Sep 212017
 

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

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

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

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

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

 

Sep 042017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance. (Jorgensen. 2014)

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance. (from Jorgensen, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

 

Aug 242017
 

Bet Lamoureux was a writer and artist with close links to Los Angeles and to Desert Hot Springs in California. A short news item in the Palm Springs-based Desert Sun newspaper in 1951 says that Lamoureux was flying to Mexico City and Guadalajara in order to spend several months in Ajijic, where “Once settled in her Mexican paradise, she will write the book for which she has been gathering bright and humorous material for the past four years.”

Audrey Bernice (sometimes “Bettina”, usually known as “Bet”) Martin (her maiden name) was born in Riverside, California on 14 May 1909. She married Howard Lamoureux; the couple’s only son, Albert Howard Lamoureux, was born in 1939.

In the early 1940s, Howard Lamoureux was among the first to purchase lots when the new town of Desert Hot Springs was founded. According to a later newspaper report, Lamoureux “had enough faith In Desert Hot Springs to purchase the first two lots.” By 1949, Bet and Howard Lamoureux were hosts at Miracle Isle in Desert Hot Springs, but tragedy struck in April of that year when Howard became critically ill and passed away shortly afterwards.

In November of 1949, Bet is mentioned as being the owner of the Village Store but the family’s run of bad luck continued and she decided to sell the store the following year in order to spend more time with her son Albert who had fallen ill. During Bet’s ownership of the Village Store, it occasionally held art exhibits, including one in November 1949 of paintings by Marie Ropp, a “Grande Dame of Art” in California and the West.

As a writer, Bet Lamoureux had contributed a “very clever and refreshing column” about Desert Hot Springs to The Palm Springs News “for over two years”, coining the phrase “the friendly village on the sunny slope” as the most appropriate epithet for her home town.

In February 1951, now working on a book, Bet flew from California to Mexico intending to spend several months in Ajijic. Things did not work out quite as planned. While she had originally planned to return to the U.S. in June, she remained in Mexico a little longer and married John Addington in Mexico City on 11 August 1951. Addington was an electrician in Desert Hot Springs. The couple apparently met at the Writing Center of the Mexico City College.

Over the next few years, Bet Addington as she was now known, featured prominently in numerous arts and crafts fairs in Desert hot Springs, turning her hand to flower arrangements and opening, with her husband, a restaurant-gallery named Addington’s. The gallery held weekly shows during the winter season and the restaurant gained an enviable reputation for fine food. Details are sketchy but it appears that Bet Addington visited Mexico again in the summer of 1953.

In 1956, Bet Addington was instrumental in founding an artists’ group known as The Sand Witches. According to a local newspaper, the group was founded after Addington remarked that, “We are famous for our water and our wind. Let’s get in and feature our desert sand!” The sand paintings by members of the group were exhibited in clubs and art galleries all over California, sometimes as fund raisers for local charities. The other members of the group, active until at least 1960, included Dorothy Chester, Kay Farnum, Enola Hulbert, Betty Lukomski, Sally Sweet, Karen Thompson, Ginna Walker, Lillian Woods, Helen Young and Rae Taylor.

Grave marker for Bet Lamoureux. Photo courtesy of CRob (findagrave.com)

Grave marker for Bet Lamoureux. Photo courtesy of CRob (findagrave.com)

Bet Addington died in Orange County, California, on 29 March 1989. Sadly, we may never know whether or not this pioneering writer and artist of Desert Hot Springs ever completed the book she was working on when she visited Ajijic in 1951.

Sources:

  • Desert Sentinel (Desert Hot Springs, California): 10 February 1949, p4; 1 April 1949; 8 April 1949; 17 November 1949, p6; December 8, 1949, p6; 30 November 1950, p5; 14 December 1950, p9; 22 February 1951, p2; 23 August 1951, p1; 26 February 1953: p4; 16 April 1953, p1; 28 May 1953: p2; 13 August 1953, p5; 21 October 1954, p6; 20 November 1958, p 15.
  • Desert Sun: Number 30, 23 February 1951 p 8; Number 78, 19 May 1955; Number 234, 4 May 1967.
  • Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach), 17 April 1960, p 87.
  • Mexico City Collegian, 14 Jan 1954 – vol7 #6.

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.

Aug 212017
 

Orley Allen Pendergraft was born in Arizona on 12 May 1918. He worked as a school teacher for many years and was ordained as a minister prior to deciding to dedicate himself to art.

Even before he completed college, Pendergraft had made several visits to Mexico, usually to Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco) on the Sea of Cortés. He painted in Mexico for the first time in 1940 and spent part of 1951 in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. After 1959 he became a regular visitor to the town of Álamos in Sonora, establishing his permanent home there in the mid-1970s and living there for more than thirty years until his death on 22 November 2005.

His first one-person show was apparently in “the Guadalajara area”, but it is unclear whether this refers to a show in Tlaquepaque, for example, or to a location on Lake Chapala.

Pendergraft, “a native Arizonan of Cherokee and Anglo descent”, was born on his father’s dairy farm near Mesa and displayed artistic talent from a young age, winning an Arizona Republic art contest at the age of twelve. He also picked up street Spanish from the farm’s Mexican workers. He graduated from Phoenix Union High School and won an art scholarship to Carnegie Institute, but chose to remain in Arizona and, in 1938, entered the Arizona State Teachers College (now Northern Arizona University) at Flagstaff.

His mother insisted that he postpone his intended career as an art teacher and instead study for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, so Pendergraft next attended a seminary in Arkansas from which he graduated with a Doctor of Divinity degree. He was ordained as an Episcopal minister on 21 December 1943 by Bishop Block of California in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

By 1949, Pendergraft had been assigned to, and was teaching in, the diocese of New Jersey. In March of that year, he married a French nurse, Eleanor Madeleine Langpoop. This was also the year when he joined the Graphic Sketch Club in Philadelphia and decided to renew his art education by enrolling in the Fleisher Memorial Art School in Philadelphia. At some point in his career, Pendergraft also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia) and at the Art Students League in New York, where he had worked as a free-lance commercial artist for Young and Rubicam Advertising. Pendergraft had also spent a year in Europe, mainly in Paris and Spain.

By 1951, Pendergraft and his wife were living in Mount Hermon, California. The Santa Cruz Sentinel for 28 September 1951 reports that one of Pendergraft’s landscape paintings – Ajijic on Lake Chapala, Mexico – has taken the “coveted silver bowl” at the county fair for gaining first place in the watercolors landscape class, and that one of his oil paintings – a still life – had also won a first place award.

Allen Pendergraft. Ajijic. 1951

Allen Pendergraft. “La Esquina del Carrisal – Ajijic”. 1951. Credit: Figureworks.

This Ajijic painting (above) dates from that time and is currently listed for sale at Figureworks, a gallery in Brooklyn, New York.

From 1953-63, Pendergraft exhibited exclusively with the Artists Guild of America, Inc., both in Carmel and in their traveling exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Pendergraft was also invited to participate in an exhibit entitled “Sixty Living Americans”, held in New York and Miami. Pendergraft’s agent was art patron Joanne Goldwater. [By coincidence, Joanna Goldman used to reside at least part-time in Ajijic, and her father – former U.S. senator Barry Goldwater – exhibited photos of American southwest landscapes at the Centro Ajijic de Bellas Artes (CABA) in January 1998.]

Sadly, in 1959, Eleanor contracted an antibiotic-resistant form of tuberculosis and died shortly afterwards. The church granted Pendergraft early retirement and a pension, giving him the freedom to focus on his art. For many years, he divided his time between studios in Sedona, Arizona, and Álamos, Sonora.

According to the post “Allen Pendergraft” in the Álamos Interviews series published on the Álamos History Association website,

“Immediately after his wife’s death, though, and in a state of depression, he went to Mexico intent on drinking himself to death. Fortunately for him, the drinking only made his sick! He was out of money at a hotel in Southern Mexico, so the owner gave him a job tending the cash register at the hotel bar. While at work he met the playwright Tennessee Williams, who was looking for a location for a play he intended to write. Allen took Williams to Puerto Vallarta, then a small, sleepy fishing village, and Williams proceeded to write “The Night of the Iguana,” putting Allen in the play as the alcoholic priest. Allen was not pleased with the characterization!”

This wonderful story may have some truth to it. Williams completed the play, based on his 1948 short story of the same name, in 1961, and the famous movie version, starring Richard Burton, was released in 1964, so the time frame is about right. However, the Wikipedia entry about the play claims that, “The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon was partly based on Williams’ cousin and close friend, the Reverend Sidney Lanier, the iconoclastic Rector of St Clement’s Episcopal Church, New York.” It is of course perfectly possible that the character of the drunken defrocked priest is based on both men. [Note that Williams himself had spent the summer of 1945 in Chapala working on a play provisionally called The Poker Night,.]

Pendergraft’s religious training and art education came together in the mid-1950s. From 1956 to 1967, he worked, in association with his cousin Peter Carroll, on the liturgical arts commission in California, designing stained glass windows, murals and church furnishings in glass, mosaics and wrought iron for churches in many communities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Orinda, Sacramento, Portola Valley, Santa Clara, Pebble Beach, Carmel, Pasadena, Laguna Beach and San Diego.

In addition, Pendergraft was commissioned to paint the portraits of various senior ecclesiastical figures, including Bishop Banyard (whose portrait hangs in the cathedral in Trenton); Bishop Torres (whose portrait is in the cathedral of Ciudad Obregón, Mexico) and Bishop Block (San Francisco).

According to a newspaper piece in 1972, by which time he was becoming very well known as a painter of western landscapes, Pendergraft’s work was being exhibited “in La Posada and the Wesley Gallery in Sedona, Scottsdale’s Blue Flute and Saddleback Inn in Phoenix”.

Pendergraft was a member of the Artists Guild of America and his work won numerous awards in regional shows and fairs in California, as well as a first place in the New Jersey Summer Art Festival (Cape May). His oils and watercolors can be found in museums in New Jersey, Arizona and Massachusetts, and in private collections throughout the U.S.

Pendergraft wrote a family history entitled Pendergrass of Virginia and the Carolinas: 1669-1919, published in Sedona in 1977, and contributed the pen and ink drawings used to illustrate Ida Luisa Franklin’s Ghosts of Alamos, first published in 1973.

Pendergraft sold his Sedona house and moved full-time to Álamos in the mid-1970s. Most of Pendergraft’s paintings in Álamos were small enough to fit in a suitcase, and inexpensive enough ($25) to appeal to the tourists he met on the plaza. He did also paint some large canvasses, one of which is in the town’s Museo Costumbrista de Sonora.

When his failing eyesight brought an end to his painting career in the mid-1990s, Pendergraft was cared for by a local couple. After the husband’s death, and concerned about the financial future of his widow, Pendergraft married her not long before his own death in order that she could benefit from his social security, pensions and estate.

Sources:

  • Álamos History Association. Álamos Interviews: Allen Pendergraft. 21 June 2011.
  • Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona). 1939. “Valley Students Placed On Roll” in Arizona Republic, 10 January 1939, p 15; 14 June 1972, p 89.
  • Nancy Dustin Moure. Santa Cruz Art League Statewide Art Exhibition Index, First through Twenty-seventh, 1928-1957. (Publications in California Art, No. 12).
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, (California), 28 September 1951, p 5; 7 October 1951.

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.

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Aug 072017
 

At the request of a family member, we have removed our original profile of Marcella Crump (ca 1926-2017) and replaced it with this summary version. Crump was a photographer who was  active in Ajijic in the late 1950s and early 1960s and whose story is similar in some ways to that of Beverly Johnson who arrived slightly later.

Crump’s husband – Capt. David O. Crump, a B-47 pilot with the Air Force Strategic Air Command – was killed in January 1955 when two B-47s collided during refueling, leaving her to bring up their six young children. Marcella later took the family to Mexico and settled in Ajijic.

Crump initially rented Zara’s “beach house”, a small cottage positioned on the lakefront a couple of blocks west of the pier. This cottage had some very interesting renters over the years, including Lona Isoard, Mimi Fariña (the younger sister of singer Joan Baez), and Iona Kupiec, drama teacher and world traveler.

Gustel Foust. 2000. Painting of former Mallie Crump residence.

Gustel Foust. 2000. Painting of former Mallie Crump residence.

Later, the Crump family moved to a home (see painting above by Gustel Foust) near the church.

This photograph is of Raymond’s younger sister Hilda and other children, with the obligatory piñata, enjoying a posada, sponsored by the church, at the Escuela Marcos Castellanos (a Primary School for girls) in Ajijic.

Malle Crump. Hilda Crump striking piñata, ca 1960. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Hilda Crump striking piñata, ca 1960. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Raymond Crump remembers many of the people who were living in Ajijic during his childhood and adolescence, including Curtis Foust (son of Gustel Foust), Alice Bateman (eldest daughter of Laura and Jack Bateman), John Bruce, Eugene Quesada, and Alice Sendis and her two children: Gustavo and Milagro.

Ajijic has quite a long tradition of holding an annual globo (balloon) competition in which contestants vie to make a balloon that flies the furthest. Watching the event in about 1962 (below) were (left to right): Laura Bateman, Neill James, unknown, Alicia Sendis and Hilda Crump.

Malle Crump. Watching globos. From l to r: Laura Bateman, Neill James, unknown, Alice Sendis, Hilda Crump. ca 1962 {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Watching globos. From l to r: Laura Bateman, Neill James, unknown, Alicia Sendis, Hilda Crump. ca 1962 {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

The balloon made by the Bateman family dwarfed all others in this particular year, with the author-artist Jack Bateman proving his abilities in terms of design and construction.

Malle Crump. Bateman family's balloon dwarfs all others. ca 1962. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Bateman family’s balloon dwarfs all others. ca 1962. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

As one example of the many photographs that Marcella Crump took of the village of Ajijic, here is one of what was then Serna’s store, near the plaza, in the early 1960s.

Malle Crump. Serna's store, Ajijic. early 1960s. {reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Marcella Crump. Serna’s store, Ajijic. early 1960s. (reproduced courtesy of Raymond Crump)

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Raymond Crump for graciously sharing information about his mother and the family’s life in Mexico.

Want to learn more? (Sources):

  • Lake Chapala Society Oral History Project: Marcella Crump.
  • The B-47 Stratojet Association. Webpage [29 July 2017].
  • Lake Charles American Press (Lake Charles, Louisiana). 1955. “Four Crewmen Still Missing after 2 Stratojets Collide”. Lake Charles American Press, 6 January 1955, p 1. [and succeeding days]

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

Jul 202017
 

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

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

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, some things clearly haven’t changed!

Sources:

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

Jul 172017
 

Painter, sculptor and print-maker James Steg, who was Professor of Art at Newcomb College, Tulane University, in New Orleans for more than forty years, worked in Ajijic during the summer of 1958.

James Louis Steg (“Jim”) was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1922 and died in New Orleans in 2001. He gained his M.A. degree in Fine Arts degree from the State University of Iowa. He served in the U.S. Army during the second world war and was in a camouflage unit during the D-Day landings.

James Steg. The Picninc Scene. Etching and aquatint. Undated.

James Steg. “The Picnic Scene”. Etching and aquatint. Undated.

James Steg was art professor at Newcomb College for 43 years. Among his students in an etching class was Frances Swigart, who later became his wife.

Throughout his career, Steg was constantly exploring new printmaking techniques and he developed many innovative methods such as altering Xeerox prints with paint and chemicals. According to Doug MacCash, art critic for The Times-Picayune, age did nothing to diminish Steg’s boundless creativity or artistic output.

Steg spent the summer of 1958 in Ajijic, as evidenced by this brief entry in The Times-Picayune drawing readers’ attention to the opening of his latest art show in New Orleans:

“James Steg recently sold an etching “Bird of Prey” to the New York Public Library collection. This is the 23rd public institution to have purchased one of the artist’s works. Steg is back at the Newcomb art school after a summer stay in Ajijic.”

By lucky coincidence, one of his rare works from this time came up for auction in 2015. The etching, a studio print from the estate of artist and educator George C. Wolfe of New Orleans, is titled “The Goat Herder (Mexico)”.

James Steg. "The Goat Herder (Mexico)". Etching. 1958.

James Steg. “The Goat Herder (Mexico)”. Etching. 1958.

In addition to participating in dozens of group shows, Steg held many solo exhibitions. In New Orleans, these included shows at the IH Gallery at International House, the H. Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University, World’s Fair Expo ’84, and at Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts Gallery. He also had one-person shows in New York (the Weyhe Gallery; Associated American Artists), Philadelphia (Philadelphia Art Alliance), Dalls (Dallas Museum of Art; Cushing Gallery), Columbus (Ohio State University), Coral Gables (University of South Florida) and Oxford (University of Mississippi). His only recorded international solo show was at the USIA Exhibition in Ankara, Turkey.

James Steg. The work of five men. Etching. Undated.

James Steg. “The work of five men”. Etching. Undated.

A retrospective exhibition of his work, entitled “Thirty Years of J. L. Steg: 1948-78”, was held at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1978.

Among the many awards he received for his art were the Charles Lea Prize from Philadelphia Print Club, and an award from Lugano, Switzerland. Steg was named a Printmaker Emeritus by the Southern Graphic Arts Council.Steg’s works can be found in the permanent collections of numerous venerable institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the New Orleans Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum in New York, Dallas Museum of Art. Minnesota Museum of American Art and the Seattle Museum, as well as in 30 university collections and many private collections in the New Orleans area. Overseas, pieces by Steg are in the Museum of Modem Art in Sao Paulo, Brazil and in the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem.

Sources:

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

Jun 222017
 

George Abend (1922-1976), a jazz musician and prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area abstract expressionism movement, studied in Guadalajara in the mid-1950s, at which time he was a frequent visitor to Ajijic.

Born in New York City in 1922, Abend studied at the University of California, Berkeley (1946-47); the 1948–1950 California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco (1948-50); and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, France (1951-52), before moving to Mexico to study at the University of Guadalajara (1953-54).

George Abend. Untitled (1950).

George Abend. Untitled (1950).

A decade later, he taught art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Cedar Educational Center in Pittsburgh (1962-66) before moving to California and becoming a visiting artist at California State College (Los Angeles) and a film consultant at the University of Southern California from 1966 to 1969.

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

Abend was a close friend of Don Martin, a painter who established his studio in Ajijic in 1954, and of the Beat poet and photographer Anne McKeever who also had links to Ajijic. Don’s widow Joan Martin kindly drew my attention to the photograph (above) used for the cover of the second (Summer 1956) number of Climax, a small-circulation Beat magazine from that time, published by Bob Cass in New Orleans and printed in Guadalajara. The photo, taken by Anne McKeever, shows Abend playing the piano in Don Martin‘s studio in Ajijic, with Don’s then girlfriend, Lori Fair, on drums. Abend, an accomplished musician, also played drums, percussion and the clarinet.

Abend’s striking abstract works earned him the honor of having numerous solo shows, including Howard Gallery, San Francisco (1949); Metart Galleries (1950); Lucien Labaudt Gallery (1950, 1952); Galerie de France, Paris (1951); Olivetti Art Gallery, Guadalajara (1954); Batman Gallery, San Francisco (1961); Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania (1963); Howard Wise Gallery, New York (annually from 1963 to 1966); New York Six Gallery (1964); Hewlett Gallery, Pittsburgh (1965); Coast Gallery, Big Sur (1970); Fulton Gallery, New York (1973); and the University of California (1976).

George Abend, 1948. Photo by Harry Bowden.

George Abend, 1948. Photo by Harry Bowden.

His work was also chosen for inclusion in many group shows, including the Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association (later the San Francisco Art Institute) at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1949, 1950, 1960, 1961); Third Annual Exhibition of Painting, California Palace of The Legion of Honor (1949); and the Winter Invitational, California Palace of The Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1960).

Among the institutions in California holding works by George Abend in their permanent collections are The Oakland Museum and the Monterey Museum of Art.

Abend died in Santa Cruz, California in 1976.

Sources:

  • Thomas Albright. 1985. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945 to 1980, Univ. California Press.
  • Susan Landauer. 1996. The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionists, Univ. California 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 use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Apr 202017
 

Anne McKeever (1928-2002) was an artist, model, photographer and Beat poet who spent some time in Ajijic during the 1950s and was a close friend of the painter Don Martin and folksinger Lori Fair. Another of McKeever’s closest friends was Jeonora Bartlet, who lived in Ajijic in 1956-7 and later became the partner of American pop artist Rick Reagan. Many years later, McKeever and her husband, a former bullfighter, started an English-language school in Tapachula, Chiapas, and invited Bartlet to teach there.

Anne McKeever modeling Embassy Shoes. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

Anne McKeever modeling Embassy Shoes. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

McKeever was born in Middletown, Ohio, on 4 September 1928 and was interested in all manner of artistic activities from an early age. She was a bright student and took extracurricular classes in classical ballet, acting, painting and photography, before attending Teacher’s College in Greeley, Colorado.

In her youth she had been a member of a Chicago dance troupe, “The June Taylor Dancers”, and had done some modeling for advertisements. From Colorado, she went to New Zealand, where she studied in Auckland College and modeled for Christian Dior, Embassy Shoes and other firms. The photographer Clifton Firth (1904-1980) shot many of these campaigns. Sixty years later, ten images of McKeever, all taken by Firth in the 1940s, were included in a major 2003-2004 exhibit in Auckland, entitled “A Certain Style: Glimpses of Fashion in New Zealand”.

Anne McKeever modeling pyjamas. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

Anne McKeever modeling pyjamas. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

McKeever returned to the U.S. in 1950 to complete her university studies. She became associate professor in the history department at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, and also taught at Newberg High School. After she graduated from Linfield College in 1951, she moved to New Orleans, where she worked as a teacher and in the photographic labs of Greer Studios.

It was in New Orleans that McKeever first met artist Don Martin, artist and folk singer Lori Fair, and artist and jazz musician George Abend. They would meet up again a few years later in Ajijic. Joan Gilbert Martin alerted me to the photograph (below) used for the cover of the second (Summer 1956) issue of Climax, a Beat magazine published by Bob Cass in New Orleans and printed in Guadalajara. The photo, taken by Anne McKeever, shows Don Martin’s studio in Ajijic in 1955/56 with one of his paintings hanging on the far wall. Lori Fair is sitting by the drums and George Abend is at the piano. This image neatly conveys the close friendship of these artistically-talented individuals before their paths, and lives, diverged.

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

McKeever had left New Orleans for Mexico in 1953 at the invitation of the Instituto Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales to give English classes in Guadalajara, where she taught at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco until January 1955. Newspaper articles describe her jovial personality and list her hobbies at this time as painting (watercolors and pastels) and photography.

Early in 1954, Don Martin and Lori Fair also left New Orleans, to live together in Ajijic. Martin had several very productive months and his first solo show in Mexico opened at the Casa del Art in Guadalajara on 2 August 1954. Both McKeever and Lori Fair attended the gala opening, as did Archie Mayo, the Hollywood movie director; Nicole Vaia Langley, daughter of violinist John Langley; Peter and Elaine Huntington of Ajijic; artists Jose Maria Servin, César Zazueta and Thomas Coffeen Suhl; and Nayarit-born painter Melquiades Sanchez Orozco, who later became a legendary scocer commentator.

In January 1955, Anne McKeever left Guadalajara to oversee English teaching in the smaller neighboring state of Nayarit, as Director of the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Nayarit. She spent six months there, during which time she arranged two art shows featuring the works of Don Martin. The opening night for the first show, at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano in Tepic, in April, included a concert of folksongs sung by Lori Fair. The second show, in May in Santiago Ixcuintla and billed as the “Third Painting Exhibition, Mexican and International Artists”, included a painting by Anne McKeever entitled “The Women”.

Ad for New Orleans show, 1956

Ad for New Orleans show, 1956

McKeever returned to Guadalajara in the summer of 1955. In September, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco presented an exhibition of her photographs, described in the local newspaper, El Informador, as a “magnificent collection”. The reviewer praised McKeever an an “American who loves Mexico and its customs” and a “very original photographer”. The photos, taken in Guadalajara and Tepic with a simple camera in natural light, included portraits of people engaged in everyday activities: rotalistas (sign painters), street sellers, children and bricklayers.

A similar exhibition, entitled “Ojos sobre Mexico” (“Eyes on Mexico”) was held in New Orleans the following year at the Climax Jazz, Art and Pleasure Society. A portrait of McKeever on the flyer for her “Eyes on Mexico” series shows her wearing bullfighters’ watches while cradling her camera.

This chronology of McKeever’s life throws some doubt on the very precise time frame claimed by Penelope Rosemont in Surrealist Women: an international anthology that, “A fascinating surrealist-orientated group – including Carol St. Julian (aka Beavy LeNora, the Nevermore Girl) and photographer Anne McKeever – burst onto the scene in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1955.” Though McKeever retained links to the city, and had poems and photographs published there until 1960, she had left the New Orleans scene two years prior to 1955. Perhaps Rosemont is equating McKeever’s presence in New Orleans with the start of the journal Semina, which ran from 1955 to 1964?

Anne McKeever. 1955. "Terminal de Autobusses" - Guadalajara.

Anne McKeever. 1955. “Terminal de Autobusses” – Guadalajara.

After Guadalajara, McKeever moved to Mexico City where she taught English and renewed her friendships with Lori Fair (now married and calling herself Bhavani Escalante), Jeonora Bartlet and Rick Reagan. McKeever was an integral part of the then-vibrant Beat scene in Mexico City which included surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. McKeever and Lamantia were visited in Mexico City in 1959 by jazz poet ruth weiss, near the end of her lengthy trip through Mexico:

“In 1959, ruth returned from traveling the length of Mexico with her first husband, having completed her journal COMPASS, which includes an excerpt of her memorable meeting with two close San Francisco friends in Mexico City -poet and photographer Anne McKeever and poet Philip Lamantia. After talking all night in a café, they decided to climb the Pyramid of the Sun in the Mayan ruins outside Mexico City and catch the sunrise. Neither guides nor other tourists were there in the predawn chill. The climb to the top of the pyramid was easy, but ruth, paralyzed by fear of heights, had to be carried all the way down.” (Brenda Knight, 2009).

In that same year, 1959, weiss included several short poems about “Ana” (McKeever) in her Gallery of Women, a book comprised of poem-portraits of more than a dozen women poets whom she most admired and respected. Other poets whose portraits were painted in verse by ruth weiss included Aya Tarlow and Laura Ulewicz, the partner of Jack Gilbert.

Weiss also refers briefly to McKeever in her poem “Post-Card 1995”, writing “ANNE McKEEVER vanished in Mexico” and later, “ANNE McKEEVER your poems, your voice, your toreador’s baby where are they”. (This poem also describes Ernest Alexander, another artist closely associated with Ajijic.)

McKeever’s own work featured in the 5th issue of the Beat magazine Semina, published in 1959. Her photographic collage, “Musicians”, appeared in the same issue as an extract from “Compass” by ruth weiss, and a poem and translation by Philip Lamantia.

Anne McKeever. 1955. "Parting the Plaza". Eyes on Mexico series.

Anne McKeever. 1955. “Parting the Plaza”. Eyes on Mexico series. Guadalajara.

McKeever’s interest in photography continued unabated in Mexico City and led her to document bullfighters and the many activities occurring near the bull ring. She lived with bullfighters, took their photos, and even fought a young bull herself. This is how she first met matador Humberto Javier, the love of her life, the start of an entirely new chapter. Anne had an infant son (Felipe) and, after the couple married, they left Mexico City by train in 1960 to start a new life as a family in Tapachula, Chiapas. Their daughter Ana Andrea was born a couple of years later.

The newly married couple started an English-language school in Tapachula which is still in operation today. The Instituto Cultural de Inglés Javier McKeever was the first English language school in Chiapas and is now run by McKeever’s grandsons: Oliver and Lester Trujillo Javier, who have English teaching degrees. McKeever taught English there for more than forty years, becoming known locally as “Teacher McKeever”.

In about 1970, McKeever invited Jeonora Bartlet, then living in California, to teach at the school. Bartlet moved to Chiapas and lived there with her partner Rick Reagan for more than a decade, teaching English part-time. Reagan’s artwork was regularly displayed in the school.

McKeever’s daughter, Ana Andrea Javier McKeever, trained as a teacher of classical ballet before starting a school in 1979 for classical ballet, jazz and tap. It is now called the Royal Ballet Center, and is run by Ana Andrea’s own daughter, Andrea Trujillo Javier. The family has also opened a language center for Spanish courses: The Anne McKeever Language Center.

Anne McKeever, “Teacher McKeever”, died in Tapachula, Chiapas, on 14 July 2002, but the family’s numerous contributions to enriching the cultural life of Tapachula will live on for many years to come.

Acknowledgments

  • My sincere thanks to Jeonora Bartlet, Joan Gilbert Martin and Ana Andrea Javier McKeever for their help in piecing together this profile of a truly remarkable and inspirational woman.

Sources and references:

  • Climax magazine, #2, Summer 1956
  • Miguel Angel González. 2017. “En Memoria: Anne McKeever de Javier (1928-2002)” in Revista Morada Chiapas, March 2017.
  • Informador (Guadalajara) 5 Feb 1955; 15 Sep 1955; 12 Dec 1955; 5 Jan 1956.
  • Brenda Knight. 2009. “Return of the prodigal poet – ruth weiss in San Francisco Poetry Festival July 24“.
  • Anne McKeever. 1959. Photographic Collage (musicians) – in Issue 5 of Semina (1959)
  • Prensa Libre (Tepic), 24 April 1855:
  • Penelope Rosemont, 2000. Surrealist Women: an international anthology.
  • ruth weiss. 1959. Gallery of Women.
  • ruth weiss. 2011. can’t stop the beat: the life and words of a Beat poet. This includes “Compass” and “Post-Card 1995”.

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 302017
 

One of my more maddening failures in trying to piece together the history of the artistic and literary community at Lake Chapala has been my inability to corroborate the existence of the “Peter Arnold Art Studios” in Ajijic in the early 1950s.

The term appears in the obituary of author and serial adventurer Peter Elstob in The Independent (a now-defunct UK newspaper), written by his grandson, Ben West, but I have so far failed to find the exact same phrase used anywhere else. The Guardian obituary for Elstob refers to “Peter Arnold Studios”, omitting any mention of art. As we will see later, this may make more sense, though that writer’s claim that Peter Arnold began in 1951 is definitely false. Alex Bateman, in her valuable contribution to Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (2011), also refers to “Peter Arnold Studios”.

“Peter Arnold” was not a real person, but a business name used in Ajijic by Peter Elstob and his associate, Arnold “Bushy” Eiloart. In their various joint ventures, which lasted well into the 1970s, these two long-time friends got up to all manner of creative enterprises. This particular joint venture promoted Ajijic as an artistic vacation and retirement destination. Participants were housed in the Posada Ajijic and other rental properties as needed.

Elstob lived in Ajijic from late 1949 to April 1952. Eiloart lived there from either late 1948, or early 1949 until April 1952. Both men (with Elstob accompanied by his future wife – artist Barbara Zacheisz – and their infant son) returned together to the U.K. from New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that this marked the end of their involvement in the “Peter Arnold” enterprise in Ajijic.

Peter Elstob did not return to Ajijic for more than a decade. Eiloart may also have returned; he is recorded as traveling from New York to the U.K. in March 1955, though it is unclear whether or not he had revisited Mexico.

Even after their departure from Mexico in 1952, the business name “Peter Arnold” continued to appear in adverts promoting Ajijic. Either Elstob and/or Eiloart continued to be partners in the enterprise, without taking any active role, or they passed the business on. The most likely recipient would be Bob Thayer, who took over as manager of Posada Ajijic, the small hotel where “Peter Arnold” had been based, at about the time they left.

The earliest “Peter Arnold” ads appeared in 1949; I have also seen ads from publications in 1950, 1954 and 1956. I have yet to find any ads for “Peter Arnold” in non-U.S. publications.

The earliest ads (1949-1950), claim it is more than possible to live in Ajijic on $80 a month. For example, the Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona (16 August 1950) reprints an ad from the New Yorker magazine:

“Mexico $80 a month per person includes food, liquor, cigarets, your own three bedroom furnished house and patio, maid, and 17 foot sloop on magnificent Lake Chapala. English American artist colony in fishing village. Winter temp. 75, summer 85. Write Peter Arnold, Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico.”

These adverts certainly attracted attention. Among those who saw this ad and decided to try his luck in Mexico was Jack Bateman who moved from New York to Ajijic with his wife Laura Woodruff Bateman and their three young children in 1952. The couple quickly became pillars of the local community, making exemplary contributions to the local social, cultural and artistic scene. Laura Bateman ran one of the village’s premier art galleries for many years in the late 1960s.

"Hacienda Garden". This real photo postcard, with logo "Peter Arnold", shows the gardens of Posada Ajijic and was mailed in 1951.

“Hacienda Garden”. This real photo postcard, with “Peter Arnold” logo, shows the Posada Ajijic gardens and was mailed in 1951.

No similar adverts by “Peter Arnold” appear in 1952 or 1953. When they reappear in 1954, the costs of retiring to Mexico have been revised upwards: the quoted monthly figure has risen to $90 a month. Very similar ads, also quoting $90 a month, appear in 1956. For example, the one placed in Elk Magazine (July 1956) reads as follows:

RETIRE ON $90 A MONTH or less in a resort area, 365 days of sun a year, dry temp. 65-85°. Or maintain lux. villa, servants, ALL expenses $l50-250 a mo. Am.-Eng. colony on lake 60 mi. long. 50 min. to city of 1/2 million, medical center. Schools, arts, sports. Few hours by air. Train, bus, PAVED roads all the way. Full-time servants, maids, cooks, $6 to $l5 a mo., filet mignon 35¢ lb., coffee 40¢, gas 15¢ gal. Gin, rum, brandy 65¢-85¢ fifth, whiskey $1.50 qt. Houses $lO mo. up. No fog, smog, confusion, jitters. Serene living among world’s most considerate people. For EXACTLY how Americans are living on $50—$90—$150—$250 a mo., Airmail $2.00 for 110 Pages current info., prices, roads, hotels, hunting, fishing and living conditions from Am. viewpoint (Personal check OK) to Peter Arnold, Box 12, Ajijic, Lake Chapala, Jal., Mexico.

The ads appeared in a wide range of national and local newspapers. Several distinct P.O. Box numbers appear in these adverts. By using different boxes for responses from different newspapers or groups of papers, the advertiser could gauge the success of different media.

An almost-identical version of this ad appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and was used as an example of good copywriting in John Caples’ Making Ads Pay: Timeless Tips for Successful Copywriting, first published in 1957. Caples wrote, “I read the copy and found that it packed more sales punch into a small space than any ad I had read in a very long time.”

Anyone responding to these adverts was sent an information booklet giving more details about Ajijic and the costs of living there.

Interestingly, none of the adverts mentioning “Peter Arnold” (even in its earliest iteration in 1949) mention art workshops. The ads claim only that it is possible to live or vacation inexpensively in this Mexican village which has an art colony. The lack of any specific reference to art workshops suggests that this enterprise was a purely hotel management or real estate venture. The term “Peter Arnold Art Studios” used in Peter Elstob’s obituary in his native U.K. was perhaps a vanity expression, putting a bohemian spin on what seems to have been a straightforward capitalist enterprise embedded in tourism, not art.

Despite its lack of any clear link to art workshops, this advertising campaign is worthy of further study. It is the earliest prolonged campaign I have found so far that aimed to persuade readers in the U.S. (and indeed elsewhere) that Ajijic was an attractive and inexpensive place to live.

In succeeding years, many similar claims have been made. It was not to be many more years before the publication of the first book actively promoting Ajijic as the ideal place in which to live cheaply “in paradise”.

How did Arnold Eiloart and Peter Elstob first hear about Ajijic?

This is the big, as-yet-unanswered question. Perhaps Eiloart and Elstob first heard about Ajijic, and the attractions of living there, from the London theater circles in which they moved? In 1946, the two men teamed up with actor Alec Clunes to raise £20,000 for the lease on the Arts Theatre in London. After buying the lease there was only enough money for one production: Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. Fortunately, this was a financial success, and enabled them to finance several other plays, including the first production of The Lady’s Not For Burning by Christopher Fry.

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

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

Almost certainly, Eiloart and Elstob would have met Peter Lilley in Ajijic at some time, but it remains unclear whether or not they knew one another prior to the creation of “Peter Arnold”.

Acknowledgment:

  • Sincere thanks to Gail Eiloart for help in working out the timeline of her father’s visits to Ajijic.

Sources:

  • The American Legion Magazine, October, November and December 1954  [eg Volume 57, No. 6 (December 1954)
  • Anon. 2002. Peter Elstob. Obituary in The Telegraph, 31 July 2002.
  • Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) August 16, 1950, page 16
  • Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR)
  • The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) October 10, 1954, p 130
  • Elk Magazine, July 1956
  • Long Beach Independent (Long Beach, California), 5 Oct 1953, p 12
  • Los Angeles Times, 31 October 1954; 14 November 1954
  • New Yorker : 6 May, 13 May, 20 May, 22 Apr – all in 1950
  • Josephine Pullein-Thompson, 2002. “Peter Elstob. Writer with a passion for adventure and a flair for entrepreneurship“, The Guardian, 25 July 2002.
  • The Rotarian, October 1954, p62:
  • The Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio) Tuesday, December 14, 1954
  • Ben West. “Obituary: Peter Elstob; Writer and Activist for International Pen”, The Independent (London, England), 9 August 2002.

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 272017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnold Eiloart died 6 Feb 1981, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

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

Acknowledgments

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

Sources:

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

Mar 232017
 

American-born artist Barbara Jean Zacheisz Elstob painted in Ajijic in the early 1950s. She lived in Ajijic (where she met her future husband, the writer Peter Elstob) for more than two years, from late 1949 or early 1950 to April 1952.

Barbara Jean Zacheisz was born on 22 October 1924 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Chester E. Zacheisz was advertising manager of St. Louis University and only 37 years old when he died in March 1935. His widow, Claudette V. (McGowan) Zacheisz (known in the family as Claudia), was left with two young daughters: Virginia Lee (“Pat”) and Barbara Jean, the latter only ten years of age. Following her mother’s remarriage (to John “Jacky-Boy” K. Morton), Barbara Jean sometimes adopted his surname, calling herself Barbara Jean Morton.

Little is known about her early education but, in about 1947, having worked as a volunteer nurse (in her home town) during the war, Barbara, then 23 years of age, began to study art with Max Beckmann at the Art School of Washington University in St. Louis. Exiled from Germany, Beckmann, one of the most important painters of the first half of the 20th century, worked as an assistant professor in St. Louis for two years (1947-1949), before moving to New York City where he died in December 1950.

In 1949, Barbara, exhibiting as “Barbara Zacheisz”, was one of the talented young artists, all under the age of 26, whose work was shown at the St. Louis Artist Guild. The show opened on 28 February and ran to 7 March.

After St. Louis, she lived for a few months in New Mexico. It is unclear precisely when Barbara first arrived in Ajijic, but it appears to have been in late 1949 or early 1950. It may have been at the suggestion of Perry Rathbone, Director of the St. Louis City Art Museum, who had not only assisted Max Beckmann’s move to St. Louis, but was also a sponsor of the Ajijic summer art program. (The timing of Rathbone’s sponsorship of the Ajijic program is unclear, so it is equally possible that it was Barbara who first told Rathbone about art in Ajijic).

Barbara Jean Elstob: Chamula Indian. Date unknown. Reproduced by kind permission of Sukey Elstob.

Barbara Jean Elstob: Chamula Indian, Mexico. ca 1954.

Certainly, by the summer of 1950, Barbara was living in Ajijic, and had begun an affair with writer, entrepreneur and serial adventurer Peter Elstob. It was not, apparently, love at first sight. Elstob was co-organizing the “Peter Arnold Studios” in the village with his long-time friend Arnold “Bushy” Eiloart. It was Eiloart who, having talked Peter up to Barbara, first introduced them, only to be taken aback when told afterwards by Barbara that “he’s not so hot!”

The participants in Peter Arnold Studios were housed in the Posada Ajijic and other rental properties as needed. For most of Elstob’s time in Ajijic, his wife, Medora, remained in the U.K., looking after the couple’s first four children and preparing for the arrival of their fifth.

It is hard to imagine how Barbara’s emotions swung back and forth in 1950. By summer, she was in love with Peter Elstob, and was pregnant. Then, on 27 August, her mother died following a year-long illness. The obituary notice for her mother lists Barbara as living “at home” (i.e. in Missouri), suggesting that Barbara’s visit to Mexico was still being viewed, locally at least, as only a temporary one.

At about this time, Peter Elstob returned to the U.K. for a quick visit to his wife and children. When he returned to Ajijic at the end of September (1950) he was accompanied by his wife, Medora Leigh-Smith (clearly still determined to try to save their marriage) and two of their children: 11-year-old Penelope and 3-month-old Harry. The family lived together in Ajijic until May 1951 when Medora, recognizing that the marriage was over, returned to the U.K.

A few months earlier, in February 1951, Barbara had given birth to Elstob’s son, Peter Mayo Elstob, in Mexico City. Peter Mayo’s younger sister, Sukey, born a few years later in the U.K., recalls that her mother “often behaved as if her ‘real life’ began when she met our father. They were very much in love, right up to her death. He had enormous respect for her art and always supported her fully.”

Barbara Elstob. UNtitled. Date Unknown. Reproduced by kind permission of Sukey Elstob.

Barbara Elstob. Untitled. Date Unknown.

During her time in Ajijic, in addition to painting, Barbara also became a part-time tutor to Katie Goodridge Ingram, who would, much later, open an art gallery in the village, and her brother. The teenage Ingram, whose other tutors included John Upton and John Carson, used to exercise Peter Elstob’s two horses and gave riding lessons to his art studio “guests”. She remembers Barbara living at the “Johnson” house, named for its long-time occupants: Herbert and Georgette Johnson, an English couple who moved to Ajijic just before the second world war broke out. Ingram, who regrets that Barbara never taught her art, adds that Barbara was a heavy sleeper and needed to be woken up every morning. Peter Elstob (and Medora when she visited) lived a few blocks away.

Among Barbara’s artist friends in Ajijic were Ernest Alexander and his partner Dolly, who ran the Club Alacrán restaurant-bar. Through all their subsequent moves, Barbara and Peter Elstob kept several of Alex’s fine photographs of Ajijic and Lake Chapala, which the family still treasure today. Barbara had strong opinions as well as a good sense of humor. One of her Ajijic anecdotes was about when she went to a party and saw a tall, strikingly good-looking Mexican artist across the room. She marched straight over to him, exclaiming “Why, you’re beautiful”, only to be met with the encouraging rebuttal that “No, YOU’RE beautiful… I’m handsome!”

Barbara Elstob. UNtitled. Date Unknown. Reproduced by kind permission of Sukey Elstob.

Barbara Elstob. Untitled. Date Unknown.

In 1952, in order to remain close to his children, and with Peter’s marriage to Medora irretrievably broken, Peter and Barbara moved to the U.K. They arrived at Southampton (from New York) on 14 April 1952. The ship’s passenger manifest lists Peter Elstob as an author. The separate list of “aliens” (non-UK citizens) has Barbara Zacheisz, a 27-year-old artist, and her infant son, Peter. They settled briefly in St. Ives, Cornwall (1952), and married in Fulham, London, in September 1953, before living most of the following year in Tangier, Morocco.

Barbara Elstob. Preliminary sketch for painting. Date unknown. Reproduced by kind permission of Sukey Elstob.

Barbara Elstob. Preliminary sketch for painting. Date unknown.

Barbara Jean Elstob, as she was now known, continued to draw and paint, taking her sketchpads and painting gear with her wherever the family traveled. One of several unusual techniques she employed was to sketch out preliminary drawings for her paintings using newspaper text and columns to provide a ready-made grid within which to work out the best composition.

Barbara found inspiration for her art in the works of Joan Miró and she also admired the work of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. She rarely painted landscapes, preferring to paint portraits and groups of people. Her faces are distinctive and she painted several strikingly-powerful portraits of family members. The backgrounds in her work often feature repeating patterns, an effect achieved in some instances by applying spray paint using paper doilies as a mask. Like many other artists who found inspiration at Lake Chapala, many of her paintings use strongly contrasting colors and large, bold shapes.

Catalog, Arthur Jeffress (Pictures), 1955

Catalog, Arthur Jeffress (Pictures), 1955

In 1955, twelve of Barbara’s works were shown at Arthur Jeffress (Pictures), a gallery that had opened the previous year at 28 Davies Street, London. They included paintings from Mexico, St. Ives (1952) and Morocco (1954). Barbara also took part in a group show at the American Embassy in London.

In 1956, at the British Industries Fair at Earl’s Court in February, one manufacturer (possibly Lady Clare) was displaying a “range of glass dishes, tablemats and trays” featuring color “bull-fighting lithographs from Mexico drawn by Mrs. Barbara Elstob, who for some years ran a hotel in that country”. (Scenes of London painted by one of Barbara’s friends, American artist Judith Bledsoe, were used by the same manufacturer for a similar range of products.)

Barbara Jean Elstob: The Old Woman of St. Ives. ca 1973. Reproduced by kind permission of Sukey Elstob.

Barbara Jean Elstob: The Old Woman of St. Ives. ca 1973.

Prior to the birth (in 1957) of their daughter, Sukey, Peter and Barbara lived for a short time in St. Ives, Cornwall (1952) and about a year in Tangier, Morocco (1954). They spent part of 1957 in Venice and returned to Tangier in 1958 when Sukey was a baby.

In the mid-1950s, Barbara Elstob renounced her U.S. citizenship in protest at McCarthyism and became a British citizen.

The family eventually settled in a large maisonette (multi-level apartment) on Belsize Park Gardens in London. Barbara’s studio was at the top of the building and she completed a steady stream of paintings, more than sufficient to hold an exhibit at The Basement, a small gallery near Regent’s Park in September 1973.

Barbara Jean Elstob: Tuscan Mountain Village. (Painted left-handed ca 1985). Reproduced by kind permission of Sukey Elstob.

Barbara Jean Elstob: Tuscan Mountain Village. (Painted left-handed ca 1985).

Sadly, shortly afterwards, and at the very young age of 48, she suffered a massive stroke from which she never fully recovered. She completely lost the use of her right arm, her painting arm, but refused to stop painting. “Amazingly,” explains daughter Sukey, “she taught herself to draw and paint again with her left hand and although it was not quite the same, her wonderful style was completely recognisable.”

Peter Elstob remained devoted to his wife throughout the remaining twenty years of her life. The couple was able to enjoy traveling together and, among other trips, revisited Ajijic to see how it had changed. In 1980, a trip to Kenya turned into a real-life drama when they were stripped and robbed while strolling on a secluded beach. Only days later, they were dining in the restaurant of the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi when a bomb exploded, killing 20 people and injuring 80 others.

Barbara Zacheisz Elstob died in Hampshire, U.K., at the age of 67, on 17 September 1992.

Illustrations / Credits / Acknowledgments :

  • The Old Woman of St. Ives is reproduced by kind permission of Ellie Elstob-Wardle (Barbara’s granddaughter). All other illustrations are reproduced by kind permission of Sukey Elstob (Barbara’s daughter).
  • Sincere thanks to Sukey Elstob and Steve Wardle, Katherine Goodridge Ingram, and Adele Heagney, Reference Librarian at the St. Louis Public Library.

Sources:

  • Howard Derrickson. 1949. “Art and Artists: Young Painters in Guild Show”. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri, 28 February 1949.
  • The Panama American. “New British Pottery has American Look”. The Panama American, 12 Feburary 1956, p 6.
  • Sedalia Weekly Democrat from Sedalia, Missouri, 1 September 1950, Page 2 : “OBITUARIES Mrs. Claudette V. Morton”
  • Regina Shekerjian. 1952. “You can Afford a Mexican Summer: Complete Details on how to Stretch your Dollars During an Art Trek South of the Border” in Design, Volume 53, 1952, Issue 8, pp 182-197.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri, 30 March 1950, p 12; 31 March 1935, p 51.

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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Mar 202017
 

Peter Frederick Egerton Elstob (1915-2002) was a British author, adventurer and entrepreneur who lived in Ajijic from late 1949 until 1952.

Peter Elstob was born in London on 22 December 1915. The family lived in various places during Peter’s childhood, and his early education was in the U.S. where he graduated from Summit High School in New Jersey in 1934. He retained a mid-Atlantic accent throughout his life.

He ran away to sea and had reached Rio de Janeiro (and become engaged) before his father found him and persuaded him to attend the University of Michigan. When that failed to work out (Elstob failed the first year), his father then sent him to England to join the Royal Air Force. Some unauthorized stunt flying over the Queen Mary on its maiden voyage (to impress a girlfriend) soon put paid to that plan and Elstob was dismissed from the RAF.

Peter Elstob, ca 1968

Peter Elstob, ca 1968

Soon afterwards, he volunteered to fly with the Republican forces in Spain, but his intentions were thwarted when he was arrested on suspicion of being a spy and imprisoned for several months. His release from the Castle of Montjuïc prison in Barcelona, and expulsion to France, were due to the intervention of Medora Leigh-Smith, who subsequently became his first wife in Nice in 1937. Elstob’s experiences were the subject matter for his first novel, Spanish Prisoner (1939).

Soon after his marriage, Elstob became partners with Arnold “Bushy” Eiloart and his wife, Mary, in marketing Yeast Pac, a beauty mask product they had devised. The product was a success and gave both families financial security.

When the second world war broke out, Elstob’s application to rejoin the RAF was turned down, so he volunteered with the Royal Tank Regiment. He served in India, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Normandy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. This gave him material for several later books, including the novel Warriors for the Working Day (1960) which was widely translated and used in military classes to illustrate war-time life in a tank.

Following Elstob’s death, his former tank gunnery instructor, Chapman Pincher (long-time journalist and novelist) recalled one particularly memorable incident in Elstob’s “colorful career”:

“When I was his tank gunnery instructor at Catterick, Trooper Elstob always had money, a car and the necessary petrol. It transpired that all this derived from a chicken food that he was marketing. The packet admitted that the main ingredient was sawdust, but explained that this was to serve as a “filler” to offset the remainder, which, allegedly, consisted of high protein. Whether by accident or design, some of the packets eventually contained sawdust and little else and a court case ensued.
As the newspapers joyfully reported, the judge remarked that, perhaps, the real purpose of the product was to induce the chickens to lay eggs already packed in wooden boxes. Because Trooper Elstob was doing his military duty and looked like being a brave soldier, which he certainly became, he escaped with a fine.”

It is unclear how Elstob, back in civvy street after the war, first heard about Ajijic, and the attractions of living there, but it is possible that this was from the London literary and theater circles in which he moved.

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

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

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

In Ajijic, Elstob partnered Eiloart to form “Peter Arnold”, a joint venture that promoted Ajijic as a vacation and retirement destination. Participants were housed in the Posada Ajijic and other rental properties as needed. For much of Peter’s time in Ajijic, his first wife, Medora Leigh-Smith, remained in the U.K., looking after the couple’s first four children and preparing for the arrival of their fifth.

It was in Ajijic that Elstob met a young artist, Barbara Jean Zacheisz. Following his divorce from Medora, Elstob married Barbara in 1953. The couple had two children: Peter Mayo Elstob, born in Mexico City in 1951, and Sukey, born in the U.K. in 1957.

Elstob and Zacheisz left Ajijic for the U.K. in April 1952, traveling with their infant son and Estob’s business partner Arnold Eiloart on board the Queen Elizabeth.

The two men’s next joint venture came in 1958, when Eiloart attempted a trans-Atlantic balloon flight, with Elstob managing publicity. The attempt ultimately failed, but set a record for a gas-powered balloon flight that stood for decades. The story of this adventure is told in their joint book, The Flight of the Small World (1959).

Elstob’s other books included The Armed Rehearsal (1960); Warriors For the Working Day (1960); Bastogne: the road block (1968); Battle of the Reichswald (1970); Hitler’s Last Offensive (1971); The Condor Legion (1973); and Scoundrel (1986). The last-named is at least partly autobiographical according to Elstob’s family and friends.

In 1962, Elstob joined the writers’ organization PEN International, and later served (unpaid) as its general secretary and vice-president, during which time he was able to put the organization on a sound financial footing. He retired from this position in 1981.

Barbara suffered a severe stroke in 1973, from which she never fully recovered. Elstob remained devoted to his wife throughout the remaining twenty years of her life. The couple were able to enjoy trips together and revisited Ajijic on at least one occasion.

Elstob seems to have attracted adventures, danger and drama wherever he went. On a trip to Kenya in 1980, he and his wife were stripped and robbed while strolling on a secluded beach. Only days later, they were dining in the restaurant of the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi when a bomb exploded, killing 20 people and injuring 80 others.

Barbara died in 1992. Elstob’s own life – adventurous, unconventional and incredible – ended in Burley, Hampshire, at the age of 86, on 21 July 2002.

Acknowledgments

  • Sincere thanks to Sukey Elstob for her help with compiling this profile of her father.

Sources:

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

Feb 272017
 

Famed Hollywood writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. lived at Lake Chapala in the 1950s and returned several times thereafter. While living in Ajijic, Semple wrote The Golden Fleecing, a play that was produced on Broadway and subsequently turned into a movie. Semple is best-known for creating the big-screen and TV character Batman.

Lorenzo Elliott Semple Jr., whose uncle Philip Barry wrote Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, was born in New Rochelle, New York, on 27 March 1923 and attended Yale University for two years. He dropped out of Yale in 1941 to join the Free French forces led by General de Gaulle. He won the Croix de Guerre for ambulance-driving in the Libyan desert. Semple later served in the U.S. Army and won a Bronze Star.

Credit: The Aspen Times

Credit: The Aspen Times

After the second world war, Semple finished his degree at Columbia University before starting his writing career in the early 1950s as a critic for Theater Arts magazine and contributor of short stories to The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Women’s Home Companion and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Even though the precise dates when Semple lived in Ajijic remain unclear, before the 1950s had ended, he had written two Broadway plays – Tonight in Samarkand (1955) and The Golden Fleecing (1959), which was later adapted for the screen as The Honeymoon Machine, starring Steve McQueen – as well as several scripts for the small screen, including The Alcoa Hour (1955); Target (1958); and Pursuit (1958).

The strongest evidence that he wrote The Golden Fleecing in Ajijic comes from a short piece by Anita Lomax in the Guadalajara Reporter in 1967 in which she laments that Ajijic is losing its reputation as “sin city” and is becoming too respectable. She cites the case of a “Young playwright whose play, written here, was produced on Broadway and subsequently made a small fortune from the movie rights which he promptly spent. But he now lives in a Beverly Hills mansion with his beautiful wife and children since creating T.V.’s sensational Batman series.” The same newspaper reported in 1971 that Semple had returned to Lake Chapala for the first time in eight years, vacationing with his wife Joyce and their three children in Chula Vista, at the home of Dick Reiner. Semple told the Reporter correspondent that he thought people were getting tired of having to pay $3 to see a movie!

Semple married Joyce Miller in 1963. Their eldest daughter, Johanna, was born in Guadalajara in April 1963. A year later, they had their second daughter, Maria. The family moved to Spain in 1965. Following their return to Hollywood, they had a third child, Lorenzo (“Lo”), born in about 1967. Later, the family lived for more than two decades in Aspen, Colorado, before eventually moving back to Los Angeles.

It was while the family was living in Spain (1965-66) that Semple was asked by producer William Dozier to develop a television series based on the Batman comic books. The series was an immediate hit. Semple wrote the first four episodes, consulted on all the first season’s scripts and also wrote the screenplay for the feature film version, released in 1966.

After Batman, Semple completed numerous movie screenplays, often in association with other writers, including Pretty Poison (1968), which won best screenplay at the New York Film Critics Awards; Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969); The Sporting Club (1971); The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971); Papillon (1973); The Super Cops (1974); The Parallax View (1974); The Drowning Pool (1975); Three Days of the Condor (1975); King Kong (1976); Hurricane (1977); Flash Gordon (1980); Never Say Never Again (1983), in which Sean Connery reprised his former role as James Bond; Sheena (1984); and Never Too Young to Die (1986).

From 1984 to 1990, Semple taught graduate screenwriting at New York University. His students included John Fusco (Young Guns and Hidalgo), Susan Cartsonis (What Women Want) and Stan Seidel (One Night at McCool’s).

Lorenzo Semple Jr. died of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on 28 March 2014, one day after his 91st birthday.

Maria Semple (Semple’s middle child) is also a novelist and screenwriter. She has written several novels – including This One Is Mine (2008), the best-selling comedy novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012), and Today Will Be Different (2016) – as well as TV scripts for Beverly Hills, 90210, Mad About You, Saturday Night Live, Arrested Development, Suddenly Susan and Ellen.

Sources:

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

Feb 202017
 

Novelist Ramón Rubín (1912-2000) lived much of his life in Jalisco and was a staunch defender of Lake Chapala. Rubín never actually lived on the shores of the lake but his novel, La Canoa Perdida: novela mestiza (“The Lost Canoe: a mestizo novel”), reveals an excellent understanding of the people and places that make the lake such a special place. Sadly, the novel has never been translated into English.

In the early 1950s, Lake Chapala was in serious trouble. The lake level was going down rapidly, year on year, mainly due to a prolonged period of lower-than-average rainfall throughout the basin of the River Lerma, the main river feeding the lake. At the same time, the Jalisco state government was seeking to channel more water from the lake to satisfy the thirst of the ever-growing city of Guadalajara and federal authorities were prepared to give permission for wealthy landowners to reclaim farmland by draining sections of the lake. (This scheme would have echoed that in the early part of the twentieth century when a massive area of the lake was reclaimed for agriculture).

The hydrology of Lake Chapala is discussed in more detail in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Rubín had grown up by the sea and loved the lake. He had traveled widely throughout Mexico and seen some of the adverse impacts of so-called “development” schemes. In about 1948 he had seen dredgers working near Ocotlán on the north-east shore of Lake Chapala. Local people had no idea what was going on, which caused Rubín to investigate further. That research became the basis for the excellent geographical understanding demonstrated in the early chapters of La Canoa Perdida, first published in 1951.

As the lake’s problems intensified, Rubín became more politically active and in 1952 presided over Comité Provisional para la Conservación del Lago de Chapala, a committee formed to defend the lake. This organization morphed into the Comité pro Defensa del Lago Chapala and played a decisive role in preventing the implementation of any further reclamation schemes and opposing greater use of the lake for the inhabitants of Guadalajara. Heavy rainfalls in the second half of the 1950s eventually restored the lake to its rightful level.

In addition to his novel, Rubín published several later articles designed to draw attention to the lake’s problems. The most interesting of these, from our perspective, is his 1959 story, “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos” {“The Dredger, an almost-real story in three acts and three times”).

The lake’s outflow powered hydro-power generators immediately below the Juanacatlán Falls that supplied electricity to Guadalajara. In “La Draga”, an “ecological” story, a worker at the Hydro Company tries to convince people of the benefits of draining the lake further, claiming it would help avoid depriving central Mexico of power [a smaller lake meant less evaporation, an increased average depth and a greater head of water] while simultaneously giving farmers a bonanza when the former lake bed was transformed into productive farmland. In the story, this creates three new millionaires in a single season at Jamay [a town on the northern shore, mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca]. The story ends with an apocalyptic vision of the future in which the Lerma River is dry, only little meandering rivulets of water still flow, and most of the region now looks like the arid Chihuahua desert far to the north. The fact is, “we killed the lake, and now we’re paying for our crime.”

In La Canoa Perdida, as historian Wolfgang Vogt rightly points out, the extended descriptions of the lake in its early chapters are among “the best ever written about the lake”. But what about the book’s plot? The protagonist, Ramón Fortuna, comes from a ranch between Chapala and Ocotlán. Fortuna is an impoverished fisherman who supplements a meager income by hunting birds. He dreams of buying his own canoe.

One day he stumbles across two ringed birds (with tags from Winnipeg, Canada) and learns that each tag is worth the princely sum of 5 dollars. This unexpected good fortune gives him the chance to win the heart of “La Guera Hermelinda, the ambitious daughter of a neighbor and woman of his desires. Fortuna writes to claim his reward, but fails to include any return address, and therefore waits in vain for any money to arrive.

Incidentally, Rubín includes a wonderful line in his narrative comparing “gringos” to Mexicans, saying that the former write short letters but wage long wars, unlike the latter who do the opposite.

Fortuna decides to change career and goes to work at the hydro company at El Salto (giving Rubín the opportunity to explain the changes of rural life engendered by industrialization). Fortuna also turns his hand to clearing lirio (water hyacinth) and is part of a plan using dynamite to blow up the thick, clogged masses of aquatic weed.

At one point or another, Rubín introduces many of the famous Chapala legends and tales into his novel, including the story of El Señor del Guaje in Jocotepec, the history of Mezcala island, the sinking of the lake steamer at Ocotlán in the late nineteenth century and the presence of oil deposits in the lake.

Fortuna eventually saves enough money to buy a canoe named Amanda, but then discovers that it has gone missing from the shore where he left it. Did the waves come up the beach and float it away? Has it been stolen? Has it been taken by his rival in love? Fortuna searches desperately all over the lake for his canoe, allowing Rubín the chance to include detailed descriptions of many north shore settlements from Jocotepec to San Pedro Itzican, and all along the south shore, complete with their varied degrees of environmental damage. At one point, convinced he’s found it, he starts to row it away from a village, only to discover as the rightful owners pursue him, that it’s not really the right boat!

Eventually Fortuna finds his canoe on Mezcala Island (Isla del Presidio) where it has been hidden by a local. He steals his canoe back, almost sinks on his return trip to the shore, but finally gets home, only to find that his girlfriend has married his rival.

Like millions of Mexicans, Fortuna has had a constant struggle to make a living and to “be someone”, in a social and cultural environment that is hostile. This is a novel that can be read on so many different levels that it is worth reading and re-reading. It is one of the earliest novels in Mexico with an overtly ecological theme. At the same time, it is a sociological study of fishing communities that no longer exist. Rubín’s insightful narrative digs deep into the psyche of the many individuals – campesinos, engineers, technicians, hunters, mariachi musicians, traders, etc – that constitute the cast of characters in La Canoa Perdida.

This is a novel whose message resonates far beyond the immediate confines of Lake Chapala.

Sources:

  • Ramón Bustos, Luis. 2001. “Donde la sombra de Ramón Rubín“. Jornada Semanal, 16 de septiembre del 2001.
  • Rubín, Ramón. 1951. La canoa perdida: novela mestiza (Guadalajara: Ediciones Altiplano); illustrations by Víctor J. Reynoso. 483 pages. Reissued in 1993 by Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico, D.F.
  •  Rubín, Ramón. 1959. “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos”, in Xallixtlico, 1, 1 November 1959, pp 28-36.
  • Vogt, Wolfgang. 1989. “El Lago de Chapala en la literatura”. Estudios Sociales. (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara), Año II, #5, 37-47.

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.

Feb 132017
 

Mexican author Ramón Rubín Rivas (1912-2000) wrote a novel set at Lake Chapala: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza. He wrote more than a dozen novels and some 500 short stories over a lengthy career and this work, first published in 1951, is considered one of his finest, though it has never been translated into English.

Rubín was a particularly keen observer of the way of life, customs and beliefs of Mexico’s many indigenous groups. His writing is based on extensive travels throughout the country and prolonged periods of residence with several distinct indigenous groups including the Cora/Huichol in Nayarit and Jalisco, the Tarahumara (raramuri) in the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua, and the Tzotzil in Chiapas. His novel about Lake Chapala, which we will look at in more detail in a future post, is the story of an indigenous fisherman who wants to acquire a canoe, set against the background of a lake facing serious problems. During the 1950s, Rubín was an ardent campaigner for the protection of the lake when drought and overuse threatened its very existence.

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

The early history of Rubín’s life is hazy. His “official” biography states that he was born to Spanish immigrant parents in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on 11 June 1912, and that the family moved to Spain when Rubín was two years old. However, some researchers have found evidence suggesting that he was actually born on that date in San Vicente de la Barquera in northern Spain, and subsequently “adopted” Mazatlán as his birthplace as he became known as a Mexican writer. Rubín would apparently respond to questions about his birthplace by saying that his only source of information had been his parents, and they had said he was born in Mazatlán. The lack of a Mexican birth certificate is not surprising given that the public records in many parts of Mexico were destroyed during the early years of the Mexican Revolution, which erupted in 1910.

Wherever he was born, Rubín attended school in Spain until 1929 when, at the age of sixteen, he relocated to Mazatlán in Mexico. It was while taking typing classes in Mazatlán (as a means of earning a living) that he wrote his first stories, allegedly because he was sitting too far from the blackboard to copy what the teacher wrote as practice exercises. The teacher agreed that he could write whatever he wanted, provided there were no typing errors, and Rubín’s literary career was under way.

Working as a salesperson, Rubín traveled widely in Mexico. When he settled for a time in Mexico City, he had several short stories, based on his travels and experiences, published in Revista de Revistas. He later became a regular contributor to newspapers, especially to El Informador and El Occidental. Rubín’s direct approach to narrating stories owes much to his childhood, when he was entranced by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and by the adventure novels of Emilio Salgari.

In the Spanish Civil War (1938), Rubín enlisted as a merchant seaman on the side of the Republicans. While not formally a member of the International Brigades, he took a cargo of arms and ammunition to Spain and was lucky to escape alive. Franco’s forces dropped 72 bombs on his ship, none of which hit their intended target.

Rubín enjoyed a measure of literary success in 1942 with the publication of the first of an eventual five volumes of short stories, all entitled Cuentos mestizos (“Mestizo tales”). Later short story collections include Diez burbujas en el mar, sarta de cuentos salobres (1949), two volumes of Cuentos de indios (1954 y 1958), Los rezagados (1983), Navegantes sin ruta: relatos de mar y puerto (1983) and Cuentos de la ciudad (1991).

Rubín had traveled to Chiapas for the first time and lived among the Tzotzil in 1938. He put this knowledge to good use in his first novel, El callado dolor de los tzotziles {“The silent pain of the Tzotzil”) (1949). Literary critics consider this to be a seminal portrayal of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The novel goes far beyond mere description or adulation of indigenous lifestyles and is a genuine drama about the intolerance of an indigenous community towards a couple who are unable to have children. In line with tribal tradition, the woman is banished to the mountains, the man leaves the community to live for a time among the mestizos. When he returns, his mental state altered by his experiences, he spirals downwards and seeks refuge in alcohol.

In a later indigenous novel, entitled La bruma lo vuelve azul (“The smoke turns blue”) (1954), the main character is a Huichol Indian named Kanayame who is rejected by his father, stripped of his indigenous roots in a government school, and turns to banditry. Rubín’s other indigenous novels include El canto de la grilla (1952), La sombra del techincuagüe (1955) and Cuando el táguaro agoniza (1960).

In addition, Rubín wrote the novels La loca (1949), La canoa perdida (1951), El seno de la esperanza (1960) and Donde mi sombra se espanta (1964). Some of his work has been translated (into English, German French, Russian and Italian) and several stories have been adapted for the stage. Rubín also wrote a short autobiography – Rubinescas – and several screenplays, none of which was ever made into a film, though Hugo Argüelles’s 1965 film Los cuervos están de luto is a plagarized version of Rubín’s original story “El duelo”.

Given that Rubín’s books have a wide appeal – cited as valuable sources of information about people and landscapes by anthropologists, biologists, sociologists and geographers – and were acclaimed by famous contemporaries, including his good friend Juan Rulfo, and literary historians, including Emmanuel Carballo who saw fit to include him in his Protagonistas de la literatura mexicana – why is it that Rubín is not much better known?

First, many of his books had small print runs, and were often self-financed, not the work of major publishers. Many of his books are, therefore, very difficult to find.

Second, Rubín was very much an individualist and neither living in Mexico City nor a member of any mainstream literary group.

Third, according to the author himself, his public disagreements with another famous Jalisco novelist, Agustín Yáñez, who served as Governor of Jalisco during the crisis affecting Lake Chapala in the 1950s, led to him being denied support by any of Yáñez’s numerous friends. Rubín was a vigorous opponent, on ecological grounds, of many of the “development” (drainage) schemes proposed during Yáñez’s administration.

Indeed, when he was chosen as the recipient of the Jalisco Prize in 1954, he declined to accept it on both intellectual and moral grounds, not wanting anything to do with the Yáñez administration which he believed had failed to do enough to protect Lake Chapala. (He was eventually awarded the Prize in 1997).

Rubín was proud of the fact that his work was based on travel and first-hand research, and did not derive from library sources or from his imagination while sitting at his desk. His writing shows that action and plot are more important to him than relaying introspective thoughts or feelings. However, he disliked the suggestion, sometimes made by literary critics, that he was Mexico’s Hemingway.

Rubín lived the bulk of his creative years (1940-1970) in Guadalajara. He taught at the University of Guadalajara and owned two small shoe manufacturing companies in Jalisco, both of which he eventually gave to his employees. In the early 1970s, he spent three years in Autlán, in the southern part of the state, before moving to San Miguel Cuyutlán, near Tlajomulco, for a decade. He then lived in a seniors’ home in Guadalajara for two years. Notwithstanding the many websites that claim he died the year before, Ramón Rubín Rivas died in Guadalajara on 25 May 2000.

Rubín did not win as many awards as might be expected from the quality and originality of his work, but he was awarded the Sinaloa Prize for Arts and Sciences in 1996 and the Jalisco Literary Prize in 1997. Prior to either of those awards, he had been recognized in the U.S. by the award from the New Mexico Book Association in 1994 of their “Premio de las Americas”, as the writer “whose work best exemplifies the common humanity of the peoples of the Western Hemisphere” – a truly fitting tribute to this man of the people.

Sources:

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

Dec 122016
 

In my on-going quest to document the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala, I occasionally come across individuals about whom very little is known. In most cases, diligent research eventually unearths a few savory tidbits, even if I sometimes still lack sufficient material to compile a formal biography.

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapala

Salomón Zepeda is an exception. I have found absolutely nothing about this writer, beyond the fact that he is the author of La Ondina de Chapala (“The Water Nymph of Chapala”), a 149-page Spanish-language novel published in 1951 by Imprenta Ruíz in Mexico City. The cover art appears to be by “Magallón”.

I know there are a small number of copies in libraries in the U.S., including one in the “Southern Regional Library Facility” of the University of California Los Angeles. If you have a copy, or access to a copy, or know anything about this author, please get in touch!

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 012016
 

Robert Clutton (1932-2016) lived in Ajijic from about 1959 to 1961. His time in Mexico introduced him to the pantheon of ancient Aztec and Maya gods which so strongly influenced much of his later art. He revisited Ajijic several times after this initial extended stay in the village.

“Bob” Clutton, “Roberto” to his Mexican friends, was born in Wales on 5 June 1932 and passed away in San Francisco earlier this year, on 15 August 2016 at the age of 84.

He left Wales in 1949. Six years later, in October 1955, he was one of numerous artists exhibiting in the The Artists’ Union of Baltimore annual show. By 1959 he was living and working in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. Several of his paintings from this time can be seen on this Facebook page of the San Francisco Senior Center:

Former Ajijic gallery owner Katherine Goodridge Ingram remembers Bob Clutton as a lovely man, who was well-liked by everyone in the community. Clutton became increasingly fascinated by the “gods of ancient Mexico” and images of these gods became a frequent theme in his later paintings.

When he decided to leave Ajijic in 1961, he chose to move to San Francisco because that was where “all the interesting people he met in Mexico” were from. He continued to make his living as a professional artist in that city for more than fifty years.

Robert Clutton. 1959. Bullfight, Ajijic.

Robert Clutton. 1959. Bullfight, Ajijic. (Image from San Francisco Senior Center page)

A newspaper feature in 1968, entitled “Art by the Foot” described how Clutton, “a bronzed, bearded, no-nonsense British artist” was making “made-to-measure bas-reliefs” in his Divisdaero Street studio. The bas-reliefs, “designed to be decorative indoors and architectural assets outdoors”, used Aztec symbols and colors, and relied on the interplay of sun and shade to emphasize the materials, relief and texture.

Clutton was still producing “formal paintings” which also showed the influence of Mexico, and was represented by the Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco. A solo show of his oils and acrylics at that gallery in 1969 brought a wider audience for his work. Clutton also exhibited in Los Angeles and in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where a show of his oil paintings opened at Galeria Uno (Morelos 561) in Puerto Vallarta on 23 March 1993.

Robert Clutton. ca 1969. Tezcatlipoca in front of his smoking mirror seeing himself as Huitzilapochtli.

Robert Clutton. ca 1969. Tezcatlipoca in front of his smoking mirror seeing himself as Huitzilapochtli. (Vorpal Gallery)

In 1988, Clutton designed the poster for the 1988 Haight Ashbury Street Fair. He enjoyed social events, garden parties and dinners and surrounded himself with creative people, making for lively and entertaining discussions. In his final years, Clutton was active as an artist at the San Francisco Senior Center.

Sources:

  • Jane Clutton; personal communication, October 2016
  • San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, California Living, Week of March 31, 1968: “Art by the Foot” [copy supplied by Jane Clutton]
  • San Francisco Chronicle. 2016. Robert Clutton – obituary, San Francisco Chronicle from Oct. 2 to Oct. 7, 2016
  • Vorpal Galleries. Robert Clutton. 1969. San Francisco: Vorpal Galleries

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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Nov 282016
 

Travel writer and novelist David Dodge lived in Ajijic for several  months in 1966. He had traveled throughout the country and subsequently published a popular motoring guide covering all of Mexico. The book, Fly Down, Drive Mexico: A Practical Motorist’s Handbook For Travel South of the Border, was published by Macmillan in 1968, together with a Special Guide to the XIX Olympic Games that were held in October of that year in Mexico City.

dodge-david-cover

The book was revised and reissued the following year (1969) as The Best of Mexico by Car: a Selective Guide to Motor Travel South of the Border, from which these extracts are taken:

Except for the pescado blanco and pleasant scenery, there is no real reason to make the drive [from Guadalajara to Chapala] unless you have leisure for it and want to see how the other half lives. No tourist “musts” lie along the road to Chapala, and not much in the way of maybes. The lake’s north shore, like Cuernavaca, is simply an American retirement colony; sprawled out more, less expensive to live in and with fewer swimming pools, otherwise much the same.” . . .

“If you do make Lake Chapala an overnight side trip, taking the time to loiter along the way, a good place to spend a night is Chapala town. It’s the first community you come to on the lake shore, a pretty place remindful of Riva on Lake Garda, relatively un-Pepsi-Coked except for two enormous eye-popping billboards that challenge each other for maximum offensiveness to the eye as you come back to dock from what would otherwise be a very pleasant boat ride on the water. Chapala town is as popular with tapatíos, Guadalajarans, on weekend family outings as it is with semipermanent gringo residents enjoying a year-round climate even better than Guadalajara’s own, so best call ahead to make a reservation on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

The first motel you come to conspicuously by the side of the road where the road begins to wind down out of the hills toward the lake shore is both phoneless and unrecommendable. No problem here. Best place, a good one, to spend the night in Chapala town is the Hotel Nido, tel. 38, $7. It’s right on the (quiet) main stem a few steps from the lake. The Nido, essentially an American-plan hotel but not one liable to insist of American plan except possibly on weekends, serves one of the best inexpensive cubiertos in the whole countryside, with pescado blanco a specialty, and even better pescado blanco a la carta. Its chief rival in this specialized field is the Restaurant El Mirador, with a pleasant view overlooking the water. Incidentally, you may hear much of Chapala as a fishing resort. It isn’t one, for you. The lake does contain catfish, and a species of sunfish that can be taken by hook and line, with patience. The pez blanco, which becomes pescado blanco after it has been caught, is taken in nets, by professionals.

At Chapala town, Highway 35 becomes 94 and bears westward, right, along the lake shore, ann attractive drive. Two or three miles on, an almost exclusively gringo-built and gringo-occupied, brand-new retirement center, Chula Vista, offers the Motel Chula Vista, tel. 69 (Chapala), $12. This, cocktail bar and all, is as familiarly American as the rest of its community. It offers, besides the usual pool, a tennis court, golf privileges at a course next door and a coffeeshop serving hamburgers, pies, ice cream, sandwiches, all the familiar short orders. Many Americans would prefer Chula Vista to the Hotel Nido for these reasons.

Two or three miles beyond Chula Vista, 94 touches the fringes of Ajijic, a four-century old stone-and-adobe fishing village that is just beginning to suffer the onslaughts of Pepsi-Coke. Luck, relative isolation by bad roads until a few years ago and the determination of a fair-sized American colony to preserve its native Mexican ambiente have permitted the village to survive so far, much as San Miguel de Allende and Taxco have survived under the protection of Federal law and Guanajuato because of one man’s dictatorial determination. Ajijic has no motels, but a very attractive hotel on the lake shore, Posada Ajijic, tel. 25, $12. (The Monte Carlo, another good lakeshore stop-off on the road out of Chapala town, has still to open for business at this writing.) The Posada welcomes a drop-in trade for lunch or dinner at the family board, which serves a regular house cubierto. The only place in town serving a la carta meals (good) that are consistently acceptable by gringo standards is the Villa del Lago, no phone yet, write A.P. 81, Ajijic, Jal., $7, a nice small hotel in the middle of town one street west of the little central plaza. Other places on the lake or in the village offer mainly housekeeping accommodations.

Ten or eleven miles beyond Ajijic, 94 runs through Jocotepec, another fishing-village-turned-retirement-colony….

Source: Pages 137-138 of The Best of Mexico by Car: A Selective Guide to Motor Travel South of the Border. (1969)

Related posts:

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Oct 272016
 

Among the more innovative artists experimenting in Ajijic during the 1950s is one almost-forgotten American painter: Don Martin.

Don Martin in Mexico. (Credit: http://www.donmartinartist.com/)

Don Martin in Mexico. Reproduced by kind permission of Joan Gilbert Martin.

Donald Theodore Martin (1931-1989) lived in Ajijic from early in 1954 until late summer, 1961. As Joan Gilbert Martin points out, on the website she established as a tribute to her late husband, his “long stay” in Ajijic proved to be “a most creative period.”

Donald Theodore Martin was born in Akron, Ohio, on 17 June 1931 and died on 6 November 1989.

Martin studied at the Art Student’s League in New York City (1948), where his teachers included German-born abstract painter Carl Holty and Sidney Laufman, and at the Akron Art institute in Ohio (1949) with Leroy Flint. He also took classes in New Orleans, in 1953, with Charles Campbell.

It was during his time in New Orleans, that Martin met artist and folk singer Lori Fair, Beat poet and photographer Anne McKeever, and artist and jazz musician George Abend. McKeever left New Orleans to take up an English-teaching job in Guadalajara in 1953, and was instrumental in arranging several exhibits of Don Martin’s work shortly after he arrived the following year.

Martin moved from New Orleans early in 1954 to live with Lori Fair in Ajijic in a house she bought on Calle Nicolas Bravo/Galeana. He remained in the house even after the couple separated in about 1958, at which point Lori moved to Mexico City. Lori subsequently married and changed her name to Bhavani Escalante. Now well into her nineties, she lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Moving to Mexico brought Martin the self-confidence to experiment and explore different media. In the words of Joan Gilbert Martin, his widow,

“On arriving at the Mexican border, he told the authorities he was an artist and, to his surprise and delight, was treated with honor; in the states he would be told to get a job. He fell in love with the people, the animals (the bulls, the roosters, the stray dogs), the lake, and the mountains. And he found a home as an artist. His work was appreciated in the village, it was a productive time.”

By selling the occasional painting in the Posada Ajijic, he was able to keep afloat prior to his first major solo exhibition, held in Guadalajara, at the Casa del Arte (Av. Corona # 126) in August 1954. The show opened on 2 August and was a major success. Martin exhibited 35 works – 10 paintings and 25 engravings on paper – and sold 32 within half an hour, 31 of them to a single collector from California: Hollywood movie director Archie Mayo. (The other painting was bought by a local resident: U.S.-born interior decorator Alberto Dubin.)

Local critics applauded the originality of Martin’s work. The engravings demonstrated a “method of expression at once so modern and at the same time so primitive.” Guests at the opening included Lori Fair, Nicole Vaia Langley, Anne McKeever, Jose Maria Servin and Thomas Coffeen Suhl.

Later that year, Martin sent some of his engravings north to a restaurant-store in Sausalito. A note in the 31 December 1954 edition of the Sausalito News (California) says that “some unusual paintings by an artist named Don Martin” in Ajijic are about to go on show in the Glad Hand restaurant. They are described as “etchings on cardboard with colors ‘rubbed’ into the cardboard” that “realistically depict scenes in Mexico.”

For the first half of 1955, Martin’s friend Anne McKeever was the director of the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Nayarit, A.C. During her time there, she arranged two art shows featuring his work. The first, in April 1955, was held at the Institute (Lerdo Oriente #85) in the state capital of Tepic. Martin displayed crayon and ink rubbings over woodblock prints. The opening night included a folk singing concert by Lori Fair.

The following month, many of the same works were included in the “Third Painting Exhibition, Mexican and International Artists” at the “Traditional Spring Fair” in the Public Library of Santiago Ixcuintla, Nayarit. Works by several stellar Mexican artists were on display including lithographs by Clemente Orozco, José G. Zuno, Raul Anguiano and David Alfaro Siqueiros, and drawings by Dr. Atl and Diego Rivera. The international side of the exhibition was a painting by Anne McKeever entitled “The Women”, and about 20 works by Don Martin.

Many years later, Martin’s widow, Joan Gilbert Martin, reflected that Martin’s first show in Guadalajara turned out to have a significant negative impact on the artist’s desire to exhibit his work. Initially buoyed that his paintings and engravings had received such acclaim, Martin was devastated on hearing that an appraiser in Los Angeles had dismissed his work as derivative of Paul Klee. Martin did not know Klee’s work. Though he eventually found the comparison flattering, this critical appraisal gave the artist a decades-long aversion to exhibiting more of his work.

Joan Gilbert Martin has also drawn my attention to the photograph (above) used for the cover of the second issue of Climax, a Beat magazine published by Bob Cass in New Orleans and printed in Guadalajara. The photo, taken by Anne McKeever, shows Martin’s studio in Ajijic with one of his paintings hanging on the far wall. Lori Fair is sitting by the drums and George Abend is at the piano. This image neatly conveys the close friendship of these artistically-talented individuals before their paths, and lives, diverged.

In 1956, Don Martin spent about six months in the remote coastal village of Yelapa (near Puerto Vallarta) where he built a palapa house. The house itself no longer exists, but its foundations survived and are now used for the Yelapa Oasis resort‘s wellness center. Martin abandoned Yelapa when he realized that the climate was not conducive to works on paper.

Jeonora Bartlet, a mutual friend of Anne McKeever and Lori Fair, lived in Ajijic in 1957, as the partner of John Langley, and was photographed by Leonard McCombe for his December 1957 Life magazine article about Americans at Lake Chapala. While Bartlet was not part of the village art scene, she knew Martin and greatly admired his work. Bartlet, incidentally, later became the long-time partner of American pop artist Richard Hay Reagan (1929-2002) who disliked exhibitions just as much as Martin.

Coincidentally, this same Life magazine article was the reason why Joan Gilbert, Don Martin’s future wife, first visited Ajijic, and first met Martin. Gilbert and her first husband had been vacationing at the coast, “sweltering and miserable” in a “dank hotel”. On reading the article, they “immediately took off for the storied enticements of Ajijic.”

Don Martin. Untitled. 1960.

Don Martin with untitled painting. 1960. Reproduced by kind permission of Joan Gilbert Martin.

Martin left Ajijic in late summer, 1961, following a fall while painting a mural in a local gallery. The following year, an “International Exhibition”, a group show at the Alfredo Santos gallery in Guadalajara (Avenida Vallarta #1217) from 21 May to 20 June 1962 included some of his work. (Alfredo Santos himself lived in Ajijic for several years, but is best known for his evocative murals in the San Quentin prison in California: see Inside job: Alfredo Santos, muralist and painter.)

After leaving Ajijic, Martin moved first to New Orleans, where he was helped by gallery owner Larry Borenstein, and then to Venice, California. There, he re-met, and married, Joan Gilbert Martin and became friends with Beat artists Wallace Berman and George Herms.

He also renewed his friendship with author Steve Schneck, who had been living in Ajijic in the mid-1950s. In 1963, Schneck showed some of Martin’s artwork to artist Muldoon Elder, who had just opened the Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco. Elder was sufficiently impressed to travel immediately to Venice to find out more about the artist. The reclusive artist eventually agreed to a solo exhibit at the Vorpal entitled “Magic – like art – is hoax redeemed by awe”, the title of a painting that Elder particularly admired.

Don Martin. "Magic-like art is hoax redeemed by awe". 1960.

Don Martin. “Magic – like art – is hoax redeemed by awe”. 1960. (Credit: Muldoon Elder).

“I particularly admired a strange little painting set in a wine-colored velvet mat tucked into what-should-have-been-a-garish (but wasn’t) deep orange thin frame, especially after he explained that it was the recreation of an architectural drawing he had seen in an ancient manuscript that delineated the cross section, both above and below the earth, of a sacrificial temple and the surrounding courtyard. The ancient priests that had built it had found a way to inspire awe and wonderment by having the temple doors attached to rotating poles that flung the doors open as if by magic as the result of an ingenious underground device that only functioned after a large brazier in the courtyard had been ignited. The heat of the fire was devised to enter a tube that then inflated a large animal skin into a balloon-like shape that in turn tightened the ropes attached to the rotating poles and thus, as if by some mysterious force, the temple doors opened on their own and the ceremony could then begin.”

Don Martin. "He." 1970. (Credit: http://www.donmartinartist.com/)

Don Martin. “He.” 1970. Reproduced by kind permission of Joan Gilbert Martin.

That painting has an interesting story but another painting by Martin, called “He” (torched spray paint & acrylic on board), is among the most reproduced paintings of its time. It was used on the cover of What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop, edited by Gary Gach (Parallax Press, 1998), which won an American Book Award in 1999.

In the 1970s, the Martin family settled in Santa Cruz, California, where Martin continued to experiment with different media and techniques. He rarely used oils, preferring acrylics and spray paint. A series of lacquer paintings in the early 1970s depicted spiritual subjects including “Buddha shapes, mandalas, guardians, heaven above and earth below, and the river as an emblem of time.” They were made by applying up to thirty layers of lacquer on a base before scraping back the layers to reveal the final image, a technique Martin had perfected during his time in Ajijic.

Don Martin. Twin works. “The Fish Putter”. Original in collection of Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Ogden, Utah. Image used by kind permission of Joan Gilbert Martin.

Influenced by his time in Mexico, Martin studied “the Codex Borbonicus, a pre-Columbian pictorial manuscript, and was inspired to produce one of his own”, in which he expressed his “personal cosmology” through a series of more than one hundred ink and wash drawings. At one time or another, Martin also explored collage, assemblage, found object art, wax rubbings, and producing “twin” pictures by blotting a painted image on another sheet before the colored ink dried.

In 1972, Don Martin’s drawing, “Magic – Like Art – is Hoax Redeemed by Awe”, was included in a group show at the College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery in Kentfield, California. Art critic Ada Garfinkel described the drawing as “irrepressible, Rube Goldberg-like”.

Don Martin also held a solo show in September 1975, “Don Martin Paintings and Drawings”, at the Cooper House Gallery in Santa Cruz, California.

Since his death in 1989, several one-person shows have highlighted this artist’s extraordinary talents. An exhibition entitled “Don Martin Memorial Exhibition” was held at the Santa Cruz Art League in November-December 1991, and also at the Canter Art Center in Healdsburg, California in March-April 1992. “Something to come home to”, a February 1995 show at the Pacific Grove Art Center, featured Martin’s paintings in lacquer and ink-wash drawings.

A major retrospective, “Don Martin: Chasing That Kite'”, was held at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, California, from May to August 1998. This show revealed the “eclectic, mystical and experimental” nature of this shy, “primarily self-taught”, artist who was reluctant to show or sell his work. “Chasing that kite” was Don Martin’s way of describing his lifelong artistic quest.

Several group shows have also included Martin’s work posthumously. These include The Pope Gallery, Santa Cruz (1994); the Pickard Smith Gallery at the University of California Santa Cruz (1994); the ReBeat Art Exhibit at the Somar Gallery, San Francisco (1996); San Francisco Center for the Book (1997); San Jose Museum of Art, California (2003-2004); the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Logan, Utah (2007-2011; 2015).

Martin’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the San Jose Museum of Art and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, both in California, and the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Logan, Utah.

For more images of Martin’s work, see Don Martin: Chasing that Kite, 1931-1989, the website that is a tribute to his life and work.

Acknowledgments:

My heartfelt thanks to Joan Gilbert Martin for so generously sharing her knowledge of her husband’s life and work. A special thanks, too, to Jeonora Bartlet, Geoffrey Dunn and Muldoon Elder for their helpful input to this profile.

Sources:

  • Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, California), 20 October 1972, p 20.
  • Don Martin: Chasing that Kite, 1931-1989 [website]
  • Julia Chiapella. 1998. “Catching ‘That Kite’ – a peek into the mind of the late Don Martin.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1 May 1998, p 53.
  • Prensa Libre, Tepic, 24 April 1855.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, 3 February 1995, p 47
  • Sausalito News, Number 52, 31 December 1954, p 3

Note:

This Don Martin is not the same person as the cartoonist Don Martin (also born in 1931) who was closely associated with MAD magazine.

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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