Oct 052017
 

Author, playwright and lecturer Vance Bourjaily (1922-2010) lived in Ajijic during the summer of 1951. We know from Michael Hargraves that Bourjaily completed a play there, entitled The Quick Years that was performed off-Broadway two years later. But the most interesting of Bourjaily’s works from a Lake Chapala perspective is one that was never published. The Lion and the Tigers is a verse play about the Ajijic literary and artistic colony, written after he had left the area. This play, a copy of which is preserved in the library of Bourjaily’s alma mater – Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine – will be the subject of a future post.

Vance Nye Bourjaily was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 17 September 1922. Writing was in his blood: his father was a journalist and his mother wrote feature articles and romance novels. After high school Bourjaily attended Bowdoin College in Maine, but his studies were interrupted by the second world war. Bourjaily enlisted in 1942 and served as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Syria, Egypt and Italy (1942-1944) and then as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in Japan (1944-1946).

He completed his B.A. degree and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1947. He had already been commissioned to write a novel about a young man coping with the experiences of war. This first novel, The End of My Life (1947), established Bourjaily’s reputation as a fine writer. In his influential book, After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars, John Aldridge compared Bourjaily to Fitzgerald and Hemingway:

“No book since ‘This Side of Paradise’ has caught so well the flavor of youth in wartime, and no book since ‘A Farewell to Arms’ has contained so complete a record of the loss of that youth in war.”

Bourjaily’s later novels explored other great American themes, though none of them garnered the same degree of praise as his debut novel.

During the summer of 1951, Bourjaily stayed at “the now defunct Posada Navarro, run by Doña Feliz” in Ajijic (Hargraves). He also spent part of the summer in Mexico City. Bourjaily was a close friend of novelist and creative writing teacher Willard Marsh, who lived at Lake Chapala, on and off, for two decades.

Katie Goodridge Ingram, whose family lived in Ajijic at the time, remembers Bourjaily as an accomplished jazz musician who played his cornet alongside professional trumpet player Harry Cook. (The protagonist in his novel The Great Fake Book (1986) is an amateur jazz cornetist).

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

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

Immediately after Ajijic, Bourjaily and John W. Aldridge co-founded (and co-edited) Discovery, an anthology of “Outstanding Short Stories, Poems & Essays” published from 1952 to 1955. The first issue included a piece by Norman Mailer, as well as a story entitled “Confessions of an American Marijuana Smoker” by “U.S.D. Quincy” (Ulysses Snow Davids Quincy), a pen name adopted by Bourjaily after the name he had given the story’s protagonist. Bourjaily later wrote several stories under his own name about Quincy for The New Yorker, including “The Fractional Man: A Confession of U.S.D. Quincy” (August 1960) and “Quincy At Yale; A Confession” (October 1960).

An article by Allyn Hunt alerted me to the fact that the fourth issue (1954) of Discovery included “The only beast: an essay”, a story about Jocotepec by poet and translator Lysander Kemp, who had moved to that Lake Chapala town the previous year and lived there until the mid-1960s.

Front cover of Girl in the Abstract Bed

Front cover of Girl in the Abstract Bed

It was also in 1954 when a curious limited edition children’s book by Bourjaily entitled The Girl in the Abstract Bed (New York: Tiber Press) was published. Tobias Schneebaum (an artist-explorer who had been in Ajijic at the same time as Bourjaily) contributed the illustrations, which were real silkscreen prints of watercolors that were tipped in to the unbound book.The book’s title came from the name of an abstract painting that Schneebaum had done for Vance and his first wife, Tina, to beautify the headboard of their daughter Anna’s crib.

Bourjaily’s text is delightfully whimsical. The book opens as follows:

“There once was a girl
named Nicole Pennsylvania Snow
who, when she was ten months old,
slept in an abstract bed
designed and decorated for her by a famous artist.”

Double-page spread from Girl in the Abstract Bed

Double-page spread from Girl in the Abstract Bed

The book ends when “Reactionary Grandmother” (above, right) drags Nicole away from the Danish tableware, Mother Proust stories, and Lait au lait and into the sunshine, where “DADA” and “jane” learn that “our baby is primitive, after all.”

Bourjaily’s summer in Ajijic was not the only time he was in Mexico. He returned several years later to work on archaeological digs in Mexico City and Oaxaca with Ignacio Bernal and John Paddock. This experience became the backdrop for his novel Brill Among the Ruins (1970), which is about how Vietnam-era turmoil affects a middle-aged Midwestern lawyer.

When he lived in San Francisco, Bourjaily was a feature writer for The San Francisco Chronicle. When he moved to New York, he wrote stage reviews for The Village Voice.

He left New York in 1957 to become an instructor at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He was an associate professor at that institution 1960-1964, 1966-1967, 1971-1972. He was also on the faculty of the University of Arizona in Tucson, as a visiting professor, 1977-78, and then as a full professor, 1980-85. Bourjaily was also the founding director of the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Louisiana State University.

Bourjaily’s works of fiction, mostly published by Dial Press in New York, include: The End of My Life (1947); The Hound of the Earth (1955); The Violated (1958); Confessions of a Spent Youth (I960); The Man Who Knew Kennedy (1967); Now Playing at Canterbury (1976); A Game Men Play (1980); The Great Fake Book (1986) and Old Soldier (1990).

His non-fiction books include The Unnatural Enemy (1963) and Country Matters: Collected Reports from the Fields and Streams of Iowa and Other Places (1973).

Bourjaily’s first marriage, in 1947 to Bettina Yensen, with whom he had three children, ended in divorce. In 1985, he married Yasmin Mogul, a former student, with whom he had a son.

Bourjaily died in Greenbrae, California, on 31 August 2010 at the age of 87.

Acknowledgments

  • My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her memories of Vance Bourjaily.

Sources:

  • John W. Aldridge. 1951. After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars.
  • Vance Bourkaily. 1954. The Girl in the Abstract Bed. (New York: Tiber Press) Illustrations by Tobias Schneebaum.
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A literary survey; plus an historical overview with some personal observations and reflections of this lakeside area of Jalisco, Mexico. (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • Allyn Hunt. 2008. “Writers On The Lam In Mexico: For Many, Ken Kesey Came Late And A Bit Too Noisily, But For Totally U.” Guadalajara Reporter, 29 March 2008.
  • Tobias Schneebaum. 2000. Secret Places. My life in New York and New Guinea. University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Bruce Weber. 2010. “Vance Bourjaily, Novelist Exploring Postwar America, Dies at 87” New York Times, 3 September 2010.

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

Sep 212017
 

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

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

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

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

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

Selection of covers of books by Jack Vance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

 

Sep 042017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance. (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 102017
 

Artist and writer Allyn Hunt has lived in the Lake Chapala area since the mid-1960s. Hunt was the owner and editor for many years of the weekly English-language newspaper, the Guadalajara Reporter. His weekly columns for the newspaper quickly became legendary. (Hunt’s wife, Beverly, also worked at the Guadalajara Reporter and later ran a real estate office and Bed and Breakfast in Ajijic.)

Hugh Allyn Hunt was born in Nebraska in 1931. His mother, Ann, was granted a divorce from her husband J. Carroll Hunt, the following year. Allyn Hunt grew up in Nebraska before moving to Los Angeles as a teenager.

He studied advertising and journalism at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, where he took a creative writing class under novelist and short story writer Willard Marsh. Marsh had known Ajijic since the early 1950s and later wrote a novel set in the village.

At USC, Hunt was associate editor of Wampus, the USC student humor magazine, and according to later bios he also became managing editor of the university newspaper, the Daily Trojan.

After graduating, Hunt worked as public relations representative for Southern Pacific Railroad, and edited its “house organ”, before becoming publicity director and assistant to director of advertising for KFWB radio in Los Angeles. Hunt also worked, at one time or another, as a stevedore, photographer’s model, riding instructor and technical writer in the space industry.

Living in Los Angeles gave Hunt the opportunity to explore Tijuana and the Baja California Peninsula. As he later described it, he became a frequent inhabitant of Tijuana’s bars and an aficionado of Baja California’s beaches and bullfights.

Hunt and his wife, Beverly, moved to Mexico in 1963, living first in Ajijic and then later in the mountainside house they built in Jocotepec. They would remain in Mexico, apart from two and a half years in New York from 1970 to 1972.

Winnie Godfrey. Portrait of Allyn & Beverly Hunt, (oil, ca 1970)

Winnie Godfrey. Portrait of Allyn & Beverly Hunt, (oil, ca 1970)

This portrait of Allyn and Beverly Hunt was painted by Winnie Godfrey who subsequently became one of America’s top floral painters.

In their New York interlude, Hunt wrote for the New York Herald and the New York Village Voice, and apparently also shared the writing, production and direction of a short film, released in 1972, which won a prize at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany and was shown on European television. (If anyone knows the title of this film, or any additional details about it, please get in touch!)

When the Hunts returned from New York, they decided to build a house in Nextipac, in Jocotepec. They moved into their house, “Las Graciadas”, towards the end of 1973. The following year, they agreed to purchase the Guadalajara Reporter. They became owners and editors of the weekly newspaper in 1975 and Hunt would be editor and publisher of the Guadalajara (Colony) Reporter for more than 20 years. Hunt’s numerous erudite columns on local art exhibitions have been exceedingly useful in my research into the history of the artistic community at Lake Chapala.

As a journalist, Hunt also contributed opinion columns to the Mexico City News for 15 years, and to Cox News Service and The Los Angeles Magazine.

As an artist, Hunt exhibited numerous times in group shows in Ajijic and in Guadalajara. For example, in April 1966, he participated in a show at the Posada Ajijic that also featured works by Jack Rutherford; Carl Kerr; Sid Adler; Gail Michel; Franz Duyz; Margarite Tibo; Elva Dodge (wife of author David Dodge); Mr and Mrs Moriaty and Marigold Wandell.

The following year Hunt’s work was shown alongside works by several Guadalajara-based artists in a show that opened on 15 March 1967 at “Ruta 66”, a gallery at the traffic circle intersection of Niños Héroes and Avenida Chapultepec in Guadalajara.

In March-April 1968, Hunt’s “hard-edged paintings and two found object sculptures” were included in an exhibit at the Galería Ajijic Bellas Artes, A.C., at Marcos Castellanos #15 in Ajijic. (The gallery was administered at that time by Hudson and Mary Rose).

Later that year – in June 1968 – Hunt showed eight drawings in a collective exhibit, the First Annual Graphic Arts Show, at La Galeria (Ocho de Julio #878) in Guadalajara. That show also included works by Tom Brudenell, John Frost, Paul Hachten, Peter Huf, Eunice Hunt, John K. Peterson, Eugenio Quesada and Tully Judson Petty.

The following year, two acrylics by Hunt were chosen for inclusion in the Semana Cultural Americana – American Artists’ Exhibit at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano de Jalisco in Guadalajara (at Tolsa #300). That show, which opened in June 1969, featured 94 works by 42 U.S. artists from Guadalajara, the Lake area and San Miguel de Allende.

The details of any one-person art shows of Hunt’s works in the U.S. or Mexico remain elusive. (Please get in touch if you can supply details of any other shows in which Allyn Hunt’s art was represented!)

In the early-1960s, Hunt was at least as keen to become an artist as a writer. Rex Oppenheimer later recalled in an article for Steel Notes Magazine that when he visited his father in Zapopan (on the outskirts of Guadalajara) in 1965,

“Among the first of my father’s friends that I met were Allen and his wife Beverly. Allen was an artist. He looked like a beatnik or incipient Hippie and had a very cool house out in Ajijic near Lake Chapala. After touring the house and taking in his artwork, we went up on the roof. I don’t remember the conversation, but there was a great view out over the lake, and I got totally smashed on Ponche made from fresh strawberries and 190 proof pure cane alcohol.”

Despite his early artistic endeavors, Hunt is much better known today as a writer of short stories. His “Acme Rooms and Sweet Marjorie Russell” was one of several stories accepted for publication in the prestigious literary journal Transatlantic Review. It appeared in the Spring 1966 issue and explores the topic of adolescent sexual awakening in small-town U.S.A. It won the Transatlantic’s Third Annual Short Story Contest and was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1967 & the Yearbook of the American short story, edited by Martha Foley and David Burnett. Many years later, Adam Watstein wrote, directed and produced an independent movie of the same name. The movie, based closely on the story and shot in New York, was released in 1994.

One curiosity about that Spring 1966 issue of Transatlantic Review is that it also contained a second story by Hunt, entitled “The Answer Obviously is No”, written under the pen name “B. E. Evans” (close to his wife’s maiden name of Beverly Jane Evans). The author’s notes claim that “B. E. Evans was born in the Mid-West and lived in Los Angeles for many years where he studied creative writing under Willard Marsh. He has lived in Mexico for the past year and a half. This is his first published story.”

Later stories by Hunt in the Transatlantic Review include “Ciji’s Gone” (Autumn 1968); “A Mole’s Coat” (Summer 1969), which is set at Lake Chapala and is about doing acid “jaunts”; “A Kind of Recovery” (Autumn-Winter 1970-71); “Goodnight, Goodbye, Thank You” (Spring-Summer 1972); and “Accident” (Spring 1973).

Hunt was in exceptionally illustrious company in having so many stories published in the Transatlantic Review since his work appeared alongside contributions from C. Day Lewis, Robert Graves, Alan Sillitoe, Malcolm Bradbury, V. S. Pritchett, Anthony Burgess, John Updike, Ted Hughes, Joyce Carol Oates, and his former teacher Willard Marsh.

Hunt also had short stories published in The Saturday Evening Post, Perspective and Coatl, a Spanish literary review.

At different times in his writing career, Hunt has been reported to be working on “a novel set in Mexico”, “a book of poems”, and to be “currently completing two novels, one of which is set in what he calls the “youth route” of Mexico-Lake Chapala, the Mexico City area, Veracruz, Oaxaca and the area north and south of Acapulco”, but it seems that none of these works was ever formally published.

Very few of Hunt’s original short stories can be found online, but one noteworthy exception is “Suspicious stranger visits a rural tacos al vapor stand“, a story that first appeared in the Guadalajara Reporter in 1995 and was reprinted, with the author’s permission, on Mexconnect.com in 2008.

Sources:

  • Broadcasting (The Business Weekly of Radio and Television), May 1961.
  • Daily Trojan (University of Southern California), Vol. 43, No. 117, 21 April 1952.
  • Martha Foley and David Burnett (eds). The Best American Short Stories 1967 & the Yearbook of the American short story.
  • Guadalajara Reporter. 2 April 1966; 12 March 1967; 27 April 1968; 15 June 1968; 27 July 1968; 5 April 1975
  • The Lincoln Star (Nebraska). 15 August 1932.
  • Rex Maurice Oppenheimer. 2016. “Gunplay in Guadalajara“. Steel Notes 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.

Aug 032017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

May 082017
 

Bob Somerlott was a well-respected writer of both fiction and non-fiction who lived in Ajijic for several years in the early 1960s before moving to San Miguel de Allende, where he resided for almost forty years.

Robert (“Bob”) Somerlott was born 17 September 1928 in Huntington, Indiana, and died, following surgery, on 22 July 2001 in León, Guanajuato. He attended Northwestern University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, and then worked for about 15 years as an actor and stage director before moving to Mexico and becoming a professional writer.

According to Michael Hargraves in Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey, Somerlott spent the winter of 1958 at Chapala and then lived intermittently at Ajijic from late 1962 through the spring of 1965, before moving to San Miguel de Allende. While Somerlott apparently first settled in San Miguel in 1963, we know from contemporary newspapers that he was in Ajijic over the winter of 1964-65 since in December 1964 he is mentioned as being mid-way through a 12-week competition organized by the Ajijic chess club, playing against Phillip Hildreth and his wife Gina Dessart Hildreth, John Mersereau, Dick Bishop, Larry Hartmus and Lou Wertheimer.

At some point during his several decades of residence in San Miguel, Somerlott was academic director of the Instituto Allende, a college for English-speaking students. Somerlott’s interests were far-ranging. His works draw heavily on his particular keen interest in everything historical, including archaeology. History-related themes frequently made their way into his books.

His first major success as a writer came when he had a short story accepted for the January 1964 edition of Atlantic Monthly; it went on to win that publication’s annual fiction award. The following year, Somerlott had a short story entitled “The Hair of the Widow” published in the January 1965 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. That story was “based on a tale told to him early one morning on the pier in Ajijic by an old man” and was “supposed to be true, naturally, as all ghost stories are!” In 1967, his story, “Evening at the Black House” was chosen by Alfred Hitchcock for his Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me. Somerlott also had a piece published in American Heritage in 1971.

Somerlott’s first novel, The Flamingos, written partly in Ajijic and partly in San Miguel, was published in 1967.

The Flamingos is not an especially strong first novel since both plot and dialogue are somewhat predictable but, in the words of the Kirkus Review, is “a most entertaining commercial novel”, in which “The author brings an assortment of expatriate Americans with a full range of sexual tastes to a flyblown Mexican shoreline village”, and a variety of Mexican characters who suddenly find themselves in the path of a major hurricane. “The only bull in the book is a muscular lesbian whose company built a defective dam above the town not destined to outlast such a storm.” As the anonymous reviewer concluded, this would be a better movie than a book.

Some locales and incidents in The Flamingos are clearly derived from Somerlott’s experiences in Ajijic and San Miguel, though heavily disguised. For example, there are descriptions of the “city” of Nexcotela, half-way to the coast, with its waterfall, mineral baths, American Legion and “Café International”, a bar that somewhat resembles The Beer Garden in Chapala. Much of the book is set in the fictional coastal city of San Antonio Tlaxtalapan on Mexico’s west coast. (Clearly, therefore, the title is a misnomer since flamingos are only found on Mexico’s eastern coast!). The city has a “Mexican-North American Institute” that is the educational front of the missionary arm of the church.

The novel’s minor characters include Stephen Mayers, a one-handed, ex-military American who had been a fine amateur pianist. His maid, Adela, is a petty thief whose husband, Roberto, “graduates” into a hitman, employed by two brothers from Guadalajara. The two main characters are Matthew Selkirk, a 58-year-old former professor and translator, an openly gay member of the “American colony” and 26-year-old, blond, blue-eyed Clay McPherson who has fled the U.S. because he believes he has murdered his mother. The relationship between the two men is often strained but Clay eventually risks his own life in order to try to rescue Matthew.

Hard on the heels of The Flamingos came The Inquisitor’s House (1968).

Somerlott then changed track and published a book about occultism – “Here Mr. Splitfool”: An Informal Exploration Into Modern Occultism (1971) (released in the U.K. as Modern occultism) – and another non-fiction work, The writing of modern fiction (1972).

Hargraves has pointed out that Here Mr. Splitfoot includes the following tangential reference to Lake Chapala:

“Throughout Latin America today there are divinas who gaze into a glass, a jewel, or a bowl of water in attempts to find the missing property of clients. Sometimes they have remarkable results, as in the Mexican village near Lake Chapala, where a divina announced that a lost watch would be found wrapped in a blanket—and this proved to be perfectly true. In another Mexican case a ring, supposedly stolen, was described as being lodged in a drainpipe—and so it was true. Despite numerous correct hits and the continued popularity of divinas, there has been to date no realty scientific study of this facet of crystallomancy.” (p 221)

Somerlott then wrote several mystery novels under the pen name Jessica North, including The High Valley (1973), River Rising (1975), The Legend of the Thirteenth Pilgrim (1979) and Mask of the Jaguar (1982), before returning to use his own name for Blaze (1981) and Death of the Fifth Sun (1987). A Spanish language translation, by Miquela Misiergo, of Death of the Fifth Sun, was published as La Muerte Del Quinto Sol (1991).

In later years, Somerlott focused on non-fiction. He co-edited The Penguin Guide to Mexico 1991 (1990) and wrote San Miguel de Allende (1991) before completing a series of historical works including The Lincoln Assassination in American History (1998); The Little Rock School Desegregation Crisis in American History (2001); and The Spanish-American War: “Remember the Maine” (2002).

Sources:

  • Drewey Wayne Gunn. Gay American Novels, 1870-1970: A Reader’s Guide. (McFarlane, 2016).
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 10 Dec 1964; GR 14 Jan 1965
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).

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.

Apr 102017
 

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

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

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

2. TRIP TWO (March 22, 1946)

[The party returns to Ajijic, this time by boat, to collect a hat left the day before at Neill James’ home]

At the beach we found several little launches drawn up ¡n the customary fashion, ranged side by side, each with its bow part way up the sand.

The glint of excursion must have been in our eyes, for a boatman near the pier spotted us and came racing to solicit our use of his boat. It was the Colombina, as we saw by the red letters printed neatly on its white prow. It was hardly more than a large row boat with an outboard motor, but we were taken by its clean appearance. The hull was trimmed with a broad red line under the gunwales, the interior was bright green, and it was shaded by a flat canvas awning, which was held taut on a frame supported by props in the bow and stern.

Ross Parmenter: ColombinaThe owner was a small man whose thin, brown legs were revealed because his overalls were rolled above his knees. His price was agreeable to Mrs. K., so the deal was closed.

But how were the ladies to get into the boat? The motor at the back meant the launch could not be drawn up much further on the beach. I had an awful vision of the tiny man staggering under the burden of Mrs. K. as he carried her to the side of the boat where she could board. But fortunately that was not necessary.

The boatman was wearing huaraches, shoes made of thongs of leather interwoven diagonally. He stepped out of them and waded into the water to pull the nose of the boat a little further up the strand. Then, from a space in the bow, he produced some wooden steps similar to those housewives use to reach dishes on upper shelves. He placed the kitchen steps against the side of the boat. The rear brace was in the water, but the front was on dry sand. He beckoned Thyrza to mount the steps, demonstrating how steady they were by showing he could not wobble them with his hand. T was timid of the water, but with his help she got in and sat on a cross bench near the stern. Mrs. Kirkland followed. When Mary Alice and I were in too, the impassive-faced boatman put the steps back into the bow, picked up his shoes, tossed them into the boat and then waded out to the stern.

Because of the substantial weight there, he was able to draw the bow easily from the sand. He swung the craft around, headed it outwards and climbed in at the back, giving us a shove as he did so. Then, using a bit of cord as a crank, he got the outboard motor started and we began chugging peacefully out into the lake.

The water was very calm. The sky was serene too, with only a few cirro-stratus clouds streaking its pure blue heights. The long folds of the bare mountains across the lake hung like drapery, and I thought again of their resemblance to desert mountains, but being beside a lake they were veiled with blue haze.

Once more the water mirrored the colors of the sky with remarkable fidelity. And as we got further from the shore I saw there was scarcely an island in all the lake’s fifty mile length. This discovery enabled me to put several facts together. Because of the absence of islands the lake provides the sky with a great reflecting area which is virtually unbroken. This unflawed surface, which, instead of being crystalline, is silvered, as it were, by the silty opacity, explains why the lake has the strange effect of seeming to give off its own light.

Because of this looking-glass quality, as Colombina made her way over the calm gray-blue of the water, we seemed to be mysteriously hung between heaven and earth. Looking towards the horizon, the sky was the same gray-blue as the lake, and the water, in turn, seemed as light-filled as the sky. (94-95)

Once in Ajijic, they collected the hat, walked around the village, and then returned to the pier to set off back to Chapala.

All artwork in this post is by Ross Parmenter.

Source:

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

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

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.

Oct 312016
 

Help needed! I have managed to learn very little about the writer Arthur Brooke Caden (ca 1871-1906) beyond the fact that he accompanied American novelist Charles Fleming Embree and his wife on a multi-day boat trip on Lake Chapala in 1898, and wrote about their experiences in “Mascota’s Cruise”, published in The Mexican Herald on 13 September 1898.

embree-1The boat trip included visits to Tizapan and Mezcala Island, and gave Embree the opportunity to acquire the background knowledge of the lake’s geography that he employed so skillfully in his novel A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900), set entirely at Lake Chapala.

Arthur Brooke Caden is listed as the author of a 239-page novel entitled An imaginary story, published in Chicago in 1903, but beyond that I have learned nothing about his upbringing, education or writing career. The available evidence suggests that Arthur Brooke Caden died in Manhattan, New York, on 31 March 1906 at the tragically young age of 35. Charles Embree himself had died the year before, following a short illness, at the even younger age of 31.

Who knows what these two talented young authors might have achieved had their lives not been cut short in their prime.

This post is a tribute to these two writers timed to coincide with Mexico’s annual Noche de Muertos (“Night of the Dead”), more popularly known as Day of the Dead – see Mexico’s Day of the Dead: nine of the best places to visit.

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

Sep 122016
 

In an earlier post, we looked at the somewhat adventurous life of actress, playwright and novelist George Rae Marsh (Williams), aka Georgia Cogswell (1925-1997), who lived for many years in Ajijic in the 1950s and 1960s with her first husband, the accomplished novelist Willard Marsh. Two years after her husband’s death in 1970, George Rae married the science fiction writer Theodore R. Cogswell.

marsh-george-as-georgia-cogswell-obsessionAs Georgia Cogswell, she published the mass market paperback novel Golden Obsession. (Zebra Books, 1979). While the book is not set at Lake Chapala, it is a mystery story completely set in Mexico and involving a wide cast of characters, some more disreputable than others. The author makes good use of her inside knowledge and experience of the country, its people, customs and beliefs.

The back cover blurb sets the scene:

It’s strictly illegal to take ancient artifacts out of a country, especially in Mexico. Archaeologist Brad Bradley knew and respected that law – only he got killed. It happened right after he notified the museum of the priceless pre-Columbian gold mask he uncovered at the Witches’ Mountain dig – but the mask was never found.

The authorities told his beautiful young wife Hally that it was an accident; that he was brutally attacked by a jaguar. She saw his mangled body and the jagged ripped flesh, yet somehow, she was not convinced. So she decided to stay in Mexico and decode Brad’s maps and notes to find out the truth about his death and discoveries.

Unfortunately, a lot of other people had the same idea. Was it a coincidence that she met a charming, attractive man who knew woo much about her late husband’s work? Was it unusual that her house was ransacked and Brad’s files completely searched? Hally knew only one thing: Brad had dug up more than a buried treasure – he had unleashed a corrupt and greedy murderer who was consumed by a raging GOLDEN OBSESSION.

This is not a prize-winning book, but is still a good read to while away a rainy day. It is not very easy to find, but used copies occasionally appear on sites such as abebooks.com.

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

Aug 222016
 

Blair Niles (1880-1959), as she is best known, was formerly Mary Blair Rice, the first wife of naturalist and oceanographer Charles Beebe. The Beebes visited Mexico (and Lake Chapala) over the winter of 1903-1904. As Mary Blair Rice, she contributed the cover design to Beebe’s book Two Bird Lovers in Mexico (which is dedicated to her) and wrote the chapter entitled “How We Did It”. As they camped their way across Mexico, she also wrote several articles about the trip for the New York Post and Harper’s.

In “How We Did It”, she offered the following advice for future female explorers in Mexico:

“To the woman who is courageous enough to defy the expostulations of her friends and to undertake a camping trip to Mexico, let me say that I congratulate her on having before her one of the most unique and fascinating experiences of her life; that is if she goes in the proper spirit. And the proper spirit is to be interested in everything and to have one’s mind firmly made up to ignore small discomforts.”

niles-blairBlair divorced Beebe in 1913, marrying architect Robin Niles (Beebe’s next door neighbor) the very next day. She subsequently changed her name to Blair Niles, and had a distinguished career as a travel writer and novelist, as well as being one of the four founding members of the Society of Women Geographers.

In addition to travel books on Ecuador, Columbia, and Haiti, she also wrote Strange Brother, a novel with a homosexual hero, and Condemned to Devil’s Island: the Biography of an Unknown Convict, which was turned into one of the first talking movies of all time.

Blair Niles’s books include Casual Wanderings in Ecuador (1923); Columbia: Land of Miracles (1924); Black Haiti (A Biography of Africa’s Eldest Daughter) (1926); Free (1930); Strange Brother (1931); Light Again (1933); Maria Paluna (1934); Day of Immense Sun (1936); Peruvian Pageant (1937); Journeys in Time (1946) and Passengers to Mexico: The Last Invasion of the Americas (1943).

An ardent traveler, Blair Niles died in 1959, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of books, and having had a significant impact on 20th century feminism.

Source:

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

Jul 252016
 

Barbara Moore (1934-2002), the second wife of prolific author John Lee (1931-2013), worked as a reporter for most of her career and published several novels.

The couple married in 1957 and then lived for a year in Spain, before spending time in various places in the U.S. prior to visiting Mexico in 1962. They lived for a year in Ajijic in 1962-63, fell in love with Mexico, and subsequently returned for three months almost every summer for the next decade.

moore-barbara-moore-lee-novels-

Moore had a masters degree in creative writing and anthropology, and taught journalism at the American University in Washington D.C., and later at California State University in Northridge.

Barbara Moore Lee, Mexico

Barbara Moore Lee, Mexico

Barbara and John Lee co-wrote two non-fiction works: Monsters Among Us: Journey to the Unexplained (1975) and Learning to Judge the Doberman Pinscher (1982).

Moore’s novels include Hard On The Road (1974), an unconventional coming-of-age novel in which two young men and a camera meet the grand old West; The Fever Called Living (1976), a biographical novel about the last five years of the life of Edgar Allen Poe, based on research conducted by her husband towards a PhD; Something on the Wind (1978); The Doberman Wore Black (1984); and The Wolf Whispered Death (1986).

According to John Lee, The Fever Called Living won his wife a Mark Twain award, though I have been unable to find any independent verification of this.

Barbara Moore predeceased her husband in Texas in 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.

Jul 182016
 

John Lee (1931-2013) and his second wife, novelist Barbara Moore, spent a freelance year in Ajijic in 1962-63 and then returned for three months almost every summer for the next decade.

Lee was a prolific writer, photographer and educator who penned thousands of newspaper articles, several non-fiction books and a dozen novels, including two NY Times best-sellers, and a Book-of-the-Month Club choice. During the 1950s, his award-winning photographs were published in most of the major newspapers and magazines of the time. The portrait of Willard Marsh on the dust jacket of his novel Week with No Friday, set at Lake Chapala, was taken by Lee.

John Lee, painting near Lake Chapala

John Lee, painting near Lake Chapala

Lee and his wife thoroughly enjoyed their visits to Lake Chapala. In retirement, using the name Bestjonbon, he compiled several YouTube videos about his trips to Mexico, the most interesting of which, for our purposes, is Ajijic Artists 50 years ago, a video which includes photographs related to the life and work of the following authors and/or artists: Gina Dessart Hildreth, Willard Marsh, James Kelly, Tink Strother, Carlos López-Ruíz, Ernesto Linares [Ernesto Butterlin], Eric ____, a former USAF pilot, John Lee, and Barbara Moore.

Other short YouTube videos compiled by Lee include Ajijic 50 years ago; Small Town Bullfight I; Small Town Bullfight II; and Fiesta Ajijic – 45 Years Ago.

Born in Oklahoma on 12 March 1931, Lee was raised and educated in Brownsville, Texas. After earning a B.A. at Texas Tech in 1952, he immediately began work as a journalist. While at Texas Tech, he married fellow student Jeane Womack; the couple had a daughter, but the marriage ended in 1956.

The following year, Lee married a fellow reporter, Barbara Moore, who later became a novelist. The couple lived in Spain for a year, and then worked in Denver and Ohio before moving to Mexico in 1962 to focus on writing fiction. Lee earned a masters in Journalism at West Virginia University with a thesis about English-language newspapers around the world.

John Lee at a book-signing

John Lee at a book-signing

Lee’s teaching career included stints at West Virginia University; the American University in Washington, D.C., where his students included Tom Shales, who later won a Pulitzer for TV criticism; the University of Arizona (1968-1972); New York University; California State University in Long Beach (where he undertook work towards a PhD); the University of Idaho; and at the University of Memphis (then known as Memphis State). He retired from teaching in 1997.

Lee wrote or co-wrote several non-fiction books including two for journalism students: Feature Writing for Newspapers and Magazines (1988) and Modern Mass Media (1990). Both books enjoyed several editions, and the latter was translated into Spanish in 1993.

Earlier works include The Diplomatic Persuaders: New Role of the Mass Media in International Relations (1968); and (with wife Barbara Moore Lee) Monsters Among Us: Journey to the Unexplained (1975) and Learning to Judge the Doberman Pinscher (1982).

John Lee’s first novel was Caught in the Act (1968) set in Spain. He followed this with Assignation in Algeria (1971); The Ninth Man (1976); The Thirteenth Hour (1979); Lago (1980); Stalag Texas (1990); Olympia ’36 (2011); and Old Spies Never Die (2011).

In The Ninth Man, his best-known book, a Nazi spy enters the White House and attempts to assassinate President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lee also used the pen names of “James Lake” for stories in men’s magazines and “Joy Beverlin” for two romance novels: Whisper the Wind (Createspace 2011) and Bells of San Blas, which was never published. In later life, Lee also dabbled in art, and held several one-man shows in Texas.

Following the death in 2002 of Barbara Moore, Lee married Shirley Miller in 2004. The couple lived on a ranch in Texas, painting, writing and raising racehorses, until Lee’s own death in 2013.

Sources and acknowledgment:

  • John Lee’s website
  • I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to talk and correspond with John Lee several times in his final years. He was an enthusiastic supporter of this project to document the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala.

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

Jan 182016
 

Emma-Lindsay Squier (1892-1941) was a nature and travel writer who lived much of her life in California. She visited and wrote about Lake Chapala in the 1920s, while spending several months in Guadalajara.

Known as “Emily” to family and friends, she was born in Marion, Indiana, on 1 Dec 1892. Her father, Russell Lafayette Squier, was a salesman, and her mother, Helen Ada Lindsay (Squier) was a teacher and an elocutionist. The family was not well off but Emily became a significant source of income at a very early age. At four years of age, Emily proved to have a natural talent for reciting poems and readings from memory and began making public appearances on the Chautauqua circuit, promotional materials billing her as “Baby Squier”.

Recalling her first visit to Mexico, at age ten, to give a dramatic recital in English in Ciudad Porfirio Diaz (now Piedras Negras), across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, she later wrote, “I fell in love with Mexico when I was ten years old. It was love at first sight.” (Gringa, 3)

After classes in the Sacred Heart Academy in Salem (Oregon) and Bremerton High School (Washington), Emily studied journalism for two years at the University of Washington. She dropped out of university when the family moved to Glendale (California) in 1915, where she became a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She was later appointed an assistant editor of California Life, a monthly periodical published in Pasadena.

She became a prolific writer of short pieces, published in magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, Hearst’s and The American Girl. A series of articles about wildlife interacting with people, often with a degree of fantasy, proved especially successful with readers, and a collection of such stories was published as The Wild Heart (1922),with illustrations and decorations by Paul Bransom. The book “captured the imagination of readers from coast to coast…”

Emma-Lindsay Squier, ca 1923 (California Life, 1923)

Emma-Lindsay Squier (then Mrs George Mark), ca 1923 (California Life, 1923)

She spent the latter part of 1919 in Nova Scotia, Canada, collecting stories for a future book, and then in 1920 and 1921, she attended Columbia University in New York, studying drama and literature. She returned to the Seattle area to collect the legends of the Indians of the Puget Sound tribes.

Her writing fame and fortune continued to grow, Emily’s second collected work about animals, On Autumn Trails and Adventures in Captivity (1922) was heralded as “a grown-up book for children and a children’s book for grown-ups”. Squier’s other book-length works included The Red Palanquin (1924); Children of the Twilight: Folk-Tales on Indian Tribes (1926); and The bride of the sacred well, and other tales of Ancient Mexico (1928).

Her first marriage was to a distant cousin George Mark, whom she had met in New York. After their marriage in 1922, they initially lived in New York, but soon relocated to San Diego, where Emily joined the San Diego Players and first met John Bransby. They quickly became a couple and by 1926 Emily had separated from George and decided to fulfill a life-long ambition to travel in Mexico.

In 1926, Squier was offered the opportunity to spend several months in Mexico collecting local folk stories and legends. Her many adventures from this and subsequent trips are told with color and relish in Gringa: An American Woman in Mexico (1934). She traveled on a freighter, the S.S. Washington, down the west coast, met and danced with ex-President Obregón in Culiacán, and then spent several months at the Hotel Cosmopolita in Guadalajara. In Guadalajara, she became such good friends with poet Idella Purnell and her father that he lent her his car whenever she wanted.

On one occasion, the car had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and Emily was helped by the unexpected arrival of a man on a black horse:

“He was wearing an elaborate charro suit. The black, tight fitting trousers glinted with silver ornaments from thigh to ankle. His silken blouse was embroidered in festive colors, and his sombrero was the fanciest I had yet seen. It was of white felt, richly embroidered with silver, and had a painted medallion of the Virgin ornamenting the exaggerated crown. A sarape of the diamond-shaped Saltillo pattern was strapped across his saddle”. (Gringa, 131)

Safely back at the Purnells, she discovered his picture was on wanted posters and that she had been helped by the notorious ‘El Catorce’, “the bloodthirsty bandit who had attacked and set fire to a passenger train!” (More than 100 people were killed in this incident which took place in April 1927).

She also relates the story told by Idella’s father, Dr. George Purnell, about being kidnapped by bandits and released only after a ransom of $200 was paid. (This event actually occurred in April 1930).

Squier and Idella Purnell befriended a group of Huichol Indians in Guadalajara and after much confusion successfully bartered some ribbons and jewelry for Huichol arrows and woven bags. In a letter back home to her then fiance John Bransby, Squier wrote,

“We noticed that two of the Indians carried tiny, crudely made violins. The strings were of wire, the bow was of gut. Upon these weird little instruments they sawed with primitive vigor, and drew forth unmusical wailings as of cats on back-yard fences.”

The violins were home-made, but Squier never did find out how the Indians had first come into contact with the instrument. She did, however, have the opportunity to learn more about some of their stories and legends.

Among the legends she collected on this trip was one related to Lake Chapala. Her version, “The Little Lost Stars of Chapala”, was published in the August 1928 issue of Good Housekeeping.

The introduction makes for very interesting reading…

We had spent the day at Lake Chapala, that lovely blue body of water that is set like a jewel into the barren ring of Mexico’s mountains. It is a gay place, a meeting place for the old world as represented by the primitive Indian life about it, and the new world with its motor boats and motor cars and its air of naive sophistication. A curious place in a way, for you will find there that mingling of childlike simplicity and vague menace that is the essence of all things Mexican. Quaint little stucco castles shaded by palms and mangoes dot the shores of the lake, and are pointed out zestfully as being the homes of millionaire, and poets, and artists – this being the order of their importance. There is a plaza where the band plays on Sunday afternoons, and the sophisticates sit at tables and sip “refrescos“, watching with tolerant amusement the paseo of the Indians and humbler folk, who walk round and round in couples, enjoying themselves in solemn, aloof silence. Out upon the blue waters of the lake long black canoes come gliding, their sales huge and square-cut like those of Chinese sampans. Sometimes the sails are made of colored cloth, and make bright patches of blue or red or orange against the vivid background of sky and shore. They thread their way serenely through scattered flotillas of trim white modern craft, and there is always a drifting confusion of laughter and song mingled with the splash of oars and the subdued chugging of motor-boat engines.

In the center of the lake, a long, scorpion-shaped island lies. It is seldom visited, for there is little to be seen upon it, and the menace of the alacran for which it is named, and which it resembles, is not to be lightly disregarded.

Across the lake the mountains rise up sharp and grim, like the upturned teeth of some great prehistoric monster. And in these mountains, only a short journey from civilization as represented by the florid gaiety of Lake Chapala, are tribes of Indians among whom no white man would dare to venture unless under the specific protection of some priest of padre known to them, and capable of speaking their barbarous tongue. It is said that these savage Indios are the remnants of the once powerful Alcohuas, whose king, Cozoc, held in bondage the mighty tribe of Azteca for a long and irksome period.”

Portrait of Emma-Lindsay Squier

Gordon Coutts: Portrait of Emma-Lindsay Squier, ca 1925

In Gringa: An American Woman in Mexico (1934), Squier describes visiting Lake Chapala and, in particular, Jocotepec, an account we will look at in a separate post.

In 1928, Squier divorced George Mark and married John Ransome Bransby (1901-1998), an actor and movie producer, whose fine photos illustrate Gringa: An American Woman in Mexico (1934). The couple were living in New York, but within a week of marriage were traveling in opposite directions: Bransby was starting a theatrical tour while his wife was headed to Guatemala to collect legends for a new series. In 1929, Bransby was still touring when Squier was sailing even further south, to Peru.

Squier had taken a movie camera with her during her trip to Mexico in 1926 and the resulting reels helped Squier and Bransby win the opportunity (in 1930) to film an educational travelogue entitled Mexico (finally released in 1937). This trip is described in some detail in the second half of Gringa: An American Woman in Mexico.

The Bransbys spent time in southern Mexico before returning via Veracruz to Mexico City (where they socialized with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Frances Toor, among other notables). They also spent six weeks in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where they filmed a traditional wedding ceremony, before returning to New York by October 1930.

Their resulting 60-minute film was divided into three 20-minute “episodes”: “Modern Mexico,” “Mexico of yesterday” and “Land of chewing gum.” The highlights included Diego Rivera painting murals, the “floating gardens” of Xochimilco, the Passion Play in Ixtapalapa, and some of the earliest known footage of chewing gum (chicle) production.

Squier and Bransby later spent time touring the Caribbean, and Squier also visited Africa, always looking for more legends and animal stories. Squier’s work became the basis for two motion pictures: the Academy Award-nominated Dancing Pirate (Pioneer Pictures, 1936), based on her story “Glorious Buccaneer” (Colliers, December 1930) and billed as “The first dancing musical in 100% new Technicolor”, and The Angry God (1948), based on a story by Squier about how the god Colima tries to win the love of a beautiful young Indian maiden, who won’t betray the man she loves.

After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Emma-Lindsay Squier was forced to slow down in her final years. Her incredibly productive life came to an end on 16 September 1941 in Saranac Lake, New York.

Sources:

  • Aileen Block. 1995. Emma-Lindsay’s Scrapbook: A Biography of Emma-Lindsay Squier (Privately printed)
  • Emma-Lindsay Squier. 1934. Gringa: An American Woman in Mexico (Houghton Mifflin Co.)

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 072015
 

English novelist, poet and essayist David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) was 37 years of age in summer 1923 when he spent three months in Chapala writing the first draft of the work that eventually became The Plumed Serpent (1926).

Early years

Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England, on 11 September 1885, and died in France on 2 March 1930. He studied at Nottingham High School and University College, Nottingham, where he gained a teaching certificate, and then taught for three years, but left the profession in 1911, following a bout of pneumonia, to concentrate full-time on his writing career. In 1914, he married Frieda Weekley (née von Richthofen) (1879-1956), the former wife of one of his university French teachers.

Lawrence was deemed medically unfit to serve in the first world war (1914-18). During the war, the couple lived in near destitution on account of suspicion engendered by Lawrence’s anti-war sentiments and Frieda’s German background. Accused of espionage while living at Zennor, on a secluded part of the Cornish coast, they were forced to move to London.

As soon as was practical after the war, they left the U.K. to live abroad. Lawrence only ever returned to the U.K. on two occasions after that, each time staying for as short a time as possible. Lawrence and Frieda began an itinerant existence as the novelist sought the perfect place to live and work; this quest took them to Australia, Italy (where he acquired the nickname Lorenzo, used by wife Frieda and others from that time), Sri Lanka, the U.S., Mexico and France, but no single location ever satisfied Lawrence for long.

From New Mexico to Mexico City and Chapala

In September 1922, Lawrence and Frieda were invited by Mabel Dodge Luhan, to spend the winter in New Mexico. En route to her ranch near Taos, they spent a night in Santa Fe at the home of Witter Bynner the poet. Bynner and his secretary (and lover) Willard (“Spud”) Johnson would travel with the Lawrences to Mexico the following year. (We look at them in relation to Lake Chapala in separate posts).

In March 1923, Lawrence, Frieda, Bynner and Johnson arrived in Mexico City and took rooms in the Hotel Monte Carlo, close to the city center. This hotel became the basis for the Hotel San Remo in The Plumed Serpent.

By the end of April, Lawrence was getting restless again, and still looking for somewhere to write. The party had an open invitation to visit Idella Purnell, a former student of Bynner, in Guadalajara. Lawrence read about Chapala in Terry’s Guide to Mexico and, taking into account its proximity to Guadalajara, decided to explore the village for himself.

Curiously, there is some uncertainty among biographers as to how (and precisely when) Lawrence first arrived in Chapala. Some claim that he left the Mexico City-Guadalajara train at Ocotlán, and then took a boat to Chapala. While this was possible (and this manner of arrival was clearly the basis for the trip to “Lake Sayula” described in chapters V and VI of The Plumed Serpent), it seems unlikely, given that the house he subsequently rented in Chapala was recommended by a consular official in Guadalajara.

More likely, Lawrence stayed in Guadalajara and met the official face-to-face. He then had several alternative means of traveling to Chapala: train back to Ocotlán, followed by boat, or train to La Capilla and then the La Capilla-Chapala railway (which operated on a limited schedule), or bus (camion) all the way from Guadalajara.

D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Chapala, 1923

D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Chapala, 1923

However he arrived, Lawrence liked what he saw and, within hours of arriving in Chapala, had sent an urgent telegram back to Mexico City pronouncing Chapala “paradise” and urging the others to join him there immediately.

Frieda, Bynner and Johnson narrowly caught the overnight train and met the Purnells in Guadalajara the following morning. According to Bynner, Frieda then caught a camion (bus) to Chapala to join her husband, who had already rented a house in Chapala, on Calle Zaragoza. Bynner and Johnson opted to stay a few days in the city before joining the Lawrences at the lake. When they did arrive, they chose to enjoy the comforts of the nearby Hotel Arzapalo.

Lawrence sets up home in Chapala

Lawrence and Frieda soon established their home for the summer in Chapala, at Calle Zaragoza #4 (later renumbered #307). In a letter back to two Danish friends in Taos, Lawrence described both the house and the village:

“Here we are, in our own house—a long house with no upstairs—shut in by trees on two sides.—We live on a wide verandah, flowers round—it is fairly hot—I spend the day in trousers and shirt, barefoot—have a Mexican woman, Isabel, to look after us—very nice. Just outside the gate the big Lake of Chapala—40 miles long, 20 miles wide. We can’t see the lake, because the trees shut us in. But we walk out in a wrap to bathe.—There are camions—Ford omnibuses—to Guadalajara—2 hours. Chapala village is small with a market place with trees and Indians in big hats. Also three hotels, because this is a tiny holiday place for Guadalajara. I hope you’ll get down, I’m sure you’d like painting here.—It may be that even yet I’ll have my little hacienda and grow bananas and oranges.” – (letter dated 3 May 1923, to Kai Gotzsche and Knud Merrild, quoted in Merrild.)

Lawrence’s stay at Lake Chapala proved to be a highly productive one. His major achievement at Chapala was to write the entire first draft of a new novel set in Mexico. Initially called Quetzocaoatl (after the feathered serpent of Mexican mythology), the draft was completely rewritten the following year in Oaxaca as The Plumed Serpent.

Writing beside the beach

After a couple of false starts, Lawrence began his novel on 10 May and, writing at a furious pace, completed ten chapters by the end of the month. Within two months, the first draft was essentially complete.

Lawrence did not do very much writing in the house, but preferred to sit under a tree on the edge of the lake. Willard “Spud” Johnson recalled that:

Mornings we all worked, Lawrence generally down towards a little peninsula where tall trees grew near the water. He sat there, back against a tree, eyes often looking over the scene that was to be the background for his novel, and wrote in tiny, fast words in a thick, blue-bound blank book, the tale which he called Quetzalcoatl. Here also he read Mexican history and folklore and observed, almost unconsciously, the life that went on about him, and somehow got the spirit of the place. There were the little boys who sold idols from the lake; the women who washed clothes at the waters’ edge and dried them on the sands; there were lone fisherman, white calzones pulled to their hips, bronze legs wading deep in the waters, fine nets catching the hundreds of tiny charales: boatmen steering their clumsy, beautiful craft around the peninsula; men and women going to market with baskets of pitahayas on their heads; lovers, even, wandering along the windy shore; goatherds; mothers bathing babies; sometimes a group of Mexican boys swimming nude off-shore instead of renting ugly bathing-suits further down by the hotel. ..Afternoons we often had tea together or Lawrence and I walked along the mud flats below the village or along the cobbled country road around the Japanese hill—or up the hill itself. We discovered that botany had been a favorite study of both of us at school and took a friendly though more or less ignorant interest in the flora as we walked and talked. Lawrence talked most, of course. (quoted in Udall)

Seeking a permanent home

For much of their stay in Chapala, Lawrence was hoping to find a property suitable for long-term residence, as evidenced by this letter, dated 17 June 1923, from Frieda to their Danish artist friends Knud Merrild and Kai Gøtzsche back in Taos, New Mexico:

“We are still not sure of our fate–but if we see a place we really like, we will have it and plant bananas–I am already very tired of not doing my own work.–Lawrence does not want to go to Europe, but he is not sure of what he wants.  –The common people are also very nice but of course really wild–And I think we could have a good time, Merrild would love the lake and swimming, we could have natives to spin and weave and make pottery and I am sure this has never been painted—–” (quoted in Merrild)

It is unclear whether or not Frieda intended the last comment, about the lake never having been painted, to be taken literally. The truth is that many artists had painted Lake Chapala long before the Lawrences ever stayed there, including Johann Moritz Rugendas (who painted there in 1834), Ferdinand Schmoll (1879-1950), watercolorist Paul Fischer, and August Löhr (1843-1919). Moreover, only days after the Lawrences left their home in Chapala, it was rented by two young American artists, Everett Gee Jackson and Lowell Houser.

Late in June, Lawrence himself writes to Merrild, explaining that despite looking for a new home, they have now given up hope of finding somewhere suitable:

“We were away two days travelling on the lake and looking at haciendas. One could easily get a little place. But now they are expecting more revolution, & it is so risky. Besides, why should one work to build a place & make it nice, only to have it destroyed.

So, for the present at least, I give it up. It’s no good. Mankind is too unkind.” (quoted in Merrild)

In July 1923, a few days before Lawrence and Frieda left Chapala, they arranged an extended four-day boat trip around the lake with friends including Idella Purnell and her father, Dr. George Purnell. The trip, aboard the Esmeralda, began on 4 July. Two of the party returned early, but the others endured some very rough weather, before their return to port.

The Esmeralda boat trip, 1923

The Esmeralda boat trip, 1923. Photo credit: Willard Johnson

Lawrence returns to Chapala (briefly) in October 1923

On 9 July, the Lawrences left Chapala for New York via Guadalajara, Laredo, San Antonio, New Orleans and Washington D.C. The following month, Frieda went to Europe, leaving Lawrence behind in the U.S. In October, Lawrence returned to Mexico, traveling with the Danish painter Kai Gotzsche down the west coast, with plenty of unanticipated adventures, to spend a month in Guadalajara. They stayed most of the time in the Hotel García (where Winfield Scott, former manager of the Hotel Arzapalo in Chapala, was now in charge). From Guadalajara, they visited Chapala for a single day on 21 October 1923, before traveling to Mexico City in mid-November, before sailing from Veracruz for England.

The following year (1924), Lawrence and Frieda came back across the Atlantic to New Mexico in March, bringing with them the painter, the Hon. Dorothy Brett (who later wrote her own memoir of Lawrence). The Lawrences spent the Fall of 1924 in Oaxaca, where Lawrence focused on reworking Quetzacoatl into the manuscript for The Plumed Serpent.

The lake looks like urine?

Did Lawrence really like Lake Chapala? That remains an open question, and no doubt depended on his mood when asked. Playwright Christopher Isherwood, when interviewed by David Lambourne, credited D. H Lawrence with having taught him that for best effect you don’t need to describe things as they are, but as you saw them:

“Lawrence… was so intensely subjective. I mean his wonder at the mountains above Taos, you know, and then his rage at Lake Chapala. And the characteristic methods of his attack were so marvelous. I mean, he was in a bad temper about Lake Chapala, so he just said, ‘The lake looks like urine.’ He meant, ‘It looks like urine to me,’ you see…”

Lawrence Myths

Inevitably, many misconceptions have arisen about Lawrence’s time in Chapala. It is often assumed, for instance, that he spent far more time in Chapala than just ten weeks. It is sometimes claimed that he spent “one winter” there, whereas in fact he visited from May to July, witnessing the very end of the dry season and the start of the rainy season.

Nor was Lawrence the first Anglophone writer to find inspiration at Lake Chapala, though he was quite possibly the most illustrious. The honor of writing the earliest full-length novel set at the lake in English goes to Charles Embree (1874-1905), who spent eight months in Chapala in 1898, and wrote A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900).

Chapala remains a place of pilgrimage for Lawrence fans

Since 1923, many Lawrence fans have made their own pilgrimage to Chapala to see first-hand what inspired their great hero. Perhaps the most famous of these admirers is the Canadian poet Al Purdy, who visited Chapala several times in the 1970s and 1980s. Purdy was a huge fan of Lawrence, even to having a bust of Lawrence on his hall table back in Canada and wrote a limited edition book, The D.H. Lawrence House at Chapala (The Paget Press, 1980).

Sources / Further reading:

  • David Bidini. 2009. “Visit to poet Al Purdy’s home stirs up more than a few old ghosts”, National Post, Friday 30 October 2009.
  • Witter Bynner. 1951. Journey with Genius (New York: John Day)
  • David Ellis. 1998. D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game 1922-1930; The Cambridge Biography of D. H. Lawrence, Volume 3. Cambridge University Press.
  • David Lambourne. 1975. “A kind of Left-Wing Direction”, an interview with
    Christopher Isherwood” in Poetry Nation No. 4, 1975. [accessed 2 Feb 2005]
  • D. H. Lawrence. 1926. The Plumed Serpent.
  • Frieda Lawrence (Frieda von Richthofen). 1934. Not I, But the Wind… (New York: Viking Press)
  • Knud Merrild. A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D. H. Lawrence.
  • Harry T. Moore(ed). 1962. The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence (Two volumes)
  • Harry T. Moore and Warren Roberts. 1966. D. H. Lawrence and his world. (London: Thames & Hudson)
  • Edward Nehls (ed). 1958. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography. Volume Two, 1919-1925. (University of Wisconsin Press).
  • Vilma Potter. 1994. “Idella Purnell’s PALMS and Godfather Witter Bynner.” American Periodicals, Vol 4 (1994), pp 47-64, published by Ohio State University.
  • Sharyn Udall. 1994. Spud Johnson & Laughing Horse. (Univ. New Mexico)

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

Nov 022015
 

Week With No Friday by Willard Marsh is one of only a handful of novels to have been set entirely at Lake Chapala. Published in 1965 by Harper & Row, it tells the story of a troubled expatriate playwright who lives in Ajijic in the 1950s.

The dust jacket of the hardcover edition (274 pages) set up the novel as follows:

Ben Warner, an American writing living precariously in a beautiful Mexican lake town, talks entertainingly and drinks a great deal. His marriage has ended and the women who now pass through his life are just a means of survival. His once-promising resources have been reduced to a tankful of rejected plays and stories.

Yet his world is not without hope — especially when he is on pot. And, even though he has no scruples in using the women who live him, he is no ordinary rascal. Behind his witty, slanderous speech and the clownish guilt of his behavior, he is struggling desperately to keep going — as a man and as a writer.

When Martha McKenzie, a visiting schoolteacher from Iowa, attempts with crusading zeal to save Ben Warner, he can react in only one way: by exploiting her. But both their purposes are diverted by the arrival of Warner’s ex-wife, resulting in an intensely moving and human tragicomedy.”

The photograph of Marsh used in the author’ biography on the back dust jacket of the original hardcover was taken by John Lee, an author and photographer who lived for a year in Ajijic (with his wife Barbara Moore) in 1962-63, and then returned there for nine consecutive summers.

The paperback version of Week with No Friday was subtitled “Money, Marijuana and a girl named Martha – Low-life and high-jinks South of the Border.” The basic description was reworded to read,

After twelve years in Mexico, Ben Warner seemed shamelessly happy just sponging off his neighbors, finding consolation and occasional inspiration in alcohol, pot, and any passable woman who came along. The locals found him muy simpatico, and so did visiting schoolteacher Martha McKenzie, who speedily found him sharing her bed — and her checkbook.

But behind the amusing and eccentric exterior, Ben Warner was a man struggling desperately just to keep going, to make good the wasted years. With the unexpected reappearance of his glamorous ex-wife, the loose ends of his existence suddenly begin to unravel, with results that are as intensely moving as human experience can be.

Week with No Friday was also reprinted in a limited 208-page paperback edition in Mexico in about the year 2000.

marsh-weed-with-no-fridayReviews of Week with No Friday were generally positive. Highlights include

“Real, honest sex and a real, honest bullfight. A wonderfully gutsy book. The author lives, sees and feels deeply on every page.” – Barnaby Conrad

“A good many novels have been written about U.S. expatriates in Mexico, but Willard Marsh’s is the best that I’ve read.” – Vance Bourjaily (another of the many authors who lived for a time in Ajijic).

“Downright irresistible” – Chicago Sun-Times

“A marvelously successful novel” – Book Week

“There is much that is affecting and witty in this first novel, which examines the pangs of a creative personality in exile… Mr. Marsh can create warm, vital characters, a stunning locale and rollicking humor, but the dichotomy in Ben’s character seems not quite resolved. However, this is a writer of promise.” – Kirkus Review

After reading the Kirkus Review, Willard Marsh wrote to his brother-in-law John Williams, also a novelist, bemoaning the fact that “I’ve been a writer of promise for 43 years…”

Verdict: Definitely a keeper!

Related posts:

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.

Oct 262015
 

Willard Marsh, known to his friends as “Butch”, was one of the pivotal figures in the Ajijic literary scene in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the first to write a novel set in the village. His novel, Week with No Friday (1965), is the story of a troubled expatriate playwright who lives in Ajijic in the 1950s. While fictional, it still affords many insights into the village’s literary and artistic scene of the time.

marsh-willard-passport-photoMarsh also wrote Beachhead in Bohemia: Stories (1969) a collection of short stories, published by Louisiana State University. Several of these stories had been published previously, and several are set in the Lake Chapala area, and feature the same characters and scenes that appear in Week with No Friday.

Marsh was born in Oakland, California and attended Oakland High School where he learned to play trumpet and trombone, initiating a lifelong devotion to jazz music. He financed his courses at the State College at Chico by forming “Will Marsh and the Four Collegians”, a jazz group that played at an Oakland roadhouse.

His education was interrupted by the second world war, where he served with the U.S. military, 1942-45, in the South Pacific, becoming a staff sergeant.

Soon after the war, on 4 September 1948, Marsh married George Rae Williams, a former Pasadena Playhouse actress. It must have been Marsh’s second marriage, since George wrote to her brother John Williams in mid-1948 that, “We can’t get married until August because his divorce isn’t final until then.”

[John Williams (1922-1994) was a novelist, editor and professor of English, author of Augustus and Stoner. Williams is the subject of The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel, a biography by Charles J. Shields due to be published in 2016. Shields kindly shared with me the information that John Williams had begun his own novel (sadly now lost) about bohemians living in Mexico, presumably based on his visits to his sister and brother-in-law.]

Willard and George Rae Marsh moved to Chapala in Mexico in the early 1950s. Marsh strove to establish a career as a free-lance writer while working on his “G.A.N.” (Great American Novel). They would continue to live in the area, with breaks to travel or teach in the U.S., until his death in 1970.

The couple lived first in Chapala, and later in Ajijic. They also spent some time in the literary and artistic circles of San Miguel de Allende. In 1952, from Chapala, Marsh reported to brother-in-law, John Williams, that they were living “quite well, in our cozily disordered way, for about seventy-five bucks a month, including everything.” The comment, “both typewriters clacking, and the jug of tequila diminishing as we go”, suggests that a liberal amount of alcohol helped fuel their creativity.

A letter from George to her brother in March 1953, says that she was excited to have just learned from their landlady that they were living in the same house in Chapala where “Red” Warren wrote All the Kings Men.

After several years living and writing in Mexico, Marsh’s Great American Novel remained unfinished. Marsh gained degrees at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop (B.A. in 1959 and M.A. in 1960), and decided to complement his less-than-stable writing income by teaching, accepting positions as an assistant professor of English, first at Winthrop College, Rock Hill, SC (1959-61), then at the University of California, Los Angeles (1961-64) and later at North Texas State University, Denton (1968-70). He continued to spend as much time as possible in Mexico.

marsh-weed-with-no-fridayWork on the novel continued. In October 1963, Marsh reported having had “a wildly relaxing, wildly productive summer in Ajijic, during which time I got so much accomplished on the novel that I can have the mother in the mails before year’s end.” He planned to resign from the University of California and live in Spain for a few years.

The following year, after more thought, they decided against Spain, opting to return to Ajijic instead, though they expressed some misgivings: “Ajijic has been overrun with slobs quite a bit, too, but if it gets too bad, one can move a few kilometers down the lake to $an Juan, Jocotepec, and on to Morelia. The lake is 25 miles wide and 50 miles long, so there’s a lot of lake-front real estate still unoccupied.”

Marsh’s magnum opus Week with No Friday was published in 1965 to generally positive reviews. The book gave Marsh the opportunity to respond to the unflattering portrait of him in Eileen Bassing’s own novel set in Ajijic, Where’s Annie? (1963). Bassing had used Willard and George Rae Marsh as the basis for her characters Willie and Sam Chester:

“[Willie Chester] was enshrined there on his patio only half hidden among the telefono vines, typing away. He wrote. Merciful God, how he wrote. A story every day he said, good, bad indifferent, sensational, like a non-discriminating machine, learning, he said, with each one he wrote, but writing them so fast, so terribly, frighteningly fast. And he sold some of them, not many. That he sold any was alarming. He had no reverence, no respect, no fear of his own possible or impossible talent. He wrote; it was the answer to everything for him…. Sam was behind Willie, circling about in a stained and tattered leotard, steadily but badly practicing her ballet. Did she woo and win him with her twittering, soiled dancing? Oh, turn my eyes from the vision of their lives.”

Marsh retaliated with brief, equally unflattering descriptions of Eileen “Blissing” and her husband, in his own novel:

“He introduced her to Beau Blissing, a fairly entertaining slob, so that she could hear the single gift that Beau had perfected in a lifetime — the ability to sing ‘Blue Skies’ backward. Afterwards he tried to give them one of his voracious French poodles he never could afford to feed. ‘Such a bewildered, wistful man’ Martha said. ‘Has he any other hobbies?’ ‘He accepts book dedications. His wife is a lady novelist with a lousy memory.'”

In his writing career, Marsh was successful in getting short stories published in more than seventy periodicals, including Antioch Review, Furioso, Prairie Schooner, Northwest Review, Yale Review, Esquire, Playboy, Transatlantic Review, and Saturday Evening Post. His short stories include, “Beachhead in Bohemia” (The Southwest Review, 1952); “Bus Fare to Tomorrow” (The Saturday Evening Post, 1954); “No More Gifts” (Playboy, 1956); “Ad Lib Exit” (Playboy 1956); “Mexican Hayride” (Esquire, 1960), described by writer Allyn Hunt as the short story that most “accurately depicts Ajijic in the 1950s” (and the the basis for the first chapter of Week with No Friday). “Beachhead in Bohemia” and “Mexican Hayride” were chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1953 and 1961 respectively.

Marsh also wrote under several pen names, including “George Ketzel” for poetry.

In 1970, apparently as the result of a medical misdiagnosis, he died, leaving his next novel, Anchor in the Air unpublished. Marsh’s body was interred in Ajijic cemetery, but was not allowed to rest for long. In 1972, a real estate developer drove a road through Ajijic cemetery, desecrating many graves, including that of novelist Willard Marsh.

Willard Marsh’s personal papers are held at the University of Iowa. My thanks to Charles J. Shields, biographer of John Williams, for his valuable help in locating material relating to Willard and George Marsh.

Related posts:

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Sep 142015
 

George Rae Marsh (née Williams) was an actress, playwright and novelist who lived for many years in Ajijic in the 1950s and 1960s with her first husband, the novelist Willard Marsh. The couple were married in 1948 and were together until Willard died in Ajijic in 1970. Two years after her husband’s death, George Rae married the science fiction writer Theodore R. Cogswell.

George Rae Marsh has several published plays and short stores, and also wrote at least one novel. Piecing together her bibliography is complicated by the fact that she wrote under several different names. Her plays were written as George Rae Williams, her novel as Georgia Cogswell, and most of her stories appear to have been written as George Cogswell. She was also sometimes referred to as George Rae Marsh Cogswell. To the best of my knowledge, despite several of these works having been written while she was living in Ajijic, they have no textual connections to the village.

However, George Rae Marsh was the basis for the character Sam Chester, wife of Willie Chester, in Eileen Bassing’s Ajijic-based novel Where’s Annie? (1963). George Rae’s most substantial work set in Mexico was the novel Golden Obsession (1979).

marsh-george-as-georgia-cogswell-obsession

George Rae Williams was born in 1925. She graduated from the Wichita Falls High School in the early 1940s and became an actress at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Her brother John Williams (1922-1994) was a novelist, editor and professor of English whose 1972 novel “Augustus” won a National Book Award. He also wrote “Stoner” (1965), the tale of a professor of English at the University of Missouri. Williams’s work has seen something of a revival in recent years in Europe and he is the subject of a forthcoming biography by Charles J. Shields, who was kind enough to share with me the information that John Williams had started a novel about bohemians living in Mexico (presumably based on his visits to his sister and brother-in-law) but that it has since been lost.

Shortly after George Rae married Willard Marsh, they decided to move to Ajijic, so that they could concentrate on their writing. They lived on-and-off in the village from the early 1950s through to 1970, though with numerous intermissions elsewhere, including several spells in the U.S. where Willard taught English at Winthrop College in South Carolina (1959-1961), at the University of California, Los Angeles (1961-64) and at the North Texas State University, Denton (1968-70). They also spent some time in the literary and artistic circles of San Miguel de Allende.

Two years after Willard’s death, George Rae married Theodore Rose Cogswell (1918-1987) in San Miguel de Allende. Cogswell was an American professor of English and science fiction writer. After their marriage, the couple divided their time between Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende and the U.S.

The photo below, from the Megan Cogswell Collection, shows George and “Ted” Cogswell on their wedding day in 1972, in their matching leather safari suits.

marsh-george-marriage-to-ted-cogswell-1972

At the time, George Rae owned a discotheque in Ajijic, presumably one of the earliest discotheques, if not the earliest, in the village.

Jerry Murray, a writer who lived in Ajijic at the time, was invited to the wedding, and later recalled (e*I*43–(Vol. 8 No. 2) April 2009) how the couple had ended up spending the first night of their honeymoon in separate cells in the city police station:

George owned a discotheque in Ajijic, and like everyone else in the wedding party at the Episcopalian church, including the priest, she was an atheist. The ceremony was followed by the wettest reception I’ve ever attended, and that was followed by Ted and George getting into her Jeep and heading for their honeymoon suite in Puerto Vallarta.

An hour later the reception was winding down when the Jeep came roaring back, stopping between the plaza and the police station for Ted to shove his screaming, cursing bride out on the cobblestones, where bride and groom were immediately arrested for being drunk and very disorderly. Placed in separate cells, Ted made a pillow out of his boots and went to sleep on the thin mattress of the cell’s wooden cot. George propped her mattress against her cell’s door, set it on fire, and screamed bloody murder until the cops turned them loose at dawn to continue on their honeymoon. When the honeymoon ended, George sedately began serving tea at the Sunday seminars Ted hosted for his graduate students at Ball State Teacher’s College in Muncie, Indiana.”

As George Rae Williams, she wrote five published plays: Mind Over Mumps: A One-act Farce (Eldridge Publishing Company, 1951); Augie Evans: Private Eye: A One-act Farce (Eldredge Publishing Company, 1951); Leave it to Laurie: A Comedy in One Act (Northwestern Press, 1952); Keeping it in the Family: A Comedy in One Act (Northwestern Press, 1953) and A will and a way – A Three Act Comedy (Eldridge Publishing Company, 1962).

As George Rae Cogswell, she wrote (with her husband) the short story “Contact Point” (1975) and they contributed a joint story to Six Science Fiction Plays, (Pocket Books, 1975).

In 1979, as Georgia Cogswell, she published Golden Obsession (Zebra Books, 1979).

George Rae Williams Marsh Cogswell died in 1997 and was interred next to Theodore Cogswell in Arlington National Cemetery.

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 172015
 

While most sources list José Rafael Rubio as having been born in 1880 and dying in 1916, the available documentary evidence suggests that he was actually born on 4 September 1879 in Zamora, Michoacán, and died in San Antonio, Texas, on 7 January 1917.

Rubio worked for a time as a journalist in Guadalajara and subsequently won a national (El Imparcial) writing competition with a short story entitled, “El hombre doble” (“The Double Man”). He also wrote, sometimes using the pen name of Pepe Pérez Pereda, for Arte y Letras. Revista Mensual Ilustrada and Churubusco, In addition, he was editor in 1898 of a publication in Zamora, El Granuja: Seminario festivo ilustrado.

Rubio married Maria Luisa Dolores Alatorre Diaz (b. 1882). The couple’s daughter, Gloria Rubio Alatorre, was born in Veracruz, and became, as Gloria Guinness (1912–1980), a contributing editor to Harper’s Bazaar (1963-1971) as well as a prominent socialite and fashion icon of the twentieth century.

During the Mexican Revolution, Rubio fought against Victoriano Huerta, before leaving for the USA with his family.

Rubio’s published short stories include “Not Guilty”, set at Lake Chapala. Written originally in Spanish, an English translation was published in the 16 December 1911 issue of The Pacific Weekly, a San Francisco-based publication.

“Not Guilty” is the story of a man accused of murder who claims in a prison-cell conversation with his lawyer that he was merely a witness to the crime. In the first part of the story, the man relates how he first met the love of his life:

“I used to live near Chapala,” he [the prisoner] continued, “on a farm not far from Jamay. You have been there, have you not? You know what a beautiful country it is? Well, imagine a spacious garden of orange trees, and, nestling among them, a small house, as white as an orange blossom. One cannot live in such a place and believe that there is any wickedness in the world. Beginning in a spring near my house, a little stream of water trickles down the hillside, — water as clear and pure as that which falls from heaven to water my little paradise. On either side of this stream are my flower beds. I wish you could see them! Here are clustered myriads of jasmines; there, a gay little arm of violets; a little further down, on the right hand side, a whole regiment of red and white roses; to the left, a huge fragrant battalion of lilies of the valley. Further down are other flowers, of all imaginable varieties, with the limpid little streamlet  flowing between. How beautiful they are, and what perfumes come from them!

“My little farm supplied me with all I wished to eat. I sold most of my oranges to some gringos who lived near by; with the money I earned in this small business, I had sufficient to live happy and contented as a king. Do not think that I always wore rags like these. My suits rivaled the finest vestidos de chorro for miles around; the buttons were silver pesos. My sombreros were trimmed with gold braid, and cost me thirty pesos each. I owned two horses sixteen hands high, and the revolver at my side was of the best American make. But I must get on with my story.

“Have you ever attended any of the fiestas at La Barca? No? Well, they are festivals where masses and Te Deums are sung. Bull-fights and cock-fights form part of the program, and there are all sorts of gambling games, dancing, singing, wild carousing. There is music in every inn and park. The shouting of the vendedores and the noise of the fireworks, together with the uproar of the hilarious crowds, are almost enough to drive a sane man mad.

“Two years ago, as was my custom, I donned my finest attire, thrust in my belt a brace of forty-fours, and started, in my boat, The Dreamer, for La Barca. Besides the native rowers, I had no company except my guitar and a bottle of wine.

“It would have done your heart good to see me at that merry-making! Cock-fighters and gamblers besieged me from all sides; vendors of everything imaginable scrambled to get near me and when I entered a restaurant or inn, man and maid servants rushed to be the first to serve me. Even the — indeed, I’m not exaggerating, — even the ladies, dressed in silks of all the colors of the rainbow, made eyes and waved their fans at me.

“I bet two hundred on a cock, and lost in five minutes. The next match was a fight if there ever was one; in four minutes I had won three hundred! I treated a score of people to bottles of beer, and the uproar that ensued was as exciting as an attack on the gringos! I gave the man that served me a bright new peso for a tip. Suddenly I heard a voice. I turned and saw a girl singing. She was as beautiful as a dream and her great dark eyes were looking straight at me.

But if thou drain to its bitter lees.
In frantic frenzy, pleasure’s cup, —

“Those were the words that began her song. I threw my glass to the floor so violently that it crashed into a hundred pieces, and cried ‘Ole‘! Then I snatched off my hat. placed twenty pesos in it, and tossed it to her.

“Most of the men who had followed me to the bar left as soon as they had taken their beer, for the place was full of professional gamblers, loafers and, judging by their wild looks, criminals of the worst kind. I noticed that the singer to whom I had thrown my hat, had seated herself at the father end of the bar, where empty bottles and liquor kegs were piled in confusion. She caught my eye, and beckoned me to her side.

“‘If you are going to drink, why not drink here?’ she said, pointing to a seat near her. I sat down beside her, and ordered more beer.

Dios mio! How beautiful she was! I don’t think she could have been a day over seventeen years old, but she knew all the arts of making a man slave to her will; before ten minutes had passed, I worshiped her! To look at her was to love her. She was a brunette, and the delicate curves of her red lips reminded me of my finest, most crimson roses. Her hair, blacker than a raven’s wing, was held in place by a very thin black veil. Her eyes were the big, wondering, dreamy eyes of innocent childhood, half serious and half smiling, and the long black eyelashes shaded and deepened them. Her mouth would tempt a saint, — and her waist! — and her arms! I had never seen such a woman even in my wildest dreams!

“I can’t say exactly how many drinks we had that night, but toward morning we decided to be married. When we went out into the street, arm and arm, the music had ceased, and the display of fireworks was over. As she walked by my side, I felt that heaven itself had nothing further to offer me. I was madly, passionately in love with her!”

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 302015
 

John Macarthur (“Jack”) Bateman was a painter, author and architect who was born on 9 October 1918 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and died on 15 March 1999. Bateman moved to Ajijic with his wife Laura Woodruff Bateman and 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.

The Batemans were living in New York City prior to moving to Mexico. They responded to an advert in The New York Times which offered a home in Ajijic, together with five servants and a boat, for the princely sum of 150 dollars a month.

Jack Bateman studied architecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), prior to be called up for military service in January 1942. He served in the U.S. Navy from 21 January 1942 to 22 September 1945 at various Naval Air Stations, including a spell in North Africa flying submarine-hunting dirigibles. After the war, he completed his studies and then set up an industrial design studio in New York to produce, among other things, molded architectural elements made of plaster.

According to a blog post by Jack’s son-in-law Tom Vanderzyl, this led to Bateman having an unexpectedly significant impact on the work of the great German-born abstract expressionist artist Hans Hofmann who was living on the floor below:

…the painter/architect John MacArthur Bateman had a studio just above Hans Hoffmann (sic). In his studio, John poured large heavy 55-gallon drums of plaster into molds for architectural elements. It seems one day a plaster mold broke and sent 55 gallons of plaster pouring across his wooden plank floor that was also the ceiling of the studio under him, and the plaster dripped through the ceiling of the studio below. At the time, Hans had all of his paintings out looking them over for his upcoming show. Hans shouted upstairs in German for it to stop and that he needed help covering his work from the dripping plaster. Bateman along with his klutz brother-in-law, who had dropped the mold in the first place, came down to help. They used blankets and canvas in an attempt to cover the paintings, but it was too late. The plaster was setting up and the damage was done. Bateman put the best spin on it by telling Hans that his paintings needed that texture made by the pressed fabric and wet plaster and that the new tactile surface was in many ways more interesting. Now, he only needed to paint over the white plaster to get a far more interesting surface. Hans Hoffmann’s show was a success, and he would pop up to borrow plaster from time to time and talk with Bateman about materials.

bateman-book-coverFor the first few years in Mexico, Jack Bateman commuted back and forth to New York, spending about one week a month in the U.S. At home in Mexico, he spent time on his art and began to write. He authored five books including Loch Ness Conspiracy (New York: R. Speller & Sons, 1987), as well as a play, Caldo Michi, first performed in Ajijic in early 1999.

When the Lakeside Little Theater needed a new home in the mid-1980s, Bateman was a strong supporter of a plan to build a purpose-built facility on land donated by Ricardo O’Rourke, and acted as architect. The theater opened in 1987 and became the permanent home of Mexico’s most active English-language theater.

At various times sailor, artist, pilot, architect, writer and marketing consultant, whatever he turned his mind to, Jack Bateman made many unique contributions to the world.

For her part, Laura Bateman was a patron of the local arts scene in Ajijic, opening the village’s first purpose-built gallery, Rincón del Arte, at Hidalgo #41, Ajijic in about 1962. (For a couple of years prior to that, she had arranged shows in her own home). Rincón del Arte, which ran for many years, had monthly shows, featuring dozens and dozens of artists.For example, Whitford Carter exhibited at Rincón del Arte in both February 1967 and August 1968, while Peter Huf and his wife Eunice (Hunt) Huf held a joint exhibit there in December 1967 .

Jack and Laura Bateman’s eldest daughter, Alice M. Bateman, studied in Guadalajara, London (U.K.), New York and Italy before becoming a successful professional artist-sculptor based in Forth Worth, Texas.

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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