, in his late 40s with silver-grey hair. After a hesitant start, their relationship became intense, and they spent two weeks together in Paris one September. At the outbreak of war, fearful of his future in London, Witt moved to the U.S. and took a position at Union Theological Seminary, the same institution where Barbara’s sister Ursula had studied.

The following year, Barbara wanted to join him but was denied permission to leave the country. (Posters at the time announced that no one between the ages of 16 and 60 was allowed to leave the country). In December 1941, Witt asked her to marry him and she was finally able to travel to the U.S. as his fiancee.

They married and lived together for a while, but soon discovered that even if they couldn’t exactly live apart, they couldn’t live together all the time either, so they took separate apartments in Manhattan.

In 1945 (or 1946?), they made plans to visit Mexico but Witt persuaded his wife to go on ahead to Ajijic, to a small inn a German friend in New York had told him about, where he would drive down to join her and travel together back to California and then across to New York. Barbara did indeed travel to Ajijic and stayed at the Posada Heuer, a simple establishment run by a German brother and sister on the lakeshore. By the time it was obvious that Witt had no intention of joining her, she had met and was falling under the spell of Richard Moravec.

Witt died in 1946. Following his death, Barbara and Richard Moravec (whom she later married) edited Witt’s book Active Psychology and the Welfare and Progress of Man: Notes on the Establishment of a Non-medical Practical Psychology, Written 1941-1946 (published in 1947). A reviewer in the Journal of Consulting Psychology described it as “the posthumously published notes of a brilliant psychotherapist”. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center also has manuscripts relating to Witt’s poetry, 28 sketches and a list of 324 of his paintings.

Barbara Keppel-Compton married Richard Zdenko Moravec, a chemical engineer and film-maker, in Albemarle, Virginia, in 1951. The couple worked together on at least two motion pictures: The Story of A Volcano, about Paricutin Volcano (1952) and With Malice Toward None (1955). By 1955 the Moravecs were living in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Barbara Moravec spent her final years in Surrey, England.

Sadly, and notwithstanding the claim on its inside back cover that it is “her first novel to be published in America”, To The Isthmus appears to be the first and only novel she ever published anywhere. Interestingly, though, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center includes drafts of two more novels, one untitled and one with the title Margaret Townshend. The archive also has several short stories by Keppel-Compton, as well as a play, and poems.

If any reader is close enough to Boston University to take a look at these unpublished novels, we would love to learn more about them.

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 032016
 

Leonet (“Leo”) Matiz Espinoza was a Colombian photographer and caricaturist who lived and worked in Mexico in the 1940s. In 2011, eight gelatin silver prints in a series called “Fishing on Lake Chapala” came up at auction with an estimate of 8000 Euros; one of these eight images appears below.

Matiz was born on 1 April 1917 in Aracataca, Colombia, coincidentally the birthplace of novelist Gabriel García Marquez. He left his native Colombia for Mexico City in 1939, hoping that his artistic talents would enable him to find success there. He traveled overland from Panama via Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

It was in Central America that Matiz met and immediately proposed to Celia Nichols, the daughter of a British diplomat; he was 23, she was 40. They were only able to marry after Matiz had seen off a rival in a dawn shooting duel. According to La metáfora del ojo, Matiz claims he responded to Celia’s concern about the age difference by pointing out that, “I don’t see your age. I’m as interested in you, as you are in me.”

Matiz, whose long black hair, and gangster-like mustache complemented his mischievous sense of humor and absurdly colored jackets, would eventually have seven marriages in all.

Leo and Celia arrived in Mexico in 1941 as newly-weds and Leo quickly established himself as a caricaturist and photographer, claiming to have chosen the latter more for its economic rewards than because it was his first love as an artist.

Leo Matiz: Fishing on Lake Chapala (ca 1940)

Leo Matiz: Fishing on Lake Chapala (ca 1942)

Matiz held several exhibitions of his work in Mexico City in the early 1940s. The first, entitled “Fotos y Dibujos” (“Photographs and drawings”), opened at the Museo de Bellas Artes (Opera House Museum) in Mexico City in 1941 with a speech by the Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda.

In June of the following year, “El Pueblo de México” (“The People of Mexico”) in Mexico City’s Galería de Arte y Decoración showcased 59 photographs taken in Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico. The Mexican images included portraits, scenes of everyday life and artistic shots taken in Veracruz and elsewhere. Photograph #6 in the catalog was “Cabezas, Chapala” (“Heads, Chapala”).

In 1943, Matiz arranged another exhibit, entitled ““Tipos y Costumbres de México” (“Characters and Customs of Mexico), at own photo studio on Avenida Juárez in downtown Mexico City.

Leo Matiz: Lake Chapala (ca 1942). Reproduced by courtesy of Leo Matiz Foundation.

Leo Matiz: Lake Chapala (ca 1942). Reproduced by courtesy of Leo Matiz Foundation.

While the precise dates of his visit, or visits, to Lake Chapala are unknown, Matiz sent a special photo-report on the lake to the magazine Así. The report, entitled “Chapala, mar jaliciense” (“Chapala, Jalisco’s Sea), was based on several outstanding examples of Matiz’s photos, and was published in Así on Valentine’s Day in 1942 (Así # 66, 14 February 1942: 31-35). One photo in that article shows the main church and beach in Chapala as viewed from the lake, but most depict fishermen going about their work. Several views of fishermen tending their nets are taken close to the lake shore and show masses of lirio (water hyacinth), though this is not commented on in the accompanying text which focuses, instead, on the superior eating quality of the lake’s fish, especially the highly prized whitefish.

Matiz was not only a photographer. In Mexico, he also honed his skills as a caricaturist, influenced by the work of Guadalupe Posada and others, transferring these same skills of keen observation and astute choice of angles to his photography. As a result, his work regularly featured in the pages of magazines such as Así, Life, Reader’s Digest, Harpers Magazine, Look and Norte. He was also active in the world of cinematography.

As Matiz’s fame grew, so did the invitations and commission he received. In 1944, he held a solo show of “Watercolors and Paintings” at the Advertising Club of New York in New York City, and, in 1947, his work was included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Solo shows of his work have since been held in numerous countries, from Switzerland, France, Italy, and Austria to Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Australia.

Leo Matiz was completely enamored with the extraordinary diversity of Mexican geography:

“The magazine Así launched me as a graphic reporter in Mexico. I began to look for themes and discovered the old and deep Mexico, eternal and fleeting. There before my eyes was the baroque architecture, the paintings, the murals, the Maria islands and the poignant histories of its presidents, the starving coyotes in the desert, the day of the dead, the sacred temples and the purity of Yucatan, the red ants in the desert, the women of Pancho Villa, the dead trees, the divas in the movies, the cemeteries, the colour of the folk crafts, the peasants and the remote hope of their redemption.” [quoted in Leo Matiz: The Eyes of Time]

The indefatigable Matiz traveled widely across the country. In the mid-1940s he accompanied Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) to watch the birth of Paricutín, the volcano that erupted in a farmer’s field in Michoacán. On another occasion, he visited the infamous Islas Maria penitentiary, off the coast of Nayarit, documenting the lives of its prisoners.

Throughout the 1940s, Matiz was in great demand in Mexico City. He  considered José Clemente Orozco to be his mentor and father figure. At one time or another, all the major celebrities of the day, from stars of stage and screen such as Mario Moreno (“Cantinflas”), Dolores del Río, Agustin Lara and María Félix (with whom he had an amorous relationship) to artists such as Orozco, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros, looked into the lens of Matiz’s Rolleiflex. Matiz also photographed Janice Logan, Luis Buñuel, Marc Chagall, Louis Armstrong, Álvaro Mutis, Pablo Neruda and Walt Disney. His portraits show sensitivity, intimacy, the product of what one admirer called a “profound psychological penetration”.

He collaborated with Siqueiros to document his murals, though the two men later had a very public disagreement. When Siqueiros mounted an exhibition of paintings derived from his photographs in 1947, Matiz claimed some of the works were plagiarized. Siqueiros retaliated by calling Matiz an enemy of muralism and a North American imperialist. Things really escalated out of control when Siqueiros arranged for Matiz’s studio to be set on fire, forcing the photographer, concerned for his safety, to flee with his family to Venezuela. It would be almost fifty years before he returned to Mexico.

Matiz lived the remainder of his life in various countries, dividing most of his time between Colombia and Venezuela. Besides his art, he also started newspapers and opened art galleries. In 1951, a gallery he owned in Bogota staged the first exhibition of the Colombian painter Fernando Botero.

Matiz regularly claimed to miss Mexico, but did not return there until 1995, and was then profoundly shocked when he learned that the building that had housed his studio had been totally destroyed in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. He remained active, despite failing eyesight, traveling through Mexico in 1997 taking pictures of rural workers for “Los hijos del campo”, the last book he illustrated.

Matiz’s photographic work is considered to be some of the finest of the twentieth century, demonstrating remarkable versatility, composition and technical ability. In 1948, he was named one of the world’s 10 best photographers. Examples of his work can be found in many major museums, including the Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Tate Gallery in London, U.K.

Leo Matiz died in Bogota, Colombia, on 24 October 1998. His images and artistic legacy are conserved and promoted by the Leo Matiz Foundation.

Acknowledgment:

  • Sincere thanks to Alejandra Matiz, the photographer’s daughter, and President of the Leo Matiz Foundation, for providing details of her father’s photo-account of Lake Chapala.

Sources:

Related post:

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.

Feb 292016
 

Santa Fe poet Robert (“Bob”) Hunt (1906-1964) visited Chapala regularly with poet Witter Bynner (1881-1968) for about thirty years, starting in the early 1930s. Hunt, whose full name was Robert Nichols Montague Hunt, was Bynner’s long-time partner, as well as being a poet in his own right.

Born in Pasadena, California, on 19 May 1906, Hunt’s parents were Harriette Boardman Hunt (1868-1913) and Pasadena architect Myron Hunt. Myron Hunt was a prominent architect in southern California, and designed the Hollywood Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Bob Hunt worked briefly for his father’s firm, and is said to have had some talent as a designer, but like so many facets of his life, he never quite achieved what others thought he might, as he moved from one interest to another. Hunt’s design skills enabled him to add a wing to Bynner’s adobe home in Santa Fe, and to make significant alterations to their home in Chapala, as well as redesigning the living room of Peter Hurd‘s ranch in New Mexico.

Hunt was first introduced to Witter Bynner in 1924 by author and historian Paul Horgan.

[Horgan twice won the Pulitzer Prize for History: in 1955 for Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History and in 1976 for Lamy of Santa Fe. He was a childhood friend of artist Peter Hurd, and wrote, “Peter Hurd : A Portrait Sketch from Life”, for the catalog of the artist’s 1965 retrospective. ]

Hunt and Bynner’s paths crossed again in Santa Fe in 1926, and in Los Angeles in 1928. In November 1930 Hunt visited Bynner in Santa Fe to recuperate from a stress-related illness, following six months of long days working as Assistant Manager and Treasurer of the Paramount Public Theatres in Portland, Oregon.

James Kraft, Bynner’s biographer, describes the young Hunt:

“Bob, Bobby, sometimes called Monté, was twenty-four when he came to Bynner’s house. Tall, lean, elegantly handsome in the way of Robert Taylor or Robert Montgomery, with a brisk, debonair walk and an easy way of dressing, wearing clothes so well they seemed insignificant, he had a fine, clear voice, excellent manners, little formal education but a crackling sharp mind, and was well read and intelligent about history, art, and literature. He had tried all kinds of schools and jobs but could “do” nothing, and his patient father, the well-known California architect Myron Hunt, had attempted everything he could think of to help him.”

This 1930 visit began a partnership which lasted until Hunt’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1964. Hunt became not only Bynner’s partner, but his business manager, editor and, when the much-older poet struggled with serious health issues in his later life, his primary care-giver.

In 1931, Hunt and Bynner visited Taxco and Chapala. A few years later, they rented a house in Chapala (from late November 1934 to late April 1935) with poet and novelist Arthur Davison Ficke and his second wife Gladys, an artist.

l to r: Robert Hunt, Galdys Ficke, Arthur Ficke, ca 1935. [Source: Kraft: "Who is Witter Bynner"?]

Robert Hunt (left), Gladys Ficke, Arthur Ficke, ca 1935. [Source: Kraft: “Who is Witter Bynner”?]

In December 1936, Bynner and Hunt collected Bynner’s mother at Mexico City airport and toured around with her, including a stay at the Arzapalo Hotel in Chapala. Bynner’s mother, who did not get on well with Hunt, died in November 1937.

In 1940, Bynner bought a home in Chapala, close to the square at Galeana #441 (the street name was later changed to Francisco I. Madero).

Hunt’s health issues caused him to be rejected by both the army and navy when the U.S. entered the second world war, but he served on the local draft board for a year. After a short break in Chapala in early 1943, Hunt left Bynner in Chapala and returned to the U.S. to further assist the war effort by working on the docks in San Francisco. Hunt rejoined Bynner in Chapala in September 1944; they did not return to Santa Fe until August of the following year.

In February 1949, Bynner had his first slight heart attack, but still visited Chapala with Hunt for part of the year.The following year, the two men, together with artist Clinton King and his wife Narcissa, spent six months traveling in Europe and North Africa, visiting, among others, Thornton Wilder and James Baldwin in Paris, and George Santayana and Sybille Bedford (author of a travelogue-novel about Lake Chapala) in Rome.

In the 1950s, as Bynner’s health declined, he continued to visit Chapala, but Hunt took increasing refuge in the bottle, becoming angry and belligerent when drunk.

Hunt’s death in 1964 came as he was about to leave for Chapala to bring back more possessions from their winter home. Hunt had arranged for Bynner to be cared for in his absence by artist John Liggett Meigs. Meigs, in partnership with fellow artist Peter Hurd, later purchased the Bynner house in Chapala, complete with all its remaining contents.

Hunt wrote one collection of eighteen poems, The Early World and other poems, dedicated to Witter Bynner (Santa Fe: The Villagra Bookshop, 1936), and also compiled the collection of poems that became Bynner’s Selected Poems, with an introduction by Paul Horgan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936]

Sources:

  • Lynn Cline. 2007. Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers’ Colonies, 1917-1950. (Univ. New Mexico Press)
  • Mark S. Fuller, 2015. Never a Dull Moment: The Life of John Liggett Meigs (Sunstone Press)
  • James Kraft, 1995. Who is Witter Bynner? (Univ. New Mexico Press)

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

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Feb 222016
 

Elaine Gottlieb (1916-2004) was a novelist, author and teacher who lived for several months in Ajijic in the second half of 1946. She traveled to Mexico shortly after completing her first novel, Darkling, which was published the following year. She used her experiences in Ajijic as the basis for a short story, “Passage Through Stars”, published many years later, in Noonday #2, 1959.

Gottlieb’s decision to visit Mexico was apparently at the suggestion of Robert Motherwell, her art teacher one summer at Black Mountain College. (By coincidence, another former Black Mountain College art student, Nicolas Muzenic, lived in Ajijic shortly afterwards, from about 1948 to 1950).

noonday-2-coverIn Ajijic, Gottlieb stayed at the collection of small cottages on the water’s edge known as Casa Heuer, run by a German brother and sister (Pablo and Liesel), where communal dinner was the norm. At mealtimes, Gottlieb found herself drawn to a handsome, smartly-dressed, charismatic older man, Elliot Chess, a flying ace from the first world war whose stories and anecdotes kept his mealtime companions spellbound.

She was 30 years of age, he was 46; within two weeks they were engaged. To celebrate, on 15 September 1946, they caught a bus to Guadalajara. Gunmen attacked the bus and Gottlieb credited Chess with saving her life. Their precipitous, but short-lived, relationship led to the birth of Nola Elian Chess (her middle name is a combination of Elliot and Elaine) in New York in July 1947, which turned out to have life-changing consequences for Gottlieb and her future family.

[Nola, conceived in Mexico and born in New York, developed a brilliant mind, but died at the tragically-young age of twenty-five after a prolonged struggle with schizophrenia. Gottlieb’s younger son, Robin Hemley, has written an absorbing account of the life of his older half-sister: Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness.]

In Gottlieb’s “Passage Through Stars”, Casa Heuer is transformed into Casa Unger, with Elaine becoming Emma and Elliot renamed Claude. The fictional names of the inn’s owners are Don Ernesto and Donna [sic] Sophía. The autobiographical story is a powerfully-told and moving account of her brief fling with Chess, exploring her personal doubts before, during and after.

She recalls her lover’s daily ritual swim in the lake:

“She would see him in the mornings, going down to the lake for his pre-breakfast swim; a shiny maroon robe flapped around his narrow legs. He would walk briskly, towel in hand, remove his robe in two swift movements, step out of his slippers, and, chin erect, approach the lake. Deliberately, he would plunge his head in, shake it vigorously, stand waiting a moment, and then plunge boldly. A little later, he would return, hand passing through his wet, mahogany-colored hair. Frowning against the light, he would continue to walk, martially erect, his head high and handsome, the face still young, eyes like the eyes of tigers.” [Passage Through Stars,  82]

According to Gottlieb, she and Elliot Chess lived together as man and wife there for two months, from mid-September (following the attack on the bus) to mid-November, at which point Chess returned to El Paso, promising to sell some of the land he owned there and rejoin her in New York in two weeks. Gottlieb, meanwhile, traveled by train to Mexico City and then to New York. Chess never made it to New York, and the two never met again.

In “Passage Through Stars”, Gottlieb says that Emma (herself) had “come to the pension alone, a widow, and had never fully recovered from her widowhood. Claude had happened on the scene…” but I have yet to find any mention elsewhere of Gottlieb’s former spouse.

Elaine Gottlieb. Credit: Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, by Robin Hemley

Photo credit: Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, by Robin Hemley

Gottlieb was born in New York City in 1916. Her mother, Ida, was a teacher in the New York Public Schools and eventually established the family home on Long Island. She gained a degree in journalism from New York University and studied art at the Art Students League of New York and at Columbia University. When Gottlieb was 25 years of age, she moved to Manhattan, determined to become a successful writer. During the summer of 1941, she studied at the Cummington School for the Arts.

During the second world war, Gottlieb had a job inspecting radios for the Signal Corps and also trained to teach photography to Army Air Corps recruits in Denver, Colorado.

In 1946, her short story “The Norm”, about an affair between a couple of college students, was chosen for inclusion in Martha Foley’s annual anthology The Best American Short Stories. The biographies attached to that and later stories say she had once sold books at Macy’s and written cables for The Office of War Information, as well as written book reviews for The New Republic, the New York Herald Tribune, Poetry, Accent, and Decision.

Her first (and only) published novel, Darkling (1947), tells the story of Cristabel, a young woman who yearned to become an artist, but was alienated from family and peers, and “lost in her own insecurities”. The book’s subject matter was ahead of its time and contemporary reviews were generally not favorable.

Prior to marrying poet and novelist Cecil Hemley (1914-1966) in 1953, on Nola’s fifth birthday, Elaine Gottlieb had been raising her daughter as a single parent. Despite a succession of family tragedies, Gottlieb continued to write short stories for publications such as The Kenyon Review, Chimera, New Directions, Chelsea Review, Noonday and Commentary, and also wrote “The writer’s signature: idea” in Story and Essay (1972). By the time of her death in 2004, she had still not completed two more novels that she had started many years earlier, including a mystery story based on a trip to England.

The Hemleys socialized with a glittering array of literary and artistic friends (including Robert Motherwell, Joseph Heller, Louise Bogan, Weldon Kees, Conrad Aiken, John Crowe Ransom and Delmore Schwartz) and became particularly close friends with poet and novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. The Hemleys helped translate and edit, several of Singer’s works from their original Yiddish, including The Manor (Penguin Books, 1975); Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (Peter Owen Limited, 1958); The Magician of Lublin (Bantam Books 1965); and The Estate (Jonathan Ball, 1970).

Gottlieb taught creative writing, literature and film at Indiana University (South Bend) in the 1970s. Several former students of Gottlieb have acknowledged her role in helping them develop their craft. They include Gloria Anzaldúa, a foremost Chicano feminist thinker and activist, and author of This Bridge Called My Back (1981); Borderlands/La Frontera (1987); and Interviews/Entrevistas (2000).

Elaine Gottlieb was also known as Elaine S. Gottlieb, Elaine Gottlieb Hemley, Elaine S. Gottlieb Hemley and Elaine S. Hemley.

Sources:

  • Elaine Gottlieb, 1959. “Passage Through Stars”, in Noonday #2, edited by Cecil Hemley and Dwight W. Webb, p 80-93. (New York: the Noonday Press)
  • Robin Hemley, 1998. Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness. (Graywolf Press).

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

Jan 302016
 

Charmin Schlossman lived in Mexico, mostly at Ajijic on Lake Chapala, from 1942 to 1945, while her first husband Marc Levy (they married in 1939) was on military service during the second world war. In Ajijic, she shared a house with Guadalajara-born artist Ernesto Butterlin (better known as “Lin”) and renowned surrealist painter Sylvia Fein. While in Mexico, Schlossman exchanged correspondence with Frida Kahlo.

Sylvia Fein (l) and Charmin Schlossman, Mexico City, ca 1944. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Fein.

Sylvia Fein (l) and Charmin Schlossman, Mexico City, ca 1944. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Fein.

Charmin Schlossman was born 24 October 1917 in Waukesha, Wisconsin and attended Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She then studied at the Community College in Milwaukee (1935–36), the University of Wisconsin (1936–37) and the Chicago Art Institute (1938–39) prior to living in Mexico. Schlossman initially visited Mexico on a tour, but remained there for several years. A chance meeting in Mexico City with fellow Wisconsin artist Sylvia Fein, who had attended the same high school, led to the two women living in Ajijic.

From 1946 to 1947, Schlossman traveled in Central and South America, collecting and studying hand-woven fabrics.

Shortly after her return to the U.S., a report from a meeting of the Brazos (Texas) chapter of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, held on 3 April 1948, says that “Miss S. L. Charmin (sic) exhibited some of her paintings and discussed the unusual technique which she developed using Duco as a medium. Her subjects were the Indians of the remote Mexican village of Ajaijic [Ajijic] on Lake Chapala, where she lived for several years.”

At about the same time, the Ninth Texas General Exhibition, 1947-48, included one of her oil paintings, entitled, “Sunset on the City”, priced in the catalog at $300.

Soon afterwards, and now known as Charmin Lanier, she took summer classes (1950 and 1951) at the School of Crafts in New Brunswick, Canada. Daughter Danielle Lanier was born in about 1950, and son Christopher two years later.

From 1951 to 1957, she was founding president and designer for Charmin Lanier Handwoven Originals, which made custom fabrics for draperies, upholstery, and clothing. Her design work was recognized in 1955 when she attended the International Conference of Design in Helsingborg, Sweden, as the American representative. The fair ran from 10 June to 28 August 1955.

Charmin’s daughter, Danielle Lanier Shelley (herself a professional artist) remembers a family trip to Ajijic in about 1958, when her mother introduced her to “Lin” Butterlin and to the Johnsons, an English couple who were long-time permanent residents of Ajijic.

Lanier continued to paint, and besides some earlier group exhibits in Mexico, she also exhibited (between 1947 and 1961) at the Kraushaar Galleries (New York), Chicago Art Institute, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Contemporary Arts Museum (which she co-founded), New Orleans National Exhibition, and Texas State National Exhibitions.

The Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, was established in 1948 to showcase new art and to document its role in modern life through exhibitions, lectures and other activities. Lanier had works added to the Museum’s Rental Collection in 1956 and 1957.

Lanier completed a formal art education degree at the University of Houston (1957–59) and started an art teaching career with a spell in the Houston Public Schools (1958–61). The Laniers then moved to California, where Charmin continued her art teaching career at the Palo Alto School District (1964–69) and the San Diego Community College District (1973–74).

After she met and married David Knock in 1974, she retired from art teaching to dedicate herself full time to painting. In the mid-1970s, she exhibited at the rental gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla.

Lanier had begun painting in what she referred to as her “hard-edge realism” style in 1954. Her son, Christopher Lanier, says proudly that “Charmin loved striking, vibrant colors and chose to paint only beauty. She said, “there’s enough ugliness in this world–I don’t have to immortalize it.”” She was largely self-taught in this style, and completed about 400 “hard edge realism” paintings between the mid-1960s and 1993, when ill health meant she could no longer continue to paint.

Charmin Lanier Knock passed away on 23 January 2002. In her memory, husband David Knock established the Charmin and David Knock Grove as a permanent memorial in the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, near Fort Bragg, north of San Francisco.

Her early experiences living in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, led Charmin Schlossman (later Charmin Levy, Charmin Lanier and Charmin Knock, as well as S. L. Charmin, Charmin S. Levy, Charmin Lanier Knock, and other variants) to lead a rich and expressive artistic life.

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks to Charmin’s husband David Knock, daughter Danielle Lanier, and son Christopher Lanier, for generously sharing invaluable information about Charmin’s personal and artistic life, via emails. (March 2015).

This is an expanded and updated version of a post from 22 March 2012.

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

Dec 282015
 

Author and poet Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968), known as “Hal” to his friends, had a lengthy connection to Lake Chapala extending over more than forty years. He first visited the lake and the village in 1923, when he and then companion Willard Johnson were traveling with D.H. Lawrence and his wife.

Bynner returned to Chapala in 1925, and later (1940) bought a house there, which became his second home, his primary residence remaining in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bynner spent two and a half years in Chapala during the second world war, and the equivalent of ten years of his life there in total.

Poet, mimic and raconteur Witter Bynner was born into a wealthy family. Apparently, he liked to recount stories about his mother, who, he claimed, kept $500,000 in cash in one of her closets.

He graduated from Harvard in 1902, having been on the staff of the Harvard Advocate.

Bynner published his first volume of verse, Young Harvard and Other Poems, in 1907. Other early works included Tiger (1913), The New World (1915), The Beloved Stranger (1919), A Canticle of Pan and Other Poems (1920), Pins for Wings (1920) and A Book of Love (1923).

In 1916, in an extended prank aimed at deflating the self-important poetry commentators of the time, Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke collaborated to perpetrate what has often been called “the literary hoax of the twentieth century”. Bynner and Ficke had met at Harvard and were to become lifelong friends. Ficke and his wife Gladys accompanied Bynner on a trip to the Far East in 1916-17. In 1916, Bynner writing under the pen name “Emanuel Morgan” and Ficke, writing as “Anne Knish” published a joint work, Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments. Intended as a satire on modern poetry, the work was enthusiastically reviewed as a serious contribution to poetry, before the deception was revealed in 1918. (Ficke, incidentally, later spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala, with Bynner, and wrote a novel set there: Mrs Morton of Mexico.)

Even though Bynner still became President of the Poetry Society of America from 1920 to 1922, the Spectra hoax was not well received by the poetry establishment, and Bynner’s later poetry received less attention than deserved.

Bynner traveled extensively in the Orient, and compiled and translated an anthology of Chinese poetry: The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, Being Three Hundred Poems of the T’ang Dynasty 618–906 (1929) as well as The Way of Life According to Laotzu (1944). He also amassed an impressive collection of Chinese artifacts.

In 1919, he accepted a teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley. Students in his poetry class there included both Idella Purnell and Willard “Spud” Johnson. When Bynner left academia and moved to Taos, New Mexico, in 1922, to concentrate on his own writing, Johnson followed to become his secretary-companion. In Taos, they met D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, and the four traveled together to Mexico in the spring of 1923. After a short time in Mexico City, they settled in Chapala, where the Lawrences rented a house while Bynner and Johnson stayed at the Hotel Arzapalo.

bynner-coverChapala with the Lawrences

Bynner’s memoir of this trip and the group’s time in Chapala is told in his engagingly-written Journey with Genius (1951), which is full of anecdotes and analysis. Among the former, for example, is the story told them by Winfield Scott, manager of the Arzapalo, who a few years earlier had been kidnapped by bandits who attacked the Hotel Rivera in El Fuente.

Bynner, who seems to have had near-perfect recall, describes Chapala and their trips together in loving detail, as well as providing insights into Lawrence’s work habits and mood swings. For his part, Lawrence appears to have been less than impressed, since in The Plumed Serpent he used Bynner as the basis for the unflattering character of Owen, the American at the bullfight.

Bynner’s poem about Lawrence in Chapala, “The Foreigner”, is short and sweet:

Chapala still remembers the foreigner
Who came with a pale red beard and pale blue eyes
And a pale white skin that covered a dark soul;
They remember the night when he thought he saw a hand
Reach through a broken window and fumble at a lock;
They remember a tree on the beach where he used to sit
And ask the burros questions about peace;
They remember him walking, walking away from something.

The Lawrences left Chapala in early July 1923, but Bynner and Johnson stayed a few months more, so that Bynner could continue working on his book of verse, Caravan (1925).

bynner-1961Bynner returned to Chapala in 1925, and a letter from that time shows how he thinks the town has changed, in part due to tourists: “Too much elegancia now, constant shrill clatter, no calzones, not so many guaraches, no plaza-market.” Among the changes, Bynner noted several other American writers and a painter in Chapala, making up “a real little colony” (quoted in Delpar).

Elsewhere, diary entries and other letters reveal why he liked Chapala: “The Mind clears at Chapala. Questions answer themselves. Tasks become easy”, and how he felt at home there: “Me for Chapala. I doubt if I shall find another place in Mexico so simpatico.”

Poems related to these first two visits to Chapala (1923 and 1925) include “On a Mexican Lake” (New Republic, 1923); “The Foreigner” (The Nation, 1926); “Chapala Poems” (Poetry, 1927); “To my mother concerning a Mexican sunset / Mescala etc.” (Poetry, 1927); “Indian Earth” [Owls; Tule; Volcano; A Sunset on Lake Chapala; Men of Music; A Weaver from Jocotepec] (The Yale Review, 1928); and “Six Mexican Poems” [A Mexican Wind; A Beautiful Mexican; From Chapala to a San Franciscan; The Cross on Tunapec; Conflict; The Web] (Bookman, 1929).

Bynner included many of these poems in the collection Indian Earth (1929), which he dedicated to Lawrence, and which many consider some of Bynner’s finest work. A reviewer for Pacific Affairs (a journal of the University of British Columbia, Canada), wrote that “Chapala, a sequence occupying over half the seventy-seven pages of the book, is a poignant revelation to one in quest of the essence of an alien spirit, that alien spirit being in this case the simple, passionate Indian soul of old Mexico.”

Among my personal favorites (though I admit to bias) is

A Weaver From Jocotepec

Sundays he comes to me with new zarapes
Woven especial ways to please us both:
The Indian key and many-coloured flowers
And lines called rays and stars called little doves.
I order a design; he tells me yes
And, looking down across his Asian beard,
Foresees a good zarape. Other time
I order a design; he tells me no.

Since weavers of Jocotepec are the best in Jalisco,
And no weaver in Jocotepec is more expert than mine,
I watched the zarapes of strangers who came to the plaza
For the Sunday evening processions around the band,
And I showed him once, on a stranger, a tattered blanket
Patterned no better than his but better blent––
Only to find it had taken three weavers to weave it:
My weaver first and then the sun and rain.

Later Chapala-related poems by Bynner include “Chapala Moon and The Conquest of Mexico” (two poems; Forum and Century, 1936) and “Beach at Chapala” (Southwest Review, 1947).

Bynner’s third trip to Chapala, with partner Robert (“Bob”) Hunt (1906-1964), came in 1931. The pair visited Taxco and Chapala, but Bynner preferred Chapala, claiming (somewhat in contradiction to his earlier letter about a “real little colony”) that, “Chapala survives without a single foreigner living there and, despite its hotels and shabby mansions, continues to be primitive and feel remote.” Of course, this was by no means true; there certainly were foreigners living in Chapala in 1931, including some who had been there since the start of the century.

When Bynner returned to Chapala for a longer stay in January 1940, he first stayed at the Hotel Nido, but not finding it much to his liking soon purchased a house almost directly across the street. The original address was Galeana #441, but the street name today is Francisco I. Madero. We will consider the history of this house in a separate post, but Bynner and Hunt regularly vacationed here thereafter.

At some point in mid-1944, Bynner had been joined at Chapala by a young American painter Charles Stigall, whose ill health at the time had caused him not to be drafted. He lived with Bynner while he recuperated. Certainly he was there in November 1944, as the Guadalajara daily El Informador (19 November 1944) records both “Mr Witter Bynner, famous American poet” and “Mr Charles Stigel” attending an exhibition of Mexican paintings by Edith Wallach, at the Villa Montecarlo. Among the other guests, at the opening were “Nigel Stansbury Millet (one half of the Dane Chandos writing duo); Miss Neill James; Mr Otto Butterlin and his “lovely daughter Rita”; Miss Ann Medalie; and Mr. Herbert Johnson and wife.” (The newspaper makes no mention of Bob Hunt, who was also in Chapala at that time).

In November 1945, Bynner lost his oldest and closest friend, Arthur Ficke. The following month, he returned to Chapala for the winter.

Bynner and Hunt continued to visit Chapala regularly for many years, into the early 1960s. He was well aware of how much the town had changed since his first visit in 1923. For example in a letter to Edward Nehls in the 1950s, Bynner wrote,

“The “beach” where Lawrence used to sit, is now a severe boulevard [Ramon Corona] which gives me a pang when I remember the simple village we lived in. The tree under which he sat and wrote is gone long since and the beach close to it where fishermen cast nets and women washed clothes has receded a quarter of a mile. But the mountains still surround what is left of the lake and, as a village somewhat inland, Chapala would still have charmed us had we come upon it in its present state.”

In February 1949, Bynner had his first slight heart attack, but still visited Chapala for part of the year. At about this time, his eyesight began to deteriorate. Bynner and Hunt, in the company of artist Clinton King and his wife Narcissa, traveled to Europe and North Africa for the first six months of 1950, visiting, among others, Thornton Wilder and James Baldwin in Paris, and George Santayana and Sybille Bedford (author of a fictionalized travelogue about Lake Chapala) in Rome.

Bynner’s final years were spent in ill-health. Bynner had almost completely lost his sight by January 1964, when he unexpectedly lost his long-time partner, Bob Hunt, who had a fatal heart attach just as he was setting out for Chapala, having made arrangements for Bynner to be cared for in his absence by John Liggett Meigs.

The following year, Bynner suffered a severe stroke. While friends looked after him for the remainder of his life (he died in 1968), Bynner’s doctors ordered that the famous poet was not well enough to receive visitors for more than one minute at a time.

Bynner left his Santa Fe home to St. John’s College, together with the funds to create a foundation that supports poetry. The house and grounds are now the Inn of the Turquoise Bear.

His passing marked the loss of one of the many literary greats who had found inspiration at Lake Chapala.

Sources:

  • Bushby, D. Maitland. 1931. “Poets of Our Southern Frontier”, Out West Magazine, Feb 1931, p 41-42.
  • Bynner, Witter. 1951. Joumey with Genius: Recollection and Reflections Concerning The D.H. Lawrences (New York: The John Day Company).
  • Bynner, Witter. 1981. Selected Letters (edited by James Kraft). The Works of Witter Bynner. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Delpar, Helen. 1992. The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican : Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935. (University of Alabama Press)
  • Kraft, James 1995. Who is Witter Bynner? (UNM Press)
  • Nehls, Edward (ed). 1958. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography. Volume Two, 1919-1925. (University of Wisconsin Press).
  • Sze, Corinne P. 1992. “The Witter Bynner House” [Santa Fe], Bulletin of the Historic Santa Fe Association, Vol 20, No 2, September 1992.

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.

Dec 172015
 

Painter, lecturer and art critic Stanley Belden Lothrop (1881–1944) lived the last two years of his life in Chapala. Lothrop, the younger of two brothers, was born in Newton, Massachusetts on 6 July 1881.

He graduated from Harvard in 1905, having studied architecture and fine art, completed a Grand Tour of Europe and was assistant curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lothrop spent several years in Rome, Italy, working at the American Academy as a lecturer on Renaissance and Medieval art. During the first world war, he became an official with the Red Cross, and was later decorated for this work by the Italian government.

Soon after his return to the U.S., he was hand-picked by famous American artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) and appointed as the first executive director of the Tiffany Foundation on Long Island, New York, in October 1919. This foundation had been established in 1918 when Tiffany donated his home, Laurelton Hall, at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island, together with eighty acres of land, buildings and an endowment of more than a million dollars, as the basis for an art institution.

Lothrop was the liaison between the foundation’s Board of Trustees, Tiffany, and the visiting “fellows”. Lothrop lived at Laurelton Hall in “an apartment above the fellows’ section”. “He monitored their work, managed the housekeeper, kept the budget, and enforced the three limitations placed on the fellows: no models, no finished pictures, and, during the life of the founder, no entrance to the main house without permission.” [1]

Lothrop, 1929

Tiffany, Miss Hanley and Lothrop leaving Laurelton Hall, 1929. (Source: Raymond Baxter and Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden papers, 1937-1996. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photographer unknown.)

Shortly after Tiffany’s death in 1933, Lothrop left the Tiffany Foundation, and later moved to Colorado Springs, where he was director of the Colorado Springs Art Center for two years. In 1942 he retired to Chapala, where he lived the last two years of his life. He died in Chapala in March 1944.

It is unclear precisely why he chose to retire to Chapala or what prior connections he had to Mexico, but it should be noted that in the 1940s (unlike today), it was quite an unusual thing to do.

Lothrop authored several works on art, including A bibliographical guide to Cavallini and the Florentine painters before 1450: including lists of documents and the more important pictures (American Academy in Rome, 1917); Bartolomeo Caporali (American Academy in Rome. With Albert William Van Buren, he co-wrote Classification of the Library (American Academy in Rome, 1915).

Lothrop also wrote an article about the Tiffany Foundation: “Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation,” in American Magazine of Art, Vol. 11: 49, Nov 1919.

Sources:

  • [1] Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen and Elizabeth Hutchinson. 2006. Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall: An Artist’s Country Estate. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
  • Stanley B Lothrop. Obituary in New York Times, 18 March 1944

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.

Nov 232015
 

Author, playwright and flying ace Elliot William Chess was in his late-forties when he spent several months in Ajijic at the small hotel Casa Heuer in 1946, but had already experienced far more than most people can manage in twice as many years.

Born in El Paso, Texas, at the turn of the century, Chess left El Paso High School when the first world war broke out and emigrated to Toronto, Canada, to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. His RFC papers give his birth date as 25 Oct 1898, though it is entirely possible that the teenage Chess inflated his age by a year or two to boost his chances of  acceptance.

He served overseas from age 18. After the end of the war (1918) he was the youngest American pilot to join the Kosciusko Squadron in Poland. He fought with them for two years in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), for which he was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military award.

Chess-elliot-Koskiuszko-squadron-insigniaEarly on, when the Squadron still lacked suitable insignia, Chess suggested a design (see image), apparently first sketched on a menu of the Hotel George in Lwów. With only minor variations, this insignia remained in use until after the second world war. According to Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud in A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II, the insignia includes “the red, four-cornered military cap that Kosciuszko wore in the uprising of 1794, plus two crossed scythes, representing the Polish peasants who had followed him into battle… superimposed on a background of red, white and blue stars and stripes representing the U.S. flag.”

In the Second World War the “Kosciuszko” Polish Fighter Squadron No. 303 was the highest scoring of all RAF squadrons in the Battle of Britain.

Captain Elliot Chess, who served in WWII in the “A” Troop Carrier Group of the Ninth Air Force, was presented with his “Polish Pilot’s Wings” at a special ceremony in June 1944.

In the 1920s, after the end of the Polish-Soviet War, Chess returned to El Paso and worked as an advertising manager with the El Paso Times. The biography of him on his 1941 novel’s inside back cover says that, since the first world war, “he has been a miner, an editor, a newspaperman, an advertising copy writer, a professional wrestler, a stunt flyer, a short story writer and a dramatist.”

Chess had fulfilled a childhood dream by becoming a published writer. He wrote numerous short stories and novelettes, published between 1929 and 1932, in magazines such as Sky Birds, Sky Riders, Aces, War Birds, War Aces, Flying Aces and Air Stories. He also worked for Liberty magazine.

chess-coverIn 1941, his first and only novel, Walk Away From ‘Em, was published by Coward-McCann. Nick Wayne, the hero of his novel is (no real surprise here!) a transatlantic pilot, who “tangles with three women – his ex-wife, Jo, a neurotic dipsomaniac, Fran, and Toddy Fate, young and untouched”. (Kirkus Review, which summarized it as “pop stuff” but “better than usual of its kind”).

The Elliot Chess papers, in the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of The University of Texas at El Paso Library, include drafts of two plays, Passport to Heaven, and Call it Comic Strip, as well as notes, photographs and other material.

It is unclear why Chess chose to spend the latter part of 1946 in Ajijic, but his sojourn there had several unexpected consequences. Already in residence at Casa Heuer (a small, rather primitive guest house on the lakefront run by a German brother and sister) was an attractive, more serious, younger writer, Elaine Gottlieb.

Despite their sixteen-year difference in age and their contrasting backgrounds (or maybe because of them?), the two hit it off almost immediately, with Gottlieb spellbound by Chess’s magnetism and captivating story-telling. According to Gottlieb, they lived together as man and wife for two months, from mid-September (when they were on a bus to Guadalajara that was attacked by gunmen) to mid-November, at which point Elliot Chess returned to El Paso, claiming he would sell some land he owned there and rejoin her in New York in two weeks. Gottlieb, meanwhile, traveled by train to Mexico City and then to New York. Chess never made it to New York, and the two never met again, but Gottlieb gave birth to their daughter, Nola Elian Chess, in New York City on 3 July 1947. (Nola’s middle name is a combination of Elliot and Elaine).

We can only speculate as to whether Elliot Chess’s aversion to moving to New York was in any way connected to his prior marriage there in 1930 to a “Jean B. Wallace”. It is equally plausible that Chess had no desire to be a father, having never known his own father.

chess-elliot-portrait-from-cover-2Chess died in El Paso, Texas, on 27 December 1962, at the age of 63, but left no will. When his aunt claimed to be the sole beneficiary, Elaine Gottlieb sought to establish that her daughter (whose birth certificate listed Elliot Chess as father) was entitled to a share of his estate. The case hinged on whether or not Nola was Chess’s legitimate child. Had Gottleb and Chess ever celebrated a legal marriage? In documents filed with the court, Gottlieb claimed that she believed they had been legally married, though she had no marriage certificate. The somewhat convoluted story is retold by Robin Hemley in  Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness. Gottlieb, who by then had married Cecil Hemley, failed to convince the court which concluded, even after an appeal in 1967, that Nola had no right whatsoever to any part of her father’s estate.

Elaine Gottlieb Hemley… testified substantially as follows:
“I married Elliot Chess September 15, 1946, in Ajijic, Mexico, and lived with
him until on or about November 16, 1946. Elliot did not make an application for a marriage license in the Republic of Mexico. I have no written evidence that I was married to Elliot. It wasn’t that kind of marriage. I said to him, ‘I take the Elliot to be my lawful wedded husband’ and he said to me, ‘I take Elaine to be my lawful wedded wife.’ I did not sign a civil registry of our marriage in the Republic of Mexico. Neither Elliot nor I appeared before any public official, by proxy or otherwise, to be married. On November 17th I boarded a train for Mexico City. Elliot kissed me goodbye at the hotel early that morning and that was the last time I saw him. I returned to New York and the appellant was born on July 3rd, 1947. Elliot Chess is the father of Nola Elian Chess.” (Court of Civil Appeals of Texas, Eastland.416 S.W.2d 492 (Tex. Civ. App. 1967) BUNTING V. CHESS).

Robin Hemley’s Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is a detailed account of his older, and brilliant, step-sister Nola’s life and descent into schizophrenia, and how it affected the entire family, including Elaine Gottlieb. It is an uplifting, if at times harrowing, read.

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.

Oct 222015
 

Sylvia Fein, one of America’s foremost surrealist painters, lived and worked in Ajijic from 1943 to 1946. She would love to learn the present whereabouts of one of her favorite paintings from that time.

Sylvia Fein: Three Ladies. ca 1945.

Sylvia Fein: Three Ladies. ca 1945.

Painted in Ajijic in about 1945, the painting shows three ladies chasing idols (see image). The model for all three ladies was the daughter of one of Fein’s close friends in the village. Fein lost touch with the painting years ago, but has always wondered what became of it.

It is probable that the painting was included in her first solo show in 1946, at Perls Galleries in New York, and it may have been sold at that time.

If anyone has any knowledge of where this painting is now, Fein would love to know! Please contact us!

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.

 Posted by at 6:00 am  Tagged with:
Oct 142015
 

Sylvia Fein, one of America’s top female surrealist painters, lived and painted in Ajijic from 1943-1946, and has fond memories of her time there. Now in her nineties, and living in California, she still paints every day, and says she will never run out of ideas or inspiration.

Fein has held relatively few shows, and her works are extremely rare at auction.

Sylvia Fein: Muchacha de Ajijic (1945). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Sylvia Fein: Muchacha de Ajijic (1945). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Several of her recent paintings, however, are included in “Cherchez la femme: Women and Surrealism“, a magnificent exhibition-sale being held by Southeby’s. The sale takes place in a few days, so hurry if you intend to bid!

Other artists, with strong Mexican connections, who also have works in this exhibition-sale, include Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and Remedios Varo. The show opened on

 

 Posted by at 3:48 pm  Tagged with:
Aug 132015
 

Ernest Walter Knee was born in Montreal, Canada, on 15 May 1907 and died in Santa Fe, New Mexico on 7 October 1982.

He is most often associated with the Santa Fe art community, but also traveled widely on assignment. Knee was a talented photographer who first visited Santa Fe in 1931; he fell in love with the location, and eventually became part of the flourishing art community there. Knee’s friends included a wide circle of famous artists and photographers, including Edward Weston, Gustave Baumann, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and Laura Gilpin.

knee-mexico-coverOver 100 of his powerful black and white photographs were the subject-matter for Ernest Knee in New Mexico: Photographs, 1930s-1940s, by his third son Dana Knee, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 2005. One of these photographs, dated 1941, depicts a lone sail boat on Lake Chapala, though it is unclear how much time he spent in Chapala.

A photograph of Chapala is also included in his Mexico: Laredo to Guadalajara (Hastings, New York, 1951). This book showcases more than 100 of his photographs, documenting a pictorial tour from Laredo to Monterrey, Linares, Villagran, Tamazunchale, Jacala, Venta de Carpio, Toluca, Morelia, Patzcuaro, Zamora, Chapala and Guadalajara.

Three of his images of Chapala can be seen on artworld.

Among Knee’s many other claims to fame is that he was, for a time, Howard Hughes’ personal photographer. He was also the first cameraman to record Angel Falls in Venezuela. His landscape and documentary photographs appeared in Life and National Geographic.

Institutions which have displayed Knee’s work include The Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame; George Eastman House, Rochester New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Center For Creative Photography, Tucson; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; California Museum of Photography, Riverside; Princeton University of Art, Princeton; The Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis; Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence Kansas; New Orleans Museum of Art New Orleans; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee; University of Oklahoma Museum of Art; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; New Mexico State University, Las Cruces; Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe; The Harwood Foundation, Taos.

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.

Jul 202015
 

María de Jesús Magallón Pérez (1924–1957) was one of the seven poets included in De Esta Tierra Nuestra; Antología Poética (Colección Sahuayo No. I, 1972). Besides being an award-winning poet, she was a social activist and the founder of a piano school, a writing school and the “Diego José Abad” Literary Circle.

Born in Jiquilpan on 24 March, 1924, Magallón Pérez studied in Jiquilpan, Jacona and Morelia. She demonstrated poetic sensitivity as a child, and had verses published in provincial newspapers from an early age.

She subsequently entered a convent, trained as a teacher, and taught in the states of Mexico and Nuevo León. Magallón Pérez married Roberto Villaseñor Espinosa (“Ticolín”), a poet-songwriter-historian who was also an ardent promoter of cultural events in the town of Jiquilpan, and returned to Jiquilpan in 1953. She established herself as a member of the “Sahuayo literary group” and dedicated herself to writing.

Her first book was Cuadernillo poético (Sahuayo, Michoacán 1953), centered on descriptions of the landscapes of her native Michoacán. In 1955, her poem “Raíz de llanto”, dedicated to the memory of Alfonso Méndez Plancarte, won a poetry competition in San Luís Potosí. The following year, “Ciclo de Navidad” was awarded top honors in a poetry festival in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco. That poem became the basis for a theatrical work which was also televised.

Magallón Pérez was preparing her third collection of poetry, Silbo y luna, when she died in Jiquilpan, on 19 December 1957, while giving birth, at the tragically young age of thirty-three.

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.

 Posted by at 6:42 am  Tagged with:
Jun 222015
 

Poet, writer and politician Honorato Barrera Buenrostro was born in the Lakeside town of Jamay (mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca) in 1870 and died in Ocotlán in 1952.

He left his home town for Mexico City at a young age. In Mexico City, he studied and wrote alongside Amado Nervo (1870-1919) and Luis Gonzaga Urbina (1864-1934). Coincidentally, Urbina’s own collection of poetry, Puestas de sol, includes “El poema del lago” (“The Lake Poem”), a lengthy poem inspired by a visit to Chapala. Barrera Buenrostro was also a good friend of the poet and novelist Rubén M. Campos, who had many links to Chapala.

Barrera Buenrostro subsequently returned to Ocotlán where he worked in commerce and as a telegraphist for the railway company. He later moved to Chapala, and was the Mayor (Presidente Municipal) of Chapala in 1924, during the time when Lic. José Guadalupe Zuno was the state governor (1923-1926).

aquel-famoso-remingtonBarrera Buenrostro’s work won various literary prizes, including ones awarded in Aguascalientes, Morelia and Mexico City. His best known works are a book of poems, Andamio de Marfíl (1947), and a novel, El rémington sin funda (1947).

The novel El rémington sin funda (1947) is based on the life of Rodolfo Álvarez del Castillo. Nicknamed “El Remington”, Álvarez del Castillo was a famous pistol-packing womanizer of the 1930s, who eventually fought a duel with a soldier in which both men lost their lives. Álvarez del Castillo was the brother-in-law of famous Mexican movie star María Félix and his life story became the basis for at least two Mexican films: ¡Se la llevó el Rémington! (1948), starring charro singer Luis Aguilar, and Aquel famoso Remington (1982), directed by Gustavo Alatriste.

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 182015
 

Ann (sometimes Anna) Sonia Medalie (1896-1991) was a muralist early in her career before becoming an outstanding painter of flowers and landscapes. During her six years in Mexico (1942-1948), Medalie made occasional trips back to San Francisco, but was actively painting in Ajijic on Lake Chapala for six months in 1944. American surrealist painter Sylvia Fein, who was living in Ajiijc at that time, has fond memories of Medalie, and greatly admired her artistic drive which, even then, enabled her to live from the proceeds of her artwork.

Ann Medalie: Flowers (date unknown)

Ann Medalie: Flowers (date unknown)

Medalie, born in Latvia on 17 April 1896, was the youngest of six children of Jacob and Beila (née Gluckman) Medalie. The family was forced to move to Lithuania when she was young. In 1921, after the first world war, the family emigrated to Chicago, where she studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago. Medalie also worked as a furniture decorator for more than a decade, first in Chicago, and then subsequently in Los Angeles (1928-1932) and finally San Francisco.

Paintings by Medalie were included in the shows of San Francisco Society of Women Artists (1937-41) and the San Francisco Art Association (1938-41).

In San Francisco, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, Medalie worked with sculptor Sargent Johnson (1888-1967) and was an assistant to Hilaire Hiler (1898-1966) on the colorful murals in the Maritime Museum. During San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940, Medalie assisted Diego Rivera (1886-1957) on a mural at “Art in Action”, becoming good friends with both Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and was also an assistant to Miguel Covarrubias when he was completing his incredible series of six murals (maps), the “Pageant of the Pacific“.

In 1942, Medalie moved to Mexico. While her precise itinerary is unknown, she spent six months or so in Ajijic in the latter half of 1944.

Medalie was one of the participating artists in a group show at the Villa Montecarlo in 1944 in Chapala, along with Sylvia Fein, Jaime López Bermudez, Otto Butterlin, Ernesto Butterlin (“Linares”), and Betty Binkley.

In November 1944, she was one of the many distinguished guests at the opening (at the same venue) of an exhibition of paintings by Edythe (Edith) Wallach. According to the Guadalajara daily El Informador, the guests included: “Sr. Jack Bennet and his wife; Nigel Stansbury Millet; Sir Harry Millet; Miss Neill James; Sr. Pablo García Hernández, representative of Teatro Mexicano del Arte; Mr Otto Butterlin and lovely daughter Rita; Mr Witter Bynner, famous American poet; Mr Charles Stigel; Dr Charles Halmos and wife; Mrs George de Huton (sic); Miss Ann Medalie; Sr. Herbert Johnson and wife, and many more.”

Ann Medalie: Ajijic washwewomen; illustration from Modern Mexico, 1945

Ann Medalie: “Washing Clothes – in Ajijic”; illustration from Modern Mexico, October 1945.

Two paintings by Medalie, “Net Fishermen (at Ajijic)” and “Washing Clothes – in Ajijic” were used as illustrations for Neill James’ article “I live in Ajijic!” in the October 1945 issue of Modern Mexico.

In early 1945, she held a solo exhibition in Mexico City at the Galeria de Arte Decoración (Venustiano Carranza #30). The list of works for that exhibition shows how significant her time painting in Ajijic had been, since several of the forty oils on show had clear links to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. For example she painted the garden at Quinta Johnson, as well as the view from Quinta Johnson. The Johnsons were long-time residents of Ajijic who had built their home and magnificent sub-tropical gardens on the lakefront. The originals of the two paintings used to illustrate Neill James’ article were also included in the show, along with a surrealist “Adam and Eve” and numerous realistic flower paintings. While Medalie did paint some surrealist works, she was best known for her exquisitely detailed and keenly observed flower paintings.

In 1948, Medalie left the Americas to live in South Africa. By 1951, she had moved to Israel, which became her home and studio for the remainder of her long, productive life. She was one of the founders of the artist community on Safed in Israel.

In her career as an artist, Ann Sonia Medalie held solo exhibitions in the U.S.A, Mexico, South Africa and Israel. She died in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 30 April 1991.

Related posts:

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 Posted by at 6:16 am  Tagged with:
May 182015
 

American artist and author Paul Alexander Bartlett (1909-1990) was a frequent traveler to Mexico who developed an obsession with Mexico’s ancient haciendas. Bartlett devoted years of his life to studying and documenting these haciendas (the mainstay of the colonial-era economy), gradually compiling an artistic record covering more than 350 of them throughout the country.

While it is not entirely clear precisely when Bartlett lived in the Chapala region, during his time there he painted and drew exquisite pen and ink drawings, such as this one of the Hacienda de Zapotitán, a short distance north of Jocotepec.

bartlett-hacienda-zapotitan

Pen-and-ink drawing by Paul Bartlett of Hacienda de Zapotitán, Jalisco

Bartlett explored Mexico with his wife, poet and writer Elizabeth Bartlett (1911-1994). The couple first met in Guadalajara in 1941 and married two years later in Sayula. Their son Steven James Bartlett (born in Mexico City and now a widely published author in the fields of psychology and philosophy) subsequently accompanied them as they roamed all over Mexico looking for photogenic and noteworthy haciendas.

Steven Bartlett recalls that the family definitely lived for some months in the Chapala-Ajijic area in the early 1950s. He remembers that his father knew author Peter Lilley (who, with first one writing colleague and then another, used the pen-name of Dane Chandos to craft, among other works, Village in the Sun and House in the Sun, both set at Lake Chapala). The Bartlett family also revisited the Chapala area several times in the 1970s, during the time they were living in Comala, Colima. During these later trips, his father gave lectures about haciendas while his mother gave poetry readings.

Bartlett eventually compiled the beautifully-illustrated book The Haciendas of Mexico: An Artist’s Record, first published in 1990 and readily available now as a free Gutenburg pdf or Epub. The book has more than 100 photographs and illustrations made in the field from 1943 to 1985 and is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the history, economics, art and architecture of Mexico’s colonial haciendas. For a brief review of this book, see The Haciendas of Mexico: An Artist’s Record on the Geo-Mexico website.

Bartlett’s hacienda art work has been displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum, the New York City Public Library, the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, the Instituto Mexicano-Norteamericano in Mexico City, and at the Bancroft Library, among other places.

An archive of Bartlett’s original pen-and-ink illustrations and several hundred photographs is held in the Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Texas in Austin. A second collection of hacienda photographs and other materials is maintained by the Western History Research Center of the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Paul Alexander Bartlett (1909-1990) attended Oberlin College and the University of Arizona, before studying art at the National University of Mexico (UNAM) and in Guadalajara. He was an instructor in creative writing at Georgia State College and Editor of Publications at the University of California Santa Barbara (1964-70).

Bartlett had dozens of short stories and poems published in magazines such as Southwest Review, Crosscurrents, Antenna, Etc, Greyledge Review, Prospice, and Queen’s Quarterly, and also wrote the short novel Adios, mi México (1983), and the novel When the Owl Cries (1960). Free online editions of several of his books are available via his author page on Project Gutenberg.

Acknowledgment

Sincere thanks to Steven Bartlett for sharing his memories of the family’s time in Mexico.

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

Apr 272015
 

Sylvia Fein, one of America’s foremost female surrealist painters, spent several formative years in Ajijic in the 1940s.

Born in Milwaukee in November 1919, she was only 19 when she met her future husband William “Bill” Scheuber. She studied at the University of Wisconsin, and the couple married on 30 May 1942. Even at that time, a contemporary newspaper described her as “Wisconsin’s foremost woman painter”. Fein was one of a group of six painters known as the Wisconsin group who exhibited together and remained life-long friends. The others were Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977), Marshall Glasier (1902-1988), Dudley Huppler (1917-1988), Karl Priebe (1914-1976) and John Wilde (b. 1919).

Sylvia Fein, Ajijic, c 1944

Sylvia Fein, Ajijic, c 1944. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Sylvia Fein.

While her husband was away on military service (as an Air Force cryptographer), she moved to Mexico in 1943 to recuperate from pneumonia. Initially, she visited her mother in Mexico City, but a casual encounter with a former high school classmate, Charmin Schlossman Levy, led to her traveling to Ajijic on the shores of Lake Chapala, where she lived and painted until 1946. Interviewed by the press more than sixty years later in Mexico City, Fein said that ever since that time, “I have loved Mexico and could cry on my return because I have the dust of Mexico on my heart”.

Her first show in Mexico was a group show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala in 1944. Other artists exhibiting in that show included Jaime López Bermudez, Otto Butterlin, Ernesto Butterlin (“Lin”), Ann Medalie and Betty Binkley.

During the years she lived in Ajijic, Fein was busy completing paintings for her first solo exhibition at the Perls Galleries in New York City in 1946. A sample of her works from this time can be seen at Work in Mexico, 1943-47, which includes images titled “Muchacha de Ajijic” (below) and “Insects that inhabit my studio in Ajijic.”

Sylvia Fein: Muchacha de Ajijic (1945). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Sylvia Fein: Muchacha de Ajijic (1945). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

She recalls on her website that, while in Ajijic,

she helped rebuild the adobe house in which she had her studio, taught English to a few young people eager to go to work in Mexico City, and started an embroidered blouse industry for women who owned the two foot-pedaled sewing machines in the village. In exchange for exotic insects brought to her by the children for her own drawings, she provided paper, pencils and crayons and noted thoughtfully how spontaneously the children drew, and their meticulous observation, dexterity, humor and enjoyment.” (Elsewhere, she is said to have also worked with a local women’s cooperative and helped on a friend’s farm during her time in Ajijic.)

She knew, and worked with, Neill James (who first arrived in Ajijic in September 1943), and this quote means that Fein was already helping local children develop their artistic talents almost a decade before James began a more formal program for children’s art in 1954.

In Dust on my Heart (1946), Neill James describes how Sylvia Fein “worked out some original designs” for embroidery as her role in one of the first village enterprises that allowed local women and girls to earn some money at home during their spare time. In addition, Fein played a key role in marketing the embroidered blouses in Mexico City.

Victor Serge, a Russian exile in Mexico, visited Ajijic over the Christmas-New Year period, 1944-45, and describes Fein in his diaries as having an:

irregular face where the forehead is too big, anxious and frustrated: her husband has been a long time in the war somewhere in the islands of the Pacific. She’s afraid of bad news and is hard hit by being on her own. She has the first-rate drawing of a diligent beginner, gladly turns over the pages of old albums, knows water-color, treasures Persian miniatures. As she’s dominated by frustration and anxiety, the canvases of a very mournful young girl result, naive, delicate and falsely naive, with remarkable symbolics of cats, birds, eyes.”

After Ajijic, and when her husband returned from the war, the couple lived for a time in Mexico City before driving, with Fein’s paintings, back to the U.S.. Before leaving Mexico, Fein did some exporting of silver jewelery, seeking out fine pieces and shipping them to an uncle who had a shop in Milwaukee. Fein dealt with many of the most famous silversmiths of Taxco.

At the U.S. border crossing on their return, the customs agent asked about all the paintings. After a brief discussion, it was apparently agreed that they were “antiques” and therefore exempt from duty!

Fein’s first solo exhibition was a great success. Reviewing the show for The New Yorker, Robert M. Coates wrote that,  “The Perls has a first one-man exhibition by a young Milwaukee artist named Sylvia Fein… whose work somehow manages to suggest the German Gothic and the Oriental at practically the same moment… her technique—firm, precise, and clear—is always authoritative.”

Later that year, her work was included in the 1946–47 Whitney Annual exhibition, alongside paintings by Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, and Jackson Pollock.

When WW2 ended and her husband Bill Scheuber returned from military service, they made their home in the San Francisco Bay area where Fein completed her MFA at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1951. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1962, Alfred Frankenstein extolled the virtues of Fein’s art: “Clarity, finesse, and perfection of draftsmanship are other virtues Sylvia Fein possesses. She is one of the most highly individual painters in the Bay Region and one of the most accomplished”.

After their daughter Heidi was born, Fein kept a meticulous record of her early drawings and artwork, which prompted her to write two landmark books about children’s art: Heidi’s Horse (California: Exelrod Press, 1976) and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking (Exelrod, 1992). The books have had a major influence on child development specialists interested in the creative process of young children.

Like Carrington, Kahlo and other great women artists of the past century, Fein is a solitary genius who has created a rich world on her own terms.”                  – Michael Duncan, Art in America, April 2008

In the past decade or so, Fein has finally received the recognition due her as one of America’s foremost surrealists. A series of major shows have placed her art alongside that of other great painters such as Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Miller and Dorothea Tanning:

Fein’s work also features in volume 2 of Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960, a four volume work by Maurine St. Gaudens (Schiffer Publishing, 2015).

Sylvia Fein’s other major solo exhibitions include: Perls Galleries, New York (1946); Feingarten Galleries, San Francisco (1957, 1959, 1961); Sagittarius Gallery, New York (1958); Lane Galleries, Los Angeles (1958); Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, California (1960); Kunstkabinett, Frankfurt, Germany (1960); Mills College Art Gallery, Oakland, California (1962); Ruthermore Galleries, Oakland, California (1962); Maxwell Art Galleries, San Francisco (1963); Nicole Gallery, Berkeley, California (1965); Bresler Galleries, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1966).

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Sylvia Fein for her warm hospitality during a visit to her home and studio in February 2015, and for being kind enough to review a draft of this post.

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.

 Posted by at 6:19 am  Tagged with:
Apr 232015
 

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was an African American playwright, artist and author of political speeches and essays. She studied art in Ajijic at Lake Chapala in the summer of 1949, mid-way through her studies at the University of Wisconsin, where she took classes in art, literature, drama and stage design.

Hansberry was born in Chicago on 19 May 1930 and died of cancer at the age of 34 in New York City on 12 January 1965.

Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

Her father, Carl Hansberry, was a prominent Chicago realtor who, in 1938, challenged the city’s racially segregated housing laws, by moving his family into a “restricted” area near the University of Chicago. The resulting violence, in which bricks and concrete slabs were thrown through their windows, prior to them losing their legal suit challenging the legality of restrictive covenants and being evicted from that home, subsequently inspired Lorraine Hansberry to write her best-known play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959).

A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The 29-year-old author became the youngest American playwright to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play over Tennessee Williams‘s Sweet Bird of Youth. The play was translated into 35 languages. A movie version of A Raisin in the Sun was released in 1961, starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee. The movie was nominated “Best Screenplay of the Year” by the Screen Writers Guild and won a special award at Cannes Film Festival. Raisin, a musical based on the play, opened in New York in 1973.

Lorraine Hansberry was only 15 years old in 1945, when her father, “in a final desperate act to escape racial oppression in the U.S.”, moved to a suburb of Mexico City. Carl Hansberry was making arrangements to relocate his family to Mexico when he died there the following year from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Lorraine Hansberry spent the summer of 1949 in Ajijic studying art, apparently first at a University of Guadalajara extension in Ajijic, and then afterwards at the Mexican Art Workshop run by Mrs. Irma Jonas. Teachers at the Mexican Art Workshop that year included Alexander Nicolas Muzenic, Ernesto Butterlin and Tobias Schneebaum.

The following summer she studied art at Roosevelt University in Chicago before moving to New York City, where she took courses in jewelry-making, photography and short story writing at the New School for Social Research. While living in New York, she became actively involved in peace and freedom movements.

Hansberry wrote several other plays, including The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which played for 101 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died.

Hansberry’s life and achievements inspired her close friend Nina Simone to write the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (lyrics by Weldon Irvine), first recorded in 1969.

At Hansberry’s funeral, a tribute message from Martin Luther King Jr. praised “her commitment of spirit” and “her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today.”

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1999, and the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2013.

Reference:

Steven R. Carter. 1980. “Commitment amid Complexity: Lorraine Hansberry’s Life in Action”, in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, Ethnic Women Writers I (Autumn, 1980), pp. 39-53.

Apr 162015
 

Robert Penn Warren, the great American poet, novelist and literary critic, was born in Kentucky on 24 April 1905 and died in Vermont on 15 September 1989. Warren lived and wrote in Chapala for several months in the summer of 1941.

Warren entered Vanderbilt University in 1921, where he became the youngest member of a group of Southern poets known as the Fugitives. Other members included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson and Merrill Moore. Warren’s first poems were published in The Fugitive, the magazine published by the group from 1922 to 1925.

From 1925 to 1927, Warren taught at the University of California, while earning his master’s degree. He also studied at New College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. After marrying Emma Brescia (nicknamed “Cinina”) and returning to the U.S. in 1930, he taught at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State, the University of Minnesota, and Yale University.

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

Warren was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He and Brooks also co-wrote a textbook Understanding Poetry (1938), which would prove to have a profound influence on the study of poetry in American colleges.

Warren, accompanied by his wife Cinina, visited Chapala in 1941, two years after the publication of his acclaimed first novel Night Rider.

Relatively little is known about their stay at Chapala, or their motivation in choosing to go there. However, Warren did have a family connection to the nearby city of Guadalajara. In Portrait of a Father, published in 1988, the year before his death, Warren wrote about the similarities between his father’s life and his own. Among the family members recalled in the book is Warren’s uncle Sam, who had worked in mining and lived in Guadalajara. Warren adds that he had often been there “during a long stay at Chapala”.

A few tantalizing snippets of information can be gleaned from the correspondence between Warren and his colleague Cleanth Brooks, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1998.

In a letter dated 17 July 1941, and signed “Red” (Warren’s nickname on account of the color of his hair), he wrote, from the Hotel Nido in Chapala, that Chapala was “a tiny town on a lake, surrounded by mountains, with a fine climate”, before providing some details of his living arrangements:

We have rented a little house, new and verminless, for which we pay six dollars a month, though getting it screened raised the rent several dollars more. A cook is a dollar a week, and food is cheap. The place beautiful, smelly and picture-postcardy. There are some Americans about, including Witter Bynner – who, in fact was about, very much about, with a palatial establishment, but he left yesterday for Colorado. But we have led a pretty isolated life here. Cinina was pretty busy for a few days getting the domestic machinery in motion, and I’ve been working and studying Spanish and swimming and going to the can more often than usual. Not that I’ve got a bug in me yet, but the complaint seems to be usual here upon first arrival…” (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, p 55)

He bemoaned his lack of access to American magazines,

We’ve seen one copy of Time, Latin America edition, but you can’t buy it here at Chapala, and we don’t go to Guadalajara, thirty miles away, but once a week…”

Chapala did offer him, though, a good space in which to think and work:

I’ve got some ideas for new poems, but haven’t done anything on them since arrival. The novel occupies most of my thoughts.”

“The novel” is presumably his second novel, At Heaven’s Gate, first published in 1943.

The following month, August 1941, he wrote that he had mailed a manuscript from Guadalajara to The Southern Review, but had to go to the city by bus because he was temporarily without his car:

We still like Chapala, but are getting awfully anxious for Baton Rouge. It seems that our car may be ready within a few days–though one can’t be too sure. I saw the body work the other day in Guadalajara, and you can’t even tell that the thing had taken a beating. But it has shore [sic] God played hell with what passes for the Warren budget.”

warren-robert=penn-at-heavens-gate

Warren also referred in this letter to “the unexpected arrival of the Albrizios”, friends from the U.S., whom “Cinina just happened to see”, “on the street at Chapala”. He excused his relative lack of work progress as being due to “matters of weather, stubbing toes, catching colds, having hangovers, and such…”

By coincidence, the house rented by Warren was later the home in 1952/1953 of Willard Marsh, author of the novel Week With No Friday (set at Lake Chapala), and his wife George. The owner of the house remembered “Red” as “a nice person with “red” hair who drank a lot – and gave wonderful parties!”

Warren’s marriage to Cinina ended in 1951; the following year, he married Eleanor Clark. He received numerous awards for his work, including the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for The Novel for All the King’s Men (1946), as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in both 1958 and 1979. Warren is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. He was appointed as the first poet laureate of the United States (1986 -1987).

Two of Warren’s works were subsequently turned into movies: All the King’s Men (1949) and Band of Angels (1957).

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