Apr 162015
 

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

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

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

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

He bemoaned his lack of access to American magazines,

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

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

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

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

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

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

warren-robert=penn-at-heavens-gate

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

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

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

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

Source:

Mar 022015
 

American sculptor and art historian Mary Fuller (McChesney) and her husband Robert Pearson McChesney, also an artist, spent 1951-1952 in Mexico, living in Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende. Shortly afterwards, Mary Fuller wrote three detective novels, one of which was set in the Guadalajara art scene, using the pseudonym “Joe Rayter”.

She also wrote many short stories, poems, and articles, published in various prominent arts magazines including Art Digest, Artforum, Art in America, Craft Horizons, and American Craft. She was, at one time or another, a staff writer at Currant, a researcher for the Archives of American Art, a Ford Foundation Fellow and the recipient of the 1975 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Art Critic’s Grant. Another of her books, A Period of Exploration (Oakland Museum 1973), was written to accompany an exhibition of ab-ex (abstract expressionism) works from the San Francisco art scene from 1945-50.

rayter-stab-in-the-dark-coverIn the 1950s, McChesney wrote several detective novels, three of which were published, using the pseudonym “Joe Rayter”.

These included The Victim Was Important (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954) and Asking for Trouble (M. S. Mill / William Morrow, 1955), both of which featured Private Investigator Johnny Powers, and Stab in the Dark (M. S. Mill / William Morrow, 1955), a murder mystery set in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Stab in the Dark is about murder, infidelity, and dope-peddling among a group of oddball expatriate artists in Guadalajara. The Kirkus Review of the book describes how “An excess of loose libido-tossing, alcohol, sex and art accompanies the death of Mike Cowper, about to become a cocaine pusher, in  Guadalajara. The Mexican Inspector is not slow; young Madelene has to track down her  husband and escape attack; Payne, a painter, and his wife get free of their little daughter’s death; and Madelene looses the marriage bonds for another heart interest. An AWFUL lot of running around.”

While Stab in the Dark is hardly a masterpiece, it is a fun read even today. The characters seem two-dimensional and their actions are somewhat predictable, but the book describes several expatriate artists working in Guadalajara at the time, and makes various mentions of the 1950s art scene in Guadalajara, including the “Galeria Moderna”, as well as the famed restaurant La Copa de Leche. The book also has a few scenes set in the coastal resort of “Puerto Ortega”.

Feb 162015
 

Journalist and novelist Bart Spicer was born Albert Samuel Spicer on 13 April 1918 in Richmond, Virginia. He legally changed his name to Bart in 1964. He was married to Betty Coe, and died 15 February 1978 in Tucson, Arizona.

While the precise dates are unclear, Spicer certainly visited Ajijic several times, mainly in the early 1950s, and usually staying at the (old) Posada Ajijic. An author profile in a 1953 issue of Library Journal reported that Spicer was “holed up down in Mexico writing full-time.”

spicerdaySpicer incorporates scenes set in Chapala, Guadalajara and Mexico City into his 1955 spy novel The Day of the Dead.

Bart Spicer spent his early childhood “in various parts of the British Empire”, and would later claim to have lived in England, India, Africa, France, Spain, Mexico and many parts of the United States. He was a journalist and radio news writer, prior to enlisting in the US Army during World War II. After the war he worked for three years in public relations for Universal Military Training and a year for the World Affairs Council. His first book, The Dark Light, was published in 1949, at which point he became a full-time novelist.

By the late 1950s, the Spicers were living in New York City where Bart was a member of the Players Club (jazz). In the mid-1960s, they moved to Spain, where they lived in Torremolinos and Malaga. In 1977, medical reasons forced them to return to the U.S. They settled in Tucson, where Bart died the following year.

The cover design of the Dell imprint of The Day of the Dead

spicer-bart-DayOfTheDeadTThe striking cover design (left) of the 1956 Dell imprint of The Day of the Dead is attributed to Arthur Sussman (1927-2008). Sussman was born in Brooklyn, New York, and after completing a BFA at Syracuse University, worked in New York from 1951 to 1960 as a designer and illustrator. He spent the winter of 1960-1961 in Taxco, Mexico. After 1960, he devoted himself more to his fine art, and held numerous solo exhibitions in Mexico and the U.S. between 1961 and 1991.

Arthur Sussman settled with his family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1965, and taught at the University of Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico Community College. He was also a regular commentator on art and film for local radio and television stations. Several of Sussman’s paintings and prints are in the permanent collections of museums, including the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe and the Albuquerque Museum of Fine Arts.

Bart Spicer, ca 1949

Bart Spicer, ca 1949

Most of the early action in Spicer’s first spy novel The Day of the Dead (1955) is set in Guadalajara. The city’s Country Club, University, Parque Revolución, the U.S. Consulate, Hotel del Parque and fictional “Mercado Mexico” all feature in the novel.

The book is a tale of international intrigue and betrayed friendships. A retired spy and war-wounded Colonel Peregrine White (“Blanco”), who walks with a cane, is called back into service by a dour FBI agent Castle, to thwart a suspected Communist takeover of the Mexican government. Castle believes that one of the ringleaders is White’s best friend Paco Morado, a teacher at the university.

As the plot thickens, White attends a lively party at an expat-owned house on the lakeshore in Chapala, where the lake is fully “200 yards from its former shoreline”. (The lake was at its lowest ever level in 1954/55). One of the party-goers is looking for investors in a plan to “buy the old railway station, put in a pool and a nine-hole golf course and start a club.” (p 71). (In 1955, the old railway station became the clubhouse of the Chapala Country Club, with its nine-hole golf course in the adjacent grounds; the club was later relocated further east near San Nicolas de Ibarra. The former railway station is now a museum and cultural center.)

Most of the later scenes in the book play out in Mexico City. The language of The Day of the Dead now seems stilted at times, and the plot is dated, but the book was well received at the time, and still worth a read.

Bart Spicer also wrote: The Dark Light (1949); Blues for the Prince (1950); The Golden Door (1951); Black Sheep, Run (1951); Shadow of Fear (1953) aka The Long Green ; The Wild Ohio (1953); The Taming of Carney Wilde (1954); The Tall Captains (1957); Brother to the Enemy (1958]; Exit, Running (1959); The Day Before Thunder (1960); Act of Anger (1962);  The Burned Man (1966); Kellog Junction (1969); Festival (1970); and The Adversary (1973).

In addition, he has also co-authored four books with his wife Betty Coe Spicer under the joint pseudonym “Jay Barbette”: Final Copy (1952); Dear Dead Days (1953); Deadly Doll (1958); Look Behind You (1960).

His books were widely translated and several of his books were adopted for television.

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

Feb 122015
 

American sculptor and art historian Mary Fuller (McChesney) and her husband Robert Pearson McChesney, also an artist, spent 1951-1952 in Mexico, living in Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende. They moved to Mexico as a direct result of losing their jobs during the McCarthy era.

Mary Fuller McChesney was born 20 October 1922 in Wichita, Kansas. She grew up in Stockton, California and studied with Paul Marhenke at the University of California at Berkeley. During the second world war, she was a welder in the Richmond, California shipyard. Later, she apprenticed in ceramics pottery at the California Faience Company in Berkeley. She began to exhibit in 1947, and won first  prize at both the 6th and 8th Annual Pacific Coast Ceramic Shows (1947 and 1949).

Mary Fuller: Frog and Owl

Mary Fuller Sculpture of Frog and Owl (Photo credit: Kurt Rogers, SFGate)

She married fellow artist Robert Pearson McChesney (1913-2008), in December 1949 and the couple lived initially in the North Bay subregion of San Francisco.

After deciding to head for Mexico in 1951, they sold Mary Fuller’s house, bought a Model A Ford mail truck, and headed south complete with all their belongings. Safely across the border, they decided to write “artistas” on the side of their vehicle. Robert McChesney later told a reporter that, “People on the side of the road would wave at us. Kids would come running out of their house to see us. It wasn’t until later that we learned that Mexicans used the word artista to mean ‘movie actor’.” (SFGate, 2002)

In a 1994 interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Mary Fuller McChesney recalled that the artists’ hangout in Ajijic at the time they were there was the Scorpion Club, run by Ernest Alexander, a black American painter from Chicago. Some of the artists “were going to the University of Guadalajara on the G.I. Bill. So– And some of them lived in Ajijic and they would go into Guadalajara once a week to pick up their checks and go in to school and that was about it.” The Scorpion Club was the popular watering-hole for “a bunch of writers, too. Some of them from New York. Some people who ran a bookstore. And they were published writers. And there was a mystery writer down there.” (Oral history interview with Mary Fuller McChesney, 1994 Sept. 28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Best known as a sculptor, Mary Fuller McChesney was also a writer. Besides numerous short stories, poems and art history articles, she wrote several detective novels, including Stab in the Dark, set in the 1950s Guadalajara art scene.

On their return from Mexico in 1952, Mary Fuller and her husband began building their home on an acre of land near the top of the Sonoma Mountain in Petaluma. Largely self-taught as an artist, Mary Fuller McChesney had started to sculpt in the 1940s. She created many of her best-known projects in the grounds of their home on Sonoma Mountain. Many of her sculptures are made from a special mixture of vermiculite, sand, cement and water, which is then carved directly using a knife and rasp.

Much of her work is “reminiscent of pre-Columbian sculpture and African art, which profoundly influence her aesthetic and artistic guides.”

Her unique sculptures of enchanting animals and mythological women have been exhibited at numerous museums and galleries throughout the USA, and in Mexico. Her work can be seen in many public spaces, as well as in museums and private collections. Her public sculpture commissions in California include works for the Petaluma Library, the San Francisco Zoo, the San Francisco General Hospital, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, Salinas Community Center, Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, Department of Motor Vehicles in Yuba City, and Squaw Valley.

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

Feb 092015
 

Arthur H. Lewis was born in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, on 27 September 1906, and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 25 January 1995.

He spent about five weeks in Mexico, in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, in the spring of 1964, working on his book Lament for the Molly Maguires, published later that year. His wife Juliet Blum accompanied him. On that occasion he stated that he wished to return to Mexico to work on a novel, but it is unclear if he ever actually did so.

lews-arthur-molly-maguiresLament for the Molly Maguires tells the true story of the violence wrought by a secret society of Pennsylvania Irish coal miners and how they were eventually brought to justice by an undercover detective of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The book was nominated in 1965 for an “Edgar” award by the Mystery Writers of America, and was made into a 1970 movie starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris.

Fellow journalist Andy Wallace described him as, “tall and slender, with close-cropped white hair, a shaggy mustache and bushy white eyebrows. Deep furrows crossed his forehead, slid down between his eyes, and dropped from beside his ample nose to the ends of his mouth. He wore glasses. His fingers were long and graceful and carefully manicured.”

Lewis, who disliked being called an author and preferred to be known as a journalist, attended Franklin and Marshall College, and Columbia University, from 1924-26, but never completed a degree. He left university to work as a reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer, a position he held, with gaps, until 1938.

From 1939 to 1952 he was the press representative for four Pennsylvania governors: Arthur James, James Duff, Edward Martin and John S. Fine.

He also taught journalism at the University of Pittsburgh in 1950, and at Harcum Junior College, in Bryn Mawr, and had a weekly radio show in Pittsburgh.

In the early 1950s, he became a free-lance writer. He was a highly self-disciplined writer, beginning work every day at 5:30 am. He specialized in researching and writing non-fiction books based on people and events in Pennsylvania. Lewis, himself, in a 1980 interview admitted that, “Most of my people are eccentrics. Why? I think eccentrics are the only people who accomplish anything…. They’re the most fascinating.”

His first book, The Aaronsburg Story (1956) told the history of an inter-faith, inter-race program in a small Pennsylvania town. The Worlds of Chippy Patterson (1960) was the biography of a Philadelphia socialite and recovering alcoholic who was one of the city’s best-known criminal lawyers.

He also wrote Bill Scranton of Scranton, Pennsylvania (1962); The Day They Shook the Plum Tree (1963), about Hetty Green, reputed to be the richest and one of the most detested women in America; La Belle Otero (1967), the biography of a courtesan whose clients included the world’s wealthiest men; Hex (1969), a tale of witchcraft; Carnival (1970) which described life on the carnival circuit; Copper Beeches (1971), a mystery story involving The Philadelphia Sherlock Holmes Society; Childrens Party (1972), a suspense mystery; It Was Fun While It Lasted: A Lament for the Hollywood that Was (1973); Murder by contract: the people v. “Tough Tony” Boyle (1975); and Those Philadelphia Kellys: With a Touch of Grace (1977), the biography of the family of Princess Grace.

Lewis’ research materials, newspaper and magazine clippings, correspondence, photographs, notes and cassette recordings of interviews, are now held in a special collection at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Main source:

  • “Arthur H. Lewis, 89, Author Of Philadelphia Stories” By Andy Wallace, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 January 1995

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

Dec 292014
 

Scottish writer Alexander Whitelaw Robertson Trocchi was born in Glasgow 30 July 1925 and died 15 April 1984 in London, England.

After graduating from the University of Glasgow, Trocchi lived in Paris, where in the early 1950s, he edited the literary magazine Merlin, which published the work of many noteworthy writers including Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Christopher Logue and Pablo Neruda. In the late 1950s, Trocchi lived for some time in Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, while he was writing his controversial novel Cain’s Book, first published in New York in 1960.

Alexander Trocchi in about 1967

Alexander Trocchi in about 1967

Trocchi had previously published an autobiographical book Young Adam (1955), made into a movie in 2003. In the preface to Cain’s Book, Trocchi reassured readers that the narrator’s heroin use and related adventures were unrelated to the author’s personal life or experiences. Joe Necchi, the heroin addict and writer in Cain’s Book, is living and working on a scow (barge) on the Hudson River in New York. Necchi has numerous flashbacks to his childhood/youth in Glasgow, London and Paris. The narrative of the book, including its sex and drugs scenes, becomes more and more fragmented as Necchi stuggles to reconcile his desire for creativity with the demands of his addiction.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERATrocchi’s own addiction would prevent him from attending the launch party for Cain’s Book in New York and indeed, from ever completing another book-length work. Shortly after the publication of Cain’s Book, Trocchi shot himself up with heroin, live on camera, during a television debate on drug abuse. He was already on bail for having supplied heroin to a minor, and a jail term seemed inevitable. Trocchi’s friends (including Norman Mailer) smuggled him across the border into Canada, where he was given refuge in Montreal by poet Irving Layton and met Leonard Cohen.

This short Youtube video – Alexander Trocchi – A Life in Pieces – features comments from William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen.

When the U.K. edition of Cain’s Book was published in 1963, Trocchi was first “feted as a new star”. But, in February of the following year, the book “was seized, together with 48 other novels and 906 magazines in a series of police raids in Sheffield.” The police view was that the book was corrupting, since it “seems to advocate the use of drugs in school so that children should have a clearer conception of art.” (quotes from Green’s Encyclopaedia of Censorship). The publishers lost the case and Trocchi held a public bonfire to burn all unsold copies of Cain’s Book.

Most of Trocchi’s novels were published by Olympia Press, but many were originally published under pen names such as Frances Lengel and Carmencita de las Lunas. For example, the name Frances Lengel was used for several pornographic books including Helen and Desire (1954) and Carnal Days of Helen Seferis (1954).

Trocchi’s other novels include:

  • White Thighs (1955)
  • School for Wives (1955)
  • Thongs (1955)
  • Young Adam (1955)
  • My Life and Loves: Fifth Volume (1954)
  • Sappho of Lesbos (1960)
  • School for Sin (1960)
  • Cain’s Book (1960)

He also published a collection of poetry entitled Man at Leisure (1972).

John Ross (1938-2011), author of several books and a long-time resident of Mexico City, describes in Murdered by Capitalism : A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left (Nation Books, 2004) how on one occasion (date unclear) he left Mexico City and met Alex Trocchi in Ajijic:

The road I was on took me west from Guadalajara out to Lake Chapala where Lawrence had set The Plumed Serpent. I kept staring at the dark surface, waiting for Quetzalcoatl to suddenly surge up from Chapala’s turgid, ancient depths.

Alex Trocchi, Scotland’s most accomplished junkie decades before Trainspotting, and a fellow barge captain whose Cain’s Book was one of Barney Rosset’s first titles at Evergreen, was hiding out in Ajijic. I bunked with Ned Polsky whose quibblings with Norman Mailer and his “White Negro” thesis were well-published on the Left. But heroin is a lethargic drug and weighty words did not spark much adventure. Ajijic, packed with dissipated gringos, seemed to me a kind of leper colony and I soon bid it adios and grabbed the puddle-jumper down to Puerto Vallarta, still a coastal backwater before Burton & Taylor filmed Night of the Iguana there, and caught a sail canoe out to the legendary Beatnik colony near the south cape of the bay at Yelapa.”

(Editor’s note: Richard Burton was in The Night of the Iguana (1964), but Elizabeth Taylor was not.)

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 222014
 

Joan Van Every was born 28 Feb 1929 in Los Angeles, California, and died at age 83 in Santa Barbara, California, on 6 June 2012. She was survived by her husband John Frost, son John Frost and 3 grandchildren. Her father, Dale Van Every, was a famous writer and screenwriter most active in the 1920s and 1930s.

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

Joan Van Every (then 35) married artist and photographer John Frost (41) on 26 September 1964 in San Bernadino, California. In 1966, the couple relocated to Mexico, living for a short time in Uruapan in Michoacán, before establishing their permanent home and John’s photographic studio in Jocotepec on Lake Chapala. John maintained his commercial photography studio (specializing in aerial photographs) in their home for more than 40 years.Prior to finding their home in the village, the couple spent 6 weeks at the historic La Quinta inn in Jocotepec. The La Quinta  had been an inn ever since 1824. Sadly, the building was wantonly destroyed in the 1990s.

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

I have read that Joan wrote two art books for children, but have failed to find any proof of this. However, she certainly did write six novels, several set in Mexico, and all using her married name of “Joan Van Every Frost”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of Joan Van Every Frost’s novels are well-crafted, and enjoyable light reading. They have long been out-of-print, but copies are readily available via used books sites such as http://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 use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Dec 152014
 

Dale Byron Van Every was the author of more than 20 books and movie scripts and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. He was born 23 July 1896 in Van, Michigan, served with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War 1 and died 28 May 1976 in Santa Barbara, California.

In about 1957, he spent at least six months living at what is now the Montecarlo Hotel in Chapala working on a novel (presumably The Voyagers). He was underwhelmed by the Chapala area, and afterwards described it as having “too many retired generals and admirals” for his liking!

van-every-dale-voyagersDale Van Every maintained indirect links to the Lake Chapala region for many years afterwards because his daughter Joan Van Every Frost, with her artist and photographer husband John Frost, settled in Jocotepec in 1966, and subsequently lived there for more than forty years. Joan inherited some of her father’s writing ability, publishing six novels of her own.

Dale Van Every’s first wife (mother of Joan and her elder brother David) was Ellen Calhoun. The couple filed for divorce in Los Angeles in 1935, with the mother being given custody of the two children. A few years later, certainly prior to 1940, Van Every married Florence Mason (1896-1969). Shortly before his death, Dale Van Every married Frances Robinson Hess, an actress singer, magician and TV pioneer better known by her stage name “Lady Francis R. Frances“. (In an interview late in her life, Joan referred to her, somewhat dismissively, as “a Mexican circus girl”, but it is interesting that in Joan’s own debut novel, This Fiery Promise (1978) the American horse-loving (like Joan) heroine marries a wealthy, much older Mexican hacienda owner but eventually flees the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution by becoming a Mexican circus girl!)

Dale Van Every was most active as a writer in the 1920s and 1930s, but continued screenwriting until 1957, the year he visited Chapala. His early screen writing credits (alone or in collaboration) included The Acquittal (1923), the film version of his Broadway play Telling the World (1928), following which Van Every moved to Hollywood. Later screen writing credits (alone or in collaboration) included Marianne (1929), Desert Nights (1929), The Duke Steps Out (1929), Navy Blues (1929), Those Three French Girls (1930), Trader Horn (1931), East of Borneo (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The All-American (1932) and Airmail (1932), Saturday’s Millions (1933), More Than a Secretary (1936), the Oscar-nominated Captains Courageous (1937), Souls at Sea (1937), Spawn of the North (1938), George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942) and Sealed Cargo (1951).

van-eveery-captains-courageousIn 1934, Van Every added producing to his resume. His producer or associate producer credits include the Poor Rich (1934), Uncertain Lady (1934), I’ll Tell the World (1934), Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Rangers of Fortune (1940). In several of these projects he was also credited as writer or co-writer. He remained in screenwriting until 1957

Dale Van Every was co-author of Charles Lindbergh – His Life (1927) and author of several novels and historical works, including a four-part series of books entitled The Frontier People of America:

  • Forth to the Wilderness: The First American Frontier, 1754-1774 (1961);
  • A Company of Heroes: The American Frontier, 1775-1783 (1962);
  • Ark of Empire: The American Frontier, 1784-1803 (1964);
  • The Final Challenge: The American Frontier, 1804-1845 (1964);

Other books by Dale Van Every include The American Expeditionary Force in Battle (1928); Westward the River (1945);  The Shining Mountains (1948); Bridal Journey (1951); The Captive Witch (1951); The Trembling Earth (1952); The Voyagers (1957); Disinherited: The Lost Birthright of the American Indian (1966); The Day the Sun Died (1971).

Many of Dale Van Every’s original manuscripts, together with correspondence, reviews, biographical information and research notebooks, are held in the Special Collections and University Archives of the University of Oregon.

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 082014
 

Bruce Buckingham (a pseudonym of Dane Chandos, the first pseudonym of the writing duo of Peter Lilley and Anthony Stansfeld) was the author of two detective mysteries set in Mexico:

  • Three Bad Nights (London: Michael Joseph, 1956; Penguin edition, 1961) and
  • Boiled Alive (London: Michael Joseph, 1957; Penguin edition, 1961)

Both novels feature a Mexican detective, Don Pancho (short for “Francisco de Torla Saavedra, Marqués de Langurén y Orandaín”), an eccentric, laid-back, huarache-wearing former federal detective who, with his manservant sidekick Crisanto, solves jewel thefts, murders and other glamorous international crimes. Both books also feature the British aristocrat Lady Kendal.

boiled-aliveThe cover design of the Penguin Crime edition of Boiled Alive is by acclaimed illustrator and book jacket designer Romek Marber.

Mike Grost, an American writer of detective stories, has published some interesting thoughts about the possible influence of Ngaio Marsh on Bruce Buckingham. For example, Grost cites the fact that both Boiled Alive and Marsh’s earlier Colour Scheme (1943) are “set in an exotic resort area centered around hot springs. Both novels mix international characters and visitors with members of the host country (New Zealand in Colour Scheme, Mexico in Boiled Alive). Both novels mix international intrigue with mystery fiction.” (For more, scroll down http://mikegrost.com/ngmarsh.htm to “Bruce Buckingham”).

According to Grost, Boiled Alive “is set in the apparently imaginary locale of Tuxpan, Mexico. There are at least four real-life cities in Mexico named Tuxpan; this book does not seem to be set in any one of them specifically.”

Actually, there can be no doubt that the setting of Boiled Alive is the hotel of San José Purua, once Mexico’s foremost spa-hotel, near the towns of Tuxpan and Jungapeo in Michoacán. The hotel is close to “La Curva de la Gringa (The American Woman’s Curve).”

Boiled Alive takes some liberties (as you would expect) with place names, but the hotel described in the book is undoubtedly San José Purua (see photo).

San José Purua spa hotel (from an early brochure)

San José Purua spa hotel (from an early brochure)

The plot of Boiled Alive is relatively straightforward, but the authors certainly show a keen eye for detail and for characterization, making this an enjoyable read. The group staying at the “Gran Hotel Balneario de Tuxpan” include an American millionaire John Belton, accompanied by his wife, daughter, mining engineer and chauffeur. Belton is staying at the hotel to negotiate the mining rights to the residual mercury left behind after silver refining in colonial-era mines. Hoping to outbid Belton is tall British aristocrat Sir Nigel Heathcote, who arrives with his son Tom. A couple of Hollywood starlets, a young American journalist and assorted other guests are also present.

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Belton disappears and his body later turns up in one of the local hot springs. There is no shortage of action in this book with its mix of international intrigue, kidnapping, murder and subterfuge.

As Grost points out, two characters in Boiled Alive invite some gender-based speculation. The female friend of “the flighty Hollywood starlet” is nicknamed Butch, while the elderly spinster Miss Cloud is apparently an occasional cross-dresser.

It is tempting to suggest that this character may be a reference to the famous Mexico City “charwoman-businessman” Conchita Jurado, aka Don Carlos Balmori. It is quite probable that Peter Lilley would have been familiar with this sensational example of gender deception since it was featured in a 1945 issue of Time magazine.

Among those duped by Jurado was Mexico’s top detective of the day, Valente Quintana. Quintana had been invited by “Don Carlos Balmori” to a soiree because the host feared that someone there was actually an imposter. The detective assured Balmori that he was confident he would spot and unmask the trouble-maker before any mischief took place. However, when he was forced to admit defeat, Don Carlos revealed himself as Conchita, saying, as she always did in the denouement, “Nothing is exactly as it seems to be. Nothing is real. The truth is always hidden.” Despite his damaged pride, the detective saw the funny side, and subsequently joined the “Balmoris” in enthusiastically planning further adventures.

The San José Purua spa-hotel, world-famous in its day, opened in the early 1940s and was the epitome of luxury living, with European chefs and its own small night club for visiting cabaret and touring acts from all over the world. It was also the base for director John Huston in 1947 when he filmed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart, in the surrounding hills.

The hotel closed many years ago, but its grounds and pools can still be admired. Attempts to relaunch the hotel as a luxury resort have so far proved fruitless.

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 242014
 

Bruce Buckingham is the pseudonym of Dane Chandos, in turn the pseudonym of the writing duo of Peter Lilley and Anthony Stansfeld. The pair used the Bruce Buckingham pseudonym for two detective mysteries set in Mexico.

James Gilbert Lilley, always known as ‘Peter Lilley’, lived from 1913 to 1980. He first visited the Lake Chapala region at the end of the 1930s. Lilley was a tennis-loving expatriate Englishman who built a beautiful home at San Antonio Tlayacapan on Lake Chapala and lived there for 40 years.

Prior to university, Lilley had attended Stowe School in the UK from 1927 to 1932. His first pseudonym, “Dane Chandos”, was on account of his schoolboy nickname “Dane” (referencing his Danish-looking square jaw) and the name of one of the school’s boarding houses. Stowe School is set in the picturesque market town of Buckingham which helps explain “Bruce Buckingham”, his second choice of pseudonym. “Dane Chandos” was first used by Peter Lilley and Nigel Stansbury Millett (1904-1946) for Village in the Sun.

Following Millet’s untimely death in 1946, Lilley’s writing partner became Anthony Stansfeld (1913-1998), a multilingual fellow Englishman who was professor of art history at Mercer University in Macon, Atlanta, Georgia. The two collaborated on a series of books, either as “Dane Chandos” (used for House in the Sun, the follow-up to Village in the Sun – and for several travelogues) or as “Bruce Buckingham” (reserved for their two detective  stories).

The two detective novels, both set in Mexico, are:

  • Three Bad Nights (London: Michael Joseph, 1956; Penguin edition, 1961) and
  • Boiled Alive (London: Michael Joseph, 1957; Penguin edition, 1961)

Both feature a Mexican detective, Don Pancho (short for “Francisco de Torla Saavedra, Marqués de Langurén y Orandaín”), an eccentric, laid-back, huarache-wearing former federal detective who, with his manservant sidekick Crisanto, solves jewel thefts, murders and other glamorous international crimes. Both books also feature the British aristocrat Lady Kendon.

Nov 172014
 

Fred Lape, born at Holland Patent, about 10 miles north of Utica, New York, in 1900, spent several months every winter from about 1966 until his death in 1985, in Jocotepec on Lake Chapala. He died in Jocotepec on 1 March 1985, aged 85, and was interred in the local cemetery the following day.

Fred Lape (Credit: Landis Arboretum website)

Fred Lape (Credit: Landis Arboretum website)

Lape attended Cornell University and received a degree in English literature in 1921. He then divided his time between teaching English as a university professor (at Cornell, Stanford and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), freelance writing, running his farm, developing his skills as a horticulturist, and functioning as the historian of the small town of Esperance (population 2000), his chosen place of residence in Schoharie County, New York.

In 1951 Lape, who never married, transformed the family farm into the non-profit George Landis Arboretum. The arboretum’s website states his mission: “He aimed to grow every species of woody plant from temperate regions around the world that would survive in the hills of Schoharie County.” Fred Lape served as its director until his death. The arboretum closed every year from 1 November to 1 April, allowing him ample time each winter in Jocotepec.

His great love was guiding visitors around the arboretum. His obituary in The Altamont Enterprise describes how, “The arboretum director, a tall, angular figure topped by a plain, undecorated wide-brimmed  straw hat shielding a craggy, deeply-tanned face, would lead visitors past that landmark on regular weekend woodlot tours.”

Lape’s published work included one novel, Roll On, Pioneers (1935), and three non-fiction works, A Garden of Trees and Shrubs (Cornell Univ. Press, 1965), Apples and Man (Van Nostrand, 1979); and A Farm and Village Boyhood (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1980).

He also authored at least 8 volumes of poetry and founded a quarterly poetry and prose magazine, Trails, which published local nature verse from 1932 to when it ceased publication in 1951. His poetry titles include Barnyard Year (Poems) (1950), A Bunch of Flowers (Poems) (1954), My word to you, J.Q.A: Seven scenes in the life of John Quincy Adams (1965), At the Zoo (1966), Along the Schoharie (poems) (1968), Poems from the Blue Beach (1976), and Hill Farm (1976).

Obituary:

  • The Altamont Enterprise, Thursday 14 March 1985
Oct 272014
 

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

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

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

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

According to a short profile of her by Selma Robinson in the New York Evening Post (7 March 1931),  “Mrs Baccante” was born in London, had dark eyes and dark hair, and had acquired the surname Baccante through marriage, and “has lived for the past few years in New York, part of the time in Woodstock, part of the time with her sister in Manhattan.”

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

Baccante’s two novels are

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

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

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

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

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 202014
 

Robert (“Bob”) Mitchell Bassing, born in Rhode Island in 1926, lived with his novelist wife Eileen and her two sons in Ajijic between 1950 and 1954. The Bassings, who had previously been living and working in Hollywood, where Bob had been assistant story editor at Colombia Pictures. In Ajijic, they were early members of Lake Chapala’s Lakeside Theatre and Bob was active in civic affairs. For example he is mentioned in the 13 August 1953 issue of El Informador as one of the two foreigners on the “Junta de Mejoramiento Moral, Cívico y Material” of Ajijic, together with Carlos Moor (= Charles Moore).

Bob Bassing wrote short stories, fiction screenplays, and worked on numerous television projects. As Michael Hargraves has pointed out, “Although none of his [Bob Bassing’s] published works uses Ajijic or the Lake Chapala area as a locale, he nonetheless was influenced by his being there.”

Prior to living in Ajijic, Bassing had worked as a writer for the TV series Studio One in Hollywood (1948). While living in Ajijic, he had a short piece entitled “Lullaby” published in Discovery, No. 2 (New York; Pocket Books, 1953), edited by Vance Bourjaily. Bourjaily had also lived in Ajijic, albeit apparently briefly, during summer 1951.

Published short stories by Bassing include “The Trouble with Arabella” in Woman’s Home Companion, January 1955, and “Summer Evening,” in Mademoiselle, May 1955.

Bassing wrote several screenplays, including that for his wife’s novel Home Before Dark (1958) and for Evil Town (1977), as well as more than 120 scripts for episodes of numerous TV series including The Millionaire (1956), Ford Television Theater (1954-1957), Harbor Command (1958), Assignment: Underwater (1960), National Velvet (1960), My Three Sons (1961) and Shirley Temple’s Storybook (1961).

Bob Bassing also wrote a book, Dr. Hudson’s secret journal: The Denby story (Los Angeles: Authors Playhouse, 1955).

Bob Bassing was the basis for the minor character “Beau Blissing” in Willard Marsh‘s Ajijic-based novel Week with No Friday (1965).  Marsh and his wife had earlier been used by Eileen Bassing for two minor characters in her own novel set in Ajijic, Where’s Annie?.

After Ajijic, the Bassings moved back to California. Eileen Bassing passed away in 1977 but Bob Bassing, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is still living in Los Angeles, writing about movies. In 2016, he threatened to sue the Academy for its alleged age discrimination in changing his membership category from active (voting) to emeritus. The change was apparently part of the Academy’s efforts to (finally) become more inclusive.

Related posts:

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

Sep 222014
 

The great American poet and dramatist Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (26 March 1911 – 25 February 1983) had visited Mexico several times in the five or six years preceding 1945, but had never been to Lake Chapala. He spent the summer of 1945 in Cuernavaca and Chapala, and it proved to be a productive period in his writing career.

A year earlier, in 1944, his first major success – The Glass Menagerie – had catapulted Williams from obscurity to literary stardom, giving him a steady income. However, in 1945, Williams wanted to refocus on his writing and escape the publicity accompanying his success. He had also just had a cataract operation and wanted somewhere pleasant to recuperate.

While in Chapala, Tennessee Williams stayed at the home of poet Witter Bynner. Bynner’s home, now numbered as Francisco I. Madero #441, is no longer a private residence. In Chapala, Williams wrote diligently for several hours every day, working not only on the new play provisionally called The Poker Night, but also on several poems and an essay entitled “A Playwright’s Statement“. In the words of Michael Hargraves [1], Williams spent his time, “Strolling along the borders of Mexico’s largest inland body of water (over four hundred square miles), swimming, drinking rum-cocos with native boys….”

In his essay, “On a Streetcar Named Success” (1947), Williams recalls that “I settled for a while at Chapala, Mexico, to work on a play called The Poker Night, which later became A Streetcar Named Desire. It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention, and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial. The right condition for him is that in which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable….“

How long was Tennessee Williams in Chapala?

It surprised me to discover that Williams spent less than two months in Chapala. He arrived in Chapala in July 1945 and left in mid-August of the same year. This is the only time he is known to have visited the area.

Why exactly did Williams choose Lake Chapala?

As Williams explains in his essay “The Catastrophe of Success”, “For me a convenient place to work is a remote place among strangers where there is good swimming. But life should require a certain minimal effort. You should not have too many people waiting on you, you should have to do most things for yourself. Hotel service is embarrassing. Maids, waiters, bellhops, porters and so forth are the most embarrassing…”

It appears to be largely coincidental that Tennessee Williams, who was a great admirer of British author D. H. Lawrence, happened to spend the summer of 1945 in the town where Lawrence had penned The Plumed Serpent twenty years earlier.

Tennessee Williams quote on vintage postcard of Chapala

Tennessee Williams quote on vintage postcard of Chapala

Does The Poker Night have any connection to the (Old) Posada Ajijic?

There is no evidence that The Poker Night has any connection to the (Old) Posada Ajijic. In a letter written 23 March 1945 (a week before The Glass Menagerie opened in New York, and several weeks before he left for Mexico), Williams wrote that he was “about 55 or 60 pages into the first draft of a play… At the moment, it has four different titles, “The Moth”, “The Poker Night”, “The Primary Colors” and “Blanche’s Chair in the Moon”.” [2] Clearly, therefore, he had started writing The Poker Night several weeks before traveling to Chapala.

Claims that Williams was inspired to write The Poker Night on account of regular poker sessions in the Posada Ajijic are equally spurious. In the event, according to Williams himself, the idea for the play did not come from poker playing, but from an image in his mind of a woman, sitting with folded hands near a moonlit window, who was waiting in vain for the arrival of her boyfriend.

The early history of the (Old) Posada Ajijic is murky, but it appears to have first operated as an inn sometime between 1938 and 1946. However, in those early years, it was certainly not a hive of activity, and did not become the social center of Ajijic until much later. It is possible  (though I know of no supporting evidence) that Tennessee Williams may have played poker on one or more occasions in the Posada Ajijic but, even if he did, it was clearly not a formative experience in terms of his writing.

A Streetcar Named Desire

As noted above, this play had numerous working titles including “The Moth”, “The Poker Night”, “The Primary Colors” and “Blanche’s Chair in the Moon”. The eventual title was not used by Williams until some time after he had left Chapala.

According to a webpage written by Bert Cardullo of the University of Michigan, who cites Nancy M. Tischler’s book Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (New York: Citadel Press 1961), Williams “had begun writing Streetcar in Chapala, Mexico (near Guadalajara) convinced that he was dying, that this would be his last play, and that therefore he should put his all into it. (Williams thought that the agonizing abdominal pains he had been experiencing were the result of lethal stomach cancer, but in fact they were caused by a ruptured appendix.)”

Michael Hargraves writes that Tennessee Williams’ writing, in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), “took on a fusion of sensuality and nostalgia and violence”, with the plot eventually centering on “a contest between the crude sensibilities of working-class poker players and the delicacies of two Southern women.” [1]

A Streetcar Named Desire is often considered Williams’ finest single work. It brought him renewed renown and won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The movie version, won four Oscars, including three of the four categories for acting. Oscars were won by Vivien Leigh (Best Actress), Karl Malden (Best Supporting Actor) and Kim Hunter (Best Supporting Actress). In addition, Marlon Brando was nominated (but failed to win) the award for Best Actor.

Poems written at Lake Chapala

While spending the summer of 1945 in Chapala, Tennessee Williams also wrote several poems. “Recuerdo” (Spanish for “Memory”) is a poem in memory of his recently diseased grandmother and his interned sister Rose. Williams also reworked a poem previously titled “Idillio” (1944) as “Lady, Anemone”. This was first published in New Directions 9 (1946), pages 82-83, as the last in a sequence of three poems, followed by the dateline “Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico, July 1945″. [3]

Other links between Tennessee Williams and Mexico

Later in his life, Tennessee Williams turned one of his short stories into the stage play The Night of the Iguana (1948), also set in Mexico. In The Night of the Iguana, a defrocked clergyman is leading a ladies’ bus tour around Mexico. The group is forced to take temporary refuge in a hotel whose owner proves to be especially sensual. The main characters become entangled in a web of relationships. They eventually manage to move on, but not before a captured iguana has been fattened for the dinner table.

The 1964 film adaptation of The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, starred Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. The movie set was built on Mismaloya Cove, a short distance south of Puerto Vallarta. The film won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography and for Art Direction.

Sources:

  • [1] Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • [2] John Bak. 2013. Tennessee Williams, a Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan).
  • [3] N Moschovakis, Tennessee Williams and David Roessel. 2007. Collected Poems Of Tennessee Williams.

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 152014
 

Eileen and her second husband Robert (Bob) Bassing, both writers of some distinction, lived in Ajijic between 1950 and 1954.

bassing-eileen-photoEileen was born 6 March 1918 in Boston, Massachusetts, and educated in New York, Ohio and California. She married young, at age 16, and had two sons from her first marriage, before marrying Bob in 1948. She died aged 58 in February 1977 in Los Angeles, California.

In 1950, Eileen and Bob Bassing left their Hollywood careers and moved to Ajijic with her two sons from a previous marriage (then aged 11 and 14 respectively) to focus on their writing. The family struggled to survive financially in Mexico despite living in a $5 a month home in Ajijic, eventually resorting to selling home-made fudge and operating a small lending library, “Simple Pleasures”, of English-language books they had shipped from California.

Eileen Bassing, a brunette with green eyes, recalled in a 1957 newspaper interview that “It was an amazing success even though most of our books were texts on psychiatry and philosophy. We were only open three hours a day but out of our returns we supported our family, a maid, a cook, a laundress and a gardener. We rented everything—even the New York Times, section by section, at 15 centavos per section. And those who borrowed the crossword puzzle had to promise to erase it when the page was returned.” (The Marion Star, Ohio, 10 March 1957, p 18).

While in Ajijic. the Bassings were among the early members of the Lakeside Theater.

Home Before Dark

bassing-home-before-dark-movie

Movie poster for Home Before Dark

Eileen Bassing’s first novel, Home Before Dark (New York: Random House, 1957), was written in Ajijic and later made into a Warner Brothers movie (1958) based on a screenplay written by Eileen and her husband, and directed by Mervyn Le Roy.

Home Before Dark is the story of a young woman (Charlotte Bronn) suffering from bi-polar disorder who has been confined to a mental hospital. She leaves the Maraneck State Hospital after a year to resume her life at home with her emotionally repressed professor husband. Making her life even more difficult, they share their home with Charlotte’s attractive step-sister Joan and Joan’s mother, as well as a Jewish philosophy professor boarder and a servant.

With her marriage floundering, and suspecting her husband of being overly interested in Joan, Charlotte looks to be headed for another breakdown when she attends a faculty dinner dressed and made up to look like Joan. Her husband finally reveals his true feelings. Summarized as a study of “a mind and marriage at a crisis point”, both book and movie were generally well received and are still very readable today. The book was translated into French as Retour avant la nuit (1958) and into Italian.

Where’s Annie?

Eileen Bassing’s second novel, Where’s Annie? (Random House, New York, 1963) is set entirely in Ajijic at Lake Chapala, but was written after the couple’s return to California in 1954. It was chosen for the Book-of-the-Month Club; a French translation by France-Marie Watkins and Spanish translation appeared in 1964. This very interesting novel is looked at in more detail in this post. A screenplay for this novel was written by Eileen and Bob Bassing, but plans to realize the movie never worked out.

The dust jacket of Where’s Annie refers to a third novel “in progress” in Malibu at the time of publication of Where’s Annie, but this was apparently never published.

It may have met the same fate as some of her earlier unpublished works. An in-depth newspaper interview published in the 14 April 1963 edition of The Bridgeport Post in Connecticut, quotes Eileen Bassing as saying that, “My working habits are deplorable… I am not an organized writer. I work all the time, and I work very hard. It is impossible to measure the time I spend at the typewriter. There may be two days or so when I just stare and think. And those are the days when I really work.” The article goes on to say that “Several years ago. Mrs. Bassing did what some would consider a rash thing. She burned considerable unpublished work—short stories, three novels, including the first draft of “Home Before Dark,” and poetry written over a two-year period. “I wanted to have done with them so I wouldn’t go back and lean on them. I wanted to start anew.”

Excerpts of the first two chapters of Where’s Annie? appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1963. Bassing also had other short stories published, including “Our Strange Stay at Miss Pickering’s” in the 14 May 1955 issue of Maclean’s.

Children’s Books

Before embarking on her novels, Eileen Bassing had written four “Jamie” books for children, under the name Eileen Johnston: Jamie and The Fire Engine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940); Jamie and The Dump Truck (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943) with pictures by Ora Brian Edwards; Jamie and The Tired Train (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), illustrated by Ora Brian Edwards; and Jamie and The Little Rubber Boat (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951) with illustrations by Lys Cassal.

Sources:

  • Jack Gaver. 1963. “Eileen Bassing a “Bleeding” Type”, in The Bridgeport Post, Connecticut, 14 April 1963, p 44
  • “It Paid Them To Get Away From It All”, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Tuesday, March 19, 1957
  • “Couple Leaves Movie Capital and Finds Success in Mexico”, The Marion Star, Ohio, 10 March 1957, p 18

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 012014
 

The son of a physician, writer and poet R. Jere Black Jr. was born 27 June 1892 at McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He would also live at different times in Chautauqua, New York; Washington, D.C.; Long Beach and Santa Monica, California; and Byron Center in Michigan, as well as in Mexico.

R Jere Black's passport photo, 1922

R Jere Black’s passport photo, 1922

During World War I, Black served as a machine gunner with the American Expeditionary Force in France from May 1918 to May 1919. He was gassed by the Germans, which left him in ill health for the remainder of his life, with numerous spells in hospital. He married Josephine Elizabeth Best (1894-1976) in 1920. By 1937, the couple had divorced and his former wife had remarried.

It is unclear when he first visited Lake Chapala, but R. Jere Black died at the home of Paul “Pablo” Heuer, in the village of Ajijic, on 7 September 1953, and was buried in the Ajijic Municipal Cemetery the following day.

Black made his living from writing stories and short pieces for a number of popular magazines, both “slicks” and “pulps”, including The Smart Set, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Breezy Stories, Battle Stories, Sweetheart Stories and College Life. His brother described him as “a brilliant, fascinating person.”

His most productive period in terms of published writings was the period 1928 to 1934. This period included three poems published in Weird Tales: “Lyonesse” (December 1928), “Masquerade” (March 1930) and “The Pirate” (August 1930), a non-fiction piece, “The Pseudo-Scientific Field,” for Author and Journalist (May 1930) which took a look at “science fiction” (a term still in its infancy at the time), and a novel, The Killing of the Golden Goose: A Christopher King Mystery Story (New York: Loring & Mussey, 1934).

Black’s wife, born as Josephine Elizabeth Best but better known as E. Best Black, was also a writer of genre fiction. Born in 1894 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, she and Jere Black married there in 1920, before traveling widely. Mrs Black wrote a story with the title “Flaming Ruth” (a pun) for Young’s Realistic Stories Magazine in February 1928 and also published two hardback novels featuring detective Peter Strangley: The Ravenelle Riddle (New York: Loring & Mussey, 1933) and The Crime of the Chromium Bowl (London: George Newnes, 1937). By 1937, however, she had divorced R. Jere Black and become the wife of Theron Lowden Kelley (1899-1967). Josephine Elizabeth Best Kelley died in 1976 in Monterey, California.

Source:

Aug 182014
 

Writing under the pseudonym Ross MacDonald, Kenneth Millar (1915-1983) wrote The Zebra-Striped Hearse (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1962). The Zebra-Striped Hearse is a mystery novel, with several chapters set in the village of Ajijic on Lake Chapala. The easy-to-read novel, with its largely accurate depiction of the Old Posada Ajijic, followed Millar’s visit with fellow author John Mersereau in the late 1950s, or very early 1960s. The novel won the Mystery Writers of America’s  Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1963,

macdonald-ross-zebra-striped-hearseKenneth Millar was born in Los Gatos, San Francisco on 13 December 1915, but was raised in Canada, where he met and, in 1938, married Margaret Sturm, also a writer. His wife achieved her own success writing as Margaret Millar.

Kenneth Millar had begun post-graduate work at the University of Michigan (where he had completed his undergraduate degree) and published his first novel, The Dark Tunnel, before serving his country as a naval communications officer from 1944 to 1946, Following the war, he returned to Michigan to complete his doctorate.

Millar went on to write numerous novels, with Ross MacDonald being only one of several pseudonyms he used during his distinguished writing career. Later in life, he was later elected President of the Mystery Writers of America, and given their Grand Master Award. He also won the Silver Dagger Award given by Mystery Writers of Great Britain. He is best known for his popular series of novels, set in southern California, featuring private detective Lew Archer.

Millar passed away in Santa Barbara, California, on 11 July 1983.

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.

Aug 042014
 

Charles Bernard Nordhoff (1887-1947), best known as co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, has several connections to Mexico, having spent his childhood, and learned to hunt, sail and fish, on  his family’s ranch near Todos Santos in Baja California. Having gained an undergraduate degree, he returned to Mexico, to work as a supervisor on a sugar plantation in Veracruz and fell in love with the plantation owner’s beautiful daughter. He visited the Chapala area in November 1909, writing up his bird-watching notes more than a decade later for Condor Magazine:

“The fresh water marshes of Lake Chapala, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, form another haven for waterfowl. At one end of the lake there is a great area of flooded land cut by a veritable labyrinth of sluggish channels, 400 square miles, I should say. The far interior of this swampy paradise, reached after three days’ travel in a native canoe, is a vast sanctuary for wildfowl, a region of gently rolling damp prairies, set with small ponds, and traversed by a network of navigable channels leading to the great lake. I saw as many geese, White-fronted (Anser albifrons) and Snow (Chen hyperboreus), as I have ever seen in the Sacramento Valley, and the number of ducks was past belief, with some interesting species like the Masked and Florida Black or Dusky, to lend variety.”

Nordhoff was born in London, England, to well-to-do American parents.The family moved to Berlin, where his mother wrote in the family diary that, “Charlie undoubtedly began his study of water fowl, as his daily outing in a small pram or push cart led him first to the bakeries for a supply of stale buns and back to the lake to feed the ducks.” Following several years living on the ranch near Todos Santos, the family moved to California. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a journalist and author, Nordhoff wrote his first article, for publication in an ornithological journal, at age fifteen.

MutinyOnTheBountyHe studied briefly at Stanford University, but left in the aftermath of the serious earthquake and fire of 1906. After completing a B.A. at Harvard University in 1909, he returned to Mexico, to work on a sugar plantation in Veracruz. Unable to win the heart of the plantation owner’s beautiful daughter, with whom he fell in love, and with the Mexican Revolution breaking out around him, Nordhoff left Mexico in 1911, and never returned.

In 1917, Nordhoff joined the French Foreign Legion as a pilot, eventually winning the Croix de Guerre for his efforts. After the war, he wrote a history of the Lafayette Flying Corps. with James Norman Hall (who later updated the long-established and classic traveler’s guide to Mexico  Terry’s Guide to Mexico). The two men later moved to Tahiti to write travel articles for Harper’s, where Nordhoff married a Polynesian woman, Pepe Teara; they had six children.

In the 1920s Nordhoff wrote three novels. Picarò (1924) was based on his flying experience and life in Paris; The Pearl Lagoon (1924) and The Derelict (1928) were both semi-autobiographical. However, Nordhoff is best known for his collaboration with Hall on the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy about the famous 1789 mutiny in the South Seas. The novel was the basis for three movie versions, the first of which, released in 1935, won an Oscar for Best Picture.

Nordhoff and Hall published six more co-authored novels, several of which were made into movies, but none came close to emulating the success of Mutiny on the Bounty. Tragically, following a severe depression and heavy drinking, Nordhoff took his own life on April 10, 1947.

This is a lightly edited extract from my Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an Anthology of Travelers’ Tales (Sombrero Books, 2008)

Jul 072014
 

According to American writer Oakley Hall, the British novelist Christopher Veiel was living at Lake Chapala at the same time he was in 1952.

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

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

Veiel was also the translator (from French) of Francois Clement’s book, The Disobedient Son (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956].

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

Source:

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 use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

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